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!

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.

Katharina’s Story – Chapter 11: The Allied Occupation

The fact that the Podack family had arrived intact in Austria after leaving our comfortable life at Opa’s farm in Kalthof, arrests my attention to this very day. The credit for our survival goes largely to my mother, Nora Podack, who was brave enough and tenacious enough to take the risks necessary for our survival. From our bombed-out apartment in Königsberg, she forced her way past the Luftschutzwart to bring her children to relative safety, going back into the fray to secure some of our family’s goods. She was the one who listened, illegally and at her peril, to the BBC radio station to understand the real nature of the coming dangers. Nazi administrators and party officials had downplayed the Russian advance, while threatening to shoot anyone who tried to make plans for their own getaways. Thus, they left hundreds of thousands of defenseless ethnic Germans in the path of the bloodthirsty Red Army. But my Mutti was the one who sent our family’s belongings ahead to her sister’s home in Saxony, well before evacuation was allowed. And on the day we escaped East Prussia, she and my Opa bribed officials at the train station with cigarettes from Greece, to secure our passage on that very last train to ever leave Königsberg in January 1945.

During the Soviet Danzig Offensive Operation, Danzig fell on March 28, 1945, after which the remnants of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s 2nd Army withdrew to the delta of the River Vistula to the northeast of the city. According to Soviet claims, in the Battle of Danzig the Germans lost 39,000 men killed and 10,000 taken prisoner.

The Frisches Haff (the Vistula Lagoon) was the main port for refugees fleeing to the west from the Soviet advance into and through East Prussia. Evacuation of civilians and military personnel from the delta of the River Vistula and from the Hel Peninsula continued until May 10, 1945. Prior to the fall of Danzig in March, while Poland was still under German control, my Omi Marie Eberhardt fled Königsberg by walking across the frozen Frisches Haff to the Vistula Spit. Mingled with retreating Wehrmacht units, and without any camouflage or shelter, the refugees were attacked as the route was being shelled by the Allies. This resulted in weakening and breaking of the ice, causing wagons and carts, with their horses, and people to fall through the bomb-riddled ice covering the brackish water. Many perished on that crossing.

Omi was 59 years old, and traveled with her son, my Onkle Heinz. Heinz had been conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the Reich Labor Service. He was able to evacuate, unlike Opa Karl, who – at the behest of the Nazi Regime — must remain in Königsberg to continue his duties as Stadt Amtsmann, in charge of water works, drainage, and sewer systems. Some history is lost to me; it is possible that my Tante Toni and her daughter Winnie traveled with them on this crossing. I do not know this; however, they ultimately settled in Frankfurt. Heinz and Marie Eberhardt made their way to Austria and joined us in Leutasch.

It is springtime now in 1945. Often, I sit in the sunshine on the bench in front of the Weiβes Röβl, five knitting needles busy in my hands knitting socks from yarn we had unraveled from old underskirts the ladies in the Rote Erde in Seefeld had given us. The Hohe Munde, a mountain seemingly at the end of our valley in Leutasch, round-topped and still snow-covered, dominated the greening landscape. I am remembering a snowy Sunday in the recent winter, when Papa had arranged a horse-drawn sleigh ride for us to a mountain restaurant. It sat on a rim overlooking Innsbruck, the capital of Austria’s western state of Tyrol, and the whole of the valley of the River Inn. We had a fine dinner there – complete with meat! I had been curious what kind it was, knowing how scarce meat was. I asked my Papa the question, and he replied, “The people here found a prehistoric musk ox frozen in a glacier. They thawed it and cooked the meat for our special meal.” Of course, we believed him! He must have saved his ration cards for a long time for this meal.

Food was scarce, but ration cards still yielded some milk for the little ones, occasionally some cheese, which one time had maggots in it, but we ate it, nevertheless. The few pieces of jewelry Mutti had, had been traded for eggs from a local farmer. Once, Mutti was able to get some horse meat from an animal that had to be euthanized.

On one of these beautiful Spring days in early May, the sound of many motors caught our attention. We ran out onto the balcony and saw the road amassed with American tanks as far as our eyes could see. Hardy, Edel and I jumped up and down with excitement; we knew this was good news. We cheered and yelled. In the following days we watched the soldiers settle in. They set up camp in the expansive meadow across the street. They were Black soldiers, and this my first meeting of these proud men of color. While the Black Panther Tank Battalion was a fully segregated unit within the American military, Europe as a whole was not racially divided; people of color were not marked by prejudice. By the end of the war, the Black Panthers had fought their way further east than nearly every other unit from the United States, receiving 391 decorations for heroism. They fought in France and Belgium and were one of the first American battalions to meet the Russian Army in Austria.

The unit’s Anglo officers confiscated the lower floors of the inn. A mess tent was erected down the street. The Americans had arrived in Leutasch to handle the process of demilitarizing the German army.

The first Negro tankers ever to fight in the American Army: General George Patton’s 761st Black Panther Tank Battalion – 1944

This was one of the hardest times for our family. Under the Occupation, ration cards became worthless. Money was not worth anything and stores had little to offer. The shopkeepers hoarded what merchandise was left. Potatoes were shriveled; they were boiled with their skins then peeled – and then Hardy and I still ate the leathery peels. Klunkersuppe was a staple for supper, prepared from watered down milk, then some Klunkers, a streusel-like mixture of salt and flour with a bit of water, would be added and boiled till done, resulting in dumpling-like consistency.

The pine trees behind the inn sprouted tender new tips at the ends of winter-stressed branches; we picked some of them and ate them for the vitamins they contained, ignoring the somewhat astringent bitter taste. We scrounged for food: sorrel with its distinctly sour, lemony flavor; young dandelion greens for salads and stinging nettles for spinach. Omi once came back from a stroll with a bunch of onions which she pulled out from inside her jacket. This stroll had led her past a garden where she could reach through the fence and do some premature harvesting of someone else’s fruits of labor. Necessity changes our moral values: here was a woman of such staunch honesty, taking what was not hers.

Hardy and I were often free to roam the area. We were children, doing what children do, even in these hardest of times. Climbing through or over fences, we found our way to the small River Leutasch, the water greenish cold and clear, its banks lined with pussy willows in their springtime finest cheerful green. We filled our hearts and minds with new discoveries, watching small fish darting in the swift water or finding the first flowers in the meadow, picking a few for Mutti. Always, though, we came back with armloads of wood for the small cookstove.

With the Occupation came worries about Papa. Being an officer, Walter Podack had been taken to Innsbruck and interned and questioned. “Denazification directives” identified specific people and groups and outlined judicial procedures and guidelines for handling them. Though all the occupying forces had agreed on the initiative, the methods used for denazification and the intensity with which they were applied differed between the Occupation zones. Although the Nazi party was promptly banned, Austria did not have the same thorough process of denazification that was otherwise imposed on members of the Nazi Party. During this process, always the squeaky wheel, once again Mutti forced her way to some superior officers to make sure that Papa could be released from military service without having to be processed through any sort of camp. After being stripped of any physical symbols of the Nazi regime, he was soon released to join us in Leutasch. He arrived with a suitcase of medical instruments which he was later able to use in his private medical practice in Altenstadt, Hessen.

On our floor of the inn, there lived an older gentleman who had been a teacher. Since there was no more school for us Hardy and I were sent to him to learn some English, Papa made sure that we kept practicing our multiplication tables and Mutti drilled a sentence into us that I still remember word for word. Whenever we had occasion to speak to one of the allied officers we were to politely ask: “May I please have a new newspaper for my father to read?”  We were not refused. The newspaper in question was the Stars and Stripes.  It was our only access to what was going on in the world, and while Papa knew no English, Mutti remembered enough of her school English to make sense of it.

Food and everything else were very scarce; Hardy and I spent most of our time scavenging for anything useful. In the front corner of the meadow where the encampment was, a gigantic heap of discarded items grew. We found nearly empty tubes of shave cream for Papa, and toothpaste; some paperback books, containing lessons and tests in grammar, writing paper, pencils and more. Anywhere we walked we would pick up cigarette butts and pull out the tobacco for Papa’s pipe. Once we found part of a cigar and Hardy had found a book of matches. We ducked behind a shed and lit the cigar, puffing on it like we had watched our Opa August Podack do on special occasions — when he had friends over for card games and Schnapps at Gärtnerei Podack in Kalthof. The taste bit my tongue and when I inhaled some smoke, I turned green. I got a knot in my stomach and the world started spinning around me. I had to lie down in the grass until I recovered. Hardy seemed to be OK with it making me wonder if he had tried it before.

Behind the mess tent an even larger pile of trash amassed. Empty cans and cartons from the kitchen — a true treasure! We found a large can with lots of peanut butter left in it. We tasted some – we had never had peanut butter before. We liked it, so we took it back to the inn. We watched the soldiers emptying their trays into a large barrel and saw with mouths watering how much food was being thrown away. We looked for some large cans, found some wire and made bails for handles. From then on, we stood where the soldiers would come out to clean their trays and begged for their leftovers. Everything went together into our cans, bits of meat, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans. Bread, we put in our pockets. With cans filled to their tops we went proudly to show Mutti. She would empty everything into a cooking pot and boiled it long enough to make it safe for us to eat. For a while we had food to eat. This went on until one of the officers found out what we were doing. He put a stop to it for health reasons, and we were banned from the mess area.

One day on our way down the stairs we met one of the nice officers in the stair well. He was Captain Willoughby, an American Captain and he asked, “How do you do?” I answered, “We have hunger.” “Come along,” he said, and we followed him. He took us into the mess tent, and pointing at one of the benches said, “Sit down.”  After a few minutes two soldiers came with trays of food which they set down in front of each of us. We looked up at them questioningly. They said, “Eat.” We did! We wolfed it down. It was very salty, especially the meat, which I can now say with certainty was Spam. There was nothing left on our trays but while walking back to the inn, my stomach revolted, and the meal was wasted.

The war and the fighting being over, her family intact but in limbo, there was nothing to keep us in Austria. Furthermore, that summer, Mutti learned that once the American soldiers withdrew, most of Austria would be handed over to French Occupation. Because of the historical animosity between France and Germany, it was rumored that the French would not accept German discharge and “denazification” papers and would put all men who had been German soldiers into camps and treat them as prisoners of war.

The stalwart Nora Podack decided it was time to leave. It was time to find a way to connect with extended family, familiar surroundings, and a chance to start a new existence. Königsberg was lost. She would have liked to stay in München (Munich), where she had studied before the war and had fond memories. But that beautiful city had been heavily bombed as well, and although Walter had an old colleague whom they could have asked for help, it was decided Mutti’s goal was an unrealistic one. With no family connections there, it would be a difficult place to start over for the Podacks and the Eberhardts.

The town of Altenstadt, in the German state of Hessen, was where my Opi was born, and where my Tante Dori still lived. It was also under American occupation, an important consideration! And the closest destination. This is where the family decided to go.

The border to Germany was twelve kilometers down the road, and one day Mutti walked there to see what she could find out. She talked to the American border guard officials at the post, but they were only interested in meeting a Fräulein, suggesting they wanted her body. She returned without the assurance she needed, but the following morning, we packed our few belongings, which included Papa’s bag of medical instruments. Mutti bartered for a hand-wagon from one of the local people and Rudi rode on top. We trekked to the border on that warm summer day, taking a chance, hoping to be able to convince the border guards to let us pass — Papa, Mutti, Mutti’s mother (my Omi), Mutti’s brother Heinz, Martha and five children.

