Katharina’s Story: Chapter 13 — Our Life in West Germany after the War

The Milk Wagon. Photo credit: Büdingen – Bilder Erzählen aus der Vergangenheit, compiled by Hans-Velten Heuson

1945:  The German government had collapsed, and the occupying forces ruled. It is too complicated to try to figure out how things kept going at all; people just carried on the best way they knew how. Cows still needed to be milked and the milk needed to be processed. Fields still needed to be plowed and planted and chickens kept laying eggs. Butchers needed to butcher, and bakers needed to bake bread. In the rural areas life kept going as it always had.

In Altenstadt, the dairy was next door to the house we lived in, and we were usually awakened by its early clatter. Milk was delivered early every morning from anyone who had enough to sell. Small farmers brought their twenty-liter cans of milk in carts drawn by goats; others in horse-drawn wagons. The dairy store in town sold milk by the liter, also butter and Quark, a product like cottage cheese, except creamier and with no curds — more a soft cream cheese consistency.

Altenstadt had a mill, which milled the grain the farmers grew; the bakers used the flour the miller milled to bake their bread. Thinking back, it was a fairly independent and self-contained local economy. Every household had a garden to grow their vegetables and berries. Local apple trees produced abundantly. In the woods the beech trees grew nuts which we gathered, the wild raspberries yielded enough to  make concentrated juice, wild strawberries grew in sunny clearings and with Papa’s knowledge of mushrooms, we often gathered plenty for dinner.

Oma and Opa, housed across the street from us in the upper floor of the Post Office building, had their own kitchen facilities and even a flush toilet in the hall! They spent many hours at our house, though, helping out. Oma made our beds after we had left for school, helped on wash days with the laundry, darned socks and cleaned. Opa planted the garden and started raising rabbits, and some chickens for eggs. Once or twice, he was even able to feed out a pig and have it custom butchered right at our house.  

At harvest time both Oma and Opa went into the fields and gleaned wheat and rye, threshed and winnowed it, and took it to the mill in exchange for milled flour. They gathered potatoes that had been left behind in the fields after harvest. Opa leased a stretch of roadside grass from the mayor —  the Bürgermeister — and cut the grass for the rabbits. He also bid on the harvest right of community-owned plum trees that grew around the dump and picked plums for canning and jam.

Jam was cooked in big batches from a local recipe mixing plums and sugar beets. The beets were scrubbed and chopped, and the plums pitted. Those ingredients, in proper proportions, were put in the big copper kettle in the Waschkueche. A fire was lit underneath, and the mixture cooked and boiled down until thick. This usually took something like twelve hours with frequent stirring with a long-handled wooden paddle. Toward the last, the jam had to be stirred constantly to keep it from sticking. We made the best jam ever! It was so delicious on a thick slab of fresh country rye bread. Life was not easy, but simple and healthy. The old ways of doing things proved worthy of the labor it took to get things done. Our survival was made much easier out in the country than it had been anywhere in the city.

In Königsberg, Opa had been an important man in the agricultural community, always modest, working alongside his people, a fair boss and himself hard-working. He had been rich by any man’s standard, and well-respected by the people who worked for him, but I never heard him complain about his fate, having to leave a lifetime’s accomplishments behind.

1946: School had been interrupted for a year, but in 1946, schools were opened again. In all, I attended the fourth grade in five different schools! Two schools in Königsberg, and in Austria – one in Seefeld, and one in Oberleutasch. Finally, Hardy and I finished the fourth grade in Altenstadt. The following school year we would be going to Büdingen, attending the Gymnasium, which, in the German education system, is the most advanced and highest of the three types of German secondary schools.

We both took and passed the entry exam and were now in the Sexta, the fifth year of schooling. It was important for me to remember that, during the National Socialism era, it became virtually impossible for girls to study at a Gymnasium. According to Hitler’s idea, the education of girls should be conditioned only by the task of motherhood. But, after the war, German education was reformed with the introduction of new systems, content, aims, and ethos. The Gymnasium was retained, along with vocational and general schools.

The Altenstadt school

1947:  The school house in Büdingen was a solid three-story sandstone building, more than 300 years old. It had been an all-boys school until after World War I. The Turnhalle (in English: Gymnasium) – the actual space for physical exercise, built after girls were admitted here for higher education, was a detached building equipped with separate dressing rooms for boys and girls. There were some restrooms inside the main building for teachers only; students used an outside structure on the school yard. It had flush toilets, but it was dark, filthy, and reeking of urine. There was no toilet paper, and there was no sink to wash hands. I always avoided having to use it, which was not too difficult since we seldom had anything to drink during school hours.

The restrooms at the train station were even more appalling. 

Lessons started at 9:00 a.m. Getting to school was complicated. It involved getting up before 6:00 in the morning to catch the train at 6:05. Jump out of bed, get into your clothes, quick trip to the outhouse, grab a slice of bread with margarine and jam, and if you hear the train whistle from the  next village, you better run all the way to the station. Train schedules were set for commuting adults, not school kids. We had to change trains in Stockheim and had a lay-over before the connecting train arrived. From the station in Büdingen we had a 15-minute walk to the Gymnasium. One of the classrooms would have been unlocked to give the early arrivals a place to stay warm.  Usually, we had more than an hour before classes began. It was a noisy roomful of rowdy unsupervised kids; only in later years did we use the time to finish homework or do some last minute brushing up for a test.  

There were four other girls from Altenstadt in our class. I was a scrawny eleven-year-old tomboy in pigtails, the other girls were much more girlish, better dressed and sure of themselves. They formed friendships, two by two: Helga and Regina; Edith and Alice. I was the fifth wheel, sort of a spare tire, with a place only when one of the others was missing. So I fell in with  the boys on the train, rowdy and chasing around, until they started grabbing under my skirt.  

