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The Final Christmas in Bessarabia, 1939- The First Christmas in Germany, 1940

Die Letzten Weihnachten in Bessarabien 1939 - die Ersten Weihnachten in Deutschland 1940

Ueltzhoefer, Erna (Kaldun). "The Final Christmas in Bessarabia, 1939- The First Christmas in Germany, 1940." Mitteilungsblatt, 20 December 2007, 1-2.

This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


For us children our beloved Christmas time was indeed the most wonderful time of the year. The Christmas Bazaar, which we always attended, provided us with early and happy anticipation. It took place at the Sportsverein [sports club] in Tarutino. The large hall, with its gorgeous stage and the heavy, cornflower blue curtain, was decorated for the Christmas season. In front of the curtain, artfully crocheted covers and doilies were offered for purchase. Filling the entire hall were three long rows of tables arranged end-to-end. The first row presented all sorts of food items and drinks, fine baked goods, candies, waffles and much more. In the second row there were hand-crafted items and Christmas decorations, embroidered goods, children's clothing and dolls. In the third row one could find other hand-crafted goods such as wooden toys made by pupils from the older grades.

For us girls of, say, ten to twelve years of age this was a brightly lit, glittering, beaming fairytale world. There we already had electric lighting, which made for a powerful difference over the petroleum lamps that were still providing light for all our homes.

Only the main buildings and street lights were powered by electricity. We nearly forgot that we must be at home on time. The street lights were already burning. Mother was already standing at the wall fence next to the street and was looking for us to arrive. "Where could they still be?" But as soon as she saw our beaming faces and had heard about our joyous experiences at the Christmas Bazaar, Mother's agitation was all gone.

The market was offering Christmas trees - I don't think that every family was able to get one, because on the one hand there were never enough in supply for a large village like Tarutino and, on the other, the trees, having been imported from the Carpathian Mountains and Sibengebuergen, were very expensive.

People were happy just to find small branches on the street, which were likely dropped by someone else taking a tree home.

Very apropos to this is a pretty song we loved to sing:

The Christmas tree is the most beautiful tree we have on this earth. In the smallest room - how lovely even the smallest such miracle tree greens when its lights are burning, lights are burning, yes, burning.

Christmas Eve was the highlight. Everyone in the family would attend devotions in the gathering hall of the Baptist community.

I can remember to this day how, with heart beating and with serious stage fright, one had to recite a small saying. Most of the time it worked out just fine. Worship services were always very festive. And while we were staring at the decorated Christmas tree, the old well-known Christmas hymns we had learned in Sunday school were intoned.

For example:

Sei uns mit Jubelschalle, Christkindlein, heute gegruesst. Wir freuen uns alle, dass dein Geburtstag ist. Fuer uns zur Welt geboren, lagst du auf Heu und Stroh, sonst waeren wir verloren, jetzt sind wir froh. [Receive, Christchild, with cheerful sounds, our greeting today. We are all happy that today is your birthday. Born for us into this world, you lay on a bed of hay and straw, or we would otherwise be lost, but now we rejoice.]

or Welch ein Jubel, welche Freude. [Such jubilation, such joy]

From in front of the wondrously beautiful Christmas tree each child received a gift, a small bag filled with cookies and many other sweets. Then we would sing "Oh, du froehliche." [Christmas song to the tune of O Sanctissima - Tr.] After we arrived at home, there was more giftgiving.

But first there would be a good meal, then the door to the "good room" would be opened, and there stood a beautifully decorated small tree. In front of it there lay my doll, now wearing a new checkered, pleated skirt and a white blouse. And for me there was also a sweater. My older siblings also received their presents.

During the First Day of Christmas, a worship service was held in the afternoon for all the school children. We met at school, then went to the church that was right next door, and there, too, each child received a small bag containing all sorts of baked goodies and candies. This was very special, because we never received such good things during the rest of the year.

For some time, our small fir tree had its honored place in the "good room." But as time passed, decorations were gradually removed from the tree, and eventually it landed outside in the yard. My mother would sometimes snip off a twig and burn it so we could enjoy the smell of the fir tree needles.

The resettlement to Germany occurred during 1940. In mid-October we left Bessarabia and Tarutino, our beloved home village. Following a journey by ship on the Danube lasting several days, from the harbor city of Reni to Prachovo (Yugoslavia), we continued onward by train until we reached Bad Winsheim (Central Franconia) and Waldheim ["Forest House"], only about 20 kilometers [12 miles] farther. There were only two houses in Waldheim. The building in which people from Tarutino (around eighty persons) were quartered had presumably housed a recuperation home run by religious-order nuns, or a school. The other building was an old folks home. The two buildings were situated adjacent to a forest, down in a very beautiful valley.

