Ruhe in Frieden, Oma

Our Oma, in her youth during the 1930s
“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.” 
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It was late at night Tuesday when Martin and I got a phone call from Germany.

Our beloved Oma — Martin’s maternal grandmother – passed away just a few minutes before.

It was not an unexpected phone call. A few days earlier, my brother-in-law Christian called us to let us know that Oma’s health had turned for the worst and they didn’t give her much time.

My mother-in-law Christel and her sister, our Tante Mali, were at Oma’s bedside the entire evening, making sure Oma was comfortable. According to Christel, Oma simply fell asleep and calmly breathed her last breaths in peace.

She was 99 years old.

The last time we saw Oma in person was in July 2005, during our last visit to Germany before our move back to the states. She was healthy then, her mind still sharp and full of wit and humor.
She was living in a one-room apartment in an assisted-living complex, and it was extremely hot that day. We had the windows and balcony door open, and she was wearing a loose summer dress. We filled a little tub of water on the balcony for Miss C, who wasn’t even two years old then, and my niece Nie-Nie to splash in. Pretty soon, the babies tore off their wet clothes and diapers, and were streaking through the room, laughing and trying to avoid our pinches.

It was during one of those moments that I took my most favorite picture of Oma, so relaxed and laughing. She loved babies.

It’s a bittersweet grief for Martin and me.  Losing someone as loved as Oma is always sorrowful, especially on a date that we associate with such happiness and love. (We didn’t mention her passing here or on Facebook to give our family time to spread the word in person.) We always want more time.

Yet, how does one truly feel sad when the person we’re grieving lived such a long and full life?

In early 2001, Martin and I sat down with Oma and for five hours, I did nothing but interview her about her life. Martin translated where my German language skills fell flat, but for most of the conversation, it was me asking her questions and her sharing stories about her life as I frantically took notes and checked my voice recorder.

During our last visit with her, too, she pulled out her albums and let me copy and photograph her worn, aged photos and notes. I then used Photoshop to restore what I could, especially the photos of her childhood.

She was born in December 1911 in northwest Germany, the youngest of eight children. She was named Amalia. Her mother was pregnant the following year, but fell while hanging the laundry; she ended up miscarrying the child a few days later. (No doubt, this is why Martin was so hard on me about keeping off my feet this past weekend after my fall.)

Oma is the bottom left child with the white blonde hair, like Lola.
All these children were siblings or relatives.
Kathe is the oldest, standing in the back right corner.
Photo was taken sometime in 1914, when Oma was two years old.

When Oma was about two years old, her father was killed in a coal mining accident. As he and another man opened up a passageway, dangerous carbon monoxide overtook them. Oma had an older sister, called Kathe, who was like a little mother, and she had memories of Kathe caring for her.

Oma’s oldest brother was named Karl, and he was known throughout town as Schwartzer Karl, for his ebony black hair. He was known to be a bit of a good-natured troublemaker with his gang of friends, and whenever the town police came strolling down the street, the neighbors would always announce, “Oh, they’re coming for Schwartzer Karl!” even if that wasn’t necessarily the case. Karl was drafted in the military and sent to the front lines. He was killed in combat during World War I.

Now a widow with so many children, little income and with a war going on, Oma’s mother had little choice, but to separate her children and send them out to relatives and families living in the countryside, away from cities and factories that were war targets, where food was more readily available.

Oma was a bit older at this point, and remembered being sent to live with a wealthy family who had one daughter her age. She remembered a big house with a big yard, and in that house, there was a room totally devoted to the daughter’s doll collection. There were strict instructions that nobody could play with the dolls, though. So Oma and the girl spent most of their time outside, collecting frogs and trying to keep out of trouble. She stayed with the family for the remainder of the war.

Her experience a few decades later during World War II were much different.

She had gone to school and worked during her 20s and had no time for marriage. And she sang in a choir, which she continued to do for years.

But then she met our Opa, Josef. He was an electrician who worked for the Siemens company. They announced their engagement Christmas Eve 1939, surrounded by their friends and family. The wedding was a big event. She married Josef in 1940, wearing a dress she made out of curtains. They were both older than what was typical – she was 29, he was in his 30s.

Oma gave birth to her first child just over a year later, to Tante Mali. At some point, as World War II escalated, his job required them to move. He worked in Berlin during the week while Oma and Mali lived on the outskirts of town, in a suburb where it was much quieter and not a war target. Two more children were born: our Tante Barbel and Onkel Peter.

