Located near Essen is the beautiful lake Baldeney, a dammed reservoir of the Ruhr River. It was the destination of one of our first family excursions on a sunny spring day. It would become our favourite recreation spot. Lake Baldeney has personal significance for me because it changed my life forever. But I won’t get ahead of myself.
My dad, who loved nature and, above all, water sports, was delighted to have this jewel of a lake in our vicinity. It would still take some effort to travel there by bus, but these outings were recreational highlights and brightened our otherwise drab existence in the Old House.
My dad and I walked approximately 16 km distance through forests and fields a few times. I felt very proud to keep up with my dad on these long hikes. My brother, who was not fond of swimming in cold water and hated exertion, seldom accompanied us.
My dad and I would often daydream about the future on those hikes. We envision a beautiful home built on a hill surrounded by forests and overlooking a big lake. Far, in the end, this dream would come true for me at the Arrow Lakes in Canada. On his last visit to Canada before his death, my father experienced the fulfilment of our vision for a short time with us.
The first time we walked barefoot at the shore of Lake Baldeney, we were puzzled that our feet were sooty black even after a swim in the clear water. At that time, the coal industry was still in total production, and there was heavy pollution around Essen. As seen in these pictures, blue skies were rare in my childhood, but I appreciated it when we had them.
The driver jumped out of the cab, opened the truck ramp, and started unloading the luggage and helping us jump out. Dazed and bewildered, numb from the cold and very hungry, we all stood speechless for a moment. “Take your belongings and follow me,” the driver told us.
He led us around the extremely long building to a courtyard with a row of several outhouses. “You can go there in a minute,” he told us, “but let me show you your quarters first. This old building used to be a pub and a bowling alley,” he continued, “now it has been converted into an emergency shelter for people like you. I’ll introduce you to the manager of this establishment.” He laughed and pointed to a man who had just stepped out of the entrance to receive us.
We were the first ones to be led to our room. We had to go through a long hall with several big sinks, laundry tubs and a wash line with a few rags drying. There were brooms, mops, pails, garbage cans and other equipment stored along the walls. The evening light coming in through oversized windows could hardly soften the drabness of this dingy hall.
My sister’s friends, who hosted us while my parents were in the refugee camp in Berlin to ask for asylum, were very kind. Their two young sons became our friends, and especially my brother loved their toys. The Meccano set was his favourite. He would amaze us with his elaborate constructions.
For a while, we were distracted by our exciting new experiences. But as time dragged on without any contact with our parents, I started getting very homesick. I missed my parents, who had vanished so unexpectedly. I also missed my loving sister and my two little nephews. I missed school and our friends. (Except for a short visit to see what a West German school looked like, we were not allowed to attend class with our host children.) I missed our beautiful, spacious home in Gotha with the large windows letting the light shine in. I missed the comfort and warmth of sitting with our dad on the bench of our tile stove, listening to his stories. I missed exploring the world on the big map covering the wall in his study. I missed playing with our friends on our quiet street flanked by old linden trees leading to our beloved castle park. I missed our family bike or tram excursions into the vast forests… I forgot my mom’s cooking since I was a picky eater. I even missed my teacher Mrs. Goose, whom my father did not like.
Before going to sleep, I dreamed about what I would tell my best friend Anneliese about the Golden West. I would say to her that our home in Gotha was a much better place. In Dortmund, people lived in small cramped apartments on busy streets where it was not safe to play or even walk alone. On weekends instead of going to the park or hiking in the forests, people would visit the graveyards that looked like parks. But you could not freely run or roam about or play and explore. You had to walk respectfully and quietly like adults and sit on stone benches near the graves to pray or meditate silently.
I would tell my friend that the Golden West was not golden. It was a figment of the mind like the story of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. As for the big allure of freedom, it was overrated. Although I could have chocolate and even bubble gum, I felt more restricted here than home. My sister’s friends did not let their boys and us go anywhere without supervision except the nearby fenced-in playground. They would drop us off and pick us up; In Gotha, we were allowed to play for hours in our neighbourhood. Once my brother and I decided to visit the castle Friedenstein on our own. A friendly castle guard noticing our curious glances at the open castle portal, invited us in and gave us a tour telling us some of the historical highlights. Thus, we learned that the great Emperor Napoleon had slept in the pompous, canopied bed that looked like a sailing ship. Since our dad was a history buff, he had told us about Napoleon, who fascinated him. Suddenly I longed for all the familiar things of home. Every night I prayed that we would return to Gotha soon. But day after day, my brother and I were told to wait a bit longer for our parents to get us.
Finally, at home, we hastily ate some hot cabbage soup. After supper, my mother made us change into good warm clothes instead of getting us ready for bedtime. Without explanation, she made us kiss our dad goodbye and then, grabbing a big suitcase from a closet in the hallway, whisked us out of the front door. When we stepped out on the snow-covered sidewalk faintly illuminated by occasional street lights, my mother whispered to us that we would have to go on a long walk, but there would be a surprise. We walked silently like in a dream world enveloped by the thickly falling snow. Tired and dazed, we walked for a long time until we finally reached the railway station.
Once we were settled in an empty train compartment, my mother told us that she had received permission to visit her sick guardian aunt in the West. My dad had to stay back as a guarantor for our return. If we did not come back, he would be severely punished. My brother immediately fell asleep in my mother’s arm when the train started rolling. I, however, had my face pressed against the cold dark window. I did not want to miss the “Golden West” first glimpse once we crossed the border.
To share some of their newly acquired wealth, West German people would send precious items to relatives and friends. We received large gift packages from my mother’s relatives at Christmas time. There were delicious sweets, chocolates, beautiful toys, well-made, stylish clothes and shoes for us. Fragrant “real” coffee beans for my mom and aromatic cigars for my father were some of the desired luxury items you could not get in the East. My brother and I were fortunate that we always had comfortable and well-made shoes because of my mother’s relatives who owned big footwear companies in the West.
Books and other printed materials were forbidden because they could contain “propaganda” against the political system. Letters and parcels often were confiscated if they looked “suspicious.” My mom tried to keep a good relationship with the mailman so her letters and packages would not get “lost.” In my imagination, the Golden West was a fairytale land where all the houses had golden roofs like the castles and palaces I had seen in the movie theatre. My father’s friend owned the “White Wall” movie theatre close to our home. My dad took us on many a Sunday to watch Russian fairytale cartoons and other movies. Since I had no concept of the “Golden West,” I thought it was a beautiful place in fairyland where you lived “happily ever after.”
My brother had an inquisitive mind and constantly tried to figure out how things worked or how people made them. I would often discover that my toys or dolls were broken or taken apart. They had fallen victim to my brother’s curiosity. It would upset me tremendously. Although my parents expressed some sympathy, they never punished my brother or tried to change his behaviour. They not only condoned his often destructive explorations but almost encouraged them. They were proud of his clever findings and discoveries. In the name of science, they expected me to sacrifice my toys.
I do not have many memories of our early school days. But I remember that our teacher was called Frau Gans (Mrs. Goose). Her name very much amused my dad. In German, you say “dumme Gans” to a “dumb female.” Our teacher definitely was not “a stupid goose.”
Both my brother and I were artistic and liked to draw and paint. I produced my first “masterpiece” in grade one. We were supposed to paint a picture of a wall. Mrs. Goose was very impressed with my work because I painted such a realistic-looking brick wall and a happy worker beside it. My dad was a bit puzzled by this unusual theme. “Why paint an ugly wall?” he asked. Ten years later, the communist regime built the Berlin Wall to separate the two parts of Berlin. Maybe this early art exercise in wall paintings was the first step to glorifying wall building. Or was it a premonition?