World War II-Era Pen Pals Meet After 63 Years

World War II Era Pen Palls Meet After 63 YearsCourtesy Dorothea Harjes
Dorothea Harjes and Vivan Smallwood met face-to-face this week, 63 years after a pen pal project led to a lifelong friendship.

It's been a lifetime since a 13-year-old American girl struck up an unlikely friendship with a German pen pal just as the United States was recovering from World War II.

But 63 years after their first letter crossed the Atlantic, Dorothea Harjes and Vivian Smallwood have finally met face-to-face in an airport reunion complete with hugs, smiles and tears.

"I thought I better do it now or we'd never get it done," Smallwood, 75, said. "It was wonderful."

The pair, who hit it off after that very first letter, have steadily remained in contact since the day in 1947 that Smallwood saw an advertisement to be Harjes' pen pal on the back of a cornflakes cereal box.

Their friendship has seen Harjes' marriage to an American soldier, the births of 25 grandchildren between them, and the advent of e-mail.

"She just told me everyday things that were going on and a few things about her family and I did the same with her," said Smallwood, who has saved every single letter she ever received from Harjes. "We just struck it off really good."

"Sometimes it's just maybe a couple of notes a year from either side," Harjes, also 75, said. "We were busy, but we always kept in touch."

The two are now spending a week at Harjes' farm near Green Isle, Minn., where she moved after marrying her American soldier beau.

"I just got to thinking about it. We had talked about it off and on that we ought to get together," Smallwood said. "We were getting older."

A planned trip for Harjes in 2007 was canceled after her husband broke his femur in a farming accident. Then, just as the two had begun making plans again this summer, Harjes' husband again fell ill, this time with heart troubles and also began treatment for prostate cancer.

So Smallwood, who uses crutches and a wheelchair to get around, boarded a plane from her home in Sedro-Woolley. Wash., to finally meet her friend.

"I couldn't believe it. It still seemed so strange," Harjes said of the moment she laid eyes on Smallwood. "It was just so great."

It was only as adults that Smallwood realized the hardship her friend had gone through, living in Berlin during World War II. While Smallwood was nestled in a small Washington state town, Harjes' family had it much harder.

World War II Tensions No Match For Pen Pals

Harjes' father's factory had been bombed during the war; the family considers the bombing and subsequent work in another, more filthy factory to have contributed to his early heart attack in 1960. Harjes' mother, who stayed home to raise four children, had to flee with the family when a fire ravaged the Berlin neighborhood where they lived.

Harjes said she later learned that they left just before Russian soldiers arrived and began raping the neighborhood women and young girls.

"We lost everything. We just had the clothes on our back," she said. "We had to step over dead soldiers. My mother said, 'Just don't look down.'"

But the family worked hard to make a happy childhood for the children, who Harjes said never realized at the time how poor they were. Harjes was living with her family in a two-room apartment adjacent to her grandmother's home when the first letter from Smallwood arrived.

Harjes address had made it to the back of the cereal box after her teacher signed her up for an American pen pal to help perfect her English. She also wrote back and forth to other girls for a time, including one from Florida, but the friendship with Smallwood stuck.

"She sent actually some packages after awhile and that was of course great," Harjes said, remembering a warm scarf that Smallwood sent one year, along with some chocolate." "It was always exciting."

Neither woman faced questions from their families about why they were corresponding with someone from a country that their own armies had just fought in war.

"We liked Americans. I remember my mother, we were talking, 'I hope the Americans come to Berlin in the last days of the war,'" Harjes said. "We felt they were going to be the nice guys."

Friendship of 63 Years Will Continue Through Letters, Phone Calls and E-mails

Then Harjes married one of the "nice guys" and settled in the United States, about 1,700 miles away from Smallwood. As the women had children, worked and raised their families they sent pictures back and forth, including one long letter every Christmas.

Several years ago they began speaking by phone and also writing e-mails to "keep up with technology." Smallwood said.

Though they had often talked about meeting in person, it always got pushed off.

"She was raising a family and I was raising a family and we never had a great deal of money," Smallwood said. "Just never got around to it."

Now the two are looking forward to their week together. And when Smallwood goes home, the letters will continue.

Harjes said she got a kick out of seeing that first letter she sent more than 60 years ago, which Smallwood brought with her to Minnesota.

"We laughed a lot," Harjes said. "You can imagine how my English was."