Monday, 27 August 2012

From the Frying Pan into th Fire - schooling continued

After getting rid of my Tormentor at the end of year one I was blessed with her college mates in year two and three. A real breeze - these girls thought the Sun shone out of my proverbial and I was in clover. Doing bugger all and getting excellent notes - they didn't want to disappoint their college mate. Sweet apples - I could get used to that!
Come year four and we got a MALE teacher - Herr Hanisch. A returned serviceman with an attitude. He should have been grateful to have survived the eastern front, but NO he was treating us like POW's - or so I thought.
The Blackboard without the grate
By then we had a wooden grate, about three foot by five, in front of the blackboard to allow us weenie ones to reach the top of the blackboard. The wicked thing about the grate was that it was made of one by one wood pieces, with the sharp edge pointing up - like you would make one to clean your boots off.
For whatever reason Herr Hanish disliked me from the start - might have had something to do with that Gisela continuously gave him the cold shoulder. Obviously he didn't know how to impress girls!
One day I apparently was particularly 'naughty' and required appropriate punishment. This was to kneel, only wearing shorts, on this grate for the entire last period. I was not allowed to move or rest my behind on my heels. My first lesson in real corporal punishment.
When I got home I had deep red welds on my knees and upper shins. Well, talk about disaster! Mum got home, saw my condition and started a rather authentic replication of the Spanish Inquisition. I had to fess up, no good defying mum, and tell all.
Herr Hanisch & his sufferers
Talk about anger! The little woman went all shades of purple and red and I could have sworn she was blowing steam out of her ears and nostrils. She was livered, to say the least.
My Mum - five foot nothing
Next morning, she took time off from work and marched me to school. Into the classroom she went, her being five foot nothing and Herr Hanisch being six foot two, marched up to Herr Hanisch, grabbed him by his tie and shook him so his head bobbed from side to side. "You animal, where have you learned these manners! If you ever touch my boy again I shall have you sent to Siberia for the rest of your life!" She let go of his tie, turned around and stormed out of the classroom. Herr Hanisch was totally flabbergasted, to say the least. The result being he left me in peace, i.e. totally ignored me, for the rest of the school year.
Fast forward two years and I'm in upper school in 'town' - Koenigs Wusterhausen - starting year six. We get introduced to our teachers and varying classrooms, like art was in that room, physics & chemistry in another, an so on. We got given timetables and instructed to attend on time in the appropriate classroom.
Just my luck, of course, my art and political education teacher was the well know Herr Hanisch! He scowled at me and said nothing. He did his best to pretend I didn't exist. BUT, he had to fulfil his pensum, especially in political education. We got a schedule of required reading material, which included the local communist rag and 'Neues Deutschland' - the official mouthpiece of the ruling communist party.
What does any eleven year old do? Go home and tell Mum we have to get these two papers daily - home delivered"". Hanisch obviously had forgotten about mum - she exploded, just short of going back and killing him. "There is no way we are going to get these papers, unless he wants to pay for them. Even then, they are only good for lighting fires!" End of story, no more comment!
I go back next day and report to Herr Hanish: my mother cannot afford these papers and would not have them in the house anyway"" - kids are so honest. Actually, he did a very good impersonation of mum - steam coming out of his ear holes, his face went bright red and he was unable to speak for some time. The other kids thought it hilarious and tried to stifle their laughter.
Once he regained some composure he said: "I shall be having words to your sister about that!"
Well, that was it for the day. He did have words to Gisela, who told him it had absolutely nothing to do with her. She was married by then, living away from Neue Muehle. She told Herr Hanish if he wanted to pursue this matter he better go and see mum in person. He wasn't man enough to do that! That little devil had threatened to kill him. He was sure that after the Russians didn't get him that little woman would.
The result: I had a very peaceful year in both arts and political education classes and, predictably, got a very glorious FAIL in my end-of-year report! - SPLENDID - beats all A's in the years prior.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

