A Childhood in Germany

Right now, some Americans are criticizing Germany because of its refusal to support the US wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Germany should support the US, critics say, because of America’s involvement in World War II. It seems most American know little more about Germany than Hitler.

There is more to a culture thousands of years old than those 13 years.

Although I now live in the US, and have for decades, I was born in Germany and grew up there as a child. My entire family still lives there and I visit at least once a year.

I often think there is quite an advantage to growing up in two different cultures. One becomes more tolerant toward diversity and learns to appreciate the different flavors, tastes, and smells.

My parents were seven years old when the war ended. Neither of my grandparents was in the war, thank goodness. One worked for the railroad and the other was a baker and farmer in a small village.

When my father went through a career change, he moved his family of five kids to my mother's home to live on my grandparents' farm. For over two years we lived a lifestyle that most people have never known. We later moved into our new house in another town.

The fondest memory I have is being awakened in the morning by the hammering of the local blacksmith, a profession long dead these days. The blacksmith took care of all the hoofed animals, since tractors were still a rarity in the 60's. Most farmers still used horses and oxen for plowing and carrying their harvest home.

The sounds of hooves were heard throughout the day on the only street through the village. It may be an odd sound to wake up to, but combine that with all the other farm life noises such as the crowing of a rooster, church bell striking every half hour, and the sound of the birds, and you have my alarm clock.

Life was very simple. Everything revolved around the four seasons and so did our religious holidays. Palm Sunday or the Feast of Corpus Christi, and the Harvest Blessings were major holy days. Each house placed flags out their window showing their colors of red and white for Franconia (the state I was from). Yellow and white were religious holidays. Windows were decorated with table clothes, candles, and pictures. Small birch trees were placed on the side of the road and decorated and fresh grass was to be the carpet of nature for the entire congregation to walk on.

My grandmother and I would go pick flowers in the meadows the day before a certain holiday, because I was going to be one of the flower girls. The procession was led by the speaker, young girls, women and children, flower girls, the priest, the band, with the men making up the rear.

Songs were sung and prayers were said. I loved those processions in the summer. Everyone wore their Sunday best and it was quite a colorful event. Men often wore their traditional clothes, with flags waving all around them.

My grandfather was the local baker, providing fresh rolls, breads, and croissants for the people and surrounding areas. His father was a baker and his grandfather too. The house was built circa 1740 — as it says in stone over the entrance to his little shop. His place was also a café and a tavern. A tavern, because he also made and sold his own wine. His vineyard was located at the southern side of a hill outside town.

The local farmers would stop in for a glass of wine or their favorite beer each night after their work was done. I knew them all by name. My grandmother's kitchen was quite large with a wood-burning stove and a huge table and bench. Rather than sit in the guest room, people would pile in around my grandmother's kitchen table. I never thought anything of it; this all seemed normal to me.

Tradition had it that men would visit the tavern after church. They usually piled in around 10 o'clock after church on Sunday morning. My grandmother would be cooking Sunday's dinner while the men discussed politics and the harvest. It was a smoky affair, with cigars and pipes. And somebody always had snuff.

My grandfather participated in some of the heated debates and my grandmother was never afraid to add her own comments to the mostly male conversation. As a kid I used to quietly listen to all that was said. Come high noon everyone went home to their Sunday dinner. This tradition exists to this day.

The grape harvest was another big event. Each year my grandfather hired helpers from the village to cut the grapes off the vines. It was an all-day event that started on an early September morning. The grapes are dumped into huge wooden barrels which will have to be squeezed and pressed. Of course we kids loved tasting the sweet grape juice until our bellies ached. My grandmother would always cook a huge meal for lunch. It was great fun to go into the vineyard. One had a wonderful view to the small valley and hills.

The new wine was stored in four wooden barrels. After about a month my grandfather would serve the new wine to his customers with his famous onion bread. That would have been in late October and November. For about two weeks all wine owners have the same tradition. The wine is called "Federweisser" and it doesn't taste like wine yet — but its effect is quite powerful already.

The next special event would be the christening of our church. It's kind of like a birthday celebration of the church building and we had it in early November. Each town has this. People from all surrounding villages would pay a visit to the local guesthouse and mingle with their neighbors and eat the customary meals of goose, duck, and hare. We even had deer and wild boar on the menu at times.

