The rain had stopped and grey clouds were racing across a blue sky, chased by brilliant sunshine, sleet and snow. It was cold outside, Mother had put on her warm coat and boots. She had to go to feed the rabbits in our garden, and left me in charge of my two little sisters.
I was standing by the window, resting my chin on the windowsill looking out, feeling very bored. The weather wasn’t nice enough to be outside. I had lifted the lace curtain over my head to get a better view of the clouds as they hurried across the sky. The strong wind changed their shape constantly. I turned round and through the patterns of the curtains I watched Bine and Tissi.
Before Mother left, she had put Tissi on the pot. She was a nervous baby and soiled her nappies as soon as she heard the siren or the doorbell. A constant string of nappies hung to dry in the bathroom, and to save even more nappies, Tissi spent a lot of time on the pot, surrounded by her toys with Bine or myself playing with her. She was wrapped in a lovely pink blanket, which used to be my favourite, then Bine’s and now Tissi’s. It had fairy tale characters woven into it, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dornröschen and the Froschkönig.
A strange noise made me look out of the window again.
Suddenly, small and very dark grey clouds appeared. They just popped out of nowhere and there they were. Lots of them. I called Bine over and we watched together, fascinated. Each little cloud was accompanied with an ak sound. Ak-ak-ak. We tried to count them, but as soon as they appeared, the wind blew them away again. The sound was muffled through the double windows.
Another strange noise took our attention. Over the roofs of the apartment houses opposite, planes appeared, row upon row. A droning sound filled the air. Slowly, the sky darkened with these menacing planes, and just as we were trying to work out what they were, I heard the siren. A prickling went down my back. Tissi started crying, I looked at her. Mother hadn’t gone all that long ago. She would turn back and come home, surely.
How many raids had we survived? I looked back through the window. The first planes had disappeared over our roof and they were still advancing over the roofs opposite. How many were there? A hundred? At least a hundred. There were no gaps in the sky. Suddenly, one changed into a fiery ball and crashed into many pieces, behind the blocks opposite. Laboriously, the others continued to cross the sky over our street.
The Doorbell rang. Bine rushed to the door, yelling: “Mutti, Mutti”, but it was Frau Meier, Roland’s mother.
“Why aren’t you downstairs? Where is your mother?” Not waiting for an answer, she picked up Tissi, potty and all. Bine picked up some toys. I picked up the first aid case, which was always ready by the door and we went down into the cellar. As I came out of the back door, before turning into the basement shelter, I could see, that the blanket of planes, had disappeared over the horizon of the bombed and burnt out apartment blocks at the back and were still coming on, overhead. The air was filled with snarling engine noises. Hypnotised, I watched.
Frau Meier shouted: “Come quickly, don’t stand there. You’ll get killed.” I turned and ran down the stairs into the basement shelter. Where were so many planes headed? What was the target? Where was Mother? I listened to every little noise. Frau Meier asked again where Mother was, and I said: “She has gone to feed the Angora’s. Will she be alright?”
Frau Meier nodded her head.
“She has gone into somebody else’s shelter. Anywhere between here and the Colony.” (We called all the gardens the Colony).
Frau Pfeiffer, from the second f loor, put new nappies on Tissi. She was still fretting, I went over and put my arm around her. Bine’s eyes were dark and huge. She was watching everybody and although she said nothing I could read her question. Where was Mother? I took Bine’s hand, there was safety and reassurance in just sticking together. The din outside had become deafening. There was the smell of cement and dust trickling from the ceiling. We had all landed on the floor involuntarily. The three of us huddled together, Frau Meier close with Roland. The other members of the apartments above, also huddled on benches along the wall, barely visible in the dingy light.
Suddenly, it was very still outside. Nothing could be heard and no one uttered a word. Then the door was f lung open and Mother rushed in. She was out of breath, bleeding slightly on her forehead, her clothes were torn, and she was very dirty.
She put out her arms and Bine and I f lew into them: “Where were you?”
She put her hand up to the mass of plaited hair, which was hanging down her back, pins sticking out here and there. She tried hard to pin it up again.
