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Katharina’s Story – Chapter 18: Roland

I was sixteen when I met Roland, in the summer of 1951. Our school celebrated its 350th anniversary, and this event included several days of sports and recreational activities for the students. A special train excursion for the upper classes to the cavern in the Sauerland was part of it. This train, the Samba-Zug, featured a dance car with great appeal for the young crowd to make the long hours go by more quickly. In an otherwise empty car, a disc jockey, a record player and plenty of 45 rpm records of popular music made for a perfect dance venue. It was well attended and, since I loved to dance, I was part of it.

I was standing by the window, looking out at the landscape speeding by, captivated by the rhythmical sound of the steam engine and the tuck-tuck of the wheels going over the joints of the rails, a rhythm that on many early morning train rides to school during winter months would threaten to lull me to sleep. Turning away from the window, I looked out into the milling of fellow students on the dance floor and found a pair of eyes fixed on me from across the way. I held the gaze and felt struck by surprise and a curious interest.

He was standing there next to Helmut, a young man from the Obersekunda, one year ahead of me, with whom I had danced a few times. He was taller than Helmut, had dark wavy hair and a look in his eyes that somehow attracted me. He walked over and asked me for the next dance. I accepted, of course, and learned that his name was Roland, an old Germanic name, a name of legendary heroes. He was eighteen.

I always had a quirky tendency to look for unusual details and noticed that the back of his neck appeared as if it had not seen a washcloth for quite some time. I thought of Mutti, always reminding the boys to wash behind their ears – perhaps they should also be reminded to wash the back of their neck. A thought wandered through my mind: “Would I darn his socks?”

Roland told me that he was in a class above mine – Unterprima – two years from graduation (I was in Untersekunda, four years from graduation). He lived in Düdelsheim, a village I passed through every day riding my bike to school during the warmer months of the year. We talked of mutual acquaintances, and an envy rolled through me — the girls in the class a year ahead of me, always nicely turned out: the twins – Mac and Gies – who dressed the same and were hard to tell apart; Renate, a talented piano player, dark haired and blue-eyed. I later found out that Roland had a crush on all of them but held an especially deep affection for Mac. They were not on this trip, thankfully, as I could not think how I could possibly be more attractive than they. I was dressed in dark-green corduroy Sambahosen – what might be called pedal pushers today. My Mutti had sewn them special for this occasion; they were practical but certainly not very feminine at a time when skirts were still very much the required attire for schoolgirls.

During the remainder of the train trip, I continued to dance with both Helmut and Roland, and the three of us stayed together when we arrived at our destination. Together we went into the cavern in Attendorn, each of the guys holding on to one of my hands.

Caverns at the Sauerland, Attendorner Tropfsteinhöhle

Oh, how special I was feeling! I had no preference for either one at the time, so I kept them both in tow. It did seem a bit strange to me though, like I should choose one or the other; sort of embarrassing, sort of exciting, so very enchanting that I should have them both interested, at a time when I was so filled with an unexplainable need to attract any boy’s attention.

I paid little mind to the guide, who moved through the caverns explaining stalactites and stalagmites, the geology and climatic conditions that create these wonders inside the Earth, and the dangers the spelunking explorers had faced. I was in my own dangerous space, that place where I am trying on boys like clothing, in a puzzling mix of curiosity, anticipation and apprehension.

The train ride back was much the same as the one going up. We talked and danced; Helmut sort of quiet and easy-going; Roland more tense and somehow dark and moody – two very much opposite characters. The arrival back in Büdingen ended the excitement of the day quite abruptly with each of us going back to our own classmates, without having made any other plans.

School resumed its usual pace. The train excursion was a pleasant interlude, now relegated to the back of my mind. Much time passed before I saw Roland again, but one day, as I was coasting my bike down the hill on Hauptstrasse into Düdelsheim on the way to school, I caught up with him. I was not expecting to see him; he was on his bike as well, just leaving for school. We rode side by side, after the first smiling greeting, not saying much. I was very self-conscious and somewhat uncomfortable, not knowing what to talk about. It was not my way to ask questions. Instead, I would wait for a person to share what they were willing to share, and then I would do likewise. He did not have much to say either, but it happened that we rode together many times after that. After school, I would look for him, but I did not find him. Nevertheless, I was glad to see him whenever I did.

That summer I gradually learned that Roland lived with his mother, father and two brothers in a room that had been assigned to them as refugees from Sudetenland Czechoslovakia. All remaining Germans had been driven out of that country by the Russians, after Germany lost the Second World War. West Germans with space to accommodate them were required by the German government to take in these refugees from the eastern regions. The Friese family lived in an upstairs room of a farmhouse in Düdelsheim. Three other refugee families lived in that same farmhouse.

