A Wedding Picture from the Year 1911

Aunt Mary's Wedding in 1911

Aunty Mary’s Wedding in 1911

Today is the anniversary of my Great-aunt Marie‘s birthday and while rummaging through old family photographs I came to an old wedding picture from 1911. It is the family on my maternal side and you can spot my future mother, as an almost eleven-year-old (one month short of her birthday).  She is the tall girl in the white dress at the right.

There are thirty-one people in the picture and I have known thirteen of them.  My children and grandchildren would share DNA with twenty-one of them. But such is life, that most of my descendants would have no idea of them.

The bride I knew as “Tante Mariechen”.  Aunty Mary was extremely kind and a war widow. Her husband died of war wounds in July 1918, four months before the war ended. She had a rocking chair in her apartment in “Kopischstrasse”, Berlin. It is one of the shortest streets in Berlin and at the corner stands a landmark of Kreuzberg, the old water tower.

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My Great-Aunt Marie (not the bride) whose birthday it is today, is standing in the back row, second from the left. She was born in 1873 and lived through an age of innovations and two world wars, a revolution and civil war, as well as the hyper-inflation. On her 80th birthday, there was an uprising in East-Germany and fittingly, her birthday became a national holiday.

I will never forget her!

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The Russians are here!

The Red Army was in our street, but the war was not over yet. We often refer to members of the Red Army as “Russians”, but in fact they could be members of many different races and nations that were part of the Soviet Union. The fighting went on in the city and Hitler was not dead yet.

Only one side of our street was built upon.  On the other side was a colony of garden allotments, so popular in Berlin.

This was  the Tempelhof site of our street in 1942

This was the Tempelhof side of our street in 1942

Part of our street on the Kreuzberg site in 1938

Part of our street on the Kreuzberg side in 1938

There, among the allotments they installed a battery of Katyusha rocket launchers  (called by the Germans Stalin’s Organ).  They made a terrible howling noise as one after the other rocket left for its target. It is a sound nobody, who ever heard it, will forget. They were fire spraying monsters.

"Katyusha" rocketluncher somewhere in Berlin during the final battle

“Katyusha” rocket launcher somewhere in Berlin during the final battle

During the first days of having arrived the soldiers were for the women a cause for alarm. They were looking for women.  Rape stories abound. Here is what my mother had to say:

Because of a German-Polish woman, Frau R., who lived in our apartment building and could converse in Russian, our apartment building was spared any rapes. Often Frau R. had to appear at the Kommantura to interpret when a dispute arose.

When people became aware of an attempted rape, they called Frau R., who either was able to talk the offending soldier out of it or alerted some officers or other soldiers. That’s where her help was invaluable.

Offending soldiers were often beaten by their comrades or had their identification confiscated. This was especially harsh, as they could be picked up by the Military Police and accused of being deserters.

As soon as the Russians occupied our street, it was made clear to us, that if a shot should be fired from the building the whole building would be demolished.  We were always afraid that some idiot would still be trying to fight for the “Final Victory”.

So one morning we were told by a Russian soldier, that, in fact, that had happened.

Nobody had heard a shot, but the fighting was not over yet and shells flew in both directions over our house. A German shell hit the building in our courtyard and for the second time the whole courtyard filled with dust and debris. A gentleman who lived on the 5th floor was killed outright by a shrapnel. The Russians built a coffin for him and buried him and two of their comrades in front of our balcony.

Our balcony (the second from the right)

Our balcony (the second from the right)

With all the noise of the ongoing battle, it was not surprising, that we had not heard the shot. We were informed that the building would be destroyed,  and we were not allowed to leave the shelter. People that came down to the cellar informed us that the Russians were laying cables for fuses. The house was going to be packed with explosives and blown up; and that was it. Then we heard a big rumbling noise and a crashing of wood and then stillness. But no explosion. After a while someone dared to go up the stairs and investigate. No one stopped him. He came back with some amazing news: The Russians had put up a ‘Gulaschkanone”(a field-kitchen) !