“I ducked from doorway to doorway, but I got hit by small pieces of shrapnel. It looks as though they are attacking Tempelhof again. But where they are going with all those planes, goodness knows.” The neighbours asked a lot more questions. Frau Meier was cross with Mother, because she came back in that hellish inferno.
“You know we will always look after the children, we would have been quicker had we known you were not here.”
“I didn’t think there would be a raid so soon again and I simply had to come back for the children. The rabbits have to go. I cannot leave the children again.”
We loved the rabbits, their soft, warm fur and strawberry red eyes. Their twitching pink noses when they ate. Bine’s eyes filled with silent tears, and my heart sank. “It is much better they go, Kinderchen, they are not safe in the garden here in the city. We take them to Silesia.”
Mother went over to the bunkbeds and fetched the Grimms Fairy Tales book. Roland came too, and we all settled down to listen, including the adults. Mother read the story of someone who went forth to learn how it feels to make his flesh creep. The chap in the story was fearless. His bravery knew no bounds, and his adventures were horrific, and still he had not learned what fear was. Nothing made his flesh creep. Eventually, he met a miller who hired him as an apprentice. While they were all sitting down for the evening meal, he told the family of his quest, and how he had wandered through the world and still had not yet learned what fear was. That night, the miller’s daughter went out and filled a bucket from the cold stream with water. She had also inadvertently caught some tiny fishes in her bucket. She poured the bucket over the sleeping lad, who woke up shuddering and said: “Why, now I know what it feels like.”
We thought this story was a little strange, but also funny, and asked for it often.
The book of ‘Grimms Fairy Tales’ was part of the first aid kit and always came with us into the cellar and made the time we spent there more cosy. It made us forget what was going on outside. Half way through the next story, the siren announced the end of the raid. We went straight upstairs and Mother started to cook lunch. We were so hungry. We all sat in the kitchen quietly, watching her.
“Minka, go and lay the table, Bine can help.” she said, but Bine had a very special knack of suddenly and quietly disappearing.
This meal was only potato soup with lots of parsley in it. We added a lot of Maggi, which was always on the table. We added it to everything. Normally, lunch would have been a vegetable stew with any amount of vegetable from the garden plus potatoes, and for the evening meal, two slices of bread with either cheese, or jam, or Kunsthonig which was the best thing we could buy. It was artificial honey and came in blocks and was simply delicious.
In the mornings, we were bribed with Kunsthonig to have one spoon of cod liver oil. I retched every time I swallowed that. We had just settled down to our meal when the bell rang. Mother opened the door and we could hear voices. After what seemed, to us children, a long time, Mother came back, very upset.
The colony had been hit by several bombs. Frau Sauer had been buried under her garden house, Emil was dead too. He had been on his way to Frau Sauer, when he was killed. They were our next door neighbours in the colony. Omi Pless, an old lady whom we had befriended and called Granny Pless, had been hit and wounded. She couldn’t get to the shelter in time. I could not imagine Emil and Frau Sauer dead. They had been there on the day when Mother first wheeled me into our garden in the ancient pram.
I possess a beautifully leather-bound diary, which was started by my grandmother, Margarete von Stückerodt, for my mother, who was born in 1907. She had kept it up for a while, and then she had become ill with Tuberculosis and had to spend two years in a Sanatorium. When she was cured, my grandfather took her to the Baltic Sea for a holiday, but sadly she was swept away by a freak wave, which almost took my grandfather too, in his attempt to save her.
