Malve von Hassell is a freelance writer, researcher, and translator. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the New School for Social Research. Working as an independent scholar, she published The Struggle for Eden: Community Gardens in New York City (Bergin & Garvey 2002) and Homesteading in New York City 1978-1993: The Divided Heart of Loisaida (Bergin & Garvey 1996). She has also edited her grandfather Ulrich von Hassell's memoirs written in prison in 1944, Der Kreis schließt sich - Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft 1944 (Propylaen Verlag 1994). She has taught at Queens College, Baruch College, Pace University, and Suffolk County Community College, while continuing her work as a translator and writer. She has published two children’s picture books, Tooth Fairy (Amazon KDP 2012/2020), and Turtle Crossing (Amazon KDP 2021), and her translation and annotation of a German children’s classic by Tamara Ramsay, Rennefarre: Dott’s Wonderful Travels and Adventures (Two Harbors Press, 2012). The Falconer’s Apprentice (namelos, 2015) was her first historical fiction novel for young adults. She has published Alina: A Song for the Telling (BHC Press, 2020), set in Jerusalem in the time of the crusades, and The Amber Crane (Odyssey Books, 2021), set in Germany in 1645 and 1945, as well as a biographical work about a woman coming of age in Nazi Germany, Tapestry of My Mother’s Life: Stories, Fragments, and Silences (Next Chapter Publishing, 2021), and is working on a historical fiction trilogy featuring Adela of Normandy.
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First and foremost, a biographical account of a woman coming of age in Germany in the 1930s, this book was inspired by letters as well as stories told to her children. CHRISTA VON HASSELL’s story spans the 1920s to 2009; born in Farther Pomerania in 1923, she attended university and married during World War II. Her father and her only brother died at the front in 1943, and her first husband died in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Soviet Union. Her maternal relatives, along with millions of other Germans, evacuated from Pomerania at the end of World War II, and Christa’s childhood home was to become a part of Poland. At the end of the war, she lived for three years under Soviet occupation. She eventually made her way to the west where she remarried. She spent many years of her married life abroad, finally retiring and living in America until her death.
The retelling of Christa’s life is focuses on the role of memory and its impact on subsequent generations, seeking to shed light on the process whereby children learn about their parents’ lives during extraordinary times. For the second generation of people who have lived through the Nazi era and World War II, there are profound challenges in coming to terms with the fragmented stories handed down and the veil of silence that hovers over many aspects.
Tapestry of My Mother's Life: Stories, Fragments, and Silences
Malve von Hassell
A biographical account of a woman coming of age in Germany in the 1930s.
Book Excerpt or Article
Chapter VI: Waiting
Beets. Mashed, boiled, roasted. Beets in bread, beets in soup, beets plain. Pickled beets. Beet jam. Beet juice. Beets for breakfast, beets for lunch, beets for dinner. Sweeter and more cloying with every meal, and the distinctive earthy taste evoking thoughts of things rotting in the ground.
During the last years of World War II, and in the aftermath, that humble root vegetable was one of the few food items more readily available.
In my recollection, it was as if all of Christa’s stories about Altenburg acquired some of the dark red stain of beets, overlaid by the miasma of Erika’s depression. Many years later, my mother would still shudder when confronted with the distinctive red slices. Beets were never allowed in our house when I was growing up. I internalized Christa’s complete aversion to beets to the point that I avoided them myself for years.
Life shrank to a stubborn battle against constant hunger and the relentless cold that seeped into everything. Christa had an enamel wash bowl and water pitcher on the dresser in her room. Often the water in the pitcher was frozen when she woke up in the morning.
Even Egloff, whom Christa had described as someone rather free with advice, was increasingly worn down by the cold and the sheer mind-numbing misery of the front, and could not longer find refuge in his own bits of wisdom. “It’s very cold," Egloff wrote in February 1945. "There is no heat in the barracks. I am sitting in my fur coat, remembering how I used to say that whether one is cold or not is a question of willpower."
In Altenburg, Christa and her mother were still living in the apartment building at Bismarckstrasse 2. During the war, maintenance jobs in the common areas of the building were divided up among the residents to institute a semblance of order. Thus, they took turns cleaning the large central staircase. Erika had already begun to assume the grim mantle of dutiful compliance with rules and regulations that became a mask to conceal any emotions of loss or grief in later years. When it was her turn, she insisted on doing the work immediately.
"Why waste energy?" Christa said. "The building might be bombed this week." She put it off until the very last minute. As it turned out, Altenburg did not suffer major damage during World War II, even though it experienced at least 260 air raids.
In those years, Erika, for all that she was indomitable in emergencies, was frequently depressed in day-to-day life. Sometimes Christa was afraid to walk into the rooms they shared; the very air was thick with the stifling fog of her gloom.
My grandmother spent much of her time knitting. The products of her labor helped to supply refugees from all points east and those who had lost their housing as a result of bomb attacks with warm hats, sweaters, and gloves. She continued to knit throughout my childhood. Restlessly clicking her needles and only pausing to smoke, she always gave the impression of suppressed nervous energy and unhappiness. Oddly enough, when my mother was knitting, I felt it a source of comfort. I loved to watch her contentedly counting the stitches and purls and laughing when she had to redo an entire row.
The end of the war arrived with a whimper; there was no rejoicing. The US Army reached Altenburg on April 15, 1945, entering the city without any struggle. It was replaced by the Soviet Army on July 1, 1945.
The only immediate result was that initially there were no ration cards at all, and everything came to a stop for residents already weary from months and years of struggling to survive. Most stockpiles built up during the war had been depleted. Agriculture and industry were slow to get going; there was a lack of manpower, while in many regions the occupying forces dismantled what machinery was left.
The Soviet occupation created a system of ration cards for the Soviet Occupation Zone, in effect on June 12, 1945. Allocated amounts were based on categories of consumers from I to V.
Category I: heavy industry workers and functionaries
Category II: light industry
Category III: workers
Category IV: office workers
Category V: other (children, pensioners, handicapped individuals, unemployed, and former members of the NSDAP)
In July, this allocation system was tightened further in that unemployed individuals as well as former members of the NSDAP were no longer receiving any ration cards.
The nickname for the ration cards given to children, pensioners, and handicapped individuals was the "cemetery card" since the allowed amount was hardly sufficient to sustain life. Meanwhile, many of the items on the cards, e.g., bread, meat, fat, sugar, potatoes, and other foods, were not regularly available. When they were, there would be a public announcement. When flour, rutabagas, or potatoes were to be had, people waited in line for hours. The portions became smaller, and more water would be added to an already watery flour soup.
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