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 Stubeusstrasse 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.


Chapter 3 – The Podack Women in Conflict

…Nora became familiar with her mother-in-law’s shape; sort of a hollowed back, wide hips, sloping shoulders and the forever corseted middle…


Clara Hedwig Packhäuser was born early in 1890, on a farm in Pravten, a rural village to the North and East of Königsberg, that capital of East Prussia. She was probably the second-born of four girls: Frieda, the oldest, then Clara, Gertrud, and Alma. All the girls, except Alma, married and resided in or close to Königsberg. Alma remained on the farm with her parents, married and had two boys, Klaus and Gerd. Frieda married Max and remained childless, Gertrud married Otto, and they had one son, Erwin.

August Podack was born in the Fall of 1883. He had a twin brother, named Paul. They were born into a family of farmers who made their living on the land in the outlying regions East of Königsberg. The fertile earth produced abundant crops of rye under the dedicated care of these country people, their roots going as deep as their love for the land. Generations ago this land had been moors and bogs, the way the last ice age had left it after the glaciers had receded. August’s ancestors had, with just a spade, turned it into fertile farmland by draining the bogs the same way that land still is being taken back in the tidal plains of the North Sea today. Crops were grown without irrigation, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Centuries-old methods of crop rotation were used, enriching the soil instead of depleting it. Living in this grain-growing region, it was logical for August to choose the trade of miller, while his brother remained on the farm.

August married a pretty, younger girl from Pravten, a nearby village, where her family were farmers as well, solid peasant stock, accustomed to hard work and a simple life; she was Clara Hedwig Packhäuser. Hedwig (as she preferred to be called) and August had two sons, Walter, and another boy who died in infancy. Whether he was older or younger, we do not know. It may be remarked that all the Packhäuser girls bore sons but no daughters; we know of no Packhäuser boys.

August and Hedwig never talked with the younger generations about their early times together, how they weathered the First World War or how they worked those many hard years building their life together. But as it was, August rose from having learned the trade of miller to owning and operating a successful plant nursery and small dairy farm in Kalthof, a suburb just outside the easternmost walls and fortifications of the medieval inner city of Königsberg. His farm was known as the Gärtnerei Podack. When Walter was a boy of four, in the year 1914, World War I began and at some point in the coming months his father August was called to serve Kaiser Wilhelm II as a soldier, leaving his wife and young son behind.

At today’s introduction, we meet Hedwig in 1934, when Walter, now twenty-four years of age, marries Nora. Hedwig became a grandmother in December of that same year, to Katharina, brought into the world by a midwife there on the Gärtnerei Podack.

Walter, studying at Albertus University in Königsberg to be a medical doctor, made no money, so the young couple lived with his parents. These were still very lean times in the aftermath of the First World War. Everything that happened in those years is intertwined with political and historic events extending from the state of the economy after the Great Depression in 1929 — severely felt in Germany, where it caused widespread unemployment, starvation, and misery — to Hitler’s coming into power.  In this year, Germany’s non-partisan President Paul von Hindenburg died and Chancellor Adolf Hitler of the Nazi Party (who had assumed dictatorial power through the Enabling Acts of 1933) became Germany’s absolute dictator under the title of Führer, or “Leader.” January 30, 1933 was commonly known as “day one” on the calendar, the start of the “1000 jährige Reich Deutscher Nationen” – the 1000-year Empire of German Nations — as aspired to by Hitler.

With the allegiance of the German Army to their new commander in chief, the last remnants of Germany’s democratic government were dismantled to make way for Hitler’s Third Reich.


The sunflower seed bread dough has risen to double its size. Katharina sprinkles a good amount of flour on her kitchen counter, turns out the dough, and begins kneading as she talks. I sit behind her, just off to the side in the dining room, watching as her generous hips sway with the motions of a baker of bread.

“We moved back to Kalthof in 1942, after my family had spent about three years in Allenstein, and I was enrolled in the second grade in Königsberg. If you remember, while we were in Allenstein, every day I taught my younger brother Hardy everything I had learned in my first-year classes; therefore, when he started school in Königsberg, he was advanced enough to enter the second grade with me!

“It is this time in my life when I learn more about Hedwig, my Oma; I am old enough to observe and get my own impression of the people around me. In her early fifties now, her face shows traces of disappointments and bitterness, her hair is an unremarkable mousy color, long and worn in a braided bun. Her eyes are a deep brown, and the general expression of her face is one of woefulness. Her relationship with August seems neutral, their daily life is well regimented. Each has their own territory of duties to perform, and they seldom argue.

“Due to events in the years of World War II, Oma’s house was often filled with her grandchildren, numbering five at the end. She took it in stride, feeding and caring for the infants, when Mutti, my mother, needed some extra sleep — even though Oma herself was always up at 5AM preparing the morning meal for the crew of workers. Sometimes we, the older ones, drove her to frustration, when we escaped her reach, and she ended up throwing her house slippers at us across the room. Mostly she was quietly working in the kitchen; on occasion she would be impatient with Anna, her helpmate. She did not seem to be a happy woman. I don’t remember her smiling or laughing. She smiles not in this picture.”

Katharina points with a floured finger to a family photo hanging on the dining room wall.

August and Hedwig Podack, Prussians of early peasant stock

She bats her hands against her colorfully embroidered red apron. (Typical of Katharina, she dresses comfortably in slacks and blouse of muted tones, tending to accessorize with brightly colored pieces, as she has done today, her baking day.) She moves to prepare a bread pan for the oven, spreading Crisco all over the inside with a paper towel, working the grease into the corners of the pan. Setting it down, Katharina reaches for the bag of flour, and dumps about a 1/8 cup of flour into the greased pan. Lifting it, she tilts and shakes the pan, spreading the flour evenly on the inside. She shapes the kneaded loaf, drops it into the bread pan, and slides it into the warm oven. After setting the timer, washing her hands, and grabbing her glass of iced coffee, Katharina joins me at the dining room table.

