Interview with Mrs Paula Howarth nee Wienkütter
I was born on 20th September 1921 in Viehofer Strasse, Essen, in a hospital which had been built by Krupp the big steel manufacturer. We lived in Essen in several different places, we moved around a bit. It was a difficult time in 1921. Germany was being made to pay, quite rightly I imagine, to recover the costs of the war, and the steel manufacturing was taken away, and it was a sort of a sequence. People didn’t have jobs and there was real hardship, which is why Hitler came to power … they were all being trodden down, there were no jobs, no steel industry, all sorts of things were taken away. Naturally they revolted and at that time Hitler was blowing his own trumpet I imagine, and he did have a lot of followers, only because of the way it was all playing out after the (first world) War.
Tell me about your parents
My father did many a job. That was just it, there were no jobs, you had to take and do whatever comes along. He did work on building or any job he could get, it was a hard time. My mother had had a very good job, she worked in the hotel business. She had very good clothes, and she was glad to have these quality clothes because she didn’t get anything else for years. Later she even made things for me, I remember that quite well.
Did your father serve in the first world war?
That is a story all on its own, my Father ran away from home (family were quality shoemakers in good trade) in Essen just before the first world war. He ran away from home onto a ship which arrived in Buenos Ares as the war broke out. He was very young, only seventeen, he went straight away to the consulate in Buenos Ares and said he wanted to go back and fight the war. On the way back when he was being shipped back, the French Navy intercepted that particular ship and he was taken a prisoner of war, (civilian Prisoner of war) and he was put into a camp in France and so never saw anything of the war.
He met my Mother because she was a colleague of an Aunt of mine, his sister, and they came together, but I do know that they got marred in April and I was born in September.
I have a sister, Ruth she is still living in Essen, she is six years younger than me.
Did you have a happy childhood?
I was probably quite happy, I went to school, I think I had quite a happy childhood.
What was it like growing up where you did?
How do you know when you are a young child? You don’t know the ins and outs of parents struggling to feed you. You were happy with a slice of bread with sugar sprinkled over it. That was lovely to eat. We had enough money to get by but not much. Mother was good at managing money.
My Father would go off in the mornings at 3-4 o’clock to the wholesale market and simply hump things about and help, hoping to get paid, but he never did. But he always came home with bags full of fruit perhaps a bit bruised and another bag full of vegetables. That’s was better than money in those days.
There was a very nice lady a neighbour of ours, and she didn’t have children, not early on when I was little. She would take me into the garden and I had a little stove – methylated spirits you put in it.
And she would let me cut things up, and cook things on this little stove, she was lovely. I think my mother had a bad time particularly when my sister was born, and she took over for a while. Til later she (the lady neighbour) had a son. I have a lovely memory of her.
What were your interest as a child?
My father belonged to a (Gymnastics) club, Allgemeine Tun Fahrein (sp?) it was called, and I belonged to it too we did all sorts of things. I loved gymnastics I was quite good at it. When I see gymnastics now, I remember doing things on the two bars, how it hurt my arms. We really enjoyed that, my Father was good at that, particularly on the rings.
Can you remember the build up to the war?
Hitler was sort of blowing his own trumpet, all this rattle. You see pictures sometimes when he is shouting, whatever he is saying. He just got to people, to rouse them. He had that peculiar charisma, I don’t think I ever quite got it, that might have been because my Father was so anti Hitler. I imagine he thought Communism was the thing, which was exactly the same thing but on the reverse of the coin isn’t it? A dictatorship, but he was definitely against Hitler and I imagine I must have been influenced by his thoughts and so on because I hated it and you knew that war was coming and of course much earlier than Britain, because they started with Poland and Sudetenland, he tried to annex all these smaller states and caused nothing but trouble, and in the end Churchill had to say: We go to war.
I was 20 in 1939
My father was quite kind in a way, I do remember one particular family, he took them over the border to Holland in their car. I don’t know whether he got back, if they let him take their car or what, but he did take them over the border to Holland, a Jewish family. Where ever he could he would help, if it was something against the state.
BDM (Bundes Deutsche Maedchen) was very strongly encouraged but father forbade us joining. He had a big influence on my political views.
