Katharina’s Story – Chapter 23: Katharina Gets Married

When Roland’s family emigrated to the United States it had seemed improbable, if not impossible to me, that he would ever come back for me. But here he was, and I was still in school with a year to go to graduation in the spring of 1955.

After he had shown up so surprisingly at our door that balmy winter day last year things developed rather quickly. There was tremendous chemistry between Roland and me, and I was easily led, eager to please him. I truly believed to be in love, or what I thought love was. The way plans between Roland and me had ripened it seemed a foregone conclusion that we would marry.

Truly I was too immature to get married. It was an easy way out of my parents’ house, something I desperately wanted. Besides, I had no idea of what to do with myself after graduation. Roland wanted me and the adventure of “going to America” was irresistible.  

It became clear to my parents that I was determined to go back with him to America at the end of his tour of duty in Germany if it could at all be made possible. This decision on my part was in fact the reason why the trip to Italy had been advanced for the summer of 1954, for my benefit — since I would likely not be here anymore the following summer — after graduation.

I do not remember that Roland proposed, which you would think is an occasion that would remain in my mind. I am not certain he ever asked my parents for their consent, which was legally required, since at age 20 I would not be of legal age until the end of 1955 when I would turn 21. They could easily have withheld their permission and thereby made it impossible for me to leave with him. It must have been a difficult decision for my parents to go along with my wishes, as they did not approve of Roland for me.

Understandably I had lost all interest and ambition at school. I worked just hard enough to make sure I would graduate. My thoughts were always elsewhere, dreaming of the greatest adventure of my young life. I began to imitate the American women I saw in magazines, always with perfect make-up and coiffed hair, beautiful clothes. I started smoking on the sly — Roland supplied the cigarettes. One time at school while I was supposed to be guarding our classroom during recess, I lit up a cigarette, sitting on the broad red sandstone sill of an open window, blowing the smoke outside. Unfortunately, one of the teachers was passing on the sidewalk below and noticed the smoke billowing out into the blue sky. I was in trouble. My parents were notified, and I might have been expelled had it not been so close to graduation.

I practiced applying lipstick, spending time looking at myself in the mirror, wanting to become more American-looking. My little 11-year-old brother Rudi hated what I was doing and showed his disgust by throwing my lipstick over the wall which bordered the back of our garden. I could have strangled him.

We got married March 9, 1955, in a civil ceremony at the Justice of the Peace in Büdingen, several weeks before I graduated in April, so as it was, I finished school as a married woman. When the Dean handed out the diplomas, he called Hardy and me up at the same time, calling for “Hardy Podack und Katharina,” without using my married name, because there was no such name on the school records.

My parents gave a dinner reception and dance in a hall in Büdingen. Roland’s sister Gertrude, who had not emigrated to America, was married, and living nearby in Düdelsheim.  She was there – the only one from his side of the family – both my grandparents were there, and all my classmates had been invited.

I was now the wife of an American citizen, so with the marriage license in hand Roland started the process of getting his wife to America with him when his tour of duty came to an end. I’m not sure of what restrictions might have been in place at the time for American enlisted men to return home with their foreign wives, as America’s War Brides Act had expired in 1948. The red tape started; I had no copy of my birth certificate; it had been destroyed during the bombing and siege of Königsberg.

I was required to obtain several affidavits from relatives to verify my place and date of birth, but on all official documents it still only stated: documentation not available. My Papa underwent a background check and was cleared. There were questionnaires to be filled out. All this and more to get a visa. I had to go to some part of the American Embassy in Frankfurt to get a physical. I stood in line with several other women, bared to the waist, waiting for my turn to be examined and receive the necessary vaccinations. We moved along like on a conveyer belt. No privacy here!

After having been approved and found acceptable by the authorities, preparations began at home. Mutti wanted to sew an entire wardrobe for me, mostly summer things for the Texas climate. We browsed through patterns and went shopping for materials and we sewed and fitted and talked and decided, and to me this was a time when Mutti and I were closest. Who can think about school with all this going on?! But I kept going back to school as usual, prepared for all the final written exams and hoped I would not get any oral tests in front of the whole Collegium. I was not that lucky. I was questioned in Chemistry and the question was: “Tell me about the chemical process that takes place when you put your clothes into your new washing machine in America.” I drew a blank and got a “D” in Chemistry. What did I know about washing machines? We did our laundry by hand, boiled things in the big kettle in the cellar in Altenstadt.

High School Graduation, Büdingen – 1955. Wolfgang Ernst Gymnasium.
Katharina (20 years old) is in the front row, second from right. Hardy is in the second row, first on left.

I was to have a dowry, 2,000 Marks in cash (exchange rate at that time four Marks to one dollar, that made it $500) and an equal amount in household goods, which the Army would pack and ship. Mutti and I went shopping in Frankfurt. I picked out a pattern for a silver plate cutlery set: a set of dinner knives, forks, soup spoons, breakfast knives and forks, teaspoons and dessert forks, service for eight. China: a breakfast set of plates cups and saucers, a serving plate in the same pattern, service for four; a dinner set of plates, soup bowls, cups and saucers, coffeepot and teapot, sugar and jam bowls, a cream pitcher, serving bowls, platters and a soup tureen, wine glasses, service for eight, one frying pan, a meat cleaver. And Mutti insisted on getting me a tiny set of espresso dishes with matching tiny spoons and plates for petit fours, table linens and vases. All society stuff, nothing like we were used to in this primitive old house.