“Yes, I remember Hedwig as a taciturn woman, always out-of-sorts; her tone was gruff with the help, her domain seemed to be the kitchen. She was engrossed in her household duties, supervising the other women, directing them to do the cleaning and laundry, the milking, preparing the meals for the men. Her figure was well rounded – and always well corseted.  Her dress was simple and colorless at home, her apron seemingly a permanent part of her wardrobe.”

Katharina observes her own attire for the day and laughs.

“Only for shopping in town at Kaiser’s Kaffee Geschäft — or on Sundays did she dress up.  She would have a woman come to the house to do her hair, ‘ondolieren,’ (putting waves in her hair with a heated iron), then gathering the long hair into a braided bun. She took the streetcar to visit with one of her sisters, or the Kleinbahn (small train) to Pravten to the farm of her parents, where her youngest sister Alma still lived. The name of the man Alma was married to escapes me, but her last name was now Nikulka. Once or twice, I remember Hedwig taking Hardy and me along and we played with Klaus and Gerd, who were close to our age. Opa never came with us; he never left the farm as far back as I can remember.

“During vacations, I remember being sent to stay a few days with one or the other of my great-aunts: Frieda, I recall, was a woman obsessed with a clean house. Wherever I went, she seemed to be following me with a dust mop. She wore ruby earrings so heavy that they had caused long slits in her ear lobes. I got the impression that Uncle Max did not like having me around.

“Gertrud and ‘uncle’ Otto had a sprawling property further out in the countryside. Their son Erwin was in the war, so I got to sleep in his room. The property was flawlessly kept, manicured hedges and lawns; behind the house chickens were running free and I was sent to collect eggs every day. I remember having to ‘pull my weight,’ helping to dust. There was a bent-wood rocking chair and Tante Trude (Aunt Gertrud) made sure that I dusted every turn in the wood. I liked Tante Trude, she had a sunny disposition; she was much more likable than my grandmother Hedwig. In comparison, I thought there must have happened something really bad to make Oma so unhappy.

“Uncle Otto often had trouble with an aching back. His remedy, by which he swore, was to strap a cat fur to his back under his jacket. I kept wondering if the cat he strapped to his back had been a pet at one time – or maybe dinner. Cats were called ‘Dach Hasen’ (roof rabbits) and were in fact eaten during hard times.”

At this, I make a face and squirm in my seat. Katharina gets up, goes to the refrigerator, and removes a Ziploc bag of leftover chicken nuggets. She places them on a small plate, and before putting them in the microwave to warm, she offers it up to me with a smirk. “Cat snack?” Katharina laughs at me as our lunch warms, and she returns to sit.

“Hedwig had a lot of home remedies, too. These included wrapping a wool sock around your neck for a sore throat, massaging the back of your neck with goose grease for a tension headache, inhaling steam from chamomile infusion for a stuffy nose and common cold, and red wine with a raw egg was a cure-all for getting your strength back after an illness! Red wine still works for me – without the raw egg – how about you?” Katharina laughs again and retrieves our lunch from the microwave.

“Hedwig cooked the way she had learned on her parents’ farm: rutabaga soup and schwarzsauer (that’s a blood soup) were two dishes that Mutti absolutely could not stomach. Then there was Klunkersuppe, a staple made with whole milk, rye flour and a little salt. The flour was made into ‘Klunkern’ by mixing with a little water to a streusel consistency, then added to scalding milk and simmered till the Klunkern were done.”

The reference to blood soup absolutely puts me off my “cat snack” and I give up on lunch entirely.  Katharina isn’t fazed and enjoys her lunch.

“There are at least a couple of culinary specialties for which Königsberg is famous: Königsberger Klopse and the confection Königsberger Marzipan.”

“It was a tradition at the Podack house to make marzipan for Christmas. Almonds were blanched to remove the skins, then ground with a special attachment to the hand-turned meat grinder. The resulting almond flour was kneaded with sifted powdered sugar and rose water to a dough that could be rolled out and cut into rounds or hearts. Then a narrow strip of the dough was attached with some egg white around the outer edge of the cut-out forms, and the top edge fluted with a fork. After the tops were lightly browned under the broiler or with a torch, the little forms were filled with a frosting made of sifted powdered sugar and lemon juice.”

Ingridpwrites:  And here’s a recipe for Königsberger Klopse. Yum!


“Alright, let’s forget about food and home remedies for now and get back to the young married couple. Mutti, my mother – we will call her by her name, Nora — never felt accepted by her in-laws. Hedwig, of peasant origin, had bigger aspirations for her only son than seeing him marry the daughter of a civil servant, even though Nora’s father was a well-educated and successful man. August, as well, was of peasant stock, but now his house was spacious and his pocketbook healthy. He could easily support the newlyweds.

“I think Nora must have imagined her life with Walter – my Papa — somewhat differently, not having to live with in-laws, without much privacy, with an unplanned pregnancy, dependent on their support. The young couple occupied the large sunny room in the front of the house; there was a set of curtained French doors between their room and Hedwig’s and August’s bedroom. Not an ideal setting for intimacy. I can imagine Nora’s apprehensions when making love.”

Katharina rose to check on the bread in the oven, peering through the lighted glass door.  Satisfied that the loaf was full and turning a pale golden color, she returns to join me in the dining room, this time bearing a chilled bottle of rosé.

“Of course, I have no memory of this time myself, so everything I am saying is either from what I have been told or have overheard. Some of it is from conclusions I have drawn from observations in later years,” Katharina mused, pouring two small glasses of wine.

