Chapter 3 – The Podack Women in Conflict

…Nora became familiar with her mother-in-law’s shape; sort of a hollowed back, wide hips, sloping shoulders and the forever corseted middle…

Hedwig

Clara Hedwig Packhäuser was born early in 1890, on a farm in Pravten, a rural village to the North and East of Königsberg, that capital of East Prussia. She was probably the second-born of four girls: Frieda, the oldest, then Clara, Gertrud, and Alma. All the girls, except Alma, married and resided in or close to Königsberg. Alma remained on the farm with her parents, married and had two boys, Klaus and Gerd. Frieda married Max and remained childless, Gertrud married Otto, and they had one son, Erwin.

August Podack was born in the Fall of 1883. He had a twin brother, named Paul. They were born into a family of farmers who made their living on the land in the outlying regions East of Königsberg. The fertile earth produced abundant crops of rye under the dedicated care of these country people, their roots going as deep as their love for the land. Generations ago this land had been moors and bogs, the way the last ice age had left it after the glaciers had receded. August’s ancestors had, with just a spade, turned it into fertile farmland by draining the bogs the same way that land still is being taken back in the tidal plains of the North Sea today. Crops were grown without irrigation, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Centuries-old methods of crop rotation were used, enriching the soil instead of depleting it. Living in this grain-growing region, it was logical for August to choose the trade of miller, while his brother remained on the farm.

August married a pretty, younger girl from Pravten, a nearby village, where her family were farmers as well, solid peasant stock, accustomed to hard work and a simple life; she was Clara Hedwig Packhäuser. Hedwig (as she preferred to be called) and August had two sons, Walter, and another boy who died in infancy. Whether he was older or younger, we do not know. It may be remarked that all the Packhäuser girls bore sons but no daughters; we know of no Packhäuser boys.

August and Hedwig never talked with the younger generations about their early times together, how they weathered the First World War or how they worked those many hard years building their life together. But as it was, August rose from having learned the trade of miller to owning and operating a successful plant nursery and small dairy farm in Kalthof, a suburb just outside the easternmost walls and fortifications of the medieval inner city of Königsberg. His farm was known as the Gärtnerei Podack. When Walter was a boy of four, in the year 1914, World War I began and at some point in the coming months his father August was called to serve Kaiser Wilhelm II as a soldier, leaving his wife and young son behind.

At today’s introduction, we meet Hedwig in 1934, when Walter, now twenty-four years of age, marries Nora. Hedwig became a grandmother in December of that same year, to Katharina, brought into the world by a midwife there on the Gärtnerei Podack.

Walter, studying at Albertus University in Königsberg to be a medical doctor, made no money, so the young couple lived with his parents. These were still very lean times in the aftermath of the First World War. Everything that happened in those years is intertwined with political and historic events extending from the state of the economy after the Great Depression in 1929 — severely felt in Germany, where it caused widespread unemployment, starvation, and misery — to Hitler’s coming into power.  In this year, Germany’s non-partisan President Paul von Hindenburg died and Chancellor Adolf Hitler of the Nazi Party (who had assumed dictatorial power through the Enabling Acts of 1933) became Germany’s absolute dictator under the title of Führer, or “Leader.” January 30, 1933 was commonly known as “day one” on the calendar, the start of the “1000 jährige Reich Deutscher Nationen” – the 1000-year Empire of German Nations — as aspired to by Hitler.

With the allegiance of the German Army to their new commander in chief, the last remnants of Germany’s democratic government were dismantled to make way for Hitler’s Third Reich.

***

The sunflower seed bread dough has risen to double its size. Katharina sprinkles a good amount of flour on her kitchen counter, turns out the dough, and begins kneading as she talks. I sit behind her, just off to the side in the dining room, watching as her generous hips sway with the motions of a baker of bread.

“We moved back to Kalthof in 1942, after my family had spent about three years in Allenstein, and I was enrolled in the second grade in Königsberg. If you remember, while we were in Allenstein, every day I taught my younger brother Hardy everything I had learned in my first-year classes; therefore, when he started school in Königsberg, he was advanced enough to enter the second grade with me!

