Return to My Mother’s Life

Essen

MOSAIC #36

My father, Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus, 1941?

In the fall of 1940 I left Berlin where I had been living with mother, and in the beginning of October I was married to Albrecht Nicolaus. His family and I would have liked to have a church wedding in the Marktkirche in Essen where the family had close and long-lasting ties to Pastor Busch. However, it was war time and the church had been heavily damaged by bombs.

Instead, there was a short ceremony conducted by Pastor Busch in my new husband’s family apartment. There were no bridesmaids or any other trimmings of formal weddings. Since I had been unable to find a bridal gown anywhere, I had to do with what I could find. With the help of a friend who worked in a certain shop, I got a white satin night gown with some flowery embroidery. I wore it. Nobody objected or cared.

After a delicious meal cooked by “Mother Nico”, as she was called by her friends, we sat together and talked about the Nazis, the war, and the uncertain future, until night fell. We listened to the piping sounds of bombs falling on the city. We went out on the veranda and looked at what people called the “Christmas trees” in the sky, illumination by thousands of little tracer stars shot up into the sky in order for the FLAK (Flugabwehrkanonen, anti-aircraft guns) to better see where to shoot at the enemy planes. We shuddered at the sight, we all were very scared.

We hugged each other and said good night. Mother Nico had tears in her eyes. With heavy hearts my husband and I went home to our first living quarters together at Gutenbergstrasse 70. In a dingy apartment a living room, bedroom and kitchen had been sublet to us. We had been lucky to find any room at all. We were married for almost six months when the dreaded postcard arrived: Draft starting April 1, 1941. We were devastated with rage and fear. My husband did not want to be a soldier in Hitler’s army and he did not want to march into other people’s land and shoot and kill. In this fascist state there was no way out as “conscientious objector” – this category was nonexistent. There was no way to escape to another country – the borders were all closed or overrun by Hitler’s armies. If a man refused to fight in the war, I he would be shot by the military. The only way out would be suicide. Suicide was no way out for him. Besides, I, his wife, was pregnant with our first baby.  Turmoil in his heart and mind, he went.

On April 1, 1941, the military started to train my I husband. Three months later he was put into a reserve army unit that marched behind the fighting units through Poland into the Ukraine. It was a hot afternoon in July when his unit rested at a river. He sat down in front of a tent and started writing a letter to me. Out of nowhere bombs came falling down. Half of his head was ripped off: July 16, 1941. Our son was born September 25.

 

MOSAIC #37

In October of 1940 Albrecht Nicolaus and I got married. The word “honeymoon” never entered our heads.  The war was on. Bombs fell on Essen, mostly aimed at the Krupp factories, every night. My young husband was a pastor at the church in Werden near Essen but he did not get paid because he was not a Nazi collaborator.

(There was no separation of church and state as in the US. Pastors were paid as civil servants but only if and when they were loyal to the state.)

Parishioners paid him for performing special services like baptisms, weddings, funerals and they collected money for his “salary” but this amounted to very little.

A few days after our-marriage I got a call from the Arbeitsamt, the official employment agency which had been given the authority to force people to work where they were needed. I was given a job at Krupp’s “Historische Abteilung”. Essen was a company town and practically everybody worked for Krupp.

The “Historical Department” was located in a two-story family home that was left standing between two huge factory halls. What was the Historical Department doing? We were doing family research for the Krupps and their relatives as far back as we could find them. Whenever the unthinkable happened that there was a Jewish sounding name in the family tree, the boss of the department — a very kind man who laughed about the idiocy of the Nazi’s anti-Semitism — just put those papers in a special drawer and continued searching at another loose end of the family’s ancestors. It was an easy job without rush or deadlines. None of the few people in the department were Nazis.

In the back of the building in which the Historical Department was housed, there was a pretty garden and lawn. I was allowed to bring my baby to work and was given ample time to hold him, talk to him, play with him and spend as much time with him as I wanted. Two other young women employees also took time with the baby and enjoyed his smiles and laughter.

Unfortunately, often the sirens screamed indicating foreign bombers were on the way to the city. We then fled into the basement of the building. Never did a bomb I hit the building directly but the situation was very scary and it dawned on me that if we wanted to survive this insanity, we would eventually have to leave, as many families had done already.

 

MOSAIC #38

On the third Sunday in July, 1941, I had just returned from church to the apartment of my husband’s parents (where I had been asked to move after my husband’s draft into the army), when there was a ring at the door and I was handed a telegram. Fear shot up in my head like a hot flame and I dreaded to open the telegram. My hands were shaking when I did open it. There was the standard phrase that my husband had given his life for “Führer, Volk und Vaterland.”

For a moment I felt like all life had drained out of me and I was turned into a dead stone. But just then my baby inside me kicked and a mother’s instinct took over: you cannot go to pieces now, you absolutely cannot afford to go to pieces now. You have to protect the life, his life, in you. Don’t even cry now. Hold yourself and the baby together.

My husband’s mother was the next to read the telegram. I’ll never forget the screams that came out of this mother’s mouth, nay, out of the bowels of the womb that had held this son. She screamed and screamed while tears were flowing like water from a fountain of crazy sorrow. She ran out of the apartment and ran up and down the stairs and screamed:

“Ich verfluche dich, Hitler” – “I curse you, Hitler. I curse you, Hitler. I curse you, Hitler.”

