VOLGA — Before Nazi concentration camp survivor Frances Talapina Sprague died in 1975, she not only gave daughter, Darlene, her wedding dress, but also the incredible story behind it. For Frances made the dress from two silk parachutes used by an American GI who helped liberate Germany and would become her husband.
"My mom," says Darlene Sprague Murphy, 61, fingering the dress’s gathered bodice, "said this was made out of dad’s parachutes."
It is a beautiful dress — a tiny gathered waist, silk-covered oblong buttons at the back, a long flowing skirt — constructed from one parachute that has yellowed and another that has remained unbelievably white.
"My mother," Darlene says, "was an amazing woman. She was very, very determined. I think that’s what got her through."
Frances was born Nov. 24, 1922, in Riga, Latvia. Before her 13th birthday, Nazi soldiers knocked on her parents’ door, even though they were Christians, and took the youngest three of seven children — Peter, 15, Frances, and Freda, 12. Peter would never be seen again; Frances and Freda would spend nearly a dozen years in concentration camps.
"She talked to us kids when we were out in the garden," Darlene says. "When she’d talk about it, she couldn’t sleep for days. She’d relive it."
"One night," adds Darlene’s husband of 42 years, Roy, "we’d known each other only a few years. I asked her about it. She talked all night, until the early morning."
The Holocaust, the death of millions and the trauma to millions of survivors, had that effect.
"You wouldn’t believe how many people can’t believe that ever happened," Darlene says.
She sewed and mended soldiers’ uniforms.
She peeled potatoes, often rotten ones, and witnessed the shooting death of a man sitting next to her when he took a bite.
She used her drinking cup to clean out latrines.
"She said when they first got taken off the boxcars, there was a table and chair on top of it," Darlene says. "They put everyone up there one at a time, striped them naked and shaved them."
Frances collected human hair, knitting it into socks for soldiers.
She helped drag horses killed in battle that would be slaughtered for food.
She carried human bodies from the gas chamber to the crematorium.
"She never knew if she was going to be killed or not," Darlene says.
Frances cleaned boxcars, removing bodies to be buried in trenches.
She ate nettles, a noxious weed, for nourishment.
She survived more than a decade, losing track of time but watching out for her sister.
Some time in 1945, the camp was liberated.
"When they opened up the gates and told everybody they were free, they were afraid to leave," Darlene says.
Vicious dogs had guarded the gates. Soldiers would shoot anyone who tried to escape. Many of the prisoners, so malnourished, gorged themselves of food and died.
Gilbert "Buck" Sprague was born in Greeley, Iowa, on Oct. 31, 1923. He grew up around Colesburg, enlisted in the Army, become a paratrooper of the 82nd Airborne. One of his missions would be to land beyond the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and help move the Germans out of France.
At war’s end, Buck joined the Military Police to help with the recovery of Germany. He wound up in Bad Tolz where he fell in love with Frances.
On Jan. 1, 1946, with half-a-dozen other couples, Frances and Buck married. They would begin their family in Germany before moving near Colesburg in 1948. Buck started as a hired hand but used the GI bill to get a college education and was able to buy a farm in 1961. They would have ten children (one died in infancy), work hard to achieve success and Frances truly loved Iowa where she was free.
"No doubt about it," Darlene says. "He was hard working. Mom was the brains and held everything together."
Frances died Aug. 29, 1975. Buck died May 13, 2008. Her wedding dress made from his parachutes tells their story.
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