I did not know at the time how dangerous it was to listen to the BBC…
Kalthof. We are back, having moved in with Opa and Oma – August and Hedwig – after our apartment in Königsberg was destroyed. I am in fourth grade, again attending Falkschule as I did in the second grade while living here. It is just across the railroad and streetcar tracks from the big gate to Gärtnerei Podack on Robert Koch Straße. It only takes about five minutes to get to school.
My teacher, Frau Kranz, is a woman with long, curly black hair. I am always fascinated by her arms and can hardly keep my eyes off her when she is close to my desk. Her bare arms are covered with freckles like her face, lots of freckles, so dense that they seem to touch. The fascinating part, though, is the mat of black hair covering her arms as well as the backs of her hands. I imagine her as sort of a jungle creature. She was not a nice person. One time I complained of a bad headache, and she told me to go bang my head against the wall!
The principal of this school must teach classes as well. When he is obliged to be out of his office, he selects one of the good pupils to sit in his chair and answer the phone. I am chosen often. But the phone does not ring! Sometimes I am tempted to call Opa at his number 30913, but I never do. I was accustomed to answering Opa’s telephone in the Vorraum (the reception and sales area), picking up the receiver and announcing: “Gärtnerei Podack” or “30913,” just like the grown-ups did, but I had never dialed.
To help pass the time in the principal’s office I have my Africa album with me. This album is filled with stories about animals and people, and it has blank spaces where pictures were to be pasted in. Mutti and her twin brothers, Wallusch and Heinz, have collected these pictures for me over the years from the cigarette packs they came in. I have read a lot about the jungle, and I could match the pictures to the right places. It was very easy to imagine Frau Kranz as a jungle beast.
I am thinking of my uncles now, Heinz and Wallusch, who were the last to leave their parents’ home on Kastanienallee. While visiting my mother’s parents — Marie and Karl Eberhardt — recently, I had seen my uncles’ childhood room, located in the attic space. World maps were still posted on the slanted ceilings. Mutti has told me that as teens, the twin brothers built their own radios, and did photography, developing their own film and pictures. Years later, after the war, they both studied physics.
During 1943, when Hitler was trying to conquer Russia, Onkel Wallusch served with the German Luftwaffe. During his service there, Wallusch was wounded with shrapnel and met his nurse Friedchen (Frieda), who later became his wife.
Heinz was conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the Reich Labor Service, which was a major organization established in Nazi Germany to help mitigate the effects of unemployment on the German economy, militarize the workforce and indoctrinate it with Nazi ideology. It was the official state labor service, divided into separate sections for men and women.
Today, in 1944 on the Gärtnerei Podack, Opa August is about 55 years old, a grandfather of five. He is still a simple man, even though well-to-do and well regarded by his superiors, peers, and employees. Of average stature, his bald head is always covered with some beaten-up hat, his trousers tucked into rubber boots. He spends his days from pre-dawn to dark working at his stables, fields, and greenhouses.
His 5:00 a.m. breakfast consists of Brotsuppe, a mush made by breaking up a chunk of peasant bread into a bowl and adding heated raw cow’s milk and a spoon of sugar. It is war time and real coffee beans are a luxury; these days coffee is made of roasted barley.
At this same time every day, Hedwig readies breakfast for the working men. Anna, a Polish woman, helps her in the kitchen; they prepare heaps of thick slices of bread spread with lard or margarine and a large enamel pot of barley coffee, along with a pitcher of milk. Anna takes it out on a large tray to where the hungry men are waiting in the day room of their quarters.
In the stable, August supervises the feeding of the cows, the milking, and getting the fresh milk to the dairy. Opa’s horse is hitched to the wagon, and one of the men loads the milk cans. He then hoists himself up into the seat, flicks the reins on the horse’s back, and the wagon rumbles away. When he returns, the large milk cans must be scrubbed and scalded, a job for the women, and turned upside down on their rack in the Vorraum to dry in readiness for the evening milking, when the whole process repeats itself.
Even on Sundays the animals need to be fed, the cows milked, the milk delivered — morning and evening. But the time in-between belongs to each to spend as they would, and everyone takes advantage of the respite.
