I was placed in the third grade at the main school in the Römerstadt. My teacher was a middle aged woman, Fräulein Bethge, who was very sweet and loving.
In Argentina we had not learned the Sütterlin Schrift, the old German script, so I was given a tutor, a friend of the Schmidts, who was a shrew. She probably did not want to do this job, so she was very short tempered with me. I had an absolute terror of going into the little study room with her. I must have learned the script, because the lessons soon stopped. Shortly after that, the Nazis abolished the old script. The Nazis also declared that English was the world language and everybody must learn it in school.
In school, one thing I noticed right away was that we had religion classes. There were several Jewish girls in my class, and they were allowed to go home during that period. (Everyone lived within walking distance.) The rest of us were split into two classes, according to our religion. One of my classmates asked me whether I was Protestant or Catholic. I meekly answered that I did not know and was extremely embarrassed.
Another thing that impressed me about school was that we were taught to sing beautiful old German folk songs. That is when I fell in love with music. Speaking of songs, one day I was walking along the street on my way to school, looking at blue jays up above, when I heard this awful song sung by a bunch of teenaged boys:
This was obviously inspired by the Nazis who were already marching everywhere, including our neighborhood. It was ugly.
My mother wrote letters to me and to Tante Lisbeth and always asked: “Does Gaggi have a friend yet?” I was very shy and could not open up to people, and really I was happy to be alone. In childhood it is hard to communicate with people if you have not had the same experiences in life. When we were asked in school where we were born, I hated to answer the question. I did not want to admit that I was not born in Germany, because all eyes turned to me. I also knew that we were not really wanted in the families with whom we were living, and I had the feeling of not belonging anywhere. In Argentina we had been surrounded by natural beauty, while Frankfurt was cold and grey in comparison. We had to live with people we did not know, and the times were stressful for everyone.
In summer of 1933, Tante Käthe Herold from Coburg invited me to spend school-vacation with her family. She was not related to us but was a friend of my mother. She was a painter and had twin daughters, Ursel and Marga. They had a brick bread making oven outside their house, and the bread was just wonderful, made from grain that was grown there. That summer was pure heaven for me because they had a huge garden full of flowers and a creek of clear water flowing by it. We played in the creek. They had a big mill-wheel we could watch going around.
Bread eaters: Ursel Herold, Hanns Reiter,
Near the end of summer vacation, I was suddenly turned over to Onkel Otto, my mother’s brother, and Tante Hulda and their daughter Grethe. When I arrived there, I went into such a deep depression that I cried all day. They tried their best but could not do anything with me. Their house was very gloomy and dark, and they were not as emancipated and bright as Tante Käthe and her daughters. I must have upset them terribly, but I could not help it. After a couple of days, I left them and went back to the Fahrenbergers in Frankfurt.
My mother did not get better in any of the hospitals. She stayed in at least two, in the Black Forest and Heidelberg, before she was brought to a city hospital in Frankfurt. Her condition got worse and worse.
One day Tante Lisbeth and I were going to visit her. We were standing at a bus station which was right at the end of the path through the wheat fields, when who came across the wheat fields but Hans Jürgen in his pajamas. He was only seven, but he had run away. He saw us standing there and said, “I want to go with you.” Tante Lisbeth said, “Child, I can’t take you dressed like that.” Immediately the bus came and Tante Lisbeth shoved me in and off we went, leaving Hans Jürgen crying his heart out. That was one of my worst memories of childhood.
In the Frankfurt hospital: Rosy and
The hospital visits were very quiet. We were not supposed to get too close to Mutti or to kiss her so we would not catch her disease. One of the few things I remember was that she had a bottle of Odol mouthwash on her side table.
In November, 1933, shortly after our visit to the Frankfurt hospital, my mother died. Tante Lisbeth told me in the morning, and I was sad but it did not hit me with great force because we had been apart so long. I went to school that day. None of us children went to the funeral. Oma and the Schmidts and Fahrenbergers got together and decided we should all be in one place. Oma took Hans Jürgen home with her, I think right after the funeral. I stayed with the Fahrenbergers through Christmas.