School supplies were scarce. There were no notebooks. We used envelopes from mailed letters, opened  them up and wrote on the inside. We used brown wrapping paper, and backsides of letters that had any space left. School books had to be shared. We learned English from the very beginning. The  curriculum was fixed. There were no elective subjects. Two periods of Biology per week,  two periods of Geography a week, one period of Religion a week, one period of Physical Education weekly. The  rest was divided into Math, German (grammar and/or literature), English, and Physics. We went to school six days a week.

During this time the Americans provided additional nutrition for school children. Once or twice a week large milk cans of soup (cans like the ones the farmers used to bring their milk to the dairy)  or cases of containers with chocolate milk were delivered by the American soldiers to the grade school on the next street, and students from our school were sent to get what was meant for us. We carried an enameled mug in our Ranzen (back-pack) for that purpose. Other than what the Americans brought, we had a Stulle, wrapped in newspaper — two pieces of bread with margarine or lard and once in a while, a slice of smoked sausage, if Papa had brought some home from a patient in lieu of payment. Most of his patients were small farmers, or at least raised a pig on their land for slaughter. That was the way of country folk.  

Our train did not leave until at least an hour after school let out. The Americans had arranged for a place for youth to spend time off the street. They called it Jugend Klub (Youth Club). There was ping-pong! (Which the boys usually grabbed  first.) And it was there that we were introduced to Monopoly, the English version, but we hardly ever could finish a game before it was time to head for the train station. Another novel item was  something that was served at the concession at the station in Büdingen, a beverage called Melonensaft (melon juice). In America, I have never tasted it again. Cantaloupe seemed to have been the overwhelming flavor.

The train trip back home was the same as in the morning: with a lay-over in Stockheim. It was around two thirty in the afternoon before we got back to Altenstadt and home; and our dinner — which at our house was the main meal of the day — would be found on the back of the wood cook stove, barely still warm. It consisted mostly of boiled potatoes and gravy. Hardy always piled his plate high with potatoes; I abhorred the taste of the too cold potatoes, and ate only as much as it took to kill my hunger.

Doing homework took the rest of the afternoon, as we had to go around and share schoolbooks with the other kids from the village. During these first years we had to practically memorize what was taught at lessons, not having enough paper to take notes, and having to deal with the shortage of books.  

We practiced conjugating verbs: I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they; I am; you are; he/she/it is; we are; you are; they are. To go, went, gone; to sleep, slept, slept.

Gradually things improved. Our teachers had been scraped up from what was left alive after  the war, no matter how poor their qualifications were. For example, my German grammar teacher was an old man with some sort of respiratory ailment, always coughing up phlegm and spitting it into a handkerchief, his breath sickening me when he leaned over my shoulder to watch how I  was “dissecting” a sentence into its grammatical parts and pieces.

The Physics teacher spent most of the time talking about his car, a Citroen. Our Social Science teacher was a middle-aged lady; she carried her handkerchief in a little crocheted bag attached to the belt she always wore and when she blew her nose the reamed out each large nostril thoroughly before neatly folding up the kerchief to put back into her crocheted bag.  

As a growing girl, I became more conscious of our hygiene – or the lack of it — during these war-torn times. When we lived in Königsberg, and in Allenstein, in the early war days – before we became refugees — there was always indoor plumbing (except at the summer beach house on the Baltic Sea). It was customary that we took a bath on Saturdays. In Kalthof, with August and Hedwig Podack, I remember a flow-through gas water heater mounted on the wall above the large cast-iron enameled tub. At bath time the heat of the bath water was tested with a floating thermometer in the shape of a crocodile – and Mutti always added some lovely pine-smelling salts.

But here in Altenstadt we have cold water only, and the outhouse is across the courtyard. At night a bucket is set up in one corner on the upstairs landing for our use. It is emptied at the outhouse in the morning.

We wear our underwear, socks or stockings and outerwear for a whole week without changing. We bathe once a week in a tin tub using water heated in the big built-in copper kettle in the Waschkueche in the cellar. The same kettle is used for boiling sheets and other whites on laundry day, for boiling sausage on butcher day, for cooking jam from sugar beets and prune plums. Our hair is washed once a month. We brush our teeth at night at the kitchen sink with baking soda.

1948: As I started puberty, I became very self-conscious of underarm wetness and odor. Unfortunately, I had a problem with underarm wetness — to the point that I kept my arms close to me so the stains would not show as much. Our sweaters were knitted from wool, so mine became like felt in the armpits from sweat.

Katharina is in the back row, 5th from the right. Her brother Hardy is in the second row, 2nd from the left.

Once there was a school concert, given by the students and I was part of it with the choir. The daughter of the Decan (the Dean) in Büdingen invited me to stay that night with her after the performance. She had a room of her own upstairs, and we shared the big bed. Before bed I watched her wash herself using a large porcelain bowl, pouring water from a matching pitcher. After she finished, she invited me to do the same. It felt wonderful, going to bed fresh and feeling clean. 

Back home in Altenstadt I decided I would do that in the kitchen every evening from then on. I used the old chipped enameled bowl that was used for washing dishes: baring my top, washing face, neck, underarms, “privates” and feet. After cleaning myself I would wash my panties as well and spread them out to dry. Sometimes they had not dried completely by morning, but I wore them anyway.

Thinking back, I wonder why Mutti had never seen to it that we kept ourselves cleaner, even in our primitive situation. I had to learn it from a classmate. Mutti had always scoffed at her sister’s practice of bathing the children every evening, saying they just wash all the oil out of their skin!

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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