“Nora’s days were filled with tasks her mother-in-law assigned, like mending clothes and bed- and table-linens. For this the sewing machine was set up in the Gartenlaube, a one room cabin, at the other end of the property near the main entrance to the farm. There Nora would be alone with the machine and piles of mending that had accumulated.

“She always felt she was being treated like one of the servants, rather than a family member carrying the first grandchild. In later years, she told me of being insulted and degraded by her mother-in-law on a regular basis. I learned through some of my mother’s writings that this emotional abuse existed in such a pervasive manner as to leave her deeply scarred by the obvious hate Hedwig had for her. Nora could not think of an explanation for it nor find any fault in herself for causing it.

“How very sad. Gone for her were the lighthearted, carefree days of courtship, gone the hope and anticipation of a loving family life. She was an outsider, an intruder, a parasite, a leech that had attached itself to Hedwig’s only son. The son, whom Hedwig wanted to keep for herself, whom she was not prepared to share with this ‘floozie,’ who obviously had tricked him into marrying her by spreading her legs and getting pregnant.”

Here Katharina takes a deep breath. “I was in my teens before I figured out the timing of the matter, that I was, in fact, conceived before my parents were married,” she said.

“After Mutti died, I found letters she had written about these times – and others – addressed to no one and never shared. They revealed much of the pain of my mother’s existence with my father, my Papa — during the early years of which I tell you now, and from later parts of their lives. It was distressing for me to learn of these things after her death – but at the same time, I believe it would have been equally distressing to hear of them while she lived, as there was nothing I could do about it.  As you will learn, the ill-fated relationship between Hedwig and Nora will weave its threat all through their lives.” 

Quickly, suddenly, Katharina rises to clear the dishes from the table, busying herself in the kitchen for several long moments before she turns back to me.  Leaning against the kitchen counter, with arms crossed, she continues.

“Nora imagined daily how Hedwig must see her – being expected to embrace Nora and welcome her into her house, having to watch how her boy was fawning over this, this – slut. . Well, Hedwig was not going to make it easy for her, she would let poor Nora know and feel what she thinks of her.

“And Walter, busy with his studies; when he did have time for Nora, she would cling to him; how could she tell him about the way his mother mistreated her? Only a few more years and he would be a doctor and then they could start their life together. That thought was what sustained her…she could be strong. She was strong. The pregnancy weighed on her mind. She had to keep her spirit up for the baby. But how could one be joyful, have inner peace, under these conditions?

“Nora decided to try to make peace with her mother-in-law. So far, she had done everything Hedwig had asked of her without complaining. She was good at sewing — she had made her own clothes at home — and she offered to sew something nice for Hedwig. Hedwig accepted.

“Nora bought a pattern and some material, shimmering gold with red and orange and light blue threads through it, very festive she thought. The sewing machine was brought back to the house and set up back in its old place – imagine! — just inside the door to the left, where that stuffed squirrel sat on its shelf up on the wall. This room was a multipurpose room: in the center stood the big dining table, against one wall was the vitrine that held all the crystal and china. Against the back wall sat the divan where August took his afternoon forty winks – above the divan hung a large photo of young Walter – and by the big sunny South window stood a table with four comfortably cushioned wicker chairs. Past this room was the office where August’s desk stood in one corner, and several deep leather chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around a low solid wood table.

“Nora sewed the dress for Hedwig; it took many fittings and Nora became familiar with her mother-in-law’s shape; sort of a hollowed back, wide hips, sloping shoulders and the forever corseted middle. Nora thought this woman once had a very pretty face, now the forehead was furrowed, the corners of her mouth had turned down in a trait of bitterness. It got Nora wondering about what Hedwig must have experienced during the First World War, when August had served in the Kaiser’s army in the Russian campaign, and in the years after the war that Germany lost. She wondered, too, about the ways in which the marriage of Hedwig and August may have ever flourished before it had lost its life and luster.

“But perhaps there never had been any real love in their union; a marriage by arrangement, necessary to get the four Packhäuser girls married. After all, how could a farm be managed with only women? Strong men were needed.

“Frequently in those days, marriages were held together more by a sense of duty and loyalty — a strong trait of the Prussian psyche — than by love and devotion.

“Nora knew that the war years had left many scars; she had been only three years old when WWI started and a girl of seven in 1918, at its end. Walter had been born in 1910, he was a little tyke when Hedwig was left to take care of him by herself. How did she manage that and what scars did the war leave on her? How well did she cope with the illness and death of her other little boy child? We have no answers to those questions, my grandparents never talked of those years. Hedwig kept her feelings bottled up deep within her and only showed how she managed the day-to-day duties that began at 5AM, each, and every, single day.

“Where Oma’s resentment of my Mutti originated, we can only guess by trying to step into her shoes,” Katharina said, reaching for her glass of wine. She tips it at me. “Which is really the only way we can try to understand anyone, as we know not what pains and frustrations they have suffered before we chance to meet them.”

Katharina: Chapter 2

Königsberg, East Prussia

Founded in the 13th century by Teutonic Knights bringing Christianity to the “pagans,” Prussia was once a dominion reigned by kings. And with access to the Baltic Sea through the Frisches Haff, the ice-free port of Königsberg was important to the shipping trade of the region. It also held cultural significance as a town of intellectual discovery — Albertus University was founded there in the 16th century; it was the city of philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the central Enlightenment thinkers.

Königsberg became the capital – the coronation city of Prussian kings — where the last German emperor and King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II held reign, until the Weimar Republic formed in 1919 put an end to monarchy. East Prussia, the German Empire’s farthest eastern territory, consisted of Prussian domains lying east of the rivers Neisse and Oder, with its western border along the River Vistula.