Tante Lisbeth gave me books for Christmas of Swedish fairy tales and Japanese fairy tales. They were beautiful and made a wonderful impression on me visually, not from pictures but from my imagination. From then on I was hooked on reading, which became my great solace during all those unhappy years.
During this time, my father had been granted six months leave from Hugo Stinnes Company, which he spent mostly in Schleswig. Tante Lodel told me later that he was looking for a job, but unemployment was rampant. They asked him repeatedly if he was a member of the Nazi party and he said no, and he would not join. So he had to keep the job with Hugo Stinnes. He went back to Argentina before I came to live in Schleswig. My father periodically sent us packages of foodstuffs, like canned pineapple, which we could not get in Germany. He said he would get us back to Argentina as soon as he could, but it never happened.
In January of 1934 I was put on a train and off I went to Schleswig. The Fahrenbergers’ house was too small and having four children was too much stress for Tante Lisbeth.
Family in Schleswig: Oma,
When I arrived in Schleswig, Hans Jürgen and Rosy immediately greeted me speaking Plattdeutsch (low German). I could not understand a word and they were mischievously gleeful, like two elves. I think they were also glad to see me, especially Hans Jürgen.
My grandparents put a bed in the living room for me, because their youngest son, Onkel Karl, was still at home. When he left, I got his room. One of the first evenings, my grandfather (whom we called Opa) came in to say good night. I asked why Oma did not come in, and he said, “She’s too exhausted,” and I answered, “Well then, we may as well go back to Argentina.” He did not say a word but gave me a big Ohrfeige (box on the ear), so hard that my nose started bleeding. From then on, I was meek. He was really a kind fellow but he was probably tired on that occasion. He never hit me again, but he did pelt my brother sometimes. He was a man of few words and a big temper.
Winter in Schleswig was like a Breugel picture with ice and snow all around. The pond next to our garden froze, and it was full of kids skating every winter.
In summer the first thing Opa did was teach us to swim. He lined us up in the kitchen and went through the motions of the breast stroke. Then he marched us to the Schlei, an inlet from the Baltic Sea, whose surroundings at that time were still natural and unspoiled. He put us in the water and made us swim and succeeded in teaching us.
Opa was not retired yet. He bicycled through Schleswig every day to the dark red brick government building. He was an Amtsmeister, which was probably a clerk of some kind.
In the Schleswig back yard garden:
My escape and comfort in those days was my grandparents’ huge garden, where one could hide with a book or recorder. The garden had lots of fruit trees and berry bushes and a bee house in the back. Observing the seasons in this garden was wonderful. Always something was happening; snow drops, wild violets, giant bright red poppies, lilies of the valley and French lilacs all bloomed in season. It was lush in the summer. When the berries were ripening, we could eat all the gooseberries and raspberries we wanted. They were sweet because they came right off the bush. One side of the garden went up a steep slope. The ground was terraced and had trees planted there too.
I was put into the third grade with Frau Mathiessen, who was a regular dragon. But she was very nice to me because she knew the family situation and because my father had once been engaged to her daughter Rosemarie. (Her daughter married another man and went to live in Africa.) Frau Mathiessen was tough. She lined up all the children to inspect their fingernails for dirt or evidence of chewing. If a student did not do his homework or made too many mistakes, she took the student’s notebook (Kladde) and slapped it against his ear and said, Du Esel (“You donkey”). I was afraid of her but she always treated me compassionately.
The school was right behind our house. It was a nice, new, red brick building. We could walk to it in about three minutes. The school was called Galberger Schule, named for Gallows Hill where they used to hang people, in a section of the old town.
Oma and Opa’s house and barn in Schleswig
Some of the children in school said, “Oh, you look just like us. When we heard you were coming from Argentina, we thought you would be black.” Everybody laughed. The Schleswig kids were extremely friendly. They wanted to make friends with us right away. The farm kids and the fishermen’s kids were not so eager to associate with us they had their own friends from their neighborhoods. Later I would have a bad experience with some of the farm girls.