“It is this time in my life when I learn more about Hedwig, my Oma; I am old enough to observe and get my own impression of the people around me. In her early fifties now, her face shows traces of disappointments and bitterness, her hair is an unremarkable mousy color, long and worn in a braided bun. Her eyes are a deep brown, and the general expression of her face is one of woefulness. Her relationship with August seems neutral, their daily life is well regimented. Each has their own territory of duties to perform, and they seldom argue.

“Due to events in the years of World War II, Oma’s house was often filled with her grandchildren, numbering five at the end. She took it in stride, feeding and caring for the infants, when Mutti, my mother, needed some extra sleep — even though Oma herself was always up at 5AM preparing the morning meal for the crew of workers. Sometimes we, the older ones, drove her to frustration, when we escaped her reach, and she ended up throwing her house slippers at us across the room. Mostly she was quietly working in the kitchen; on occasion she would be impatient with Anna, her helpmate. She did not seem to be a happy woman. I don’t remember her smiling or laughing. She smiles not in this picture.”

Katharina points with a floured finger to a family photo hanging on the dining room wall.

August and Hedwig Podack, Prussians of early peasant stock

She bats her hands against her colorfully embroidered red apron. (Typical of Katharina, she dresses comfortably in slacks and blouse of muted tones, tending to accessorize with brightly colored pieces, as she has done today, her baking day.) She moves to prepare a bread pan for the oven, spreading Crisco all over the inside with a paper towel, working the grease into the corners of the pan. Setting it down, Katharina reaches for the bag of flour, and dumps about a 1/8 cup of flour into the greased pan. Lifting it, she tilts and shakes the pan, spreading the flour evenly on the inside. She shapes the kneaded loaf, drops it into the bread pan, and slides it into the warm oven. After setting the timer, washing her hands, and grabbing her glass of iced coffee, Katharina joins me at the dining room table.

“Yes, I remember Hedwig as a taciturn woman, always out-of-sorts; her tone was gruff with the help, her domain seemed to be the kitchen. She was engrossed in her household duties, supervising the other women, directing them to do the cleaning and laundry, the milking, preparing the meals for the men. Her figure was well rounded – and always well corseted.  Her dress was simple and colorless at home, her apron seemingly a permanent part of her wardrobe.”

Katharina observes her own attire for the day and laughs.

“Only for shopping in town at Kaiser’s Kaffee Geschäft — or on Sundays did she dress up.  She would have a woman come to the house to do her hair, ‘ondolieren,’ (putting waves in her hair with a heated iron), then gathering the long hair into a braided bun. She took the streetcar to visit with one of her sisters, or the Kleinbahn (small train) to Pravten to the farm of her parents, where her youngest sister Alma still lived. The name of the man Alma was married to escapes me, but her last name was now Nikulka. Once or twice, I remember Hedwig taking Hardy and me along and we played with Klaus and Gerd, who were close to our age. Opa never came with us; he never left the farm as far back as I can remember.

“During vacations, I remember being sent to stay a few days with one or the other of my great-aunts: Frieda, I recall, was a woman obsessed with a clean house. Wherever I went, she seemed to be following me with a dust mop. She wore ruby earrings so heavy that they had caused long slits in her ear lobes. I got the impression that Uncle Max did not like having me around.

“Gertrud and ‘uncle’ Otto had a sprawling property further out in the countryside. Their son Erwin was in the war, so I got to sleep in his room. The property was flawlessly kept, manicured hedges and lawns; behind the house chickens were running free and I was sent to collect eggs every day. I remember having to ‘pull my weight,’ helping to dust. There was a bent-wood rocking chair and Tante Trude (Aunt Gertrud) made sure that I dusted every turn in the wood. I liked Tante Trude, she had a sunny disposition; she was much more likable than my grandmother Hedwig. In comparison, I thought there must have happened something really bad to make Oma so unhappy.

“Uncle Otto often had trouble with an aching back. His remedy, by which he swore, was to strap a cat fur to his back under his jacket. I kept wondering if the cat he strapped to his back had been a pet at one time – or maybe dinner. Cats were called ‘Dach Hasen’ (roof rabbits) and were in fact eaten during hard times.”

