Local man, born in Latvia in 1937, survives World War II, stroke to mark his 80th birthday at Pioneer Center

Leo Hartfeil's journey to Oregon City as a teenager was an epic trek that included a transatlantic voyage and a bus ride across America. And it was a journey preceded by the wrenching experience of war.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - This photo of Leo Hartfeil's family, circa 1945, shows his mother and father holding the twins with Leo far right. In the back row are his two sisters and older brother.  Hartfeil was 17 when he arrived in Oregon City; he will turn 80 later this month, celebrating with a huge birthday party at the Pioneer Community Center.

Although his journey, which he calls the "train of life," has had its ups and downs, Hartfiel exudes an optimistic attitude and finds joy in being alive.

Hartfeil was born in Latvia in 1937. Two years later, Russia invaded that country and also invaded Poland from the east, while Germany invaded Poland from the west.

In 1940, German families were allowed to move to German-controlled Poland; that's when Hartfeil's family moved to a farm formerly owned by a Polish family.

PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Leo Hartfeil loves any excuse to break out his accordion and play a rousing polka. He will turn 80 this month. But later in World War II, with the Russians advancing toward German territory, Hartfeil's family was given half an hour's notice to catch the last train out.

His father, Gustav, and Erich, his oldest brother, were away serving in the German Army, and so his mother was left to gather up Hartfeil with his younger twin brothers and 17-year-old sister. Then they all set out for the train station.

Erna, another sister, was in a nearby town going to school, and no one knew what was going to happen to her, Hartfeil said.

He was given two tasks as the train neared the station — "hang on to my mother's coat and hold onto the pee pot."

When a locomotive pulling a string of open boxcars arrived, people rushed forward.

As the train began its journey, it stopped in the city where Hartfeil's sister was going to school.

"There were hundreds of people on the tracks. My older sister starting calling out my younger sister's name, and two blonde girls came running, their pigtails flying," Hartfeil said.

His sister and a friend boarded the train, and it continued on its journey until it arrived in Berlin.

Hartfeil remembers looking up at the top of the railway station and seeing all the holes in the glass roof where bombs had fallen.

In Berlin, "wagons were waiting for us and took us to some farms so we could get some food. A week later we were all told to evacuate because the Russians were advancing," Hartfeil said.

When the train arrived, hundreds of people charged the train and he lost his mother for a moment.

"Then I scrambled through like a little tornado," and reunited with his family.

Coming to Barskamp

The train headed toward the Elbe River and ended up in the town of Luneburg, where passengers were dispersed throughout nearby farming communities. Hartfeil and his family were sent to Barskamp, about four kilometers from the river, to live with a family named Dreseke.

In March 1945, without any warning, his father appeared. He had found the family through the Red Cross, Hartfeil said.

"My mother was beside herself. My father had been wounded in combat, but was sent back to the front again after just one week."

His father then was captured by Allied forces and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Belgium, where his oldest son also was being held. However, the two never found each other there.

Shortly after his father left, a group of teenage German boys were sent to defend the town, and within a couple of weeks Hartfeil and his family heard artillery.

"The boys came and told us to crawl into a bunker; there were nine children, four women and one Polish prisoner of war," Hartfeil said.

"My older sister went out like a scout and saw American soldiers everywhere, and the barn was ablaze."

Then Hartfiel saw the silhouette of a man pointing a gun down into the bunker, and the Polish soldier yelled "don't shoot, don't shoot."

All of the people in the bunker were marched out and the women and children were sent into the house.

"Then the American GIs gave us candy," Hartfeil said.

The war was over in May 1945, and the area where he was living became the British Zone.

Later, Hartfeil realized that the American soldier could have just dropped a grenade into the bunker, but probably heard the women and children screaming.

In September, Hartfeil's father returned to Barskamp, then his older brother found out the location of the family through the Red Cross and "just came marching in."

All family members survived the war and were reunited, an unusual occurrence in a time when there was no phone service and no mail, Hartfeil said.

"We were all together again, but there was no food. Barskamp doubled in population, and [the refugees] were not necessarily loved," he said.

Oregon City

It was in 1946 that Hartfeil first heard about Oregon City, when his father wrote a letter to his cousin Betty Conzelmann, who lived there.

"He sent the letter to Conzelmann, Oregon City, Oregon, U.S.A., and it got there. Then good things started to happen," Hartfeil said.

"Betty sent us a care package with clothing and food and a real soccer ball," he said.

His older sister and her husband emigrated to Oregon City in 1950, sponsored by the Conzelmann family. Other members followed in 1952, and then Hartfeil, his twin brothers and his parents came to Oregon City in 1954.

Hartfeil attended Oregon City High School but received an exemption to quit school and get a job in a furniture factory in order to help support his family.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1960, trained as a medic and, in an ironic twist, was sent to Germany.

While there, he was able to visit Barskamp and renew some old friendships.


Hartfeil was honorably discharged in 1962 at age 25 and returned to Oregon City, where he formed a partnership with his brother-in-law.

"He bought six old homes in Oregon City, and we fixed them up and rented them and did well," he said.

Then, in 1964, "a beautiful girl stepped on my train of life. Her name was Gudrun, and she is the love of my life," Hartfeil said.

Gudrun's family also had emigrated from Germany and she belonged to the German American Society, which held dances. And it just so happened that a lively accordion player named Hartfeil played with a band at those events at the Pythian Building in Portland.

The two married and have two daughters and two "perfect grandchildren," Hartfeil said.

The family lived in several houses in Oregon City, eventually settling into a new home that Harfiel built on five acres, just off Holcomb Road. Gudrun worked for the Oregon City School District until 2001.

The couple moved to Portland in 2004 but still attend Zion Lutheran Church in Oregon City and still dance at the Pioneer Community Center weekly.

"Gudrun is the best dancer in the world, and I love dancing with her," Hartfeil said.

Loving life

The couple began a new chapter in their life when Hartfeil suffered a stroke in 2016.

He was driving home from Oregon City on I-205 when Gudrun noticed that her husband was very quiet and slumped over the steering wheel.

"I was able to grab the wheel and get us over to the side of the road and call 911," she said.

He was taken to Kaiser Medical Center, where he was hospitalized for eight days, during which a blood clot was removed.

Then Hartfeil spent two weeks in rehabilitation at Good Samaritan Hospital.

"He was totally paralyzed on his left side, but he worked so hard and was able to get back into the shape he had to be in to come home," Gudrun said.

"He is so positive; there is no depression. He is so appreciative of every day," Gudrun said.

Now Hartfeil is completely recovered and can drive, play the accordion again and, of course, dance.

Dancing improves the memory, Hartfeil said, and is good exercise as well.

He added, "When you see walkers or runners, they look so determined. But dancers smile and look so happy on the dance floor."

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