Katharina’s Story: Chapter 14-First Kiss

1948 brought an important change: the Währungsreform, the currency reform. The Reichsmark, which had been the currency during Hitler’s time until now was declared valueless and replaced with the Bundesmark, or the Deutsche Mark. This meant that any cash one had was worthless, savings accounts were inaccessible, and this money might (at some unknown time in the future) be apportioned back to you at a much-reduced percentage.

For now, every German citizen – every man, woman, and child — received the same amount of new currency as a start-up, about 40 Marks.

Curiously this was something that reignited the animosity between my Mutti and my Oma Hedwig Podack. Since arriving in Altenstadt, Oma and Opa had relied totally on the financial support by my parents, as slim as that was at the time and as thin as that stretched our immediate family’s resources. Now Nora discovered that Oma had sewn 3,000 Reichsmark into her corset before leaving Königsberg and never took out a Pfennig to help with living expenses in Altenstadt.

Understandably, Nora was outraged over this selfish hoarding and miserliness – and now the money was worthless!

The Reichsmark was the Germany currency used from 1924 to 1948
The Deutsche Mark was put into circulation in 1948, after the Währungsreform, until the Euro came out

I am attending Wolfgang-Ernst Gymnasium with Hardy. As paper became more available for our schooling, we were able to buy Hefte. We did not use notebooks or binders — Hefte were like little booklets, about the size of a half sheet of standard sized paper. Imagine about twenty sheets of standard sized paper stacked, folded in half, stapled in the center, with a card stock cover. There were lined Hefte for Writing and graph paper Hefte for Math. On the cover was a table for your subjects. Now we could take notes in class, write down our list of spelling words for English, get homework assignments for Math. More schoolbooks were distributed, and learning became easier; we could review our lessons in the books.

Our commute did not change much. The train schedule only ever varied by little more than a few minutes. On the first day of every month, we had to get our new pass for the current month. It was made of cardboard with a place for our name and was of a size that fit into a luggage tag that we attached to our Ranzen. If one of the other kids had forgotten to get their pass in time one of us would pass ours on down the line when the conductor came.

One day, on the way home from school, I had done just that for a kid down the line. Once I retrieved my pass, I still had it in my hand while I leaned out an open window. The wind snatched it away, and I saw it sailing to the ground. This happened just after we had gotten on the train in Büdingen. I got off at the next station, started walking back along the track and was lucky enough to find it. What misery it would have been to have to tell my parents they needed to shell out money for a new pass because we were “cheating” the conductor, and because of my negligence. I walked the remaining twelve kilometers of road, which is much shorter than the route the train had to take to Stockheim, where we transferred to the train to Altenstadt. Consequently, I arrived home not much later than Hardy, who had remained on the train. Thankfully, I avoided having to confess the whole thing.

Every once in a while, we missed the early train and then, only if we had a test in the first class of the day, would Papa drive us to school. Otherwise, we had to take the next scheduled train which got us to school in time for the third period.

I am almost fourteen years old; this means that I will soon have my Confirmation in the Lutheran Church. No-one in the family were steady churchgoers, except Opa, my grandfather Podack. But I had been baptized and now it was going to be time for my Confirmation. Along with all the village kids of the same age I had to attend weekly classes our Pastor led.

We were taught lessons from the Bible, a book I only remembered from the time I read out loud the Christmas Story that first holiday season we celebrated in this house. I found some of the stories from the Old Testament fascinating: how the first two humans had to leave Paradise; Lott’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt; Moses parting the Red Sea so that he could lead his people out of Egypt; the Great Flood when it rained forty days and forty nights and how Noah had built the Ark and saved all the animals. This was better than anything we were taught at school in Büdingen! And then the New Testament: About miracles of thousands of people being fed with a few loaves of bread, water being turned into wine, the blind being made to see, a dead man being brought back to life. Such amazing stories, and so hard to believe that they could have been true. I decided they were more like fairy tales. We had to memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and several Psalms.