Königsberg’s shipping industry became even more important when the Polish Corridor was created at the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War.

The newly-established Polish Corridor gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea, but as a result, East Prussia was cut off from the rest of Germany from 1919 till 1939. During the intense economic lows of the Great Depression following WWI, the Polish Corridor situation became a major source of malcontent for all of Germany, contributing to the lingering state of joblessness in the new republic.

The region regained some hope of stronger economic viability when Adolph Hitler’s promises of new jobs brought him into power. This may have been a reason behind Hitler’s invasion of Poland and reestablishment of pre-WWI territories. Surrounding Königsberg were the country districts; much of East Prussia was rural. From these regions, grain, horses, and timber were sent to the rest of the Reich.

The devastation of this proud capital first came in August 1944 as two British air raids destroyed Königsberg at the end of WWII; finally, under its surrender to the Red Army in April 1945, Königsberg was lost. The all-year ports of Königsberg and Memel (now Klaipėda in Lithuania) were of special attraction for Russia, hence Stalin’s strategic interest in East Prussia.

Of the 100,000 German people remaining in Königsberg in April 1945, only twenty-five thousand survived. The last of the Germans were ordered out of Königsberg by the Russians in 1948. For those people – for Katharina’s family and their descendants — East Prussia exists only as a mighty memory of its German elders, a wistful memory of their children, and in the nostalgia of history.

Königsberg, once the provincial jewel of East Prussia, a place of character and remembrance, is now Kaliningrad, an unremarkable Soviet city, unwanted by Poland and forgotten by Russia.

Near a suburb once called Kalthof, Königstor (the King’s Gate) still stands at the end of the Royal Road and was presumably the east entrance into the fortified city of Königsberg in the middle-ages. It was on August 30, 1843, that the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, first entered Königsberg as its new ruler.

Between Königstor and Kalthof are expansive areas of cemeteries, probably hundreds of years old, with houses, schools and businesses, rail and streets having been built around them.

It is here in Kalthof that we find Katharina’s paternal grandparents August Podack and Clara Hedwig Packhaueser Podack, both originally from the outlying regions to the east of Königsberg. Born into a family of farmers, August learned the trade of a miller, grinding grain into flour, and eventually became a dairy farmer and nurseryman. Hedwig grew up on a farm and was mostly illiterate but had a knack for managing money. The couple was successful in their time. They had two children; Walter, who was born in 1910, and another son who died in infancy.


Katharina runs her hands through her short hair. The cat, Simon, thrums a throaty purr and hurls his arched back against her legs. Reaching from her easy chair, Katharina scratches behind his ears.

“My grandfather August – my Opa – grew up as part of a family of farmers in the country outside of Königsberg. He was familiar with handling horses, and while serving as a soldier under Kaiser Wilhelm II during the First World War, he drove mule-drawn supply wagons to the Eastern Front during the Russian campaign.”

August Podack at age 31 or more during the First World War

“During World War II, he used the Nazi party system, which gave men many advantages. He was a Gauleiter, head of the farming branch of that Nazi Party district. The farming community was the healthiest of the East Prussian economic drivers. Although August was not a political leader, he served in his capacity with the Gau Wirtschafskammer (the Economic Chamber) which coordinated and supervised every form of trade and industry in the Gau, or district. He was well-regarded in the area. Party bosses came to the Podack farm for Schnapps and cigars. August had a car and was able to use it longer than anyone else, while the German military effort was confiscating gasoline, tires, and batteries.

The Podack Farm

“The Podack farm was a whole city block deep with a frontage of four city lots, judging from the street address: Robert Koch Straβe 15-23. It had to be fifteen to twenty acres, and had a creek cutting through the middle; a path and a foot bridge allowed access to both halves. It was referred to as the ‘Gärtnerei Podack,’ which implies that August owned the business and owned, or at least leased, the real estate. It was a profitable plant nursery with many greenhouses. It is here that Hardy and I were born. First, I will describe to you a little of life with my Opa on Gärtnerei Podack as I remember it.

“Later, I can relate what I know of my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives there before I was born, and more of my family’s times there during the war. When they were first married, Mutti and Papa lived here with Papa’s parents – and that is a story in itself.”

Katharina with a Teppichklopfer in front of a
Gärtnerei Podack greenhouse

“The main house was on one end of the property, facing a dirt road, along with four greenhouses with a center reception, work and sales area called the ‘Vorraum’ — the ante room.

“Beyond the house was the stable and a farmyard. The stable housed 24 milk cows, one bull, one horse, two pig stalls and a chicken coop above the pig pens. There were at least three men and one husband and wife team working on the farm and nursery. They had quarters separate from the main house.

“The northern half of the property consisted of planting beds, except for one large greenhouse close to the city street, Robert Koch Straβe, and a Gartenlaube, sometimes used to offer flowers and wreaths for sale. A tall fence with a gate enclosed the property, marked as ‘Gärtnerei Podack’ (Nursery Podack) on a sign in large lettering. Across were railroad and streetcar connections, and the grade school, Falkschule.”

“It is all gone now,” she said.

Katharina sits forward in her chair, placing her forearms across her knees. She stares intently at me for several minutes, remembering. I wait, smiling at her. Simon yawns, stretches, and wanders off into the bedroom. Finally, Katharina rocks back in her chair. She raises her eyes to the ceiling and breathes out a long, slow breath.

