VALRICO — While Adolf Hitler was planning to take over the world, Ingeborg Ryals was spending her carefree childhood years running through green meadows, swimming and ice skating in nearby ponds or building castles of snow in the small village of Pomerania in northern Germany.
Her happy childhood ended at age 11 when World War II started in 1939.
"The party was over,'' said Ryals, a longtime Valrico resident who has chronicled her experience in memoir called The Tears of War.
During her next few teenage years, Ryals endured hardships, rape, hunger and strenuous workloads — first for Nazi Germans and later for the Soviets as they took over Germany at the end of the war.
Her nights filled with nightmares and terror.
She endured a near-death bout with diphtheria and malnutrition. So many around her had passed on in the makeshift hospital far from her home that she had expected to be next. The future looked bleak with little promise of health or happiness.
"One night as moonlight spilled through an open hospital window and into the darkened room, I knew I wanted to see the starlit sky one more time,'' Ryals said.
"I slowly dragged myself to the window as the other patients slept. I was suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to live. I prayed to God, please, make me well so I may live. I don't want to die.''
Her recovery process was slow, but after several weeks she was allowed to go home.
When the Soviet Union occupied northern Germany, things changed quickly.
"The Russians tore everything apart and took all they could find from us,'' she said.
Then things got worse when she was sent to an island Soviet labor camp in the Baltic Sea where she and other able-bodied women dismantled German buildings and laboratories to be shipped to Russia. They even dug up underground pipes.
Cabbage soup and a hunk of bread made up their daily diet. There was no pay for their labor.
Her first encounter with a rapist was diverted by her acting deranged.
"I was 16 and hiding in a small storage shed,'' she said. "I started howling like a dog and slobbering. He put a gun to my chest, but then he left.''
But the Russian rapist knew her as he was in charge of her work brigade. He had pursued her relentlessly and did not take kindly to her saying no.
He summoned her to his quarters one Saturday to pick up the next week's work assignments for the 50 workers she supervised. Intoxicated, he locked the door and raped her, giving her a sexually transmitted disease.
Ryals escaped from the camp with just the clothes on her back. After a hazardous journey, she finally arrived at her village. When her mother found out she was a fugitive, they decided that taking a train to American-occupied Berlin to stay with her aunt would be best.
There she would find freedom as the Americans and British soldiers were humane to the German civilians.
"So different from the Soviets,'' she said.
In Berlin, she met John, an American and her future husband, who worked with the military to assist in the reorganization of Germany's civilian communications.
In August 1951, they married and because he was married to a German citizen, he had to return to the United States. They came to Florida, where he was raised and still had family, and he became a successful businessman.
He operated his own supermarket and convenience stores and together they raised five children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Ryals said it was incomprehensible how one man, Hitler, could lead a highly civilized country astray and cause total destruction. Hitler and his Third Reich forever would be remembered as a time of infamy.
"Hitler was not even a German,'' she said. "He was an Austrian.''
Contact Michelle Jones at [email protected]