Those Stories...The Turnip Winter
My mother-in-law, Minetta Denny, and my mom, Ella Lennett, were as different as mashed potatoes and lox. What they had in common was an irrepressible spirit for survival. Over the years, I watched their relationship grow into something resembling friendship, though they remained, to the end, a little like toddlers enjoying parallel play.
As they grew older, my husband, Pat, and I became responsible for much of their care, a job as challenging as it was gratifying. Like many baby boomers, we found ourselves simultaneously raising children, maintaining jobs, and struggling with the complications of aging parents.
In the winter of their lives, these two women struggled with arthritis, heart disease, loneliness and dementia. But just below the surface, they were also women of spring, summer and autumn. As adults, Pat and I heard a wealth of stories that had never been shared before – unless, of course, we hadn’t been ready to listen.
Their bittersweet reminiscences may not rise to the level of a page-turning memoir, but they are worth sharing. In a tradition good enough for Charles Dickens, I intend to “publish” their remembrances in installments on this blog. I hope they inspire you to capture your own family histories while you can.
You may notice, however, that I am calling this new venture Those Stories…because I intend to reach beyond “the moms” to include other stories as well. Over the years, friends have shared extraordinary life experiences – experiences that deserve to be preserved, so I will try to tackle them as well. And if you want to try your hand at telling your own story, ask to be a “guest blogger.”
Chapter One: The Turnip Winter:
Ella Lennett, née Elsa Rosa Charlotte Stern
My mother, who barely reached five feet tall before age shrank her spine another two or three inches, always told me she was kleine (small) because she hadn’t eaten much when she was a young girl. She was eleven years old when famine became widespread, and an end to The Great War was nowhere in sight.
German soldiers were dying in unimaginable numbers, hundreds of thousands mown down by new-fangled machine guns that changed the face of war. Weimar Republic officials had not planned for a protracted war, expecting, like so many government officials of all nations in all centuries, that they would bring home a quick victory.
With a British blockade in place since 1914, Germany looked to its own farmers for food, but they could not produce enough – not with all the men in the fields of war. Price ceilings on crops like potatoes led farmers to bypass the market entirely and feed the spuds and other fodder to their livestock. German bureaucrats saw the pigs as competition, and forced their slaughter. Nine million perfectly healthy pigs were massacred in the Schweinemord. But the scheme backfired. Without pig manure, crop yields fell further.
Women protested, marching on their town halls, demanding better food supplies. By the summer of 1916, the wives of German troops had lost their patience.
“We want to have our husbands and sons back from the war,” they petitioned the Hamburg Senate, “and we don’t want to starve any more.” By then, potatoes, butter, sugar, and meat had all been rationed. By November, eggs and milk joined the list, with a full milk ration available only to pregnant women in their last three months and children under six. Ration stamps were no guarantee of rations. As food supplies dwindled, lines became longer.
A wet autumn squashed any hopes of a decent potato crop. Turnips were used as a replacement, but even they were rationed. German civilians were growing gaunt and bony, dying of starvation or malnutrition at almost the same rate as soldiers. This dark period in German history became known as “Turnip Winter.”
My mother was not old enough to read the newspapers or pay attention to the politicians, but she remembered the day her beloved father stood among other reluctant recruits on the platform of Frankfurt Main Hauptbahnof.
“Please don’t go, Papa,” she called to him.
The officers ignored her wailing, as they summoned the draftees in quick succession. “Zwei hundert ein und zwanzig, zwei hundret swei und zwantig…”
Elsa loosened her hand from her mother’s grip and ran to her father, burying her face in his soft middle. Wilhelm Stern patted his youngest child’s red curls with affection.
“Don’t cry, Mäuschen,” Wilhelm whispered. “I’ll be back. Go to Mama now. Schnell!”
Her mother pleaded with the officers with uncharacteristic emotion. Elsa’s three siblings stood by silently. Before the last number was called, before the train pulled from the station, the family waved a tearful farewell and walked home into an uncertain future.
The Stern family lived in a fourth floor apartment on Seilerstraße No. 16, a long stretch of neoclassical buildings near the crowded heart of Frankfurt. It was part of a prosperous Jewish quarter with the decade-old Synagogue Friedlander Anlage nearby. Although Mama had already decorated each surface with an embroidered tablecloth or doily, and family photos dotted the walls, they had not been in Frankfurt long.
In fact, this was Elsa’s third home. She was born in Breslau in what was known as middle Silesia. (Because of the repartitioning of territory following World War II, the city of my mother’s birth is now Wroclaw in Poland. These border and name changes caused me no end of confusion when I first became interested in my ancestry.) When she was young, too young to remember her age, Papa moved the family to the bustling city of Hamburg, where she grew up. She missed Hamburg terribly – almost as much as she missed her father.
Looking out the window, she could picture her jolly, mustachioed Papa sauntering down the street with a fat cigar between his lips.
“I miss Papa,” she must have blurted out a hundred times. “When will he be home?”
“I don’t know,” replied Mama. “How long will the war last?”
Elsa might have pondered that question, as if a healthy amount of effort would bring forth the answer.
“Will you make me another dress?” Elsa remembered asking. She so admired her Mama’s “golden hands” – the way she turned fabric into clothing and thread into works of art. But this was not the time for finery. “Remember the dress I wore in that photo? The one in Papa’s shop window?”
