I can’t tell these tales the way Oma did – she was the heroine of them all, but she told them with an amused twinkle in her eye, without boasting and in her broad Pfälzisch dialect, reliving the situations and events as she spoke. We actually managed to record her surreptitiously one day, but sadly someone recorded something else on that tape, and erased Oma’s reminiscings
She was born in 1900 and only 64 when I first met her, but she considered herself an old woman and dressed accordingly in black or navy blue as befitted a widow, her snowy white hair tied in a bun in the nape of her neck. She looked like a million other old women aged between 60 and 90 in Germany at that time. Grey stockings rather than black and maybe a white collar were her only concessions to the fact that widow’s weeds were only supposed to be worn for a year. She was in permanent mourning for her husband and her son who had died ten years previously.
At the end of WWI, the village of Lemberg in the Palatinate of the Rhine was in the zone occupied by the French army. Ella was 18 or 19 at the time, an attractive, lively girl. She had no love or respect for the French, and certainly not for the puny little men prancing around playing heroes, and treating the local Germans like dirt. One day, she went to the family garden where they were growing much needed vegetables and fruit, and discovered a French soldier scrumping apples from her tree. Pitchfork in hand, she went into battle and chased him, screaming for his life, right through the village all the way to the army camp, where she halted only because of the armed guards on duty at the gate. After that, her apple tree and vegetable garden were safe. Her opinion of the French army was unprintable.
One evening during the Third Reich her husband Albert didn’t come home from the local pub, so Ella went out to look for him.
“Oh,” she was told, “He’s been arrested and he’s in the lock-up.”
“Arrested? What for?”
“But Albert isn’t interested in politics. What’s he done?
“Insulted the Führer!”
Ella was shocked and perplexed: meek and mild Albert had insulted the Führer? And now he was in jail. It was too late for her to do anything about it that night, so she went home to bed still puzzling over what on earth he could have done. First thing next morning she presented herself at the police station to enquire about the case and rescue her criminal husband. After all the formalities had been settled, she confronted him. What had happened?
“Well, we were in the middle of a card game and the innkeeper came and told us we had to leave because he was closing. We said we’d like to finish the game, but he insisted. Said there was a curfew, it was time, and he had to close by order of the Führer.”
“And?” asked Ella.
“I said the Führer can kiss my arse. So he reported me and I was arrested.”
Führerbeleidigung was a very serious matter.
There are no secrets in a village. Ella heard on the grapevine that her husband was cheating on her with another woman from the village, so she decided to deal with the situation. She knew that the woman in question was due to arrive back on the bus at a given time, so she marched off to the bus stop to meet her. It was raining, so she took her big black umbrella with her, and when the woman alighted from the bus Ella laid into her with her umbrella and beat her black and blue. That put an end to the affair.
I always wondered how her husband regarded this. Alas, he was no longer around to give his side of the story.
During WWII, an SS group was stationed to Lemberg. The Kommandant decided that Ella’s and Albert’s house overlooking the village was an ideal location for his Kommandatur. He set up his HQ in the kitchen, which was cosy and warm because of the big iron range that was constantly burning, as this was where Ella cooked and baked.
One day, a young soldier arrived to be reprimanded because of some misdemeanour he had committed. Ella felt sorry for this young lad who was only a couple of years older than her own son, as he stood quaking in his boots before the SS Captain. When the Captain finally dismissed him, she told the private to sit down and placed a bowl of stew before him. The lad was obviously hungry and about to tuck in when the Captain yelled at him to get out.
Ella drew herself up to her full height – she was not a small woman – and glared at the Captain. He turned on her and told her off for interfering.
“This is MY HQ and I deal with my men as I like!” he roared.
“And this is MY kitchen, and I cooked that stew, and I can invite whoever I like to eat it!” she snapped, standing between the furious Captain and the table where the soldier was sitting.
“That boy looks like a scarecrow! You want to win this war with scared, starving kids like that?”
Then standing guard over the petrified private she added:
“Guten Appetit, junger Mann!”
And he didn’t dare refuse.