The protagonist Eva Friedt Ziebart is one of 93,000 Germans displaced from Russia when political upheaval overtook their peaceful lives in 1940. Under the auspices of Hilter’s invitation and Stalin’s blessing, the quiet, industrious people of Arzis, Bessarabia—now Ukraine—abandoned their well-maintained homes and productive farms to endure years of hunger, motionless hiding through frozen nights and terror-filled flights by horse-drawn wagon from enemies behind, before, and above them.
Eva Ziebart’s nine-year stretch of homelessness is not unique to the history of Germans from Russia. However, her indefatiguable will and astute perception of human nature are exceptional and make this biography a soul-moving experience.
Born in 1893, an orphan at 14, later a grieving mother of five children meeting premature death, and still later a widow solely responsible for two small daughters, two teen-age daughters, a teen-age son, and two young adult stepsons, Eva Ziebart defied all that challenged her course across a war-ravaged continent and half the globe in search of safety and freedom for her family. Eva’s tenacity often brought her nose-to-nose against the most powerful men of her era: the illogical Russian military, the cold, calculated Nazi personnel, and the Allied forces.
In 1939, plain-clothed Germans visited Arzis to host youth games and dances in order to re-ignite and fan flames of German pride and hope in a future united Germany. Then in May 1940, Red Russians advanced into Arzis and subjected the gentle German population to physical and psychological abuse. During this period, a Russian officer usurped the Ziebart parlor, made it his headquarters, and demanded the then-fatherless Ziebart family to provide his meals. Comparing the bleak option of enduring growing Russian hostility to Hitler’s suspicious promises, 47-year-old Eva hurriedly loaded family and no more than 50 kilos of belongings—the family limit—into a crowded military truck destined for Germany. Eva’s two stepsons, intending to join the family later, remained behind to harvest Arzis crops.
Arrival in Germany brought bitter disappointment and confirmation that Eva’s skepticism was justified. Hitler had not prepared accommodations for the thousands of returning Germans. The Ziebarts subsisted on diluted vegetable soup and stingily rationed food served to them in a squalid school house cum refugee camp for 450 individuals. Separated by only sheet draperies, multiple families cohabited the classrooms. All-night blackouts and split-second sprints to cellar air-raid shelters became daily events. Soon, all too clear was Hitler’s true motive: the sturdy, hard-working Germans were lured from Russia to further displace Polish families, revitalize neglected Polish farm soil, and feed the emerging Nazi army.
The Ziebarts dedicated two and a half years to breathing life into a listless Polish farm, only to realize that the ruthless Russians were about to disrupt their existence again. In the middle of the night, the family left their precious earthly possessions to embark upon the final, most life-threatening portion of their European journey. Permanently engraved upon Eva’s daughters’ memories are bone-rattling wagon rides through active war zones, clearing the end of bridges seconds before they were detonated, watching red Xs being swabbed onto family farm wagons—the silent signal of an agonizing and surely doomed return to Russia—and witnessing unspeakable atrocities committed against innocent men, women, and children.
The Ziebart family survived all this only to face an uncertain future in the American zone when a final miracle materialized. Already living in the United States, Eva’s sister Katherine offered to host the Ziebarts’ emigration to America. In 1949, with only a single $100 bill and their clothes, the Ziebarts arrived in New York, exhausted, tearful, but profoundly grateful to be alive together.
Were Eva’s victories a result of keen human intuition or divine intervention? Each reader must decide. Regardless, everyone will leave the final page of The Last Bridge feeling undeniably uplifted and much better informed of this infrequently detailed and often misrepresented piece of World War II history.