Back to the future for a Toronto couple whose parents all met each other in a displaced persons camp in Ainring, Germany

The CJN’s reporter emeritus Ron Csillag and his wife Debbie Berlach stand at a plaque paying tribute to residents of the Ainring displaced persons camp, including their parents.

This is where it all began for us, in this gemutlich Bavarian town of Ainring. Just 30 minutes west of Salzburg over the Austrian border into southern Germany, this sleepy place—verdant, tidy, ringed by splendid snow-topped mountains, home to 10,000 residents—is where my wife and I spoke of coming for all our 40 years together.

That’s because this is where my parents met in a displaced persons camp in the American zone of post-Second World War Germany, and also where my wife’s parents met. And also where the two couples became friends—and where they were each other’s witnesses at their civil marriage ceremony.

It’s a wondrous story, arising from the foul war years, that’s widely known among our friends and family. But actually going to Ainring didn’t seem doable, until it did.

Our parents spoke highly of this place, one of many DP camps in Germany, Austria and Italy built for roughly 250,000 Jewish displaced persons who either could not, or, understandably, refused to return to their former homes. This is where they began to heal after years of degradation in Nazi concentration camps, wracked with disease, and dazed from sheer shock. They were fed, clothed, housed, and given jobs. They were rehumanized.

My father, who had been shot while serving in the Hungarian army on the Soviet front, then shipped to a forced labour battalion, then incarcerated at the Mauthausen concentration camp, was given a job as a dental technician at the local hospital. That’s where he met my mother, who’d survived camps at Auschwitz and Stutthof. She was deputized a nurse.

My wife’s Polish-born father, meantime, arrived at Ainring after surviving the Warsaw ghetto, the Majdanek and Buchenwald camps, and a death march. He was a trained machinist. My wife’s Hungarian mother, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, was all of 16 when she came to the camp and was too sick to work.

How and when the two couples met is lost to the mists of time. A photograph from the era sheds little light. The men in the camp formed two soccer teams, and a small sepia picture shows one of them. My father was at one end, and near him stood my future father-in-law. Whether this was taken before or after they had met their wives varied depending on my father’s failing memory decades later.

But my late father was sure of this anecdote: One day, my wife’s father returned from an errand holding two pieces of paper. “What are those?” my father asked. “They’re marriage licenses,” his soccer buddy explained. “Why two?” my father wondered. One, came the reply, was for him and his betrothed, and the other was for my parents.

So the two couples set off for the local burgermeister’s office and got hitched on Jan. 30, 1947. The story was that on the way there, the men pulled their brides on sleds through the deep snow. On the way back, the women pulled their new husbands.

Bored silly during a COVID lockdown, I wondered about the forms they must have signed. Using Google Translate, I composed very straightforward queries, supplying precise names and dates to the town’s clerk, Herbert Reichenberger. Mere hours later came four pages, replete with the then mayor’s exquisitely handwritten entries of names, dates of birth, hometowns, histories, and occupations. Sundry legalities were rendered in old Germanic script.

And, yes, there they were: The signature, next to “witness,” of my wife’s father on my parents’ form, and my father’s backhanded autograph on my in-laws’ certificate.

Reichenberger was prepared for our visit to the rathaus, the local town hall. He had already pulled the volume off the shelf. “Heiratsbuch [marriage book], 1947-10.6.1948” read the spine, with L-shaped steel reinforcements on the book’s corners. The tome smelled aptly musty, and the documents seemed somehow more authentic in person. My wife lightly traced her fingers along her late parents’ fading signatures.

Debbie Berlach examines the registry of names, including her parents, of those who were married at the Ainring displaced persons camp after the Second World War.

Our guides today are Hans Eschlberger, the jovial former mayor of Ainring who happily fetched us from Salzburg, and Rainer Esterer, an instructor at the Bavarian Police Institute for Further Education. Officers from across Germany come here for training in academic subjects and law enforcement. It’s in the basement of the institute where Ainring’s history is told in glass cases and on large panels.

Ironically enough, the place where Jews found a haven after the war began as an airfield where Adolf Hitler’s personal plane could land to take him to one of his residences. Dubbed the Eagles Nest, it’s a 30-minute car ride from Ainring, 6,000 feet up, perched on a rocky outcrop near the town of Berchtesgaden, and supposedly has a stunning Alpine view. Tours are offered to the place, which is now a restaurant. We declined.

The airfield grew into a planned base for the Nazi air force, the Luftwaffe, but that was abandoned. For the duration of the war, it was home to the German Research Institute for Gliding, which the Allies refrained from bombing because they wanted its know-how.

The DP camp was established in late 1945. Logistics were provided by the U.S. Army but it was administered by UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The camp lasted only two years but in that time, Ainring developed an elementary school, vocational classes, sports clubs, a synagogue, a small hospital, an elected self-government, even a police force. At its peak, in February 1947, the population was 3,166, about 300 of whom were considered permanent residents.

Today, there’s no trace of the camp, save for a small row of ramshackle barracks that are now home to a tombstone maker. The DP camp is commemorated on a bronze plaque near one of the town’s sprawling fields. In German, it states that “remembrance applies to all victims, in particular the refugees and surviving inmates of the concentration camps who, after the war, out of bitter misery, found a new home here and all over the world.”

That was true of my wife’s parents, who made their way to Holland before coming to Canada in the early 1950s, and of my parents, who returned to Hungary, where more political upheaval sent them here in late 1956. In Montreal, the couples reconnected.

When I was born a few months later, there was only one person my parents knew who had a car that could take my mother and me home from the hospital. That was my future father-in-law, who preferred holding me over my mother’s small suitcase.

The two couples got together yearly to mark their joint wedding anniversary. The tradition continued after my father-in-law died in 1973, and for the 1982 version of the dinner, my wife and I were invited and finally met for the first time.

We owe it all to Ainring.

Ron Csillag is the reporter emeritus for The CJN.