Roland also had a sister living in Düdelsheim, married to a local man, with whom she had two sons. His younger brother was still in grade school. Roland himself was working after school on the American Army Base, setting pins at the bowling alley there, to help his family with money. That, and the fact that he smoked American cigarettes made him seem very grown-up to me. He had become quite friendly with some of the soldiers on Base, and his school English was colored with an American drawl. He was altogether alluring to an adventurous girl with a head and heart filled with dreams.

Roland’s station pass for the American Base in summer 1951.

Frau Rauch, one of my English teachers, had been making class more interesting by introducing us to some American music hits from the 1940’s, songs like “The Old Lamp Lighter,” a song about “the moon above the Wabash,” and others. This sparked my curiosity, and I started listening to the American radio channel late at night, after my parents had gone to sleep and I was the only one up doing homework. Papa abhorred this music, terming it “hillbilly” music, but to me it sounded so new and different. With Roland being in such close contact with the American ways, well, I suppose that was something else that made him more attractive to me, igniting that spark of daring spirit.

We saw each other at the swimming pool during summer vacation, where many of Roland’s classmates where present. Helmut was there too and another friend of Roland’s called Sheriff, and the stunning girls. One young lady, one of the Von Hollenbens in her bikini, tall, small-hipped, lithe but chesty, seemed to excite the boys to the point that they would have to get up from where they lay on the grass and, in a sort of bent-over posture, head for the pool to cool off. Sometimes I felt an intruder in this group of friends, but Roland’s closeness comforted me.

A few times that summer we rode our bikes out on one of the country roads out of Büdingen, where we would find a sunny clearing in the woods to lie down. I felt wanted, and Roland satisfied a great need in me for touch and physical closeness. In this state of mutual dependency, we fell in love.

It was a glorious summer that too soon came to an end. The Friese family had decided to emigrate to the United States. Emigrating families were required to have sponsors in America who would guarantee them work and housing. Roland’s parents had applied and were matched with a sponsor through the Catholic Church. To be eligible, the family must have been born behind the Iron Curtain, must have lost everything due to the war, and must have three men over the age of eighteen who were able to work. The Friese family qualified; Roland’s sister, however, now married to a West German, was not eligible to come along. Roland would be leaving the country in the spring.

He left school after the summer break and took a room in Büdingen to work full time at the American Base (presumably what was known as Armstrong Barracks). It was during this time that the family’s paperwork was being processed. They would need more funds for the journey.

Now nineteen years of age and independent from his family, and in steady association with the American soldiers, Roland seemed to develop a taste for alcohol. I did not see him much during the winter months of 1951/52, but one day, when we were meant to get together, I was told that he was very sick with alcohol poisoning. I found out where he was rooming and went to see him. It was a narrow room with just a bed, a small table, and a chair, with some hooks on the wall. He lay in bed, the room reeking, grey as ash, a sorry sight indeed. But he seemed to be getting over it and was obviously very embarrassed to see me there. Not knowing what I could do for him, I did not stay long.

In the spring of 1952, the time came for the family to leave Düdelsheim and move to a facility in Hanau for processing. Roland offered me his bicycle for 80 Marks. It was a man’s street bike with 26” wheels, small diameter tires and three gears, of which only the largest gear was operable. I asked Mutti and Papa if they would get it for me, and they did, to help the family financially. I passed my own bike to Edel, and started riding the bigger bicycle to school, swinging my leg up over the saddle just like the boys did. The gear ratio built more muscle in my thighs and shaved off some time to get to Büdingen. I suppose this would be an indication of how tomboyish I was, even then, as a young lady, now seventeen.

I took the train several times to Hanau to see Roland before the family left in May. We had promised to write, and we did so regularly. Each letter took about a week by airmail to arrive.

The family traveled by sea on the USS General Harry Taylor. It was a seven-day trip across the Atlantic. During the voyage, Roland and his older brother worked as interpreters, while his parents worked in the kitchen. The passage was free, but the transport of luggage – although a very spare amount of belongings – would cost the family $600 to retrieve. Upon arrival at the train station in Manhattan, the Frieses were told they were going to Bandera, Texas, and each member of the family was given ten dollars.

Roland’s departure to America did not seem to change much between us. Certainly, knowing him filled a void in my life. I had no girlfriend and did not know of anyone in whom I could confide about the beliefs a girl holds, the dreams and hopes for the future, the visions of husband and family, a life beyond school and parent house. All these things I kept to myself, only knowing that I would be willing to invest myself completely, adjust where necessary and be tolerant. Roland and I had made no real plans, had had no deep discussions in the limited times that we spent together, yet we figured somehow things would work out for us, even if it seemed unlikely at the time. We would write – and I would dream. I was seventeen, naïve, full of ideals and oh-so-confident.

Katharina’s Story: Chapter 17 – Growing Pains

Altenstadt, Hessen, Germany

Altenstadt. Being a small village there was little offered in the way of entertainment; there was sort of an improvised movie house, upstairs in an older building, with rows of plain chairs. Once a year there was the Kerb, short for Kirmis in the Hessian dialect. The Kerb had initially been, as I had been told, an anniversary celebration of the completion of the construction of the Lutheran church. Nowadays it has little to do with church. Every village had their Kerb, and as part of it, a carnival with merry-go-rounds and swings and booths of all kinds was set up, there was a dance at night and much drinking.