In the nursery and greenhouses, August assigns the day’s work to the men, be it cleaning the bedding in the barn, transplanting seedlings, preparing the cold frames for seeding lettuce, cabbage, and kohlrabi, or repairing the straw mats that cover the cold frames at night. Depending on the season there are different tasks, but there is always work to be done: in winter, firing the boilers that keep the greenhouses warm, replacing broken glass panes – in summer, whitewashing the roofs of the greenhouses to filter the bright sun light – in fall, bringing in the hay to fill the loft above the stable for the winter, and digging potatoes to store in the cellar. August never raises his voice, but his tone is stern with the men. They know him as a fair boss; he is easy to work for and they know they will be treated civilly. They are here as forced labor from Poland and White Russia (Belarus), a result of the war.
Many years later, I learn from a former classmate’s accounts of her life in Frankfurt, Hessen that forced laborers were referred to in her area as Unter Menschen – sub-human – and she as a child was forbidden to speak to them or show them any courtesy.
But at August’s house, we children interact freely with the laborers. I learn from Anton, a Polish man, how to transplant seedlings into a flat to give them room to grow. I stand next to him on a box to be able to reach the tall work bench with the cement top. He shows me how to mix and sift compost and peat moss together to create the growing medium.
I am working on my own flat, making holes with a pointed dowel, then inserting each tiny seedling and firming the dirt around it. Anton looks over and says “dobrze” (good) in his language. All the men are kind to us, and we love to be around them, even in their bunk room after their work was done.
Ah those days! As children, my brother Hardy and I had the entire place as our playground with many things to explore and discover. I am certain though, that there were many eyes watching us without us being aware of it. As a child I was not cognizant of the circumstances that had brought Anna and these men here. They were just part of the place, part of the household. I even remember some of the men’s names. Besides Anton there was Janek and Stanislaws. And there was Anna and – on and off — German girls as Pflichtmädchen (duty girls) who helped in the household, with the younger siblings, or sometimes with the milking. These were girls who had finished the eighth grade, and under Hitler’s rules, every woman under twenty-five years of age had to show proof of having finished one year of household or farm duty to apply for a job or vocational training. Oh yes! In those times we were five children, and we wore these poor Pflichtmädchen out pretty quickly.
For the most part the help ate what we ate, soups of potatoes, lentils, peas, cabbage, and Schwarzsauer, a traditional soup made from fresh blood, spices, and vinegar at butcher time. After the midday meal, August would take a short nap on the divan and work stood still for a while. August was a sober, practical man. He wrang the chickens’ necks and killed rabbits with no qualms. Animals – geese and hogs – were raised for food. There were no pets. The dog, Vera, was usually chained; she was brought into the house to hunt down a rat that had somehow found its way inside. When she had gotten herself in trouble and had puppies, August put them in a burlap sack and drowned them in the creek. I believe his relationship with his wife Hedwig was just as sober and practical at this stage of their lives. He never called her by her name, always called her Frau (wife) and she called him Mann (husband).
At this point we should keep in mind that August grew up under the Kaiser’s rule, his grandparents still having been serfs. After the end of WWI there were a few years of democracy before Hitler came to power, abolished the republic again, and proclaimed himself absolute ruler: Führer. I imagine to Opa and a great many German citizens, especially of the older generation, it must have been an almost familiar state to be told what to do and to obey; perhaps this is why Germans are perceived to be people of good civil obedience.
I did not learn until my teen years that Opa had been appointed Landwirtschaftlicher Gauleiter (agricultural district manager) in Hitler’s time. Despite this position, I only knew him as a kind, simple, and humble man, only occasionally putting on suit and tie for a business meeting in his office, the Herrenzimmer (gentlemen’s room), where the guests would settle into the leather chairs and, after concluding their business talks, were treated to Schnapps and cigars. Quietly sitting in the adjacent room one time I overheard talk about the use of a newly developed product to make hemp growing easier. It was advertised as a weed killer that would keep weeds from choking out the tender young seedlings of the hemp plant. Hemp, one of the products of East Prussia’s export trade, was being cultivated for the weaving of rope.