Martin and I have heard many stories about Oma’s war experiences, and during the interview with her, she repeated some of them, although others I heard from our aunts. Some are based on their own faint childhood memories of the war: other stories are what they heard from her or others. As the war stretched on, things became harder for her. Her husband was unable to come home as frequently as before. During the last few years of it, when it became obvious more men were needed on the fronts, teenagers and older men were recruited, including Opa. He was sent to France.

During my interview with her, I asked her about what it was like to be a mother during the war. As we looked through the photos her husband took from the front lines, I was struck by how similar they were to the World War II photos my grandfather brought home: men shaving, lined up and hamming for the camera, eating their rations and enjoying lighthearted moments.
But of course, that era was anything but lighthearted.

Oma was left behind with three young children in a deteriorating situation near Berlin. With her husband gone, Oma took in work as a seamstress, sewing badges and altering uniforms for the German military.

The two war stories that stick out the most was about the time when Oma was stopped by Russian soldiers as they brandished their weapons and demanded information from her.

And the other happened toward the end of the war, when things were really bleak. Oma ended up stealing potatoes from a neighbor’s garden to bring home for her children.

As a devout Catholic, this act – which was no doubt spurred by a mother’s desperate need to feed her family – weighed heavily on her, and it was the story she always told when asked, “Oma, what do you remember about the war?”

During my interview with her, I asked Oma what it was like to have a grandson paired up with an American woman, if she could have ever imaged such a thing for her offspring back then when the two countries were such at odds.
Her answer echoed what my grandfather Charley always said about his World War II experiences (which included a stint in England as part of the Army Air Corps.) Before he left, his own grandfather sat him down and said, “Never forget that the Germans are people, too.” For Oma, there was never any animosity against Americans, and she spoke of how American soldiers were the ones to provide food and rations for her family. At her 90th birthday party, she and her friends recalled the candy the American soldiers passed out, too.

She was amazed by how much could change in the world in what seemed to her such little time.

Oma with her children and husband, after the war, sometime in the 1950s.

The whole family, even Opa, survived the war. And life settled down for them in the 1950s as they moved to Erlangen, Germany, where Opa continued working for Siemens. Martin’s mother was born there; a later-in-life surprise for all of them.

Oma raised her children, sang in a choir, attended church regularly and worked at the German Red Cross, where she made many friends who continued to visit with her well into their 90s. Opa passed away sometime in the 1960s, but Oma continued to live an active life.

Tante Mali became a nun and Tante Barbel married an Italian man and raised several children of her own on the island of Sicily. Onkel Peter grew up to be a butcher and married our Tante Herta.

And of course, there was Christel, Martin’s mother, who grew up and married Martin’s father and worked in a bakery while raising Martin and his siblings.

Oma adored her grandchildren and traveled all over Europe to be with them during their first communions and weddings. She took many vacations, often accompanying her children’s families wherever they went. She spent a lot of her summers on the beach in Italy.

The first thing Martin did during my second visit to him in Germany in 1999 was take me to his Oma’s house, where we decorated her Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree). It was the first time she met me, and she liked me right away.

When I was stationed in Germany a year later, and drove the three hours to Erlangen to visit Martin nearly every weekend, Sunday always meant a visit to Oma’s for coffee and cake. It also meant that every time we drove away from her apartment, she stood on the balcony to wave goodbye. She did this every single time for every single visit.

Oma with us at our wedding reception in 2002

One of my most favorite personal memories of Oma happened at a beer festival. Martin and I weren’t married yet. We agreed to meet up with Oma and Tante Mali in one of the big tents, which are filled with tables for people to sit and drink beer and eat bratwurst while listening to loud polka music. While it was crowded, Martin and Tante Mali were texting each other on their cell phones and she directed us to a corner table.

But when we got to the corner, we just saw a large group of young men still in their rugby uniforms, sitting in a huge circle.

Where was Mali and Oma?

We walked all over that tent, checking every corner, but we could not find them. Martin sent another text. The reponse: We are in THAT corner!

So we walked back to the rugby guys and pushed our way through the bodies to the table. And there, sitting in the middle of that group, laughing and flirting with the raucous men were Oma and Mali, both wearing huge smiles and Oma gripping a large stein of cold brew. She was 90+ years old, and still working it! The young men welcomed us, telling us how awesome and funny our Oma was to them.

With Oma’s passing, a huge chunk of family history goes with her, an entire century of life experiences! I am so thankful for the photos, stories and memories I do have of her, and while I regret that Miss C has no memory of her, and that Lola never got to meet her, they will know of her.

And I hope for all us to follow in her footsteps and live long, full lives. Her journey was not easy, but she never lost her sense of humor, her kindness and warmth to others. I know I will never forget her.

Ruhe in Frieden, Oma!

Oma (on the left) and Tante Mali waving goodbye after our last visit with them in July 2005