Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Growing up in Bischoffingen, Germany. Part 2.

My habit of doing things, without first asking if I could, brought me into trouble more times than I would like to remember. Owning a pocket knife was the ‘in’ thing for boys, so one day when I had sharpened mine, I decided to test its efficiency on a nearby tree that belonged to an old lady.   We had our own trees, but my better judgement told me that was not advisable. I cut neat long strips of bark off the lady’s tree. Then with the task completed, and convinced that the knife was sharp, I went home, convinced that nobody had seen me. 

A few days later to my surprise and dismay, my teacher knew about it. I was pulled in front of the class and asked if I was the culprit. There was no use denying it as two boys testified against me. After a good verbal chastisement, I received the verdict and sentence.I was: 1) ordered to go and put wax on the tree and bandage it up.  2) Told to go and see the old lady and tell her that I was very sorry for mutilating her tree. 3) If this were not done within six days, the teacher would report my ‘crime’ to my parents.  With one fell swoop, I was placed between a rock and a cement wall.  I agonized over, which was the better option, one, two or three, and I decided on option number two.  To make a long story short, it took several failed attempts before I had the courage to knock on the lady’s door.  As soon as I lifted my hand for the first knock I lost my nerve and went away for another “think”, but eventually I did it.  The lady did not reprimand me and was friendly, and I felt a big weight lift from my shoulders.
However, this episode taught me a valuable Lesson for Life. 
From that day on, every time I wanted to do or say something, I would first consider whether it would require an apology from me later.  Unfortunately, the teacher who taught me this valuable lesson was later killed on the Russian front, but I will certainly never forget him. It is a great pity that teachers today cannot exert such valuable influence on young people.
Most of my formative years were spent under a totalitarian form of government, the Nazis, but we kids were oblivious to politics.  However, there is no doubt that the Nazis were good forward planners and thinkers.  One of their first actions after gaining power was to set in motion the establishment of youth organizations, the “Jungvolk” (young folk) and the “Hitler Youth.”  The former was for the age groups from eight to fourteen, the latter from fourteen to eighteen.  The sexes were segregated  - in all there were four different groups. There was a national leader and regional leaders, down to the local level of group leaders.  To the outside world, it probably appeared to be nothing more than a boy-scouts or girl-scouts movement - which it was to some extent - but here the similarity ended.   The main objective was to define and to instill the Nazi doctrine into young people’s minds.   Young people loved to join this movement - there was no coercion to join, nor was it compulsory.  Non-involvement was an option not even to be considered - after all, what kid would want to be an outsider and miss out on the fun?   This was a new activity for them. The indoctrination of Nazi values and dogmas was done in a subtle way, and besides, the youngsters also had fun playing games. 

Bischoffingen  was a protestant community.  We had only two officially recognised religions in Germany, Roman Catholic and Protestant; the latter was called the “Evangelical Church”.  To be a priest or minister of religion, one had to have studied theology at the university and after they graduated they became public servants and were paid a salary by the Government. Of course, being a member of one of those two religions, meant one had to pay church tax, which was used to maintain churches and pay the salary to priests and ministers.  One could easily avoid those taxes, by leaving the church, but that was not done lightly if at all, as it put sort of a stigma on people, which they tried to avoid at all cost.  During the Nazi period, practising religion was not encouraged, but it was allowed with a kind of grudging tolerance.

Sunday was always a special day in our lives: a day of worship, rest and recreation, and there was always that special hot Sunday dinner at midday.  The real Sunday for us began at 10 a.m. when most people went to church. Whether or not you were religious was of no importance. It was just the custom and the right thing to do - a formality most villagers adhered to. 

Our church tower housed five bells, the biggest one weighing over half a ton.
The bells started to ring 15 minutes before the church service commenced and stopped when the priest, after making his entrance through the back door, walked along the aisles and arrived at the altar in the front section of the church. The bells, high up in the belfry, were affixed to a long rope and were activated by five bell ringers known as the ‘bellboys’.  The sixth boy gave the signal when to start and stop.   The big bell required two boys to start the swing, one to maintain it, and three to stop it by hanging on to the rope and having fun by going up and down two meters a few times like budding Tarzans. When a boy reached his last class at school, he was automatically entered on the ‘string puller ‘roster and with this task came a certain prestige and importance.