An 'Old Salt' in the making

It is 1951, we are still in Neue Muehle, my sister is no longer my class teacher BUT roles have changed. Now I am her Tormentor. It is the big summer break from school - six weeks holiday during the best part of the year - summer! Gisela, my sister, has no such luxuries as a long summer break. In those days teachers worked during the break to create lesson plans, assignments and various other stuff they had to attend to.
I however, was free to pursue whatever took my fancy - water was the operative thing.
Gisela would come home for lunch to ensure I was fed - Mum was working full time in a Konsum - the then equivalent of a supermarket, if you can call 500 items on the shelf a supermarket. Besides, variety was not on the menu then, one brand per category (they call it home brands now) like flour, sugar, rice, margarine (butter was a luxury not approved by the commies), bread, and so on.
Well, one day Gisela came home and I was nowhere to be seen. She thought that quite odd, or rather disturbing, since I have always been keen on my food and being fed on time.
Having a tendency to be a panic merchant she ran around the village to locate me! Eventually it occurred to her to look across the river - there I was, intrepid as ever paddling my newly fashioned boat across the 'wide' expanse of the Staabe, as that part of the river is called near where we lived. The river wasn't really that wide, but for a boy of nine it might as well have been the ocean. My 'boat' was in reality Mum's wash trough, made of wood and just large enough to contain me.
Boat No. 1 - gaining experience
There was, however, one very minor problem with the design of the boat. The wooden trough, being designed for washing clothes, had a plug hole with a plug inserted from the top! It was designed to have water in it - not under it. Thus, as I paddled along the ruddy plug would either leak or pop out altogether, either way filling my fine vessel with water and reducing free board all the time.
Once Gisela saw me, in what she thought was an absolutely perilous state, she let out one of those female panic screeches that could be heard from here to eternity.
Don't know what the panic was all about - very simple problem to solve: put plug back in, put your heel on the darned thing and bail the boat out as best you can - continue paddling.
Well, when I got back ashore I got two swift slaps around the ear holes, a verbal bollocking and a stern promise to tell mum how naughty I had been.
When Mum came home she got the whole horrid story from Gisela, how I had caused her to nearly have a heart attack and the potential of me drowning. I have seldom seen mum laugh so heartily!
"Gisela, he is a water rat, he won't drown. Besides he can swim! But you, boy, never, never ever use my wash trough as a boat again, you hear me?" Hey, what can you reply but "Yes mum".
Till next day, when out came the trough and the river adventure continued. I hadn't fashioned these 'racing paddles' out of scraps of wood I 'acquired' for nothing. Just made sure the plug was most securely in place next time.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Instant Teacher - just add War

The year is 1943, the place is Germany and the war is going great (oops - don't mention the WAR). My darling sister Gisela left school the previous year and enrolled in a secretarial course at a business college. Well, that only lasted a few months since everybody had to do their duty and serve the Reich for three months in something called Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service) to support the war effort.
She was sent to what was then Pomerania - now Poland - to Posen (Poznan) to work in a clothing factory making overcoats for the army.
After her six months stint the government had changed its mind (as governments are apt to do) and introduced the ancillary war service for girls. Another six months stint, we are now in 1944 and the war is not going great at all. Maybe the coats Gisela made weren't that great after all.
Gisela in Dress Uniform
It was now all hands on deck! Gisela got transferred to an anti-aircraft battery operating big guns. Strange thing happened, when she got to her unit she found her best friend since childhood was posted to the same unit. 
The battery made a steady retreat towards Berlin as the Russians advanced. When things got really bad, the Russians were 50 km outside Berlin, the battery 45 km outside. Her commanding officer decided it was all a lost cause and ordered the girls (apart from the colonel commanding, there were only three other men in the unit - a lieutenant, a sergeant and a driver) to go home. The guys had squirrelled away petrol for the only car they had. They fuelled it up, packed up and were ready to head for Berlin. Gisela and her friend were the only ones hailing from Berlin, all other girls came from towns not far from where the unit was stationed.
The colonel advised them to head for home on foot. He took pity on the two girls from Berlin and offered that they could ride on the car (not in the car) by standing on the running boards, holding hands across the bonnet to steady themselves.
On the outskirts of Berlin the colonel declared "that's it girls, you are on your own from here on". The girls headed for home on foot. In Gisela's case it was a good days walk to reach Neue Muehle.