Once in a great while a small circus would come, and on this occasion, Hardy and I went to the circus tent. There were acts with horses, of course, and I was thinking how great it would be to travel with a circus, be around horses all the time, seriously considering running away with the circus. Hardy went home after the end of the performance, but I found a way to hang around, without him finding me. Seems that he had appointed himself my chaperone and protector. I found my way to the tent where the horses were stabled, mostly by following my nose, I loved the way they smelled! I snuck inside and sat on a bale of hay in the dark, smelling the horses and listening to their soft snufflings. It was a long time before one of the stable boys came in and noticed me. He sat down beside me. I did not move. Maybe he took that as an invitation to move closer and put an arm around me. I felt accepted for some strange reason or maybe out of some deeper need. But then things got a little uncomfortable when his intentions became clearer. I extricated myself and went home then.  It was nearly midnight.

I received a long sermon from Mutti for my waywardness. She was obviously worried by my unexpected behavior; after all, I was almost a young woman at fifteen. She gave me many, but I don’t remember all the reasons why I should not have stayed out that late. Mutti imagined all kinds of situations I could have gotten into. Perhaps she even suspected that I had gotten myself into a situation! I was alternately defiant and silent. Papa was sitting there too, off to the side a bit and silent as I. Never, even in the future, could I come up with any reasonable justification for my actions. Mutti always made such good sense, while I seemed to be always acting out of feelings and impulses.

I am sixteen now. In Altenstadt they offer a dancing class upstairs above the huge hall where the big presses are that squeeze apples to juice in the fall. My parents sign me up. The teacher is a slight, older man in dance slippers. The girls sit on one side of the hall, the boys on the other. There is a shortage of boys. To help with this problem a few older local gents appear. I feel just as clumsy as most pupils. You put two clumsies together and you get awkward in the highest degree. No matter how often our teacher shows us the steps as soon as we are paired up, it is disaster! One of the three older men approaches me and asks for the next dance. I accept and, in his lead, I find the rhythm and all the right steps. His name is Alfons Rheede, and he is 24 years old; we dance a lot together.

With Alfons, I learn the swing, the foxtrot, the waltz and the tango, even the quadrille and the modern samba and raspa and graduate. One Sunday he comes by our house and asks if I would like to go for a walk with him. Surprisingly, my parents give permission, and we walk on the road toward the airport, then take a foot path into a forested area, where the ground is soft and the air spicy with the scent of pines. We sit on the grass in a sunny clearing. He tells me that he works for the forest service, sometimes gets to shoot a hare or deer. Once he brings a hare to the house. He also is one of Papa’s patients. We meet a few more times and then I don’t see him anymore. I wonder what happened and have no way to get in touch with him. It would not be fitting anyway. The only conclusion I can draw is that I am not worthy.

Years later Papa tells me that Alfons had asked for my hand in marriage and Papa refused, because he was too old for me and, anyway, he would likely not be able to support me in the style that I was entitled to. There it is again, this separation of the classes.

Those days, living like a lot of the villagers without indoor plumbing except for cold water, I don’t feel special at all, certainly not entitled. I only feel left out, left out from friendships in Büdingen, left out from associating with the locals. I start looking at the boys. If one looks at me twice, I imagine him as a husband. I hated darning socks, which in those days was necessary often. So, if a boy looked at me, I checked in with myself to see if I would darn his socks. If yes, maybe I’d take a chance. I wonder how many girls these days measure relationship potential on whether they would be willing to darn socks! I expect the bar is the same, just the unit of measurement has changed with the times. How much will you sacrifice of yourself? Have we altogether lowered our bar, ladies?

At school I had gotten friendly with a girl, whose family had also come from East Prussia; she had an older half-brother. He was going to trade school specializing in agriculture. I got friendly with Karlheinz, he was very quiet and shy. His quietude sort of appealed to me, being used to a lot of noise at our house. We went for walks sometimes after school, his and mine, holding hands. He graduated and invited me to their celebration which was going to be held in a Gaststaette, a lounge, on the edge of town. I told my parents about it and asked if I could go: “How will you get there? Will he pick you up?” I answer, “I don’t know, trains don’t run that late, and no he can’t pick me up, Papa could you take me and bring me home again?” After a lot of discussion Papa agrees to take me and collect me from the Gaststaette at 11 p.m. “No later!”

As it turned out, the place was no more than a beer joint, smelly and smoky. There were a lot of single men, some with girls. Everyone was drinking, and records were played for music. “Dancing” was shuffling and smooching, couples clinging together messily.  I knew no-one, and I found the atmosphere oppressive. But I was with my guy, even though I barely knew him. I did not fit in, and the evening dragged on for me. I was glad when Papa came to take me home.

