Family connections

 

After decades of living in Australia, I still have a connection with my mother’s family. This is even more remarkable as many of them I did not even know in person. It was from my mother’s tales that I must have formed this connection. I do not have the same connection with my father’s family.

Even more remarkable is that my mother has been dead for over 25 years. Still, family stories are important and give us a sense of identity and belonging.

Although I spent time in the flat lands of Ostfriesland during the war, I did not grow up there. Yet I feel a connection with the flat land, the windmills, the canals which drain the water so the land can be used.

My mother’s maiden name, Huismann, comes from the people who owned their own houses, hence House Man. The lived in houses, as opposed to cottages. The name is Dutch in origin, as the area is very close to the border. (Friesland is in The Netherlands and Ost, ie East, Friesland is in Germany.)

My great-grandparents built their house and it was handed down to the eldest son. My grandfather and my uncle lived in the house with their family and farmed the surrounding farmland. When I visited as a child, the furniture was the same furniture that each generation owned. It is now not family who own the house, not our family, however, it is now protected as its value and contribution to the heritage of the area is recognised.

When I look at the photo below of my great-grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary, I feel that I am part of this family, although I was not even born yet and never met my grandparents, who were deceased before I was born, let alone my great-grandparents.

golden wedding
My great-grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary. My mother is on the right, next to her mother who has a baby on her lap. Tante Katie is sixth from the top right. Tante Telke is next to her in the white blouse. Note the headwear. Most Ostfriesland men wore caps.

 

In my old age, I have come to the realization that I  long to return to this area.

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Tante Katie

My mother came from a large family – as was common in those days.

She had four brothers – though I am not sure about that, as one died in the first war, and it was all rather hush-hush.

She had four sisters: Tante Telke, Tante Katie, Tante Kaeke and Tante Henriette (called Tante Hennie). My mother came between Kaeke and Hennie.

Huisman
The Huismann family. Tante Katie is top left. My mother is in front of her.

 

Of all these aunts, Tante Katie was my favourite.

We shared a kindred spirit. Some of the aunts were much older and their children were already adults and some had children themselves, so I got to have Tante Katie almost to myself.

As her daughter remarked when I visited as an adult, “You still talk as much as you do as a child.” Clearly I must have talked a lot as a child!

Oma and Katie 1934
Tante Katie (left) with my mother. Around 1934. I was not yet born. My brother is in the pram. Note the lovely dresses.

 

As a four and five year old, I spent months at a time with Tante Katie as my mother went into hospital several times and stayed for a length of time to recuperate. Tante Katie had a knack of making children feel that their company was wanted – she appeared to enjoy playing with me. Other adults always seemed too busy to play; too busy with important adult stuff.

Katie or Oma
Possibly Tante Katie, or my mother. Original photo is blurred. We lost many photos in the war.

 

She had a very long garden full of vegetables and berries. It always looked so inviting. There was a special section where she had flowers and garden ornaments of fairies and gnomes just for children to play. At the end of the garden was the railway. Like the English novel, The Railway Children, we would always run down the end of the garden and wave to the people on the trains going by.

When we travelled home from visiting, our train travelled past her home. She would always be there waving goodbye to us. It was magic!

Oma & Tante Katie 1970s
My mother visiting her sister, Katie, around 1974.

 

When we were at Tante Katie, we always had to visit her father-in-law, Opa Duin. He lived in a small cottage where adults had to duck their heads when passing through doorways. Next to kitchen was door which led directly to the part where the goats lived. For me, as a child, rather than a sign of rural poverty, this was paradise – to be able to walk straight to the animals!

As Tante Katie was from Ostfriesland, making tea was part of a ritual, a ceremony. This too had its magic for a child. Tea was made in a teapot which was placed on a warmer with a tea light. The tea cups were ultra thin, so thin you could almost see through them. Before the tea was poured, a lump of rock sugar candy was placed in the tea cup. Once poured a special spoon was used to drizzle cream over the top. The tea was never stirred. Each sip (and the tea was sipped, never gulped) gave a different flavor – first creamy, then sweet. There were always three cups made – one after the other. Extra sugar was not added – the sugar rock slowly dissolved over the three cups of tea,

My older cousins hated drinking with the relatives who lived in such close proximity with animals – they felt tea tasted of the animals.

Years later when I decided to emigrate to Australia, who should be on the wharf waving me goodbye? Tante Katie.