BDM, well that was the way he got them wasn’t it, even the Pope he was in the Hitler Youth because that was the thing to do, and that’s how he got them, young. For instance, you didn’t have to go to school on a Saturday if you belonged to one of these Youth Clubs, and then you could go out camping and all this sort of thing, which children liked. So that’s how he got them and having a uniform. Of course, I never had one, because my father would never spend any money on a uniform, but a friend of mine had one and I made her take her jacket off because she had the shirt and the tie on and I had nothing. So, I asked her to take her jacket off, so I looked like BDM maedchen, but of course I didn’t last long, I realised what was going on. I don’t think it takes you long to grow up when you see things falling apart around you.
Can you remember the outbreak of the war?
There is nothing that stands out, I do remember the thing with Poland because I was already working then. I had a three years apprenticeship, you had a couple of days studying the theory of whatever you were studying, then you worked.
I first worked for a friend who had started his own business, and got married so he asked me when I had finished my apprenticeship would I come and work for him because his wife had nothing to do with business so she needed a bit of help.
But then he was called up and the business shut, so I had to find myself another job and that is when I went to Emmerich. I was in Emmerich working in a good cafe at the outbreak of war. I witnessed the invasion of Holland in 1940 from the rooftops and served the invading soldiers in our cafe.
We witnessed the invasion of Holland, we were on top of the roof seeing all the airplanes going over and the ‘parachutists’ coming down. Then later on in the café where I worked we had four come in on crutches, they had come down badly and got hurt. Then they were in the hospital in that area, and I ended up in that hospital with Diphtheria, that must have 1941.
The Rhine freezing over; a friend of mine, a chap, he had been on leave, and he said shall we go , and we went right over to Kleve, which is right on the border with Holland.. and on the way back, clambering over these big boulders, the ice had crushed together. We heard on a loudspeaker “Do not cross the river, its very dangerous, the ice is shifting”. We got back alright, only just I imagine.
I had a boyfriend who was in the SS: He was a lovely chap, young. Blonde. You see they wanted them all to be the specimen, in the SS. The poor chap didn’t know what it was all about I don’t think. He was just proud to be in the SS, just for a few months and then he was gone. Don’t know whether he was killed.
Were any of your family called up?
We all had to go and have papers, you had to have an ‘ausweis’, like a passport, you had to go and have a photograph which was stuck in there. Well my father went and he said he couldn’t afford a picture. So, they gave him a mark or whatever it was, and said go and have your picture taken, and he never went back. I don’t know what happened but he was never was caught. But my mother suffered, because she was worried all the time.
I had a cousin, Wilfred, he was taken prisoner in Africa, in that campaign and he was sent to America I think. Why on earth would they send him to America? I don’t know, I am sure they didn’t send people to America from there.
My cousin was actually working for a Jewish family, there were quite a number of Jews in Essen, the big shop owners were usually Jewish. There was a certain area in Essen which was very smart, lovely little villas and so on.
And my cousin was in a queue, for bread or something, and she was defending a Jewish family, saying how nice they were and she had worked for them for ages, and they were almost like parents to her. and the women must have reported her, and she was called in. She was a bit simple because she wouldn’t really think about what she was saying, and luckily the chap who was interviewing her knew a thing or two and he was very kind with her, he told her to be careful and not to say things like that and let her go, I don’t know what happened to him, I think he did that to a lot of people.
Another family friend had a mentally disabled child who was in a state institution. The daughter happened to be at home in another room when an officer arrived and told the mother that her daughter had fallen ill and was dead. The mother kept quiet and then kept the daughter at home to protect her from the state pogroms.
Was it a shock when war broke out?
I was quite ill, and there was an air raid, and I was so ill I couldn’t have cared what was happening, but because of this air raid I was shut into a room somewhere, below the hospital or somewhere, I didn’t know where it was, but suddenly I sort of came to and looked around and there were the dead people all around me, obviously it was the cooler place, the morgue, and I was waking up next to them. But I must have been pretty ill as it didn’t fuss me at all. I would have been a bit nervous, but I wasn’t.
There were nuns (in the hospital) I don’t know why because Hiltler wasn’t keen on having nuns, but I imagine he couldn’t quite get rid of them or he wouldn’t have had staff to run the hospital. I was in hospital with Pneumonia and pleurisy later on, that was a few years later.
