Sunday, January 17, 2016

Growing up in Bischoffingen, Germany.

This is my story of my early years. It starts from growing up in the rural village of Bischoffingen, on the picturesque Kaiserstuhl in South-western Germany, to going through the Second World War and then migrating to Australia. To read more about the Kaiserstuhl click here  and here

This story is a condensed account of growing up in Bischoffingen; it shows what it was like in those days and what kids did in their spare time, without having any of the mod cons the kids have today.  In writing this I had to consider the size of the document and dwelled only on some aspects of my growing up period. To enlarge pictures: Click on them.

This story of twenty odd pages encompasses my young life up to the end of the war. Some more of my activities as a youngster can be read in “Anecdotes from a German Childhood” and more of my life stories can be found on this website. - there click on the “Blog” tag and put my name into the search box. I will publish this version in sections over several weeks. I hope that you will find it interesting. - Werner
Werner’s Memoirs, condensed version.
There will always be a place in my heart as long as I live, for the rural village of Bischoffingen, nestled in the hills of the picturesque Kaiserstuhl in south western Germany, and surrounded by a panorama of vineyards as far as the eye could see.  It is the place where I spent the first 23 years of my life, went to school, experienced the horrors of the Second World War, where I met and married my wife Karola, and where our eldest daughter Sonja was born.  I was the eldest son of an old & well established fruit and wine growing family.  My brother Horst and sister Helga are still living in Germany.  Family picture: My parents, brother Horst, sister Helga and myself in the background – photo taken in 1944.

But first, a lesson in geography.
  Bischoffingen is on the western side of the Kaiserstuhl, about three Kilometres from the upper Rhine, which is also the French/German border. See picture above.  The Kaiserstuhl is a fertile hilly outcrop between the Black Forest to the east and the Vogue Mountains of France to the west. It has about 800 inhabitants, predominantly engaged in agriculture and viticulture.

When I left there, farmers were totally self-reliant.  They had their cows for milk, and made their own butter and cheese; they grew grain for flour and baked their own bread; and they killed their own pigs and calves for the year-round supply of meat and sausages.  Money was not plentiful, but we had everything we needed, and we learned not to waste anything – not even water.  Of course people had to manage with the limited resources available.  The needs were different then, from the needs of today.  For a start we didn’t have TV, washing machines, or fridges, to name a few, but life went on regardless, and when I look back, it was probably a case of: what you don’t know or have, you don’t miss.

Interestingly, I can vividly recall every moment in my life from when I was 4 and a half years old, but anything before that time is a total blank.  It was the time when my mother came home from hospital with my brother Horst, and I was taken to the hospital with appendicitis.

And, it was there where I started to have an insatiable craving for bananas, which stayed with me for 25 years, and this desire for this fruit was finally cured after working six months on a banana farm in Australia.  Read about it in Tintota blog.

Life in Bischoffingen evolved mainly within its boundaries.
  Travelling, as we know it today, was non-existent, and the means of travel were horse and buggy or wagon and by train.  Freiburg, the city where I was born, was visited when we needed something from a department store or had to go to the hospital.  Although Freiburg was only about 25 kilometres away by road, a train trip to there took the best part of two hours and involved one stop and a train change.  It was only when I was 18 years old and had a motorbike that I travelled for the first time beyond Freiburg.  In those days the doctor made house calls, with horse and buggy, but only if it was something mothers couldn’t treat with one of their many home remedies.  Interestingly there weren’t as many sick people as we have today.  That number only started to escalate after the war.

This could most likely be ascribed to the introduction of the motorcar, the tractor and using poison sprays to kill pests.  During the war all sorts of plant pests were airdropped into Germany by the allied countries to destroy our food crops.  Poison had to be used to combat those pests, which unfortunately not only killed natural enemies of those pests, but also, the poison got in our food chain.  The rest is history.  Ever since, poison had to be used, resulting in a tremendous increase in sick people.  One particularly bad pest comes to mind - the Colorado potato beetle, which suddenly surfaced in 1942 in our potato crops, and was never known before in Germany. This bug was somewhat the size of a pea, of yellowish colour and marked with black spots and with ten longitudinal stripes on its hard front wings.  The pretty and colourful appearance of this little blighter belied its capacity to destroy potato crops - indirectly.
The beetle itself didn’t do any damage and was merely a prolific and remarkable egg-laying machine, capable of laying thousands of eggs per day underneath the potato leaves. The millions of larvae hatching from the eggs after a very short gestation period caused the destructive damage.  With their ferocious appetite, they could denude and annihilate an entire potato crop within a couple of days.  There is no doubt that they are the beetle world’s counterparts of piranha fish.

