Chapter 4 — Mutti and Papa’s Early Years

Nora and Walter

Nora’s plan was to become a teacher, instructing girls at a Lyceum (girls’ high school) in mathematics and physical education. She had already earned her teaching certificate at Albertus University in Königsberg but turned down an offer for a position in favor of accepting Walter’s marriage proposal.

***

Katharina sits at her puzzle table, where the old city photo of a European market is very close to being completed. Simon purrs on her lap, content with Katharina’s gentle movements as she works to finish the puzzle.

“They met on deck of an excursion cruiser, crossing the Frisches Haff, the bay that connected the Königsberg harbor with the open Baltic Sea. This outing would have taken them to the Pillau Citadel, to visit the old Star Fort. Nora, who would later become my mother, described this meeting to me, when I was an adult myself, with a bit of mischief in her eyes:

‘I was standing at the railing, just looking down into the almost calm water, at the way this boat was cutting a path into it, creating long, shallow waves, that sort of diagonally traveled away behind the boat, getting weaker and ever smaller in the distance. It was a pleasantly warm day, and I was dressed in a light summer dress and sandals, feeling splendid and enjoying a day away from studies, letting the wind play freely with my short hair. A tall young man in shorts walked up and put his hands on the railing beside me. Quiet for a while, he then asked without introduction: “Is there anything I can do for you, Fräulein?”

Well, that was a clumsy approach, I thought. So, I leaned over the railing and spit into the water and to him I said: “I would consider it a great kindness if you could retrieve my spit.” That seemed to baffle him for a moment, but he remained undaunted, and we started talking.“‘

Katharina pauses and points her finger at me, a bright yellow puzzle piece clasped between her thumb and second finger. “She was a feisty one, my Mutti, as you will come to know. And Papa, well, he was a man of few words. And so their tumultuous story begins… as Mutti told it to me…

‘After that first meeting on the boat, when Walter asked if he could see me again and I had said “yes,” I gave him our phone number and permission to call. He called one evening and we made a date for the following Sunday to spend the afternoon at the “Schlossteich,” the long-stretched lake that extends North from the Castle and lies surrounded by a beautifully kept park. There were row boats there and we could get out on the water — that appealed to me.

He rang the doorbell at our house in the Albrecht Straße, where we lived at that time and when I answered the door he presented me with a nosegay of fragrant violets, pulling it out from behind his back. Oh, was I impressed!

Later, when I learned that his parents owned a nursery, that first so wonderful moment lost some of its luster, making room for a hint of disappointment.’

Katharina levels her gaze at me above her reading glasses, raising her eyebrows. “Even at the outset, you see, my mother found a way to create discontent!” she cried in frustration.

“The following summer they spent together on a camping trip. They crisscrossed East Prussia’s many lakes, connected with canals, in Walter’s two-seat kayak for a glorious six weeks. From old photos we can gather that they spent many hours studying together, relaxing on the beach of the Baltic Sea, where Nora’s parents owned a summer cabin. Some pictures show the couple with Nora’s sisters on the beach.

“It was in December 1933 that my parents got engaged, and they were married in April 1934.”

Katharina swivels in her chair, pointing out the family photos hanging on the dining room wall. I rise to study them more closely.

“There are their wedding photos,” Katharina said. “In one, they are exiting from a church, the bride in her wedding gown, the groom in the uniform of the SA. The Sturmabteilung, or SA, was a paramilitary organization associated with the Nazi Party; later it lost most of its relevance when it was superseded by the Schutzstaffel, or SS.

Walter in the uniform of the SA at his marriage to Nora
Walter and Nora Podack

“Walter was a member of the Nazi Party, although his new love never liked it. Nora and her family were strictly against the Nazi movement; Walter was for it from the beginning. His membership in the Party gave him certain advantages while in college, obtaining internships, and making good connections. 

“In the other picture,” Katharina continued, “presumably taken after the ceremony, they stand in the living room of Walter’s parents – August and Hedwig – with the groom in civilian clothes.”

“As you know, the young couple, expecting their first child, lived with August and Hedwig while Walter finished his studies at Albertus University. It was here that Nora birthed her first child (that’s me) in December 1934. As it was told to me, I arrived on a cold winter morning, the bare branches of the trees outside the window shivering in the chinking frost, only after an abnormally prolonged labor that was worrying to all involved. The midwife tried everything in her repertoire of knowledge, handed down through generations, including putting heated plates on Nora’s belly. After a long afternoon and a tiring night, this baby girl got her first swat on the tiny buttocks and let out a healthy cry!”  Katharina giggles as she returns to her puzzle, Simon purring in her lap.

