Katharina’s Story: Chapter 12 – A Refugee Family Settles in

View from the Northern edge of the town of Altenstadt, Hessen, in what became West Germany.

Our aunt Dori — my Mutti’s (Nora’s) sister — took us in for the first few days. She lived on a farm; actually, it was more an estate, a complex with buildings and walls all around a large courtyard, and a tall solid gate like a fortress. There was a large garden; there were milk cows, chickens, turkeys and hogs — and many acres of land with apple orchards, potato fields, grain fields and more. A staff lived on the estate and many workers came daily from the neighboring village of Stammheim.

The house was a three-story mansion, but at the time only two stories were occupied. The third had not been rebuilt after a fire they had a year or so earlier. Tante Dori’s husband was Robert, and his widowed mother had a room on the upper floor as well. The estate, located outside the village of Altenstadt, had been leased by the Güngerich family for a long time and Robert’s brother Adolf had been running it, while Onkel Robert went to law school. After Adolf was killed in a hunting accident, Robert took over the estate’s operations. It was known as Oppelshausen.

A modern-day bird’s eye view of the complex. Here you see the courtyard, the buildings arranged around it and the large mansion house with the tile roof. This shows on a grand scale the way all the farmyards were in Altenstadt: stables, barns arranged around the yard, which usually had a manure pile in the center of it (notice the green rectangle: the former manure pile), the main house on one side, a garden area behind for growing berries, fruits, vegetables – and flowers.

Dori and Robert could not take our entire family in, as they had six children of their own, so we were divided up: Omi Marie found room with Tante Dori and she kept Hardy and Edel with her in Oppelshausen. Mutti, Papa, Heidi, Rudi and I found shelter with a great-uncle: a brother of my Opi Karl Eberhart.

My great-uncle‘s name was Heinrich; his wife was Elise. The Eberhardts were an influential family in Altenstadt – one of Heinrich‘s brothers had been Mayor, now deceased. Heinrich himself owned a Kolonialwaren Geschäft, sort of a country store, selling groceries and variety of household items: dishes, pots and pans, paint and such. Heinrich and Elise also owned several other properties in the village. This property, like all farmyards at that time, had a large courtyard, surrounded by out-buildings and gated at the street side. Their living quarters were in the same building as the store, behind and above it.

They let us sleep in a small narrow room upstairs, their son‘s room, who was being held prisoner-of-war; where, I do not know. This room had a single bed in it, where Mutti and Papa slept. Heidi, Rudi and I slept on the floor in the small space between the bed and the doorway. 

Main Street in Altenstadt. The house at the T-intersection at the end of the street is the Eberhardt Kolonialwaren Geschäft, the country store, where we lived for a time.

Days we could spend in their laundry room, called the Waschküche. It had a huge built-in copper kettle, with a fire pit under it, for heating and boiling bedclothes, towels, and whites on  laundry days. This was the way laundry was done before washing machines; for drying, the sheets were spread on the Bleiche (the bleach lawn) — a grassy area — for the sun to dry and bleach white. There was a countertop in front of the only window, and a table and bench, used for folding clothes. We had absolutely nothing and were given a hot plate for preparing meals and a few necessary dishes and tools. We children had the run of the courtyard, and I, the oldest at age eleven, was in charge of watching the little ones.

The German state of Hessen, or Hesse, was in a sector of Germany then under American occupation. There were no soldiers quartered in Altenstadt — the closest unit was in Büdingen, the county seat, fourteen kilometers away. But they periodically patrolled the villages, occasionally conducting house-to-house searches, called Razzias, much feared by the local inhabitants. Residents would hide cameras, watches, silver, and other items they considered valuables for fear of having them taken as bounty by the soldiers.

Once during one of those Razzias – it was  after dark –  a few soldiers burst into our Waschküche, guns drawn. Papa had a distilling set-up on the countertop. This distiller was part of his medical equipment, used to produce distilled water for sterilizing syringes, needles, and all other medical instruments. In this case though, he was distilling alcohol from apple wine, the traditional drink in Hesse, presumably not for medicinal purposes. Or perhaps it was Dr. Podack’s prescription for reducing stress!

