Memories of a Schoolgirl – Part 1

World Map
Child Portrait

Elisabeth, age 3

My father Arthur Stehnike and my mother Margarethe Schmidt met in Hamburg in the early 1920s. Arthur was enrolled in business school, while Margarethe was apprenticed to Auguste Clausen, a famous portrait photographer. Both were members of the Wandervogel Verein (“Wandering Bird Society”), a group of young idealists who enjoyed hiking and singing, guitar-playing, reading Dostoevsky, and other such Bohemian activities. Another member was Karin Jacobsen, for whom I was given my middle name. She later married the Jewish poet Iven Heilbut. My Uncle Kurt was also a member of the Wandervögel; he wanted badly to marry my mother, but she chose the younger brother Arthur.

My father was hired by Hugo Stinnes Shipping Company and was sent to Buenos Aires. My mother followed him to Argentina, and they were married. I was born on September 17, 1924. My earliest memory is waking up one morning with my eyes glued shut. Someone put a warm, wet rag on my face and they miraculously opened up.

My next earliest memory is of a trip to Germany when I was three and my brother Hans Jürgen was two. We went to Coburg, then Schleswig. On the train to Schleswig my brother threw the train tickets out the window, but we were allowed to stay on the train anyway. In Schleswig, my grandmother Stehnike (“Oma” to her grandchildren) served hot dogs. I was furious because no one would remove the peel from my hot dog. A more pleasant memory was that Oma served warm milk in thin porcelain mugs which smelled so good and tasted delicious.

Back in Argentina, when I was about four, my father (“Vater”) took me along to see Herr Ottl, a jolly Bavarian living in Loreto, a suburb of Buenos Aires. Herr Ottl came to the garden gate, and Vater started negotiating with him about renting an apartment in his house. Soon after that we moved in. My sister Rosy was born in that house. The Ottls were like grandparents to us; we had a wonderful relationship with them.

Guitar Grethe

Margarethe: self-portrait

Starting at age four, we went to kindergarten at a school where my mother’s younger sister Lodel was a teacher. Her real name was Lotte, which I could not pronounce. Tante Lodel was good with children, and we were very fond of her. The school was on beautiful grounds with a shallow pond in which we crawled on our hands so it would look like we were swimming.

My parents learned early that I had a bad temper. One time, after I had made some kind of mischief, my mother (“Mutti”) locked me in the bathroom. I was so furious that I turned the whole roll of toilet paper into snowflakes. At school one Christmas, my temper again showed itself. We all were given small gifts, but a few of the teachers were given tiny Christmas trees. They were so charming to look at that I just had to have one, so I made a big scene.

Prussian Familie

Karl and Luise Stehnike with
young Kurt and Arthur

Herr Ottl later built a house in another suburb called Rivadavia. Both families moved into the house, they upstairs and we downstairs. One day, while the house was still under construction, the workmen were sitting in the courtyard eating lunch. I stood and stared at their wonderful dark, coarse-grained bread, until they finally offered me some. My love of wholesome bread continued all my life.

Our neighborhood was chock full of elderberry bushes. Vater and Mutti picked berries and made juice and invited the neighbors to try it. They all said, “No, no, it’s poisonous.” We had to drink it first to show that it was safe. Then they tried it and loved it.

Next door lived a very rich family, Germans with a huge compound of woods. Into an ombu tree they had built a sitting place, like a gazebo. There was space enough in the trunk for people to sit. The family invited us over to play with their sickly daughter because she had no friends. She later died aboard ship on the way to Germany.

Opa HJ Elis

Opa with Hans Jürgen and Elisabeth
during first visit to Schleswig

Once an elegant horse-drawn funeral cart, pitch-black with tassels and carrying a coffin, passed our house. I followed it up the hill, on and on, hoping to see something. Finally my father called me back and said, “You know, one doesn’t do that.” I was deeply embarrassed.

Vater used to tell us war stories about the battle of Verdun, at which he was wounded. I always visualized the battlefield as a big area like a football field with a wire fence around it. My father had been a cavalry officer, and he still had the saddle he used. Naturally I wanted to be a cavalry officer too. I had a pair of boots which were not exactly army boots, but they served the purpose. My brother and I “played house,” so that I could put on my boots and go to war. There was an old saw horse in the courtyard which was my horse. I made Hans Jürgen play mother and stay home and cook.