At this, I make a face and squirm in my seat. Katharina gets up, goes to the refrigerator, and removes a Ziploc bag of leftover chicken nuggets. She places them on a small plate, and before putting them in the microwave to warm, she offers it up to me with a smirk. “Cat snack?” Katharina laughs at me as our lunch warms, and she returns to sit.

“Hedwig had a lot of home remedies, too. These included wrapping a wool sock around your neck for a sore throat, massaging the back of your neck with goose grease for a tension headache, inhaling steam from chamomile infusion for a stuffy nose and common cold, and red wine with a raw egg was a cure-all for getting your strength back after an illness! Red wine still works for me – without the raw egg – how about you?” Katharina laughs again and retrieves our lunch from the microwave.

“Hedwig cooked the way she had learned on her parents’ farm: rutabaga soup and schwarzsauer (that’s a blood soup) were two dishes that Mutti absolutely could not stomach. Then there was Klunkersuppe, a staple made with whole milk, rye flour and a little salt. The flour was made into ‘Klunkern’ by mixing with a little water to a streusel consistency, then added to scalding milk and simmered till the Klunkern were done.”

The reference to blood soup absolutely puts me off my “cat snack” and I give up on lunch entirely.  Katharina isn’t fazed and enjoys her lunch.

“There are at least a couple of culinary specialties for which Königsberg is famous: Königsberger Klopse and the confection Königsberger Marzipan.”

“It was a tradition at the Podack house to make marzipan for Christmas. Almonds were blanched to remove the skins, then ground with a special attachment to the hand-turned meat grinder. The resulting almond flour was kneaded with sifted powdered sugar and rose water to a dough that could be rolled out and cut into rounds or hearts. Then a narrow strip of the dough was attached with some egg white around the outer edge of the cut-out forms, and the top edge fluted with a fork. After the tops were lightly browned under the broiler or with a torch, the little forms were filled with a frosting made of sifted powdered sugar and lemon juice.”

Ingridpwrites:  And here’s a recipe for Königsberger Klopse. Yum!

Nora

“Alright, let’s forget about food and home remedies for now and get back to the young married couple. Mutti, my mother – we will call her by her name, Nora — never felt accepted by her in-laws. Hedwig, of peasant origin, had bigger aspirations for her only son than seeing him marry the daughter of a civil servant, even though Nora’s father was a well-educated and successful man. August, as well, was of peasant stock, but now his house was spacious and his pocketbook healthy. He could easily support the newlyweds.

“I think Nora must have imagined her life with Walter – my Papa — somewhat differently, not having to live with in-laws, without much privacy, with an unplanned pregnancy, dependent on their support. The young couple occupied the large sunny room in the front of the house; there was a set of curtained French doors between their room and Hedwig’s and August’s bedroom. Not an ideal setting for intimacy. I can imagine Nora’s apprehensions when making love.”

Katharina rose to check on the bread in the oven, peering through the lighted glass door.  Satisfied that the loaf was full and turning a pale golden color, she returns to join me in the dining room, this time bearing a chilled bottle of rosé.

“Of course, I have no memory of this time myself, so everything I am saying is either from what I have been told or have overheard. Some of it is from conclusions I have drawn from observations in later years,” Katharina mused, pouring two small glasses of wine.

“Nora’s days were filled with tasks her mother-in-law assigned, like mending clothes and bed- and table-linens. For this the sewing machine was set up in the Gartenlaube, a one room cabin, at the other end of the property near the main entrance to the farm. There Nora would be alone with the machine and piles of mending that had accumulated.

“She always felt she was being treated like one of the servants, rather than a family member carrying the first grandchild. In later years, she told me of being insulted and degraded by her mother-in-law on a regular basis. I learned through some of my mother’s writings that this emotional abuse existed in such a pervasive manner as to leave her deeply scarred by the obvious hate Hedwig had for her. Nora could not think of an explanation for it nor find any fault in herself for causing it.

