My father was lucky: He did not have to go to war. He did not become one of the 1,773,000 Germans killed or one of the four million wounded. In 1914, when World War I broke out, he was 30 years old, had recently married my mother, Lydia Streck, and he had a good job with Deutsche Bahnbedarfs AG in Darmstadt. The company produced trains, tracks, turntables and everything else needed to get trains coming and going. My father was one of the top engineers.
In the year when the war began, his company sent him to one of their vital branches in upper Silesia near Kattowitz which is now part of Poland. There we lived in a rented brown brick house with a big yard and a little creek that represented the border to Poland.
Fourteen months after I was born in Zawadzki on February 19, 1915, my parents had two more children, twin girls, who were named Annelies and Lottelies. My mother surely needed help to care for three little kids, and a Polish mama was hired. She spoke very little German but this was no drawback. She was a very warm and loving person and I learned Polish words from her some of which I still remember.
My little sister Lottelies, who was the weaker one of the twins, died at the age of three from pneumonia.
I do not remember much of those early years but two events: Every year, according to the custom of the Polish as well as the German people in the area, several weeks before Christmas a goose was chosen to be cooked for the Christmas dinner. That goose was put into a tight cage and fed pretty thick dumplings day after day. I watched the dumplings making the long goose neck bulge and slowly making their way down and disappear. My mother later told me that I always cried when I saw this because I felt so sorry for the poor goose but that she assured me that it did not hurt the goose.
The other event I still remember was falling into the ice cold water of the creek which was swollen from melted snow. I remember the terrible fear I experienced. I screamed and my mother rescued me. Never again did I have a comfortable feeling being in water outside the security of the house.
In 1918, after the end of the war when I was four years old, my father was transferred to the headquarters of his company in Darmstadt.
You may want to ask me: What do you know about your parents’ family background? Sorry, not much.
My father was born on September 2, 1884, in Dortmund (Westphalia). I have no idea of his father’s first name or what kind of work he did. Nor do I know anything about his mother except that she gave birth to several sons. The figure seven or nine sons swims dimly in the back of my memory. At least one of these sons emigrated to somewhere on the American continent.
I never met my paternal grandparents or my father’s brothers. My mother, Lydia Streck, was born on April 18, 1888, also in Dortmund. Her father was a locomotive engineer. I believe her mother had already passed away by the time she got married to my father.
Mother had three sisters: Mimi, who was older than my mother and who never married. She was a teacher, a Handarbeitslehrerin, meaning that she taught what girls at that time were expected to learn: sewing, knitting, crocheting and mending.
Her sister, Johanna, married twice.
Emma never married and managed the household at Baum-Str. 19 where they still lived when I once visited the family on a cold and dreary winter day in 1941 when I lived in nearby Essen after my marriage. My visit lasted no more than an hour and I don’t remember anything of importance.
Darmstadt, about 50 miles south of Frankfurt on the Main, was a quiet, medium-sized town with a Technische Hochschule (Institute of Technology) of high reputation.
We lived in a two-story building of red sandstone at 23 Friedrich-Strasse (Frederick Street). The owner lived upstairs, we downstairs.
It was a quiet street lined with hawthorn trees, one with white blossoms, the next with red blossoms, all along the street on both sides. Next to the house in which we lived was an estate with a very fancy house and a huge garden with lots of chestnut trees, all of it guarded by a beautiful wrought-iron fence. In the fall, the neighborhood kids – there were many – were invited to go into the garden and collect the (inedible) chestnuts from the ground. We loaded our doll carriages or small rack-wagons full of chestnuts. We then went to an old man living in the back of a nearby Mom-and-Pop grocery store and sold them by the pound for which we got some pennies.
Most of the kids went straight to the grocery store and bought some candy which the grocer dispensed out of a huge glass jar. I, however, did not buy candy but a dill pickle which the grocer fished out of a big cask standing on the floor of the shop. I ate the pickle with great delight on the street under a tree where some of the juice fell on the soil around the tree. I thought the tree liked it, too.