The women would bake huge cheese and apple cakes for this event. Since their wood-burning stoves were too small, people would bring flat cake sheets to my grandfather to be baked in his big oven. Gosh, I will never forget the smell. There were cakes and cakes everywhere. The mood was busy but festive. It was a major hustle and bustle and there was even a dance with a real band.

There are four people in every village that have authority and the respect of the people. That is the mayor, the priest, the local teacher, and the hunter or warden. When I started school, we had four grades in one room with one teacher. All this changed after I started second grade. But the fact that I was at a school house with only two classrooms was amazing.

Downstairs was the u2018Kindergarten' run by an old maid who never married, but had been provided a room to live. She lived there for over 35 years. I remember her reading out of this huge black Bible every day when I was in Kindergarten. This Kindergarten was founded by the elders of the town. My grandfather was one of them. They donated enough money to open a school and a Kindergarten.

We also had a hunter live with us. His name was Nicolaus. I always thought he was Santa Claus, because of St. Nick. He was in charge of the forest and the wild life. Hunting is not a sport as it is in other cultures. Our forests are too small for that and pretty soon the wild life would have been gone. The tradition of the hunter is that of a warden; he made sure that everything stayed in balance. Each year the hares would get out of control and he'd host the annual hare hunt. People would ask to get a hare before he and other hunters would set out in the morning.

Usually about 20 hunters gathered in their green outfits and hats with their dogs to round up the long-eared critters. They literally brought them back tied up on a pole. And as always there was a big celebration afterwards with venison too and wine.

Now my uncle has become the warden of the village and he keeps up with the tradition of the past. After the hunt was over, the green-dressed men with their hats would stand on my grandfather's front porch and blow their horns. They not only had to learn how to be a Jaeger but also a musician.

The winter months were very quiet and people did a lot of indoor work. Since most families used wood-burning stoves, there were a lot of chimneys smoking. My grandmother told me that they used to spin wool in the winter. Now it has become a decorating item. But she would knit socks.

Christmas was different, too. A real live tree is not put up until Christmas Eve. Santa Claus comes on December 6 and the Christ Child comes on Christmas Eve. Most of the time we had snow, which was perfect for us kids. We had enough hills to have perfect rides on our sleigh. Sometimes the creek was frozen too, and we were able to slide on ice for a while.

The spring and summer months were still the best. We watched little TV, so we played in the attic or in the gardens. We often ventured out to the old ruin on top of a huge hill. There used to be a fortress of the local land owner many centuries ago. The tenants had to pay their taxes to the landlord with part of their crop. The food was stored in a cellar that is on my grandfather's property. I believe it says 1600-something over the entrance. My grandfather stored his potatoes and beets in this cellar.

It was often a creepy feeling to enter a ruin or a cellar for that matter. The locals would have stories of underground tunnels and old knights roaming the countryside. Of course now the ruins are all covered up with trees and shrubs. Some of the rocks were used to build new houses in the village. Nothing got wasted.

As kids we had to use our imagination to keep us busy. I don't think we lacked material.

My brother and I slept upstairs right next to the grain storage room, where there are – of course – MICE! We discovered a mouse hole in the wall; so we set up an observation station under our bed covers trying to lure the mice out with bread crumbs. I don’t remember ever seeing them, but we did spend an entire day up there staking out our plan.

There are many more memories and experiences I've had as a young girl growing up. There was no plumbing or running water in our home. As kids we didn't consider this to be a problem. A big deal today, of course. I spent many summer months back with my grandparents after we moved. I loved going out in the fields to get a load of hay or sunflowers. Driving through narrow passes and roads almost made my heart stop, because I thought we surely would tip over in his tractor. It never happened.

The countryside is still breathtaking. The entire family had to go out into the fields when it was time to get the potatoes out of the ground. Sacks after sacks were filled. We also had wheat and oats. There was a local miller about two kilometers outside town who ground the wheat into flour.

Those are good memories. I'm sure life wasn't always easy and I recall these things as seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old. But it stayed with me. Every time I smell fresh-cut grass, or the soil I think back to those days growing up with my grandparents. Things have changed since then and modernization has made it even to the most remote places.

As you can see, there is a lot more to Germany than what the media portray.

October 11, 2003


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