“Ahhhh yes,” she continued. “I loved to be there, I loved helping to plant seedlings, I helped selling Cyclamen in pots, determining the price according to how many buds the plant had, as Opa had taught me. If the customer wanted, the clay pots could be wrapped with colored crepe paper, the upper edge fluted on a special gadget and then tied in place with a narrow crepe paper ribbon. I loved the moist warmth of the greenhouses. I loved the smell of the stable, I learned how to milk the cows, I would sometimes climb up into the chicken coop while the cows were being milked and pet the chickens. I had Angora rabbits of my own, once Opa gifted me with a newborn calf. I watched it grow up; I brushed and petted it regularly; I picked the first green grass in the Spring by the handfuls and fed it to her. Her name was Mooshi, she had two large black spots on her right side and one on the left and a black blaze on her face. When she was old enough, she was bred, had a calf of her own and was giving milk. I milked her every evening; in the mornings, the other help would do it since it was too early in the morning for me to get up. She was giving about five liters of milk twice a day and whatever price Opa got for the milk, he paid into a savings account for me.

“Opa’s bull was always kept in the stable. His berth was at the back wall, the last of the long line of milk cows. He had a ring through his nose and was chained with plenty of lead to eat and lie down. When a cow needed his service, he was brought out into the barn yard – along with the cow – being  kept under control with a long staff hooked through his nose ring.

“One time, as a girl of eight or so, I happened to walk into the barn yard and saw the bull on top of the cow.”  Katharina flashed me a big smile. “My Opa shooed me back to the house very gruffly. I wondered why he was so angry with me! He really didn’t need to do that; I had no idea what was going on. I thought the animals were just having fun – just like I had seen dogs do,” she laughed.

“In the summer, the cows were driven to open pasture.  The milk cans, milk pails and stools were loaded up, and the women would climb on board and drive the wagon out the pasture to milk the cows out in the open field, morning, and evening. This pasture was located on an unused military training ground leased by Opa. There were mock-ups of tanks, built of wood, all kinds of contraptions to climb or jump over, fox holes that had gathered some water and toads had fallen into. Hardy and I followed the wagon sometimes and explored. Inside the tank we found shell casings and tried to imagine how all these young men were made into soldiers.

A Wreathmaker’s Lesson

“For Totengedenktag (Memorial Day) the women would make wreaths from fresh pine boughs wound around willow branches fashioned into a circle, fastening the branches with wire from a spool and then decorating them with pinecones, holly, and other dried flower material. It was the tradition to take care of graves, decorate and cover them for the winter. Hence business was brisk about any time of year.”

Ingridpwrites: Want to make an evergreen wreath?  Here’s how.

“For a time when we were living with our grandparents, probably around the time Mutti was in the last weeks of her pregnancy with Rudi, my youngest brother, Hardy and I had to take the streetcar to our separate schools across town. On the way home we often got out at the last stop at Königstor and did not wait for a connecting streetcar to take us home. So, we walked. Just a little past the gate to one of the cemeteries on our side of the street there was a roadside stand where an older lady was selling wreaths and flowers and dried arrangements. She always had a smile and a few nice words for me; she always wore long black gloves and a head scarf.

“One time — I guess I was feeling particularly mischievous — I jumped up and grabbed a small bouquet of dried flowers off her display and ran away. She tried to call me back, but I paid no attention. I knew she could not get out from behind her window very quickly. I did look back once and did not see her on the sidewalk. I walked back to the Gärtnerei still carrying the arrangement. Opa saw me and asked where I had gotten it. I told him, thinking it had been fun and not a big deal. He scolded me and told me to immediately take it back, explaining that this poor woman depended on the things she was selling. 

“I hung my head but started walking back, feeling ashamed. About halfway to her stand, I stopped. I could not get myself to go any further. I could not admit to my misdeed and apologize. I threw the bouquet away. I was too ashamed to face her and too cowardly to fess up. After that, passing her stand I could never look at her again. And she never spoke to me again. 

“Without any consequence or punishment for my misdeed I had learned my lesson. What I had done was wrong. I felt deep shame. Just my Opa’s stern words had been enough, and I never again took anything that was not mine.”

Katharina rises from her chair, moving to the window and back again. She paces this way for several minutes, thoughtful; engrossed in her memory. Finally, she stops at the dining table and picks up the arrangement of tulips that sits there. She moves to the kitchen sink and fills the vase with fresh water. Lifting the arrangement so that she can gaze through the clear water and the long stems of the tulips, she continues.

“In the winter, bulbs were planted in pots — tulips and hyacinths, for early Spring bloom. Opa received crates full of bulbs that he had ordered from Holland. Every year a mountain of peat moss was delivered, every fall the hay loft above the stable was filled with hay. There was no tractor, planting beds were turned with spades, sweat, and callused hands, the horse pulled a wagon to take the milk to the dairy, or to pick up slop for the hogs from the military post down the dirt road a way.”

Katharina returns the vase with the tulips. Dragging a dining chair from beneath the table, she sits, looking at me from across the room.

“The horse brought in the hay from the field, and the same horse pulled the wagon when my grandparents were fleeing from the Russians close to the end of the war.”

She pauses for so long I begin to think she is finished sharing her story with me for the day.  Then, Katharina provides her final thought on this chapter.

“Thinking back, I realize that all these memories were gleaned in a relatively short time, but it feels like I spent my entire childhood there. Had it not been for the fact that the war uprooted our whole family I would likely be there today. Opa always talked about my taking over the nursery when I was grown up and even as a girl of age eight or nine I saw my future there, planning to grow orchids. I am certain that this environment filled with animals and plants and hard work had a profound influence in molding my character, the desire to get back to the basics of life, the simple joy and feeling of accomplishment of things created with one’s hands, and a deep respect for all living things.”

Katharina Chapter 1: Early Memories

I visit with Katharina at her home in the western foothills of the Salt Lake Valley, where the Oquirrh Mountains watch over her and the sprawling populous fertile valley below. A spectacular view of the Wasatch Mountain Range creates a stunning horizon. She has shared with me before how, on sunny winter days, the sight of snow-covered mountains, sparkling in the crisp clear air, always lifts her spirits; and how that image helps brighten her mood on many otherwise drab and dreary days.

