Katharina Chapter 1: Early Memories

I visit with Katharina at her home in the western foothills of the Salt Lake Valley, where the Oquirrh Mountains watch over her and the sprawling populous fertile valley below. A spectacular view of the Wasatch Mountain Range creates a stunning horizon. She has shared with me before how, on sunny winter days, the sight of snow-covered mountains, sparkling in the crisp clear air, always lifts her spirits; and how that image helps brighten her mood on many otherwise drab and dreary days.

On this coolish spring morning, however, the sun glints off the silver gray of Katharina’s curls. A gusty breeze lifts the short strands from the nape of her neck as she settles into her comfortably cushioned patio rocker. She gives her morning iced coffee a shake, watching the cubes in the dark mix as they rattle in the tall glass.

Katharina lifts her gaze to the pots of Red-Hot Pokers blooming in proliferation across the deck. Fat, fuzzy bees hurriedly visit one pot and then the next, buzzing hypnotically in the morning quiet. A hummingbird performs an assault of advance-and-retreat on the nearest of the blooms. Katharina rocks back in her chair as she takes up her story. 

East Prussia

“Mountains and plains, rivers, lakes and oceans, everything on Earth that is ruled by Nature and her elements — that is geography to me — not lines that have been randomly drawn on the map by leaders of warring countries hungry for power and motivated by greed.” 

An air of nostalgia settles around Katharina, seemingly enveloping her in a soft, wistful mist.  She closes her eyes, and a small sigh escapes her lips.

“Lines. Lines that move borders, rename countries and cities, affecting the land of my birth and childhood. Places comfortable and dear to me become strange and remote. In my memory the old familiar places will always have the old familiar names as if the lines on the map had never been drawn. Königsberg is still Königsberg and not Kaliningrad; Ostpreuβen is still Ostpreuβen and not an East Prussia dissected between Russia and Poland.”[i]

Image credit:  In the Lost World of East Prussia | by R.J.W. Evans | The New York Review of Books; Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont

Katharina’s gaze settles on me then, her eyes brightening as she begins to relate her earliest recollections — what she calls “pre-war” — having been a girl nearly six years old. The family lived in Allenstein at the time, in the southern, central part of the country, where her father worked as an assistant to a doctor in the local hospital.


“This was 1940 – the war had already begun but did not affect us. These are my earliest coherent memories. We lived at Fittichsdorfer Straβe 8, on the edge of town. We were three children at the time, my brother Hardy having come along in 1935 when we lived with Papa’s parents in Königsberg, and Edel having been born in 1938 in Dingolfing – in Bavaria.  During his medical training, Papa also had worked as an assistant to a doctor when we lived in Dingolfing. I was four then, and Hardy was three years old.

“Edel once told me of having heard a wild argument between my parents while she was still in the womb — can you believe it?! — that Papa was having an affair with a receptionist at the Dingolfing office. Perhaps that was the reason we moved to Allenstein, who knows? My mother — Mutti — became pregnant with the next daughter, Heidi, in Allenstein. I remember Heidi being born at home in 1941. Midwifery was very common; in fact, only the youngest of us, Rudi, was born in a hospital, because he was a breech birth; that was in 1943.

“Strange, I do not have much remembrance of my sister Edel during those days,” she mused, staring off at the distant mountains.

Mutti and Papa, Summer 1943, after Rudi was born

Katharina gives her glass of iced coffee another shake and returns to her story.

“We lived upstairs in a two-family house, the Herkenhoffs living below us. Rita Herkenhoff was my steady playmate. I used to tease Rita, calling her Rita-Rita-Ritata…always rreally rrrolling the rrrrs.  We played together around the house.

“There was an iron rack on the side of the house, close to the stairs that led up to the front door. This rack was like a double-legged clothesline pole. It was used to hang our area rugs that were beaten regularly. To rid them of dust and dirt, we used a ‘Teppichklopfer’ – it looked something like a long-handled tennis racket but was woven of bamboo. And sometimes it also served as a paddle for our backsides when we got into mischief! Being on the receiving end of this disciplinary tool looked scarier than it was painful. Pffftt…,” she grins, waving her hand at me. 

 “About that carpet rack…Rita and I would jump up to grab onto the horizontal pipe and hang there, going hand-over-hand along the length of it and then back again, just because we could.

“Sometimes Hardy was with Rita and me, but he liked to go poking around everywhere and he and I did that together, at lot. Across the street was a farmhouse with a duck pond, where he and I would go exploring. Hardy has told me of his memories of the farmer’s wife there, but I have none. She gave him sweets! Neighbors just can’t do that nowadays, right?” she said, shaking her head. Her silvery curls bounced as she looked into her lap, then away again.

The Garden

“Behind our house was a large vegetable garden that we shared with the Herkenhoffs. Each family had their own half. Perhaps it was a kitchen garden with vegetables and strawberries and raspberries, lettuce, herbs, cabbage, kohlrabi, cucumbers, rhubarb…things that commonly grow there. Tomatoes required a green house in our part of the country, so we had none. Mutti was not a gardening person, so I think Papa did all of that.

