Katharina’s Story: Chapter 7 – A Child’s Wartime Christmas

In late 1942, Katharina’s family lived at Luisenallee, in Königsberg, and it was in this year that Walter Podack was conscripted into military service with Hitler’s German Army. Katharina, the eldest child and now nearly eight years old, knows only that Papa has gone to war. It happened matter-of-factly, like another day off to work, with no special good-byes. He was just gone.

The following year, the youngest child, Rudi, was born in February 1943.

During these times, it was hard to get by; most everything is rationed. While one had to wait in long lines for goods, the most extreme shortages were not felt until the last war years, when all resources were concentrated on the war effort. The children are not aware of any of this; Katharina recalls that at school they were given raw root vegetables: carrots and rutabagas.

Today, in her home in the western foothills of the Salt Lake Valley, a fire crackles in the fireplace. Katharina sits on the end of the couch nearest to me, bundled in her favorite holiday sweater – a deep green knitted tunic adorned with a silver sequined reindeer leaping through sequined snowflakes. She slowly unwraps her favorite Christmas ornaments as we prepare to decorate the tree, setting them carefully beside her. Outside the front window the lawn sparkles with a newly fallen snow, and moisture drips from the chokecherry tree as the sun glints upon its bare, snow-blanketed branches.

I am perched on the edge of Katharina’s easy chair. The tree has been set in its base, the lights strung and the star at the top lit in readiness. Our mugs of eggnog wait on the tiled table with its chartreuse lamp, and Katharina takes up her story.

“In 1944, I was in fourth grade. During school hours one day, Hitler’s motorcade was coming through town and all the girls from our school lined the sidewalk, standing at attention, raising our right arms in the Heil Hitler greeting.”

“At school we were taught to knit and sew and crochet. We were supposed to learn how to be good wives and mothers. In these war years, all manner of things were collected for the cause, and we were always eager to bring things to school. Paper was in short supply and was being recycled for packaging material. Other needed items were dried raspberry leaves, dried chamomile flowers, and the herb Huflattich (coltsfoot) for teas and medicines. The most interesting to me were bones and hair. Many of these items we found at Oma and Opa’s farm in Kalthof.

“Coltsfoot grew in a shady area behind one of the greenhouses; raspberry vines down by the creek; chamomile in the cow pasture. And there were lots of bones in the chicken yard. Opa kept cows and hogs and chickens and geese and rabbits. The family and the working help had produced a lot of bones over the years. One day I asked Opa for a gunny sack and went to pick up all the bones I could find in the chicken yard.

“I proudly took them to school to turn in for the making of fertilizers when they would be ground into bonemeal. Class had not yet started. I reached into my sack and found a hog’s jawbone, intact with some teeth. I waved it around and when the girls started screeching, I chased them with it! Enter the teacher; I was in trouble!” Katharina looks over at me, laughing. “I had to stand in the corner, facing the wall where the coat racks hung. Somehow, though, it did not hurt my pride. I had done my good deed for the war,” she said.

“I have very few memories of living at the apartment at Luisenallee. School was part of everyday life for Hardy and me. We went to separate schools — he to a boys’ school, I to a girls’ school. Edel was about four years old, Heidi only a year. And then Rudi was born.

“The little ones mostly stayed with Mutti and with the housemaid, Martha. I suppose they had their outings while Hardy and I were at school. We two had very little contact with them; they had their scheduled nap and feeding times, and we had different schedules.

“Hardy and I had no friends in the neighborhood, no other children to play with. Except for school hours we were kept at home — no playing in the streets. Other than during meals, our time at home was spent in the children’s room  I don’t even remember breakfast or lunch, except what was provided at school. Supper was usually a milk soup for us kids, which Mutti prepared and served. Milk soup was like a thin vanilla or chocolate pudding, sometimes with a dollop of stiffly beaten egg-white on top and a sprinkle of sugar. Before being served we had to sit still at the kitchen table with our hands on top of the table, one on each side of the bowl, waiting patiently. I remember very little other interaction with Mutti during these times.

Katharina’s childhood enamel bowl, in which Mutti served milk soup.

“Mutti was an academic, multi-talented, resourceful, tenacious like no one I have ever met. What I learned later was that she could take on the toughest bureaucrat and get her way! Mutti was somewhat high-strung, and somewhat neurotic. She was not openly loving. Babies were not much held; they were fed and changed every four hours by the clock and then put down again, left crying themselves to sleep or crying until next feeding time.

“With only Martha looking after us, little Hardy and I did a great deal of roughhousing. I still have a scar, which I got on the corner of a nightstand in the children’s room, which had a protruding nail head. I was running around in my nightgown when I crashed into it. The wound bled, but I told no one about it.”

Katharina holds up a glass ornament: a small golden bird, beautifully hand-painted, with a feathered plume of a tail. “I just love these bird ornaments. I’ve been collecting them … aren’t they just the most delicate things? We had similar glass ornaments when I was growing up, and the birds were always my favorites,” she remarked.

Katharina grows quiet as she lightly touches and re-arranges several glass ornaments. She holds up another bird, this one a glass peacock, teal and silver, its proud head stretched upward, and again glances over at me.