When the soldiers came in, Papa was afraid they would smash this equipment, but they simply looked around and then left. Typically, during their daytime patrols, a few children would be in the street and the soldiers would throw chewing gum, which was something new and unfamiliar for us. Whether intentionally or not, by doing this, they began the gradual process of integrating the American lifestyle into the lives of the German youth.

Most days, Mutti and Papa were away, trying to obtain housing for us and start the licensing process so Papa could establish his medical practice. There was only one doctor in Altenstadt at that time and he was said to be addicted to morphine! Since the next closest doctor was in Büdingen, a new practice in Altenstadt would mean that Papa would also serve all the surrounding villages.

How long we lived in the Waschküche at the country store, I can’t say. The days went by without dates or any other way to distinguish one from the next. Every evening it was my duty to walk the one kilometer up to Oppelshausen, my Tante Dori’s house, to fetch fresh milk. The container I used was the same one we had brought from Königsberg on the train, its lid having served as a potty. On many days, dusk was setting in when I started out.

The  narrow street led uphill between open fields and apple orchards, and then a dark forest on both sides enveloped me for a seemingly endless stretch before it gave way again to the planted fields of Oppelshausen. Getting my vessel filled with milk took little time; I did not spend any time visiting, nor did I see my other siblings while I was there. I was always anxious to start back; it would be getting dark.

Each time, I battled a frightening feeling in my stomach as I hurried back through the dark length of road through the threatening trees: beeches and pines, with dense brush beneath them right up to the street. My imagination would run away with me, and I found myself as if in a jungle, snakes hanging from the branches, flicking their long, split tongues at me. No matter how many times I made this trip the experience and the fright were always the same. The snakes just seemed to be waiting for me and no amount of reasoning of my young brain could convince them to go away.

It was sometime during the Summer that our family was assigned a house as our next residence. This property also belonged to my great-uncle Heinrich. The lady who had been renting it, newly widowed, was moved into an apartment at the local veterinarian’s house. The house was just two blocks up the Hauptstraβe (Main Street) — now Vogelsberger Straße — across from the Post Office, close to the other end of the village. It was easy location for a doctor’s office. It is in this town, Altenstadt, which had not been damaged during the war, that I would grow into adulthood.

Some history about the village of Altenstadt.

In earliest times, the Roman Empire’s eastern border, known as Limes, extended through  much of today’s Germany; Altenstadt, in the first half of the second century, was the site of a Limeskastell — a “fortlet” — with a watchtower guarded by a Roman garrison. The Limes was an earthen wall with a palisade fortification that ran along one of the main streets of today’s Altenstadt and the property of Heinrich Eberhardt, my great-uncle’s Kolonialwaren Geschäft  — the country store — was located on that very piece of land that housed the Roman garrison nearly 1800 years before. The existence of the village of Altenstadt is documented as far back as the year 767, making it the oldest municipality in Upper Hesse. This, in part, may be the reason for the fact that it became an economic center for a great number of surrounding villages, with rail connections to the county seat of Büdingen and to Frankfurt; it had a post office, a pharmacy, doctor‘s and veterinarian‘s offices, a jail, and courthouse.

Something else I might mention here is that my mother, Nora Podack, was not happy to be in Altenstadt, as she was reminded of a traumatic incident when she was little. When Mutti was a young girl, she was sickly and was sent to stay with her aunt Erna to benefit from the goat milk that her aunt supplied (goat milk is naturally homogenized). Little Nora was locked in the woodshed once, as punishment for misbehaving, and her aunt forgot about her. When darkness set in, she was very frightened and imagined suffocating in the closeness, to be found dead in the morning. This incident caused her to suffer from claustrophobia in adulthood.

The photo below shows the Altenstadt Post Office, but the house next to it is where Opi Karl Eberhardt’s sister Erna lived. Our new residence was right across the street from the Post Office. Mutti was very uncomfortable having the house of her aunt within visual range, as it was a steady reminder of the woodshed incident.

