Jun 27

Revisiting “The Village”

In the fall of 2010, my wife Sheila and I visited Berlin, and my son Fred joined us there.  On Fred’s initiative, he and I took a trip to Fürstenhagen, the village where I spent most of the war years.  (See my mother’s “The Village” and my  “Memories of ‘The Village‘”)  He had read about Fürstenhagen in my mother’s memoirs and was intensely curious — much more so than I — what it was like today.  I resisted at first —  my memories were not the fondest — but gave in to make him happy.  Getting there was a fast train ride on the ICE (Inter City Express) from Berlin to Göttingen, then a short hop on a regional train to the village of Offensen, and then a 3 km walk along a silky-smooth road to Fürstenhagen.  (Map Link)

Fürstenhagen has reinvented itself from a farming village to a vacation spot

Fürstenhagen, in my childhood strictly a farm village, has reinvented itself as a vacation spot, or so the sign at the entrance proclaims.  I gathered from the information kiosk that the town hosted a series of motorcycle rallies.  A variety of hiking trails and a harvest festival also beckoned visitors.

Fred and I had lunch at this excellent family-run country inn

Our first stop was at the Landsgasthaus Zur Linde (the country inn “At the Linden Tree”) for lunch.  We found seats at the side of the bar; a group of German visitors occupied all the tables.  The proprietor recommended the plate of mixed cold cuts, made in house by his brother, a butcher.  The dishes were delicious and the portions generous.  The inn also impressed with its state-of-the art Dyson hand dryer in the immaculate bathroom.

Fred and I at lunch in the inn. The water is mine, the beer is Fred’s.

After pushing back the empty plate, I had a chat with the innkeeper.  Told him I had spent the war years here with my mother in the parsonage (“Pfarrhaus”).  Did the parsonage still exist?  Yes, opposite the church, just up the road.  He got on the phone and reached Frau Kempe, a volunteer with the church, who agreed to hop on her bicycle and meet us there.

The former parsonage where I spent most of the war years

Minutes later we were at the church.  Frau Kempe appeared, gave us a friendly greeting,  and pointed us at a two-story structure in the Fachwerk (timbered) style, opposite the church.  She explained that the church had sold the property some years earlier to a private owner, but that the church rented a meeting room on the ground floor for classes and child care.  She showed us the room.  The rest of the house was inaccessible and the owners were absent.  We admired the door and some of the details, and poked around on the grounds.  The place did not trigger in me any epiphanies of recognition.

She also admitted us into the church,  a cozy structure with a solid, minimalist, Protestant feeling to it.  Frau Kempe explained that there were not enough parishioners to support a full time clergy person.  A woman minister traveled among six different churches in the region and held services in Fürstenhagen about once a month.

Frau Kempe was born after the war and had no personal knowledge of that time.   But she referred us to the local historian, Herr Alfred Görges.  We walked a few short blocks to the vicinity of Görges’ house and stopped to ask directions of a middle-aged gent who was working on his manicured front lawn.  He turned out to be Görges’ son-in-law, Hermann Müller, and told us that unfortunately Görges was in Göttingen at the moment getting dialysis treatment and would not be back until the evening.   He invited us into his house and showed us three of Görges’ books:  Wohnen in Fürstenhagen (Living in F.), Leben und Arbeiten in F. (Living and Working in F.), and Wir Waren Fast noch Kinder (We were almost just children).  I bought the first two, and accepted the third as a gift.  The “Wohnen” book is a history of the village from the 12th century forward, containing documentary and oral information about each and every house in the village.  The second book is a survey of the town’s trades and occupations, with many historical photos.  The third consists of wartime remniscences.

Pastor Feldmann, a helper, and Frau Feldmann cleaning wool, 1942 (Alfred Görges photo)

One of the books contains a  photo of Pastor Feldmann, the local Protestant minister in 1940, and his wife.  Feldmann was drafted into the German Army and was killed on the Eastern Front, like my father.  Frau Feldmann was the main tenant of the parsonage while my mother and I were guests there; my mother writes about Frau Feldmann in her memoirs.

Herr Müller connected us with the head of the local historical society, Herr Heinrich Thiele, a few houses away. Herr Thiele drove us in his car a half mile or so up the hill to the former local school house, now the local museum, and unlocked its doors for us.  The society had done an admirable job assembling tools, furnishings, photos and other artifacts from the village’s history and displaying them with helpful legends.