 When this particular pest was first discovered, the schools set one day aside per week, and all the pupils had to walk through the potato paddocks with bottles to pick up the beetles - a bounty of ten cents was offered per beetle. At the start of this beetle picking campaign, I found only two beetles all day, and the others weren’t any more successful, so any thought of getting rich quick by picking Colorado beetles, quickly diminished.

However, all of a sudden, and within a very short time there were so many Colorado beetles around that at first the bounty was set back to one cent, and then abandoned altogether, as manual picking couldn’t cope with the sheer numbers anymore.  We suspected that they had been bred somewhere and airdropped.  We now had to fight them with chemicals, and I can still recall how awful the potato tasted, as the terrible smell of the chemicals went right into them.

Besides the doctor, the watchmaker also made house calls and used to come once a month to Bischoffingen and the other villages.  If one had problems with watches or clocks, he would collect them and take them to his shop and repair them, then bring them back.  However, he would also repair big clocks on the spot, if it were at all possible.  I recall vividly one particular house call; of course, I had to be present, just in case I could learn something or at least to see the “innards” of the clock. 

On this particular occasion I learned something of practical value.  The watchmaker undid a few screws and made a few adjustments, but then he had difficulties starting off a very short screw with his fingers, which had to go in a difficult place inside the clock movement.  After several failed attempts to start the screw, he took a matchstick and shaped it with his pocket knife to a flat screwdriver-end like shape and pushed it into the slot of the screw, and started the screw with ease. I have never forgotten this useful trick to this day, and applied it many, many times throughout my life.

I often think back with nostalgia to the colourful four seasons, the first blooms of the various fruit trees in spring; it was a sight to behold and life started to stir again after the long winter recess.  Trees and grapevines had to be pruned and it was time to plant seed to grow crops to feed us, as well as our animals.  Summer was the time when nature was wearing its best green dress. 

Then came autumn and everything was changing to brown and yellow, the days became shorter and the hard work during summer came to an end with the grape harvest.  Then came the long winter and a dress change to white and everybody took life easier and enjoyed the long nights, which were also an opportunity for the community to communicate and entertain each other. 

There was a brass band; a men's and ladies' choir who occasionally, during the long winter nights entertained the villagers in the big hall above one of the pubs, supplemented with plays performed by the locals.  Various festivals were held during the summer months.  In my teenage years I joined the men's choir, and we used to travel to other places in the immediate area to take part in singing competitions, and I have often told people in Australia the fib, that when the conductor found out that it was me who sang constantly out of tune, I was sent to Australia.

I have to admit I was a very inquisitive kid.   Some of this curiosity fell on the learning side and some on the  “sticky beak ” (nosy) side of human nature.  This inquisitive trait has stayed with me throughout my life; always eager to learn, to find out why and how.  Needless to say, this characteristic brought me trouble as a child, precisely because I was so determined about finding out why and how things worked. I was already wise enough to know how to avoid a negative answer: I just went ahead and did things without first asking whether I could. (See Tintota “Anecdotes of German Childhood.)

I attended the Kindergarten in Bischoffingen, along with all the local kids between the ages of four to seven.  This gave parents some respite from their kids, who, especially in the summertime, were busy on the farm.  I have pleasant memories from my time in the kindergarten, with one exception - and this left a bad taste in my mouth, both metaphorically and literally - cod-liver oil.  Once a month I was subjected to the dreadful procedure of being administered with a dose of this vile source of vitamin A and D for my own good?    “Open your mouth!”  I was requested - and a merciless Sister shoved in a spoonful of this horrible, smelly and supposedly good-for-you stuff, which stayed in my mouth only because of the sharp and watchful eye of the Sister.   I still cringe when I think of it.

I endured this infringement and abuse of "human rights" only once or twice, and then I decided to find out when this liquid goodness was prepared for dispensing, and swore never again to swallow one single drop of this repulsive oily medicine.   On the chosen morning, my mother bade me goodbye and kept me in her sight as I walked in the direction of the kindergarten, until I went around the corner of the first block. Children in those days were in no danger walking on the road - no motor vehicles, only horse and buggy transport.  Out of sight of my mother, I found somewhere to hide.  As soon as I could see the sister leaving the kindergarten carrying the “good oil”, I went in to join the other kids, armed with a totally credible excuse for my tardiness, which was proffered to the kindergarten supervisor.