The Russians put it up to cook for their soldiers and for us, the hungry people who had no means of buying any food at the time. Even then, some of the Germans complained that the Russians would not give us anything that was not stolen from us Germans in the first place. They cooked for us, and we loved the tucker they provided for us. We had at least one hot meal a day.

The courtyard, then there was no greenery and the wall all looked from the grime

The courtyard as it looks now. In 1945 there was no greenery and the walls were full of grime.

The “Gulaschkanone” was put up in the middle of our courtyard. We could observe, from our kitchen window, when the soup was ready and it was time to queue up for the dishing out. The “enemy” looked rather good from our glassless kitchen window. Here is my mother again:

The Russians collected a small table from me. On it, they cut the meat into smaller pieces. I received about 2 kg of veal. Often Peter too, received from the Russians lard, cake and pasta. They liked children a lot.

This way we were able to improvise and supplement our food and we did not starve for very long.

to be continued…

My  First  Railway Journey. Part I

This is the first instalment to a page I’m creating and it is called

“My Year in “Friedland” (Land of Peace)”

My year in “Friedland” started with my first railway journey in nineteen-forty-four one early  January morning. The good thing about the morning was,  that we had been able to sleep through the night, without being disturbed by the air raid sirens.  The RAF stayed at home that night. They probably did not like loading bombs into their planes during the Winter weather.

The bad news was that I was sent away from Berlin and from my beloved mother. I was freezing and shivering while my mother helped me getting dressed.

“Hurry up and don’t muck around”, she said. ” The train will not wait for you!”

I was still sleepy and had no plans to muck around at all and asked her, while still yawning: “Do I really have to go?”

“What silly question is that? They have  searched long enough  for a place were  they would send you to,” said my Mum as she put a shawl around my neck. “You know quite well that all the children are being sent away. The girls are in East-Prussia and you are going into a home in Silesia.”

 

“But I don’t want to go into a home!” I tried to say it defiantly.

“What you want will not be debated,” said my Mum firmly, ending all discussion about it.  For breakfast I had a slice of bread with “ersatz” honey and a cup of “ersatz” coffee.

 

“Why do we call it ‘ersatz coffee’? What then  is proper coffee?”

“Don’t ask silly questions. It is bean coffee, of course.”

“What is bean coffee?”

“Coffee we could buy during peace time.”

While I was busy chewing my sandwich, I decided that I really liked “ersatz” honey.  Peace time did not need to be explained to me. It was the time before the air planes came and dropped bombs on us. The whole building would be shaking. Next morning, on the way to school, the air would smell of burnt paper and wood. One could find shrapnel from the Flak and incendiary bombs the “Pommies” had dropped.

Then I  heard the voice of my mother:

“Don’t day dream. We have to leave shortly. It is already 6 o’clock!”

Mum had packed my suitcase  the evening before. Everything was ready. We could go. I put on a winter coat and gloves against the biting cold. Mum took the suitcase and soon we were on the street. It was still pitch dark and bitter cold. But what could we expect in January.

There was no snow which I yearned for in winter. It wasn’t far to the subway station “Flughafen” (Airport). Walking down the stairs I loved the smell from the subway tunnel that wafted towards us. A long tunnel, in a quarter circle, led to another staircase. I could see one train departing and quickly disappearing in the tunnel. Mum bought tickets for us which we handed to an employee who in a disgruntled mood punched holes into them. We then walked down the second set of stairs.

The station platform today as seen from the top of the stairs

The station platform today, as seen from the top of the stairs

“You watch where you’re going,” Mum called out as I stumbled a bit. “If you keep this up you might end up in hospital instead of Silesia.”

Wouldn’t that be better,  I thought. Mum would visit me there and bring me presents and sweets. I was once in a hospital with Scarlet Fever and could observe  the passing of trains from my bed all day. In the evening for super I was given sandwiches with liverwurst and sweet peppermint tea. I liked that very much.

