With the beginning of June, the time for all the good-byes from my family drew close. We were to leave on the 14th of June by train from Aschaffenburg, where Roland was stationed, so I took my leave a few days earlier in Altenstadt. Happily, there were only hugs and well wishes; with all the great expectations keeping my spirits buoyed I had no tears. I had my suitcase packed, taking only clothes and personal care items, everything else had been packed up by the Army and was presumably well under way.
That suitcase of mine remains with me to this very day, the one that carried a naïve young girl away from her family to a new life in a new land.
Arriving in Bremerhaven we checked in and were assigned a hotel room; the ship was to leave the following day. That morning we had breakfast together, Roland ordered eggs over easy and toast and, since I did not know what those kinds of eggs were, I safely ordered the same. (Poor guy – and I only always had been feeding him bread and jam for his breakfast).
Once we had been taken aboard, we were separated, he with the enlisted men, I with the “dependents.” I was paired with another girl, in a small cabin with bunk beds and a sink. Other shared facilities were down the corridor. I don’t remember much about meals, I automatically followed others with a herd instinct. I do remember the social evenings lead by a preacher. Once the men were off duty for the evening, they were allowed to join their “dependents.” We did the Hokey Pokey: “Put your left foot in, put your left foot out, put your right foot in and you shake it all about”, the bunny hop, and the chicken dance and sat together for a couple of hours. A snack of sandwiches was offered, a slice of cheese between two slices of freshly baked bread, simple but, Oh! That bread was good.
Papa had supplied me with some pills for seasickness, but luckily the seas were friendly, even though while making one’s way through the corridors one learned how to use those “sea legs” to keep one’s balance. The remainder of the ocean crossing was uneventful, though I looked forward to the bread and cheese every night.
As we approached New York Harbor, the level of excitement rose throughout the ship. We should have a chance to see the Statue of Liberty! But I must have followed the wrong herd, I was on the wrong side of the ship and did not see it.
Before being allowed to disembark we were reunited with the men again and given instructions about our lodging for the next couple of days. We were assigned a room on one of the upper floors of a nondescript hotel, its single window looking out over dirty, trash-cluttered rooftops of a waterfront neighborhood, leaving a bad first impression of New York in my mind. After we got settled, Roland took me down to the busy, noisy city streets and found a dingy-looking little hole-in-the-wall place to buy us a hamburger. I suppose that was what he was craving after the chow onboard ship. And for me it was something totally foreign; I devoured it with gusto!
The following day Roland had to go to some Army facility to get his discharge papers and I was to go to Grand Central Station to get our tickets for the train trip to San Antonio, Texas. He had left early that morning and I was taking my time trying to figure out how to best accomplish my task. I had gathered some experience in how to navigate the subway in Paris, so I was confident I’d be able to handle this as well. Once I had figured out which train to take to get to Grand Central Station, I tried to get on the proper platform. I had a good supply of coins to use at the turnstiles. There were no other people around, and try how I may, none of the coins were accepted by the contraption to let me through to the platform. I turned back and wandered around helplessly and was finally approached by a police officer. I tried to explain my predicament and he informed me that I needed tokens. To my inquiry as to where I would get those, he directed me to an office “over there.” Unfortunately, it was past the time of the morning’s rush hour traffic, and this office was closed. The policeman asked me where I was headed, and when I told him he said he’d get off duty in a little while and he would help me. Seeing no other way, I agreed, and he got me through the turnstile and onto the platform. There he offered to accompany me to the train station and then escort me back to the hotel. – Aha! Well, as much as his kindness was appreciated, he would not be compensated for it in that way. I might have been fresh off the boat but fallen off the turnip truck I had not!!
I made a mental note to myself: “Add this experience to the same category with the man who tried to pick you up at the café back in Aschaffenburg. Men are the same everywhere. Even police officers. Be watchful, Katharina, your naivete is showing.”
The passenger train to Texas took several long days and uncomfortable nights in coach, with several stops along the route; we changed trains in St. Louis with a lengthy lay-over, then took the Missouri Pacific on to our destination. I felt like asking “are we there yet?” but I knew we were not even in Texas yet, and when we did get into Texas the endless-seeming distances between cities became longer in proportion to my impatience.
When we finally arrived, Roland’s brother Gerhard picked us up at the station. Getting off the train felt like stepping into a sauna. In no time I felt sweat trickling down the back of my knees and my armpits became saturated. I wondered how I would ever get used to this uncomfortable climate.
Roland’s parents were expecting us. They owned a small house on the Southside of San Antonio, on Kelly Drive, with two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and one bath. My mother-in-law Maria gave us her room, and Anton, my father-in-law, slept on the screen porch. Roland’s little brother Siegfried, who was by then seven years of age, and his mother Maria used the room the males usually shared.
It would take a couple of weeks before my stuff would arrive, and we could begin to live independently. Our independent beginnings were primitive. We rented a small furnished backyard apartment next door to where Roland’s parents lived. It consisted of one room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The shower stall in the bathroom was mildewy, but there was running hot and cold water and a flush toilet, all luxuries compared to my home in Altenstadt, so I really didn’t mind having to brush my teeth at the kitchen sink. The one room had to serve as living room and bedroom, the only furniture was a full-size bed with a mattress with a depression that left you on springs. That was the side I slept on, I put a pillow in the hole and did not complain, nor did I complain about the scorpions that came crawling up through the spaces between the floorboards.