I met and got friendly with some of the local girls. One of them was Ilse Hochstadt who lived upstairs above the Post Office, the building across the street from us; her father was the Postmaster. Sometimes she asked me to come over – when her mother was out and her father on duty downstairs – and she would play boyfriend and girlfriend with me. We would lie on the floor, sometimes she was on top of me, sometimes I on top of her. We had all our clothes on and did nothing other than feeling the weight of the other one on top and hugging each other. This would be my first introduction to sex. Ilse was a little more developed than I. I was still flat as a board and tomboyish. Maybe that was what she liked about me.

In the following Spring when the date for the Confirmation ceremonies had been set and was getting close, the class would get together at someone’s house and make decorations for the church: things like garlands braided from vines of ivy and paper flowers made from colorful crepe paper. These get-togethers would always take place in the evening, after supper. That was the only time after school hours and the day’s chores that some of the youngsters had a bit of leisure, and the adults had time to supervise. After the decorations had been made there was always time for some fun, for social games like “post office” and “spin the bottle”. Boys, of course, were there as well, and that was the most fun — they looked much more “manly” than the boys in school. I’m sure that was because they had to share in the farm work and were more physically developed than the boys in my Büdingen classroom.

Oh, the boys! I think I began to see them much differently than the rowdy bunch I had horsed around with on the train in the earlier school years – and differently than I saw my brother. One night – it was dark already – after having finished the decorations and played the games, I got up to go home. As always, I would take a shortcut through the old cemetery that surrounded the church and come out on the next street, using a gate in the ivy-covered stone wall. One of the boys, Kurt Finkernagel, lived right next to the church. This night we happened to start to walk together, but instead of stopping at his house he continued to walk with me through the cemetery, even through the gate, and down the street with me a little way. Then he stopped. I halted as well, waiting for him to turn and go home. Neither one of us spoke. We were just standing there, close to the wall in the shadows the streetlamp did not reach. It seemed like a long time, probably the longest minute in my young life. I felt his strong arms pull me close. Then he kissed me on the mouth! Lightening went through me. He let go of me, turned, and walked away. I was stunned, shaken, wild thoughts racing through my mind. My heart beating in my throat. What had just happened? What does it mean? I did not know, but I was smitten. I had been going to church every Sunday since starting the Bible lessons. But now things were different.

Kurt was the bell ringer on Sundays, I had watched him several times before as he pulled on the thick rope that was tied to the bell in the steeple. He would give it a powerful pull, let the rope run through his hands as the heavy bell swung, then grab it again as high as he could reach and give it another pull, with a rhythmic motion synchronized with the deep tones of the bell. I had watched him before, but now it seemed different, a magical dance with the rope, graceful but strong. During the service I would search for his eyes, just a look, a secret glance. He was helping the organist by pumping the bellows, his body going up and down while working the big pedals, up and down as if he were on a ship on the high seas. He never saw me, he never walked with me again. My first crush had crushed me. I still remember his arms; I remember this first innocent kiss. It seemed to mean nothing to him, but it left me with an inner uproar that I could not explain. I barely remember the ceremony or taking the first Holy Communion.

After my Confirmation, a celebration was held at our house. Mutti had bought a suckling pig from Tante Dori and roasted it. The whole family, my grandparents Podack and Omi Eberhardt, were gathered for the meal. And I got a very unexpected gift, a girl’s bicycle.

I had also another gift –feeling just a little bit more grown up, just a tiny step closer to adulthood. A boy had wanted to kiss me. My life would never be the same; I was not the same girl I used to be.

In this time, I am learning to think for myself. I am no longer a child, and life is coming at me in a whirlwind of young adolescence. The irony of having my first kiss, and of the boyfriend/girlfriend game played with Ilse, happening now – when I was meant to be studying the Bible, to confirm my faith in God, was not lost on me. In fact, it confused me, and I ruminated on the stories of the Hand of God. This New Testament God, said to be merciful and forgiving, was no different from the God in the Old Testament, vengeful and destructive. No… I did not believe in God. Humans committed all the unspeakable brutalities of war without the help of some “divine higher power.”

