Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Sisters (Part I)

Villingen, Black Forest, early 1960s (Image:
The girl’s parents had decided on a holiday without the children as her mother had only recently recovered from a serious illness and needed some more time to recover. So for six weeks, the entire length of the summer school holidays, the girl and her brother had been booked into a children’s holiday home in the Black Forest.
What excitement! To spend six weeks with other children, go on walks and excursions, play in the forest, go swimming in the open-air pool in the nearby village, what could be more thrilling for an 8 year-old girl and a six year-old boy?
Their parents took them to the station where a group of children and their parents had already gathered. The girl and her mother were choked up when they said their good-byes and then the Protestant sisters, dressed in their severe looking grey and white habits, took the children to the train bound for Villingen in the Black Forest.
Kindererholungsheim Haus Tannenhöhe, early 1960s
The impressive old building was surrounded by tall pine trees and conifers. The girl was looking for her brother but didn’t even see where he had been taken, as she was whisked off with some other girls her age to a six-bed dormitory in the vast expanse of the building.
After the girls had unpacked their things, they were taken to the dining hall at the other end of the building. Long tables were set for dozens of children in the austere looking hall. The matron welcomed the children and told about the rules and regulations – which were strict. Naughtiness, backchat and bad behaviour would not be tolerated and the children were expected to eat what was put in front of them.
The girl’s stomach was rumbling, but before dinner was serviced, they had to say prayers. Not closing her eyes, the girl looked around the hall. What a strange place this was: The windows were high up on the wall, so you couldn’t look outside. The hall itself was L-shaped and in the middle, there was a sunken area, tiled in black and white, with several steps leading down. This part of the hall had an eerie look that reminded her of a small old indoor swimming pool. In the middle, she saw a solitary wooden table and chair and was wondering who would be sitting there.
The girl didn’t have to wait for long to find out.  She had nearly finished her dinner when she heard a commotion. Two sisters dragged a little boy from the table at the far end of the hall into the sunken area and made him sit at the table. Then one of the dinner ladies arrived putting a plate of food in front of the frightened boy.
“This is what happens to children who don’t eat up”, one of the sisters said. “The good Lord provides our food and it’s a sin not to eat what’s being put in front of you!”
“Eat up!” she said to the little boy. “You will stay here on your own until your plate is empty.”
Everybody looked at the boy who had started sobbing, but nobody dared to speak up. Then the children were marched out of the dining hall in their own little groups and left the little boy behind.
Before bedtime, the sisters did the rounds of the bedrooms and pray with the children before switching off the light.
The next morning, before breakfast, the children were told to make their beds and tidy up their belongings. The girl had always slept with a comfortable quilt at home and wasn’t used to sleeping in sheets and rough spun woollen blankets. As she was struggling to pull the bedding into place, she suddenly felt an awful pain as one of the sisters jerked her upright pinching her ear.
“What do you call this?” the sister said to the girl. “You’re nearly 9 years old, didn’t your mother teach you anything? And what about your things? Tidy them up immediately!”
The girl’s ear felt hot and sore and she could feel tears welling up in her eyes, but the sister didn’t allow her to explain herself.
Dark German Rye Bread (Image:
After morning prayers, breakfast was a welcome diversion and the children were encouraged to eat as much as they could possibly manage, of dark brown rye bread, butter and chocolate spread or jam.
Then, finally, the sisters took the children out walking – divided into groups and accompanied by two sisters per group. The sun was out, the air smelled of pine trees and wood sap, and the girl was looking forward to her holiday in the Black Forest.
This post has also been published on Wordpress

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Leather Shorts

Osterhase - Easter Bunny (Image:
The girl had a new teacher for her second year in primary school, Fräulein Alscher, a bespectacled teacher in her thirties who radiated authority. As the "Fräulein" (Miss) indicated, the teacher was a spinster. She lived with her elderly mother and dedicated most of her time to the schooling of six to 10-year-old children. Fräulein Alscher would remain the girl's teacher for the following three years in primary school.
Although the new teacher was strict, the girl liked her well enough but was always careful not to be caught doing something she wasn't supposed to do. She paid attention in school and did her homework, but she also had an active imagination and would doodle or draw in her copybook during lessons. Not in one of the good ones though, those that she used for her homework and that the teacher might collect for corrections. Rather, she doodled in one of her everyday copybooks.
It was towards the end of her second year in primary school and the girl was bored. She had finished her exercises and was doodling yet again. This time, she drew a picture of her school's headmaster, the Rektor as he was called. The Rektor’s actual name was Herr Haase and if you removed one letter from his name, the spelling was the equivalent to the German word for hare or bunny. So the girl drew a picture of Herr Haase with long floppy ears, spectacles and a tie and labelled it accordingly, suggesting that Herr Haase looked like the Easter Bunny (Osterhase). She then carefully tore the page from her copybook, folded up the piece of paper and handed it to the girl sitting next to her.