With the Russians imminent to reach Neue Muehle any time very soon my Dad decided precautions were in order. The family moved to the basement and Gisela's hair was cut short like a boys. Mum bandaged up Gisela's boobs and dressed her in men's pants, shirt and pullover. When the Russians entered Neue Muehle, conducting a house-to-house 'inspection' (they were looking for easily transported valuables like gold and watches) Gisela was shoved under the bed and told not to make a sound.
Russian PPSH41 sub-machine gun
Sure enough, a Russian soldier with a bad shoulder wound entered the basement. He proceeded to deposit his gun  and a hand-grenade on the lid of a very large pot that mum was boiling the washing in. He then indicated to mum to change the dressing on his shoulder - communication was by hand signs since neither party spoke the others language. Mum tore up a bed sheet (it was all she could think of in her state of fright and panic) and dressed the wound. That done the soldier rummaged in his rucksack and produced several small chocolate bars. Through hand signs he made it abundantly clear those were for the little boy (moi) NOT the adults. He picked up his rifle and left! He kindly left the handgranade behind - why - nobody knows. Dad disposed of the item by carrying it to the bottom of the garden and throwing it in the river.
Russian Hand-grenade RG-42
Gisela spent the rest of 1945 holed up the house in Neue Muehle contemplating her future. With little useful practical experience, there wasn't a great call for anti-aircraft gun operators by then, and uncompleted formal education her choices were somewhat limited. However, she found out that there was a severe shortage of teachers. Most teachers active then were past retirement age. The authorities, Russian occupation forces and a rudimentary government, offered a Blitz-course to train as elementary teacher. The course lasted about nine months, after which the poor souls were thrown 'to the wolves' - let loose on unsuspecting six and seven year olds.
As it turned out teaching was the ideal occupation for her. Not only did she have the 'pleasure' of being her little brother's class teacher in year one, but went on to forge a stellar career in teaching. When she retired she was the director of a special school, both day and boarding school, for blind, deaf and dumb children - one of only two such institutions in East Germany.

Friday, 10 August 2012

How Herbert met Theresia

OK folks, we are going back ninety years now! 1923 in Berlin, things are grim. Hyperinflation is raging and common people have little joy, even less to eat. My Dad, being one of eight children and one of the oldest one decides to leave the parental home. For one to reduce the burden on his parents to feed him and secondly to try his luck in the country side to get a decent day's feed for a decent day's work. Out there money was not the going currency , money became worthless by the minute. Good honest hard work in exchange for food, and sometimes clothing, was a more equitable exchange.
He proceeded at a rather slow pace from Berlin southward, eventually ending up in a little village in lower Bavaria called Wemding. It's grown quite a bit since then, if you are keen here is a link to their current website: - but currently it is only in German, maybe you can find a translation somewhere.
Massey Furguson eat your heart out! 
Anyway, Dad arrived there and found it quite a quaint place, plus he met this handsome maiden who was living on the outskirts of Wemding on her ancestral 'estate', well a few acres of farmland. Her father, the sire of 48 children from two wives, was both a farmer and a builder - see, even in those days one had to be multi-tasking and adaptable. Here is a picture how he was tilling his land, the good wife controlling the oxen - she got all the good jobs - he wasn't going to risk getting kicked in the crown jewels.
Dad stayed for quite a few weeks in Wemding, securing day labour jobs,  most times in exchange for lodgings, food and some clothes. It gave him a chance to serenade this handsome maiden - Theresia.
Once he returned to Berlin in late 1923 the two of them kept in 'passionate' contact by mail. It came to bear that the handsome maiden had the hots for the lanky lad and devised a plan to be with him. He had made it quite clear to her that Wemding was nice, but he could only take so much of it. After all, he was a city boy.
Mum, I don't know how, secured a job as a live-in domestic in Wilmersdorf and proceeded to travel there by train in mid-1924. She had written to Dad about this and given him her arrival details. Dutifully, he picked her up and took her to her employment.
Any time Mum got off on the weekends they spend together. As it turned out this was  a rather unsatisfactory arrangement, so my Dad suggested marriage. He was very cautious about it, not believing that the country girl would cherish city live. She did - and with a vengeance! Country life was not for her, she declared and stuck to it for the rest of her life.
Dad, friends and Mum in their 'spacious' livingroom ca. 1933
Well, they married in July 1925 and moved into a small flat in central Berlin, Zorndorfer Strasse 76 to be exact. Here is a picture of their living room - if you can call it that. They had a kitchen, living room and a cupboard for a bedroom - accom wasn't that flash in them days if you had little to no money.
Mum found work at Siemens and Dad worked at Schwarzkopf (not the hair product guys) a heavy machinery builder, then known as Berliner Maschinenbau AG. Over the years he rose to the rank of department manager for the final assembly of rail cars.
Mum found life in Berlin with my Dad sometimes 'challenging'. Dad had a very strong family sense and insisted on either visiting siblings at weekends or have them visit.
The enthusiastic hiker and his 'drag along'
Dad also insisted on annual holidays, which consisted of a trip to the Saechsische Schweiz (Saxony Switzerland). It is about 200 km south-east of Berlin and has, at it's highest, a staggering elevation of 644 m above sea level. Of course mum was always tickled pink about going to the countryside and hiking in the 'mountains'! She could have stayed in Bavaria if that was what she wanted to do.
Dad was also very much engaged in politics, having joined the social democrats (SPD) at an early age. He would attend their weekly meetings,  go the pub on Fridays to debate issues and have like-minded comrades come to his place at the oddest hours.
Dad also insisted on a yearly vacation, taking the form of a rail trip to somewhere south of Berlin where there were some 'mountains' and spending a week in basic lodgings with daily hiking tours being the norm. Here is a picture of an 'over-excited Mum with my Dad on one of those trips in the Saechsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland) - fancy name for some moderate hills (max. 644 m) just under 200 km south-east of Berlin.
Must have been the mountain air, or the trolls, by the next year (1926) my  sister, teacher, tormentor was born. The world would never be the same again!

