Great -Aunt Marie
The 17th June, is a special day in my life. It marks the birthday of a sister of my maternal Grand-Mother. Great-Aunt Marie, we called her Tante Mietze, would have had her 139h birthday this year. She was born in 1873 in Kirchhain, Lower Lusatia, a small town south of Berlin,. She came into my life in 1938 after our Grand-Mother died. My mother needed help with us kids as she was in full time work.
Tante Mietze became a full time help for my mother. She had an apartment in the same street but later moved into the flat above us to be closer to us and to look after Granddad. We had got used to our Grandmother who was a lovely old lady and we loved her very much. I have fond memories of her, despite being only 3yrs old when she died.
When Tante Mietze took over from Grandmother I did not like her at all. She was not the cuddly type and was much sterner in her application of disciplinary measures. She would not stand any nonsense from us kids and declared that we were she worst children she had ever encountered in her long life as a domestic and mother of her own step-children. As far as I was concerned she could have been right in regards to my terrible sisters, but I was just me. What could be wrong with me?
Over time, by her sheer sense of duty and application to the jobs at hand, she made herself the all important part of our existence. She took us to the Kindergarten and back home again in the afternoon, she cleaned the flat and cooked the meals, she darned our socks, washed our clothes, cleaned up after us – the lot. Later she got us ready for school and supervised us after school before Mum came back home late from work. She worked for us about 12 hours a day during the week, to lunch time on Saturday. Only Sundays she did not come down as it was Mum’s day off from work.
For the first two years Aunty looked after Grand-Pa too. When he died she had more time to work for us. She did not get paid but shared some meals with us. All her efforts for us earned her no credits with my father. As far as he was concerned she made it possible for Mum to go to work and neglect her responsibilities for the family. He hated aunty as an intruder to the family. Aunty had a very low opinion of him, as someone who promises much and doesn’t keep any. She said, ‘He is building castles in the air only.’
Once a month we took a long tram ride to Spandau, the Western most suburb of Berlin, just to pay a life insurance premium. It took nearly two hours and she regularly visited the cemetery there where her late husband was buried. We also visited another cemetery where my grandparents were buried, but this was in another suburb.
I hated those excursion to the cemeteries. Aunty walked fast and I could hardly keep up with her. Sand was everywhere. I tired quickly and sand got into my shoes. But once there, my sister and I, we investigated the graves with their different grave stones. Some had angels guarding them. We were surprised to find the graves of children. Surely, children would not die. Yes they do, my sister informed me, but they go straight to heaven. She would know, because she was was one year and three days older than me.
One of the cemeteries had many Chestnut trees, and in late summer we would pick up the shiny, brown chestnuts to take them home to play with . Because of all those trips to different suburbs, I learned about the different locations in Berlin and how to get there. Public transport became as easy as pie at an early age.
When I was little Tante Mietze took me on her lap in late afternoons and told me stories from her life before 1900 and when she was a little girl in the 1870(s). While talking she was constantly twiddling her thumbs. It got darker and darker and she refused to switch on the lights. The Cuckoo in her Cuckoo clock screaming his head off at every hour.
I learnt of the year 1888 when Germany had three Emperors in the one year. She told me of the snow storm during the funeral of the old Kaiser Wilhelm and boys were climbing on trees and lamp posts to see the cortège. When she worked as a domestic she had only one afternoon off during the week. That was on Wednesdays. This must have been a great day for singles in Berlin and the entertainment industry catered for that with special matinees in the music halls and dance music in the beer gardens. She told me about WW I with the shortages and the civil war in 1918/19 that followed the war. In 1923 they had the great inflation when people got paid every day and then spent all their money the same day, because the next day it would be worthless.
