Katharina and I have been for a quick, brisk walk on this November morning, and now sit in warm comfort together on her plush burgundy sofa. She has a box of photos open on her lap. As she shares them with me, slowly extracting one after the other, she pauses for some time with the photo of her grandmother, lovingly running her aged fingers across its face as she remembers Marie Eberhardt.
“She was my Omi, my maternal grandmother. In 1942 I am seven and she is 56 years old. Now that we are back in Königsberg, I will have the chance to see her frequently and get to know her. She and her husband Karl have a house on Kastanienallee, in the area called Auf den Hufen, on the western side of Königsberg. The street dead-ends at their house with a fence that encloses a park on the other side. The view through the fence is obscured by a dense hedgerow, but from Omi’s kitchen window on the first floor I can see over the trees into the park. There are tennis courts. In the Winter months they let water freeze on the courts and the boys use them to practice ice hockey. I watch them sometimes. Omi feeds the birds on the concrete ledge outside the window with suet and seeds.
“On this day, Omi is putting up pickled pumpkin and I watch her whenever I can take my eyes of the birds. She is ladling the chunks of pumpkin into a crock from a large pot, where they have been simmering on the gas stove in a sweet-and-sour syrup. I ask her what they taste like when they are done and she explains that they will not be done until they have cooled off and spent some time sitting on the shelf ‘aging,’ but she goes to the pantry and brings out another crock, pulls off the cellophane that is tied over the top and with a fork fishes out a few pieces, puts them on a plate and hands it to me for sampling. Slowly I take a piece and hesitantly bring it up to my lips. ‘Go ahead,’ she says, ‘it won’t bite’ and laughs at me. I gather my courage and put it in my mouth. The tangy syrup fills my mouth when I bite down on the pumpkin piece, it is crunchy too. I decide I like it and finish them off!”
Ingridpwrites: Pickled pumpkin is a traditional German food. Here’s how to make it for your holiday season!
“While she continues the pumpkin preserving and I watch the birds feeding and fighting on the windowsill, Omi talks of the times when I was small and she got to spend time with me, her first grandchild. Mutti once had asked her for advice when I was giving her a hard time with potty training.”
“‘Your Mutti brought you over; she said she had tried everything she could think of, but you just would not stay sitting on the potty, you would get up and then do your little poop on the floor. I asked her to leave you with me for a few days and I would see what I could do. She agreed. When I set you on the potty, I sat next to you and read stories to you and you stayed sitting there, but as soon as I got up, you got up too. I had to think of something. So, I put you in your stroller and we went to the store. I bought you a brand-new potty and some bananas. You were so happy to hold your new potty, so I put a banana in it for you. When we got home, I sat you on your new potty and gave you half of the banana to eat – and you pooped in the potty. We celebrated by dancing to music on the radio and you laughed. You took your new potty with you when your Mutti picked you up and never pooped on the floor again.’”
“I laughed at her story. I loved my Omi.
“After the pumpkin is all tied up in the crock and put on the pantry shelf, we go to the living room. There is an oriental style carpet on the floor; there is a round table that has a golden-yellow crocheted cloth on it with long fringes around the edge and chairs pushed under it; against the wall stands a mahogany book cabinet, the heavy glass doors have beveled edges and behind them stand the many volumes of Opi’s leather-bound Encyclopedia. When Opi is not at home Omi lets me look at the books, she even lets me sit in Opi’s big leather easy chair. I just must promise to be very careful with the books. I don’t understand much of what’s written in those books, but the pictures tell me a story anyway.
“Omi is a kind person; one can see it in her face. Even when she is serious, she looks like there is a smile just waiting to come back. She is not tall, her figure is mature, a little rounded, her hair is almost white but sort of blond too, braided and held in a bun in back with hair pins and a fine hair net over it. Her hands show that they are accustomed to work. The house is neat, there are no servants. The apartment arrangement is like most: entry into a lobby, or Diele. From there doors lead into the bedroom, kitchen, bath, living/dining room, and a sunroom that my aunt – Tante Toni – she is also my godmother – and her daughter Winnie currently occupy. Tante Toni is divorced.
“Sometimes when Omi, Tante Toni and Mutti get together on occasional afternoons for Kaffeeklatsch I get to come along, but I have to promise to sit in my chair and be quiet.