“It is strange that, while we lived in Königsberg, the only Christmas memories I have are those celebrated in Kalthof, at the Gärtnerei Podack, with Papa’s parents, my Oma and Opa. Mutti’s parents, the Eberhardts, also lived in Königsberg, in Auf den Hufen, in the western part of the city. But I remember nothing of spending any holidays there or at our own apartments in Königsberg.

“Our family were not church-goers, but we observed the Christian customs of baptism, confirmation, and church weddings. We celebrated the Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas as a matter of tradition, the same way these holidays were commonly celebrated in East Prussia, without them having a special religious meaning for us.

Christmas Traditions

“I remember most clearly the Christmas of 1944, after the air raids and bombings in Königsberg. We had to leave the city and live with Opa and Oma (August and Hedwig) in Kalthof. It was a happy time for me to be back at the Nursery Podack, where I was born and where we lived again for a while after  moving from Allenstein.

“Preparations and anticipation for Christmas started the first day of December with the advent calendar. Our curiosity over what magic image the opening of the next day’s window would bring was so very overwhelming! There was no peeking ahead though; anyone would surely notice that the little window just will not close properly again — I know — I tried it once!

“On the first Advent Sunday the Advent wreath was put on its stand and secured with red ribbons. Four candle holders were clipped on, and candles inserted. On that Sunday only one candle would be lit in the afternoon with everyone assembled for cake, and coffee for the adults. It was the beginning of the festivities and many special activities.”

First Advent. Flickr Photo Credit dietmar-schwanitz

“St. Nikolaus day, on December 6, was the first warning and reminder for us children that being good or naughty could have consequences on Christmas Eve, when presents were to be opened. The custom was for the children to clean and shine their shoes and put them outside the door of their bedroom before going to bed that night. Then Saint Nikolaus would come and put some treat in them.”

Having set out all her tree ornaments and divided them into two lots, Katharina rose from the couch and nodded to the group nearest to me. “Why don’t you start at the top and I will start at the bottom, shall we?” She holds the first ornament: the familiar red mushroom with big white spots.“ This one, it is a fliegenpilz. A poisonous mushroom!” she adds.

“Poisonous! I had no idea,” I exclaim. “Those are so familiar from children’s tales and Disney movies,” I add.

Katharina twists her face into a wry smirk. “Just goes to show you. Today’s kids are absolutely clueless about the real world around them.”

As she places the glass mushroom on the tree, she continues her story.

“So. It’s the Christmas season. In the kitchen, besides their regular duties, the women start making Pfefferkuchen, preparing the dough which had to sit for many days before it was ready for the baking sheet and the oven. After that it would be spread with icing made from powdered sugar and lemon juice, cut into squares, and stored in a large crock. It was a type of gingerbread, but very dark and hard and often eaten by dunking it into coffee. Pfefferkuchen would keep without spoiling until Easter the next year, no joke!

“The making of Marzipan began as well. The best part of watching in the kitchen was getting to lick the bowls and spoons.

“Each following Sunday one more candle on the Advent wreath would be lit and a few of the special things would be brought out of storage. One of these was a little merry-go-round windmill that would turn all on its own with the heat from the small candles.”

Flickr Photo Credit berndtolksdorf

With a handful of ornaments, I move to the backside of the Christmas tree, and interject. “I have one of those. My father gave me one for Christmas several years back. I just love it; it’s magical.”

Katharina pauses in her work, gives me a level stare through the branches, then shrugs and continues with her story.

“I had a doll — her name was Ursula. Her eyes would close when I laid her down. One day her eye sockets were empty, her eyes seemed to be rattling around inside her head. Mutti took her and said she needed to go the hospital. I accepted it matter-of-factly. I had never spent much time with Ursula, except to dress her and put her to bed when it was her bedtime. I was doing what my Mutti did — I did not know how else to play with her. Mutti always made sure we were dressed nicely.

Father Christmas

“On Christmas Eve, the big tree had been set up in the usual corner in Opa’s Herrenzimmer (gentlemen’s room). The sofa and big chairs were moved and arranged around the walls of the room. The tree was adorned with all of Oma’s decorations. There were shiny glass globes of all colors, some oddly twisted longer shapes like tear drops; and as you know — the ones I liked the most were fancy little birds with real feathers, fastened to the branches with the clips they were sitting on. The clips for the candles were there as well and lots of tinsel, carefully hung in single strands on each branch. The candles were lit and the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) arrived in person with the heavy gunny sack over his shoulders. I was not sure if the Weihnachtsmann was real. Everyone else is here but Opa; this must be Opa.

“He opened his sack and brought out festively wrapped packages, one for each of us. And guess what — Ursula came out of the sack — and her eyes were back! She blinked at me happily when I held her in my arms. Then the biggest surprise for me — Opa walked into the room and the Weihnachtsmann handed him a box of cigars! I hugged Ursula and wondered about this Father Christmas…

“Mutti had prepared a bunten Teller, a deep paper plate full of sweet treats, chocolates and an orange for each child. This was the year that Klaus and Gerd, our cousins and our aunt, Tante Alma, spent Christmas day with us. The family came from Pravten by train to share in the Christmas goose for the midday feast. Let me tell you about this goose!