Monday, 6 August 2012

When Camping don't forget the Utensils

Here is another tale from those 'dreadful' days in East Germany. We have now moved to 1955, it is summer school holidays and the boys are getting somewhat 'bored'. So, two friends and I cook up this plan to go camping. I had the use of my uncle's paddle boat, a two-seater that was plenty big enough for us three boys.
Everybody had to contribute to the 'expedition' as best they could. I supplied the boat and a rather large sausage knob of dried pea soup - courtesy of my Aunt Maria in Bavaria. These things were about a foot long and 4 - 5 inches in diameter and totally unheard of in East Germany.
My friend Siegfried, a little bit older than the rest of us, contributed the tent, a loaf of gluggy rye bread and a small tub of margarine. Michael, who lived next door, arrived with an amazing amount of Bock Wurst (German sausages) - well, his father was the local butcher and knew how to circumvent the rationing system in place in those days.
Everyone brought their own pillow and blankets, a few clean undies and presto - we were set. We lugged our goodies to the boathouse, retrieved the boat from the storage rack and launched it. Stowed everything and climbed aboard. Siegfried, being the oldest and tallest, got the front position to provide paddling power. Michael, being the youngest, perched in the middle. Me, being the boat's 'owner' and captain occupied the rear seat and controlled the rudder via foot pedals.
We went upriver, crossed a couple of lakes and proceeded a bit further  It took us quite a few hours, adults would have done the trip in two or three hours. We came upon a 'wild' camping place where there were already two tents pitched. We pulled up at the bank and asked the people if it was OK for us to join them. 'Of course, no problem, make yourself at home'.
Well, our first problem was to erect the tent. We struggled for about half an hour, the two couples camped there watching us with amusement. Finally, the two guys came over and said: "Need a hand boys?" Did we ever! They had the tent up in about two seconds flat, which you would expect from experienced campers.
We had a lovely afternoon cajoling about, swimming and exploring. When it came close to supper time, our stomachs were grumbling, we decided to do something about the food situation.
The two wives came over to see if they could lend a hand. How fortuitous! They asked us what we had, we showed them and their eyes just popped out of their heads when they saw the truckload of sausages! And then, the big hammer - what are you going to do with them and what are you going to cook them in.
We looked at each startled, realising we didn't pack any cooking or eating utensils - NOTHING.
Yes, you can eat Bock wurst cold, as it is, since the butcher has already cooked it and it only needs re-heating. BUT dried pea soup - it's a bit tough!
"Such a deal we have for you boys", the two women said. "You give us all your food and we'll keep you fed -  breakfast, Mittagessen (lunch) and Abendbrot (supper), and we'll do the dishes too". Did we have any choice, did we want any choice - NO. And what a bonus - no dishes!
There being no gas cookers or spirit stoves in them days, everything was done on an open camp fire. We sat around the fire in the evening to enjoy our supper and talk with the grown ups about camping life. When it was time the women shooed us off to bed: "Time for sleepies", they declared.
Next morning they served up boiled eggs (goodness knows where they got them from), gluggy rye bread and jam - absolutely delicious and far better than what we got at home.
Unfortunately, the two nights  we were allowed to stay away went by in a flash. We all had a great time, I'm sure our 'hosts' never had such an ample supply of Bock Wurst - BUT they never short changed us. We were fed and watered, and well looked after, the entire time we were there.
Simple pleasures - ain't they great!