When we arrived, the guard house, to our surprise, was empty! No one was around. We crossed to Mittenwald, the German town on the other side, a popular ski resort. The family spent that night in a boxcar. We parted ways with Martha in Mittenwald. The next day our family rode on a goods train to Windecken in Hessen, if memory serves. Once disembarked, we walked several hours to the home of Mutti’s oldest sister Dori – the estate known as Oppelshausen – just outside the town of Altenstadt.

The Podack family had finally arrived at a safe place after an adventurous journey through a destroyed country. Yet, at this time, we still had no idea what had become of Papa’s parents, Opa August and Oma Hedwig.

The Red Army had claimed over 90,000 Königsberg residents as prisoners of war. Military and civilian dead were estimated at 42,000. Another 120,000 survivors remained in the ruins of devastated Königsberg. These survivors, mainly women, children, and the elderly – and a few others who returned immediately after the fighting ended – were forcibly detained by the Russians until 1949. The large majority of German citizens remaining in Königsberg after 1945 died either of disease, starvation, or revenge-driven ethnic cleansing. The last 20,000 Germans were expelled in 1949-50. It was only then that Opi Karl Eberhardt was able to rejoin our family.

Germans fleeing the encircled Königsberg aboard the SS Wedel
Photo credit: For documentary purposes the German Federal Archive often retained the original image captions, which may be erroneous, biased, obsolete, or politically extreme. Bergung von Flüchtlingen aus Königsberg mit F.S.S. “Wedel” 1945
German war prisoners in the streets of Königsberg

Katharina’s Story – Chapter 10: Becoming Refugees

In that winter of 1944, an awareness began to steal over me that soon we would have to leave Opa’s farm in Kalthof. Yes, we could hear the grumbling of the Front, and at night, we could see the sky lit up by artillery fire over the horizon. The community was abuzz with talk of the refugees coming in from Lithuania. The Russian front continued to advance westward, the German troops retreating. A cloud of trepidation seemed to envelop our household as the family readied, yet evacuation was delayed by the German authorities.

Many refugees took to the roads under their own initiative because of reported Soviet atrocities in the areas under Soviet control. Both spurious and factual accounts of Soviet atrocities were disseminated through the official news and propaganda outlets of Nazi Germany and by rumors that swept through the military and civilian populations.

Despite authorities having detailed evacuation plans for some areas, the evacuation of East Prussia was delayed until January 20, 1945, when it was too late for an orderly evacuation.

Reportedly, the civil services were overwhelmed by the numbers of those wishing to evacuate. Coupled with the panic caused by the speed of the Soviet advance, civilians caught in the middle of combat, and the bitter winter weather, many thousands of refugees died during the evacuation period. 

Rudi, not yet three years old, was the fifth child of my parents, Nora and Walter Podack. By Hitler’s orders, this meant that Papa, who had been serving as a medical doctor in the Guerrilla warfare in Greece, could come away from the front lines and do his work in hospitals in the Homeland. Papa was stationed in Seefeld, Austria, which was still part of the German Reich.

It is January 22, 1945. More suitcases and trunks had been packed. Opa took us to the train station that evening: my Mutti, our nanny Martha, and all five children. Our belongings were loaded onto the baggage car. When we were scheduled to leave, however, the train was full, and although Mutti had our tickets, we were told there was no room. The train left with our belongings.

On January 25, Opa brought us again to the station, this time with only the clothes on our backs, one suitcase with provisions, and one enameled five-liter milk canister and its contents. Mutti and Opa bribed officials with cigarettes from Greece, and we were finally allowed to board. I hugged my Opa goodbye, a long, desperate hug, not knowing if I would see him again. The pervading mood in the last few days left me with a sense that things would never be the same.

The compartment was filled with people and baggage with hardly room to move. Children were sitting on laps; Mutti put little Rudi in the overhead luggage net after he had fallen asleep. Edel and Heidi were passed around to any lap that would have them for a little while. Hardy and I rode in the toilet room – the toilet having been rendered unusable, buried under luggage – we sat on top of it all. The small window was half-whited out, the upper part clear enough to see through. The night was full of train whistles, with towns and cities rushing by, dark with only the light of the moon making them visible. Windows in buildings were tightly shuttered or curtained to keep any light from getting out, which would give their location away to the enemy.

At times, the train was on an elevated  track, a city passing below us. Hardy and I sang: “We’re driving over the rooftops, we’re driving over the rooftops!” Sometime during the night, the steady “thump-edi-thump, thump-edi-thump” of the wheels passing over the joints of the rail put us to sleep.

In the morning, the train stopped. The passengers were muttering that this was not the route we had expected to take. But there was food and drink offered on the platform. Our family also had sandwiches in the small suitcase Mutti had brought on board and the milk from the canister.

We learned here that the Russians had taken Allenstein two days earlier, and that train on which we had been meant to travel three days ago had been blown up during an attack by tanks. All our belongings were destroyed. It is devastating to know that many families perished. We were very fortunate to lose only our belongings, and not each other.

We also learned that this train we were on was the very last one to leave Königsberg. Truly our family was being watched over by a guardian angel. Only a few days earlier, the last continuous train of the Prussian Eastern Railway ran from Königsberg to Berlin; after that no further continuous rail traffic ran on this line. We were fortunate to have caught the last train, even though its route was truncated, and not at all as expected.

This train continued on and on. My memories of the remainder of the trip hold little except for a remarkable moment when it became apparent that people needed to relieve themselves now and then. The toilet not being accessible, Mutti came up with a solution: the milk canister had been emptied, so its lid could serve as a makeshift chamber pot. It was passed around whenever needed and the contents emptied out the window.

Dresden is a stop still vivid in my mind. We had to get off the train and were led into the station which was milling with people shoulder to shoulder. Dresden had suffered during an air raid the night before and the track had been hit as well. We disembarked on the east side of town and were shuttled to the western edge, where the track was intact and a train waiting. Hitler Youth boys escorted us and fed us soup. We were all holding hands, hanging on to each other, but somehow Rudi got loose in the crowds. Mutti left us with Martha for a few frantic moments before she found him again. The rest of it is a blur. The journey continued, for three days and three nights altogether, a journey of over 1400 kilometers. We were worn out and numb, just moving automatically as we were told.

Only three weeks after we passed through, Dresden suffered under intensified Allied aerial bombings. Five attacks were launched – the first by Britain’s Royal Air Force with 800 aircraft the night of February 13, continued by the U.S. 8th Air Force with 400 aircraft on February 14, with 200 on February 15, with 400 again on March 2, and, finally, with 572 on April 17. The motive of these raids was allegedly to promote the Soviet advance by destroying a center of communications important to the German defense of the Eastern Front. In fact, the raids reportedly achieved nothing to help the Red Army militarily. But Dresden, baroque jewel of the Saxonian kingdom and one of the most beautiful cities of Europe, was practically erased, and up to 25,000 civilians perished.

We reached Seefeld, in Tirol, Austria, where Papa was waiting for us. He had a room at the Rote Erde (Red Earth), a winter sport room-and-board villa that had been confiscated by the government and turned into a rehabilitation house where soldier amputees were convalescing under Papa’s care; he also worked at the hospital during the day.

The Rote Erde served as a rehabilitation house; here our family of seven stayed with Papa for six weeks in one room.

We all moved into the one room with Papa and Martha was quartered elsewhere in the Rote Erde. The recovering soldiers were happy to see us children – perhaps we reminded them of their own families in some way. We spent long hours with them in the communal area. There was one man in particular who was fascinating to watch. He was whittling a nativity scene from larch branches, creating a herd of tiny sheep with his nimble hands. Edel begged and begged, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. While kind and tolerant of us all, the man would not let little Edel have one of the little sheep.

Papa’s room had what compares to the American king size bed. In fact, a marriage bed in Germany was put together with two twin size beds usually joined with double-size head and foot boards. This bed accommodated all of us except little Rudi, for whom a crib had been located. My parents slept with me, the lucky child, between them, on the crack. The mattresses were two separate ones, and I could feel the bed frame all night. The rest of the children slept on the foot end. I remember Rudi became sick with pneumonia but was readily treated with access to the medicines available there at the rehabilitation house. Papa was also able to bring home food from the hospital from time to time to help sustain our family.

The Rote Erde was built on the bottom of a slope leading up to the ski area. The landscape was covered in deep snow this February and the owners of the inn loaned us the use of a toboggan. Hardy and I enjoyed taking advantage of that. One late afternoon we pulled it uphill on the path  that ran next to the inn and sledded down several times before it started getting dark. On the last run we lost control of it, and it took its own course into the pine forest; in the growing gloom, our search for it was unsuccessful. When Papa returned from hospital duties we had to confess. He went out after dark with a flashlight and, to our relief, found the sled. Needless to say, that was the last time we were allowed to use it.

The two ladies who owned the inn treated us well. Martha helped in their household during our stay there, and Mutti did a lot of sewing and mending for them. In return we received the ladies’ old clothing, from which Mutti could make new garments for her children, since we had only the clothes on our backs. Even the old knit undergarments were unraveled – this was a job for Hardy and me, wrapping the yarn, wetting it, and re-drying it until all the kinks were taken out. That’s when I began knitting socks, at ten years of age.

Hardy and I were registered for the fourth grade together in Seefeld. After school we would go scavenging along our way home. We’d go down to the train station and further down along the railroad tracks, picking up chunks of coal, fallen of the coal tenders, taking it back to the inn, making our own small contribution. Once, poking around a stack of drainpipes Hardy found a partial bolt of some nice dress fabric of a black-and-white design. Obviously, someone had come by it in some obscure way and  hidden it there. Mutti made a nice dress for herself out of it.

For six weeks we enjoyed the Rote Erde’s hospitality. During this time, Mutti made several train trips to Innsbruck, the county seat, to apply for a place for us – as refugees — to live. She told of a harrowing experience on one of those trips. At some earlier point of its route, the train had been strafed by airplane machine gun fire. When Mutti found her seat on this train, she was sitting among the broken glass and blood and bits of flesh which remained on the seats.

Springtime had come before we found our refugee home in Leutasch Gasse (Leutasch Street). That’s all there was to the tiny village of Leutasch– a few houses along a street. Today, Leutasch, in the Seefeld plateau and only eight kilometers from Seefeld, has many hotels and inns, enjoying a healthy tourist overflow during Austria’s ski season 

The houses in Leutasch Gasse backed up right against a mountain with the road immediately in front of the houses. The road from Seefeld ended at a T-intersection right in front of Weiβes Röβl (White Little Horse), a hotel where we were quartered on the top floor under the roof. There was a small kitchen and we had two tiny rooms. Martha slept in a storage space under the slant of the roof in the kitchen. But to our delight there was a balcony and a central hallway coming up from the stairs with some room to spread out.

A modern-day photo of the Austrian hotel where we were quartered as refugees under the roof: Weiβes Röβl

Schools and stores – such as they were — were located in Oberleutasch (Upper Leutasch), a village two kilometers away. Hardy and I walked there, and sometimes we had to take cover from strafing, low-flying fighter planes, lying in the ditch next the road. Once an avalanche came down and blocked the road. We got that day off from school.