Not long after, Karlheinz told me that he was emigrating to Canada. I saw him again before he left, and he promised that we would write, and we exchanged a few letters by air mail. Presently, he wrote that the daughter of the rancher for whom he worked had taken a liking to him and he would not write to me anymore.

Many years later, after I was already married and living in the United States, my parents forwarded a letter from Karlheinz. . . he wanted to “pick up with me again; the involvement with that other girl had not worked out.” This missive, had it come earlier in my life, may have changed the path upon which this young woman ultimately embarked.

***

Papa’s practice is growing, his patients come from several villages within a circle of about eight kilometers and he makes house calls when needed as well, even in the middle of the night. He belongs to a medical association with a membership of doctors in the larger district. This organization now sponsors an annual dance, and the first one is to be held in Bad Nauheim, a resort town with natural springs with healing properties. Papa receives an invitation. This is a welcome event for Mutti, something that she has been dreaming about, something more suited and fitting her position. This is also the occasion on which I, as a sixteen-year-old young lady, will be introduced to society, it will be my coming-out party. So that’s what had been planned with the dance lessons earlier that year!

Mutti, always fashion conscious, starts to buy fabrics and patterns to sew our evening dresses for the dance. I remember my dress: the material is taffeta, shimmering sea-green and pink threads interwoven, with pink polka dots. It has a rounded neckline with a ruffle of the same material around it, the same ruffle finishes the bottom hem of the ankle-length dress. No heels for me though, I get some new white flats and a small white evening bag for comb and handkerchief. On the day of the dance Mutti and I go to the hairdresser. I get my hair washed professionally for the first time. It was cut short and curled. I feel extravagant.

Katharina at 16

We are introduced upon arriving at the dance hall, and my parents quickly strike up a conversation with the other couple at our table. Wine is served, the band begins to play. It begins with a polonaise around the room with more and more couples joining in as we go. Mutti and Papa make a striking couple on the dance floor, they dance beautifully together and Mutti visibly glows. A gentleman makes his way toward me. He is middle-aged and of a portly build. He asks me for this dance: a waltz. I am delighted but a bit nervous. He leads me to the middle of the dance floor and puts his right arm around my back and starts to lead me first slowly, then twirls me faster in right circles and left circles and this way and that. He is so sure and light on his feet and he takes me along effortlessly, my feet seem to barely touch the floor. And around and around he twirls me. It is the best and easiest waltz I have ever danced!

Papa dances with me; I also get asked a lot by other men. One young man was a student at the University in Giessen, studying to be a veterinarian. We danced many times and talked much of the night. At the end of the evening, he promised to stay in touch, but I never heard from him again. I was probably too young and green for him. It was such a disappointment for me!

The heart of a young girl is a puzzling thing, muddled with idealism, dreams, imagination, yearnings, and expectations. She is uninhibited, yet unknowing that these are the headwaters of the stream that will take her to the pre-destined purpose of the female being, to be fruitful. Searching for an answer to these questions in day-to-day reality only leads to disappointment and disillusions. Did I know what I wanted or needed from a boy? No, I did not. But it seems that what I got was not enough.

I was too in love with the idea of love to realize what love’s realities are. I didn’t know that what I needed were tenderness and closeness, a connection of “being,” not just an occasional connection of bodies. As a girl it is frustrating being in search of something, not knowing what the “something” is, and not knowing how or where to find it. Do you find it in yourself, or do you find it in a partner? Do you find it in a place, or do you find in a situation, or an occupation? What you are really looking for is yourself. Who are you? How are you? What are you capable of ? What are your principles? Do you have any principles? What are your limitations? What is it that you need to make you complete? Could it be motherhood? No one has a real explanation. They say, “you are too young;” they call it “growing pains;” they say, “stop dreaming.”

In a book I read a story of a young couple on a lonely beach entwined, “and the earth moved under them.” That is the way I wanted it to be, I wanted the earth to move!!

Then I read a story that tells of a couple being married, an arrangement by their parents; after the celebration they go to bed. The young bride falls asleep and is awakened in the middle of the night by a brutal attack upon her body, the new husband claiming his right. The innocent naive girl is frightened and appalled, her mate now fast asleep and snoring. Had she not read the love poems and odes of love to adored ladies? Are we girls being misled by those sweet words, being spun into a web of promises?

In later years I “hang out” with another local guy, with nothing going on except making my reputation worse. I enjoyed it, maybe needed it when a boy showed interest, and I responded without hesitation. Most of the time that did not last long, and he was discarded without thought, other times the boy’s interest was not what I thought it was. There were two fellows, at different times, both avid photographers who were only interested in taking my picture, but that was flattering too. I was trying boys on like a piece of clothing to see what fit, what suited me. I was not averse to some fondling and kissing, all this on a purely sensual level, no emotional or intellectual involvement. At the same time, I tried out my own body’s responses.