***

The story of Katharina follows Nora’s life with her mother-in-law, Hedwig, who had no appreciation for Nora and was outwardly hostile to her. In the close quarters shared with her in-laws, Nora and Walter whispered of Walter’s goal to finish his studies as quickly as possible so they could have a home of their own. Walter wanted to be able to support his dream of a large family – having been an only child,  he desired a “soccer team” of eleven boys. 

But the first infant is a girl. Nora breast fed her baby. Slender as she had been before, her breasts were ample now and Katharina was healthy and grew quickly. She was baptized in the Lutheran faith, at the Friedrich Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Walter standing with his wife in the formal photo, again in the uniform of the SA.

Katharina’s Baptism 1934

The winter months passed, Spring came and went, Nora was still nursing Katharina and had not menstruated again since the birth of her little girl. She had been told that while breast feeding one could not get pregnant, so she had not given it much thought. But now things were going on with her body and she began to wonder. Nora was pregnant again. When she told Hedwig about it, the spiteful reply was, “So you just had to spread your legs again, did you?”

It is unimaginable how this must have impacted Nora‘s precarious balance, being  made to feel guilty for conceiving a child in marriage, having already experienced and overcome Hedwig’s degradations during her first pregnancy. She knew Hedwig would make her pay for it in some way.

Young Hardy was born in December 1935, again with the help of a midwife on the Gärtnerei Podack, suffering from rickets because the fetus did not receive the nourishment needed in the womb.

It seemed that with the passing years, relations between Nora and her mother-in-law did not improve. Hedwig’s verbal abuse and insidious degradations always took place when Walter was not present. Having endured Hedwig’s continued hatefulness for nearly two years now, Nora finally told Walter about it. But he did nothing.

Nora resented that Walter did not stand up for her, but she knew that it would not be possible for him to go against his mother, especially since they were still dependent on her support. And, perhaps, he could not quite believe it of his mother. Being caught between the two Podack women in this prickly household was an uncomfortable position for such a quiet, unassuming young man who had taken on much during uncertain times.

It is finally in the fourth year of their marriage, however, that the small family moved first to Dingolfing, in Bavaria, where Walter had secured an internship, and where the third child — another girl — Edel, is born in 1938.  After that, Walter was able to begin his residency with a doctor in Allenstein, where we find Katharina enrolled for the first time into grade school.  Another girl is born here, Heidi, and after a time, Walter obtained his doctorate and the family of six moved into their first apartment just West of the Tiergarten park, on Luisenallee 33, in the inner city of Königsberg, a place once ruled by kings.

While Walter’s dreams of a large family were coming true, he had as yet only one son, and he hoped for more. Walter encouraged a large family also as a follower of the Nazi Party, as Hitler presented the Mutter Kreuz (Mother Cross) for mothers with six children – his program to strengthen the Aryan line.

Walter was now able to practice medicine as a licensed doctor and believed himself to be on the path to the success that would enable him to support a very large family indeed. He very much hoped to specialize in orthopedics.

As it happened, though, the following years of WWII destroyed those dreams; the Germans were under full assault at the time Walter was ready to start in earnest his medical practice. Instead, he was conscripted into military service. It was to his advantage, however, that his doctorate allowed him to begin his active military career as an officer.

He served as a military doctor in the Balkan states in guerrilla warfare, mainly in Yugoslavia; also in Serbia, Albania, and Croatia; serving in Greece at the end of the war. German interests in the area, as defined by Hitler, included the security of supply routes and communications to German air bases in Greece and Crete, the safeguarding of the copper-producing areas in northeastern Serbia, the protection of an open shipping route on the Danube, and retention of the economic privileges granted Germany by the former Yugoslav government.

Walter came home infrequently on furlough and was missed greatly by his young wife and children. It was common practice for German families to become pregnant intentionally. Men with families of five children were not required to fight on the front lines. During the intervening year at Luisenallee, Walter’s second son Rudi was born in February of 1943.

Nora with her five children (left to right) Hardy, Heidi, Rudi, Edel and Katharina, far right.

Later, the young family moved to a modern apartment on Stubeusstrasse 5 – near the central park of Luisenwahl, located in the Mittelhufen and Amalienau suburban quarters of northwestern Königsberg. It is here that Nora and her five children lived, without the head of household, at the time of the British bombing raid of August 1944. Here is Nora with her five children (left to right) Hardy, Heidi, Rudi, Edel and Katharina, far right.

(1941)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/27639553@N05/5560351395/in/photolist-9tmfKv-ci5BKj-ihXtQ-iFh1UD-iFh3Ap-iFiJfw-odwV3M-iFgL8V-oeM8Mh-iFhcaD-ovhv29-j955e5-nDWajR-pmG4hU-pmaPq9-o8WT5p-VqKdde-2g9bPZJ-2hULRfz

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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