I loved playing Schlagball, which is very similar to baseball, and also Völkerball (volleyball). I used to practice hitting baseballs across the huge barn adjacent to our courtyard. The barn was old, and upstairs the planks were rotting. We were not supposed to play there, but we did anyway. It was a fascinating place. There was an old square goose coop and horse stalls and a little coach which had been pulled by two goats. We loved to play hide-and-seek in the barn. Once we went up in the attic, and Opa quietly called a policeman who stood in the courtyard and gave us a lecture. We never went up there again.
The courtyard was a favorite place to play for us and our cousins and friends. In the summer we girls played flower shop. The garden was flush with tall white and yellow yarrow, which in our flower shop we called tea roses, and other weeds which we called carnations and lilies.
Soon I became aware that we were a burden to my grandparents too. Fortunately, we had very sympathetic neighbors who took an interest in us. They gave us hand-me-downs, some very nice things, including silk and embroidered clothes. Some people in Schleswig were very nice, and some were very mean and demanding, especially if one did not greet them properly on the street or otherwise violated the local customs.
I began to suffer anxiety attacks just at the point of going to sleep. I saw flames, which I associated with the devil, probably because my grandmother had told me to pray. I felt guilty because I thought if only I had prayed for my mother, maybe she would not have died. We sometimes prayed in school with Frau Mathiessen, which is where I learned to pray.
Another symptom of anxiety was worrying without good reason about things like someone leaving the gas valve open, causing us all to suffocate. I was absolutely tormented whenever I did something wrong. For instance, I craved sugar and we did not get many sweets. My grandfather had a big sack of sugar in the shed for the bees, and I once stole half a cup, which made me feel so guilty that I could not sleep that night. I got up to confess. When I arrived at the living room door, I realized my grandparents were playing cards with some other people. I was afraid my grandmother would be sarcastic in front of the other people, so I went back to bed and nursed my guilt.
Before the fourth grade began, Frau Mathiessen came to my grandparents and recommended that I enter the Lyceum because my grades were good and I was a studious child. This upset me so much when they discussed it with me that I got sick. I heard the other children discussing how difficult the school was, and I was not emotionally ready for it. They let me stay at the Volkschule. The next year, Hans Jürgen was recommended to enter the local Gymnasium, called the Domschule. His initial reaction was to jump in circles and howl, which looked to me like an Indian dance. All three of us were very insecure. But my grandparents insisted that Hans Jürgen enter the Domschule, and he survived.
Rosy and Elisabeth in Schleswig, 1936
My fourth grade teacher Fräulein Ortmann was a young, enthusiastic, and inspiring teacher. Fräulein Dresen, the art teacher, was elderly and very kind. She took a special interest in me because I was good at drawing and because she knew we had lost our mother. In her free time, Fräulein Dresen taught me how to do crewel embroidery.
In 1936, when I was twelve, my uncle Kurt and his wife Liesel came over from New York with their daughter Karin, who was two years old. She was absolutely adorable. I fell in love with her. Kurt and Liesel were a tremendous boon for my morale. They asked me over frequently to baby-sit. I loved getting away from Oma. I also enjoyed looking at their books, including medical books which told where babies come from, and playing their piano, trying to teach myself the alto part with my left hand and the soprano part with my right hand.
About that time I joined the children’s choir in the Dom (cathedral). Our director Kantor Jürgensen was ancient and we were his total despair, but somehow he got us to sing on Sundays.
When I was about twelve, my brother and sister and I were baptized, at the insistence of our grandmother. Even though she was not religious, she was scandalized that we had not been baptized. In the middle of the ceremony, a row of faces suddenly appeared at the windows of the cathedral parish hall, where the baptisms took place. It was our friends, wanting to see what it looked like to be baptized when one was not a baby.
Shortly after my third grade year, all religion classes and prayers in the schools were discontinued. Instead we learned Norse mythology, which was interesting. Soon after that, more and more kids began to join the Nazi youth groups. Some of my friends wanted me to join too. When I brought home the request to Oma, she said no. I persisted because they seemed to have so much fun, and she reluctantly let me join. If she had not, she would have been suspected of being unpatriotic. The leaders of these groups were older youth who did not know much more than we did. Aside from being indoctrinated about the wonders of the Führer, our activities were really quite wholesome. We went on hikes and learned songs. Someone always played the guitar, and sometimes also the recorder. Once or twice a year we had a big sports festival, running and jumping and throwing the discus and javelin.