The piece of paper was passed around the class, from pupil to pupil, when suddenly one of the kids snickered. Fräulein Alscher, never one to miss anything going on in class, asked the boy what was so funny. She didn't receive a reply. Going over to the boy's desk, she discovered that he was holding a scrunched up piece of paper and asked for it to be handed over. After looking at the picture, she asked the class who was responsible for it. The girl - eventually - had no option but to own up.
The teacher became very angry but, luckily, the girl only got some extra homework and had to write lines about behaving in class. However a few months later, when she was caught again for a minor offence, Fräulein Alscher gave her a massive slap in the face that stung for ages and the girl vowed never to be caught again.

German children early 1960s
German children early 1960s. The boys
 is wearing lederhosen, the girl a dirndl.
The Truant

Uwe was one of the boys in her class. There were over 30 children in her class and the girl didn't know him very well as he played with some of the boys in the school yard. He didn't do very well in school either.He was behind in his reading and writing and sometimes didn't do his homework. That would result in Uwe having to stay behind when the other kids went home at lunchtime.
From what the girl had picked up in class, it appeared that Uwe's father had died some time ago and that Uwe's mother was working in a factory. In the early 1960s, working mothers were few and far between and this, if nothing else, made Uwe stand out from the other kids.
During their third year in primary school, Uwe was missing from class, but as he didn't have many friends in school, nobody was particularly concerned about his whereabouts. Two days later, Uwe turned up in class again. When the teacher asked him where he had been, he said that he had to look after his mother who had been taken ill.
The following day, however, the teacher found out that Uwe had been lying and had played truant. Fräulein Alscher told the class to be quiet and left the classroom for a few minutes. When she came back, she was accompanied by Frau Seifert, a mature teacher in her fifties. They asked Uwe to come in front of the class.
Fräulein Alscher told the class that Uwe had been lying and had skipped lessons deliberately and that, therefore, he needed to be punished.
Every classroom had a bamboo cane that was used for pointing at words or numbers on the blackboard. Frau Seifert grabbed the cane while Fräulein Alscher was holding on to Uwe, who was screaming and struggling  to get away. Frau Seifert then pulled Uwe's lederhosen (leather shorts) half way up his right buttock and brought the cane down. An angry red welt immediately started developing and Uwe began howling. The cane came down once more, then again and again…
When Frau Seifert had finished, she said to Fräulein Alscher:"This is so bad for my heart - it always takes so much out of me!"
The other children had watched in silence. The girl nearly felt sick and her heart when out to Uwe who had been so badly beaten. She was reflecting on Frau Seifert's words too. What did the teacher mean? Was she only concerned for her own health, or did she feel sorry for the boy? And if she did, why did she still hit Uwe?
Although the girl didn't particularly like Uwe, she realised that something was really wrong here. Everybody knew that Uwe's father had died and that Uwe's mother was working all day. Uwe had told some of the kids that he had to do chores around the home and prepare the dinner when he returned from school. He couldn't go out and play. Uwe and his mother lived in a poor part of town and Uwe never had any pocket-money for sweets or treats. Why didn't the school realise that things were difficult for Uwe and try to help him?
When the class started their fourth year in primary school, Uwe was missing. He had been sent to Special School, the school for mentally disabled children, children with learning difficulties and troublesome children.
German children didn't - and don't - wear school uniforms, so in the early 1960s, boys were wearing lederhosen (leather shorts) or other types of shorts in the summer months and girls usually wore skirts or dresses.