“Watch out, the train is coming,” I heard my mother say. A stream of air,  pushed by the train into the station cavern, engulfed everyone at the station. Like a monster, with two enormous oval eyes,  the yellow train swept out of the tunnel and came suddenly  to a full stop. We opened the two doors and and entered the carriage. The station attendant called out with a mighty voice: “Stand back!”. Hearing this, nobody would dare rushing the train. The door shut  immediately and the train accelerated to a high speed  while disappearing  into the dark tunnel.

We had found two seats and sat down side by side. I looked around and noticed that nobody looked up to take any notice of us. Nobody spoke, it must have been too early for that. Even though they had been able to sleep through the night without an air raid they seemed nevertheless  happy to continue their night rest here on the underground train.

I was thinking of yesterday, when one of my godmothers came to help with the necessary formalities with the authorities. First they went to the police to report my change of address.

The white building used to be the police station in 1944

The white building used to be the police station in 1944

It had to be done as the police always wanted to know were people were residing. Then we had to go to the office where the ration cards were issued. My mother would not be allowed to receive the ration cards when I was not living with her in Berlin any more. Everywhere people  made remarks that I would now go on a long journey. Perhaps they would have liked  to go away themselves from the grey and dark city.

“Well,  you will be able to sleep through the nights,” they all said with a sigh. In the end we went to the Jugendamt (office for Children’s  Affairs) to get to know Frau Fischer, the lady who would accompany me on my long train trip.

“We will get along fine with, Peter, won’t we?”  she asked me. I did not dare saying anything and only nodded. To me she  looked like an old dragon or a teacher. Which was very much the same to me anyway. And who would take the fight up to a dragon. Only Siegfried (a legendary hero) would dare.

At   Hallesches Tor station we had to change trains. We climbed many stairs to get from the underground to the elevated train.

From the underground...

From the underground…

...to the elevated train station

…to the elevated train station

Mum walked slowly, but steady, so she would not get out of breath. I was always afraid she would die when she beat me with the carpet beater. She would only stop when she completely run out of breath and sunk on to the bed almost unconscious. Usually it took a long time before she could breathe  normally again.

“You will kill me one say,” Mum said then. I did not want that at all and felt for ever guilty. What could I do not to enrage her? I wanted to be good at all times, but something happened that made Mum angry. Soon we would have to part and her life would be much easier.

The elevated train arrived and we could continue our journey. I liked the Hochbahn  (elevated train) because from above I could observe  the traffic, the buildings  and the people below. With a bit of luck I was able to see into the windows of some apartments to see how other people were living.  This interested me a lot. I thought perhaps I could see whether other children were beaten too.

Once I saw a man hitting the table with a fist while a woman was standing beside him. But on that morning it was too early. All windows were still covered for the black out.

The train arrived at Prinzenstraße Station.  I knew the street because  the previous summer I had wagged  school one day to see the Circus Sarrasani which was in town. I had heard so much about it.

In front of the circus tent I saw an elephant for the first time in my life.  He was tethered  with a heavy chain to the ground and was moving his head and  trunk from side to side.  On the way back I stopped at the Hertie department store to look at the latest war books in the book department.

The old pre-war Hertie store

The old pre-war Hertie store

I had started to read “proper” books only during the last year. By “proper”, I mean books that were written for adults and not particularly for children. We children were encouraged by the school  to collect “Altpapier” – second hand books and old news papers –  for recycling. We were told this way we would help the war effort. But I sorted the books out and kept the ones I wanted to read myself. Yes I know, this meant I was a book thief too.

Kottbusser Tor. “Next station we have to get off,” I heard my mother say. It was still dark. But soon, by seven o’clock, children would have to walk to school. No school for me on that day! Suddenly our train arrived at the station Görlitzer Bahnhof.  From there it was only a short walk to the large railway station.