There was never a hint of political atmosphere in the everyday life at Opa’s house, and in this year, the only concerns were with the course the war was taking, especially on the Eastern Front. As a child of less than ten years of age, I had no knowledge of Hitler’s politics.
Considering the plight of all the people who lost their homes and all their belongings in the bombing raids, we were so very fortunate, having Oma and Opa living close, who had the extra room to take in all of us: Nora, all five of her children, and our nanny Martha.
Most all my parents’ belongings had been saved the day after the bombing before our apartment building reignited and was gutted by the fire completely. Opa and Mutti had carried these things by horse and wagon from west Königsberg to Gärtnerei Podack, outside of the eastern walls of the city. Most of our furniture from the apartment was now stored here, some in the house, some in storage buildings.
Opa, in a great hurry, had added on a small room to the northern corner of the house, just large enough for not much more than a set of bunk beds for Hardy and me. Mutti and the younger ones had their beds put up in the big sunny room, where my parents lived when they were first married, and where I was born.
The Podack women — Hedwig and Nora — remained in conflict during this time. I know today, only having learned of the conflict between Oma and my mother Nora after Nora’s death – from letters written but never mailed – that this conflict had been ongoing through the years. Living in Kalthof again I noticed that Mutti was rarely home during the day, staying up late into the small morning hours, after everyone had gone to bed, sewing, writing to Papa, and listening to the BBC on the Grundig radio for news of the war, then sleeping late into the next morning. I suppose she was avoiding Oma as much as she could, but I cannot imagine her not being grateful for having a place of refuge after we lost the apartment in the air raid upon Königsberg.
Very soon, school was over for the season, and Mutti brought all five of her children, along with Martha, to her parents’ summer cabin on the Baltic Sea. We were to stay there over the next week or two, for the fall vacation.
For us children, this time was not like those leisurely, lazy days of past summers filled with new discoveries and adventures. Now, our throats were closed, our hearts were heavy, and we longed for the playfulness of those early, wonderful childhood days spent at Omi and Opi Eberhardt’s cabin on the Baltic Sea. Alas, those happy days would be mourned forever, deeply imprinted on our souls. And with those memories, what remains is a keepsake, my amber necklace, which, when fastened around my neck today, brings not a soothing remembrance, but rather, a pain into my heart and tears into my eyes.
I do not remember much of this disheartening fall vacation at the cabin, except that Mutti listened to the British radio station BBC here as well, to learn of true accounts of war events and the ever-advancing Russian front. This she did to circumvent the Nazi propaganda which held that the war was going well for the Wehrmacht on all fronts. Onkel Heinz, now in paramilitary service, had modified the short-wave radio to work off two car batteries earlier that summer, in anticipation of just a situation like this, since there was no electricity at the summer cabin.
I did not know at the time how dangerous it was to listen to the BBC, but Mutti was not one to cower to the rules of men. Had she been caught, whether at the beach house or at the farm in Kalthof, it was likely she would have been taken away by the Schutzstaffel – the Nazi enforcers – the SS.
I’m sure Mutti thought of any and all options that might be open to her family should the time come for us to leave East Prussia. Learning that the Russian army was pushing back Hitler‘s forces, Mutti decided to send a lot of the household things that were not in use in Kalthof to her sister Marga, who lived in Erzgebirge (the Ore Mountains) in Saxony. One night I found all the women busy packing crates and trunks with dishes, silver and kitchen ware, and wicker baskets with bedding and blankets, sewn shut with burlap. Even mattresses from Nora’s marriage bed and the folding bed from the beach house were freighted to Tante Marga in Saxony.
Yes, the atmosphere of wartime was a palpable one. We children were not aware of the details yet, except when they made impact on us personally. We did not know, for instance, that the Russians were strategically advancing their East Prussian offensive; that the Soviet Red Army was moving against the German Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. That the Offensive would last until April 25, 1945, with some German units refusing to surrender until May 9; that Onkel Wallusch would soon be wounded, and that The Battle of Königsberg, a major part of the offensive, would end in victory for the Red Army.
But already, in the winter of 1944, we could hear the cannons. The “front” was getting closer. Refugees were coming in from Lithuania, and even as children, we understood what that meant.