I lost my job in Emmerich, because I was ill. I went to a doctor and he was very kind, he said you need a bit of a break, a bit of a holiday, we will send you to a sanitorium. I went to Heiligenberg on the Lake of Constance, beautiful, beautiful area. I was alright, I wasn’t that ill, I could really enjoy it. Every afternoon we were lying outside on the mountainside, there were like deck chairs, but a bit better than a deck chair, with a big blanket over us in the fresh air.
I worked in Hagen after Emmerich, it was a sort of country town it was very quiet. When the aeroplanes were sent over to bomb the dams, the Dambusters that was it. They came over at that time, but it was higher up from the town where I was. The water came rushing through the town as high as the bridge (which you went over before the river was lower down) but there it was practically over the bridge, just below, I just remember seeing a dead cow come rushing down. But the farmer and his wife I think were lost there. It didn’t really do all that much damage because they had already taken all the heavy machinery from the works to the South of Germany, in the countryside somewhere.
The young people were really nice, first we were about three girls working there, and I ended up doing it all on my own as the girls all wanted to be in the army, they didn’t call them by a very nice name, but anyway they all wanted to be in the army. So, I was stuck, I didn’t want to go in the army. The young couple who run this business were very nice, but the old man, was, I think a number below 10, in the Hitler Party which was really quite something. But he was the nastiest old man you could imagine, he really was. He would sort of sit in the little room behind the shop, we would have our breakfast or whatever there, and he would be sitting there, and he would make sure that he would have his butter and his jam, and we didn’t have very much of it. He was nasty, nasty piece of work. His poor wife was still working and she was old, my word, and she still had the kitchen and doing the cooking for us, for the the staff. Oh, what a place!
My family were all living in Essen, of course there was this trouble of being bombed, Essen always being bombed. There was the news over the wireless that Essen had been very badly bombed and many people dead, I just packed up my case or my bag and went off on a train to Essen, I wanted to know whether my parents were alright, there was no telephone or anything. I went off on the train, there was a train in Hagen, but of course I didn’t get to Essen for hours because they were always stopping because there were more bombings going off. When I got to Essen, they couldn’t even get into the proper station, you had to get out before it even got into Essen. As I was walking towards my parents place I saw my father in the distance on top of all the rubble looking for things. Our house hadn’t been directly bombed, it had sort of had a lift from the other house which had been bombed. This house had lifted and fallen down, so of course mattresses were alright, and pots and pans were alright, metal things, but everything else was gone.
I went on a country walk with a friend and an aeroplane came over, a lightweight one I think, it wasn’t a bomber but it suddenly started shooting! Down this mountain road that we were on. We both looked at each other, we had light coloured coats on, and threw ourselves into the ditch. It was frightening. Eventually I was signed off as fit enough to return to Essen. Train journey home was really long and all trains were packed with soldiers. Family had been allocated (by the town) a lovely apartment in Richard Wagner Strasse in Essen Sud, belonging to a family who had left for the south for safety. The worst thing was, one day after the war I was back in Essen, I was walking with my sister, I don’t know where to where from it was I was walking with her, and there was a lorry coming past full of English soldiers, and one suddenly took a gun, a big one, not a hand gun, and just shot I could feel the heat and my sister just snapped her head away because she really felt the heat, it did not hit her but I did (feel the heat) just walking next to her. That was awful, I mean they couldn’t have cared less, nobody would have followed that up, yes that was a fright. That must have been after the war was over, otherwise there wouldn’t have been this lorry of English soldiers.
Tell me about the camaraderie in your community.
Where I was living a lot of people did not think like me and you had to be careful to keep your trap shut!, I remember once in a café where I was working there was a chap who would always come and have his coffee, he was a lecturer at the college, he would come in and have his cup of coffee, and I said to him, there was a joke going around, something about Goebbels and this nasty little right hand chap called Hitler. I was making this joke and he looked at me and he said “Paula don’t ever repeat jokes that you hear like that, it is too dangerous”, if people wanted to keep their job they had to join ‘the parti’ a particular party and if you are a family man, you had a wife and children, you blooming well wear that thing (swastika) whatever, whether you agreed with it or not. I imagine there must have been no end of people who would rather not have worn that, but there you are.
We had enough food to go by, it was very dreary, being in a café for a while we even had things to sell like cakes, which was quite something. But even that cake went off by the by, we only had one old chap a baker, and he occasionally made a cake but he usually took it home with him, he didn’t give it to us to sell. So, what we sold was just drinks, nothing else. I mean how they kept the place open I don’t know. But it was right opposite the station in Hagen, and it was a big station for exchanging trains, people having to wait an hour would come out into the cafe and have a cup of coffee.