I found that as for God, religion, and church in general, I merely went through the motions because that‘s what was expected of me. What would become of my life would have nothing to do with the Hand of God. It would have to do with Katharina herself. I had been kissed once by Kurt and it had left an uproar in my insides, which I later tried to recapture.

When I started school in Büdingen, together with four other girls from there, I began to compare myself to them — my body, my hair, my clothes, my behavior — and found myself lacking in everything. I was boyish, wild, skinny and shapeless, while the others showed beginnings of female contours. I wore pigtails, while the others had full, curly hair or wore their hair fashionably braided. They buddied up two by two: Edith and Alice, Helga and Regina. I sort of vacillated from one set of two to the other, not fitting here nor there.

Not ever having had a girlfriend in Königsberg, just my brother from very early on, I tended to fit in better with boys, roughhousing in the early grades, later trying to impress them intellectually in class and in sports, as well as joking with them. This earned me, at least from one boy, the distinction of being a Nutte, or “floozie.” This word he used freely, yelled it at me within earshot of the whole class. Hurtful or not, I shed it like a duck sheds water. In the same way, I cannot say that I was ever very sensitive to others’ feelings, I was too self-involved. I prided myself of having a thick skin, thought that was a good thing, not letting the hurts sting too badly. How did I grow this thick skin? The feeling of being left out of friendships, or the inability to forge friendships – I had superficial connections with other classmates later, they never went deep, they came and passed and left no emotional trace – convincing myself that I am just fine by myself, I like it that way… and I did.

I sought solitude in the woods, in nature, when the mood at home was too oppressing. I had begun to build a wall around my soft vulnerable core, and this in turn made me less sensitive to the feelings of others. I refused to admit to myself that I needed tenderness, I was tough, I demonstrated it to some of my teachers with smart, even slightly impudent remarks. Fritz Lau, a teacher and friend of the family, called me “impudent in a nice way.”

But I did need some sort of validation that I was at least worth a look or even a second look. Kurt’s kiss had left me wondering if it had been spontaneous, or perhaps it was a bet among the village guys if he could steal a kiss from the doctor’s daughter, and now maybe I had, behind my back the reputation of a Nutte here too. I had begun to shape up ever so slowly. When taking the train to Büdingen during the winter months I used the opportunity – more instinctively than intentionally – to try to catch the eye of a guy, whose looks appealed to me. It was a safe way to do this; they were strangers, and it gave me a thrill when they looked back.

I was provided no guidelines, no dating ethic, if you want to call it that, and besides, there was little opportunity to date in Altenstadt. Only once had my mother cautioned me: “don’t ever enter a man’s room.” Then in school our music and art teacher, a single man, for whom I had a schoolgirl crush, wanted to paint my portrait and my parents allowed it. I was invited to his room on several different occasions. I was given the finished painting and took it home to show. It was hung on the wall of my parents’ bedroom.

Nothing had happened in the teacher’s room, except that I felt very special having been singled out for the painting. But who knows, could be I had not been the only one. In any case, it negated my mother’s warning. I had entered a man’s room alone.

It was frustrating being in search of something, not knowing what the “something” is, and not knowing how or where to find it. I think every girl experiences this at some time, not in the same way or manner, but probably with the same curiosity, anticipation, and apprehension. Beginning with the first recognition of a strangely longing sensation in a girl’s body, growing into womanhood, come thoughts and questions about love and sex. How does it happen that the eyes of a boy, resting more than casually on me, – suddenly noticed, – cause a gentle uproar in my belly? And what is the meaning of it?

And then came dance lessons in Altenstadt the year I turned sixteen, and a 24-year-old man paid attention to me.

Yes, what would happen to Katharina would have to do with Katharina herself.

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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