It is here we stayed, at the Weiβes Röβl, with Papa working in Seefeld, until the American troops ended the war in Austria in April 1945. After that, all schools were closed for an entire year, and our family, with tens of thousands of other refugee families, would find yet another home.

According to the West German Schieder commission, the civilian population of East Prussia at the beginning of 1944 was 2,653,000 people. This accounting, which was based on ration cards, included air raid evacuees from western Germany and foreign workers. Before the end of the war an estimated 2 million people were evacuated, including 500,000 in the Autumn of 1944 and 1,500,000 after January 1945. The Podack family was in this group. An estimated 600,000 remained behind in Soviet-controlled East Prussia in April–May 1945.

According to a 1974 West German government study, an estimated 1% of the civilian population was killed during the Soviet offensive. The West German search service reported that 31,940 civilians from East Prussia, which also included Memel, were confirmed as killed during the evacuation.

From the time we boarded that last train from Königsberg until months after war’s end, thoughts of my grandparents occupied my mind; we knew not what had become of August and Hedwig Podack. We had left them behind in East Prussia. It had come to pass that my Omi Marie Eberhardt joined us in Leutasch, having walked across the still frozen Frisches  Haff to avoid battle zones on the mainland. My Omi had to leave behind her husband, my Opi Karl Eberhardt, understanding that he remained there at the behest of the Nazi regime to continue his duties as Stadt Amtsmann, in charge of water works, drainage, and sewer systems. He was so indispensable that he must remain and was in fact detained in his post by the Russian occupation until 1949.

History tells us there was tremendous panic and a great toll in death as civilians were finally allowed by the Nazis to evacuate the eastern German lands, and that column after column of horses and carts, laden with family valuables, sick old people, children, and pregnant women, plus a few able-bodied men who were trying to keep order were evacuated across the sandy spits of the Frisches Haff.  My dear Omi was one of those, lucky enough to survive.

Seven thousand other refugees perished in the Wilhelm Gustloff, which a Soviet sub sank in the freezing Baltic.

Katharina’s Story: Chapter 9 – After the Air Raids – Summer’s End

Photo credit: weaponsandwarfare.com

I did not know at the time how dangerous it was to listen to the BBC…

Kalthof. We are back, having moved in with Opa and Oma – August and Hedwig – after our apartment in Königsberg was destroyed. I am in fourth grade, again attending Falkschule as I did in the second grade while living here. It is just across the railroad and streetcar tracks from the big gate to Gärtnerei Podack on Robert Koch Straße. It only takes about five minutes to get to school.

My teacher, Frau Kranz, is a woman with long, curly black hair. I am always fascinated by her  arms and can hardly keep my eyes off her when she is close to my desk. Her bare arms are covered with freckles like her face, lots of freckles, so dense that they seem to touch. The fascinating part, though, is the mat of black hair covering her arms as well as the backs of her hands. I imagine her as sort of a jungle creature. She was not a nice person. One time I complained of a bad headache, and she told me to go bang my head against the wall!

The principal of this school must teach classes as well. When he is obliged to be out of his office, he selects one of the good pupils to sit in his chair and answer the phone. I am chosen often. But the phone does not ring! Sometimes I am tempted to call Opa at his number 30913, but I never do. I was accustomed to answering Opa’s telephone in the Vorraum (the reception and sales area), picking up the receiver and announcing: “Gärtnerei Podack” or “30913,” just like the grown-ups did, but I had never dialed.

To help pass the time in the principal’s office I have my Africa album with me. This album is filled with stories about animals and people, and it has blank spaces where pictures were to be pasted in. Mutti and her twin  brothers, Wallusch and Heinz, have collected these pictures for me over the years from the cigarette packs they came in. I have read a lot about the jungle, and I could match the pictures to the right places. It was very easy to imagine Frau Kranz as a jungle beast.

I am thinking of my uncles now, Heinz and Wallusch, who were the last to leave their parents’ home on Kastanienallee. While visiting my mother’s parents — Marie and Karl Eberhardt — recently, I had seen my uncles’ childhood room, located in the attic space. World maps were still posted on the slanted ceilings. Mutti has told me that as teens, the twin brothers built their own radios, and did photography, developing their own film and pictures. Years later, after the war, they both studied physics.

During 1943, when Hitler was trying to conquer Russia, Onkel Wallusch served with the German Luftwaffe. During his service there, Wallusch was wounded with shrapnel and met his nurse Friedchen (Frieda), who later became his wife.

Heinz was conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the Reich Labor Service, which was a major organization established in Nazi Germany to help mitigate the effects of unemployment on the German economy, militarize the workforce and indoctrinate it with Nazi ideology. It was the official state labor service, divided into separate sections for men and women.

Today, in 1944 on the Gärtnerei Podack, Opa August is about 55 years old, a grandfather of five. He is still a simple man, even though well-to-do and well regarded by his superiors, peers, and employees. Of average stature, his bald head is always covered with some beaten-up hat, his trousers tucked into rubber boots. He spends his days from pre-dawn to dark working at his stables, fields, and greenhouses.

His 5:00 a.m. breakfast consists of Brotsuppe, a mush made by breaking up a chunk of peasant bread into a bowl and adding heated raw cow’s milk and a spoon of sugar. It is war time and real coffee beans are a luxury; these days coffee is made of roasted barley.

At this same time every day, Hedwig readies breakfast for the working men. Anna, a Polish woman, helps her in the kitchen; they prepare heaps of thick slices of bread spread with lard or margarine and a large enamel pot of barley coffee, along with a pitcher of milk. Anna takes it out on a large tray to where the hungry men are waiting in the day room of their quarters.

In the stable, August supervises the feeding of the cows, the milking, and getting the fresh milk to the dairy. Opa’s horse is hitched to the wagon, and one of the men loads the milk cans. He then hoists himself up into the seat, flicks the reins on the horse’s back, and the wagon rumbles away. When he returns, the large milk cans must be scrubbed and scalded, a job for the women, and turned upside down on their rack in the Vorraum to dry in readiness for the evening milking, when the whole process repeats itself.

Even on Sundays the animals need to be fed, the cows milked, the milk delivered — morning and evening. But the time in-between belongs to each to spend as they would, and everyone takes advantage of the respite.

In the nursery and greenhouses, August assigns the day’s work to the men, be it cleaning the bedding in the barn, transplanting seedlings, preparing the cold frames for seeding lettuce, cabbage, and kohlrabi, or repairing the straw mats that cover the cold frames at night. Depending on the season there are different tasks, but there is always work to be done: in winter, firing the boilers that keep the greenhouses warm, replacing broken glass panes – in summer, whitewashing the roofs of the greenhouses to filter the bright sun light – in fall, bringing in the hay to fill the loft above the stable for the winter, and digging potatoes to store in the cellar. August never raises his voice, but his tone is stern with the men. They know him as a fair boss; he is easy to work for and they know they will be treated civilly. They are here as forced labor from Poland and White Russia (Belarus), a result of the war.

Many years later, I learn from a former classmate’s accounts of her life in Frankfurt, Hessen that forced laborers were referred to in her area as Unter Menschen – sub-human – and she as a child was forbidden to speak to them or show them any courtesy.

But at August’s house, we children interact freely with the laborers. I learn from Anton, a Polish man, how to transplant seedlings into a flat to give them room to grow. I stand next to him on a box to be able to reach the tall work bench with the cement top. He shows me how to mix and sift compost and peat moss together to create the growing medium.

I am working on my own flat, making holes with a pointed dowel, then inserting each tiny seedling and firming the dirt around it. Anton looks over and says “dobrze” (good) in his language. All the men are kind to us, and we love to be around them, even in their bunk room after their work was done.


Ah those days! As children, my brother Hardy and I had the entire place as our playground with many things to explore and discover. I am certain though, that there were many eyes watching us without us being aware of it. As a child I was not cognizant of the circumstances that had brought Anna and these men here. They were just part of the place, part of the household. I even remember some of the men’s names. Besides Anton there was Janek and Stanislaws. And there was Anna and – on and off — German girls as Pflichtmädchen  (duty girls) who helped in the household, with the younger siblings, or sometimes with the milking. These were girls who had finished the eighth grade, and under Hitler’s rules, every woman under twenty-five years of age had to show proof of having finished one year of household or farm duty to apply for a job or vocational training. Oh yes! In those times we were five children, and we wore these poor Pflichtmädchen out pretty quickly.

For the most part the help ate what we ate, soups of potatoes, lentils, peas, cabbage, and Schwarzsauer, a traditional soup made from fresh blood, spices, and vinegar at butcher time. After the midday meal, August would take a short nap on the divan and work stood still for a while. August was a sober, practical man. He wrang the chickens’ necks and killed rabbits with no qualms. Animals – geese and hogs – were raised for food. There were no pets. The dog, Vera, was usually chained; she was brought into the house to hunt down a rat that had somehow found its way inside. When she had gotten herself in trouble and had puppies, August put them in a burlap sack and drowned them in the creek. I believe his relationship with his wife Hedwig was just as sober and practical at this stage of their lives. He never called her by her name, always called her Frau (wife) and she called him Mann (husband).

At this point we should keep in mind that August grew up under the Kaiser’s rule, his grandparents still having been serfs. After the end of WWI there were a few years of democracy before Hitler came to power, abolished the republic again, and proclaimed himself absolute ruler: Führer. I imagine to Opa and a great many German citizens, especially of the older generation, it must have been an almost familiar state to be told what to do and to obey; perhaps this is why Germans are perceived to be people of good civil obedience.

I did not learn until my teen years that Opa had been appointed Landwirtschaftlicher Gauleiter (agricultural district manager) in Hitler’s time. Despite this position, I only knew him as a kind, simple, and humble man, only occasionally putting on suit and tie for a business meeting in his office, the Herrenzimmer (gentlemen’s room), where the guests would settle into the leather chairs and, after concluding their business talks, were treated to Schnapps and cigars. Quietly sitting in the adjacent room one time I overheard talk about the use of a newly developed product to make hemp growing easier. It was advertised as a weed killer that would keep weeds from choking out the tender young seedlings of the hemp plant. Hemp, one of the products of East Prussia’s export trade, was being cultivated for the weaving of rope.

There was never a hint of political atmosphere in the everyday life at Opa’s house, and in this year, the only concerns were with the course the war was taking, especially on the Eastern Front. As a child of less than ten years of age, I had no knowledge of Hitler’s politics.

Considering the plight of all the people who lost their homes and all their belongings in the bombing raids, we were so very fortunate, having Oma and Opa living close, who had the extra room to take in all of us: Nora, all five of her children, and our nanny Martha.

Most all my parents’ belongings had been saved the day after the bombing before our apartment building reignited and was gutted by the fire completely. Opa and Mutti had carried these things by horse and wagon from west Königsberg to Gärtnerei Podack, outside of the eastern walls of the city. Most of our furniture from the apartment was now stored here, some in the house, some in storage buildings.

Opa, in a great hurry, had added on a small room to the northern corner of the house, just large enough for not much more than a set of bunk beds for Hardy and me. Mutti and the younger ones had their beds put up in the big sunny room, where my parents lived when they were first married, and where I was born.