This diary was only used up by a third, and my mother carried on after my birth to record little things when my life started. Times were confused and unsettled, when I was born. People were confused about what was happening in Germany at the time, and slow to realise the size of the monster that was awakening. There were also preparations in full swing for the Berlin Olympics. The great excitement was visible on everybody’s face, and troubles were momentarily forgotten. Mother also told me in the diary, that the 1st of July was the birthday of my great grandmother and my great great grandmother, Mother’s side. I was always very impressed by this. I was born on a Wednesday afternoon at five, in my Onkel Kurt von Stückerodt’s clinic in Wilmersdorf. He was a gynaecologist and my grandfather’s nephew. A terrible ‘tropical’ thunderstorm raged outside, it was ‘greenhouse-weather” and flooding followed. Berlin is built on ancient swampland with rivers, lakes and canals in abundance. Some people called it little Venice. My father always said there were more trees and gardens in Berlin than in Venice and just as many bridges. The French windows in Mother’s room, in the clinic, were open all night and the wonderful fragrant smell of strawberries and warm, damp earth filled her room. She got up early with the rising sun, looked into my little cot, saw that I was happily asleep, and walked out a little into the garden, letting the soft warm earth caress her bare feet. She pulled a few weeds and admired the many raindrops, as they sparkled and glittered in all the rainbow colours in the first rays of the sun. Onkel Kurt, watching her from his apartment upstairs, pulled up the venetian blind furiously and told her to get back into bed immediately. A nurse appeared with a bowl, to wash her muddy feet, grumbling something in Silesian dialect. Mother felt totally at home. Onkel Kurt had to have his good natured grumble. I had spent my first night on earth. On the third of August, the day the Olympiad opened, I was christened in the Passionskirche am Marheinike Platz. I was given many godparents, because Mother didn’t want to hurt any of her cousins, and, as she put it, one can never have enough. There was Onkel Max von Stückerodt, Tante Ria’s son, Tante Ria von Stückerodt, Tante Elisabeth von Heigedorn, Onkel Max Ludwig von Gerebrecht, who was Mother’s cousin from Mönchgut, and my father’s brother, Onkel Holder. I was wearing the traditional von Tilemann christening dress, in which my grandmother and my mother were christened, and my Onkel Max Ludwig drove us to the church in his car. It was a beautiful, carefree day and my family looked with some sense of hope into the future. Our roots went back a long way, our family had been closely knit over many generations.
On 20 October 1936, I took my first flight on Heinkel HE III Lufthansa to Breslau in Silesia to visit my father’s parents and other relatives. Mother got terribly ill on the plane; flying in those days was quite an adventure.
Silesia was my second home. Mother’s relatives lived there. Mother’s father was born there too. Mother grew up in a beautiful Schloss, Mönchgut, which was owned by her mother’s sister. After my grandmother’s death, my mother went to live there, until Grandfather married again. Mother didn’t get on at all with her stepmother, so she went back to Mönchgut and a string of cousins and her own grandmother. It became her home. Often, in later years, we would sit together and she would tell of all the things that had happened in that rambling, friendly and happy place. When I was a little older, Mother’s cousin’s children were there, all about my age, and the same customs and habits continued. Nothing ever changed there from generation to generation. There was always room for everybody. It used to be an old monastery, renovated and rebuilt in the baroque style, but was abandoned by the monks and bought by a younger son of a Silesian landowner. He married, but only had one daughter, who married an ancestor of the present owner, the husband of my great-aunt. The estate had been in that family for one hundred and seven years. It was wonderful to have a home that was forever.
The house was a long, two storey building with two rows of fifteen windows either side; and two graceful little towers on each end of the roof. One was a little clock tower, the other carried a bell. There was a large park with a lake on one side of the house. The front of the house, with the open stairs leading to the entrance door, faced a large court area, surrounded by farm buildings. Standing on the open staircase, looking into the court, immediately in front was the drive. On the other side of the road was a giant trough, with clear well water, running constantly for longer than history was recorded at Mönchgut. The work horses, returning in the evening, would drink there before going into their stables, which were in a large building, dominating the entire opposite side of the court. It housed the field and carriage horses. It also housed the cows and oxen. It was designed and built by my great grandfather, Tante Mieze’s father, who was an architect-builder, and many famous buildings in Berlin and other cities were built by him. These stables had wonderful, vaulted ceilings and roped pillars and intricately tiled floors. The stables and the cow house always reminded me of a palace. Four very tall chestnut trees, two on either side of the trough, divided the courtyard. To the right, making it an enclosed yard, the entire side was taken up by what looked like a big wall with windows and two large carriage entrances with domestics-and servants’ quarters either side and above. It also housed the riding horses. At the very end, was a water mill and the mill pond, with the leat running past the entire length of the back of the manor house. A little bridge, from where we used to drop leaves and sticks, led from the French windows into the park, past the orchard with apple and pear trees. One could lose oneself entirely for days in that area, and always find something to do. Adjoining, was the cherry orchard from which a gate opened into the fields. A path carried on past greenhouses and the birch wood to the fishpond and the play lawn and into the park property, eventually leading to the pastures where there were horses grazing, often with foals. Closing the half circle here, one would arrive at the back of the huge barns, which also housed the woodwork shop.
