For John Knox Village resident Flora Guarino, the meaning of Independence Day has many definitions. Not only is she thankful to live in a country where she has freedom of choice, and grateful for those who have gone before her to fight for that freedom, she is thankful that today, she is in a good place. In 1945, Guarino’s world shifted when her German community was invaded by the Communist Russians and forced into a work camp. In one fell swoop, her life instantly changed from carefree days of childhood to a prisoner of war.
At 79, she still remembers with clarity the days when she was a young girl before the war. Born in Schwarz-Damerkow, an eastern city of Germany, Guarino says that her town was the size of what Lee’s Summit is today. The family lived in a large home that overlooked a small lake. Two nannies were in residence to help care for the household of seven and Guarino recalls with vivid memory the family gathering in the large front room of the home for an evening of singing and to enjoy each other’s company. The smell of apples baking in the oven always wafted through the house, the promise of a beloved treat awaiting the family.
“In my early childhood, I have wonderful memories,” Guarino recalls. “My father was mayor and he had respect of many people. We lived near the ocean and I would spend my days swimming and playing in the woods.” But as World War II took hold across the globe, fear began to spread throughout Guarino’s community. By 1945, stories of the Communist regime, the Nazis and Russians had occupants of eastern Germany on edge.
“We were sitting in our living room one day and there they were – the Communist Russians looking through the window,” Guarino recalls. “They came by wagons and horses, and just like that, in an instant our whole town was taken captive and life as I knew it at that time became about survival.”
Eventually, Guarino’s father was taken from the home and the rest of the family was displaced to a two-room house where their main goal was staying alive. At the tender age of 12, Guarino and her mother suffered great injustices at the hands of their captors. Guarino was also forced to quit school and was put to work in the community work camp kitchen.
“I had to work at 4 a.m. in the morning to 11 p.m. at night in the Russian kitchen,” she says. “I worked so hard in the kitchen; I earned the keep of the family and would earn a half gallon of milk and warm loaf of bread. This saved the family from starving. And we would hide flour. With no eggs we couldn’t make dumplings but my mother made do.”
By 1948, even though the war was officially over, there were countries still in captivity. As the country struggled under the Communist regime, millions of people all over the region were displaced from their homes.
And as suddenly as Guarino was taken captive, orders came down through the ranks that they were going to be transported to another location. Loaded into box cars, a terrified Guarino tried desperately to hide an illness that had overcome her. At first they were still together as a family. Later they were separated out; the men and boys from the women and the small children. Doctors came and went through all 52 box cars to examine each occupant. The weak and sick were culled out.
“My mother kept saying over and over to me, ‘You have to do it. You have to stand up and stand on your own two feet. Be strong and stand by yourself.’”
Once again, Guarino’s will to survive became strength for her weary body. Standing without help from her mother with a body racked with fever, she was able to pass the doctor’s observation and was allowed to remain with her mother. For five days and nights, shoved into a box car with countless other human beings with only a space large enough to stand and only a piece of bread and drink of water given once a day, the train moved southward towards Berlin.
Guarino says the train only stopped once and that was at night to allow them to go to the restroom. On the fifth night of their trip, Guarino and her mother with her younger siblings took advantage of some confusion with moving people out of the box cars and they took it as an opportunity.
They stole into the dark night, escaping their captors. Hiding in countryside barns by day, they trekked across Germany at 91 kilometers (56.5 miles) each night, covering their faces with mud to blend into the darkness and standing frozen like a statue so they would be mistaken for trees when spotlights would shine about in an area they were crossing. “Looking back I realize what a miracle it was to have survived such an ordeal,” Guarino says.
Years later, in January 1958, Guarino and her husband came to America–a symbol of freedom and happiness for the future. “When I got off the plane onto American soil I never looked back,” Guarino says. “We’ve raised our two sons here and have always felt safe here.”
After spending many years silent about what happened to her, today Guarino shares with as many people who will listen. She has given speeches at local schools, the Lee’s Summit Optimist Club and is currently collaborating on a book about her journey out of captivity. Not only has she been educating the community on what happened during those turbulent years, but she is also learning herself. She recently learned that during the war in Berlin, more than 5,000 people took their lives and the lives of their children to keep from coming under the Communist regime.
“This is not meant to be a sob story, it’s a story of success,” Guarino exclaims. “It’s about not giving up in the worst of any circumstance but about how to pick yourself up out of the muck to move forward.” And with that, Flora Guarino is giving hope for the future and healing of the past.