Katharina’s Story – Chapter 10: Becoming Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: weaponsandwarfare.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katharina – Age 9 – 1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, she was gone in the night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Traditions

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

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

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

First Advent. Flickr Photo Credit dietmar-schwanitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flickr Photo Credit berndtolksdorf

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

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

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

Father Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas in Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gift of Christmastime Lessons

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

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

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

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

Marie Eberhardt
Marie Eberhardt, circa 1953

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Eberhardt
Karl Eberhardt, circa 1953

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katharina’s Story – Chapter 5

Summer on the Baltic Sea

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

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

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

She glances over her shoulder at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Ken Curl | Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boardwalk and beach at Rauschen on the Baltic Sea.

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

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

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

Chapter 4 — Mutti and Papa’s Early Years

Nora and Walter

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Katharina’s Baptism 1934

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 3 – The Podack Women in Conflict

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

August and Hedwig Podack, Prussians of early peasant stock

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

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

Katharina observes her own attire for the day and laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katharina: Chapter 2 Königsberg, East Prussia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Podack Farm

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

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

Katharina with a Teppichklopfer in front of a
Gärtnerei Podack greenhouse

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

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

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

“It is all gone now,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

A Wreathmaker’s Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katharina Chapter 1: Early Memories

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

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

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

East Prussia

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Mutti and Papa, Summer 1943, after Rudi was born

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Kites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting School

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

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

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

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

“Paper tablets came later, you know.

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

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

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

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

Mutti with Katharina and Hardy, 1937

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

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

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

The Specialness of Allenstein

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

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

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

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

“Ahhh,” Katharina croons, closing her eyes.

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

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

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

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