When Germany closed its borders and commenced WWII on September 1, 1939, Irmgard Otto was 19 years old. Her beau and future husband, medical student Juergen Otto, was soon to be drafted and sent to North Africa. Irmgard did not want to be part of Hitler’s war machine and thought that volunteering and joining the German Red Cross (GRC) would be a humane alternative.
Irmgard, now a resident of Walnut Creek, California, recently made a generous donation to support the American Red Cross. When asked why, she replied: “My father was a doctor, so I was aware of the Red Cross growing up. But my wartime experience taught me how vitally important the Red Cross is.”
Irmgard served with the GRC for three years (1941-1944) and deployed to Russia, Holland, Belgium, and France. She staffed German Red Cross stations very close to the front lines in those countries. The GRC provided R&R to soldiers on break from the fighting and Irmgard taught them to carve and paint decorative wooden objects such as lamps, signs, and holiday decorations.
Meanwhile, Juergen was captured by Allied Forces while assigned to a field hospital in Bardia, Libya, in late 1941. Juergen said he then began a five-year “trip around the world behind barbed wire.” He was eventually transported to the United States, disembarking at San Francisco in 1942.
“When I saw all those Liberty ships at the piers I knew deep inside that the war had to end in a disaster for Germany,” Juergen said. His medical training was quickly recognized. At one Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Alva, Oklahoma, where he spent two years, he was asked to run the medical laboratory for a POW population of 20,000.
For a full year, Irmgard was unaware that Juergen was alive until the Red Cross Tracing Service informed her that he was an American POW. Juergen proposed marriage to Irmgard by mail in 1944. Their wartime separation lasted almost six years, until his return in 1946. Juergen’s experience in the U.S., albeit as a POW, had greatly impressed him. “I was sold on American freedom. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to return to this country so full of opportunity.”
They and their first child immigrated to the States in 1950, where they settled in Southern California and began a new life far from their war-ravaged homeland.
The American Red Cross is part of the global Red Cross and Red Crescent network, which strives to relieve human suffering throughout the world. All American Red Cross assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To learn more about the Red Cross, learn how to become a volunteer, or to donate, please go to redcross.org.