OBERKALBACH, HESSEN, GERMANY
Village of My Berthold & Ullrich Ancestors
Johannes Berthold and Eva Ullrich
I'm sure Johannes and Eva enjoyed listening to their children sing when they gathered outside the house under the overhang and some of the neighbor children would join them and they sang old folk songs in harmony. The Berthold children had been blessed with good voices and an ear for music. The whole neighborhood enjoyed listening.
My Aunt Gretel told of her brother Ludwig blowing into a basket to make music in the living room while some of the siblings tried to teach the others how to dance. Mother also told me that at some point in her youth her father and her older sister Lisbeth were in a community play. Mother was jealous that she was too young to be in it. The whole family certainly must have enjoyed the yearly fair when it came to town.
How did they support their family? Eva had a little garden at the back of the house where she grew vegetables. She spun flax into yarn and then knitted sweaters and socks for the family. Johannes raised and slaughtered his own pigs, making sausage from the meat. The cows, who were used to pull wagons and plow fields, also provided the family's milk. Any excess was sold to a dairy farmer. In winter, Johannes worked at chopping wood and scraping the bark from it to prepare it for use in building houses. In spring, Johannes worked as a "Steinhauer" (stonecutter) - shaping stones to be used for stone walls and cobblestone streets. He also made brooms out of twigs and sold them. On Fridays, he gathered eggs and butter from the townspeople and hitched a ride to a large city to sell them.In this village, as in others in that area, people wore wooden shoes. Johannes carved the wooden shoes for his whole family. Although money was scarce, there was usually enough to eat, although sometimes it was only potatoes and "Matte" (similar to ricotta cheese) or milk soup made out of lumps of flour mixed with water and boiled in the milk.
When World War I broke out, Johannes was called to serve. The drafted men came marching through the village and Johannes and his brother joined in with them. His father was still alive and living in the house with the family. While Johannes was gone, Heinrich ruled Eva and the children with an iron hand. At one point, he got angry with one of the boys and beat him over the head with a sharp pointed rake, injuring him quite severely. Eva became very upset with Heinrich and stood up to him for once. He also beat a cow who was delivering a calf during the night, because she was making too much noise.
Because Johannes had many children, he did not have to serve in the front lines but worked as a cook, traveling with his unit. Flyers would be brought to the villages giving news of the war. Twenty men from Oberkalbach died in the war and three were missing in action, but Johannes came back safe to his wife and children. One day, one of the children spotted him walking towards home and ran into the house to tell Eva. Needless to say, there was great joy that day in the Berthold house. However, Johannes' only brother, two years his junior, had died in the war.
Raising so many children under such primitive conditions must have been stressful. Yet Eva mourned when her little 3-year old Baltasar died. When asked by one of her other children why she was so sad when she still had so many other children, she replied that every child was precious. Johannes, too, was a loving and patient father. He was strict, though. When the children were acting in a way that displeased him, he opened his eyes wide and stared at them and they knew that they had better straighten up their act. When discipline was necessary, Johannes was the one to administer it. Eva, when upset with her children, punished by not speaking with them. She sometimes kept some of their mischief from their father. She spent her whole life in Oberkalbach, probably never going more than a few miles distance in her lifetime.
During World War II, all of the Berthold sons served in the military. All except one returned home. The second youngest son, Andreas, was captured on the Russian front. He was placed in a prisoner of war camp near Samara, Russia, where he died of starvation in January 1945, at age 24, four months before the end of the war. During the War, a French soldier named Jean was captured by the Germans, held as a prisoner of war, and placed at the Berthold home to help with the farm chores until the war was over. Eva and Johannes liked the soldier and got along well with him despite the language barrier.
In April 1945, a month before the end of the war, as the American soldiers marched into Oberkalbach at the lower end of the village, a French prisoner of war, like Jean, ran out into the street. In French, he shouted at the Americans not to shoot these German people, that they were good people. Not understanding him, the bewildered Americans panicked and started shooting as they made their way through the village. They shot into homes and barns and set buildings on fire, destroying 17 homes and 33 barns and workshops, leaving 70 people homeless, six people dead, and some of the livestock burned to death. An additional 11 buildings were partially destroyed.
The village pastor's pleadings with the Americans finally brought the attack to a halt before the village was totally devastated. Had more inhabitants been in the village, there would have been more deaths. But fear had caused many, having been warned by the German government what might happen to them when the conquerors came to claim their territory, to run into the fields to hide even before the attack began.
My mother had stored a wooden wardrobe containing my deceased father's clothes in the Berthold house. She was planning on having them made into clothes for my 12-year-old brother, Wolfgang, after the war. During the attack, a shot fired into the house went through the wardrobe and its contents, ruining the clothes. At the time of this event, my mother, brother and I were temporarily living with her sister's family in another village in order to escape the heavy bombing taking place near our home near Frankfurt am Main.
Years of hard work took its toll on Eva. By middle age she looked older than her actual years. There was no doctor or dentist in the village, nor money to get any medical or dental care. She lost many of her teeth. She also had a large goiter caused by the lack of iodine in the diet. With age she grew heavier, but when her health problems escalated, she became quite thin.
I still remember her being able to cook and make bread before we left Germany. When Eva made bread, she made large amounts. She divided up a huge lump of kneaded dough into several large flat baskets that she had set on the floor in one corner of the living room, each with a linen cloth in it. The dough rose and then the baskets were carried out to the community baking-house down the street. Each lump of raised dough was lifted out of its basket, placed on the paddle-end of a long stick, and shoved deep into the gigantic brick oven. They came out as big round dark brown loaves of rye bread, called Bauern Brot (farmer's bread).
During the last year of her life, Eva's health failed rapidly. As the Pfingsten holiday (Whitsun or Pentecost) approached, she commented that she thought the family's holidays would be spoiled. On Pfingsten, 24 May 1953, at age 72, Eva died of congestive heart failure. Her body, unembalmed, was laid in a wooden coffin and placed in the addition to the house, where friends and family came to pay their last respects. About a year later, my mother in the U.S. sent money she had saved to Johannes to purchase Eva's gravestone. After Eva's death, their son Hannes and his wife and two children came to live with Johannes to help with the work and take care of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.
The last time I saw my grandparents together was when we went to Oberkalbach to say goodbye before leaving for America in October 1949. The living room benches around the walls were all occuped by relatives who had come to wish us farewell. Mother insisted that I go around and politely shake the hand of each aunt, uncle and cousin and curtsy as I said goodbye. It was embarrassing for a shy 10-year-old girl but I did it. Grandmother looked at my mother and said, "Are you sure you want to go across that big water?"
We saw my grandfather one more time when we visited on our first return trip to Germany in 1955. He weighed me because he thought I was much too skinny at 16 and took on a personal project to fatten me up while we were visiting for 6 weeks. He survived my grandmother by 7 years. He passed away peacefully in 1960, sitting in the outhouse :-).
Copyright 2000-2008 by Sue Foster. Please contact me for permission to copy. I would like to know why you are interested in this information :-)