The Podack women — Hedwig and Nora — remained in conflict during this time. I know today, only having learned of the conflict between Oma and my mother Nora after Nora’s death – from letters written but never mailed – that this conflict had been ongoing through the years. Living in Kalthof again I noticed that Mutti was rarely home during the day, staying up late into the small morning hours, after everyone had gone to bed, sewing, writing to Papa, and listening to the BBC on the Grundig radio for news of the war, then sleeping late into the next morning. I suppose she was avoiding Oma as much as she could, but I cannot imagine her not being grateful for having a place of refuge after we lost the apartment in the air raid upon Königsberg.

Very soon, school was over for the season, and Mutti brought all five of her children, along with Martha, to her parents’ summer cabin on the Baltic Sea. We were to stay there over the next week or two, for the fall vacation.

For us children, this time was not like those leisurely, lazy days of past summers filled with new discoveries and adventures. Now, our throats were closed, our hearts were heavy, and we longed for the playfulness of those early, wonderful childhood days spent at Omi and Opi Eberhardt’s cabin on the Baltic Sea. Alas, those happy days would be mourned forever, deeply imprinted on our souls. And with those memories, what remains is a keepsake, my amber necklace, which, when fastened around my neck today, brings not a soothing remembrance, but rather, a pain into my heart and tears into my eyes.

I do not remember much of this disheartening fall vacation at the cabin, except that Mutti listened to the British radio station BBC here as well, to learn of true accounts of war events and the ever-advancing Russian front. This she did to circumvent the Nazi propaganda which held that the war was going well for the Wehrmacht on all fronts. Onkel Heinz, now in paramilitary service, had modified the short-wave radio to work off two car batteries earlier that summer, in anticipation of just a situation like this, since there was no electricity at the summer cabin.

I did not know at the time how dangerous it was to listen to the BBC, but Mutti was not one to cower to the rules of men. Had she been caught, whether at the beach house or at the farm in Kalthof, it was likely she would have been taken away by the Schutzstaffel – the Nazi enforcers – the SS. 

I’m sure Mutti thought of any and all options that might be open to her family should the time come for us to leave East Prussia. Learning that the Russian army was pushing back Hitler‘s forces, Mutti decided to send a lot of the household things that were not in use in Kalthof to her sister Marga, who lived in Erzgebirge (the Ore Mountains) in Saxony. One night I found all the women busy packing crates and trunks with dishes, silver and kitchen ware, and wicker baskets with bedding and blankets, sewn shut with burlap. Even mattresses from Nora’s marriage bed and the folding bed from the beach house were freighted to Tante Marga in Saxony.

Yes, the atmosphere of wartime was a palpable one. We children were not aware of the details yet, except when they made impact on us personally. We did not know, for instance, that the Russians were strategically advancing their East Prussian offensive; that the Soviet Red Army was moving against the German Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. That the Offensive would last until April 25, 1945, with some German units refusing to surrender until May 9; that Onkel Wallusch would soon be wounded, and that The Battle of Königsberg, a major part of the offensive, would end in victory for the Red Army.

But already, in the winter of 1944, we could hear the cannons. The “front” was getting closer. Refugees were coming in from Lithuania, and even as children, we understood what that meant.

Katharina’s Story: Chapter 8 – The Bombing of Königsberg : August 1944

Katharina – Age 9 – 1944

The noise was deafening. I covered my ears with my hands, but they were still ringing. Then I heard it again. The incredibly loud bang seemed to repeat itself again and again, a resounding echo under the bridge, finally fading away. Papa was talking to Mutti, but I could only see their lips moving. I decided that it was safe now to uncover my ears.

Mutti, Papa and I were out for a walk in the park not far from where we lived. On our walk, Papa stopped under the bridge, removed his pistol from its holster, and pointed it down to fire a shot into the river. He then handed it to Mutti, showing her how use the pistol, and asked her to shoot into the water too.

This was the noise that left my ears ringing. I thought my parents were just showing off, and I did not like the sharp loud sound the pistol shot made one bit. But this would become a small sample of the sound of war, and I would be reminded of this day in the not-too-distant future.

It was the summer of 1943, and Papa was home on leave. He came dressed in full uniform, wearing a shiny black belt that held the pistol and holster, and high, gleaming black officer’s boots and riding trousers. I thought Papa looked very handsome in his uniform.

At home I would try to walk in his boots and make everyone laugh at me. My feet were lost in Papa’s size twelve, the dark expanse of the shaft so tall that I could not bend my knees and had to walk stiff legged.

Suddenly Papa was taken away again, back to military service as a doctor in the Balkan states.

The next summer, I, Katharina, am nine years old when World War II arrives on our doorstep. Posters are prominently displayed in the streetcars, warning “Feind hört mit.” (the enemy listens); one poster features a masked bandit Kohlenklau (coal thief) reminding citizens not to be wasteful. Around the city water reservoirs had been dug and now were filled to brimming; in neighborhoods and apartment buildings, air raid shelters had been readied; for each building a Luftschutzwart (Air Raid Marshall) was selected.

The coal thief is about, stealing gas, light, electricity, and coal. Don’t tolerate it! Catch him!

Our family had just recently moved into a second-floor apartment at Stobbäusstrasse 5, not far from Luisenallee  I was still attending the same school. Mutti had split up the children, sending the two youngest to stay with grandparents. Little Heidi was with Marie and Karl in western Königsberg; baby Rudi was with August and Hedwig at Kalthof.

We became used to blacking out windows at night; there were buckets of sand on every landing in the staircase for putting out fires. Regular air raid drills were conducted, and we all knew where our shelter was.

The first bombers came to Königsberg. The sirens sounded as Mutti shakes us awake. We quickly dress, pull on our shoes, and grab our blankets as we had been instructed. Mutti leads us into the bomb shelter. We huddle on the benches with other people from the building. We hear explosions in the distance and listen for the hum of the motors of airplanes drawing closer. The air in the room is thick with tension; no one speaks. We stare at each other, and at the floor, and at our hands, for an interminable time.

Finally, the sirens sound the all-clear and a collective sigh of relief comes up from the small group. We all shuffle back to our apartments; we children are put back to bed and we fall asleep as if nothing had happened.

The morning brings a clear and sunny day, but the news tells a frightful story. Much of the inner city has been destroyed, though Königsberg Castle is intact.

Residential areas had been hit with explosive bombs. Buildings had collapsed and buried people in their bomb shelters. Those that had been able to get out had burned alive in the firestorms that were raging through the streets, their charred bodies grim reminders of this horror-filled night. I hear the adults talking about this, but I am numb to comprehending the full meaning.

On this day, I hear overhead a familiar hum and look to the sky. There it is. A single British reconnaissance airplane. Now I hear faint explosions of flak shells, fired at the plane and triggering at a certain altitude. They leave small puffs of smoke but do not hit the plane. Instead, I see what looks like ticker tape falling from the sky. Sheets of paper fall to the ground and I run to gather them.

The message on them reads, “Ob’s Sonnchen scheint, ob’s Mondchen lacht, wir kommon jede zweite Nacht.”  

Translation: If the sun shines or the moon laughs, we’re coming every other night.

In anticipation of other attacks, we go to bed half-dressed, ready to jump up and put on our shoes should the alarm sound.

And yes, the British keep their promise. The next night, the sirens blare again! We hurriedly put on our shoes, grab a blanket and rush with Mutti to the basement bomb shelter. Many are already crowded on the narrow benches, but we find our spots, Mutti, Hardy, Edel and I. We hear the bombs whistle and explode, again and again. It seems that everyone is holding their breath. We hold on to each other.

When at last it grows quiet, the people in the shelter begin to murmur and shuffle about. The Luftschutzwart goes out to inspect the building.

“The roof is on fire,” he tells us. “And the big entrance door is partially barricaded with burning debris. Everyone must remain in the shelter! No one is allowed out until the sirens have signaled the all-clear!”

But my Mutti – she gets up. “Come, Hardy and Katharina. Take Edel by the hand and follow me,” she says to us.

She moves toward the exit, but the Luftschutzwart raises his hand to stop her. “Frau Podack, you must sit back down,” he tells her.

With quiet resolution, Mutti pulls out the pistol Papa had given her and threatens the man, pointing it at him. “Get out of my way!” she demands.

The Luftschutzwart  holds up his hands and steps aside. “You’re a fool. You and your children could perish!” he exclaims. But Mutti pushes past him, and as we exit, others follow. Someone dumps the sand from the buckets on the burning timbers; we jump over these and reach the street.

The bomb that hit our building was an incendiary bomb, exploding and spraying phosphorus, which bursts into flames as soon as it hits air. We reach the big intersection; it is dotted with small burning heaps, and we carefully make our way between them. Suddenly Edel, who is only six years old, begins to cry. She wrenches loose from us and runs back to retrieve her doll which she had dropped. Mutti races back to grab her before she could be injured in the burning heaps.

Mutti leads us to the Feuerlöschteich across the intersection, one of many reservoirs that had been dug to hold water for the fire engines. She beds us on the edge and turns to me.

“In case of flying sparks, you must wet these blankets and cover yourselves. I must reach Opa and return home for some of our things. Stay here. Do not leave this place and keep a close watch on your brother and sister.”

Then, she was gone in the night.

From here, we could see nothing of our building, but occasionally, we could see a rain of sparks flying across the near roof tops. Edel and Hardy begin to sing and dance, enjoying the spectacle. I feel the weight of this night, three children alone in the dark, with confusion all around.

In the wee hours just before dawn, Mutti rejoined us to wait for Opa, and we were allowed to move away from the pond and to the corner of a house that had not been hit, to look toward the city. I saw the sky above the rooftops aglow, reminding me of the spectacular sunset at the beach house; the swirling sparks resembling a myriad of fireflies, the dark shadowed contours of the buildings in stark contrast. A frighteningly beautiful picture.

I stand transfixed, feeling no fear or horror, and I vaguely understand that I am finding comfort in a removal from the realization of the brutalities of war. I do not avert to the profane inhumanity of this night, the horrible way people have died, the massive destruction of property.

We learn later that Mutti had returned to the burning apartment to salvage belongings and food. She bribed one of the firemen with a slab of bacon to help her save some things from the apartment. She bundled silver and valuable goods, throwing them out the window. She was able to reach Opa to tell him what had happened to us. She had worked feverishly the reminder of the night, all the while worrying about her children.

Toward morning Opa came with horse and wagon and collected us from the Feuerlöschteich. Mutti had a new streak of grey hair above her right eyebrow. Opa chauffeured the wagon, avoiding the chaos of the inner city, to take us back to the relative safety of Kalthof, back to Gärtnerei Podack.

In this bombing raid the castle had been destroyed and most of the city lay in rubble, nearly completely destroyed. Königsberg Castle, once the residence of the Grandmasters of the Teutonic Order and Prussian rulers, was gone.

Opa and his men returned to the apartment with Mutti to save what they could among the things that Mutti had tossed out the window. By then, many things had been looted, but Mutti found her silver in the stairwell of a neighboring building. The fire on the roof had been put out and our apartment was undamaged. They were able to salvage other things from the apartment.

This did not last long, though. The following night, when everything had dried out a bit, the phosphorus began to burn again. Some days later Mutti, with Edel and me, went back to the apartment.

