From Dissent the Blog, Sept 3, 2010
I spoke recently with my mother and asked her about her real mother, who died in about 1934, when mom was a year old.
Naturally, mom (Edith) has no memory of her mother, but she remembers a few things that were said about her. Her name was Gertrud Sternke and she hailed from Wollin, a town on the island by that name in the waters north of Stettin, on the Baltic Sea (Ost See).
Her husband, Hermann Schultz, and Gertrud likely married in the late 20s; the couple had two children: Ilse, who was born in 1930, and Edith (my mother), who was born in 1933. Both are still alive. Mom tells me that she just spoke with her sister two days ago (by phone). [UPDATE: Ilse started a mental decline about a year ago.]
Hermann was from the small town of Bärwalde in Pomerania (Pommern). By the 30s, Hermann and the family lived in the big town of Stettin, to the West, near the Baltic Sea. Hermann was a trucker and, by the time of his death in 1939 (from a loading accident), he owned a trucking company in Stettin.
Virtually nothing is known about Gertrud and her family. Mom is under the impression that no one from Gertrud’s family attended Gertrud and Hermann’s wedding (I’m guessing that occurred in 1929). At least one person in my mother’s family (a person given to parochialism and base prejudices) occasionally dismissed Gertrud’s family as “Gypsies,” but it is unlikely that they were actual Gypsies. There are stories (of unknown reliability; I’m trying to track them down) that she was Jewish, but that seems unlikely, though it is a possibility. [UPDATE: records I've seen suggest that Gertrud was not Jewish. Her family were likely Lutherans.]
I pressed my mom about how her mother died. She hesitated. With some difficulty, she told the story, as far as she knew it.
When Hermann died (in ’39), Ilse, mom’s sister, who had lived with Hermann, was sent to Bärwalde to join Edith and Tante Martha and Martha’s husband (who, by the way, was wealthy; a Marxist; a former master porcelain artist). It wasn’t until much later that mom realized that Ilse was her sister (and that Martha was not her biological mother).
But how did it come about that Ilse and Edith were split up?
When mom’s mother—Gertrud—died in 1934, the relatives gathered for the funeral (probably in Stettin) and the after-funeral “party.” When most of the guests had left to return home (some had flown in from Berlin), someone raised a question: What is to become of the children? According to the story, Edith, who was about a year old, was crying in the background. Hermann had already (or was it later?) declared that he would take Ilse, who was four, but he could not also take the baby. Tante Martha, who loved children but could not have her own, declared that she would take the baby—if, that is, her husband was agreeable. Hubby was likely back in Bärwalde, ill from TB (he eventually died of the disease in 1941). When the notion was presented to him, he immediately agreed, and thus it was that mom (Edith) went to live in Bärwalde.
The law at the time was such that Martha and her husband were not “fit” parents—owing to hubby's illness, I believe—and so friends in town sat on the adoption paperwork for many years. (It was a running joke that the papers would be “coming through any day now.”) Because of the TB danger, Edith was compelled by the health authorities to undergo regular checkups, including X-rays and blood tests. (My mother tells of one occasion in which she ran away to avoid that awful needle. She sat on a bench across the street from the hospital, waiting for her Aunt to emerge. When she didn’t, mom trudged back to the hospital, apologizing to everyone there for inconveniencing them.)
But then, of course, Hermann died too, in 1939, and so Ilse, who was nine, came to live with Edith.
It wasn’t until after the war—some time in the late forties—that Martha finally sat Edith down and revealed the nature of Gertrud’s death. It was quite simple, really. Gertrud was pregnant and she had died in the course of a botched abortion. Hermann came home from work and found her dead in a large pool of blood. The doctor cooperated in a minor cover-up, and so there was no record.
Today, my mother showed me a picture of her mother. It is actually a scan of a picture that had been modified long ago. I looked at it. Was she a Gypsy? Was she Jewish? Was she simply from a family that had dwindled to the point that there was no one left to attend her wedding?
When the Russians came, they burned mom’s home and much else. The family of four that lived next door to mom’s big house were all killed—after the two teenaged girls were raped. As near as I can tell, all of the town records were destroyed, and an “ethnic cleansing” eliminated all or virtually all Germans. Similar things occurred at Stettin and elsewhere.
But I will make an effort to track down the records of Gertrud, of Hermann, and the others. [UPDATE: not much luck thus far.]