On this coolish spring morning, however, the sun glints off the silver gray of Katharina’s curls. A gusty breeze lifts the short strands from the nape of her neck as she settles into her comfortably cushioned patio rocker. She gives her morning iced coffee a shake, watching the cubes in the dark mix as they rattle in the tall glass.

Katharina lifts her gaze to the pots of Red-Hot Pokers blooming in proliferation across the deck. Fat, fuzzy bees hurriedly visit one pot and then the next, buzzing hypnotically in the morning quiet. A hummingbird performs an assault of advance-and-retreat on the nearest of the blooms. Katharina rocks back in her chair as she takes up her story. 

East Prussia

“Mountains and plains, rivers, lakes and oceans, everything on Earth that is ruled by Nature and her elements — that is geography to me — not lines that have been randomly drawn on the map by leaders of warring countries hungry for power and motivated by greed.” 

An air of nostalgia settles around Katharina, seemingly enveloping her in a soft, wistful mist.  She closes her eyes, and a small sigh escapes her lips.

“Lines. Lines that move borders, rename countries and cities, affecting the land of my birth and childhood. Places comfortable and dear to me become strange and remote. In my memory the old familiar places will always have the old familiar names as if the lines on the map had never been drawn. Königsberg is still Königsberg and not Kaliningrad; Ostpreuβen is still Ostpreuβen and not an East Prussia dissected between Russia and Poland.”[i]

Image credit:  In the Lost World of East Prussia | by R.J.W. Evans | The New York Review of Books; Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont

Katharina’s gaze settles on me then, her eyes brightening as she begins to relate her earliest recollections — what she calls “pre-war” — having been a girl nearly six years old. The family lived in Allenstein at the time, in the southern, central part of the country, where her father worked as an assistant to a doctor in the local hospital.


“This was 1940 – the war had already begun but did not affect us. These are my earliest coherent memories. We lived at Fittichsdorfer Straβe 8, on the edge of town. We were three children at the time, my brother Hardy having come along in 1935 when we lived with Papa’s parents in Königsberg, and Edel having been born in 1938 in Dingolfing – in Bavaria.  During his medical training, Papa also had worked as an assistant to a doctor when we lived in Dingolfing. I was four then, and Hardy was three years old.

“Edel once told me of having heard a wild argument between my parents while she was still in the womb — can you believe it?! — that Papa was having an affair with a receptionist at the Dingolfing office. Perhaps that was the reason we moved to Allenstein, who knows? My mother — Mutti — became pregnant with the next daughter, Heidi, in Allenstein. I remember Heidi being born at home in 1941. Midwifery was very common; in fact, only the youngest of us, Rudi, was born in a hospital, because he was a breech birth; that was in 1943.

“Strange, I do not have much remembrance of my sister Edel during those days,” she mused, staring off at the distant mountains.

Mutti and Papa, Summer 1943, after Rudi was born

Katharina gives her glass of iced coffee another shake and returns to her story.

“We lived upstairs in a two-family house, the Herkenhoffs living below us. Rita Herkenhoff was my steady playmate. I used to tease Rita, calling her Rita-Rita-Ritata…always rreally rrrolling the rrrrs.  We played together around the house.

“There was an iron rack on the side of the house, close to the stairs that led up to the front door. This rack was like a double-legged clothesline pole. It was used to hang our area rugs that were beaten regularly. To rid them of dust and dirt, we used a ‘Teppichklopfer’ – it looked something like a long-handled tennis racket but was woven of bamboo. And sometimes it also served as a paddle for our backsides when we got into mischief! Being on the receiving end of this disciplinary tool looked scarier than it was painful. Pffftt…,” she grins, waving her hand at me. 

 “About that carpet rack…Rita and I would jump up to grab onto the horizontal pipe and hang there, going hand-over-hand along the length of it and then back again, just because we could.

“Sometimes Hardy was with Rita and me, but he liked to go poking around everywhere and he and I did that together, at lot. Across the street was a farmhouse with a duck pond, where he and I would go exploring. Hardy has told me of his memories of the farmer’s wife there, but I have none. She gave him sweets! Neighbors just can’t do that nowadays, right?” she said, shaking her head. Her silvery curls bounced as she looked into her lap, then away again.

The Garden

“Behind our house was a large vegetable garden that we shared with the Herkenhoffs. Each family had their own half. Perhaps it was a kitchen garden with vegetables and strawberries and raspberries, lettuce, herbs, cabbage, kohlrabi, cucumbers, rhubarb…things that commonly grow there. Tomatoes required a green house in our part of the country, so we had none. Mutti was not a gardening person, so I think Papa did all of that.

“Farmers drove through the street in horse-drawn wagons…coming into town for supplies. Hardy and I would follow later in the day with our wagon, to gather “horse apples” for garden compost. The wagon we used for gathering horse apples was a small wooden wagon with a wooden handle. It was used in the garden to haul compost or plants or tools around. It was a real gardener’s tool, not a toy.

“In one corner of the garden stood a ‘Gartenlaube,’ an open shed, an area to sit in shade.  Sprawling pole beans covered the lattice work on one side. They were known as ‘Feuerbohnen’ — fire beans. They had red flowers and when they were blooming in profusion, with the sun shining on them, it really looked as if they were on fire! Their  pods were purple, but they tasted just like other green beans. I remember picking the fire beans there for dinner, as far high as I could reach; Mutti picking the ones above my head.”

Katharina settled deeper into her chair and grew still for a moment.