I recall a particular sunny summer’s day.  It was a cod liver oil day.  My parents had gone for the day to make hay in a paddock about eight kilometres away from home.   Not being in the right frame of mind for “oil”, I set off walking to my parents.  After walking a short distance, a neighbour pulled up beside me with his horse and wagon and wanted to know where the heck I was going, then offered me a lift to our paddock.  My unexpected surprise visit left mum and dad speechless, but not for long.   However, my honesty in admitting the real reasons for giving the kindergarten a wide berth probably saved me from severe admonishment - and I got away with a ‘caution.’ 

I remember clearly my first day at school in 1937.  A young girl, (Alma Klaus) was sitting in the front bench with two other girls.  The teacher asked her what she thought about going to school.  She didn’t give an answer, but expressed her feelings in her own distinctive and expressive way.  She burst out crying, followed by a long stream of ‘water’ making its way towards the teacher - which should have indicated to him quite distinctly what Alma Klaus thought about school. 

Corporal punishment was part of the “curriculum” and the punishable body parts were the ears, posterior and hit with a stick on the open hand.  School hours were from 8 o’clock in the morning to 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Monday to Saturday, and after that rural youngsters were often required to help on the farm.  In summer the days were very long: from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.  Young people used the street or the market-place in the village as a meeting place, where they played all sorts of games, discussed the latest news about the war, and of course debated the favourite subject of boys - you guessed it - girls. 

Oh yes, I mustn’t forget.   My life in Bischoffingen was in a non-permissive society; we had all the urges and passions of the human race since the dawn of man, but those were sacrosanct and not for display. 

It was the time when my grandmother’s under¬garments were bloomers; my mother was already a bit more progressive in that department and her knickers had been shortened considerably to well above the knee.  How did I know? I spied. Even my father was very reluctant to remove his shirt in summertime and walk around 'topless'. I recall one hot August day just after the war when we were harvesting wheat and a neighbour's daughter then about 18, who was helping with harvesting in the nearby paddock, was wearing a full-length swimsuit.  Schmidlin Oma (God bless her soul) was so disgusted with this openly scandalous display of human flesh that she wanted her arrested for indecent exposure.  Yes, those were different times.  Sex was a taboo subject, never discussed openly.

Even explicit pictures of the male or female anatomy, then only found in the so-called “doctor” books, were hidden from the prying eyes of the children and we were warned that looking at such pictures would render us blind.  My parents possessed such a “doctor” book, and hid it deep inside the linen cupboard, buried under stacks of bed linen and blankets.  When my parents were in the vineyards or fields; my inquisitive nature sent me exploring and one day I discovered a wonderful book with its detailed, full colour pictures of every part of the human anatomy, male and female.  Despite the risk of blindness, I went back to the cupboard many times to peruse and 'study'.  My parents never knew that I secretly educated myself in their absence, and after every learning session I put the book back exactly as it was in its 'safe' hiding place. In due course, I started to give 'lectures' to my friends, sharing with them my newly acquired knowledge and soon they too wanted to know more about this interesting and fascinating subject and insisted that I lead them to the source of my knowledge.  Unlike school, learning suddenly wasn't drudgery anymore.  Why we asked ourselves, don't they teach subjects at school like the one found in the linen cupboard?

After the grape harvest in October, the first frosts usually started to greet us in the morning: winter was at our door.  A very quiet three to four months of very low farm activity stood before us: A time that everybody eagerly anticipated the whole year.   In normal times this used to be the period in which to relax and rejoice, but the war put a damper on things. During those long winter nights visiting friends or relatives was always on the agenda.  This was on a reciprocal basis and the time just slipped away with talking and playing board and card games. 

Already as a youngster, I had a love for making things from wood, and a fret saw tool kit was on my wish list.  I had to promise to be a good boy and behave myself and to do certain chores, and eventually I was rewarded, either for my birthday or Christmas, with a tool kit. It was my most treasured possession. I used to make all sorts of things, such as lampshades, wall hangers depicting animals etc, copied from a large selection of intricate patterns, which were often exchanged amongst us boys.  I often reminisce with nostalgia those times when people had more time to communicate with each other, and the love of talking to people is a trait I have retained to this day.

Christmas had a completely different meaning then. It wasn’t commercialised as it is today, but it was however, then as today, a gift- giving time.  We didn’t have Santa Claus though; we had the “Christkind” as the “gift deliverer”.  The Christkind was an imaginary girl angel. (A kind of a cherub.)  And the Christkind, was used by the parents as a kind of blackmailing tool: “If you are a good boy or girl, help with chores, behave, do your homework etc, Christkind will bring you a present!”  This would have been the most common utterance heard in every household. 