My parents did not send me to school at the customary age of six because I was considerably underweight: I was not an eager eater, possibly in spite and because of the constant urging of my parents to eat, eat, eat. Instead, a year later, at the age of seven, I was sent to an elementary school to start first grade together with my one year younger sister.
My mother, who made most of our clothes, used the same colors, shapes and patterns for both of us — she made us look like twins, surely a reflection of the pain of losing one of the twins.
The school desks and benches were built for two kids each and we sat together. Whenever my sister did not know the answer to a question, she leaned a bit over to me, tugged at my skirt and expected me to let her know the answer. Sometimes I whispered the answer to her or wrote it on a note, but sometimes, of course, I did not know the answer either.
When we got home, my sister was often mad at me because I had not helped her in school and she hit me or, whenever she had a chance, she bit me in my arms. This made me really mad and I hit her back and this went on until mother or father separated us and quieted us down.
This unfortunate situation was greatly alleviated when my sister became very sick with appendicitis. The attending physician (they made house calls in those days) did not recognize the condition until the appendix had erupted. Finally, my sister was rushed to a hospital where she almost died. She eventually got her health back but she was unable to go to school for half a year. She had to do the school year over whereas I went on to the next grade. We now were on our own in school.
I want to tell you about my first teacher in grammar school. Her (real ) name was Fraulein (Miss) Bitsch. The word Bitsch does not mean what it sounds in English; it means nothing as far as I know. This is the way she looked: a slim, medium size lady with ankle-length skirt in gray or black, a white or gray or black blouse with a modest lace collar. And there always was a gold watch hanging from the right side of her waist.
From her we learned to write in the stiff old-fashioned Gothic style. We had lined writing pads and this is the way we were taught: “Auf, ab, auf, Pünktchen drauf.” In English: “Up, down, up, dot on top.” This is how to write a Gothic German letter “i”:
This had to be repeated (as homework) 100 times (as well as the other letters of the alphabet) for days and weeks and months until the writing got better and better.
Homework was given in grammar school from the very beginning and soon it was accepted by the pupils as the way of life. Parents generally insisted that their children did their homework first before being allowed to play. This made the kids eager to get their homework out of the way and freed their minds for play without feeling guilty not having done homework.
I probably would have forgotten Fraülein Bitsch long ago if there had not happened something that impressed me very much. Discipline in school was pretty strict: no unauthorized talking, no whispering, no funny business … One day a girl sitting behind me was whispering to her neighbor. Fraülein Bitsch, while writing on the blackboard, heard something from the direction of where I was sitting and, although she had not actually seen the whispering girl, she thought that I was the culprit. She ran to where I was sitting, cursed me in a most uncivilized way, pushed my head forward and hammered with her fists on my back. When I screamed she hammered even more savagely. I finally stopped screaming and Fraülein Bitsch let go of me and resumed teaching.
Fraülein Bitsch. What a good memory we have for the injustices done to us, whereas …
Corporal punishment of kids, unfortunately, was accepted practice. “Wer seine Kinder liebt, der züchtigt sie” (“If you I love your children, you punish (flog) them” – was widely accepted dogma. After Fraülein Bitsch, no teacher ever again touched me with fists or paddles or sticks nor do I remember any other kid being beaten by a teacher.
Well, I got a beating at another occasion and at the time I thought I somehow deserved it. Since I did not have a bicycle (which I ardently desired) I borrowed one from another little girl and practiced biking on it. The very first time I got going on it without having firm control over it, I managed to drive straight between two young biking lovers who held each other by stretching out one right and left arm, respectively, and holding each other by their shoulders. All three of us fell down. Both of the lovers cursed me loudly and the young man promised to beat me to a pulp. I ran and ran and he went after me until I was exhausted and hid behind the open door of a building. In no time at all the young man found me and gave me a mean beating. When he saw my nose bleeding he finally gave up. The young man insisted to walk home with me. When my mother saw my face smeared with blood and tears she got very upset. I don’t remember how my father reacted when he got the news but he did straighten out three bicycles.