Two years later, at age fourteen, we came out of the “cub” (Pimpfe) stage and went into real scouts (Bund Deutscher Mädchen or BDM). As soon as I attended the first couple of meetings, I was totally disillusioned. The hikes stopped, and during the long meetings, we were supposed to discuss the merits of the Party. It was very boring, so I dropped out.
Whenever there was a flag day, and Nazi flags came out the windows, my grandfather hung out a light blue and white Schleswig-Holstein flag. No one ever bothered him about it. My grandmother, on the other hand, was harassed. The Nazi women’s organization wanted her to join, but she repeatedly refused.
The Nazis set aside certain Sundays when no one was allowed to eat meat, because Hitler did not eat meat. It was called “Eintopf Sonntag” (one pot Sunday) and they sent around party members to check people’s pots to see if they had meat in them. That really infuriated Oma.
Because I had been losing weight, I was sent, in the summers of 1936 and 1937, to convalescent homes in the North Frisian Islands. These were state-supported summer camps for children with health problems. The first one was on the island of Amrum, which was practically unpopulated, with one very small village. It was beautiful. I just loved it. Every morning before breakfast, we were expected to jog into the woods, consisting of low pine trees and heather. It was beautiful and smelled so good. When we came to a clearing, we did gymnastics or folk dancing, and then we jogged home.
The next year I went to the island of Sylt. There they served us stew with big hunks of fat in it. The fat made me gag, but they insisted that we eat it. (Strict rules were enforced at all these places.) I found a means to avoid eating the fat. I brought a big seashell back from the beach and put the hunks of fat inside it and kept it in my pocket until we went out again.
I also went to a health camp in the Harz Mountains, near the Weser River. Our “treatment” included walking around in a circle in our underwear under ultraviolet lights and bathing in mineral water. I was there for Christmas vacation, and I was chosen to be Mary in the Christmas play. Joseph was a tall, thin boy and the two of us were obliged to walk around the audience while singing. I was petrified but somehow got through it.
We went for walks in the mountains. One day I saw a wild boar. I was thrilled and excited to tell our nurse what I had seen. She insisted that I did not see it, probably because she wanted to avoid a panic. It was one of my first experiences with adult negation of truth. (“It’s all in your head,” they said.) At the same camp, no one, under any circumstances, was allowed to go to the bathroom at night. So naturally, I lay in agony half the night, because I had to go. Aside from that, being at camp was a nice experience.
Around 1937 or 1938, I was walking up a narrow path by myself in Schleswig. The path went under a bridge. Suddenly down from the bridge came three farm girls, including one of my classmates named Gerda Knoop. They descended on me and beat me up. I have no idea why. Many years later, while I was attending my 40-year school reunion in Schleswig, Gerda showed up at a small dinner party. She was very gracious. She invited me and Henry to her apartment for coffee and cake in the same neighborhood where we grew up. I should have asked her then why she beat me up.
Oma and Opa rented out apartments in their house. Upstairs lived the Marxes, my grandparents’ best friends from the time when Opa and Mr. Marx served together in WWI. The Petersons also lived upstairs for years and years, while Uncle Karl and his wife Helga had an apartment downstairs. Oma’s sisters and their families all lived in the neighborhood, so we had many cousins nearby.
In our immediate neighborhood we played with a gang of kids, which included cousins and friends. In winter, we built real igloos. We put our sleds inside and played house when we needed to rest after a strenuous bout of sledding. We also skated when the Polierteich, the pond next to our house, was frozen.
One of my best friends, Inge Neumann, was an epileptic. Many times I was the only witness when she had a seizure; her body would twitch while she lay unconscious. After I left Schleswig, I heard she had a fit in the bathtub and drowned. My other best friend was Helma Obermüller, a fiery redhead. She died at the age of sixteen of diphtheria.