This exploration spread out over years, and in the meantime, I wondered vaguely from time to time, what others were thinking about, how their lives were being formed; a foggy perception of life after school continued to allude me. I just drifted from one day to the next, without looking much further than the next day or the next week, or what would come after graduation.

My realization now is there is no way you can know yourself as young person. Life is evolution. You learn, you grow in body and mind, you change, events and people change you, your attitude, your capacity for empathy and tolerance. This can work in a positive or negative way, depending on the influences exerted on you over time.

Katharina’s Story: Chapter 16 – Wanderings

Circa 1950: Katharina at sixteen

I have always been curious about the world around me. Rarely was I intimidated, and if I was, I forged ahead anyway, just to see what might happen. I was eager to learn about anything and everything. I tried to take charge of my environment; succeeding I think, but at the time of the challenge, it may not have seemed so to me.

As a very young child, when I was told not to lick the iron handrail by the front door in freezing weather because my tongue would stick to it — I had to try it anyway just to see – and it did! It was raw for several days.

My Mutti — Nora — was busy having babies and caring for the little ones that she had little time for us older two, me and my brother Hardy. Mutti seemed to me a robotic parent, tending automatically to the requirements of motherhood, without much holding, loving, or sharing of whimsies. All things were arranged. Clothes were put out for me; I had no choice in what to wear. Everything was done for me. I did not participate in daily incidentals, and I was not asked for input.

When we lived in Allenstein Papa spent time with us, showing us how things worked and explaining the natural world. We worked in the garden, flew kites, and learned how to ski. Even at four and five years of age, Hardy and I had freedom for exploring around the duck pond across the street.

I remember on a warm summer day Mutti sitting on the bank of the River Alle there, in the grass. Hardy and I were catching grasshoppers for Papa’s fishing line — later we played in the water. It was about knee deep to us, and swift. Hardy slipped and fell in face first while trying to catch an eel. Mutti told me later that I pulled him out, “saving his life.”

When I started first grade in Allenstein, and second grade, in Königsberg, life was orderly. Then Papa was conscripted into the war in 1942.

In Kalthof  Mutti was seldom around, there was lots to do. Hardy and were left to pretty much do what we wanted. I had many interests and liked to observe everyone at Gärtnerei Podack at their work. I was inquisitive and followed around with many questions.

In the kitchen I liked to sample things, like the margarine that was used on the bread for the workers, while we had butter. I had to taste it. There was a bottle, it looked like the beer bottles Opa had in the entry hall. This bottle was way back in the corner on top of a high cabinet by the pantry. This kind of bottle had a bail, a porcelain top with a red rubber washer around it. Curiosity about this bottle overwhelmed me. Why was it hidden so far from the other bottles? I took it down when no one was around, opened it and had a small sip. It was like fire going down my throat!! Aaauuugh!! 

When I think back now, it could have been Brennspiritus (denatured alcohol) or some such, that was used to singe hairy feathers off a butchered chicken, that fine fuzz that remains after the feathers have been plucked. I had seen Oma do that once; it burned with a pretty blue flame. In my throat the burning did not seem so pretty!

I guess I was a little wild, not girlish. Obedient in school, a good student. In Königsberg I had been taught to navigate the streetcar system through town, to get to school – even to the dentist once or twice. I was carefree and happy, uninhibited, but I guess I had a little mean streak in me, too. Without hesitation, I followed Hardy’s lead (in the same way I followed him on all adventures and explorations) when we teased the Pflichtmaedchen to tears, or aggravated Oma to the point that she threw her slippers at us.

Hardy was the instigator in most things. Once he got mad and emptied the terrarium out on the carpet, leaving it for someone else to clean it up, and I cheered him on. I have always been a follower, not a leader.

This may not have served me well in the long run.

What does the young Katharina think of herself? She is pliable, accommodating, always trying to make things work out. She has a hard time saying “no,” yet stubborn at times. Trusting, looking for the good in people. Romantic and idealistic in her youth, acting from feelings more than reason or logic.  

With projects, she is practical and realistic, but not very imaginative. Not particularly ambitious, except early on in school and at sports. She is sort of aimless, drifting, going with the flow. Reacting, not initiating. Easily swayed, always doubting, second-guessing herself. She feels she is plain, simple, nothing special, left out.

She is sentimental and loves nature. But has no depth of feeling for religion or a higher power.

She has no sense for direction and a bad memory for names of people and places. She is punctual, though, and skilled in many things, but excellent in none.

And these characteristics, be they attributes or flaws, have remained with Katharina into her elder years. Stumbling along, picking up little snippets of real-life experience here and there. But she has been sustained with a ferocious sense of idealism and complete optimism – I can handle it. Whatever comes. It will work out.