She was a very small person but had lots of energy. She wore long frocks or skirts. Her hair was white and long, done up on the back of her head in a bun. Sometimes I watched her when she did the bun and was amazed at her ability. Sometimes we were allowed into her flat. That was an amazing place. Pictures of old, long departed people were on the walls. Her furnitures were from the 19th Century. There were lampshades with tussles and beautiful leather bound editions of Schiller, Goethe and Kleist’s writings. In a chest of drawers we found soap that must have been at least 50 years old. The soap was hard and dry as a rock but still smelled good of a time long past. Some of the soaps had old fashioned pictures on it of ladies in their underwear.
Saturday was house cleaning day. The carpets had to be taken out, thrown over a wooden beam and then beaten. She showed me how to throw the carpet over. In winter we rubbed snow on the carpet, which gave it a beautiful sheen. There is nothing like beating a carpet in the bitter cold. One gets warm quickly and the sound of it is reverberating in the court yard.
Once a month the curtains had to be washed and hung again. I, even as a little boy, had to climb the ladder and help put them back on again. My mother knew nothing about it. She went to work and our apartment was always in good order. Mum would cook the Sunday meal and bake the most beautiful cakes. In winter the windows were all frozen or misty and we children were drawing pictures on them.
Then came WW II. At first all was all right, but slowly circumstances turned bad. We had to endure air raids and shortages became the order of the day. Then we had to wait for hours in queues before we got what we needed. There weren’t any supermarkets but for all products there were different shops: the green grocer, the butcher, the baker and the dairy shop. As the war dragged on the quality of the produce deteriorated. Tante Mietze complained bitterly that the bread was not the same, white bread became darker and black bread was not properly baked and was sodden. And the potatoes, we learnt were not the same either, they used to come in different colours, she told us. She told us a lot about ‘before the war’ and when there was peace. For us kids it seemed to be wonderland of which we had no memory. War was all we knew. Aunty told us, when she was a child she and her siblings were discussing what they would do when there would be another war. They would dug out a big hole in the backyard in which they would hide.
There was no hiding from World War 2. The bombs were falling regularly on our home city Berlin. We always were in the air raid shelter together and she did not complain when we were thrown out of the air raid shelter because we children made too much noise. In fact Aunty did not like the shelter at all. Once in a while, when my mother wasn’t there, she would refuse to go to the shelter at all and we stayed in the apartment.
Her cooking was supreme. When we asked her what we would have for lunch, she would say, “Don’t be nosey – what the ladle will dish out to you.” Her own favourite dish was potatoes in the jacket and cottage cheese. Of course she cooked other meals. We kids loved potato pan cakes best. She made lots and lots for us. We screamed that we wanted more. There were never enough. In the end she was lucky to get just one for herself.
The end of the war came with the final battle and the Red Army occupying the city. With it came the fear, a real fear I can assure you, that the women could be raped. Women dressed themselves older and Aunt Mietze did likewise. She put a head scarf on to look even older then the seventy-two years she was. When the Russian soldiers were looking for women they approached her and lifted her scarf to look at her face and then said, “You don’t have to do this, you are old already!” She never had to go through the indignity of being raped.
During the same time she snapped one day and had enough of the Russians. She confronted a thieving Russian soldier who came into our apartment to steel silver cutlery. There is a fictional account of the incident on another blog, but in German. I will publish that story in English at a later date.
There was never a letup in her dedication to our family. When my parents broke up we moved in with her in her one room flat. That was during another bad time in Berlin. That was the time of the Blokade.
In 1953 was her 80th Birthday and the Mayor of our Borough promised to visit. Once again history intervened in her life and in East-Berlin was a big uprising against the Stalinist regime in East-Germany. The Mayor had to cancel the visit. But from that date on, until the Reunification of Germany in 1990, her birthday became a national holiday. What a fitting tribute to this remarkable women, I felt.
She died in 1961, at the age of eighty-eight, the same year the communist put up the wall in Berlin. Shortly before her death, we were already in Australia, she sent us money to help with any expenses she felt we must have owing to the illness of our eldest daughter.
This is only a short version of what could be written about Aunty Mietze.
I will never forget her!