We had arrived there during late afternoon. It took some time before we were all assigned rooms and found out with whom we had to share a room. In our room, there were beds one right next to another. My parents, my sister, my brother and I, a man with a grown son, and a young married couple with a baby - we were ten people in all. But we immediately got along in this tight squeeze.

Already in the building were a camp director (an SS man), three Deaconess nuns and several kitchen workers. They all were quite anxious to see what kind of folks these Bessarabians were, what they looked like, and whether they might be able to understand us. Well, here we were, and to everyone's surprise they also understood us. Meanwhile evening came, and a gong sounded to indicate that supper was ready. And just the way all of us took our places at table that first time, that's the way it remained - for five months!

Then something happened that I will never forget, and the same for all who were present. Supper consisted of spinach, boiled potatoes, and a fried egg for everyone. The food we certainly tasted, but none of us was familiar at all with spinach, so everyone went to bed hungry. But in the course of time everything went well. Our mothers began to help out in the kitchen, and thus we had a genuine Bessarabian meal now and then, even strudels and potatoes.

Very soon it was Advent time. Every Sunday morning we received a small advent stollen [seasonal bread] for breakfast. By the way, everyone was assigned some kind of work. Women who volunteered were able to help in the kitchen, others with the laundry and the ironing. The men and all able-bodied youth had to work in ammunitions factory in Oberdachstein. As mentioned above, the building was situated deep in a valley and surrounded by pine trees, ones that we had not seen in Bessarabia. The smell of these pines was wonderful - and to get to the bus station and the main street we had to walk uphill through the pine forest, I can't remember how many steps. This made for a kind of morning exercise for everyone who had to go to work then.

Some of the young men had to report for medical examinations for military service. School children like me - I was twelve years old at the time - had to attend school in Urvertshofen, a neighboring village. The children there did not like us at all. Adjacent to the school was a creek. At recess, the others would tear the hats from our boy's heads and throw them into the creek, while they pulled us girls by our braids. But there were also some nice children who would even share their buttered bread with us. None of us really wanted to go to that school. The camp director seemed to understand and allowed us to be schooled in the camp.

During the medical examinations for military service, the young man in our room, by the name of Otto Wonnenberg, was inducted. And the way things were, some went out celebrating. The young man came back to our room late, while all of us were already asleep. Our room had a bay window area, which contained his bed. He must have confused the window for a door and fell out the window, several meters down [ a meter is just over three feet]. Someone heard a scream. It turned out he was seriously injured and was taken to a hospital in Ansbach., where he died very soon afterwards. It was a big shock for all of our people, but especially for those of us who lived in the same room with him.

During Advent, people made a lot of crafts by hand, and the best products were reserved for presents. Christmas Eve came, and the mess hall was decorated festively, the tables had white covers, and there was a large Christmas tree, decorated with pretty, colorful balls and white cotton wool.

The camp director, wearing a black uniform, gave the festive speech. I am unable to repeat it word for word. He said something like: "Christmas is celebrated because the Light of the World once again burns and warms the people, because the evergreens are still green, a renewal of nature." He did not believe it was because some time back a child with the name of Jesus had been born. He wished us all a merry Christmas.

But somehow the Christmas spirit just did not come up. Even the old trusted Christmas songs remained muted - not a single one was sung. Over the radio we were hearing new songs such as [here in somewhat translation]:

Deep night of bright stars, which stand like a far bridge toward a deep, faraway distance, over which our hearts reside. Mothers, for you all the fires, all the candles are set. Deep in your hearts beats the heart of the wide world.

and

For us a time has come which brings us great joy. We wander across snow-covered fields, out into the wide, white world. Brooks are sleeping, and lakes lie under the ice, the forest dreams a deep dream. Through the quietly falling snow we wander, wander through the wide, white world. From the skies above a gleaming stillness fills hearts with bliss. Under a starlit tent we wander, wander through the wide, white world.

Giftgiving

We children were given presents, and that made us happy. Every child received a present - a very nice one, in fact. I got a question-and-answer game that ran on batteries. Two colors would light up for "correct/wrong." Our parents, however, must have gone to bed with other thoughts. It was still the First Day of Christmas. In the building we were quartered, in there was a small, attached chapel that could be entered from inside our building. Our mothers and the nuns had convinced the camp director to allow them to use the chapel for a brief devotion. People were happy and joyous. Across from us was the old folks home, for whose residents a Christmas pageant was presented by the staff, who, to every one's astonishment, were allowed to come across to our building and provide us with some enjoyment as well. This was our first Christmas in Germany, and for those who experienced it that year it will likely remain in their memories as long as they live!

Note: the remembrance of these times of my childhood I owe to a stomach-intestinal virus, which for the first time in my nearly eighty years caused me to be bedridden on Christmas Eve!

Our appreciation is extend to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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