Elevated train station Görlitzer Bahnhof today.

Elevated train station Görlitzer Bahnhof today.

Görlitzer Bahnhof during the 1920ties

Görlitzer Bahnhof during the 1920ties as seen from the elevated train

The damaged station building after the war

The damaged station building after the war

There it was like a mighty castle.  Cars and taxis arrived bringing people who wanted to catch one of the trains. Others came with trams. There was a lot of activity in front of the station building. It was bitter cold.

Mum carried my small suitcase. I only carried my school satchel on my back. When we came closer to the pillars in front of the station building I could recognise my beloved uncle Alexander. That  made me really happy when I realised that he must have got up early just to see me  to say “Good bye”. I would not have expected such a gesture from anyone.

“Hi, Peter, are you looking forward to the long train trip?” And, before I could say anything, he added, “You will get a lot to see. Perhaps even mountains.” Mum and uncle shook hands.

“When will the train depart,” he wanted to know.

“Five past seven,” answered Mum. Suddenly I could see Frau Fischer from the Office for Children’s  Affairs, the one I had met the previous day. I did not like her as she tried  to be overly  nice to me. She walked up to us and said: “There he is, our little man. We better get onto our train!” After a short exchange of words the lady took my suit case off Mum and took my hand and said: “Lets go then. We don’t want the train to leave without us. Do we?”

Oh, yes, I would have loved that very much. I did not like her artificial friendliness.

I could not remember later whether Mum gave me a kiss or not, because she surprised me by giving me ten fifty Pfennig pieces, saying: “Don’t lose them. You might want to buy something with it.”

And with that I and the lady hurried along the train. There were several platforms in which trains were waiting to depart. The steam engines hissed and snorted like impatient horses who could not wait any longer  to leave the claustrophobic city  behind for the the vastness of the countryside.

Mum and my uncle did not come to the train. I assumed they did not want to spend money on platform tickets. The lady from  Children’s Affairs looked at the carriage numbers. The clock in the middle of the platform showed it was exactly 7 o’clock. Still the Sun had not risen. Finally we reached our carriage with our reserved compartment. The lady helped me to get into the carriage. We walked along a long narrow corridor till we reached our compartment. Our carriage was a 3rd class carriage and we had to sit on a wooden bench. Nobody else sat in the compartment and all through the long journey nobody joined us either.

It was comfortable warm in the compartment and I took off my gloves and coat. My companion stowed my things on to the luggage rack above the seat. Shortly after that we could hear an announcement over the loudspeaker. I did not understand anything. Some people hurried past our window, doors were shut and the train, after a slight jolt, started, almost imperceptibly, to move out of the huge hall into a cold winter’s  morning.

Thoughts on the 16th of May

On this day, seventy-eight years ago, I was born in Berlin. This was such a long, long time ago!

The apartment building I grew up in

The apartment building I grew up in

So much has happened during that time. That I’m still alive is a wonder. Before I was ten the biggest of wars dominated my life. I would say it has shaped me into the person I am today. I can’t run away from that legacy. Neither do I want to.

First the Poms, then the Yankees tried to bomb shit out of me. Many a times I was in an air raid shelter when the whole building was shaking. We heard the bombs whistling down on us and after a moments silence the mighty burst of an explosion nearby made us think there was an earthquake. But we survived the day and night bombing only to experience the roar of the artillery of the Red Army pounding the city of Berlin. Three times buildings in which I was at the time were hit by shells. I will never forget the sound of the Katyusha rocket launcher. Berlin’s destruction was the end of the devastation in Europe that also included Stalingrad and Warsaw.

American B 17 over our home

American B 17 over our home

Once, coming back from an errand to get some sugar, I was attacked by a Russian fighter plane. Later, on my 10th birthday, a couple of Red Army soldiers wanted to blow my brain out unless I drink a cup of vodka. I refused and was saved from my ordeal by an officer. I must have believed the Russian political commissar who told me, Russians would not make war against children. I have been a Russophile ever since.