The staircase was intact, and we were able to reach our front door. We entered our apartment and walked down the hallway. The kitchen on the right side of the hall was undamaged, but on the left, there was a gaping hole; the floor was gone, the ceiling was gone, the apartment above us was gone, we could see the sky. Master bedroom, living room, dining room and the children’s room were all gone, but the length of wall between the big nothing and the hallway was still standing. The building eventually was completely destroyed by the constant re-igniting of the phosphorus fires.

Watching Mutti resolutely take charge in the bomb shelter, threatening the Luftschutzwart with the pistol, reminded me of the day in the park when Papa fired his pistol into the river. Mutti told me later that Papa had left her the pistol and shown her how to use it in case we were trapped in the shelter without hope of getting out – then she would have a way of mercifully ending our suffering.

I have often thought of my mother with the pistol in the cellar again and have reasoned it through as an adult. The split-second decision to get us out of the bomb shelter quickly, even against the orders of the Luftschutzwart, was the right one, the logical one. The big entrance door, the only entrance and exit for that block of apartments, was already partially barricaded with burning roof timbers. It would not take long for more of the roof collapsing into that corner, leaving us no way out. Rules that have been established estimating the greatest likelihood of survivability are not always universally applicable. Often common sense shows a better way. I firmly believe that Mutti handled the incident from her best instinct, a quick and correct assessment of the situation.

The bombing of Königsberg in August 1944 brought the centuries-long glorious existence and cultural bloom of the vibrant capital city of East Prussia to a cruel end. In April 1945, after a four-day siege, encircled from all sides, Königsberg finally was forced to surrender to the Russian forces. But that is another chapter in The Story of Katharina.

Katharina’s Story: Chapter 7 – A Child’s Wartime Christmas

In late 1942, Katharina’s family lived at Luisenallee, in Königsberg, and it was in this year that Walter Podack was conscripted into military service with Hitler’s German Army. Katharina, the eldest child and now nearly eight years old, knows only that Papa has gone to war. It happened matter-of-factly, like another day off to work, with no special good-byes. He was just gone.

The following year, the youngest child, Rudi, was born in February 1943.

During these times, it was hard to get by; most everything is rationed. While one had to wait in long lines for goods, the most extreme shortages were not felt until the last war years, when all resources were concentrated on the war effort. The children are not aware of any of this; Katharina recalls that at school they were given raw root vegetables: carrots and rutabagas.

Today, in her home in the western foothills of the Salt Lake Valley, a fire crackles in the fireplace. Katharina sits on the end of the couch nearest to me, bundled in her favorite holiday sweater – a deep green knitted tunic adorned with a silver sequined reindeer leaping through sequined snowflakes. She slowly unwraps her favorite Christmas ornaments as we prepare to decorate the tree, setting them carefully beside her. Outside the front window the lawn sparkles with a newly fallen snow, and moisture drips from the chokecherry tree as the sun glints upon its bare, snow-blanketed branches.

I am perched on the edge of Katharina’s easy chair. The tree has been set in its base, the lights strung and the star at the top lit in readiness. Our mugs of eggnog wait on the tiled table with its chartreuse lamp, and Katharina takes up her story.

“In 1944, I was in fourth grade. During school hours one day, Hitler’s motorcade was coming through town and all the girls from our school lined the sidewalk, standing at attention, raising our right arms in the Heil Hitler greeting.”

“At school we were taught to knit and sew and crochet. We were supposed to learn how to be good wives and mothers. In these war years, all manner of things were collected for the cause, and we were always eager to bring things to school. Paper was in short supply and was being recycled for packaging material. Other needed items were dried raspberry leaves, dried chamomile flowers, and the herb Huflattich (coltsfoot) for teas and medicines. The most interesting to me were bones and hair. Many of these items we found at Oma and Opa’s farm in Kalthof.

“Coltsfoot grew in a shady area behind one of the greenhouses; raspberry vines down by the creek; chamomile in the cow pasture. And there were lots of bones in the chicken yard. Opa kept cows and hogs and chickens and geese and rabbits. The family and the working help had produced a lot of bones over the years. One day I asked Opa for a gunny sack and went to pick up all the bones I could find in the chicken yard.

“I proudly took them to school to turn in for the making of fertilizers when they would be ground into bonemeal. Class had not yet started. I reached into my sack and found a hog’s jawbone, intact with some teeth. I waved it around and when the girls started screeching, I chased them with it! Enter the teacher; I was in trouble!” Katharina looks over at me, laughing. “I had to stand in the corner, facing the wall where the coat racks hung. Somehow, though, it did not hurt my pride. I had done my good deed for the war,” she said.

“I have very few memories of living at the apartment at Luisenallee. School was part of everyday life for Hardy and me. We went to separate schools — he to a boys’ school, I to a girls’ school. Edel was about four years old, Heidi only a year. And then Rudi was born.

“The little ones mostly stayed with Mutti and with the housemaid, Martha. I suppose they had their outings while Hardy and I were at school. We two had very little contact with them; they had their scheduled nap and feeding times, and we had different schedules.

“Hardy and I had no friends in the neighborhood, no other children to play with. Except for school hours we were kept at home — no playing in the streets. Other than during meals, our time at home was spent in the children’s room  I don’t even remember breakfast or lunch, except what was provided at school. Supper was usually a milk soup for us kids, which Mutti prepared and served. Milk soup was like a thin vanilla or chocolate pudding, sometimes with a dollop of stiffly beaten egg-white on top and a sprinkle of sugar. Before being served we had to sit still at the kitchen table with our hands on top of the table, one on each side of the bowl, waiting patiently. I remember very little other interaction with Mutti during these times.

Katharina’s childhood enamel bowl, in which Mutti served milk soup.

“Mutti was an academic, multi-talented, resourceful, tenacious like no one I have ever met. What I learned later was that she could take on the toughest bureaucrat and get her way! Mutti was somewhat high-strung, and somewhat neurotic. She was not openly loving. Babies were not much held; they were fed and changed every four hours by the clock and then put down again, left crying themselves to sleep or crying until next feeding time.

“With only Martha looking after us, little Hardy and I did a great deal of roughhousing. I still have a scar, which I got on the corner of a nightstand in the children’s room, which had a protruding nail head. I was running around in my nightgown when I crashed into it. The wound bled, but I told no one about it.”

Katharina holds up a glass ornament: a small golden bird, beautifully hand-painted, with a feathered plume of a tail. “I just love these bird ornaments. I’ve been collecting them … aren’t they just the most delicate things? We had similar glass ornaments when I was growing up, and the birds were always my favorites,” she remarked.

Katharina grows quiet as she lightly touches and re-arranges several glass ornaments. She holds up another bird, this one a glass peacock, teal and silver, its proud head stretched upward, and again glances over at me.

“It is strange that, while we lived in Königsberg, the only Christmas memories I have are those celebrated in Kalthof, at the Gärtnerei Podack, with Papa’s parents, my Oma and Opa. Mutti’s parents, the Eberhardts, also lived in Königsberg, in Auf den Hufen, in the western part of the city. But I remember nothing of spending any holidays there or at our own apartments in Königsberg.

“Our family were not church-goers, but we observed the Christian customs of baptism, confirmation, and church weddings. We celebrated the Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas as a matter of tradition, the same way these holidays were commonly celebrated in East Prussia, without them having a special religious meaning for us.

Christmas Traditions

“I remember most clearly the Christmas of 1944, after the air raids and bombings in Königsberg. We had to leave the city and live with Opa and Oma (August and Hedwig) in Kalthof. It was a happy time for me to be back at the Nursery Podack, where I was born and where we lived again for a while after  moving from Allenstein.

“Preparations and anticipation for Christmas started the first day of December with the advent calendar. Our curiosity over what magic image the opening of the next day’s window would bring was so very overwhelming! There was no peeking ahead though; anyone would surely notice that the little window just will not close properly again — I know — I tried it once!

“On the first Advent Sunday the Advent wreath was put on its stand and secured with red ribbons. Four candle holders were clipped on, and candles inserted. On that Sunday only one candle would be lit in the afternoon with everyone assembled for cake, and coffee for the adults. It was the beginning of the festivities and many special activities.”

First Advent. Flickr Photo Credit dietmar-schwanitz

“St. Nikolaus day, on December 6, was the first warning and reminder for us children that being good or naughty could have consequences on Christmas Eve, when presents were to be opened. The custom was for the children to clean and shine their shoes and put them outside the door of their bedroom before going to bed that night. Then Saint Nikolaus would come and put some treat in them.”

Having set out all her tree ornaments and divided them into two lots, Katharina rose from the couch and nodded to the group nearest to me. “Why don’t you start at the top and I will start at the bottom, shall we?” She holds the first ornament: the familiar red mushroom with big white spots.“ This one, it is a fliegenpilz. A poisonous mushroom!” she adds.

“Poisonous! I had no idea,” I exclaim. “Those are so familiar from children’s tales and Disney movies,” I add.

Katharina twists her face into a wry smirk. “Just goes to show you. Today’s kids are absolutely clueless about the real world around them.”

As she places the glass mushroom on the tree, she continues her story.

“So. It’s the Christmas season. In the kitchen, besides their regular duties, the women start making Pfefferkuchen, preparing the dough which had to sit for many days before it was ready for the baking sheet and the oven. After that it would be spread with icing made from powdered sugar and lemon juice, cut into squares, and stored in a large crock. It was a type of gingerbread, but very dark and hard and often eaten by dunking it into coffee. Pfefferkuchen would keep without spoiling until Easter the next year, no joke!

“The making of Marzipan began as well. The best part of watching in the kitchen was getting to lick the bowls and spoons.

“Each following Sunday one more candle on the Advent wreath would be lit and a few of the special things would be brought out of storage. One of these was a little merry-go-round windmill that would turn all on its own with the heat from the small candles.”

Flickr Photo Credit berndtolksdorf

With a handful of ornaments, I move to the backside of the Christmas tree, and interject. “I have one of those. My father gave me one for Christmas several years back. I just love it; it’s magical.”

Katharina pauses in her work, gives me a level stare through the branches, then shrugs and continues with her story.

“I had a doll — her name was Ursula. Her eyes would close when I laid her down. One day her eye sockets were empty, her eyes seemed to be rattling around inside her head. Mutti took her and said she needed to go the hospital. I accepted it matter-of-factly. I had never spent much time with Ursula, except to dress her and put her to bed when it was her bedtime. I was doing what my Mutti did — I did not know how else to play with her. Mutti always made sure we were dressed nicely.

Father Christmas

“On Christmas Eve, the big tree had been set up in the usual corner in Opa’s Herrenzimmer (gentlemen’s room). The sofa and big chairs were moved and arranged around the walls of the room. The tree was adorned with all of Oma’s decorations. There were shiny glass globes of all colors, some oddly twisted longer shapes like tear drops; and as you know — the ones I liked the most were fancy little birds with real feathers, fastened to the branches with the clips they were sitting on. The clips for the candles were there as well and lots of tinsel, carefully hung in single strands on each branch. The candles were lit and the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) arrived in person with the heavy gunny sack over his shoulders. I was not sure if the Weihnachtsmann was real. Everyone else is here but Opa; this must be Opa.