To close, here is a picture of the intrepid captain himself (again apologies for the picture qualities - it's either the photographer, the film, the camera or the conditions in them days).

PS: I was an 'experienced' river captain by then, having earned my 'stripes'  in earlier adventures that will be subject to another blog in the future.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

My Sister - my Teacher - my Tormentor

Our hamlet of Neue Muehle boasted a small primary school catering for years one to four. The school was housed in what used to be a rather large mansion formerly owned by a very wealthy family. The Russians, being communists, did not approve of such wealth. As the old joke goes: a communist is someone who owns nothing and wants to share it with everybody - a capitalist is someone who owns plenty and doesn't want to share it with anybody.
The Teacher & the Pupil - 1st Day
Anyways, my 6th birthday passed and on September 1st of that year, I started school. My sister Gisela, being a weeny bit older than me (17 years to be exact) was a teacher at that little primary school - and guess what? She became my class teacher. A rather splendid arrangement for both of us.
Here is a picture of my first school day (sorry about the quality - it was in East Germany after all). You got to pose with your teacher - my sister - and show off your 'School Cone', a large paper cone filled with goodies like lollies and cake, sorry no chocolate in them days.
Well, day one was pretty much taken up by posing for the picture and getting to know your teacher. A rather boring process for me. You had to wait your turn, in alphabetical order, amongst 25 other kids and getting to know the teacher was really somewhat wasted on me.
My sister always went to great pains to not show any favours to her brother! I was never asked to get the books out of the cupboard or write on that delightfully squeaky blackboard with the chalk that would forever crumble. Another bonus  was being scolded in front of the entire class for my 'atrocious' handwriting. I also had the privilege of being supervised at home, doing my homework by my sister! my teacher, my tormentor.
The classroom, teacher & Window for chatting
One particular episode that sticks in my mind was towards the end of year one. It was early June and rather pleasant weather.My homework had been, according to my teacher, exceptionally shoddy.
"Michael, you will have to stay behind after classes finish and write 100 times 'I shall never write illegibly again', she announced in front of the entire class.
Well, two can tango. She went home to have her lunch and I stayed back to complete my task. It took me all of 5 minutes to do so, being an expert at bad and speedy handwriting. I then hung out the window and chatted with the gardener, who seemed quite pleased for someone to be interested in his work for once. He was quite a chatty chappy about 100 years old, from my perspective.
Well, my teacher arrived back after an hour and a half to collect me. That's when the real revenge was taken  I kicked her in the shin and knee on the way home and said: "You just wait till Mum gets home, I will tell on you. You are so mean!"
Mum, as usual, was an expert mediator and negotiator and encouraged both camps to hoist the white flag and make peace.
Despite that rather heavy altercation my teacher saw fit to give me an excellent year report. I suspect it was mainly done due to her knowledge that she would not be my class teacher in Year 2.
Now, here is today's bonus: The short translation of the report card is that I am excellent, except in Phys Ed. If you need a complete translation, either contact me or go to

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Believe it or not - I was born