In the same courtyard was a huge fig tree. At night Hans Jürgen and I pretended to be birds and hopped around in the shadows of the tree on the tiles of the courtyard. Not being overwhelmed with material goods, we took more interest in animals and nature. We used our imaginations to do things, and life was more interesting.

Frau Ottl & Kids

Frau Ottl with Rosy,
Elisabeth and Hans Jürgen

Dog carts came by once a week with a huge cage as high as the ceiling. The carts were full of yelping dogs on their way to the zoo, where they would be fed to the animals. That was a horrible sight for children to see.

Herr Ottl decided to build a single-family house for himself in the suburb of Olivos. His new house had stilts because it was close to the Rio de la Plata, which sometimes ran over its banks. The river was so wide at that point we could not see across to Uruguay. Herr Ottl built a duplex for us which we shared with another family. Our house was farther from the river, but it flooded once in the basement. On that occasion, we took all the chickens, ducks, rabbits, and dogs into the house.

Argentina Family

Hans Jürgen, Margarethe, Rosy,
Arthur and Elisabeth in Buenos Aires

Olivos was considered the best suburb of Buenos Aires. Well-to-do inner-city people would come out to rent horses to ride, always, according to custom, with boys sitting in front and girls behind. During the week the horses were turned loose to graze up and down the beach. When a horse was needed, the owner would ride out and lasso it.

Herr Ottl presented us with a pony, not well trained, which we called Zottelpony, meaning “ungroomed pony.” At first it was a big thrill. We tied it to a tree, and the next morning before we could even buy a saddle, it was gone, off with the herd. At the age of six or seven, I went out to see if I could catch it, but I could not do it by myself. I was so crazy about riding that once in a while my father would rent a tame pony for me to ride. Occasionally he would invite me to go fishing and ask me if I wanted to fish or ride around on the horse. I went fishing, so as not to hurt his feelings, but I always regretted it.

I was also given two rabbits, which thrilled me no end. They did not waste much time before they had a litter. Just after they were born, I had my first and only prophetic dream – I dreamed the baby rabbits would all die. Soon some friends, the Edelmanns, came to visit. One of their boys had a rubber ball with a hole in it, which he filled with water and sprayed at the baby rabbits. Shortly thereafter they died. Another sad memory was when our dog Nellie had a litter and one of the puppies was found frozen to death behind a geranium bush.

Don Jose

Rosy and Don José

Our neighbors on one side were two elderly French ladies who were very sweet to us. They invited us over to help water their garden which was full of beautiful flowers. Don José lived on the other side. He was an old man who was very loving and walked with a limp. He had two dogs, named Blanco and Negro. Don José owned a park, an open-air picnic area with a straw roof, which served as a rest area for city folks who came out to Olivos. He was especially fond of Rosy, who was called Hiji, affectionate for hija (“daughter” in Spanish).

I was sent to a small Argentine school for a little while. Before long, my brother (nicknamed Dedel) and I went to Herr Qualitz who ran a small German school in his house. He and his wife were beautiful people. The first reading we did, in German, was Gulliver’s Travels.

We walked to school, and along the way we passed a house with geese. One gander always attacked us on our way, and I became extremely afraid of that gander. My mother was already too weak with tuberculosis to walk us to school. Mutti said her legs felt like two sticks about to break. We had to cross the tracks of the suburban train. One day the gates were down but my brother went under the railing. One of the adults grabbed him just in time, as the train went speeding by.

Oma Kids Argentina

Oma in Argentina with Hans Jürgen, Rosy & Elisabeth

One morning in Olivos, Hans Jürgen was missing. The main room in the house, called the veranda, had big windows looking out over the river. We were eating breakfast there, and Hans Jürgen did not show up. My father looked for him outside. I looked out and saw a tiny dot on the horizon of the river; it was Hans Jürgen in a rowboat. He was only six years old. Vater dashed over to the house of our weekend neighbors, Don Diego and Don Alfredo, and they all went out in their rowboat. Luckily, they retrieved him.

Hitler was just emerging on the German political scene. My father would read the paper to my mother at the breakfast table. He would say, “Listen to what he’s doing now.” Then he would read to her what Hitler was doing, and they would laugh about it, thinking it was crazy.

We saw our first airplanes over Olivos. They dropped things, like rubber balls, leaflets, and advertisements, which we chased.

