When Times Were Tough

This photo was taken in 1939 or 1940 in Germany. This is my father’s family. That’s him front and center – the only one of his siblings to carry the darker, Spanish genes of his mother.

His mother waited until she was in her early 30s to get married and start a family. She had a career. But then she fell in love with this lummox in the Luftwaffe uniform, or he fell in love with her — or maybe they  fell in love with each other. Anyway, they got married.

Shortly after this photo was taken, the little girl, Marlis, my auntie, died of diphtheria.  This is the only photo I’ve ever seen of Marlis and I only just got this a couple of weeks ago from my uncle. (The babe in arms).

While the family was still grieving the loss of poor little Marlis, the lummox in the uniform went and got himself killed in some war-related incident.

So then my grandmother was alone with 3 young boys to raise in the middle of a war. No one has been able to tell me exactly how she managed it. Her career had been as a designer in a fashion house, so I can’t imagine there was much call for that at the time, but I would think probably her sewing skills kept her earning something.

She did end up having to send the 2 older boys away to  Kinderlandverschickung (KLV) camps in rural areas of East Prussia, which were designed ostensibly to protect children from the ravages of war in urban areas. (The link also includes a heart-warming KLV propaganda film)

My dad never talked much about those times much. I understand he spent time at at least one wonderful place and at least one horrible place. And from what I’ve read, some of those places were pretty Lord-of-the-Flies by the end of the war, in that all the adults had been called into service, leaving the camps to be run and managed by teenagers.

My dad did somehow come away from those years with a love of farming. After the war, he went through the motions of training for a career in the city, but as soon as he could, he ditched it, immigrated to Canada and became a farmer.

Except for the baby, all the people in this photo are now dead.


20 responses to “When Times Were Tough

  1. Luftwaffe, wow, that is really German. I have too have to wonder how your not very German looking Grandmother made out after her husband was killed. Of course Hitler wasn’t very German looking himself was he?

  2. a reminder of how comfortable our lives are now.
    so many stories from those years are lost forever, mostly from the pain of remembering, I would think.
    it is nice to have photos of your elders as children.

  3. I’m assuming that back in those days families didn’t have life insurance, or maybe it was only available to the very wealthy. That left women in a very vulnerable position if their spouse should die, because they either never worked outside the home, or if they did, they only made a fraction of what men could bring home. My great grandmother on my mother’s side was left a widow during the flu epidemic of 1918. She was forced to split her 3 children up between other family members in order to survive. My father’s father died of tuberculosis in 1941. His mother had to send him and his brother to an orphanage for awhile. I think that affected him for the rest of his life, but like your father, he never talked about it.

    It’s so very sad to think of how many families this happened to, especially with all those soldiers who were killed at war. I’m glad you have the photo to remember them by.

  4. Dr. Monkey – I wish I’d had a chance to get to know my grandparents and hear their stories first-hand.

    Geewits – No, only me and my parents immigrated. I never saw this grandmother again though we used to write letters.

    Cedar – She was the widow of a good solider and had his good Aryan children who she sent off to Party (not in the woo-hoo fun sense) camps. I don’t think they actually eliminated everyone who wasn’t blond.

    Violetsky – Yes, we’re not very good at being the keepers of our family history. This grandfather, for instance was born in a part of Europe that was Prussia/Lithuania/Poland/etc. He had about 9 siblings and they all scattered to the 4 winds when those countries were shuffled around. No one knows where they went or what became of them. Some, I understand came to Canada and the US. The family name is very common in Nova Scotia, and not anywhere else in Canada, so I kept thinking while I was there that some of these people could be my relatives. But how would I find out after all this time?

    Skye – I don’t know if there was life insurance or some sort of widow’s pension – especially after a depression and a war. I should imagine she got something as the wife of a soldier and they don’t seem poor judging from this photo. I know he was in the hotel business before enlisting. Thanks for sharing your story, too. How heartbreaking it must have been to have to send your children away like that. I can’t imagine it. We really don’t know how good we’ve got it sometimes.

  5. Whenever I feel like my life is particularly difficult I need only think about situations like the one you’ve written about here and poof! any self-pity disppears.
    I love reading about family histories – and bonus points for adding visuals!

  6. The books are chock full of the stories of the forces during war but the suffering and deprivation it causes for the entire population is so much worse. It just doesn’t rouse “good feelings” of patriotic sacrifice like a Private Ryan movie so there is no desire on the part of the war mongers to preserve this par of history.
    Our generation in Canada which has never really known war has been blessed by that lack. I sure hope it keeps going.

  7. This was such an interesting post. I love seeing old family photos and knowing the history behind them. Gawd knows, we have so many of these laying around but we don’t actually know the story behind them. It’s amazing how strong adults can be as well as how strong children can be when forced to do so. I can only imagine what your father must have lived through. I got confused by your last sentence though … I thought the baby sister died. Is it the youngest brother who is still alive? Does he live in Canada now too?