***

I am in high school in Büdingen, circa 1950. It is early summer, and I ride my bike to and from school, 14 km from Altenstadt, where I live. Fritz Lau and his wife Elsa are friends of our family, members of the tennis club, as are we. They also came from East Prussia and had met Mutti and Papa in Frankfurt at a gathering of refugees from our homeland several years back. The Laus live in an apartment in Büdingen on the Bahnhofstraße, second floor up. I have a message from my parents to deliver there after school.

When I ring the doorbell Jutta, their teen daughter, answers the door and asks me in, leading me into the kitchen. Frau Lau greets me, and I deliver the message from my parents. We exchange a few pleasantries and before I turn to leave, I ask to use the rest room. Frau Lau tells me that it is located on the landing a half flight of stairs down, shared with other tenants. Jutta takes a partial roll of toilet paper from the cupboard and holds it out to me. I do not take it, saying I will not need it. Jutta is still offering it, then looks at her mother who almost imperceptibly shakes her head.

I accept the key to the facility and head for the door, use the toilet and return the key with my thanks. We only have cut-up newspaper in the out-house in Altenstadt. That is rough enough using it just for the big jobs, and I was unfamiliar with the appropriate uses for toilet paper. Frau Lau had spared me some embarrassment with her discreet gesture. But it also made it poignantly obvious to me how much our home life set me apart from the more cultivated ways of my classmates in Büdingen.

***

For one summer vacation our parents had planned a camping trip that included Hardy and me. Mutti and Papa took the back seats out of the Volkswagen that Papa was using now for his house calls in the surrounding villages and loaded the car up with camping gear. This included a Faltboot, a 2-seater kayak, which came apart into manageable pieces of luggage to be easily transported and then reassembled. This weekend Papa drove us to the Edertalsperre, and we camped below the dam. The following morning, I decided to go for a swim. I put on my swimsuit and dove headfirst into the clear water, only to quickly realize the shock of the almost freezing temperature of the water immediately below the dam! I made a fast U-turn and got back on land blue-lipped and shivering.

After breakfast we assembled the kayak, stowed the tent, a change of clothes, rain gear and some supplies in the boat and – with explicit instructions for do’s and don’ts, a list of camp sites and a map of the river’s locks – were sent on our water-way heading downstream on the river.  We were to meet up with our parents again in Bremen at the end of the trip. Just Hardy and me in one tent, with no way of communicating with home and no escape from each other. I was not yet sixteen years of age.  

Katharina conducts portage of the kayak. This time it was easy, with a cart on rails. Not all portage events were like that.

The River Eder is regulated: the current gentle. It flows into the River Fulda, the Fulda into the River Weser. On the Weser there are eight hydroelectric plants at the dams and locks to accommodate light ship traffic. We had a set goal to reach every day. The first day we found that the camping place planned for us was already full and we had to keep going. With evening approaching we were looking for a likely spot to camp along the bank and finally found such a place, a pasture on the water’s edge that seemed to have easy access. We pulled up on the bank and I was sent to the farmhouse to ask for permission to camp in the meadow. Permission was granted; we pulled the kayak on land and set up our tent close to the water. For dinner we had sandwiches. The farmer gave us drinking water.

After enjoying a swim and a glorious sunset, we crawled, tired from the long day of paddling, into the tent and fell fast asleep. The sound of grunting awakened us next morning, the sun already high above the horizon. We stepped outside and were greeted by happily rooting pigs. What a wake-up that was! Not taking any time for breakfast, we quickly broke camp and got back on the water.

It’s hard to remember now how many days on the water and nights in the tent the trip took us. The paddling was mostly effortless, except a few times when we had to fight a headwind. We learned how to operate the locks and manage the portages. The first time we came to a lock Hardy made me stay in the kayak while he got out to operate the lock mechanism. I kept the kayak next to the ladder, holding on to it while the water was draining to the lower level. I was very uncomfortable and more than a bit frightened ending up in this damp prison, the dark, slimy walls growing taller around me as the water level dropped. After what seemed an eternity, the water stopped rushing out and the gate opened. Hardy climbed down the ladder back into the kayak and we were on our way again! Of course, I never let on how scary the experience had been for me.

Clearly Hardy was the one “in charge” on this trip, he likely had gotten detailed instruction from Papa beforehand. Once we had to go without food for supper; we had finished putting up our tent when it started raining without let-up. This prevented us from walking to town for supplies, for fear the wind would take down the tent. The storm ended, but by then it was too late to find a store still open.

Once we reached the River Weser, the river was wider, and the wind would whip up some white caps which tossed us about. Ship and barge traffic occupied the shipping lane and we tried to keep close to the bank. Keeping control of the kayak and heading it in the right direction decidedly became much more challenging on this busy river!

On one very cool windy day we took our chances, and maneuvered across the river, pulling up behind a barge. They threw us a rope and we were towed behind the barge for a few effortless hours. Nice move on Hardy’s part!