“Oh, the garden – that reminds me – carrots! Something else of this house in Allenstein. It had a cellar where the crop of carrots was stored to overwinter, bedded in sand. As the eldest, I was frequently sent down there to bring carrots up to the kitchen. I did not like the cellar – it was dimly lit, and cold and somewhat frightening. I had to gather all my courage and imagine myself a fearless heroine to be able to go down those stairs!

“As I dug the carrots out of the sand, I was on my knees and defenseless in that gloomy dank – defenseless! I would get a tight feeling in my chest; my stomach would roll. The pill bugs — the roly-polies — being disturbed, started crawling all over my hands and toward me…to eat me like they were eating on the carrots! I would feel itchy all over, hastening to gather as many carrots as needed. Becoming more and more terrified, I would quickly push sand back over the remaining heap of carrots and then rush upstairs, fidgeting, agitated, making sure that none of those creepy little creatures were clinging to me. Ah, but as ever! The victorious heroine!” Katharina throws back her head, laughing.

Quieting, she dabs at her eyes where tears had gathered, and stretches a bit in her chair. “Oh my,” she said.  Smiling and shaking her head, she resumes her story.

“There was a grassy area in the front yard nearest the street…it was edged with a low manicured hedge. Papa showed us fat green caterpillars that lived and ate and grew in that hedge. He explained the process of how a butterfly grows from an egg to a caterpillar to a cocoon that one day releases a beautiful fragile creature that would spend its summer days flitting from flower to flower.

“Papa was a collector of butterflies; some of them he tended from the caterpillar stage until they crawled out of their cocoons. Watching them as their wings dried, he would then capture them in a jar of ether. And then stick them with a pin and add them to his collection! I always rather preferred to watch them in the garden, even though sometimes their wings were getting a little ragged looking.

Building Kites

“In the fall, after the harvest, Papa would take us kite flying in the fields not far down the street. We made the kites ourselves – Papa did that with our help, of course.  Sometimes thin slats were used for the support frame, sometimes suitable willow branches. The slats were cut to the right size, one long one; another about one-third of its length. They were made into the shape of a cross and fastened to each other at right angles. A small slot was cut into the point of each slat or branch and a length of string strung around through the slots, pulled tight and secured at the point on the bottom, where the tail would be attached. 

“This frame was laid onto sturdy tissue paper, the paper cut to size, leaving enough to fold over the string and be glued into place. The tail was made from string of random length with bows of twisted newspaper knotted into it at intervals; it often needed to be shortened or added to, depending on how strong the wind was or if the tail made the kite too heavy. The lead string was attached at the center of the ‘cross.’ There seemed to be a formula for the correct lengths of the wooden skeleton to give the kite good balance. Perhaps today’s children should know more about the art of making a good kite, instead of staring at electronic devices all day,” she offered.

Ingridpwrites:  Want to make a kite?  Click here to see how!

As Katharina spoke of kites, the morning breeze stiffens, scattering the bees and hummingbirds and whipping the Red-Hot Pokers into a shuddering dance. “Let’s sit in the front room, shall we?” she suggested. We gather ourselves and move inside. Refreshing her iced coffee, Katharina again offers me one, but I screw up my face and decline. Cold coffee was never high on my list, but I have known Katharina to drink it cold, always.

Undaunted by my refusal, she gestures toward the kitchen cupboard next to the sink. “Feel free to get yourself a glass of water, then, or milk, if you like.” She steps quickly away to the living room, moving aside a folding table where a puzzle lay, half-assembled. She settles into an easy chair as I join her; I stop to admire the old city photo of a European market on the puzzle box, and am about to make a comment on that, but she speaks. Instead, I take a seat on the couch and place my water glass on a nearby tiled tabletop, admiring the curlicue base of the midcentury chartreuse lamp that sits there.

“That winter we had snow and I got my first pair of skis – they were perhaps the length of the snow boards used today. The way I remember it, there was only one more house next to ours on the way out of town and then the farmers’ fields started, and this is where Papa taught me how to ski. I was so proud to be the biggest child and the only one skiing with Papa!”

Katharina picks up a puzzle piece from the table beside her, studies it briefly, then sets it down again. “I will tell you of my schooling there and then I will end my storytelling for today,” she said.  “I must feed my chokecherries if I want a good harvest this summer. I do so love to make chokecherry jam!” 

Starting School

“I was enrolled in first grade in 1941. It was customary on the first day at school to receive a ‘Tüte’ full of sweets and small gifts. The Tüte looked like an upturned dunce cap, made from card stock, colorfully decorated, with a ruffle of tissue paper around the opening for closing in the contents. These came in different sizes; I remember photos of other children with Tüten as tall as they. Mine was not that big.

Young Girl with Tüte     http://www.flickr.com/photos/8725928@N02/ 

“I was taught how to walk to school on my own, crossing streetcar rails and city intersections – and while there was very little car traffic then – still I was taught to look left and right. I walked to school every day, no matter what the weather, with my ‘Ranzen’ (my satchel) on my back.  

“In school and for homework we used slate tablets with a slate pencil connected by a string knotted through a hole in the frame. That way we could not lose or drop the pencil. The tablet was reversible, so one could write on both sides. Erasing was done with a damp piece of sponge.

“Paper tablets came later, you know.

“The first letter we learned was the  i  to the refrain: ‘Auf, ab, auf, Punkt oben drauf.’  (Up, down, up, Dot on top). Every day, when I got home, I shared with my little brother Hardy all that I had learned and what we had done in school. That turned to his advantage and he was able to start school in second grade, skipping the first. At that time — and I will tell you about it later — we lived in Königsberg.

“Walking to school every day I passed by a block of tall apartment buildings. Deep window wells, surrounded by metal railings,  interrupted the wide sidewalk. Once Hardy and I were sent on an errand to buy some ‘Kunsthonig’ (honey spread) from the store in town. On the way home Hardy was curious why this tall building was so different from the rest. We looked up. The top of the building seemed to be touching the clouds and it seemed to be swaying. It made me a little dizzy, even as I looked down again.