This is another tale from long ago. We are going back to the year 1943. WW II is raging, the world is in turmoil and my parents are living in Berlin. In fact right in the middle of Berlin. Allied (well mainly British ones) bombing raids are ever increasing, whole neighbourhoods are reduced to rubble during the nights. My dad was offered relative sanctuary in Neue Muehle, about 30 km south-east of Berlin, by a mad scientist friend of his (more about him in another blog). Being Berlin bred and raised my dad always politely refused.
Well, the day arrived! July 30 very late evening my mother (bless her soul) decided, or maybe me, it was time to see the light of day. Mum went into labour and dad took her to the nearest hospital, the Augustus Hospital in Berlin Mitte. Here is a picture of what it looks like today - it was much drabberer in those days!
Anyways, as was the custom in those days fathers had to depart after checking their wives into the Hospital and patiently await the good news. Alas, there was mum and I, not knowing what was going on being safely ensconced in her womb, awaiting the inevitable - whatever that might be.
Come 5:30 AM on July 31 the air raid sirens went off with a flourish. Everybody rushes around the hospital evacuating patients to the 'bomb proof' air raid shelter in the basement. So what does my good self decide to do? Come and have a peek-a-boo at what's going on! Story of my life, nosey from the word go!
Mum goes into labour, on the third floor mind you, and the good doctor, midwife and nurse have to stay there to supervise my arrival.
The future Tormentor
Not to be too dramatic about it, the raid apparently was a good one, with many apartment buildings nearby being absolutely flattened. My dad, being a rather dutiful husband and father, arrives on the scene at about seven in the morning before going to work building more railways carriages to transport 'essential' war supplies to the Eastern Front (more about that in another blog).
Having negotiated his way through all the rubble and destruction he takes one look at me 'a very fine boy indeed' and proclaims to my mother: "Woman, we are out of here!"
Naturally, she is panic struck, like: "What, right now?" He goes: " Of course not woman, once you are ready to move and travel".
So, a few days after my birth the family moved to Neue Muehle and in with the mad scientist - as it turned out a rather fateful move indeed (more about that in the next blog). Here is a picture of moi, three weeks old being adored by my sister Gisela - more about her in another blog.
But, at least I was born, survived the wroth of British bombers and ended up in what was to become East Germany.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Direct Marketing anno 1952

My mother, generally known as Omi in our family, always looked for innovative ways to make ends meet. We were living in what was then East Germany, just outside Berlin in a small village. Food and other necessities were relatively scarce and the money people earned wasn't worth a lot. BUT - in West Berlin everything was available, absolutely everything as far as we were concerned.
So Omi devised a scheme to make some real money - 1 West German Mark was worth about 6 East German Marks, something rather academic since there was little available in the East German shops. However, if you had the 'good' money you could shop in West Berlin.
Omi figured she could sell fresh country eggs to the 'rich' West Berliners. To this end she firstly construced a rather ingenious vest with lots of pockets in it, about 60 in all, one for each egg, to be worn under her overcoat. Omi being a rather short person would look like the fat lady in the opera when fully loaded and decked out.
She would get the eggs from people in our village on the barter system. So many eggs for a few grams of real coffee, for example. In season she'd also get tomatoes, pears, apples, cherries and other produce that was not too bulky and easily carried. Then, every second Saturday morning we (I was dragged along under protest) would embark on our selling mission. She would dress me in the shabbiest clothes we had - to reinforce the image of poor 'Easterners', which apparently helped in softening peoples heart to buy at least a few eggs. What a combination - me the 'pin-up'boy and her the tough sales lady!
First up a good three kilometre walk to the train station, a 45 minute ride on the suburban train, change of trains and another 20 minute ride to Charlottenburg - that's where the upper middle class people lived.
We would then enter a nice looking four storey apartment building, climb to the top floor and Omi would ring the dorbell. If it was answered she would politely ask if the lady of the house would like to buy some farm-fresh eggs - at the same time opening her coat and showing her wares.
Omi would always start at the top of the building, it was her firm belief that if you started at the bottom you would have bad luck all the way up. "Better to sell them all at the top then none at all", was her mantra.
Over time she acquired quite a good 'crop' of regulars that would actually put in orders for x number of eggs for the next delivery, which made it easier.
One particular Saturday she was extremely successfull, selling her chest-full of eggs in the first apartment building (usually we'd have to do four or five) and as a treat for my able assistance dragged me to a greengrocers. She bought me ONE banana! One banana - yuck, it was horrible!! It tasted terrible, especially since first up I eagerly bit into the ruddy thing - skin on. You don't peel apples or pears, do you? Being a good mother she peeled it for me, but guess what - it still tasted awful - I'd never encountered a taste like that! So much for a treat.