“Farmers drove through the street in horse-drawn wagons…coming into town for supplies. Hardy and I would follow later in the day with our wagon, to gather “horse apples” for garden compost. The wagon we used for gathering horse apples was a small wooden wagon with a wooden handle. It was used in the garden to haul compost or plants or tools around. It was a real gardener’s tool, not a toy.

“In one corner of the garden stood a ‘Gartenlaube,’ an open shed, an area to sit in shade.  Sprawling pole beans covered the lattice work on one side. They were known as ‘Feuerbohnen’ — fire beans. They had red flowers and when they were blooming in profusion, with the sun shining on them, it really looked as if they were on fire! Their  pods were purple, but they tasted just like other green beans. I remember picking the fire beans there for dinner, as far high as I could reach; Mutti picking the ones above my head.”

Katharina settled deeper into her chair and grew still for a moment.

“Oh, the garden – that reminds me – carrots! Something else of this house in Allenstein. It had a cellar where the crop of carrots was stored to overwinter, bedded in sand. As the eldest, I was frequently sent down there to bring carrots up to the kitchen. I did not like the cellar – it was dimly lit, and cold and somewhat frightening. I had to gather all my courage and imagine myself a fearless heroine to be able to go down those stairs!

“As I dug the carrots out of the sand, I was on my knees and defenseless in that gloomy dank – defenseless! I would get a tight feeling in my chest; my stomach would roll. The pill bugs — the roly-polies — being disturbed, started crawling all over my hands and toward me…to eat me like they were eating on the carrots! I would feel itchy all over, hastening to gather as many carrots as needed. Becoming more and more terrified, I would quickly push sand back over the remaining heap of carrots and then rush upstairs, fidgeting, agitated, making sure that none of those creepy little creatures were clinging to me. Ah, but as ever! The victorious heroine!” Katharina throws back her head, laughing.

Quieting, she dabs at her eyes where tears had gathered, and stretches a bit in her chair. “Oh my,” she said.  Smiling and shaking her head, she resumes her story.

“There was a grassy area in the front yard nearest the street…it was edged with a low manicured hedge. Papa showed us fat green caterpillars that lived and ate and grew in that hedge. He explained the process of how a butterfly grows from an egg to a caterpillar to a cocoon that one day releases a beautiful fragile creature that would spend its summer days flitting from flower to flower.

“Papa was a collector of butterflies; some of them he tended from the caterpillar stage until they crawled out of their cocoons. Watching them as their wings dried, he would then capture them in a jar of ether. And then stick them with a pin and add them to his collection! I always rather preferred to watch them in the garden, even though sometimes their wings were getting a little ragged looking.

Building Kites

“In the fall, after the harvest, Papa would take us kite flying in the fields not far down the street. We made the kites ourselves – Papa did that with our help, of course.  Sometimes thin slats were used for the support frame, sometimes suitable willow branches. The slats were cut to the right size, one long one; another about one-third of its length. They were made into the shape of a cross and fastened to each other at right angles. A small slot was cut into the point of each slat or branch and a length of string strung around through the slots, pulled tight and secured at the point on the bottom, where the tail would be attached. 

“This frame was laid onto sturdy tissue paper, the paper cut to size, leaving enough to fold over the string and be glued into place. The tail was made from string of random length with bows of twisted newspaper knotted into it at intervals; it often needed to be shortened or added to, depending on how strong the wind was or if the tail made the kite too heavy. The lead string was attached at the center of the ‘cross.’ There seemed to be a formula for the correct lengths of the wooden skeleton to give the kite good balance. Perhaps today’s children should know more about the art of making a good kite, instead of staring at electronic devices all day,” she offered.

Ingridpwrites:  Want to make a kite?  Click here to see how!

As Katharina spoke of kites, the morning breeze stiffens, scattering the bees and hummingbirds and whipping the Red-Hot Pokers into a shuddering dance. “Let’s sit in the front room, shall we?” she suggested. We gather ourselves and move inside. Refreshing her iced coffee, Katharina again offers me one, but I screw up my face and decline. Cold coffee was never high on my list, but I have known Katharina to drink it cold, always.

Undaunted by my refusal, she gestures toward the kitchen cupboard next to the sink. “Feel free to get yourself a glass of water, then, or milk, if you like.” She steps quickly away to the living room, moving aside a folding table where a puzzle lay, half-assembled. She settles into an easy chair as I join her; I stop to admire the old city photo of a European market on the puzzle box, and am about to make a comment on that, but she speaks. Instead, I take a seat on the couch and place my water glass on a nearby tiled tabletop, admiring the curlicue base of the midcentury chartreuse lamp that sits there.

“That winter we had snow and I got my first pair of skis – they were perhaps the length of the snow boards used today. The way I remember it, there was only one more house next to ours on the way out of town and then the farmers’ fields started, and this is where Papa taught me how to ski. I was so proud to be the biggest child and the only one skiing with Papa!”