“What was behind that iron railing? We got close to it and pressed our faces against the fence and saw a deep hole in the sidewalk with big, curtained windows down there. Were people living there underground? How did they get there? We were puzzled, because the staircase led up, not down.

“Hardy pulled himself up on the railing to get a better look and – oops – dropped the package of honey spread. It hit bottom a long way down and there was no way we could get down there to retrieve it. We were at a loss of what to do!” she chuckled. “We had to just go home and confess.”

Mutti with Katharina and Hardy, 1937

“Oh…  yes… wait… I will end here, and next time will tell you more of the place of my birth, Königsberg.  But this last story, an amusing one!

“One Easter Sunday I remember our parents taking us for a walk in a wood – it may have been a park, I don’t know. There was a dirt path through the pine trees and Papa was tossing foil wrapped chocolate eggs left and right in front of us to find. Hardy saw a hole in the ground and could not resist poking a stick into it. When he pulled it out, an angry swarm of wasps came up from the underground! Hardy ran away quickly, but I was a few steps behind and was stung all over my body, thirty or forty times. That put a sudden end to our outing. Hardy has told me since that he has never in his life heard a person screaming as I did on that day!

“We hurried home, and I was put to bed after a cool bath. I received a helium-filled balloon from the family to help soothe me. Papa applied cold compresses, checking on me through the night.  When I awoke in the morning, the balloon which had hung on the ceiling the night before was standing in one of my slippers, the exact end of the string just touching where my heel would go. I thought that was very special.” Katharina beamed at me.

The Specialness of Allenstein

“Well, before we leave Allenstein, maybe you want to know a little more about it. Another city renamed in a country with different borders – Allenstein is now the city of Olsztyn in Poland.

“I myself never had a chance to visit the castle in Allenstein; well, nowadays they call them castles, but in reality, they were fortresses. History tells us that the city was settled and built around the castle, which dates back to the fifteenth century, when construction began around 1420.  

“In more recent history – during my childhood, that is, Allenstein was conquered by the Russians on January 21, 1945, toward the end of World War II. However, the castle was not damaged then, and is today Poland’s best-preserved medieval stronghold. It now houses a museum.

“Later on in my story, you will learn of the impact the date of Allenstein’s capture had on the fate of our family…”

“Ahhh,” Katharina croons, closing her eyes.

“Those years in Allenstein I remember being filled with times we all spent together! Like Sunday breakfast with soft boiled eggs in egg cups, served with fresh, still-warm, and crispy rolls – ‘Broetchen’ – which had been delivered to our door by the local baker.  And those warm afternoon hours on the River Alle! With Mutti sitting in the grass on the bank with the little ones, Papa scouring the caves below the surface in the bank for crawdads, sticking his finger in there and waiting for them to latch on. Hardy and I are catching grasshoppers for Papa’s fishing line; and the two of us play in the shallow water trying to catch eels.”

Katharina opens her eyes and gives me a longing, mournful look. “Thinking back,” she said, “those times were so perfect and idyllic; unparalleled in future family life.”

[i] American spelling:  Koenigsberg, Ost Preussen (East Prussia)

The Story of Katharina

Introducing Katharina: a unique woman. In many ways, she lives inside me, because her story has become my story. We have known each other a lifetime, and together have uncovered each our own pathways of life. Sometimes together, that is, and sometimes very much apart. This process comes with the realization that I am this woman, as well.

As Katharina puts it, “It takes almost a full lifetime to find who you really are and the knowledge that you can be and remain being this person you yourself created and evolved into, even as you bend and adjust.”

It is a rare privilege to know a woman such as Katharina. Born in East Prussia, she describes an idyllic childhood, rent asunder during the Russian invasion of her homeland during World War II. In these pages of Katharina, you will travel her life’s journey and will find her grown into a spirited young woman – a black sheep, some would say – who lives daringly and loves hard, and who ultimately discovers herself bereft but undaunted in a foreign land.

With Katharina I learned how to be resourceful, tenacious, self-sufficient, and steadfast — qualities which carried me through some of the toughest challenges of my own life. I have Katharina to thank for the lessons of acceptance and forgiveness. Without Katharina, I would not be who I am today.

It is my pleasure to share Katharina’s tale with you, as she has told it to me. In her sweeping story you will find the value of perseverance and feel the serenity of being true to oneself.

The Story of Katharina

Introducing Katharina: a unique woman. In many ways, she lives inside me, because her story has become my story. We have known each other a lifetime, and together have uncovered each our own pathways of life. Sometimes together, that is, and sometimes very much apart. This process comes with the realization that I am this woman, as well.

As Katharina puts it, “It takes almost a full lifetime to find who you really are and the knowledge that you can be and remain being this person you yourself created and evolved into, even as you bend and adjust.”

It is a rare privilege to know a woman such as Katharina. Born in East Prussia, she describes an idyllic childhood, rent asunder during the Russian invasion of her homeland during World War II. In these pages of Katharina, you will travel her life’s journey and will find her grown into a spirited young woman – a black sheep, some would say – who lives daringly and loves hard, and who ultimately discovers herself bereft but undaunted in a foreign land.

With Katharina I learned how to be resourceful, tenacious, self-sufficient, and steadfast — qualities which carried me through some of the toughest challenges of my own life. I have Katharina to thank for the lessons of acceptance and forgiveness. Without Katharina, I would not be who I am today.

It is my pleasure to share Katharina’s tale with you, as she has told it to me. In her sweeping story you will find the value of perseverance and feel the serenity of being true to oneself.

#memoir #nonfiction #personal development #creative nonfiction #essay #storytelling #writer

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