Durant woman tells story of escape and survival

Richard Chase Special to the Democrat

March 16, 2014

A frightened 11-year-old girl and her family hastily packed all their belongings they could carry and fled their modest home in a desperate attempt to reach the safety of her grandmother’s home in the western part of Germany.

It was the summer of 1945 as Nazi Germany had fallen to Allied and Russian forces, and knowing the brutality of Russian reprisals against Germans, many were fleeing toward American positions and relative safety.
The little girl, now 80 years old, sat down for the first time recently to tell her story of survival for her and her six siblings. Dr. Friede Wells, who has owned and operated the Bryan County Animal Hospital for many years, was living in the German town of Bernburg, south of Berlin during the war, and recalls all the times she and her family spent in cellars serving as bomb shelters.
The town was in the flight path of British and American bombers during a campaign to bring Germany to its knees. On their nightly runs to hit Berlin they flew directly over her community and sirens would sound sending everyone scurrying for shelter. The town was spared from intense bombing but would get hit by a stray bomb occasionally. Once a bomb hit her home causing damage but didn’t destroy the structure.
Her father was a school teacher and director of the local school in Bernburg. He spoke Russian and volunteered to serve in the campaign against them which made him a prime target for reprisal. Her mother had attended medical school but didn’t work. She had four brothers and two sisters. The two youngest boys were twins.
Her father was also a veteran of World War I where he had been wounded twice and captured by the Russians and shipped off to Siberia. He learned to speak Russian while in captivity and was able to escape, making his way back to Germany.
The summer of 1945 was a decisive one for many German families. The country was being split into four zones being divided among the victors. Britain, United States, France and Russia would each have a zone of responsibility and many were scrambling to reach the safety of allied zones rather than face the wrath of Russian troops who were brutal and seeking reprisal. One of Wells’ family members had been taken from his home and led off by Russian troops and never heard from again.
Lucky for Wells’ family before the zones were established, American troops had entered her village and came to their home and demanded they leave as the house was going to be used as an officer’s quarters during their occupation.
“They came in and told us we had to leave,” Wells said. “We had a picture of Hitler on the wall and they took it down and busted it into pieces.”
Her family packed only what they could carry and headed for Wells’ mother’s home in Osnabrueck which was in the safety of the western side of Germany. The long trek on foot took a week and they slept in barns along the way. Several areas of the journey they were able to take a train. The two youngest twins were five years old, and today, they have no memory of the journey to freedom.
When they finally arrived at her grandparent’s home, the town had been destroyed along with a family pharmacy business that dated back in her family since 1540. Her grandparents operated the business, and by tradition, they made all their own medication with plants and herbs. After things settled from the war they rebuilt the pharmacy, and it is still in existence today and operated by family members.
Her family had always existed by growing their own food and she credits her health today to growing up eating healthy and working hard. Her mother and father lived into their nineties and at 80 years old, she still works full time at her animal clinic and goes home to exercise and swim in the summer months.
They lived with her grandmother until her mother could get her medical license and begin a practice at which time they moved into an apartment.
“Mom would see patients in her office in the mornings and make house calls in the afternoon riding a motorcycle, many times taking food or other items for payment,” Wells said with a heavy German accent.
Friede was fortunate to be able to attend high school and rode a train daily to get her education. Afterwards, she pursued a career as a veterinarian. Her other siblings also all studied in the medical field and all became doctors. One of her brothers now lives in Joplin, Missouri, and visits her often.
“We lived a very simple life growing up,” said Wells. “We always had a large garden and had meat about once a week. My mother believed in fitness and she kept us doing physical work and exercising in some fashion all the time.”
Years after their escape from the Russian Zone, a photo album of her family when she was a small child had been saved by a family friend and eventually made its way into her hands. The old photos depict a close knit family in happier times and a photo of the before and after of the pharmacy that had been a part of her family for centuries. One photo shows the bombed out shell that remained after the war and another taken years later when it had been rebuilt.
In 1962 one of her sisters had came to the United States and had a veterinary practice near San Diego, California. When she got her veterinary degree, she visited her sister who was pregnant, to help her out, and she found a paradise with all the groves of fruit and the nearby Pacific Ocean beaches.
“My brother in law worked on computers and he asked me why I was wasting my life and I should get a job as a veterinarian,” she said. “I placed an ad seeking work with a veterinarian magazine and got several responses, including one from Dr. Randell Wells in Durant.”
The job with Dr. Randell Wells worked out so well the two were married and had three children. Years later the marriage dissolved, and now her son Billy works beside her at the clinic and is also a veterinarian. Her daughter Karin Wells Young is a medical doctor and has her own practice in California while daughter Ingrid Wells Cole is a registered nurse, but works beside her husband running the combined Roadhouse and KC Steakhouse in Durant.
Dr. Wells has been an angel of mercy for pet owners not only in Durant, but half her customers travel from Texas to use her clinic. She has four veterinarians working and still manages to stay busy working full time. Retirement is still just a pipe dream for her but she would like to eventually slow down.
Her love for animals is more than providing for their medical needs. She works closely with animal rescue groups and gives them discounted services. In addition she has provided rescuers with training in giving emergency aid to pets.
“She loves animals and has taught me so much about emergency care,” said Anna Marcy, local animal advocate. “She hates to see animals suffer and has a soft spot for unloved and unwanted pets.”
Marcy added that she has shown her how to start an IV in an emergency and allowed her to watch surgeries and answer questions she might have. She has watched Dr. Wells hug and pat the most intimidating beasts and gently hold the tiniest and frailest pets until they take their last breath.
Dr. Wells spent her early childhood as part of a wealthy family and learned the lessons of losing everything in the ravages of war and coming back to build a new life. She has become a fixture in Bryan County and her determination, compassion and drive has been a blessing to her customers who show their appreciation with hugs and tears when a pet is saved.