Papa’s aunt, my Oma Hedwig’s youngest sister Trude lived in Bremen, and that was our destination. Finally arriving in Bremen, we were reunited with Mutti and Papa, who had gotten here via the Autobahn. I remember standing in the bathroom at my great-aunt’s house and the floor kept moving under my feet. I did not have my “land-legs” back yet.

From here Papa drove us all to the North Sea for several more days of camping and sailing; Papa’s cousin Erwin and his wife joined us for a few days before we had to pack everything back into the Volkswagen and head back home.

In another year, perhaps I am sixteen – Hardy and I rode our bikes to meet up with our parents at Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria, using youth hostels for overnighting.

Still another youth trip – this time I oversaw my sister Edel and our cousin Inge on a bike trip to the Rhine River. A hostel that was in our guidebook did not exist yet; instead, a farmer let us sleep in his hay loft. There were other kids there as well, boys and girls together. It was dark up there and a lot of whispering and laughing going on.

Was it best to have placed Katharina in charge??  So many adventures for this adventurous girl!

Katharina’s Story – Chapter 15: High School Years

Now that I have my bicycle I can start riding to school, the fourteen kilometers to Büdingen, during the warmer Spring and Summer months, instead of having to take the train and getting up before six in the morning. From Altenstadt, my route takes me through Lindheim, Düdelsheim, Büches then Büdingen; the beautiful, quaint villages and surrounding countryside did not suffer any air raids during the war.

There is a fairly steep hill on a tight curve before Büdingen and the first few times this hill really takes the steam out of my enthusiasm; I reach the top of the grade breathing hard with thighs aching from taking the last stretch pumping the pedals standing. But after about a week of doing this every day, my legs get stronger, and it becomes much easier. Soon I see some respectable muscles on my thighs, and I can cut several minutes off the time it takes me to get to school.  

Sunshine or rain, headwind or not, I really enjoy the ride mornings and home after school. The landscape is dotted with fields and meadows, and apple orchards line the road on one side for long stretches. There is not much car traffic in those years; sometimes I get held up, when herds of geese or pigs are driven out to the meadows right through the main street of a village, and afterwards one must weave around their droppings on the pavement. Usually, one of the village boys has the task of herding the animals out to pasture and staying with them during the day. Pigs have numbers painted on their backs, so they get back to the right farm in the evening. Geese have color markings and are herded with a rattle or a “clapper,” whereas a rod is used for keeping the pigs in line.

A “clapper” used for herding geese.

When the apples are ripe, I stop on the way home, pick up a few off the ground and eat them on the way. Fallobst, or fruit that has dropped, was not considered harvestable and the farmers usually had no objections to someone picking some up. They always were wormy and would have rotted on the ground.

Sometimes I get caught behind a honey wagon. “Honey wagon” is a  term the American soldiers have given this wagon that has a tank of sewage on it, pulled by cows – slowly, ploddingly – on the way to fertilize the pastures. Manure from the stables was stored on manure piles, the run-off collected in  a Pulloch, an underground holding tank which also served the outhouses. When being pumped out it was diluted with water and became “manure tea.’ This was what the honey wagon spreads on the pastures.

On the straight stretches of road, I learn to balance the bicycle without using the handlebars; later, I sometimes even keep notes or a schoolbook on the handlebars and refresh my lessons. Only once in all the years do I take a fall, skidding on loose gravel in a downhill turn, taking it too fast.

This is still in the time that girls do not wear pants, and shorts are not allowed at school either – at least not for girls. Most of the time my skirt is up on my thighs, except when the wind is in my back. Only riding through the villages do I try to keep it over my knees. As I get older, I get whistled at by men and I enjoy that. In Düdelsheim, at about the half-way point, my classmate Inge sometimes joins me, and we ride side-by side. She is from a family that has been evacuated from Frankfurt after the air raids destroyed a large part of Frankfurt.

At the end of the street we live on in Altenstadt there is a bike shop. The man who operates it lets me watch as he works on the bicycles. He teaches me how to true the wheels when they had gotten a little wobbly, even shows me how to replace the spokes. I take care of my bike, I learn how to patch a flat, put the chain back when it has slipped off; there is a small bag with the necessary tools and a patch kit attached to the back of the seat; an air pump on clips on the frame. My Rantzen which after a few years is replaced by a pigskin briefcase I received for Christmas, is clamped on the luggage rack over the back fender. Besides books it always holds rain gear as well.

A lot of times my briefcase also holds a swimsuit and towel for spending some time at the pool in Büdingen after school. My bike makes it easy – I don’t have to worry about missing the train. I love to swim. Once the boys’ physical education teacher taught a lifesaving course at the pool and I took part in that, a skill which I later had the opportunity to put into practice.

At some point, Mutti made me some long pants to wear during the cold months and for riding my bike to school. The principal contacted her and told her that it was unacceptable that I wore pants. My Mutti, never too shy to speak her mind, met with him and asked if he would rather have a girl freeze her legs in the winter months, giving the difficult conditions under which we had to get to school – not living in Büdingen – or in the summer months when she was riding her bike, would he rather have her exposing herself?