Seventy years ago, in 1943, I knew nobody who was as old as I am today. Of my four grandparents only the mother of my dad was still alive. I had a couple of old grandaunts but they were still not older than seventy then. For an eight year old they were amazingly old. Now I’m even older! But I heard them telling stories of what happened nearly seventy years earlier. What a span of time I’m grappling with here: 140 years !

We have three great-grandchildren and that puts us in the middle of seven generations. This is purely amazing! I lost my maternal grandmother when I was just three and I remember her well.

When you live in Berlin you experience history as it happens. It is that kind of town; restless and searching for more life, even in the ruins of a “Thousand Year Empire” that lasted only twelve years. The part of Berlin where I grew up was in Kreuzberg. “It is one of the most interesting places on the face of this planet,” says my blogger friend NotMsParker http://kreuzberged.com/

After the war Berlin was occupied by the four big Allies. And they were not on friendly terms with each other. Especially the Soviet Union did not trust the Western powers and they wanted to dislodge them. Of course this feeling of mistrust was reciprocated. There was always a sense of political crisis in the air. Perhaps we, my wife and I, were looking for a more stable environment. Our gaze went to the end of the world: Australia. A nuclear holocaust for Europe was on the cards and what better idea than putting as many miles as possible between us and the old homeland.

On the way to Australia, on an ocean liner that was for us pure luxury, we stopped at exotic places like Aden and Colombo. I saw Colombo one day after my birthday on the 17th of May 1959, Pentecost Sunday. It impressed me with its mixture of its many religions.

SS Strathaird to boat we came on 1959

SS Strathaird the boat we came on in 1959

On board SS Strathaird May 1959

On board SS Strathaird May 1959

Australia gave us a good start. After two years tragedy struck us in the form of Poliomyelitis. All our three children were struck down with especially bad consequences for our eldest daughter. She was confined to an iron lung and a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

Later in life I took up long distance running and even ran four Marathons. What a great time I had. I even ran many road races, of different length, in my home city Berlin on my various visits there. Everyone knows about the “Wall” in Berlin and when it fell in 1989 it was the happiest day of my life. I still feel the emotions of that tremendous event today.

As I steadily get older I feel like a ticking time-bomb. I feel alright now and still go for runs. They are not long runs like I used to do, but short runs every second day. It is good for my mental equilibrium and for my cardiovascular system. But at my age one can expect life threatening events. Elderly people fall and end up in hospital never to return to normal life; if at all. A sniffle in the morning could be the beginning of a terminal Pneumonia. “And so it goes,” Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favourite American writers, used to say.

But I made it to here and I have plans to stay around for at least another ten years. And if I keep running I may end up in “Runner’s Heaven”. Wherever this is.

In the mean time, I’ll keep in contact with my many internet friends I’m privileged to have found or they found me. This is one of the good things that happened during my life time, the PC and the Internet. The computer was invented by Kurt Zuse only a few hundred meters from where I grew up, in a house I passed on my way to school and a school friend resided in. “And so it goes.”

At this late point in my life I’m still interested in politics, but take it more with a grain of salt. Often I give the news a miss as I feel I heard it all before. I’m worried for the people on the Indian Subcontinent that they might be sucked into a great confrontation. I hope the teachings of the Koran, the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita and of the Dhammapada will help the people to overcome their differences. There is so much wisdom in these books.

My world of ideas comes among others from Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Henry George, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many others (like the great Russian writers). I love all the great painters and the classical music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart and the folk music of so many countries, and Jazz, of course.

This is where we live now: The Illawarra, NSW, Australia

This is where we live now: The Illawarra, NSW, Australia

I could go on but my lovely wife brought me a cup of tea and everything must come to an end. But don’t worry I’ll be here for a while yet.

“AND SO IT GOES” 🙂

A cup of tea served with LOVE

A cup of tea served with LOVE !