“Those times I bring crocheting with me, but my ears are open, and I eagerly listen to the adults’ conversation. Their conversation is animated, but it is Omi’s laughter that is so effervescent, so contagious that I catch myself laughing as well, even though I had promised to be quiet. Often the talk becomes serious though as they share some of their troubling thoughts and Omi always has soothing words . ‘Aber Kindchen . . .’ she would say with empathy which means something like ‘Oh poor child . . .’ At those times she would call her grown daughters Kindchen as well.”
Finally, Katharina lays aside the photograph of her Omi, Marie Eberhardt, and pauses again at a photo of her Oma, Hedwig.
“I think of Oma in Kalthof. How different they are! How easy Omi is to talk to, and how closed off Oma is. And how Omi laughs! I will never forget her laughter. It bubbles. It is like a rain of pearls. It often bursts out suddenly, fizzy like shaking up a soda bottle and opening the cap. It fills the whole room with lighthearted joyfulness. My Omi, she is the only person to whom I can turn and confide in later in my life…”
“Omi was born in Hoppendorf in East Prussia – where it is located on the map I could never find. She was one of seven surviving children of nine born to her parents, Karl and Wilhelmine Robben, five girls and two boys. The name Robben can be traced back to her great-grandfather, Gottlieb Robben, who came to the area with Napoleon’s Army. According to family lore, Gottlieb did not participate in the Russian campaign of that time. When the French army passed through East Prussia, he deserted, hiding in the dense forests. After peace was made in 1815, he traveled on foot back to his home in Belgium to receive an inheritance. He then made his way back to East Prussia by stagecoach, now having the funds to afford it.”
Katharina runs her hands through her short curls, lifting a photo of her grandfather, her Opi.
“My grandfather, my Opi Karl comes from Altenstadt in Hesse, where his family was prominent in business and local politics. It was one of the larger villages in the area with a Post Office and rail connections to Frankfurt and Giessen. It also had an airport a short distance away.
“Born in 1885 he is one year older than his wife Marie, together they have six children, four girls: Dorie, Nora, Toni and Marga; and identical twin boys: Waldemar (called Wallusch) and Heinz.”
“In Königsberg Karl is employed by the city as Stadt Amtsmann, in charge of water works, drainage, and sewer systems. He is so indispensable that at the end of the war, even during the siege of Königsberg in April 1945, he remained. He was later detained in his post by the Russians until 1949!
I had very little exposure to Opi, and remember him only as a growly bear, judging by his voice. His hands with long slender fingers, indicative of a draftsman’s hands possibly, were the only remarkable thing to me. I suppose it is from him that the excellence in mathematics has been passed to his daughter Nora — my Mutti — and then to my brother Hardy. We know nothing about his education or why he chose to live in Königsberg or how he and Marie met.
“Our family was resourceful and lucky, and Karl did well financially during the depression. He was able to build the cabin on the Baltic coast that became the summer destination for the family, children, and grandchildren alike, and for this the entire family was deeply grateful.
“Ah… that summer cabin. I have already told you much about my memories there. But the most beautiful are those I have of days’ end. The glaring late-afternoon sun gathers, like a shepherd his sheep, the few scattered wispy clouds around it as it declines toward the western horizon, where sky and sea seem to become one. Growing ever larger, it begins to lose its stark brightness, its color slowly mellowing into rosy orange, tinting sky-blue and silver-clouds alike. The fiery globe finally meets the sea and thus defines the lost horizon, beginning to build a bridge across the water like glowing molten metal, tiny flames flickering and dancing on the crests of gentle waves as they roll toward the beach, advancing and retreating, advancing and retreating… Finally, the sun sinks into the sea, sparking sky and clouds to ignite flaming red, dipping the water into midnight darkness with just a veil of pink haze still floating on its surface. Grey dusk descends and quietly snuffs all colors, as the tireless waves softly sing nature their lullaby.
“As the breezes calm and the night becomes still, the faint spicy scent of the pines high above the beach, wafts low and marries with the sleepy haze that has settled on the cooling sands. Only the pulsing beam from the lighthouse at Brüsterort remains busy, steadily flitting through the night air.
“I see in my mind how nature paints this picture of wind and sea, sky and sandy beach and fragrant pine forest, sunshine and the dark of night, and it would not be complete and perfect if even the smallest detail were missing. This picture is engraved in my memory, indelible and unfading.”