Twenty-eight years afterwards, on my first and only return visit to Germany, I visited Tante Katie. We got on as if I had never left. By then she was in her late 70s. A year after that she died. I am so glad I saw her once more.

Tante Katie 1981
Me with Tante Katie in 1981.

 

My beautiful aunt from Ostfriesland.

A little longer in Lahrheide

 

Of course the farmer’s family that took us in did not do so out of love. They had to take in families that could not live in the city. But I never felt like I was not wanted. The farmer’s son, Willi, and I were the same age and we were inseparable. We were bathed together in the kitchen.

Only when the family had to take in two more families, did we step back a bit as Tante Ida, the farmer’s wife, (not my real aunt but we used the term out of respect) could not fit us all in the kitchen.

When we started off, for the first few weeks Tante Ida would put a cooked breakfast in front of our door, until we settled in. She never did that for the other families.

Later the farmer, Onkel Wilhelm (again not my real uncle)  built a house on his property that we moved into. Actually two families lived in the house. We had two rooms each. There was no separate kitchen so you cooked in the “living room”.

lahrheide home1
The little house that Onkel Wilhelm built. We lived in the left side.

I lived in the farmer’s farm house from the ages of 6 to 11. Although the war had ended, there were many homeless people, not only us who had lost our homes in the city but refugees from the east, escaping the Russians.

I lived in the house Onkel Wilhelm built in Lahrheide  until I was 15 when I moved away to work as I live in housekeeper.

Always looking on the bright side

My mother had a knack of leading us to always look on the positive side of things, even when walking through the bombed out streets of Bremen.

To me the windows of the bombed houses looked like dead eyes. The front of the houses were facades, behind which were ruins. My mother would point to the flower growing out of the ruble and cracks in the foothpaths.

True to her nature, while I was in Ost Friesland, she wrote us a letter telling us that she found a place for us to live in the country where the beds had feather doonas so think you couldn’t look over them.

typical farmhouse
Typical farmhouse from Lower Saxony, where Lahrheide is.

 

She decided to leave the city and move to the little village of Lahrheide. She knew she could be self-sufficient in the country, being a farmer’s daughter. My father was a trained butcher, so knew how to kill goats and rabbits that we raised. We also used to goats for milk, cheese and butter.

uncle butchering
Onkel Alderk butchering a pig on his farm in Staplemooreheide

 

Out of the furs which my father tanned, my mother made coats and clothes and slippers. Because we lived near the moors, where we could cut peat for the fire, she would carve little toys for us to play with. Of course, there were no bought toys for our family.

garden
My mother with a local child in the garden of the house where we lived after we lived with the other people.

 

It was close to Christmas when we first moved to Lahrheide. We picked a real Christmas tree from the forest for our home.

village house
House next door to one we lived in at Lahrheide. I visited in 1982.

 

Of an evening we would sit in front of the fire and tell stories. We would roast apples on the fire. All in all, my mother made it like a little adventure, living in the country.

My parents would have seen things differently. We were only living in two little rooms in the attic of someone else’s property. We had very little and what we had was very basic. There was no electricity and no water. Water had to be brought up by buckets and a visit to the toilet required walking downstairs and outside near the pig sty.

Living with Tante Telke.

thelke family
Tante Telke on her marriage to Onkel Joke (sounds like Yoker). With their two children from previous marriages – his daughter, her son.)

After we lost everything in the bombing of Bremen, Mutti sent us to her family in the country. She was from Ost Friesland, to the west of Bremen. Her brother, Alderk, owned the family farm at Stapelmoor,  which he inherited from their parents. I never met my grandparents, as they died before I was born.

 

My brother and I were separated. He went to Onkel Alderk on the family farm. I stayed with my favourite aunt, Tante Telke, at Stapelmoor, which was within walking distance of the family farm.

thelke and husband
Tante Telke in the 1950s with their dog, in the front door.

 

Tante Telke was 15 years older than my mother. Mutti was the second youngest in her family. Tante Telke owned a little pub and a small holding with a couple of cows, pigs and chooks which meant she was self-sufficient. I had been here many times during the war, so this was like my second home. I loved staying there.

I slept with Tante Telke in her large single bed. Her husband slept in the other big single bed. It was autumn and we kept warm in the feather blanket.

She had just lost her youngest son in the war. As a five year old I did not notice her sadness. She treated me with love and as a companion. I loved her in turn.