Katharina picks up a puzzle piece from the table beside her, studies it briefly, then sets it down again. “I will tell you of my schooling there and then I will end my storytelling for today,” she said.  “I must feed my chokecherries if I want a good harvest this summer. I do so love to make chokecherry jam!” 

Starting School

“I was enrolled in first grade in 1941. It was customary on the first day at school to receive a ‘Tüte’ full of sweets and small gifts. The Tüte looked like an upturned dunce cap, made from card stock, colorfully decorated, with a ruffle of tissue paper around the opening for closing in the contents. These came in different sizes; I remember photos of other children with Tüten as tall as they. Mine was not that big.

Young Girl with Tüte     http://www.flickr.com/photos/8725928@N02/ 

“I was taught how to walk to school on my own, crossing streetcar rails and city intersections – and while there was very little car traffic then – still I was taught to look left and right. I walked to school every day, no matter what the weather, with my ‘Ranzen’ (my satchel) on my back.  

“In school and for homework we used slate tablets with a slate pencil connected by a string knotted through a hole in the frame. That way we could not lose or drop the pencil. The tablet was reversible, so one could write on both sides. Erasing was done with a damp piece of sponge.

“Paper tablets came later, you know.

“The first letter we learned was the  i  to the refrain: ‘Auf, ab, auf, Punkt oben drauf.’  (Up, down, up, Dot on top). Every day, when I got home, I shared with my little brother Hardy all that I had learned and what we had done in school. That turned to his advantage and he was able to start school in second grade, skipping the first. At that time — and I will tell you about it later — we lived in Königsberg.

“Walking to school every day I passed by a block of tall apartment buildings. Deep window wells, surrounded by metal railings,  interrupted the wide sidewalk. Once Hardy and I were sent on an errand to buy some ‘Kunsthonig’ (honey spread) from the store in town. On the way home Hardy was curious why this tall building was so different from the rest. We looked up. The top of the building seemed to be touching the clouds and it seemed to be swaying. It made me a little dizzy, even as I looked down again.

“What was behind that iron railing? We got close to it and pressed our faces against the fence and saw a deep hole in the sidewalk with big, curtained windows down there. Were people living there underground? How did they get there? We were puzzled, because the staircase led up, not down.

“Hardy pulled himself up on the railing to get a better look and – oops – dropped the package of honey spread. It hit bottom a long way down and there was no way we could get down there to retrieve it. We were at a loss of what to do!” she chuckled. “We had to just go home and confess.”

Mutti with Katharina and Hardy, 1937

“Oh…  yes… wait… I will end here, and next time will tell you more of the place of my birth, Königsberg.  But this last story, an amusing one!

“One Easter Sunday I remember our parents taking us for a walk in a wood – it may have been a park, I don’t know. There was a dirt path through the pine trees and Papa was tossing foil wrapped chocolate eggs left and right in front of us to find. Hardy saw a hole in the ground and could not resist poking a stick into it. When he pulled it out, an angry swarm of wasps came up from the underground! Hardy ran away quickly, but I was a few steps behind and was stung all over my body, thirty or forty times. That put a sudden end to our outing. Hardy has told me since that he has never in his life heard a person screaming as I did on that day!

“We hurried home, and I was put to bed after a cool bath. I received a helium-filled balloon from the family to help soothe me. Papa applied cold compresses, checking on me through the night.  When I awoke in the morning, the balloon which had hung on the ceiling the night before was standing in one of my slippers, the exact end of the string just touching where my heel would go. I thought that was very special.” Katharina beamed at me.

The Specialness of Allenstein

“Well, before we leave Allenstein, maybe you want to know a little more about it. Another city renamed in a country with different borders – Allenstein is now the city of Olsztyn in Poland.

“I myself never had a chance to visit the castle in Allenstein; well, nowadays they call them castles, but in reality, they were fortresses. History tells us that the city was settled and built around the castle, which dates back to the fifteenth century, when construction began around 1420.  

“In more recent history – during my childhood, that is, Allenstein was conquered by the Russians on January 21, 1945, toward the end of World War II. However, the castle was not damaged then, and is today Poland’s best-preserved medieval stronghold. It now houses a museum.

“Later on in my story, you will learn of the impact the date of Allenstein’s capture had on the fate of our family…”

“Ahhh,” Katharina croons, closing her eyes.

“Those years in Allenstein I remember being filled with times we all spent together! Like Sunday breakfast with soft boiled eggs in egg cups, served with fresh, still-warm, and crispy rolls – ‘Broetchen’ – which had been delivered to our door by the local baker.  And those warm afternoon hours on the River Alle! With Mutti sitting in the grass on the bank with the little ones, Papa scouring the caves below the surface in the bank for crawdads, sticking his finger in there and waiting for them to latch on. Hardy and I are catching grasshoppers for Papa’s fishing line; and the two of us play in the shallow water trying to catch eels.”

Katharina opens her eyes and gives me a longing, mournful look. “Thinking back,” she said, “those times were so perfect and idyllic; unparalleled in future family life.”

[i] American spelling:  Koenigsberg, Ost Preussen (East Prussia)

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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