Over the years we graduated from that shack to a duplex apartment and by 1957 we bought a 3‑bedroom house in a new development for $10,300. Little by little I had become more familiar with the American ways, even though we still spoke German at home. I learned to put curlers in my hair, to shave my armpits and legs; to shop at supermarkets where the meat came prepackaged, and the bread was baked in factories. I had to learn to think in inches, feet, and yards, and in solid and liquid ounces. How complicated this system was compared with the metric system in Germany and much of Europe! I transformed myself into a proper American housewife.
I earned my American citizenship in 1959. Now we were reasonably settled, with a fairly secure income and a steady daily routine. I had two young children and struggled at times with the daunting task of being a young mother without a useful support system. Yet, with no financial hardship, routine and a comfortable life brought with it a feeling of complacency.
Roland was working full time and had joined the Army Reserve. He was ambitious to become an officer and took a Reserve Officer’s correspondence course. He was very proud to graduate as Second Lieutenant. However, he spent little time at home, favoring his professional relationships and those with his parents and siblings. They spent time comparing notes on how their lives developed in this new country, while I had my own, lonely list of daily duties that sustained Roland’s presentation as a man of family, a man of integrity.
The stark realization came to me that we had no common interests. In truth, we were living separate lives. He was focused on his success and climbing the social ladder, while I was home alone — a mere housewife — feeling as unimportant as any piece of furniture. I was despondent and felt that Roland was ignoring me and his children – his own nuclear family, in favor of proving his worth to the outside world. This marriage, that began with such high hopes and exciting intentions, slowly died from neglect and a failure to be able to communicate constructively.
Thinking back about all this I have concluded that I was lacking principles. I had no principles of how much I could accept and tolerate. Naively I thought my tolerance and patience would be endless. I did not set any limits, no boundaries. I was a follower and an enabler and have myself to blame for not speaking up. This is not a course I would advise for any young woman setting out on her path in life, wherever it may lead her.
Certainly, things might not have been so damaging if I had spoken up, instead of keeping it inside where it festered, if I had let my husband know what hurt or offended me instead of tolerating it quietly. It has occurred to me that certain “wisdoms” adults implant into a young mind can be very detrimental to a developing character. As much as I loved my Omi Marie Eberhardt, she taught me early that “speaking is silver, but being quiet is gold.” I think I kind of lived by that. I kept quiet when I should have talked.
Many times, my Mutti had told me I take after her mother-in-law, my Oma Hedwig Podack. Those two women just never got along, so maybe that’s why I always felt my own mother didn’t like me all that much. Yet we felt closest while we sewed and prepared my wardrobe for travel; and if you recall, my Mutti Nora and Oma Hedwig seemed to have been closest when Mutti sewed for her mother-in-law. And as I missed my family, living in America and cut off from them, albeit by my own choice, I came to realize how much in me was part of my Oma — the melancholy that was said to be a trait of East Prussians, the resignation into one’s fate, if by one’s own choice or caused by circumstances – and a deep pain came to live inside me.
I wondered then as I do now, how my life would have turned out differently had it not been for the war. How it would have been to grow up in Kalthof on Gärtnerei Podack, where my character had best been molded.
I think the hard years after the war in Altenstadt, my having to care for the two little siblings during the Waschküche time, being responsible for them at age 10, and the following years watching the struggle of my parents in building a livelihood made me grow up faster in many ways, feeling ready at an earlier age to take on life‘s difficulties. I am not saying that I was mature enough to do it, but I felt that I was ready to fly the crowded coop with sufficient life skills.
Surely my immaturity was in the field of human relationships, in the inability to express and assert myself, in not setting some moral code for myself. I was self-aware enough to know that my moral values had suffered a lot due to the events of war, and what I learned afterwards of the unbelievable atrocities that had been committed. What came to live inside me was the notion that life did not seem to have much value, so why not follow your feelings unrestrained? Making firm plans for one’s life was useless. Things will happen that are out of your control anyway.
Maybe it was this feeling of helplessness, akin to desperation, that drove me to the decisions I made about leaving everything familiar behind and jumping into the unknown. Because, really, that‘s what it amounted to.
Now I am 88 years old and look back on 68 “adventurous” years lived in the United States, sharing this part of my early story with those who may find some value in it. Who are you?
- Perhaps you are a person of a certain age, who can relate to my circumstances.
- Perhaps you are a young woman who has a curiosity about those who came before you.
- Perhaps you are girl with not much else to do but scroll through internet blogs.
- And perhaps you are someone who feels he or she has realized their own independence, making decisions on their own; of their own free will.
But the questions for each are these:
- Have you secured herself in your own agency?
- Are you actively taking control of your life by cutting through all the noise, finding emotional and physical balance, thinking more clearly, and advocating for yourself?
- Are you quite sure you are not a passive character in the story of your own life?
I’d love to know.
Feel free to leave your comments; I have shared my story – now you can share some of yours.
Live a daring life, wisely.