“He opened his sack and brought out festively wrapped packages, one for each of us. And guess what — Ursula came out of the sack — and her eyes were back! She blinked at me happily when I held her in my arms. Then the biggest surprise for me — Opa walked into the room and the Weihnachtsmann handed him a box of cigars! I hugged Ursula and wondered about this Father Christmas…

“Mutti had prepared a bunten Teller, a deep paper plate full of sweet treats, chocolates and an orange for each child. This was the year that Klaus and Gerd, our cousins and our aunt, Tante Alma, spent Christmas day with us. The family came from Pravten by train to share in the Christmas goose for the midday feast. Let me tell you about this goose!

“Several weeks before Christmas the selected geese were confined to be fattened. Opa made up a doughy mixture of grains, using a recipe handed down through generations. He formed the dough into boluses about the size of a finger. Opa would sit with the goose held firmly between his legs and hold open its beak. Then a bolus of dough was forced down the goose’s throat and massaged down the long neck. This was done every day. I watched Opa do this once. It seemed barbaric to me at the time, but he must have had a lot of experience doing this, being gentle and careful not to harm the goose before its time came.

“Roasted goose was the centerpiece of the Christmas feast. It was stuffed with apples, accompanied with potatoes and Rotkraut (red cabbage). There were other dishes prepared from the goose as well: Gänsebrust (goose breast) — the whole breast was cut from the bone, tied together with string, and smoked. Oh! What an incredible delicacy that was! Also, goose fat was rendered, gently fried with finely chopped onion, and seasoned with salt and marjoram. This made a soft spread for the sourdough peasant bread. And then there was goose liver pâté, and Gänsegekröse — a rich soup from neck, wings, and giblets. All so very delicious, during those holiday times.”

Ingridpwrites:  Try this recipe for a rich, creamy goose soup with dumplings!

“This Christmas in 1944 was the last one spent in Königsberg and the one most remembered with the extended family, because the following months changed our lives dramatically and fundamentally. Our first post-war Christmas in 1945, in a new environment, under very difficult circumstances, was starkly different in many ways.

Christmas in Refuge

“The year of 1945 had been difficult for my parents; they were putting all their energy into creating a new beginning. We had just a couple of months earlier moved into this old house, and Papa was trying to start his practice. The year had been very lean. Money could not buy anything. The store shelves were empty. We gleaned potatoes after the fields had been harvested, gleaned wheat fields for the grain, foraged in the woods for berries and mushrooms, and picked through the fallen leaves for beech nuts on our knees.

“We had shelled and ground the beech nuts we had gathered into flour and used them in place of almonds. We made Marzipan, just like we did that last time we were with Oma and Opa in Kalthof.

“We had a small tree on top of a round table, a table that had been given to us, found in someone’s attic, its glass top long gone, but its curved legs still strong; the wood stained but of good quality; the gift very much appreciated. The little tree was decorated with tinsel and a few candles. There were only a few things under the tree.

“It was Christmas Eve. We gathered in the patient waiting room which became the family room after Papa’s office hours. I was standing nervously in front of the tree reading aloud the Bible story of the birth of the Christ child. The children were seated on the stools and Mutti and Papa stood behind them — Papa a quiet participant, as was his way, but he sang with us when Mutti directed us all in singing Silent Night. When I settled onto my own stool, Mutti handed out the few presents. Each got a bunten Teller, the plate with treats, just like in Kalthof, but Saint Nikolaus had not come to this old house on the 6th of December.

“There was no Weihnachtsmann – no Father Christmas. There was no Christmas goose. There was no Oma and Opa – they were still missing. We did not know if they had gotten out of Königsberg alive. My parents had initiated a search through the Red Cross but there had been no word so far.

“I opened my gift. It was a small towel and a washcloth. A towel and washcloth of my own to use for the weekly bath in the wash tub in the cellar Waschkueche (laundry room), where water was heated in the big copper kettle. The kettle is the same one in which the bed sheets and underwear was boiled on laundry day.

“I was so excited over this gift! It was the first time that I felt special, older, more grown-up than my four siblings. No more using the same smelly cloth all the kids had used, no more having to use the already damp towel.

“After more than 75 years I still have the towel; it is rough, but it is my own,” Katharina remarks proudly.

The Gift of Christmastime Lessons

“It was in this year, for the first time, that the Bible story about the birth of the Christ child in a stable made a marked impression on me – more than just being something akin to a fairy tale. I understood then that it does not take a richly decorated tree, many presents, and a Christmas goose to make the season meaningful. The simplicity of that day, celebrated in deprivation and poverty, and missing my grandparents, created a lasting memory, despite the increasingly more plentiful Christmases in following years.”  Katharina breathes a heavy sigh as she carefully hangs her last ornament.

We stand hand in hand admiring our work. The Christmas tree sparkles with tinsel and firelight reflects in its glass ornaments. We turn to face each other, both feeling the pull of nostalgia and memory, from different decades and different lives. In this moment, I realize that in the spareness of my own childhood, my mother had tried to instill in us an appreciation of what we had, rather than dwelling on what we had not. As I reflect on the commercial push and tone of the holiday season in today’s time, I connect with the spirit that Katharina is sharing. I find truer meaning in what our family meant; what the toil and frugality meant, the wisdom she shared all along in teaching us how to cook, bake, sew, garden, preserve foods, tend the yard, and keep our homes spotless and in good repair. With Katharina I learned how to be resourceful, tenacious, self-sufficient, and steadfast — qualities that have carried me through some of the toughest challenges of my own life. I have Katharina to thank also — for the lessons of acceptance and forgiveness.

Without Katharina, I would not be who I am today. This is the grandest gift of all. Grateful, I hug my mother tightly.

Katharina’s Story Chapter 6 Omi and Opi – the Eberhardts

Marie Eberhardt
Marie Eberhardt, circa 1953

Katharina and I have been for a quick, brisk walk on this November morning, and now sit in warm comfort together on her plush burgundy sofa. She has a box of photos open on her lap. As she shares them with me, slowly extracting one after the other, she pauses for some time with the photo of her grandmother, lovingly running her aged fingers across its face as she remembers Marie Eberhardt.

“She was my Omi, my maternal grandmother. In 1942 I am seven and she is 56 years old. Now that we are back in Königsberg, I will have the chance to see her frequently and get to know her. She and her husband Karl have a house on Kastanienallee, in the area called Auf den Hufen, on the western side of Königsberg. The street dead-ends at their house with a fence that encloses a park on the other side. The view through the fence is obscured by a dense hedgerow, but from Omi’s kitchen window on the first floor I can see over the trees into the park. There are tennis courts. In the Winter months they let water freeze on the courts and the boys use them to practice ice hockey. I watch them sometimes. Omi feeds the birds on the concrete ledge outside the window with suet and seeds.

“On this day, Omi is putting up pickled pumpkin and I watch her whenever I can take my eyes of the birds. She is ladling the chunks of pumpkin into a crock from a large pot, where they have been simmering on the gas stove in a sweet-and-sour syrup. I ask her what they taste like when they are done and she explains that they will not be done until they have cooled off and spent some time sitting on the shelf ‘aging,’ but she goes to the pantry and brings out another crock, pulls off the cellophane that is tied over the top and with a fork fishes out a few pieces, puts them on a plate and hands it to me for sampling. Slowly I take a piece and hesitantly bring it up to my lips. ‘Go ahead,’ she says, ‘it won’t bite’ and laughs at me. I gather my courage and put it in my mouth. The tangy syrup fills my mouth when I bite down on the pumpkin piece, it is crunchy too. I decide I like it and finish them off!”

Ingridpwrites:  Pickled pumpkin is a traditional German food. Here’s how to make it for your holiday season!

“While she continues the pumpkin preserving and I watch the birds feeding and fighting on the windowsill, Omi talks of the times when I was small and she got to spend time with me, her first grandchild. Mutti once had asked her for advice when I was giving her a hard time with potty training.”

“‘Your Mutti brought you over; she said she had tried everything she could think of, but you just would not stay sitting on the potty, you would get up and then do your little poop on the floor. I asked her to leave you with me for a few days and I would see what I could do. She agreed. When I set you on the potty, I sat next to you and read stories to you and you stayed sitting there, but as soon as I got up, you got up too. I had to think of something. So, I put you in your stroller and we went to the store. I bought you a brand-new potty and some bananas. You were so happy to hold your new potty, so I put a banana in it for you. When we got home, I sat you on your new potty and gave you half of the banana to eat – and you pooped in the potty. We celebrated by dancing to music on the radio and you laughed. You took your new potty with you when your Mutti picked you up and never pooped on the floor again.’”

“I laughed at her story. I loved my Omi.

“After the pumpkin is all tied up in the crock and put on the pantry shelf, we go to the living room. There is an oriental style carpet on the floor; there is a round table that has a golden-yellow crocheted cloth on it with long fringes around the edge and chairs pushed under it; against the wall stands a mahogany book cabinet, the heavy glass doors have beveled edges and behind them stand the many volumes of Opi’s leather-bound Encyclopedia. When Opi is not at home Omi lets me look at the books, she even lets me sit in Opi’s big leather easy chair. I just must promise to be very careful with the books. I don’t understand much of what’s written in those books, but the pictures tell me a story anyway.

“Omi is a kind person; one can see it in her face. Even when she is serious, she looks like there is a smile just waiting to come back. She is not tall, her figure is mature, a little rounded, her hair is almost white but sort of blond too, braided and held in a bun in back with hair pins and a fine hair net over it. Her hands show that they are accustomed to work. The house is neat, there are no servants. The apartment arrangement is like most: entry into a lobby, or Diele. From there doors lead into the bedroom, kitchen, bath, living/dining room, and a sunroom that my aunt – Tante Toni – she is also my godmother – and her daughter Winnie currently occupy. Tante Toni is divorced.

“Sometimes when Omi, Tante Toni and Mutti get together on occasional afternoons for Kaffeeklatsch I get to come along, but I have to promise to sit in my chair and be quiet.

“Those times I bring crocheting with me, but my ears are open, and I eagerly listen to the adults’ conversation. Their conversation is animated, but it is Omi’s laughter that is so effervescent, so contagious that I catch myself laughing as well, even though I had promised to be quiet. Often the talk becomes serious though as they share some of their troubling thoughts and Omi always has soothing words . ‘Aber Kindchen . . .’ she would say with empathy which means something like ‘Oh poor child . . .’ At those times she would call her grown daughters Kindchen as well.”

Finally, Katharina lays aside the photograph of her Omi, Marie Eberhardt, and pauses again at a photo of her Oma, Hedwig.

“I think of Oma in Kalthof. How different they are! How easy Omi is to talk to, and how closed off Oma is. And how Omi laughs! I will never forget her laughter. It bubbles. It is like a rain of pearls. It often bursts out suddenly, fizzy like shaking up a soda bottle and opening the cap. It fills the whole room with lighthearted joyfulness. My Omi, she is the only person to whom I can turn and confide in later in my life…”

“Omi was born in Hoppendorf in East Prussia – where it is located on the map I could never find. She was one of seven surviving children of nine born to her parents, Karl and Wilhelmine Robben, five girls and two boys. The name Robben can be traced back to her great-grandfather, Gottlieb Robben, who came to the area with Napoleon’s Army. According to family lore, Gottlieb did not participate in the Russian campaign of that time. When the French army passed through East Prussia, he deserted, hiding in the dense forests. After peace was made in 1815, he traveled on foot back to his home in Belgium to receive an inheritance. He then made his way back to East Prussia by stagecoach, now having the funds to afford it.”