She was not a very good housekeeper so I did the dusting in the family room. I spent hours looking through her sewing basket with all the little bits and bobs it contained. She had so many beautiful buttons and appliques that are sewn onto clothing to decorate.

I was never hungry while on the farm. There was plenty of food.The only downside was the old food had to be eaten first. They preserved their own meat. This meant the meat might sometimes be rancid as it had to be eaten before fresh meat was brought out.

Life here was peaceful and quiet. There were no bombing raids and no air raid shelters. I played with Tante Telke’s grandchildren. Given the age difference between Mutti and her sister, Tante Telke’s grandchildren were my age. They lived in the same village. Their parents, my cousins, were the caretaker for the village church, the Dutch Reform Church – we were very close to the border with the Netherlands. Actually as Freslanders the culture and identity crossed the borders of Germany and the Netherlands.

cousin
Man standing is Tante Telke’s son from her first marriage – he is the young boy in the wedding shot. Here he a soldier. He served on the Russian front. He escaped home just after the war but was killed in a car accident. This was not the son who died during the war.

 

Despite my cousin being the church caretaker and a regular church goer, the rest of our family were not devout and we did not attend church regularly, only on major festivals, like Easter and Christenings.

staplemoor church
The church at Staplemoor

 

I stayed a few months with Tante Telke until Mutti found a place that we could be together.

thelke at old age
Tante Telke and Onkel Joke in the 60s.

Moving to another country

In the early 1950s, my brother had moved to Wiesdorf Leverkusen,  near Cologne as there was more work opportunity. He rode his bike the whole way. He did not have a job lined up but thought he would find one as he had finished his apprenticeship as a carpenter. He may have followed a friend. Oh for the adventurous spirit of youth!

Four years later, my  mother and I decided to follow so we could stay together as a family.

A short time after arriving, about a fortnight, Mutti and I found jobs as housekeepers. We both stayed in my brother’s room – he was renting a room in a house. Mutti’s job came with a flat. Finding a flat was not an easy task as not enough flats were build in  the 1950s what with the destruction from the war and the post-war population growth. You had to be a resident of the city for a set time before you were able to get a government flat.

My  brother had just met his future wife when I arrived. They married and had a little girl. My brother and his family moved into our flat. We lived together for 3  years in Wiesdorf when my brother thought of moving to Australia. He had read about Australia from the advertising flyers from the Australian government. He was attracted by the  sunshine and more land. An opportunity to build your own house was his dream as a builder. My brother’s wife was attracted by the pictures of the sea. So he applied and his family were accepted on the assisted immigration program.

At the same time I thought  where else can you go for  50 marks? You had to stay for 2 years or else pay the full fare back. Well 2 years is not too bad! If we liked it we would send for Mutti.

I left Germany in 1960, one month after my brother. I had to have health tests and had to have a small pox vaccination. I had no English and no special skills and no money. Australia wanted people who would work.

I came by a large Italian ship, the MS Aurelia. You can read about the ship here. I was 22 and it was most exciting. I had one suitcase and about 100 marks, which was really nothing.

The ship left from Bremen Harbour. The journey took five and a half weeks. It was like being on a cruise. The ship was full of young people immigrating. Lots of young men who did not want to go into national service; lots of Hungarians who had left the unrest of their country. They were not all Germans on the ship but most were.

aurelia-bw1
The MS Aurelia

August 1944

If you read the English version of Wikipedia on the bombing of Bremen during WWII, there is no mention of the night that features large in my memories.

The most horrible night for Bremen was the attack in August 1944. I was now 6. Again we raced to the bunker at about 10.30 at night. Mutti always put us to bed in our sports training pants so when we had to be woken we were ready to go to the shelter.

My brother had by 1944 returned from being evacuated to the country. He was away for 3 years. It was lucky he returned as he was evacuated near to Dresden, which later suffered with the bombing even worse than Bremen.

In the bunker it was so hot we could not even touch the doors to the outside. The bunkers were big double story above ground buildings, like home units. They were without windows and had 2 meter thick walls. They were safer than being underground. You could feel the building moving when the bombs landed around it.

valentinbremen
My bunker was similar to this one.

 

The announcement came that the people who lived in the suburb of Findorf could not go home as the whole suburb was engulfed in the inferno from the phosphorous bombs. That was our suburb. Our street was gone.