My mother writes in her memoirs that a piece of a bomb came through the roof in Essen one summer day in 1943 and took off a corner of the kitchen table. She decided it was time to get out of Dodge. With the help of her church connections she found a room in a parsonage (a parish house) in the small village of Fürstenhagen, in lower Saxony, about 30 miles from Göttingen. At the time, it was an hour’s walk to the nearest train station. There was nothing there worth bombing. It was safe, at least from the air.
From the ground, maybe not so much. The town had a creek running down the center of the main street, and this had rocky patches where stinging nettles grew boy-high. One day one of the local boys, considerably bigger than I, pushed me into the nettles. Another time, one of the local girls threw a sharp rock at arm’s length directly into my face. It hit me just above the right eye and made a bloody mess. The eye was OK but I still have a faint trace of the scar in my eyebrow. Most of the local folks were Nazis and it was known that my mother was not, so I guess her kid was fair game.
My mother was able to save some photos from the Fürstenhagen years. They seem positively idyllic. There I am with a sweet little country lass (maybe the same one that threw the stone later) and stretching my hands to the sky to show how big I’ve grown; studying dandelion seed heads, and giving a studio smile.
I do have agreeable memories of Fürstenhagen. My mother and I would go out into the countryside with a big wooden wagon and gather firewood, pick mushrooms and edible greens, and scavenge for dropped apples and pears. The apples were treasures. To this day I eat the whole apple including seeds, all but the stem. We went over the potato fields after the harvest and hunted for spuds that had been missed. Apart from the unfriendly encounters and the chronic shortage of food, it was a country childhood. I saw a lot of green, breathed fresh air, got exercise. I saw a lot of farm life. I saw chickens running around with their heads hacked off — they really do! I saw pigs being butchered on ladders, and covered my ears at their piercing shrieks when the knife went in. I hunted in the underbrush for mislaid eggs. I stepped in cow-, pig-, goose-, chicken-, sheep-, and horse-shit. I was in the fields where people scythed grain, bundled the stalks and stacked them teepee fashion to dry. I hid in the teepees and rolled in haystacks, chased chickens and geese, got chased by dogs, and tasted milk squirted at me from cows’ udders.
It was definitely not a sterile-bubble childhood. I’ve read that exposure to a diversity of dirt in childhood builds strong immune systems. I guess that my early village upbringing deserves some of the credit for my generally robust health (knock on wood) as a grown-up. No matter what its shortcomings, Fürstenhagen was a lot better place to spend the war years than the German cities — as I was soon to find out.