Karl Eberhardt
Karl Eberhardt, circa 1953

Katharina runs her hands through her short curls, lifting a photo of her grandfather, her Opi.

“My grandfather, my Opi Karl comes from Altenstadt in Hesse, where his family was prominent in business and local politics. It was one of the larger villages in the area with a Post Office and rail connections to Frankfurt and Giessen. It also had an airport a short distance away.

Karl Eberhardt, in an Altenstadt school photo taken during school year 1895-96.

“Born in 1885 he is one year older than his wife Marie, together they have six children, four girls: Dorie, Nora, Toni and Marga; and identical twin boys: Waldemar (called Wallusch) and Heinz.”

Marie and Karl Eberhardt with their first three girls, from left to right: Nora, Dorie, and Toni, in 1912.

“In Königsberg Karl is employed by the city as Stadt Amtsmann, in charge of water works, drainage, and sewer systems. He is so indispensable that at the end of the war, even during the siege of Königsberg in April 1945, he remained. He was later detained in his post by the Russians until 1949!

I had very little exposure to Opi, and remember him only as a growly bear, judging by his voice. His hands with long slender fingers, indicative of a draftsman’s hands possibly, were the only remarkable thing to me. I suppose it is from him that the excellence in mathematics has been passed to his daughter Nora — my Mutti — and then to my brother Hardy. We know nothing about his education or why he chose to live in Königsberg or how he and Marie met.

“Our family was resourceful and lucky, and Karl did well financially during the depression. He was able to build the cabin on the Baltic coast that became the summer destination for the family, children, and grandchildren alike, and for this the entire family was deeply grateful.

“Ah… that summer cabin. I have already told you much about my memories there. But the most beautiful are those I have of days’ end. The glaring late-afternoon sun gathers, like a shepherd his sheep, the few scattered wispy clouds around it as it declines toward the western horizon, where sky and sea seem to become one. Growing ever larger, it begins to lose its stark brightness, its color slowly mellowing into rosy orange, tinting sky-blue and silver-clouds alike. The fiery globe finally meets the sea  and thus defines the lost horizon, beginning to build a bridge across the water like glowing molten metal, tiny flames flickering and dancing on the crests of gentle waves as they roll toward the beach, advancing and retreating, advancing and retreating… Finally, the sun sinks into the sea, sparking sky and clouds to ignite flaming red, dipping the water into midnight darkness with just a veil  of pink haze still floating on its surface. Grey dusk descends and quietly snuffs all colors, as the tireless waves softly sing nature their lullaby.

“As the breezes calm and the night becomes still, the faint spicy scent of the pines high above the beach, wafts low and marries with the sleepy haze that has settled on the cooling sands. Only  the pulsing beam from the lighthouse at Brüsterort remains busy, steadily flitting through the night air.

“I  see in my mind how nature paints this picture of wind and sea, sky and sandy beach and fragrant pine forest, sunshine and the dark of night, and it would not be complete and perfect if even the smallest detail were missing. This picture is engraved in my memory, indelible and unfading.”

Katharina’s Story – Chapter 5

Summer on the Baltic Sea

It is an uncharacteristically hot day in October when I arrive at Katharina’s home in the Salt Lake Valley. Apropos to her industriousness, Katharina is preparing to make home-made ice cream in her old-fashioned ice cream churner. Already, she has whisked the sugar and eggs with the freshly-scraped vanilla bean seeds – set aside now in a large bowl.

“It is a perfect day for ice cream! I thought summer was over!” she exclaims as I set my things on the dining table and open my notebook. “Get comfortable, we will churn this later.”

“This day so reminds me of the summer days spent with my Mutti’s parents at their cabin on the Baltic Sea,” she says, as she combines cream with milk in a pan on the stove.

She glances over her shoulder at me.

“When East Prussia was still part of Germany after the end of World War I, even though cut off from it by the Polish Corridor, Rauschen and Cranz were popular summer resort destinations for the affluent. It was in Loppöhnen, a tiny insignificant fishing village, on the coast of the Baltic Sea between these upscale beach resorts, where the Eberhardts — Mutti’s side of the family — had built their summer cabin.

This map shows the beach resort locations of Rauschen and Cranz relative to Königsberg. There is an amber mine at Palmnicken, and at Brüsterort stands a lighthouse. You see Pillau as well, where Nora and Walter first met aboard the excursion cruise across the Frisches Haff.

“Life there was idyllic for vacationers but hard and primitive for the people making their living on the coastline.” 

Katharina slowly stirs the mixture in the pot, waiting for it to just start to bubble. Her attention is captured on her task, and I rise to help myself to a glass of water from the sink. I stand watching as she slowly stirs the egg mixture into the bubbling cream.

She wears her bright red apron over khakis and a light blue, blousy shirt. She looks happy, comfortable – so natural – still remarkably youthful at her advanced 87 years, and I marvel at her energy and capabilities. Industrious and imaginative – always filling her days with creative activity and productive pursuits — she taught her children well. All know how to cook, bake, sew, garden, preserve foods, tend the yard, and keep their homes spotless and in good repair.

“There,” she says, as she places the hot mixture into an ice bath, continuing to stir. “Now we can put this in the refrigerator until after our talk, and we will be ready to churn!”

These final preparations completed, we both return to the dining table, Katharina with a tall glass of iced coffee, as usual. As we settle in, she begins.

“My fondest memories, although ever shrouded in melancholy, are there, all glorious images indelible on my mind, their sensation imprinted as fresh as yesterday.” She pauses a long while, and I sit quietly as she gazes through the glass of the patio door.

“I inhale deeply the fragrance of sun-warmed pine needles, a soft carpet under my feet.  A light breeze rustles in the treetops, bringing with it the muffled sound of the nearby sea,” she said.

“It takes me back…I have a basket, handed me by my grandmother – we kids call her Omi – to fill with dry pinecones destined for the small wood stove that warms the cabin on chilly evenings. I am a girl of about eight, entrusted with this task. It is not a chore for me. I get to go to a favorite place by myself, an extensive stand of pines above the beach of the Baltic Sea. A lone sandy path outside the village brought me here. I fill the basket quickly, set it down and lie down on the bed of pine needles to look up at the sky and the wispy white clouds that seem to be drifting through the treetops. I let the sounds and smells, the gentle warm air wash over me. I’m beginning to feel drowsy! I had better head back.”

©Ken Curl | Flickr

“The cabin was built by my maternal grandfather, Opi, many years ago when my mother Nora and her siblings were still children. It has been a family vacation destination every summer. There are just a few scattered vacation cabins down by the beach. There is no train connection. From Königsberg we take the Kleinbahn – a small train — across Samland to Neukuhren, the closest station.

“From there it is a long walk to Loppöhnen. For a stretch the path runs alongside the tracks flanked by sweeping growths of flowering Lupines, bluish-pink to vibrant purple, but then it bends away, leading us by cow pastures. Mutti is pushing my grandfather’s bicycle, saddlebags packed to bursting, bags hanging on the handlebars. Often it is easier for her to take a short cut through the close-grazed meadows than to stay on the deep sand of the path. We children are barefoot, carrying our sandals. Full of energy and anticipation, we run ahead in abandonment. Then a scream! Edel has stepped in a soft cow pie, the green stuff oozing up between her toes. This is new for her.  The same thing had happened to Hardy before — and to me — as well! We laugh at her and make her cry. Mutti calms her: ‘We can’t do anything about it until we get to the water, find some sand and push your foot in it to clean! No, you can’t put your sandals back on now — here, I’ll hang them on the bike.’”

“We finally reach the cabin. It is 1942, and this year my Omi and Mutti, my brother Hardy, sister Edel, and I have come. The cabin has no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. An outhouse was built as part of the house, accessible from the outside and kept free of odors. A bucket under the seat is the receptacle for our business and is emptied daily, the contents buried deep in the sand around the many thriving berry bushes.”

“Simple, responsible, and effective disposal, don’t you think?” Katharina laughs at the memory and takes a long drink of her iced coffee.

“We have to fetch water from the village well, which has a hand pump to fill our buckets. We need no electricity – the summer days were long, and the sun only slept a few hours. The two-burner cook stove in the small kitchen is fed from a butane tank. A couple of times during the week the village baker delivers fresh bread with his horse drawn wagon to the few families along the beach. Other villagers offer eggs and fresh fish, brought in by the fishermen early in the morning.

“After we enter the cabin through the small kitchen, we walk through the sleeping space with two sets of bunk beds, then the veranda — the living and eating area with windows all around facing the Sea and the setting sun. There are no dividing doors between the rooms. The only closed off space is the Kabuff. It is a room just wide and long enough for two narrow cots with barely a walkway between them. It has a window sized opening toward the veranda, we could always hear the adults’ conversation and laughter after we had been sent to bed. Hardy and I sleep in the Kabuff. Burlap sacks filled with straw are our mattresses — a coarsely woven sheet covers them, but it’s not enough to avoid being frequently poked by the straw.

“Edel, the youngest of us there, sleeps on a folding bed in the veranda. She normally is put to bed earlier than Hardy and I. Heidi, my youngest sister, is staying with our other grandparents, Oma and Opa – that is, Hedwig and August, in Kalthof.

“Warm afternoons we spend on the beach, just a short walk through the dunes, the sand white and warm, the waves friendly. We stay in the shallow water; we had often been reminded of dangerous and unpredictable cross currents that could take one out into the deep. Building sandcastles is a competitive sport and I must be watchful and not let Hardy get too close, or he could in an opportune moment ‘accidentally’ step on my work of art and ruin it, which he did often!

“And then there is our kuhle, made by digging a dish-like depression in the sand with a berm all around to keep the chilling breeze out. A kuhle is usually large enough to hold several persons at one time. On the outside of the berm, families would spell their name with rocks, and it goes without saying that everyone knows that as their kuhle. It is the perfect place to stretch out and laze in the sun for a while, or warm up after getting wet.

“Sometimes we could see war ships slowly gliding across the horizon. It was war time, we knew that. Our father was somewhere far away in Sarajevo, a place with an exotic sounding name. On Sundays my uncle Heinz and my aunt Toni – Nora’s (Mutti’s) brother and sister — would join us, and the conversation in the evening was all about the war and what was going on in the world, especially on the Eastern front with the Russian Campaign.

“In the following years a couple more cabins were built on the property, one for my aunt Toni, divorced, and my cousin Winnie; another very small one for Omi, with just a kitchen niche, bunk beds and a small table with two chairs. The family had their own kuhle in the dunes, the new cabins on one side, a stand of Alder just beyond the berm on the other and toward the sea, affording natural protection from the wind; this was a favorite place for the adults to sunbathe and gather for a chat. Once in a while, during our stay at the summer cabin there would be a violent thunderstorm, which we watched from the veranda. Mutti always told us to close our eyes and not look at the lightning — which we found impossible to do. It was such a powerfully overwhelming spectacle.”