The Christmas gifts were opened on Christmas Eve, and it was the night when we were allowed to stay up longer to enjoy the gifts.  If you read about some of my ‘adventures’ or “Anecdotes from a German Childhood,” you might wonder perhaps, why I ever got any Christmas presents. 
Another pastime in the long cold winter nights was making warm and comfortable
house shoes. I became the 'in-house' shoemaker, a skill I learnt from my grandfather. See picture.

When we removed the protective sheaths from the dry corncobs,  we saved a certain quantity and plaited them into long length of rope, approximately fifteen mm in diameter. I spent hours and hours doing this, then when I had a good supply, one of the many sizes of wood in the exact form of a foot was selected.  A sock was put on this and the start of the plait was attached to the sole of the wooden foot with two nails. With a special long needle and special string the plait was sewn around and around, with the string going through the sock, and finishing off with the tongue of the shoe.  Then the process was repeated for the second shoe.  A piece of used bicycle tyre was sewn on to become the rubber sole, and the finished shoes (ideal for any gift occasion) kept the feet warm and were always appreciated.

One of my favourite spare-time occupations was, and still is, reading, but way back then it was mostly adventure novels about the German colonies in Africa, or other exotic far-away places.  As I formed pictures in my mind of what I was reading, further mental pictures were produced, conjuring up all sorts of hypothetical situations, followed by an inevitable yearning to go to those far-away places one day.  Australia never came into consideration as I had only come across it in geography lessons.  Apart from observing that it was a far, far away island continent, I knew nothing else about it, and what's more, it looked desolate and unattractive.

For young people Sunday afternoon was a time when we boys might decide on the spur of the moment to do something to kill time. We might decide to go on an excursion around the countryside, go to the forest and play "cops and robbers" etc.  Sport as we know it today was unheard of. Soccer was the main sport practiced then, and that only in big towns and larger rural communities.   But, I cannot think of any time of ever being bored - I was always occupied with something or other. One day we discovered a couple of trees on the edge of a steep slope with vines dangling from them.  At first it was a challenge to test everyone’s courage to imitate Tarzan and swing out over the precipice. (Read story,”I wasn’t intimidated by bigger boys.”  In Tintota.
I Hope that you enjoy reading this. Life is certainly a steep learning curve, it certainly was for me. I'll publish the next section in about a week or so. Enjoy Life, Werner


Sonja said...

What a fascinating glimpse into history - and my own family background. Thank you, Dad, for publishing this.

Beth said...

What a fascinating story, Werner, and superbly told. I just couldn’t stop reading. I will make sure that my children read this, because today’s children are spoiled and wouldn’t be able to live without mod cons or their electronic devices. I look forward to you next chapter.

Dymity said...

Werner, I really enjoyed reading the first "episode" of Growing up in Bischoffingen. I found it very interesting and also amusing! Looking forward to your next episode.

Helen and Andrew said...

Werner, we agree with the sentiments of the other comments, it is an interesting read. We have seen your name and letters in the Cairns Post for many years. To learn now about your background gives your name a whole new meaning. We certainly enjoyed reading your early life story and found it very fascinating - we look forward to reading the whole story.

Bev. said...

Thanks Werner. I am usually not up this late, but thought I would just check a few emails and read yours.It was an enjoyable read, probably pretty similar to mine in many ways.I was born in 1940 at Cobar, 2 months after they bombed Britain, but the war never affected us much, because mum grew all our food and my dad had a job in the copper mine. An interesting read.

Pam said...

Charming - inspiring Werner. Thanks so much for sharing.

mario calanna said...

Werner I have admired your tenacity, your intellect, your willingness to debate and learn from more than aspect of a topic or issue. The most important value is that you have found your passion and purpose in life. You have continued on your journey through writing, listening, challenging and acting on it - day after day. Year after year.
Passion + Purpose + Perseverance = Legacy and a Life of Significance.

Half way through your story. You write so well.....Kind Regards..Mario

Barbara said...

Werner, what a wonderful tribute to you from this gentleman, Mario Calanna. I couldn't top those words of praise! I also enjoy reading your blog - Your topics are always so well researched. I also love the adventures you've posted on your life in Bischoffingen, Germany, followed by your life here in Australia with your wife Karola and your family. Well done and keep doing what you so obviously enjoy doing. Cheers, Barbara