When she came back, she was as white as dead. And then she was silent. She had died a mother’s death at the loss of her only son.

The third to read the telegram was my husband’s father. He slumped into the corner of a couch and started crying uncontrollably like a little child and cried and cried.  All the pain rolled into soft sobs and sobs and sobs for hours and hours, and days and days, and weeks and weeks.

And there was my husband’s sister whose husband, also a minister and also drafted and also not a Nazi, was also somewhere away in the war. She had a little baby, her first, in her arms and was highly pregnant with her second baby. When all the crying was going on, the baby started to scream too, and the mother fled into another room to console her baby and get herself together.

And another night and another day came.

 

MOSAIC #39

Soon after my father-in-law’s death, my mother-in-law, my husband’s sister Lotti and her first-born son, Helmut, moved away from Essen, to the town of Blomberg where they found refuge in a half-empty parsonage. Her husband. Helmut Wolf, a young pastor and friend of my husband, was drafted and got back to his family once a year on a short leave. On both of his last two leaves, he left his wife pregnant with another child. Lotti had Gerhard after Helmut, and then came a girl, Renate.

I once visited her there with my baby and found that she had her hands full with three children born so soon after each other. The sibling rivalry was enormous, they fought each other constantly and poor Lotti got only peace once all three kids were sound asleep. For some time, Lotti had some help because “Mutter Nico” was there and lent a hand, a mighty hand, which often was necessary in order to untangle the fighting bunch of kids. But then one day “Mutter Nico” died. She died in her sleep.

After I moved to the US, I sometimes wrote to Lotti and tried to find out how she and the children were doing (her husband had died a few days before the end of the war somewhere on the Balkan) – but, unfortunately, I never received a reply.

There was no reason for her to be unfriendly towards me — I guess she never got around to writing me because these kids took all the time of her life.

 

MOSAIC #40

It was one of those gray September days, no sunshine, no rain, but even the air I sucked in seemed gray misery. I dragged myself with my huge 9-months pregnant belly into the streetcar that would take me to the hospital in Essen. According to the custom of the land, I, a widow (26 years old), wore a black dress, black stockings, black shoes, a black hat, and I wore a black bag with the things I would need for a few days in the hospital. I wished somebody in the crowded streetcar would offer me a seat but nobody did.

For a change, no sirens were howling indicating the approach of bombers. In one of the main streets, long columns of men in raggedy gray work clothes, guarded by soldiers on all sides, were marching, no, shuffling along, on to the Krupp factories to produce weapons of war for the Germans, their enemies. I knew they were all foreigners, captured by German soldiers, abducted from their countries and forced to labor here. They were war slaves.

I was about to give birth to a little German and an iron resolve was already established in my mind: whether it be a girl or a boy, he or she would not become a Nazi. I would see to it.

In the hospital I was put into a room together with another young woman who had given birth on the same day. I remember her husband slowly entering the room, and when he saw his wife, he put a bouquet of flowers at her feet on the bed, then slowly approached her and bent down to kiss her. That’s when I turned around in pain and faced the wall.

My mother and I, Essen 1941

This was hours after I held my son in my arms for the first time. At this moment the physical pain of giving birth was forgotten for good. But it was an incredibly painful and at the same time exhilarating experience of losing my baby from my body and then having him, too. This also was the time when it fully hit me that I had lost my beloved husband who had joined my innermost life, and that’s when bitter streams of tears and cries befell me. But then our son was alive and healthy and with me. I held him and tenderly stroked his tiny fingers and talked to him, “Du bist mein liebes, liebes Nicoläuschen, und ich bin Deine Mami, und zusammen wir werden’s schon schaffen.” And I had to cry again in sadness and in joy. My son smiled!

The first person to visit me in the hospital was “Mother Nico”, my mother-in-law, who bitterly grieved about the loss of her only son, but now, for the first time since his death, showed signs of happiness in her eyes when she saw and held her son’s baby, her grandson. My father-in-law could not come to visit me because he was hospitalized with heart trouble that started when the news of his only son’s death hit him. Before this event he never had any heart trouble.

Soon after I left the hospital, I came with my baby to the door of his clinic and showed him his grandson. (We were not permitted to take the baby inside – for good reasons.) Tears of grief and happiness streamed down his cheeks when he looked at his son’s son and he repeatedly said:

“Gott segne und behüte dich, kleines Nicoläuschen, Gott segne dich …” (God bless you and protect you, little Nicolaus, God bless you.)

Then a nurse pulled back the wheelchair in which he was sitting. A few days later he died, surely of a broken heart.

My late husband’s sister, Lotti, could not come to visit me because she had to attend her own first baby, Helmut, because he cried a lot and demanded constant attention.

One other visitor came: a young man in his early twenties who introduced himself as a friend of my late husband. (I had never before heard his name mentioned). He had the nerve to tell me that I had his sympathy because he knew how I felt.

Then he presented a gift: a religious postcard with silly/stupid flowers and a quotation from Jesaiah, something like: “Ich gebiete dir, dass du getrost und freudig seist” – I order you to be content and joyful. He pasted it on the wall by my bed. It made me so mad I felt like kicking the guy out. Luckily, he disappeared immediately after completing his mission of mercy.

The day was September 25, 1941, exactly nine months after my son was conceived at Gutenberg-Strasse 70 in Essen on Christmas Eve of the previous year.

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