The Poorhouse – Chart I – III
We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.
As the refugees began to move south from their camps to Baden-Württemberg, pressure was building on the local inhabitants to make room for their ‘brothers and sisters’ from the eastern provinces. Soon accommodation became very scarce. It consisted of space directly under the roof or some other primitive living quarters often without heat, electricity or water. Upon arrival in Rohrdorf, local officials assigned to our family one of these dingy places. I have no memory about my physical surroundings. But I had once a very vivid dream. In it I saw surrealistic images, in which space and its objects appeared grotesquely distorted. The assembly of the tableau consisted of bird-like creatures, men with birds’ heads strutting around with long beaks. There were strangely shaped sculptures, stone blocks with holes in them that looked like empty eye sockets. It seemed that the dream had broken all the laws of physics and all the rules of perspective in art in this contorted display of a chaotic world. When I woke up most likely from hunger pangs, I could not connect anything I saw in my dream to the real world around me. Could this have been an archetypical experience? Or did I sense as a child that the struggle for survival in a broken world was not over yet? It is impossible for me to tell. But the phantasmagoric imagery and the bewildering impact it exerted on me remained. Much later in life, when I was looking at abstract art, especially the sort that is known as surrealism, I encountered a few paintings that revealed an uncanny resemblance to my early childhood dream.
Our next dwelling in Rohrdorf was located in the lower village not far from the intersection of two highways, one leading to Sigmaringen, the other one where our house was located to Castle Wildenstein. We lived on the second floor with access to the attic space. We called the place Armenhaus, ‘Poorhouse’, because in comparison with the stately mansion in Gutfelde it was a dark and uncomfortable place, too small for our seven family members. Downstairs on the ground floor lived the owner with his ailing mother and at least a dozen cats. He loved them dearly, but for the Klopp’s they were always slinking in and around the house and were occupying every nook and cranny as if they owned the place.
The winter of 1947 was one of the severest in recent memory. All of Europe suffered under its icy grip. Even England, which usually enjoys a temperate climate, experienced extremely cold temperatures and massive snowfalls blanketing the entire country. Gigantic snowdrifts completely cut off Rohrdorf from the neighboring town of Meßkirch. Food had become so scarce at the Klopp family that we had to resort to begging. The local farmers, who had suffered the least during the war and had plenty of food on the table, were reluctant to help their fellow German citizens whom they considered with suspicion like intruders, almost like foreigners. True, we did not speak their southern dialect and belonged to the ‘wrong’ faith. Most of us were protestants, not Catholic. In short, we were outsiders, who did not belong. To avoid confrontations with the people in Rohrdorf and to protect the family from feelings of shame and disgrace, we often went begging in a neighboring village, where people would not recognize us. Being only five years old, always hungry and looking hungry, the family thought that I would be the best candidate to move hearts, especially those of kind-hearted women. One day I entered the yard of a farmhouse alone, while everyone else was hiding in the background. I walked up the steps. With some trepidation I knocked at the front door. Farmers had chased me away empty handed before. To add injury to insult, they had even hurled abusive language at me. After a long wait and repeated knocking, the door opened just a crack, and a gruff voice demanded to know, “Wa’ wit’?”, a hackneyed version of standard German, “Was willst du?”, meaning “What do you want?”
With all the strength at my disposal I replied, “ I’m sooooo hungry!” The man was just about to slam the door shut on me, when I heard the farmer’s wife ask, “Who is at the door?”
“Just a lousy refugee kid asking for grub!”
“Let him enter. I will take care of him.” Reluctantly he let me come in into the warm and cozy entrance hall and stepped aside, as his wife welcomed me with a motherly smile. She just took one glace at me and knew what my problem was. Before I could even say a second time, “I’m sooooo hungry!”, she rushed to the kitchen. I will never forget the moment when she placed a loaf of bread into my outstretched hands. But what is even more important than bread that is baked today and eaten tomorrow, is this kind of love, kindness and compassion that breaks down the walls of prejudice, bigotry and hatred, which people erect to protect their selfish comfort zone.
To be continued …