Next door to Helma lived several women whom none of us knew. They were Bibelforschers (Bible researchers), perhaps Jehovah’s Witnesses, and were suspect among the staid and stolid citizens of Schleswig. Life was full of mysteries in those days.
I think Oma was a social climber. She did not approve of my best friends and refused to invite them for my twelfth birthday. Instead she invited the children of a rich Argentine estanciero (cattle rancher). The children were from a different part of town, and I had no idea how to entertain them. The garden party was a flop in spite of all the plum cake, Sandtorte (pound cake), and Schlagsahne (whipped cream).
Starting in 5th grade, students were sent to the auditorium to listen to the Führer’s speeches on the radio. During my last years at school, I had a sudden flash of insight that he was a very childish man. He was haranguing Churchill and Daladier of France, and he made dirty jokes about Churchill’s cigar. In school, the teachers were required to tell us how wonderful Hitler was.
One day in 1936 or ‘37, it was announced in school that Hitler was coming through town, and students were supposed to line both sides of Flensburger Strasse to watch the motorcade go by. We arrived early and had to wait quite a while. When the parade finally came, it was unimpressive. Someone said, “Here they come,” and we saw Hitler crouched down in the back seat of the lead car. His hat was pulled down over his eyes and he looked neither to the right nor the left. We stood there like wooden statues; the teachers had told us to salute with our right hand. Probably school kids were recruited because adults would not come out to see Hitler; he was not very popular in this region that had sometimes belonged to Denmark and sometimes to Germany.
The Nazis told us not to buy American dried fruits because they contained sulfur. They held up America as a bad example for teenage pregnancies. As far as sex education goes, our teachers told us how babies are born, and “what comes before that, if you have a loving husband, he will tell you.” They said not to drink out of the same champagne glass as others you do not know, because you might get syphilis. They taught us that motherhood was the most ideal occupation for a woman.
We started practicing air raid drills in school before there was any talk of war; they told us that the British might attack any time. At first we worried, but then we got used to it.
In summer when the berries were ripe, Oma used to send me to the St. Johannes Kloster, which had become a retirement community for aristocratic old ladies. I took raspberries, gooseberries, and currants from our garden to two baronesses, who were rumored to smoke cigars. After I saw the old ladies, I would visit Tante Rieke and Onkel Fide Müller, who also lived there. To us they were like another set of grandparents, only nicer. They were not aristocrats and were not related to us, but were old friends of my grandparents. Hans Jürgen used to make fun of them by saying:
The Müllers were our guests each year for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of carp with horseradish and whipped cream sauce. We children waited with glee for their arrival, which always announced itself with knocks on the window pane. Usually it was cold and snowy outside. We heard the words, Sind die Kinder artig? (“Are the children well-behaved?”), in a deep voice like St. Nikolaus. After dinner, the children were kept in suspense. We were not allowed to enter the parlor, a room used only for special occasions, until a bell rang. Then we rushed in. There was a tree gloriously aflame with real wax candles, smelling so good, and a table covered with presents and a paper plate full of sweets for each of us. Those sweets were supposed to last until Easter, when we got another plate to last until the following Christmas.
Oma was in a good mood at Christmas. She was not stingy with presents, but she did not always give us what we wanted. Once I wanted a guitar very badly and thought I would get it, but instead was given a concertina, a squeeze box with buttons, which the sailors used for their ditties, and which I disdained. Later when I had enough money of my own, I bought a guitar from a little shop in town. The owner Herr Reuter, who was ninety years old and blind, gave me lessons. All around the walls of his shop, he had stuck little pieces of paper with quotations from Nietzsche. The philosopher’s name sounded like magic to me even though I had never read anything written by him.
I had trouble eating, especially meat. One thing I absolutely refused to eat was Schwarzsauer, a soup made from vinegar and the blood of cows or pigs. We had some strange foods in Schleswig. Oma made a wonderful soup called Frische Suppe, consisting of chicken broth with farina dumplings, which we had on Sundays after church. She also made Speck Suppe (bacon soup) which had in it hunks of smoked pork and prunes and potatoes. We ate wonderful fresh fish of all kinds: fried herrings, carp, mackerel, and eel. Christmas day dinner was always roast goose, directly from the farm.