This happened a long, long time ago when I was seven or eight years old. Everybody in our street in Darmstadt (Friedrich Street) knew Mopsy, but Mopsy was not his real name. We just called him that because he was terribly underweight – you get this?
Mopsy was just about the same age as I was. Some older boys called him stupid because he told me and a lot of other kids in our street that his mother had such a big belly because she had been hit by a soccer ball. The older boys said that they knew better, but they never told us anything new.
I believed the soccer ball story because that seemed to be the only plausible explanation for the big belly. But on the other hand, I wanted to be in with the older kids, and so it happened that one day, while Mopsy was nowhere in sight, I had this itch to do something that I had never done before. I got some white chalk from my school backpack, went outside and wrote in big letters on the red sandstone that covered the walls of the house I lived in “Mopsy ist doooof.”
Dof is a German slang word for stupid. I wanted to make sure that everybody understood how dof Mopsy was, so I added several ‘o’s to the ordinary spelling of dof.
There was a bunch of at least a dozen kids who stood around and watched me, and they all screamed in delight: “Right on, he deserves that, that stupid little buster, yeah, right on, great, you gave it to him, yeah, yeah, right on!” You can imagine how elated it felt. I felt at least three years older, like Mike who first had said that Mopsy was stupid.
I was gleaming with pride when I turned around and happened to meet the eyes of — my father who was standing there watching the spectacle. I froze. I felt like my blood was leaving my body.
My father tipped his head slightly towards the house indicating for me to come home. I was scared to death. I was expecting a big scolding or worse. My father did not say a word. I followed him into the kitchen. Calmly he picked up a bucket, filled it with water and a dash of soap and let an old rag dramatically fall into the bucket from above his high-held hand. He looked at me, and then he said, “You know what to do.” I took a deep breath and picked up the bucket.
When I got outside, I pretended not to see all the kids who were milling around. I put down the bucket under my graffiti, picked up the wet rag and started to wash off the insulting words, “Mopsy ist doooof.” I cannot tell you how ashamed I felt for having done this awful thing. I felt so miserable I could have cried and screamed, screamed and cried.
But that was not the end of the story. The same bunch of kids that a few minutes ago had so wildly applauded my bad deed were now screaming: “That serves you right, you SCHMIERFINK” (translated “smear bird”) and other German expletives that defy translation. Will you believe me that after that happening I never ever again did any graffiti anywhere in the world?
School was held not only Monday through Friday but also Saturdays for half a day. A few Jewish students, whose parents brought them up in a strict, orthodox way, were not allowed to carry anything on the Sabbath day, not even school books.
This was not really a problem. The Christian kids who were the Jewish kids’ friends carried the books for them. I remember that I did. Every Saturday morning during the school year I went to Ruth Brod’s (her real name) house in which there was a bakery store owned and operated by Ruth’s father and mother.
I loved to go there because of the wonderful aroma of freshly baked goods. I picked up Ruth’s Ranzen (backpack) and together we went to school. After school we went back and I put the Ranzen on a window sill on the bakery store building. This was not some kind of kindness on my part but it was a thing that was simply done and no remuneration was expected or given.
When people here in the United States of America learn that someone grew up in Germany before and during the Nazi period, they often assume that everybody was brought up in an anti-Semitic environment. This certainly is not true in my case. My parents were not anti-Jewish, and I cannot recall hearing anti-Semitic remarks from teachers or students during my school years except during the last year in high school which was the year (1933) the Nazis came to power in Germany.
On Frederick Street there was a small synagogue just a couple of short blocks away. Around the synagogue there was a gardenlike area with lots of shade trees. Late in fall when the Jews celebrated Laubhüttenfest (a kind of harvest-thanksgiving feast) there were tables and benches in booth style by one of the walls of the synagogue and lots of kids of the neighborhood went there and mingled with the Jewish kids and just frolicked around. The adults were in a festive mood and gave the kids some of their goodies. Every year we kids looked forward to the Laubhüttenfest.