My mother used to sing around the house, nice German folk songs, and she read us fairy tales. One story by Clemens Brentano was about a family with chickens. The father was Gockel, the mother was Hinkel, and the child was Gackeleia, which was the source of my nickname Gaggi, because I adored that story.

HJ-Elis-Fish

Hans Jürgen and Elisabeth

Once for a series of days, it rained ash from a volcano in the Andes, which might have aggravated my mother’s tuberculosis. Then we caught the flu. We all got up again except Mutti. She went downhill from then on and stayed in bed. Soon my grandmother came over from Germany to care for us, and my mother went to the hospital. Before Mutti went to the hospital, Herr and Frau Qualitz brought the whole class, about twenty-five or thirty children, out to see her and bring flowers.

Oma Grete Kids

Hans Jürgen, Oma, Margarethe,
Elisabeth and Rosy just before departure
to Germany for Grete’s TB treatment

My father looked for a TB resort in South America but could not find one, so they decided to take her back to Germany. We gave our shepherd dog Lupo away to friends in another suburb, but before we left Argentina, Lupo found his way back to our house. Vater took him back to his new owners. Don José came to the car as we were leaving and cried big tears. Then in the summer (December) of 1932-33, we caught a boat for Germany.

We landed in Rio to take on new passengers. We had time to go ashore, and we went to a nice beach. We also drove up toward the mountains, where I saw a huge, brilliant, almost iridescent, light-blue butterfly. It thrilled me.

On board ship, the food was good and the coffee was delicious. There were various nice passengers who took an interest in us children. One man made origami figures for us, to entertain us. In mid-voyage, some members of the crew gave us a pair of binoculars and said, “You won’t believe what you see out there.” So I said, “I can’t see anything,” and they said, “Well just look for the equator. You can see it out there.” We finally gave up and put the binoculars down and everyone started to laugh. Then we realized it was a prank. They had put ink on the binoculars and I had two big black circles around my eyes. Then we had a big party with balloons and streamers and little horns to celebrate crossing the equator.

Journey

On board the ship bound for
Germany: Hans Jürgen and
Elisabeth with
Arthur holding Rosy

In January 1933 we arrived in dreary grey Hamburg harbor. Lodel and some other relatives were there. We were immediately separated from our mother who was taken to a hospital right away. Rosy went straight up to Schleswig, but Hans Jürgen and I were taken to Frankfurt. Hans Jürgen went to the Schmidts in the outlying suburb of Wiesenau (meaning “meadow valley”), and I went with the Fahrenbergers to the Römerstadt in Heddernheim.

The Wiesenau was a small community of pretty houses with lovely gardens in a country atmosphere, right next to a farming village. Römerstadt was not far away, but more citified. Between Römerstadt and the Wiesenau were huge wheat fields, with a path through the fields on which we could walk between our houses.

The Fahrenbergers lived in an apartment housing block. All of the apartments had little strip gardens behind, with apple trees between them and apples falling on the paths, which we children picked up and ate. The Fahrenbergers had three boys, Johannes (Hannes), Gerold (called Golder by his mother because of his blond curls), and Ulrich (Uli). Their mother Elisabeth (Tante Lisbeth) was the oldest sister of my mother. It was the depression, and her husband Onkel Hanser was not making a lot of money. Nevertheless, the Fahrenbergers were very good to me, especially Onkel Hanser. Tante Lisbeth was under stress with four children now in a small apartment.

My mother’s older brother was Hans Schmidt. The Schmidts were very well-off. Hans had a doctorate in economics and was director of a famous pharmaceutical firm, Andre Norris Zahn. I had the feeling right from the start that Hans Jürgen was miserable with the Schmidts, while I was very happy with the Fahrenbergers.

Once Tante Lisbeth went to visit my mother overnight and Onkel Hanser had to braid my hair to go to school. One pigtail ended up at the back left of my neck and one in front of my right eye. He had to undo it, of course. We all laughed and Onkel Hanser laughed the most.

The Fahrenbergers took us places and did nice things for us. Once they took us to the woods where we saw a big area covered with lilies of the valley. I had never seen them before. It made a great impression on me because they smelled so good and were so pretty. Then we stopped at an inn for lunch. Even though the Fahrenbergers did not have much money, they took very good care of their children.