“How very sad. Gone for her were the lighthearted, carefree days of courtship, gone the hope and anticipation of a loving family life. She was an outsider, an intruder, a parasite, a leech that had attached itself to Hedwig’s only son. The son, whom Hedwig wanted to keep for herself, whom she was not prepared to share with this ‘floozie,’ who obviously had tricked him into marrying her by spreading her legs and getting pregnant.”

Here Katharina takes a deep breath. “I was in my teens before I figured out the timing of the matter, that I was, in fact, conceived before my parents were married,” she said.

“After Mutti died, I found letters she had written about these times – and others – addressed to no one and never shared. They revealed much of the pain of my mother’s existence with my father, my Papa — during the early years of which I tell you now, and from later parts of their lives. It was distressing for me to learn of these things after her death – but at the same time, I believe it would have been equally distressing to hear of them while she lived, as there was nothing I could do about it.  As you will learn, the ill-fated relationship between Hedwig and Nora will weave its threat all through their lives.” 

Quickly, suddenly, Katharina rises to clear the dishes from the table, busying herself in the kitchen for several long moments before she turns back to me.  Leaning against the kitchen counter, with arms crossed, she continues.

“Nora imagined daily how Hedwig must see her – being expected to embrace Nora and welcome her into her house, having to watch how her boy was fawning over this, this – slut. . Well, Hedwig was not going to make it easy for her, she would let poor Nora know and feel what she thinks of her.

“And Walter, busy with his studies; when he did have time for Nora, she would cling to him; how could she tell him about the way his mother mistreated her? Only a few more years and he would be a doctor and then they could start their life together. That thought was what sustained her…she could be strong. She was strong. The pregnancy weighed on her mind. She had to keep her spirit up for the baby. But how could one be joyful, have inner peace, under these conditions?

“Nora decided to try to make peace with her mother-in-law. So far, she had done everything Hedwig had asked of her without complaining. She was good at sewing — she had made her own clothes at home — and she offered to sew something nice for Hedwig. Hedwig accepted.

“Nora bought a pattern and some material, shimmering gold with red and orange and light blue threads through it, very festive she thought. The sewing machine was brought back to the house and set up back in its old place – imagine! — just inside the door to the left, where that stuffed squirrel sat on its shelf up on the wall. This room was a multipurpose room: in the center stood the big dining table, against one wall was the vitrine that held all the crystal and china. Against the back wall sat the divan where August took his afternoon forty winks – above the divan hung a large photo of young Walter – and by the big sunny South window stood a table with four comfortably cushioned wicker chairs. Past this room was the office where August’s desk stood in one corner, and several deep leather chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around a low solid wood table.

“Nora sewed the dress for Hedwig; it took many fittings and Nora became familiar with her mother-in-law’s shape; sort of a hollowed back, wide hips, sloping shoulders and the forever corseted middle. Nora thought this woman once had a very pretty face, now the forehead was furrowed, the corners of her mouth had turned down in a trait of bitterness. It got Nora wondering about what Hedwig must have experienced during the First World War, when August had served in the Kaiser’s army in the Russian campaign, and in the years after the war that Germany lost. She wondered, too, about the ways in which the marriage of Hedwig and August may have ever flourished before it had lost its life and luster.

“But perhaps there never had been any real love in their union; a marriage by arrangement, necessary to get the four Packhäuser girls married. After all, how could a farm be managed with only women? Strong men were needed.

“Frequently in those days, marriages were held together more by a sense of duty and loyalty — a strong trait of the Prussian psyche — than by love and devotion.

“Nora knew that the war years had left many scars; she had been only three years old when WWI started and a girl of seven in 1918, at its end. Walter had been born in 1910, he was a little tyke when Hedwig was left to take care of him by herself. How did she manage that and what scars did the war leave on her? How well did she cope with the illness and death of her other little boy child? We have no answers to those questions, my grandparents never talked of those years. Hedwig kept her feelings bottled up deep within her and only showed how she managed the day-to-day duties that began at 5AM, each, and every, single day.

“Where Oma’s resentment of my Mutti originated, we can only guess by trying to step into her shoes,” Katharina said, reaching for her glass of wine. She tips it at me. “Which is really the only way we can try to understand anyone, as we know not what pains and frustrations they have suffered before we chance to meet them.”

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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