One single bell tolled during church service, while the pastor was reciting the Lord's prayer. The bells always tolled on special occasions such as funerals, weddings, etc., and during the war, every time word was received that a villager had been killed in action.  How appropriate was Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

When not on the bell ringing roster, there was another job we were rostered to in the church.  The church boasted a huge electric pipe organ, and as a backup for electricity failures, bellows in the attic had to be pumped.  Consequently, when I was on standby roster, I had to make sure I was at the church gallery sitting next to the loft door. It was quite possible to be a bell ringer one week and a bellows pumper the next.  It was a sad day in 1943 when the government requisitioned our church bells because the metal was required for the war effort, and possibly became part of a lethal weapon.

Postscript. Twenty-three young men didn’t return to Bischoffingen at the war’s end. This left a big hole in the small village of Bischoffingen.  They sacrificed their lives and it begged the question – for what?

I was nine and a half years old when World War Two started.  The special proclamation was broadcast on the school radio. The announcement caused jubilation amongst the kids, a fact which we demonstrated in the street on the way home from school by yelling, “War, war”, and jumping up and down for joy - not realizing the seriousness of the situation or anticipating what was in store for us.

Raw-material-starved Germany was starting to feel the pinch, and true to the proverb, "Necessity is the mother of all inventions", the Government had to think of ways and means to help remedy those deficiencies. They had to produce petrol from shale, an expensive and difficult process, but it is amazing what governments can do in war. Nobody escaped being involved in some way or other in the war effort, which brings me to my next subject - silkworms.

Schools also became involved in the war effort, particularly those in rural areas.
The government asked them to put silkworm farming on their curriculum during summer. The food source of the silkworm is, of course, leaves from the mulberry bush and these were plentiful around the village as every backyard had one or two. The Government supplied additional plants to be planted in school and churchyards and wherever else there was a spare spot. The bushes produced a profusion of leaves whilst the silkworms were prolific eaters.

The silkworms were housed in boxes and were eating continually. Collecting leaves and feeding them gave us kids a welcome break from the tedious learning regimentation at school.  However, this project, besides being fun, also proved to be an edifying experience.
Read more about silkworms.  Click here and also here.
For example, we learned that the silkworm, in addition to eating mulberry leaves, also likes lettuce, but that silkworms fed on mulberry leaves produce the finest silk.
  It was interesting to observe how the cocoons grew bigger and bigger. Silkworms spin their cocoons from a single thread which, unwound, can measure about 800 metres.  An interesting little critter indeed, green material fed into the front and white material churned out of the back.  We had a few walnut trees,  and we also cultivated a yearly crop of poppies, solely for home consumption.  After the walnuts and poppy pods were harvested they were stored, and then on the long winter nights the whole family, and often neighbours or relatives, would come and all sit in a room and crack the nuts or open the seedpods of the poppy.  It was an excellent occasion to tell yarns.  Poppies, besides producing delicate, attractive flowers, also provided us with cooking oil, while the tiny round seeds were used to adorn our bread and cakes.  One acre produced enough seeds for our yearly oil and seed requirements. 

There are about 200 species of poppy around the world, their flowers ranging in colour from pure white to a bright scarlet. The species we cultivated had white flowers with small purple flecks, and a field of poppy in full bloom was a sight to behold. With the dominance of white it had the appearance of a snowfield in summer.

We harvested the pods when they started to change colour from green to brown and when you could hear the seeds rattle when they were waggled.  When the pods were cut off the plant, the short stem that remained resembled a baby’s rattle.  The pods were stored in the barn or attic until they had totally dried out, and were cut open on winter nights to retrieve the seed. The plant contains many alkaloids, including morphine and codeine, especially the milky sap of green plants - though we never produced them for that purpose.  During the war the Government required us to save the dry empty seedpods, for the extraction of the alkaloids.