I think Mutti bought me all the things she would have liked to have if she had had a proper place to entertain. I went along obediently; I had no idea what it takes to outfit a household. We bought down filled comforters, pillows, sheets and duvets, wool blankets. Papa ordered some crates built which turned out to be unnecessary. The American movers had their own boxes. They came one day and packed everything up and hauled it off to be shipped to Kelly Drive in San Antonio, Texas, where Roland’s parents lived.

Meanwhile Roland had rented a room for us off Base in Aschaffenburg. A divorced man had lived in this house with his mother and after her death, he rented her old room to us. For the remaining weeks before our ocean voyage, we lived there. We both slept in the single bed; I kept bread, butter and jam on a shelf in the old-fashioned wardrobe to have for breakfast before Roland left at 6 am for the Army Base, then I crawled back in bed and caught up on sleep which always eluded me in the cramped closeness of the old bedstead. It seemed Roland had no trouble getting his ZZs.

During the day I had the use of the rest of the main floor of the house and of the kitchen. Our landlord used the rooms upstairs and we seldom saw him.

Most grocery purchases I did at the local stores which were familiar to me, but I was soon introduced to the military’s PX and the Commissary. What a labyrinth that turned out to be. I had gotten cigarettes from the PX and wanted to buy coffee at the Commissary for Mutti. I walked the aisles for miles before I finally found it. The way I was used to shopping was – I went into the store and asked at the counter what I wanted, and it was set onto the counter in front of me. So easy!

The days grew long for me; I did some reading, washed my things in the bathtub and hung them to dry wherever I found some room. I even had the ambition to wash and iron Roland’s uniform, doing that in the bathtub by hand as well. I must have been out of my mind! It never turned out the way he had always had it done before, with all the creases in the proper places.

When that still left plenty of idle time, I started exploring my new surroundings. I found a park and fed the ducks. Suddenly feeling very grown-up and independent, I stopped at a cafe one afternoon and ordered a Coke-and-Cognac. I was minding my own business when soon I was approached by a middle-aged man. I told him proudly I was married, but that did not seem to discourage him. A girl by herself seemed to be a quick target for guys; I was gathering some “real life” experience! Indignant, I got up from my table, leaving my drink behind.

Not “April in Paris,” but it was May in Paris for our short honeymoon, for just a weekend. Just as Roland had gotten all the paperwork started for my visa and secured the room for us in Aschaffenburg, so had he arranged for these few days in Paris without my knowledge. I suppose there were hotels contracted specifically for American GIs, since the way they normally paid for anything was with their Allied Military Currency; the same was surely true for nightclubs.

On a Friday night we took the train to Paris. It was a steam train and, as I recall, it took all night to get there. We were in a sleeping car with curtained-off bunks. Really close quarters to dress or undress in! It was kind of fun to do that on top of and around each other, as anything new and unfamiliar can be embarrassing and at the same time hilarious for two people getting used to each other’s ways. I think maybe we laugh to hide our embarrassment.

The hotel room had a full-size American style bed in it. That was something new for me as well, and I could see that the single size sheets, blankets, and comforters that were in my trousseau and on their way to Texas were the wrong thing. In Germany a marriage bed is basically two twin-size beds in a common frame, but with individual bedclothes for each partner.

The easiest way to get around in Paris was to use the “Metro”—the subway system — and, of course, doing a lot of walking. We visited the charming Parisian village of Montmartre, and the Roman Catholic Basilica of Sacré Coeur; we stood before the Eiffel Tower. Looking up, seeing the clouds moving behind its steeple made one feel as if one was falling over backwards. The elevator to the top was closed and we did not think it was worth climbing 674 steps to just go part way. We strolled along the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, then had a wonderful dinner and went to a Paris nightclub! This was a fantasyland of new impressions!

Arc de Triomphe

In 1955 there were no skyscrapers yet; all European cities had a decidedly antique flavor, with evidence of the history of many centuries, particularly the culture-rich Middle Ages. The next day was taken up totally with a visit to the Palace of Versailles, about 19 kilometers west of Paris. Its beginnings go back to 1623 as a hunting lodge King Louis XIII had built. The opulence and luxury of what it had become, the sheer size of the grounds, the manicured gardens, the fountains and statues, everything was mind boggling!

Palace of Versailles

Finally, we returned to Paris, to finish the day with a walk along the banks of the Seine, where many artists were showing their paintings. What a beautiful time for a young bride, 20 years of age!

We left Germany on June 15, 1955, out of Bremerhaven, on the USNS Geiger. On the ship’s passenger manifest, I was listed in a separate section, labeled as “alien.” We arrived in New York on June 24.

I felt I would prove myself as a woman with intention, making my mark in a new land.

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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