When I was 12 or 13 years old, Oma sent me to buy some hard-boiled seagull eggs from a tavern near the Johannes Kloster. Every year the seagulls came back on the same day in March to a certain island in the middle of the Schlei. Some fishermen from the Holm (fishing community) in Schleswig would gather eggs from the island and sell them. I went to the tavern that morning and noticed a crowd of fishermen drinking Schnaps with their breakfast. One of them looked at me and said to his companion, “Look at that profile.”
Another time, Oma sent me to a little dairy store to buy some whipping cream. I was carrying the cream home in a bowl without a tight lid. As I came out of a little alleyway into a square, I could not resist dipping my finger into the cream and licking it off. Immediately, a woman leaned out an upstairs window and shouted, “I’m going to tell your grandmother!”
Some of the greatest pleasures of summer were the excursions we took by boat down the Schlei to Missunde, a popular locale where the woods came down close to the water’s edge. We sometimes dined at a restaurant, around which wandered exotic chickens, pheasants and guinea hens.
At age fourteen, I got permission from the Schleswig authorities to do my Pflichtjahr (year of service required of all youth) with Onkel Kurt and Tante Liesel, who now lived in Wustrow in the province of Mecklenburg. They had three children by then, so I was Kindermädchen for a year. It was especially pleasant for me because I loved those kids.
The Nazis had already changed the name of Wustrow, which was the Prussian name, to Rerik, the name of an old Viking harbor on the Baltic Sea. They also changed Haddeby to Haithabu, another Viking name. The Nazis promoted Nordic names, sagas, and myths because they were trying to disassociate the German people from Christianity. We continued to call the town Wustrow.
Onkel Kurt and Tante Liesel were very kind, and during that year I did not have to endure the constant scolding from Oma. In summer I took the kids to the beach every day so Tante Liesel could do her housework and gardening. The beach was just a few yards away from the house. It was beautiful, with no sand but many stones and rocks and the clear, blue water of the Baltic Sea. We found lots of little petrified sea urchins and pieces of amber.
In summer we visited nearby farms, including a big estate where the tenants sold fruits and vegetables. The farm workers lived in little brick houses with no floors, under very poor conditions like feudal serfs. We also picked blackberries and raspberries in the woods, and Tante Liesel preserved them. Hans Jürgen came to stay for the summer. We gave each other courage to dive off a high bridge into the Baltic. When the weather was calm, one could see from the bridge hundreds of jellyfish in the water.
When that year was over, the real misery began. Hans Jürgen and Rosy had been sent away to a boarding school near Kassel, a fact which no one had told me before I returned to Schleswig. We began writing to each other, and Oma opened all my letters. The Vorsters (Rosy’s and Hans Jürgen’s foster parents in Kassel) sent me a birthday package, and she even opened that. I had the audacity to ask her please not to open my mail and she flew into a fit of fury.
Now Oma said I had to get a job. She enrolled me in a typing course, although she kept threatening to put me into a household as a maid. She hated the fact that I was bookish and loved to read. The war had started while I was in Wustrow, and Schleswig now had a huge air base, near the Johannes Kloster. Some of my friends were already working there, and they encouraged me to do the same. With Oma’s approval, I did, and I rather enjoyed it. I was part of a typing pool in a big office with lots of soldiers who were always joking and who were nice to us.
That is where I met Lydia Etzdorf, the private secretary of the base psychiatrist. She was a Lutheran minister’s daughter and also a musician, and being a little older than I, she took me under her wing. Lydia was very friendly with a Dutch soldier who was organist at the Schleswig Dom (cathedral). Why he, Enno Popkins, was stationed in Schleswig I never knew. They were both active in the adult choir, so I joined them and sang in the choir too. Lydia introduced me to the music of Bruckner, which seemed to be her favorite, and Mahler, but I still liked Mozart best.
It became intolerable, the way Oma treated me. I was a teenager and she was trying to control everything in my life. I thought about writing to Onkel Hans to ask if I could come to Frankfurt to finish high school, but I was too timid, so I did not write.