Certain images of our youth remain with us forever. The profound ones we recall with clarity and precision. They entrench within our minds with urgency, as if they are trying to give us a message. Reflecting on memory of real people is almost like a mirroring of one’s own life during a different time. We glean wisdom and draw strength from them, depending on what it is we are learning.
My most memorable snapshots are of the post-WWII generation of German women in Germany. These are women whose lives have inspired my own. Their lives speak of a kind of character and endurance that is rarely found in modern woman. Western Europe and Russia can identify with a post-war woman’s hardship and sorrow; they have seen her. Her name "woman" was still praised on the lips of men and her story, if absorbed by modern woman, could regain her honorable position in society.
My profoundest image is that of my German grandmother dozing in her chair, next to the oven in the large kitchen. Her hands, worn out from years of hard work in the fields, rested in her lap. She wore an ordinary apron, thick socks and her house shoes. On Sundays she wore no head scarf. Her silver hair was brushed softly to the back out of her face. Unlike most women her age, she kept it short. They wore their gray hair pulled into a bun at the back of the head.
I often found her asleep in her chair when I snuck in for a drink of water. The large kitchen was empty and quiet. Only the fire crackling in the stove, and the ticking of the old clock on the wall, broke the quiet. The two small windows allowed for sunlight, but not enough to brighten up the large kitchen. Here she was, doing what old people do, snoozing near her kitchen stove on Sunday afternoon. Sometimes I saw her looking through the windows out into the street. She was quiet; never said much. Just looking and resting.
At other times she could be so lively. When guests arrived in the tavern for a game of cards, she could sit in playing Schafskopf like farmer Schmitt next door. She was never shy in voicing her opinions. She would cook her Sunday’s lunch while the men sat at the table after church, idly discussing politics and the economy. Standing near her kitchen stove she possessed a quiet confidence, interjecting her own comments into the conversation. Oma’s personality was humorous and trustworthy, with a charm all of her own. Witty and quick with words, she could also be stern and gentle with her eight grandchildren. These qualities made her a good business woman and a loving grandma.
I grew up around several widows; war widows who lived in our village. They wore black clothes for mourning, and some never gave it up. They fully immersed in their role of the widow, mourning the husbands they lost during the war. Those were the women who sat in the back of the church alone with their head scarves drawn as far as possible around their faces, praying the rosary and never missing mass during the week.
They came together to make marmalade at my grandmother’s house once. Like a finely tuned instrument, they worked together making some sweet smelling mixture from berries that grow on wild hedges. It wasn’t a very easy task. The seeds had to be separated from the fruit by pressing them through a sieve. Their busyness kind of electrified the room with a sense of urgency. They chatted about village life while stirring the bubbly mixture in the pot on the stove, and filled up the jars with marmalade.
Aunt Mary, my grandfather’s sister-in-law, also became a widow early in life. Although her husband returned from WWII with a head wound, he died the year I was born. She never remarried. She stayed busy with her vineyard and farm work. She ran a seasonal tavern during the winter and summer months. An amazing business woman, she lived well into her mid 90’s.
Aunt Mary never complained. I loved visiting her on my vacations. She reminded me of my grandmother and I loved her determination and the zest she had for life. I once asked her why she would not want to move to America, where her only daughter had relocated after marrying a young GI in 1959. Life would be a lot easier, I remarked. Her simple answer was that one cannot uproot an old tree and replant it to another terrain. She was content with where she was and who she was. I admired that attitude in her. Her character revealed her hidden passion for independence through our conversations. It was not a display of defiance, but rather a testimony of making the best of her situation. She was determined to live in her own house for as long as she could (and did), taking care of herself.
In Aunt Mary’s latter years my mother came to visit her almost every weekend, to check on her. She would take Aunt Mary to town for her shopping, or to tend to business. Women like her were not a rarity in her generation. She didn’t want to be a burden on anyone else, but was smart enough to ask for help if she couldn’t provide for her own needs. Her eyesight wasn’t the best, and her cooking and cleaning wasn’t like it used to be. However, she maintained the schedule of her household. It was something she needed. It gave her strength and purpose to get out of bed every day. As single mother I quickly learned that receiving care and support from family members surpasses any assistance from an institution. The protective fold of a family is immeasurable.
She had two friends who came and visited her almost every day. The three widows sat in her kitchen chatting about the weather and comparing the aches in their legs. These women came by when I, by then an American resident, was visiting my family back in Germany. My mother set the table for coffee, and Aunt Mary was persuaded to leave her stove and sit down. Three old women wearing their head scarves and aprons, with their worn hands resting in their laps, were sitting across from me on the bench. They eagerly inquired about my life in America, like little girls wanting to know about a journey taken to a mysterious foreign land. For some reason they still referred to me as the "baker’s youngster." To them I was my grandfather’s eldest grandchild. They were passing on their generation’s memory to my mother and me. The social need to gather together and provide support for each other during their widowed years had bonded them into a long friendship. They talked of times long gone that brought up many cherished memories of my grandparents.