Photo of Altenstadt Post Office, pictured with the last stagecoach in 1905, which became obsolete with the railroad connection. Photo credit: “Altenstadt- wie’s früher war,”  by Wilhelm Müller

Our new residence here, like most other properties, had a small courtyard with a big gate at the street, and a walk-through gate for people. From the courtyard one went through yet another, smaller gate, and then up nine steps to the heavy front door. Opening the front door would strike the bell above the doorway and announce one’s arrival. There was a small entry hall which to the left led into the kitchen, passing the stairway. On the right was a door to the largest room in the house, straight-on another room, and another behind that one. The middle room had a door leading to the “grand” room as well.

The stairs were narrow, steep, and turned ninety degrees at the bottom. Upstairs were three rooms coming off a landing just wide enough to accommodate the doors. Ceilings were low. The biggest room became my parents’ bedroom, as well as the playroom and sewing room. The space under the roof-slant was later turned into closet space for all of us. The middle room was designed to become a bathroom (which did not necessarily mean it would include a toilet) — it already had a tiled wall. With its two windows facing the street, it became the girls’ bedroom, and the narrow room at the end was the boys’ bedroom.

There was one cold water spigot in the kitchen, and one in the cellar in the customary laundry room. Grey water drained onto the street. Each room in the house had a wood stove or coal heater except the middle room on the main level. The kitchen had a half wood-fired stove with two eyes and a hot-water tank in the back, and half electric stove with three burners and an oven. All windows had working shutters. There was no other indoor plumbing — the outhouse was across the courtyard; cut-up newspaper served as toilet paper.

This photo is of the local Protestant Church. I could see the clock from my bed. The bell would chime every 15 minutes, once at 1/4 hour, twice at 1/2 hour, four times at full hour, then the number of the hours, for example 8 times for eight o’clock. No one out in the fields needed a watch. The Catholic Church was at Convent Engelthal, a little over a kilometer away. There were very few Catholics living in the area until after the refugees from Sudetenland arrived. Years later, one of these refugees would become my husband.

According to the rules of the occupying forces here, Papa could not get a license to practice until he had again been “denazified” by them. He was tried by a tribunal and found guilty of having belonged to the Nazi party and sentenced to retribution in the form of cleaning up the Jewish cemetery outside of Altenstadt, which was overgrown with weeds and scattered with debris. Our family made a pastime out of this punishment, with a nice walk along the country road, then up a dirt path on the hillside to the cemetery at the edge of the woods. We all helped and, on the way back, took a rest at the edge of a cabbage field. Here we would sit close together enough to create a visual barrier, and Papa would use his pocketknife to secretly cut a cabbage head from its roots and hide it under his jacket for our dinner. That was the only time I ever saw him take something that was not ours.

This was still 1945, money was not worth much, and there was very little for sale. The trains coming from Frankfurt were packed with people, with cars overcrowded, and people on platforms and steps, hanging on desperately. They were coming to the farmlands hoping to trade for food, bringing with them books, sterling silver and other valuables for barter.

All the outlying villages around Frankfurt already had been forced to find living space for evacuated families who had lost their homes during air raids that destroyed large sections of the city in the years before. In the coming years there would be another influx of refugees from Sudetenland and other areas in the East, when those were returned to pre-war conditions and all Germans were expelled from there.

Eventually, Papa was successful in obtaining his license and chose the two smaller connecting rooms on the main floor for his practice. The first room was the waiting room, and the other the consulting and treatment room. Papa got a car for making house calls to the outlying villages, a DKW, probably a 1936/7 model, with doors made of plywood — DKW, the make was  jokingly called deutscher Kinderwagen (German baby carriage). The manufacturer of this bygone vehicle was Auto Union GMBH. The last car was made in the 1960‘s.

The style at the middle left below is the closest to what Papa’s car looked like.