The first of May always had a special significance in our village, and for that matter anywhere in Germany. 
  It depicted the beginning of summer and very often the cherry and peach trees were in bloom and people came from everywhere to enjoy this blossom extravaganza. On the night before the festival young people used to cut a birch tree and place it in a purpose-built hole at the village square. Then everybody worked feverishly until the early hours to have it adorned with all sorts of colourful decorations, so that it was ready for morning of the 1st of May.  Our May Day had no “Labor “significance in our village.  In the afternoon the whole village population was present, either to take an active part, or just to enjoy the carnival atmosphere and listen to the village brass band.

One of the most important features of the festivities was the tree-climbing contest that allowed young men to show off their vigour and climbing skill.  The tree branches had small keepsakes attached to them, and young people were challenged to get one of them down, for their girl, their mother or whoever.  However, in order to make the climb especially difficult and challenging, the tree trunk was de-barked so that it was smooth.  Every village or town in Germany had its central Village Square or market Square, which was perhaps the forerunner of today’s mall. It was used for entertainment, meetings, play, and markets. 

The river Rhine was and still is, an important waterway, and is the border between France and Germany. Both sides were heavily fortified with bunkers, with their gun openings pointing ominously towards each other.  The French were the first to build bunkers; the Germans then built them opposite and in the most strategic position.

In those days we had no washing machines and in summer on a nice day the whole village went to the river for a kind of working picnic. The women folk did all their washing, and everyone had a good time, swimming in the Rhine and eating and playing games. We kids always looked forward with eager anticipation to these one-day picnics, which happened at least three to four times in summer. The kids often taunted the French border guards with their coloured stripes on either side of their trousers, by hurling sarcastic remarks over the water. It just shows that the kids then were no different from today - taunting is still a popular pastime.
When Germany built the bunkers it provided work for a lot of people in the area: they worked 7 days, and in shifts around the clock. 
The government seemed to be in a hurry to finish these modern concrete fortresses. The fortified German border was known as the West Wall  (the word Wall, in German, means bulwark.)  My father was engaged with horse and wagon on a shift-work basis, and for light during the night; carbide lamps with their characteristic set up were used. The lamps had two compartments, one for water, and the other for carbide. The water made the volatile carbide sizzle and produced gas for the light. 

We kids had great fun with carbide. We filled tins and sealed them with the lid, punched two little holes in it, one to let water in and one for a ‘fuse’, (which could be a rag or paper.) Then we lit it, to make it explode.  However, some time later I got hold of a recipe on how to make another medium for our explosive devices - a kind of gunpowder. It consisted of charcoal powder, sulphur and saltpetre (nitrite), which had to be mixed in the right proportions to make it work.   A lot of experimenting went into obtaining the right formula. Charcoal and sulphur was easy to come by.  We used wood for heating and cooking and sulphur in the wine industry.  Saltpetre, which was added to meat to retain its fresh red colour, had to be bought from the grocery shop. So a few mates and I pooled our meagre supply of pocket money to buy saltpetre, and when mum sent me to the shop to get a few things, I always bought a little more saltpetre with her money.  When questioned about the extra change I should have brought home, I told her that I had bought some lollies.

Everything went well in our gunpowder venture, until one day the lady from the grocery shop asked my mother casually, “You must conserve a lot of meat?”  “No, why?” my mother queried surprised.   “Well,” the shopkeeper said, “young Werner has been buying all these quantities of saltpetre for some time”.  As soon as mum got hold of me I was questioned about the saltpetre business.   I had to own up about what I had been up to, and that was the end of our gunpowder business.

When the invasion of France was imminent, all women and children living within eight kilometres of the border were evacuated.
My brother and I were sent to our aunt.  She and her husband had a grocery shop in Schiltach, a little town deep in the Black Forest just a few kilometres away from the renowned Junghans watch factory.  My mother, who was pregnant, had been sent to a hospital in Pfullendorf not far from Lake Constance, which borders on three countries: Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  After a few days, my aunt informed me that I now had a sister. This was a bit of a shock to my system, and came like a bolt out of the blue.  Not even a whisper of a hint was ever given, nor did my mother's extended tummy indicate anything to me.  I imagined the good old stork had fulfilled its duty again.  Three weeks later all of us were back in Bischoffingen.  See story, “My sister Helga” 
In the very beginning of the war, the French artillery harassed us a bit, and had some “pot-shots” at us.  They may have been practicing or just wanting to scare us, but they never scored a direct hit in our village. Either they were bad shots or the hills were in their way. 