Women of both grandmother’s and Aunt Mary’s generation were blunt. They told it like it was without any sort of inhibitions. They lived through too much to cover up any political incorrectness. They’ve seen the horrors and miseries of life. They have seen new life being born in front of their eyes and taken away just as quickly. My paternal grandfather came from a family of eleven children and five of them died very young. At the age these women were, they also knew that life’s too short to waste it on "swollen" words that make life sound too artificially perfect. Their words described reality; and it made them approachable; so much so that I wanted to kiss them on the cheek when I left. Never did I realize that age and truth had such sweetness until I got older. These women lived through hard times. Naturally they wanted to witness their experiences to a willing ear. It’s a real loss if one’s life cannot be witnessed. It’s the only legacy we pass on to the next generation. My mother and I were the recipients of their classic tales without any pretenses. Their words carried authority; a sound reflection of life that carried no bitterness.
In some ways they were better off than the city dwellers during the war. They had livestock and crops, however small, to support them during the lean war years. After the war many remained widows and some remarried. Others passed on the farm to their children. These were the women hunched over in the fields, hoeing and pulling weeds during the spring. It was that generation of women in the cities who stood on the piles of rubble, hauling the pieces off, rock by rock, to clean up their towns from the destruction of a war. There was not much time to complain about any personal injustice. They only wanted their husbands back and to provide a decent living condition for their families. They were not too tired to cut grass and haul it back in baskets strapped on their backs for their animals, or to spend a few hours in the forest gathering firewood. There was no excuse to be tired and overburdened.
Women — they carried their buckets to the well every day to get fresh water, they baked, cleaned, cooked, raised their children and kept up with their household on top of that. Performing what we now would call "multi-tasking," they worked their way out of the misery that decades of war brought them. They knew how to stretch the money and make the most of what they had. They were the backbone of the community that kept life going when their men were gone off to war or came back disabled and burned out from years on the battlefield.
Women of that generation were great bike riders. My best friend told me a story how she rode her bike up the hill in her German town, all decked out in her spiffy bike pants, sunglasses, sweating and working herself up the hill on her brand new 10-speed bike. Suddenly, quite surprisingly, an old lady zooms past her on a Pee-Wee Herman bike, dressed in a skirt and orthopedic shoes. Speechless at first being overtaken, my friend watched as grandma made her way up the hill with her shopping basket still nicely tucked into the back of her bike and my friend fell further and further behind. Having a car wasn’t always an option, due to the costs, but the lack of automotive transportation didn’t keep them at home. No health club fees for women on bikes.
These women were not perfect by today’s standard. Years of hard work left its mark on their bodies and faces. Very little of their appearance seems to resemble the modern and elegant beauties of the 21st Century. Haute Couture would have been wasted on them. It wasn’t their style. Their everyday dress was modest and plain. Wearing their traditional dress and hat seemed to fit their faces and their faded youth shimmered through their brief smiles. Most of the women wore no makeup. Their faces, tanned and wind blown from being outside, did not require the extra enhancement.
And yet, there were women who became tired and worn out under the heavy burden of responsibility. These women had given up; allowing the burden of heavy chores to crush them. The duties of today’s woman have improved tremendously by means of new technologies. Women have electric stoves, microwaves, refrigerators and more conveniences than our ancestors could ever dream about. These are the great aids of modern living that have freed us from the extra weight.
A woman, who cannot receive her emotional support from her husband because he is away at war, can become bruised of spirit. She had to find other ways to fill that void. For many it was their Church life and socializing. But there were women who faltered under the added pressure. The way some women chose to respond to their plight was with enmity. Although her world around her was burned down to ashes, the manner in which a woman chose to act in the hour of her adversity has not changed over the years. Submitting to Love takes great strength in the midst of our weakest moments. A woman can fall prey to her own vices if she rejects her own natural tendency to heal through it. Women are still being praised for their submission to this Love under difficult circumstances in biblical narratives. The Book of Ruth is a tribute to these women. Women who have chosen to blame and pass on their burden to others have drifted through life mercilessly blaming the world for their troubles. Their words carry misery and bitterness.
I will never really know what went through the minds of these women. I can only make my own assumption based on my own experiences. It was very apparent that their belief system came from their faith. People during that time lived in a more religious environment than in a secular one, as it is today. Their inner values were quite visible in how they lived their outer value. It was God, husband, children and their home and their land. It was into those things which they poured their energy. In their environment, their small community was still governed for the most part by the men of the town.
Men had the authority and made decisions that affected their town; brought improvements and handled their crisis during floods and fires. There was no police present to monitor every move. Crimes were hardly heard of, and respecting one’s personal boundary and property was part of the fiber that knitted together that small society. People were responsible and held each other accountable for their actions. It was a much more intimate, user-friendly environment that created a trust in the system under which they lived. A woman knew she could rely on her neighbor for help. She knew her husband can provide for her through his work, which was available in abundance after the war. Women were loyal to their husbands and their men before centralization shifted the authority to a secular state.