When we were still staying with Heinrich and Elise, we had permission to take anything we could use from the loft in the barn, where all their discards were stored. Some of the furniture for Papa’s practice came from there. In the waiting room there were only stools, but there was a table and a chair in Papa’s office. Many things were made from scrap lumber and apple crates. We raided the local dump for useful items: pieces of discarded furniture like chair legs, broken headboards and the like, jars and bottles.

Papa made a shelf unit out of several pieces of salvaged auto window glass for his instruments that looked very classy. Mutti brought home an old stuffed mattress she found and used it to pad an examining table. A shingle was hung on the street side of the house that read “Dr. med. W. Podack, Sprechstunde 9-11 und 14-16 Uhr, ausser Mittwoch und Samstag Nachmittag” (Dr. med. W. Podack, office hours 9-11 and 14-16 o’clock, except Wednesday and Saturday afternoon). Slowly people started coming, and he was most often paid with eggs and bacon, potatoes, apples, and now and then, a goose.

The large room on the lower floor was used for dinner and all family activities. There was only one floor lamp with the only bulb other than the ceiling light in the kitchen and the ones upstairs. Helping to get the table ready for supper one night I knocked the lamp over and broke the bulb. Papa was furious and sent me to go around and beg for a bulb. It was dark out!

I went to the preacher’s house and told them of my plight. They had no bulb to spare. I went to the butcher where there was a tavern open, serving beer and food — part of their business. I went to the lady next door, whose son operated a saddlery. I knocked on other doors, and then, not knowing where else to go, I returned home. I went upstairs to bed and cried. I have never in my life felt as guilty as I did that night. Guilty, ashamed, and humiliated.

Sometime after getting started in the house on Hauptstraβe, Mutti acquired a pedal sewing machine. Our wardrobe was very limited and if we were going back to school at some point, the children would need clothing. From the train station in Altenstadt, a spur of track branched off the main line and connected to the airport, which was no longer in service. A little way out of town, several box cars had been stored there. On a scavenging expedition, these box cars were found to contain German military uniforms, piles of them, many crusted with dried blood, many only in need of a good washing. The material was sound and usable, the color a nondescript green. Mutti brought back huge armloads of them and with her imagination and talent, created outfits for us girls. From pant legs she sewed lightly flared skirts with suspenders like Bavarian lederhosen and jackets to go with them, with slash pockets trimmed with an oak leaf appliqué and red stitching. Both Edel and I had those outfits and were always proud wear them. Later they were handed down to Heidi as well. For herself, Mutti made a slim skirt after dying the fabric a dark blue. Mutti did her sewing at night after we had gone to bed, often working into the early morning hours.

And what of my Oma and Opa who had been left behind at Gärtnerei Podack, their farm in Kalthof? During the January 1945 evacuation, August and Hedwig hitched up their horse and wagon and headed west. They went as far as they could go, without any other transportation or anywhere else to go. They ended up in a German refugee camp. It was a year or more after the war before we were able to locate them through the Red Cross and move them to Altenstadt. When they finally arrived, they were filthy and full of lice – their only clothing had become infested – and these were burned and replaced when they rejoined the rest of the Podack family. We were now a family of nine. I don’t recall where everyone slept, but somehow my parents made it work until Opa and Oma got a small place of their own across the street on the top floor of the building that housed the Post Office.

Happily, and quite remarkably, the entire Podack and Eberhardt families survived the war. And remember, before we were forced to leave Kalthof, the Podack women had bundled up the family’s goods and sent them ahead to Mutti’s sister Marga, who lived somewhere in the Erzgebirge (the Ore Mountains), the natural border between Saxony and Bohemia. Once the political boundaries of the Iron Curtain were established, these possessions ended up in the Eastern bloc. In a dangerous effort, my courageous Mutti and Onkel Heinz traveled through the stretch of no-man’s land that was the border between East and West Germany, patrolled by Russian tanks. They crossed at night into the Eastern bloc, made their way somehow to Marga, and put our belongings on a train to Altenstadt. They then had to cross back to the West the same way they had come. They had no papers, and it was yet another miraculous victory for our families.

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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