The creek down the middle of the main street has been tamed and prettied up

On our way back to the inn, where we stopped for a final cup of coffee and cake, I took note that the creek still ran down the middle of the main street; but it had been tamed, channeled, cleaned of weeds, and prettied up with potted plants.  No more nettles.

I was impressed with Fürstenhagen, and grateful to Fred for dragging me on the trip.  Since the war, we were told, nearly all the independent farm holdings that once were the mainstay of the community had been consolidated into the hands of two or three large landholders, and most of the residents now commuted to work in nearby towns.  It was now a bedroom community, but it managed to reinvent itself as a vacation spot; it boasted an excellent country inn; and it had not completely lost its moorings but held fast to the images and artifacts of its history.  The village is fortunate to have a diligent and capable local historian like Alfred Görges in its midst.  The people we met were unfailingly nice and helpful to us.  If I had met the boy who pushed me into the nettles or the girl who threw the rock in my face, and if we had recognized one another, I’m sure they would have sincerely apologized.

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Here’s an album of photos from our visit on Sept. 19, 2010:

 

Jun 27

Memories of “The Village” (1943 – 1945)

The parsonage in Fürstenhagen, 1940 (From Alfred Görges' book)

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.

Me and unknown friend in Fürstenhagen (1943?)

A country childhood in Fürstenhagen (?1943?)

A country childhood in Fürstenhagen (1943?)

Me in Fürstenhagen showing how big I've grown

My mother wrote "1944" under this photo

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.

Jun 27

My First Memory

Marktkirche Essen, 1945

My first memory is of going into a bomb shelter.  It was down some dirty stairs, there were a lot of people, there was a dog (a shepherd), it was noisy.  I mainly remember the atmosphere: dark, cavernous, dusty, loud; and the dog, who seemed very big.  This memory is probably a composite of many such trips; according to my mother’s memoirs, air raids were an almost daily occurrence.

This could have been in Essen, where I was born, or in Berlin, where my mother went to visit her mother.  My mother told me that during one air raid in Berlin, she ran down the middle of the street holding me in her arms, with houses burning and collapsing on both sides of the street.  I have no memory of fires or of bomb impacts.  I did have a fear reaction as a boy to the droning sound of big propeller airplanes overhead.

My mother told me that I was baptized in the Marktkirche (Market Church) in Essen, see photo above; it was already damaged by Allied bombing.  Later in the war, Allied bombing completely destroyed the church.  In this instance, the bombers did the city a favor.  During the 1930s, church authorities had put the church up for sale due to declining enrollment, and the city government wanted to tear it down.

Efforts to rebuild the church began in 1950, but it took more than half a century to raise the money.  The Marktkirche reopened its doors in 2006.  See the church’s website.  When I visited Essen in 2009, the Marktkirche was an architectural ornament in the city’s renovated pedestrians-only downtown.

Essen was a Krupp company town.  My father’s father worked in the Krupp offices in Essen.  Shortly after my father was killed (in July 1941) my mother was assigned to work in the Krupp Co. Historical Department (Archives), located in a residential building squeezed between the Krupp factories.  As my mother recounts in her memoirs, she was able to take me with her to work there, and I spent many of my earliest days in the little garden behind the building.  The other women who worked there helped take care of me.  Some photographs of that situation have survived.

Baptized in the Market Church, coddled in the Krupp Archives … what a beginning!

Here are the baby pictures that my mother was able to save.

Jun 25

My Writings

Under construction

Jun 24

My Soap Box

Page under construction

 

Jun 23

Putting it Together

For years I worked to keep the different pieces of my life separate and compartmentalized.  It felt safer that way.  But it was hard work, and it often kept me from experiencing myself as a whole and integrated person.  Now that I’m approaching 70, it’s high time for me to put it all together and be what I am in the time I have left.  It would be awkward, after all, if at my funeral different friends were to tell stories about me that came as complete news to other friends, who had no idea.  So, in this web site, I am working towards my integrity — integrity not only in the common sense of honesty and openness, but in the special sense of togetherness and completeness.  This will take some time and some work, but it’s what I feel motivated to do now.

I’m writing primarily for myself, and secondarily for my kids, but you’re welcome to look over my shoulder and kibitz if you feel inspired or annoyed.  This web site is a work in progress, and I welcome your suggestions and contributions.