Mutti won the battle for the winter months, but in the summer, I wore shorts under my skirt and that solved the problem. I was happy with this too, as I could show my legs without fear of exposing anything else.

Lessons go easy, I hold my place, sharing it with a few at the top of the class. We learn English, Latin and French. There are no electives in these times, which comes later to this school. At one point the whole Podack bunch, all five of us, are in this school, and some of the teachers would lament: “Oh another Podack.”  

During the high school years,  I missed the time I had spent with my brother Hardy, who had always been my closest friend when we were small children. Now, we had grown apart, having little in common and rarely spending time together except while doing homework. He became envious of me for being among the best in our class; Papa had begun to offer small bonus payments for good grades, to encourage Hardy to keep up. While I started collecting pocket change, Hardy opted out of the program, and Papa gave it up. It disturbed me that Hardy and I were drifting apart, but as adolescents, there was little that could change the situation between us.

I was good at writing and sports. In 1951, when I am sixteen years old, I received a book as reward for placing first in a sports contest. The book was “Mein Freund Flicka” by Mary O’Hara, a book to add to my meager but precious library of two other books that I called my own. The fact that it was inscribed to me for taking first place in triathlon and celebrating the 350-year anniversary of the school itself, was all the more special.

Katharina, far left, in mid broad jump. The triathlon competition consisted of the 80-meter dash, broad jump, and high jump

I am lost in Math class, however, struggling with Calculus, and Organic Chemistry gives me fits, but I can still hold my own with a good average. I make it up in other classes, I’m beginning to recognize my strong points: languages, writing, arts, sports.

The idea of students’ rights comes to our school, I am elected for Head of Student Counsel and sent to a weekend seminar. There are many discussions among the participants, I listen and learn, though I am too self-conscious to speak. But I come away from it with fresh ideas to share, and Student Counsel petitions for no-homework Sundays. Our petition is granted, but we still attend school six days a week. We succeed in having the school library made accessible to students and set up a system that worked then and for years beyond.

Suggestions for landscaping in that bare spot in front by the street do not find a positive response, however; evidently it would involve some expenses for which there are no funds.

From the Sexta (the fifth year of schooling), we graduated to the Quinta, then would come the Quarta. After that, the Tertia was divided into two years, the Unter Tertia (lower Tertia) and Ober Tertia (upper Tertia), then came Unter Secunda and Ober Secunda and last Unter Prima and Ober Prima to graduation.

Mittlere Reife (medium maturity) was reached if one finished the Unter Tertia (the eighth year of schooling). This was the benchmark where anyone not planning to go to college would leave school, which a lot of the girls did, as well as a few boys. Hardy and I remained.

When we reached the Ober Tertia in 1950, life had become more normal. Our class made the first field trip to the Saalburg, a reconstruction of a Roman fortress, its beginnings dating back to the year 90 AD, when the Romans ruled most of Germania, inhabited by heathen barbaric tribes, if I remember any of my history lessons!

Katharina aged fifteen, with the Roman Legionär at Saalburg,
1950 class trip

After that, trips were scheduled every year. One year we explored the Marburg, where Martin Luther threw his ink pot against the wall at the devil. We stayed in a youth hostel overnight. The girls and boys had separate quarters and our homeroom teacher, Herr Knorr, had imposed a curfew. Night fell and all was quiet, but it was not totally dark outside yet. The hostel was located right at the banks of the River Lahn. I could hear the water calling to me. I snuck out undetected and started walking down the path next to the water, enjoying the sounds of crickets in the grass and the gurgling of the stream. The steps I had heard on the path came closer and when I turned to see who it was, I recognized a classmate. We walked together exchanging just a few words, until he put an arm around me. Taken by surprise I tolerated it, waiting to see what would be next.

 I had never had an eye for any of my male classmates, mainly because there had never been an opportunity to interact with them outside of school. Most were Büdingers or from some other village, so there just was no chance for anything like dating. This boy sort of startled me. But feeling a boy’s arm around me felt good. It stirred the same feelings in me that had welled up when Kurt had kissed me two years ago. But tonight, there was no kiss. I felt no attraction to this boy.

Fifty years later at a class reunion he reminded me of this meeting. I had totally forgotten it was him. I remembered the walk along the river and a boy’s arm around me but not who it had been. Last month, seventy years later I received a long e-mail from him to which I have not yet replied, but I was just as surprised about it as the night he walked up behind me by the bank of the River Lahn.

Hardy on a class trip, front row far right, wearing lederhosen. Class trips often involved a lot of walking. On this unusually hot day, the boys walked at a quick pace, trying to wear out Herr Knorr; the girls lagging behind.

Katharina (left), on a ski trip with school desk mate Mechthild. This trip was scheduled as a sports event because it was a good snow year. This was in addition to the yearly field trip.

Katharina’s Story: Chapter 14-First Kiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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