  8. Meanie – Well, I always think we’re still allowed to live our own lives and feel discontent or unhappiness if that’s what we feel. We can’t live always by comparing ourselves to people who were worse off or better off than us. But I get what you’re saying. Thanks for the bonus points – the visual actually prompted the post.

    LGS – Ya, no one seemed to have a fun time of it. Neither my mother or father had much of a childhood because of the war.

    Dave – War movies make it all look like a great bonding experience or something. It’s interesting sometimes to get the perspective of the “bad guys”, too.

    Julie – The little sister died shortly after the photo was taken at age 4, her father died soon after in some bomb blast in the war, the mother died in 1969, my father died in 1984, his older brother died a couple of years ago and the baby – my uncle is still alive and living in Germany. Does that clear it up? I love our old photos and have been nagging my poor uncle mercilessly for more and for the stories behind them. Unfortunately he was so young he barely remembers anything and was told even less, so I have to piece things together from what my dad told me directly; what he told my mother and she later told me and what little the uncle remembers. I wish someone had had the foresight to keep a blog back then!!

  9. I have an absolute gem of a keepsake from my grandfather. It’s an audio tape record in 1986, when he was 80, of him recounting how he and an uncle left the Sarnia area to head North when Grandpa was 18. The train trip took him to Iroquois Falls, where he found work, met my grandmother, and the rest is family history.
    The tape was made by a student working for the summer for the local museum. I just listened to it last week, as I was writing an article based on that interview for the upcoming history book on Iroquois Falls.
    I will get the tape dubbed to CD to preserve it and Grandpa’s story even more.

  10. Family history is very interesting. And we certainly have it easy.

    The storey that always sticks with me is from my dad’s family. He was one of 2 boys. My grandparents only had two kids because when you are starving, your body doesn’t make babies. They grew up in depression africa. But what used to freak me out was when it rained, my father and grandfather would go and stand out in it. That is because it didn’t rain for over 3 years once. Three YEARS! Not one drop. Everything died. They had a barrel for water, they would wash in it, cook from it and drink from it. They had a spigot in the middle of the barrel as the scum was on the top and the dirt on the bottom. Can you imagine. Now I can turn on the tap and let it run all day.

    But they survived and now I am here. I hope I am making them proud and that it was worth it.


  11. Wow. It’s great that you have this photo. We’re not great on family history on my side—my husband’s parents can trace back pretty far—but my dad, who was born in 1928, has managed to save some amazing photos from his childhood. It’s the only connection I have to some of my grandparents and great-grandparents.

  12. My mother was a widow at age 41; with nine children aged 16 (me) down to 6. I don’t know how she managed either. Can you even imagine getting 9 children off to school and then heading out to be a supply teacher? No, neither can I.

    I never whine to my mother.

  13. We are sooooo lucky to live here in Canada right now, aren’t we? Three of my four grandparents immigrated to Canada sometime between 1910 and 1917, and the other was born here only because the family got here before she was conceived. I often think about how I came to have this life that I have in part because of those four people. Another thought-provoking post, XUP!

  14. Bob – That’s cool. I wish I had some of my family stories from the horses’ mouths.

    Jazz – Sometimes. We DO have our own issues to contend with though.

    Eyeteaguy – Hey! Where’ve ya been? And wow – that’s definitely a “when times were tough” story. It’s so hard to imagine so many people all over the world living on next to no water – even today. I think I may do a blog post on it some time soon. It’s mind boggling…something we take for granted and in such enormous quantities.

    Mo – Nobody else in my family seems to care too much about keeping track of the family photos and stories either. I’ve been nagging everyone since I was a teenager, but they dole out info so sparingly. I’m only just getting some of these photos because my uncle retired and discovered the internet and likes to scan things.

    Grace – I’m sure at 16 you had a whole bunch of the responsibility of helping to look after your siblings and the house, etc.

    Pinklea – Yes, we are lucky. We had some tough ancestors. I always wonder what my great grandchildren will think of our generation and our contribution to their lives?

  15. Hey! Right back at you.

    I read your blog everyday. I just don’t comment as often as I should. Since your posts are so thought provoking I like to have an equally thought provoking comment. But by the time it has formed in my head I get 15 interuptions…

    I am basically a single dad and I run an IT department for a company with 15 locatations. The average user level is dolt so I have my hands full.

    Keep posting and I’ll keep reading.


  16. I got up early to tend to Max this morning. And when I went back to bed, my mind imagined that I had a little scrapbook made for each person in the family. One one page is an old family photo and on the facing page is a direct quote from a family member that I interviewed telling me who the people are and a little bit about them. I really need to do this before the memories are lost.