Katharina paused. “I do so love to watch a thunderstorm with lightning, don’t you? It’s just so spectacular, such a powerful reminder of our insignificance.” I agree with her, wholeheartedly, and tell her of a recent experience of my own, out in West Texas, when the entire sky was shocked and splintered by the most breathtaking lightning bolts, reaching far and wide, and slamming into the earth.

At this interruption, Katharina rises to assemble the ice cream churner. Gathering a box of rock salt from the pantry, she continues her story.

“Yes! Mutti told about something that happened when she was a child there one summer. During a storm a ball lightning rolled right through the veranda without damaging anything. We could not imagine such a thing happening!” Katharina beams at me, incredulous, then turns to retrieve the bowl of ice cream preparations from the refrigerator.

“For us, the best thing about a thunderstorm was the following day at the beach. The surf would still be strong, clouds still racing across the sky driven by a brisk wind, the beach sand cool under our bare feet. But Hardy and I would be out there early, each with a small cloth bag clutched in our hands. We were hunting for small bits of amber that the waves had washed onto the beach. This was our jealously guarded treasure which we were anxious to increase, a competition between the two of us to see who would find the largest piece or the greatest amount.”

Typical beach sand on the Baltic Sea where amber is often washed up from the mine in Palmnicken (now Yantarny).

“There was a test to make sure that it was indeed amber and not some small pebble of similar color. You had to rub the sample vigorously against your shirt and then hold it against a tiny piece of newsprint paper. If the sample picked up the paper, it was genuine amber; if not, it was rock. In some of the bigger amber pieces – larger than two millimeter — we could occasionally find small insects embedded or a bit of vegetation. Those were worth bragging about!

“Some days we would stroll along the beach to Loppöhner Spitze, that was as far as one could go, a point with a steep bank and hundreds of huge rocks, polished round and smooth by the elements, a great place for climbing and jumping and finding all sorts of sea creatures in the small ponds between the boulders. Often, Hardy and I were allowed to go there by ourselves. What special times those were!

“Other times, there were long walks on the beach with one of the grown-ups, westward to Rauschen, about a kilometer distant. There was a boardwalk there, covered beach chairs (“Strandkörbe”) on the beach, a pier going far out into the sea, many small shops, and beautifully dressed people everywhere. It was here that I got my first taste of ice cream!”

The boardwalk and beach at Rauschen on the Baltic Sea.

Katharina is ready with the churner and gives me a giant grin.

“Let’s get to churning!” she excitedly cries.

Ingridpwrites:  Fancy some homemade ice cream? See how to make it here.

Chapter 4 — Mutti and Papa’s Early Years

Nora and Walter

Nora’s plan was to become a teacher, instructing girls at a Lyceum (girls’ high school) in mathematics and physical education. She had already earned her teaching certificate at Albertus University in Königsberg but turned down an offer for a position in favor of accepting Walter’s marriage proposal.


Katharina sits at her puzzle table, where the old city photo of a European market is very close to being completed. Simon purrs on her lap, content with Katharina’s gentle movements as she works to finish the puzzle.

“They met on deck of an excursion cruiser, crossing the Frisches Haff, the bay that connected the Königsberg harbor with the open Baltic Sea. This outing would have taken them to the Pillau Citadel, to visit the old Star Fort. Nora, who would later become my mother, described this meeting to me, when I was an adult myself, with a bit of mischief in her eyes:

‘I was standing at the railing, just looking down into the almost calm water, at the way this boat was cutting a path into it, creating long, shallow waves, that sort of diagonally traveled away behind the boat, getting weaker and ever smaller in the distance. It was a pleasantly warm day, and I was dressed in a light summer dress and sandals, feeling splendid and enjoying a day away from studies, letting the wind play freely with my short hair. A tall young man in shorts walked up and put his hands on the railing beside me. Quiet for a while, he then asked without introduction: “Is there anything I can do for you, Fräulein?”

Well, that was a clumsy approach, I thought. So, I leaned over the railing and spit into the water and to him I said: “I would consider it a great kindness if you could retrieve my spit.” That seemed to baffle him for a moment, but he remained undaunted, and we started talking.“‘

Katharina pauses and points her finger at me, a bright yellow puzzle piece clasped between her thumb and second finger. “She was a feisty one, my Mutti, as you will come to know. And Papa, well, he was a man of few words. And so their tumultuous story begins… as Mutti told it to me…

‘After that first meeting on the boat, when Walter asked if he could see me again and I had said “yes,” I gave him our phone number and permission to call. He called one evening and we made a date for the following Sunday to spend the afternoon at the “Schlossteich,” the long-stretched lake that extends North from the Castle and lies surrounded by a beautifully kept park. There were row boats there and we could get out on the water — that appealed to me.

He rang the doorbell at our house in the Albrecht Straße, where we lived at that time and when I answered the door he presented me with a nosegay of fragrant violets, pulling it out from behind his back. Oh, was I impressed!

Later, when I learned that his parents owned a nursery, that first so wonderful moment lost some of its luster, making room for a hint of disappointment.’

Katharina levels her gaze at me above her reading glasses, raising her eyebrows. “Even at the outset, you see, my mother found a way to create discontent!” she cried in frustration.

“The following summer they spent together on a camping trip. They crisscrossed East Prussia’s many lakes, connected with canals, in Walter’s two-seat kayak for a glorious six weeks. From old photos we can gather that they spent many hours studying together, relaxing on the beach of the Baltic Sea, where Nora’s parents owned a summer cabin. Some pictures show the couple with Nora’s sisters on the beach.

“It was in December 1933 that my parents got engaged, and they were married in April 1934.”

Katharina swivels in her chair, pointing out the family photos hanging on the dining room wall. I rise to study them more closely.

“There are their wedding photos,” Katharina said. “In one, they are exiting from a church, the bride in her wedding gown, the groom in the uniform of the SA. The Sturmabteilung, or SA, was a paramilitary organization associated with the Nazi Party; later it lost most of its relevance when it was superseded by the Schutzstaffel, or SS.

Walter in the uniform of the SA at his marriage to Nora
Walter and Nora Podack

“Walter was a member of the Nazi Party, although his new love never liked it. Nora and her family were strictly against the Nazi movement; Walter was for it from the beginning. His membership in the Party gave him certain advantages while in college, obtaining internships, and making good connections. 

“In the other picture,” Katharina continued, “presumably taken after the ceremony, they stand in the living room of Walter’s parents – August and Hedwig – with the groom in civilian clothes.”

“As you know, the young couple, expecting their first child, lived with August and Hedwig while Walter finished his studies at Albertus University. It was here that Nora birthed her first child (that’s me) in December 1934. As it was told to me, I arrived on a cold winter morning, the bare branches of the trees outside the window shivering in the chinking frost, only after an abnormally prolonged labor that was worrying to all involved. The midwife tried everything in her repertoire of knowledge, handed down through generations, including putting heated plates on Nora’s belly. After a long afternoon and a tiring night, this baby girl got her first swat on the tiny buttocks and let out a healthy cry!”  Katharina giggles as she returns to her puzzle, Simon purring in her lap.


The story of Katharina follows Nora’s life with her mother-in-law, Hedwig, who had no appreciation for Nora and was outwardly hostile to her. In the close quarters shared with her in-laws, Nora and Walter whispered of Walter’s goal to finish his studies as quickly as possible so they could have a home of their own. Walter wanted to be able to support his dream of a large family – having been an only child,  he desired a “soccer team” of eleven boys. 

But the first infant is a girl. Nora breast fed her baby. Slender as she had been before, her breasts were ample now and Katharina was healthy and grew quickly. She was baptized in the Lutheran faith, at the Friedrich Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Walter standing with his wife in the formal photo, again in the uniform of the SA.

Katharina’s Baptism 1934

The winter months passed, Spring came and went, Nora was still nursing Katharina and had not menstruated again since the birth of her little girl. She had been told that while breast feeding one could not get pregnant, so she had not given it much thought. But now things were going on with her body and she began to wonder. Nora was pregnant again. When she told Hedwig about it, the spiteful reply was, “So you just had to spread your legs again, did you?”

It is unimaginable how this must have impacted Nora‘s precarious balance, being  made to feel guilty for conceiving a child in marriage, having already experienced and overcome Hedwig’s degradations during her first pregnancy. She knew Hedwig would make her pay for it in some way.

Young Hardy was born in December 1935, again with the help of a midwife on the Gärtnerei Podack, suffering from rickets because the fetus did not receive the nourishment needed in the womb.

It seemed that with the passing years, relations between Nora and her mother-in-law did not improve. Hedwig’s verbal abuse and insidious degradations always took place when Walter was not present. Having endured Hedwig’s continued hatefulness for nearly two years now, Nora finally told Walter about it. But he did nothing.

Nora resented that Walter did not stand up for her, but she knew that it would not be possible for him to go against his mother, especially since they were still dependent on her support. And, perhaps, he could not quite believe it of his mother. Being caught between the two Podack women in this prickly household was an uncomfortable position for such a quiet, unassuming young man who had taken on much during uncertain times.

It is finally in the fourth year of their marriage, however, that the small family moved first to Dingolfing, in Bavaria, where Walter had secured an internship, and where the third child — another girl — Edel, is born in 1938.  After that, Walter was able to begin his residency with a doctor in Allenstein, where we find Katharina enrolled for the first time into grade school.  Another girl is born here, Heidi, and after a time, Walter obtained his doctorate and the family of six moved into their first apartment just West of the Tiergarten park, on Luisenallee 33, in the inner city of Königsberg, a place once ruled by kings.

While Walter’s dreams of a large family were coming true, he had as yet only one son, and he hoped for more. Walter encouraged a large family also as a follower of the Nazi Party, as Hitler presented the Mutter Kreuz (Mother Cross) for mothers with six children – his program to strengthen the Aryan line.

Walter was now able to practice medicine as a licensed doctor and believed himself to be on the path to the success that would enable him to support a very large family indeed. He very much hoped to specialize in orthopedics.

As it happened, though, the following years of WWII destroyed those dreams; the Germans were under full assault at the time Walter was ready to start in earnest his medical practice. Instead, he was conscripted into military service. It was to his advantage, however, that his doctorate allowed him to begin his active military career as an officer.

He served as a military doctor in the Balkan states in guerrilla warfare, mainly in Yugoslavia; also in Serbia, Albania, and Croatia; serving in Greece at the end of the war. German interests in the area, as defined by Hitler, included the security of supply routes and communications to German air bases in Greece and Crete, the safeguarding of the copper-producing areas in northeastern Serbia, the protection of an open shipping route on the Danube, and retention of the economic privileges granted Germany by the former Yugoslav government.

Walter came home infrequently on furlough and was missed greatly by his young wife and children. It was common practice for German families to become pregnant intentionally. Men with families of five children were not required to fight on the front lines. During the intervening year at Luisenallee, Walter’s second son Rudi was born in February of 1943.

Nora with her five children (left to right) Hardy, Heidi, Rudi, Edel and Katharina, far right.

Later, the young family moved to a modern apartment on Stobbäusstrasse 5 – near the central park of Luisenwahl, located in the Mittelhufen and Amalienau suburban quarters of northwestern Königsberg. It is here that Nora and her five children lived, without the head of household, at the time of the British bombing raid of August 1944. Here is Nora with her five children (left to right) Hardy, Heidi, Rudi, Edel and Katharina, far right.

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