(This article is also published on my Wordpress blog

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Gift

Slate tablet as used in a German primary school in the early 1960s.
School was great! The girl wanted to learn, especially reading and writing. Her grandfather owned a bookshop in town with countless shiny new books on sale for adults and children. Her mother always read to her and her brother at bedtime and they had several fairy tales vinyl records at home that she loved. Some of them, she could nearly cite verbatim, but what she really wanted to do was read her own books.
They didn't own a television as her parents were of the opinion that TV for children was not a good idea. So when she wasn't running around in the park with her brother and friends, she sat at home playing with her toys or drawing. She had outgrown her colouring books and painted whatever came into her head. On rainy days, she would present her mother with several pictures a day and frequently ran out of suitable paper to draw on. Her mother, who was very resourceful, had started collecting the thin white cardboard used in the packaging of her stockings and handed them out, one at a time, when the girl had used up another one of her sketch pads.
Learning to write - the way it should look!
It was the last school day before the Easter holidays and the girl had not only finished her first year in primary school but she had also received her first ever school report. She had done well with her reading and spelling but her adding and subtracting wasn't as good as it could have been and neither was her handwriting. She tried, she really did, as she loved writing, but the letters she wrote on her slate tablet just wouldn't come out as nice as the ones the teacher had written on the blackboard, despite the special lines showing her where the letters were supposed to go.
That day, her mother picked her up from school and the girl proudly showed her the school report, handwritten by the teacher in a special copybook designed for school reports only. She was looking forward to showing it to her father too, a teacher who placed great emphasis on academic achievements.
On their way home, the girl skipped along singing to herself, her blond pigtails bobbing up and down with her every move. She was looking forward to the school holidays and Easter, hoping for some nice presents, as well as an Easter egg hunt.
When they got home, her mother smiled at the girl and said:
You've done really well at school and I'd like to get you something nice. What would you like?
The girl looked up at her mother and replied without hesitation:
"I'd like to have my hair cut, I want to have short hair!"
Her mother was shocked as she loved the girl's straight blond hair that she had always looked after, brushed and combed, plaited or tied up in a pony tail or bun. The girl, however, hated having her hair done and disliked the combing and pulling. She wanted to have short hair that didn't need to be plaited and fussed with.
Her mother tried to dissuade her from taking such drastic action, but the girl was adamant.
They went to her mother's hairdresser the following morning and the girl had her hair cut short. While she admired her new look in the mirror, her mother walked over to the hairdresser and asked to keep the girl's two blond plaits as a keepsake.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Cemetery

Hagen/Westfalen 1960 (Image: Hans Wehner)
They put on their coats and left the house. It was a cold winter morning, just above freezing, but there was no frost or snow on the pavement. The family walked through the quiet Sunday morning streets of the city: The girl, her mother, her father and her little brother. The mood was sombre, but she wasn't surprised by this as she knew where they were going, as they had done many times before.
They arrived at the wrought iron gates of the municipal cemetery and walked past many graves with old and new gravestones. The girl looked at the writing on the headstones, but she had only just started reading and writing in school and couldn't decipher most of what was written. She also noticed some graves that were covered in lots of flowers and wreaths.
"They are the new graves", her mother told her. "Someone died and was buried here yesterday or the day before."
Soon after, they arrived at their destination, a small grave among other small graves. As always, her mother and father went very quiet and tears started rolling down her mother's face. She took the girl's hand and squeezed it before asking her and her brother to fold their hands and pray for their older brother whose grave they had come to visit.
Her mother had told the girl that her older brother had died when he was only a few weeks old. Choked up by tears, she had once shown her some pictures of her baby brother in his crib. The girl always felt very sad when they came to the cemetery as she pictured her little brother lying motionless in his grave.
Then the girl's mother removed some weeds from the grave and fetched some water from the freestanding tap with one of the old zinc watering cans belonging to the cemetery. After watering the flowers on her sibling's grave, they quietly said some more prayers before returning home.
The blank Canvas
The girl enjoyed school. She was about to turn seven and was in her first year in primary school. As opposed to her kindergarten, the school she attended was non-denominational which meant that the school was attended by Protestant as well as Catholic children in the early 1960s.
Her teacher, Fräulein Thiemann, was a Catholic and would occasionally talk about religious matters in class. One morning, she told the children that she wanted them to paint a picture. The girl got excited, drawing and painting were some of her favourite activities and she spent many a rainy afternoon painting pictures for her mother with watercolours, crayons and coloured pencils.
The teacher then turned to the class and asked them to do a drawing of a cemetery. The girl stiffened - a cemetery? But why paint a picture of a cemetery? She sat and stared at her drawing pad without putting pen to paper. The girl knew that she was supposed to follow her teacher's instructions, but she just couldn't bring herself to draw a picture of a graveyard.
Fräulein Thiemann did the rounds and looked at the children's progress. When she stopped at the girl's desk and saw the empty canvas, the asked:
"And why aren't you drawing a picture of a cemetery?"The girl blushed as the whole class looked up from their drawings and stared at her."I don't want to paint a picture of a cemetery"."And why not?" her teacher asked her."Because it makes me sad", the girl said and refused to do as she was told.
The next day, the girl's parents received a letter asking them to come to the school and speak to the teacher. When they did, Fräulein Thiemann told her parents what had happened and inquired if they were atheists. Her parents explained about the regular family visits to the cemetery and the matter wasn't mentioned again.
But her teacher treated the girl differently from that day onwards - realising perhaps that she was dealing with a child who had a - possibly rebellious - mind of her own.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Punishment

She attended a Protestant Lutheran kindergarten, but the girl didn't know that, nor did she concern herself much with religion. Her mother reminded her to pray every evening, but they usually only went to church at Christmas.

The nursery teachers were called "aunt" or "Tante" in German, as was the custom. They played with the children, read to them and taught them how to make things out of coloured paper, cardboard or natural materials, but the kids weren't taught how to read or write until they started primary school.