“Several weeks before Christmas the selected geese were confined to be fattened. Opa made up a doughy mixture of grains, using a recipe handed down through generations. He formed the dough into boluses about the size of a finger. Opa would sit with the goose held firmly between his legs and hold open its beak. Then a bolus of dough was forced down the goose’s throat and massaged down the long neck. This was done every day. I watched Opa do this once. It seemed barbaric to me at the time, but he must have had a lot of experience doing this, being gentle and careful not to harm the goose before its time came.

“Roasted goose was the centerpiece of the Christmas feast. It was stuffed with apples, accompanied with potatoes and Rotkraut (red cabbage). There were other dishes prepared from the goose as well: Gänsebrust (goose breast) — the whole breast was cut from the bone, tied together with string, and smoked. Oh! What an incredible delicacy that was! Also, goose fat was rendered, gently fried with finely chopped onion, and seasoned with salt and marjoram. This made a soft spread for the sourdough peasant bread. And then there was goose liver pâté, and Gänsegekröse — a rich soup from neck, wings, and giblets. All so very delicious, during those holiday times.”

Ingridpwrites:  Try this recipe for a rich, creamy goose soup with dumplings!

“This Christmas in 1944 was the last one spent in Königsberg and the one most remembered with the extended family, because the following months changed our lives dramatically and fundamentally. Our first post-war Christmas in 1945, in a new environment, under very difficult circumstances, was starkly different in many ways.

Christmas in Refuge

“The year of 1945 had been difficult for my parents; they were putting all their energy into creating a new beginning. We had just a couple of months earlier moved into this old house, and Papa was trying to start his practice. The year had been very lean. Money could not buy anything. The store shelves were empty. We gleaned potatoes after the fields had been harvested, gleaned wheat fields for the grain, foraged in the woods for berries and mushrooms, and picked through the fallen leaves for beech nuts on our knees.

“We had shelled and ground the beech nuts we had gathered into flour and used them in place of almonds. We made Marzipan, just like we did that last time we were with Oma and Opa in Kalthof.

“We had a small tree on top of a round table, a table that had been given to us, found in someone’s attic, its glass top long gone, but its curved legs still strong; the wood stained but of good quality; the gift very much appreciated. The little tree was decorated with tinsel and a few candles. There were only a few things under the tree.

“It was Christmas Eve. We gathered in the patient waiting room which became the family room after Papa’s office hours. I was standing nervously in front of the tree reading aloud the Bible story of the birth of the Christ child. The children were seated on the stools and Mutti and Papa stood behind them — Papa a quiet participant, as was his way, but he sang with us when Mutti directed us all in singing Silent Night. When I settled onto my own stool, Mutti handed out the few presents. Each got a bunten Teller, the plate with treats, just like in Kalthof, but Saint Nikolaus had not come to this old house on the 6th of December.

“There was no Weihnachtsmann – no Father Christmas. There was no Christmas goose. There was no Oma and Opa – they were still missing. We did not know if they had gotten out of Königsberg alive. My parents had initiated a search through the Red Cross but there had been no word so far.

“I opened my gift. It was a small towel and a washcloth. A towel and washcloth of my own to use for the weekly bath in the wash tub in the cellar Waschkueche (laundry room), where water was heated in the big copper kettle. The kettle is the same one in which the bed sheets and underwear was boiled on laundry day.

“I was so excited over this gift! It was the first time that I felt special, older, more grown-up than my four siblings. No more using the same smelly cloth all the kids had used, no more having to use the already damp towel.

“After more than 75 years I still have the towel; it is rough, but it is my own,” Katharina remarks proudly.

The Gift of Christmastime Lessons

“It was in this year, for the first time, that the Bible story about the birth of the Christ child in a stable made a marked impression on me – more than just being something akin to a fairy tale. I understood then that it does not take a richly decorated tree, many presents, and a Christmas goose to make the season meaningful. The simplicity of that day, celebrated in deprivation and poverty, and missing my grandparents, created a lasting memory, despite the increasingly more plentiful Christmases in following years.”  Katharina breathes a heavy sigh as she carefully hangs her last ornament.

We stand hand in hand admiring our work. The Christmas tree sparkles with tinsel and firelight reflects in its glass ornaments. We turn to face each other, both feeling the pull of nostalgia and memory, from different decades and different lives. In this moment, I realize that in the spareness of my own childhood, my mother had tried to instill in us an appreciation of what we had, rather than dwelling on what we had not. As I reflect on the commercial push and tone of the holiday season in today’s time, I connect with the spirit that Katharina is sharing. I find truer meaning in what our family meant; what the toil and frugality meant, the wisdom she shared all along in teaching us how to cook, bake, sew, garden, preserve foods, tend the yard, and keep our homes spotless and in good repair. With Katharina I learned how to be resourceful, tenacious, self-sufficient, and steadfast — qualities that have carried me through some of the toughest challenges of my own life. I have Katharina to thank also — for the lessons of acceptance and forgiveness.

Without Katharina, I would not be who I am today. This is the grandest gift of all. Grateful, I hug my mother tightly.

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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