This article was first published by Street News Service.
Fritz Eichler knows Germany almost as well as he knows himself. During the 1930’s he zig-zagged across the country on bike and foot in search of work, finding shelter where he could as a member of Germany’s 400,000 strong homeless community.
These were precarious times for Fritz and his ilk as the National Socialists (Nazis) consolidated their power and proceeded with their brutal plans to rid German society of perceived “vagabonds.” Fritz, or “Crumb“ as he was known due to his tiny physique, lost his job in a wallpaper store in the Grindelallee, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. With no prospect of work in his native Hamburg and being just 21 years of age he decided to make the best of it.
“My only hope was to find a job on the road. And I desperately wanted to get out, get away from my draconian father, enjoy nature and experience adventure,” recounts the 94-year-old today.
In January 1935 he set off with friends. His only possessions were a jacket, trousers, sturdy boots and a cap. He had sown 5 Marks emergency money into the inside of his jacket.
First stop: the working camp of the national service in Soltau – with the aim of being “awarded” a travelling worker’s permit. The Nazis had not yet outlawed travelling, but were attempting to curb the numbers. A traveller without permit would risk prison or labour camp.
Eichler and his friends had little idea of this kind of “special treatment” and did not consider themselves as being in any specific danger, because “After all, we were willing to work.”
Work they did find in the so-called “travelling workers sites,” which had been founded at the end 19th century on initiative of the pastor Friedrich von Bodelschiwngh.
His motto: work instead of alms. Eichler was only moderately enthusiastic about these places, where one was made to work pretty hard for a simple meal and a place to sleep. Often you had to sign up for several days work: chopping wood, digging trenches or working in the garden or the kitchen.
“I did not fancy that,” says Eichler. “I wanted to travel on my own terms. Travellers were obliged to register with the local police for the night and were given a place to sleep: a cell in the basement of the town hall, a storage room for potatoes or a bunker that was locked from the outside all night. I was much happier not to be locked away on my own in such a hole.”
Eichler’s travels also acquainted him with the old wandering vagabonds, or as he dubbed them “the bacon-hunters.”
“I was never going to become one of those. I knew I was going to return home at some point – and I was certainly hoping to find a proper job again.”
For the time being he made do with temp jobs: teller at a fairground carousel, sweeping the town square and cleaning a policeman’s bike. When there wasn’t any work, he begged.
On one occasion, while travelling in Franconia with his brother Siegfried, he was overcome with a ravenous appetite for Franconian dumplings and cake.
“I promised my brother, we would have both.” With no work available they took the only option available to them and begged. Within a few hours enough money was garnered allowing the homeless vagabonds to dine like kings.
However a shock came the following morning. At the crack of dawn they were woken and arrested by a constable. Begging was outlawed. Fast-tracked to court they were sentenced to 3 days in prison. More run-ins with the legal system followed. While staying the night in a Karlshrue homeless hostel Fritz and Siegfried were arrested from their beds.
“For six months we had been without a proper job” says Eichler. “We were considered wandering criminals. Fortunately the judge was relatively lenient: five days in prison – on parole.”
As Fritz learned the hard way, those who avoided the temporary working camps lived dangerously. Already in Autumn 1933, the new men in power had demonstrated what they intended to do with the so called “work shy.” During the “beggar-weeks” ten thousands of beggars and tramps were arrested.
Though arrests and prison sentences for beggars did happen in the previous Weimar republic period, the measures of the Nazis were so comprehensive that even disused prisons were opened again and dedicated arrest camps set up.
The successors of Bodelschwingh and the charity for travelling workers were supportive of the Nazis. Pastor Paul Braune hailed the tough measures of the new men wielding power as a “fortunate marriage of police force and social welfare or of love and strictness.”
In 1936 The National Socialists toughened their stance and outlawed legally regulated travelling. Homeless people were criminalised and labelled “antisocial parasites of society.” In 1938 around 11,000 homeless people were arrested and held in concentration camps during a “cleansing operation.”
The charity for travelling workers turned over hundreds of travellers to the Nazis. Even the forced sterilisation of “(racially) inferior tramps” was advocated. Only when euthanasia was rumoured did Pastor Braune submit a protest to Hitler. Unsurprisingly Hitler did not care for his opinion.
Unlike so many Fritz encountered on his travels he was fortunate enough to have a home to return to prior to the major cleansing operations.
He managed to return to his home town of Hamburg where he lived during the war, later finding work in a storehouse for leather goods, where he worked for most of his life.
Today Fritz is 94 years of age and still mobile, with the help of a Zimmer frame. Despite this he claims he is still travelling.
“Today I go on a journey in my mind and watch movies with country scenery. And” of course, he says “I still have my dreams.”