I was running towards a shelter which had been built specially for the people in Hagen, and as I said in Hagen we didn’t have a lot of trouble with bombs dropping. But one night we had a real air raid and I think I heard bombs dropping, but it must have been a good way away. I still remember running and it must have been the fright or something, I had the taste of blood in my mouth it was really quite horrible, and I heard these noises and ran and stood in a doorway, as if that would have helped, but anything to feel a bit safer. Then when I got to the shelter there was all that terrible trouble, people having rushed down the shelter and of course once they were in there they were feeling safe and stopped, instead of going on and making room, and there were people were killed by being trodden on and asphyxiated but that was awful.
After the war was over
Because of ration books and all that sort of thing you had to go to the offices and sign on so that you got your ration card and so that you were properly registered because a lot of people had left and come back again to Essen when the war was over. So, you were called up if you wanted your papers and your ration books and all that, and I went to the office and I was interviewed, and there was a telephone call while I was there and the women talked to whoever it was and turned to me and she said “Do you speak any English?” I said “Yes a little”, a bit I had learnt at school, and that’s when they sent me to Villa Hugel which was the seat of the Krupps the industrialists.
It was a beautiful house there right by the river, so they wanted cleaner girls. So, I went for my interview there and got this job as a cleaner girl, which meant pushing a vacuum cleaner or carpet sweeper or something like that and a duster, because all the rooms had been taken over by British, American, Dutch, Belgian they all were there all the little cliques and so I started off as a cleaner girl.
By the lake at the bottom there they had a boathouse they called it, where they did their rowing and so on and they had taken that over for the officers to have a recreational place, a place where they could just go and also go rowing and so on and they sent me down there to work, which was nice as it was a really nice place. Not much to do, only one soldier who was sort of in charge, and in the evenings the officers would come down have a drink and so on, and I worked then as well as lunchtime. And then the girls up at the big house in the bar and in the dining, room were all Polish girls, they had the nicer jobs because the poor things had been brought over to work in the factories, but I imagine, quite honestly, they had volunteered to go because it was a better life than in Poland. There was a story going about that it was the first time they had seen a toilet with a flush action on it and they had been scared stiff, there were all sorts of silly things going around, which you don’t know whether they are true or not, all sorts of rubbishy things. But anyway, I did work there in the boathouse and after Stalin was asking them to send all the Polish girls and Czechoslovakian girls back to their home, they had to go whether they wanted to or not, and they did not want to go. They were in tears, one or two quickly got married to some English soldiers and got pregnant so that they did not have to go back. That was a horrible time, because they were in tears not wanting to go back, I imagine they wouldn’t have known what their life was going to be like.
But anyway, they had to go and once they were gone there were all these rooms, all these places left in the officer’s mess bar and that’s where I ended up. My husband was there, my future husband and I was not believing any of, all it means you know, they are coming on their way through and they’re going back home, they are not serious. But he was determined.
He was demobbed in November and was determined to get me over and set everything in motion trying to get me to come and there was such a lot of hoo- ha going on. One or two were trying to trick me to have something to say, which would not have been a good point. But I remember one officer gave a party, because I was going to leave the job and we were having some drinks and there were several officers and one or two other girls who were working there, and one of them was trying to make a pass and when I said, no I am engaged to Laurie. He said Who is to know? I looked at him and said “I would know” and he looked back at me, you know really properly and nodded his head. I am sure to this day that they were trying to trick me into something like that, and then be able to say no, no. But that’s the sort of thing, you will never really get the truth of it.
Anyway, I did get over here, and oh dear the journey. There was such a rigmarole, and you had to be examined, very thoroughly examined.
We had to get married, which also was a joke, whenever we, Laurie and I, went to see his relations or friends to introduce me and so on, I would say “Oh yes we had to get married”, he would always say, “No, no, we had to get married because that is the law.”
My Mother was in much tears, if there wouldn’t have been a friend of mine staying with my Mother, sending me off, “Go on, go on,” I might have not gone, because that moment of leaving my Mother behind not knowing whether I would ever see her again, which was a possibility then, that was just awful, that was the most awful moment.
But I got here and I was determined to be the last off the boat. I had to make an entrance, didn’t I?