A little further on, was the large sheep house, the foreman’s house, the farmworker’s cottages, the village street, leading to the little village where some of the farmworkers lived, the bake house and brewery, and the many village children, with whom we often played. The village street entered this enclosed yard from the rear and finished the square. This place was my entire world, as it had been to my mother, who still called this place home. I too would regard visiting Mönchgut the same as going home.
Not far from our apartment block in Berlin, there was ‘a garden colony’. Many Berliners had their own garden where they grew most things for their own use, and with the arrival of the first swallows, the apartments emptied, and the Berliners would move into their summer-houses for the summer. They were small, very cosy and comforts were basic. But the Berliner likes his own bit of earth. Berlin is the Garden City, the Green City. We too had such a garden. Ours was surrounded by other gardens and so gave the illusion of being in the middle of a wonderful jungle. Every garden had lots of fruit trees and berry bushes. Our little summerhouse consisted of a lounge, a bedroom and a kitchen, and outside, adjoining the entrance into the lounge, we had a grape-arbour from which we harvested the most succulent grapes just before we returned back to our apartment in the autumn. We lived in that arbour and only went indoors when it rained too much and the drops found their way through the thick leaves, and at night. I loved to hear the raindrops tapping gently onto the roof, with the doors wide open into the arbour and the air filled with the aromatic scent of the wet fresh earth. Since the kitchen was the first room when entering, it was almost, as if the cooking took place outdoors. A trap door in the kitchen led down into a little cellar, containing some wine, bottled fruit and jam, potatoes and bottles of juice.
Father had built a sandpit filled with the shining golden and silver grey sand, native to some parts of Berlin. He also built a swimming pool for my second birthday. It wasn’t very big, but it had a shallow end, into which led some steps from the sandpit, and a deep end for the parents. I celebrated all my birthdays in this paradise garden and we had noisy parties with lanterns and many of the children from neighbouring gardens. Emil, one of the neighbours, always brought a Punch and Judy show. Mother traditionally made a birthday crown from all the different f lowers growing in our garden in July. A birthday without the crown was not a birthday.
I was given my first doll, which had a porcelain head and jointed arms and legs and real hair. I had her for many years. My mother’s half-sister visited us on these occasions; she was ten years younger than my mother and much shorter and very round. She had beautiful small but very hard hands, which she used frequently to slap me with when I did something she thought I shouldn’t. She was employed as a governess to the children of a count, which would explain her strict behaviour with me. She was the daughter of my grandfather’s second wife, who was born Gräfin von Helmstatt (Countess of Helmstatt). There were plenty of strawberries from the garden, with real whipped cream, two very wobbly mysteriously shaped pink Götterspeisen, Streuselkuchen and Sahnetorten (ambrosia pudding, crumble cake and gateaux). For the children, there was barley coffee, and real coffee for the adults. And lemonade!
Six weeks after my second birthday party, my sister, Sabine arrived. She had black hair and huge dark brown eyes. With those eyes she followed me around. For days I would just lie on my tummy and look at her in her cot. I thought she was a little miracle. I had been given a baby doll at the same time. I named her Sabine, and copied everything my mother did. Sabine was also delivered by Onkel Kurt, and I stayed in the apartment above with Tante Guste, short for Auguste. Tante Guste had two teenage daughters and two sons. One son, Hermann, was only two years older than I, a latecomer; there was a nine year gap between him and his brother. Over time, Hermann and I, played together in the large private and clinic garden, when we visited. There was a little wooden gate which separated the two gardens. We often hid among the bushes and watched the patients, against Onkel Kurt’s orders. He was strict, where his patients were concerned, but I wanted to know where he stored the new babies. I was convinced that we were all from Onkel Kurt, and I wanted to know where he got the babies from. My father thought it was sweet and nobody would explain to me what really happened. Onkel Kurt would laugh good naturedly, pick me up and hug me. I loved that big and cuddly man. What interested me was, why my parents chose Bine and me!