It was in this setting of the 60’s and early 70’s in which I remember these women and their generation. It was Germany’s economic miracle years. They had the incentive and good sense to work themselves out of their failures and losses. History shows that people who live on the edge between despair and hope can be innovative and energetic because they draw upon their own natural gifts, applying themselves to the best of their abilities. For the most part people looked for ways of improving their lives within themselves and drew upon their inner resources to invent, create, build, sell and trade. This productivity made Germany an economic world power that raised the standard of living for its society. It brought new conveniences and recreation to a tired and worn out people.
Not only did it give them material wealth that their children could inherit; it also gave them a reward for their accomplishment: a sense of well-being and contentment. Those who attained it no longer hungered after someone else’s land, husband and wife. The reward was gracefully earned. These people did not spend beyond their own limits, and were careful not to get indebted but willing enough to risk a business expansion. Post-war women, married and widowed, could draw from this nourishing environment, because it was founded on ancient Christian roots that once stabilized and turned a pagan people into a thriving community. It is to these roots that the village in which I lived returned to after the war.
The legacy of the post-war woman, whose story is captured in the Bible and pre-modern time of Western Civilization, is a testimony to her endurance and stability. They have witnessed for centuries that she is capable of rebuilding her family and community side by side with her husband and making man her ally. Her role as a helper was not yet redefined by the secular interference of society. The modern woman has gradually chosen to transgress against her own nature by removing herself from that role. Her cries are not tears of sorrow, but of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Her lamenting is not grieving the dead and stillborn, but the burden of raising her illegitimate children alone or rejecting them from her womb. Her impatience is not her eagerness to await her husband’s return from imprisonment; but to keep him imprisoned through her legal battles. She chases after favors from her adulterous relationship with her false husband, an instiutionalized state
Modern woman’s quest to manipulate her society with her crippled perception about her "hardship" has influenced most Western nations. It is seen in the legalization of her false image as a minority and victim. The feminist spirit impregnates her land with selfishness, complacency, apathy and dependency leading men into bondage. Her world consists of worshiping the idol of her own image. She seeks absolution from her sins through secular counseling, bringing her to a false sense of contentment and security.
The emancipated woman has lost her ability to empathize, to sense the sorrows of her own people that she partially created by rejecting her own role. Thoughtlessly, she drifts into the vices that make her dependent on objects and useless causes bringing her only temporary feelings of happiness. The man who once cherished her is never good enough to take his rightful place by her side. She holds him responsible for her unhappy state and boycotts her marriage vows. She emasculates his very essence by enslaving him to be her master. Modern woman has turned into Potifar’s wife, imprisoning an innocent man before he could prove his innocence.
She births heartless children who find no comfort at her cold breast. Her milk is a bitter poison. I am from that generation of women who had bought into the lie that a woman can be like a man. Many women of my generation are divorced women, who found themselves more confused after their failed marriages. Their shattered lives looking like a war zone, these women can’t figure out where their issues stem from and repeat their follies all over again; continually blaming men for their failures. I heard their stories many times when I counseled them through their pains in my ministry to the divorced. It became obvious that the legal status of woman has gone beyond good intentions and is rather destroying the very thing she seeks.
The images and message of a post-war woman of the past can teach modern woman that she too can come out of her war zone, if she makes man her ally. Today’s woman is given more assistance to complete her tasks than in any other time in history. She no longer has to deal with the high loss of infant deaths or diseases. She has the ability to learn and build upon her knowledge so that she can start new ventures for herself and her family. Most of these inventions came from man, her partner. Recreational time has increased for her, and yet she cannot find peace with herself. Rather than continually distancing herself from her man by making herself the victim, she can close it through a reasonable approach by knowing her role. She has the natural abilities to be a nurturer, mother, and lover. The woman who shows loyalty and support to her man will be the more satisfied woman. She possesses an aura of sweetness that does not diminish her capacity to think and reason.
Women and widows of my grandparents’ generation were still married to their real husband in a physical and spiritual sense. For the most part of their lives they were able to trust that they would be provided for by their spouse through sickness and in health. In their faith they were married to their spiritual Husband who sustained them through their widowed and single years. The way their rural life was organized, it caught their sorrows and plights in a nurturing network in which they could draw on their own resources. They excelled through their trials and hardship and had enough left over to pass on an inheritance to their children. Their examples and lives should not be discarded and forgotten. German women and women everywhere can see that it was the spirit of the post-war woman that gave purpose to their men to rebuild.
The legacy of women in war torn countries are readily observed by their behavior. Women who bedded the institutionalized society committed adultery, because they took that role away from their men and husbands. A woman who relied on society for her emotional well-being committed a spiritual adultery. Their offspring will most likely reject the role of the real Father, both in a physical and spiritual sense. Women are, and always will be, the keeper of the hearth watching over the fire to keep it burning. Her warmth and gentleness will keep her man in the folds of her family, if she submits to the loyalty of her Husband.
It is in her relationship with her man that the heart and mind of both genders meet and unite as one flesh. Women who reject the role of her man will find her environment declining into a merciless wasteland of poverty and immorality. It’s up to woman to choose how she wants to act in her current circumstances, so that she can regain her honorable status again. And that will be the day when man will praise her with his lips again and call her "blessed."
Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.