The girl enjoyed going to kindergarten and looked forward to it every weekday morning. This morning, she carried her small leather satchel containing a sandwich and an apple and a heavy bag with horse chestnuts and acorns, collected the previous afternoon. Today they would be crafting items from conkers and acorns. After morning prayers, the children sat down and received their crafting materials, such as matchsticks, glue and crafting tools. The nursery teacher showed them how to make little stick men and animals out of the chestnuts, acorns and matches and even how to carve tiny baskets out of the conkers. Great care was taken with the knives as their little hands weren't quite accustomed to dealing with sharp implements.

The Plaster

She had finished constructing a man with a big fat chestnut tummy who was able to stand on his feet made from acorn halves, and a dog standing on four matchstick legs. The children had been told to be quiet and listen to Tante Hanna's instructions. Some kids had barely started crafting their chestnut figures while the girl got bored waiting for them to finish. So she started chatting to one of her friends. The teacher called her name and reminded her to be quiet and pay attention. Having nothing to pay attention to, she soon started whispering again to the girl sitting next to her, when, out of the blue, Tante Hanna appeared behind her and roughly grabbed her by the arm.

"I told you to be quiet and pay attention", she said. "Now you will have to stand in the corner with a plaster covering your mouth!"

The girl started protesting and tears were beginning to roll down her cheeks. She promised to be good, but her pleading was ignored. The nursery teacher fetched a roll of black plaster and stuck a large piece over the girl's mouth. Then she took her by the arm and led her to a corner of the room.

"Stay there and face the corner", she told the the girl, "and don't turn around!"

She then said to the other children: "Let this be a lesson to you all. If you are naughty, you will end up standing in the corner with a black plaster over your mouth for everyone to see!"

The girl started gagging and felt nauseated by the smell of the sticky plaster. To be singled out like this and made to face the wall with a her mouth being covered, the shame was nearly unbearable. She felt angry and helpless, but there was nothing she could do about the situation. And she wouldn't tell her parents as they would probably agree with Tante Hanna's actions and tell her off as well.

The year was 1960 - nursery and school teachers were permitted to use the cane and other forms of physical punishment, and corporal punishment wouldn't be abolished for several years to come.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A Tomboy in the Making


She was looking forward to the party. Yes, a real party with drinks, cakes and games. She took her duffle bag, grabbed Petzi and off she went.

Petzi was her teddy bear and the party venue was a doll and teddy bear party at her local kindergarten. She was five years old.

Some of the other kids had already arrived and had lined up to enter the party room. The tables and chairs had been decorated with colourful tissue and crepe paper, and plates and cups were laid out for all the children. Each child sat down with their favourite doll or teddy waiting for a piece of cake and some apple juice to be dispensed.

When it was her turn, the nursery teachers said to her:

"And why did you bring a teddy and not your doll? All the other girls have brought their dollies and only the boys have brought teddies."

The girl was surprised by this question, patted Petzi on the head and said: "Because he's my favourite!"

And so it began. She knew then that she didn't meet some people's expectations, was different from other girls and didn't fit the mould.

Afternoon coffee and cake

In 1960, petticoats were all the rage and her mother dressed her in a white dress with red roses on special occasions, such as on this Sunday when the family went to visit a retired teacher for afternoon tea, or rather, coffee and cake as was the German custom.

The girl was wearing her special dress with a petticoat … and it was itching. She told her mother about this and wanted to change into one of her ordinary skirts, but it was a Sunday and they were visiting, so the petticoat and dress were the order of the day.

The retired school teacher, a spinster, lived in an immaculately clean house filled with dark, polished oak furniture. When the lady opened the door, the girl's mother handed her a bunch of flowers, carefully selected from a florist shop, and introductions were made. In the dining room, a table with a starched white linen table cloth was set for coffee and cake and the girl and her young brother were poured real hot chocolate from a shiny coffee pot. They were given a piece of gateau with whipped cream and tucked in while the adults made polite conversation.

Soon the girl got bored and started pulling faces at her little brother. She wanted to get up and play, explore the garden or climb a tree, but she had been told to sit still and behave. Sitting still isn't an easy thing to do when you're bored and your petticoat is itching, so her long legs were dangling from the chair and she was fidgeting while half-listening to the adults' conversation at the coffee table.

She must have been day dreaming when she accidentally knocked over her cup of hot chocolate. The thick brown liquid started seeping into the starched white tablecloth and the polished oak dining table. Her mother gasped and apologised profusely to the old lady, trying to help clean up the mess while the girl was shouted at by her father for misbehaving. She was sent out into the garden and told to mind her little brother. Some relief at last! But wearing her best dress, she didn't dare to get dirty as she was in trouble already and didn't want to incur her parents' wrath.

They were never invited back to the teacher's house and the girl was blamed for it.