One incident I remember well was when the French artillery succeeded in scaring the living daylights out of a couple of schoolmates and me in the middle of the night.
  In those days kids had to be off the streets and at home at night, but sometimes we sneaked out of the house just as a dare, and of course without mum's knowledge.  Blackouts were strictly enforced at night: to show a light brought a fine. We decided to make an excursion into the hills and 'spy' across to France. There they were also kept in ‘the dark’. When one of my mates lost his pocket knife, we committed a cardinal sin by using the torch to find it.  Someone across the border saw the light and the French artillery opened up with about five rounds.  When we heard the first shot go off, followed by the familiar whistle of the projectile, we left the scene in a panic-stricken hurry (and that is an understatement).  With record-breaking speed, probably in excess of 200 km an hour, we ran downhill into the village never daring to risk even a backward glance.  The next day everybody in the village was talking and wondering what could have prompted the artillery salvo, but our lips were sealed. We had very good reason for not wanting to brag about it.

Continuation in Part 3. I hope you find this interesting, and if you do, tell me. - Werner


Country Girl said...

Werner, I looked forward to the continuation of your story and, I’m not disappointed. What an interesting life you had as a youngster. I just shows that you could enjoy life without the mod cons of today. Today’s youth miss out a lot of what you had and experienced – they are absolutely possessed with tabs and smart phones and unfortunately, some with drugs. Your children, grandchildren and the future generation would find your early life very fascinating – to say the least. I grew up on a farm in a rural community in Queensland and life there was and is certainly different than growing up in a big city. I look forward to part three.

George Mansford said...

You have captured the life of a young lad so well and in a challenging phase of the World's history. Such was the discipline in the home and at school, not forgetting family links with the local shop.
So many of your reflections were very common here in OZ at that time. Such a tragedy that war changed it all. Well done,cobber.
George Mansford

Dymity said...

Werner, I thoroughly enjoyed the second episode of your childhood.You certainly had an eventful and enjoyable time. A good laugh at what happened to the doctor whilst giving Helga her injection! You certainly have an excellent memory with all the detail that you can recall.I will look forward to the next episode.

Andrea H. said...

Werner, “Growing up in Bischoffingen” what an interesting insight into your early life! You are a remarkable story teller and I just couldn’t stop reading till I got to the end. Even my 12 year old daughter enjoyed reading it. I really think that your story should be read in schools to show pupils the difference between then and now. I look forward with anticipation to part 3.

Heidi, Germany said...

Werner, this is the best and most interesting History book about that time I ever read! Thanks!

Megan said...

Very interesting stories Opa. Will certainly share them with the boys one day!

Bev. said...

I have read through one of your stories and went to Tintota to check that out and have to go back after realising how much more there is there as well.
I think it is wonderful that you have written that up for others to share.

I have done a lot of travelling in my time and I have a hand written diary here for the kids that hopefully they will find of interest. I am sorry that I didn’t ask more questions of my parents when they were still here.

Your upbringing was very similar to ours although you are a few years older than me – but because I had Italian on my father’s side, we had similar ideas of life and looking after things and not wasting much. One present at Christmas time but never wanting for much – as you say what we didn’t have, we didn’t miss and I think we were much happier for less of things. The kids today (including my grandkids have too many “things”.

I probably travelled through or very near to where you grew up when six of us females travelled around Europe in a Bedford Doormobile in October and November of 1966. We camped along side of roads (would never dream of that these days) as we used to travel and end up between towns. We had originally meant to make it to a town each evening to camp at a proper camp place but didn’t always get there.
Just wanted to say I am very interested to read your stories.