A photographer had taken a small picture of round-faced Elsa and her favorite brother, Gerhart. An artist then transformed it into a large, colorful portrait worthy of any parlor. A sign explained, Photographs turned into masterpieces! Wilhelm Stern was a successful salesman and promoter, and the unusual partnership he fashioned was an early twentieth-century merger of art and photography. And what better way to show his wares than to display his own adorable children?
“People always stopped to look. I was practically famous,” she said to me eighty years later. Even when she was eleven, I’m guessing, she felt a hint of nostalgia beyond her years.
But after the assassination in Sarajevo, the national mood darkened and the public lost its taste for frivolity. Papa moved the family to Frankfurt, and found a job selling furniture. Once he brought home a piano he could not resist. Papa, Elsa would always recall, was good for surprises. The house had grown considerably more somber without him.
The Great War stood reality on end. One moment, it seemed, Elsa and Mama were skipping down the street, nibbling on a sweet meringue treat from the bakery. The next, young Elsa was in charge of distributing ration stamps: two each to Gerhart and Erika, one for bread and one for fruit.
“I had to tell Günter that he had only one ration left for cheese,” my mom remembered. “He used up his bread coupons. He was always hungry, and he missed meat most of all.”
She felt for him. After all, he was a teenage boy with the hunger of a lion. But the war was ravenous, the army consuming 60 million pounds of bread and 130 million pounds of potatoes each week. No wonder there was so little left for the children.
“Promise me,” Mama said to Elsa, “that you won’t give your stamps to Günter, no matter how bitterly he complains.”
“Don’t worry,” Elsa would console. “I’ll grow eventually.”
There were distractions, too. Mucki, the family’s brown and white cocker spaniel, and Zeitel, the white Angoran cat, provided much love in return for table scraps. Papa had insisted they make the trip from Hamburg, though pets were an extravagance in such dark times.
Mama, too, sensed when the family needed cheering, and would gather the children to make music. Elsa’s jovial brother, Gerhart, effortlessly picked out melodies on the piano, while Mama played her accordion, pushing and pulling the bellows with ease. Elsa, Erika and Günter sang out with confidence as Mucki whined in unison. Decades later, Elsa recalled the lyrics of a favorite song: Es war nur eine episode. Haute ferweinen. Morgen ferlächt. “It was only an episode,” the hopeful words declared. “Today we cry. Tomorrow, we will laugh.”
The children sang for the sheer joy of it, and to make their grandmother proud. Augusta Köppen, Gertrud’s mother, had come to live with them when Papa was called into service. They called her Mütterchen, “little mother,” because, indeed, she was small, standing only four feet ten. Though she had grown gaunt as the war progressed, Augusta was, nevertheless, a formidable presence, her long gray hair parted precisely in the middle and tied back in a tight bun, her bony shoulders still high. She was a stark contrast to high-spirited Elsa, whose lighthearted nature seemed almost too much to bear for a woman her age in such a sobering time. At least that’s what Elsa told herself when Mütterchen treated her like the runt of the litter.
It was well past midnight when Elsa awoke to distant rumbles moving like thunder in wave upon wave, growing ever closer. Careful not to wake her sister, she quietly put on her robe and twisted the knob of her bedroom door. She walked into the parlor gingerly, barefooted, fearful of disturbing Mama, who needed her rest.Mütterschen stood at the window, her silhouette framed by lace curtains. Sensing Elsa’s presence, Augusta motioned to her.
Elsa was hesitant, expecting to be chastised, but her grandmother held out her wrinkled, spotted hand without turning her gaze.
“What is that sound, Mütterchen?”
“It’s the sound of war,” she said calmly. “Troops are marching and they’re drawing very near.”
Elsa’s heart quickened. She had a million questions but held her tongue, waiting in the darkness, hoping the sound would soon have a face. As the persistent cadence of marching feet came alarmingly close, Elsa tightened her grasp. The cobblestone below was lined with curious or patriotic neighbors: women in nightcaps, men with jackets over their pajamas, a girl Elsa knew from school holding a bouquet of flowers with both hands.
Then, in the dim light of street lamps, shadowy figures emerged: German soldiers with muddy boots to their knees and long rifles balanced against their left shoulders. Their step was not so much confident as perseverant. Scattered among them were the defeated French, their uniforms hanging in tatters from their weary, wounded bodies, bandages wrapped haphazardly around bloody limbs.
As soldiers of the Kaiser walked triumphantly down Seilerstraße, their countrymen cheered their victory. Mütterchen remained solemn. “They come from Somme, on the eastern front. We have lost half a million boys and men there in four months. And still they shout Hurrah!”
“Was Papa in France? Could he be down there?”
“Nein, liebchen. He is far away where it is very cold. Up north, in Russia.”
Just then, as if to distract Elsa from contemplating the geography of war, Elsa’s classmate ran to a young soldier and shyly gave him the flowers, returning to her mother’s side, Elsa thought, with the delight of achievement.
Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der weld, began the chant, growing louder as the parade moved beneath the apartment window.
“Where are they going?” asked Elsa.
“Our men will stay at the Heinemann Biergarten until they return to the front. The nurses arrived yesterday to prepare. Maybe we can knit some socks and deliver them to the soldiers next week.” Mütterchen patted Elsa’s head, hoping this explanation would be sufficient.
Elsa imagined that Papa needed new socks, too, especially if Russia was as cold as Mütterchen said it was.
“Does Papa carry a rifle?”
“Maybe a kitchen knife! We just learned he was assigned to be a cook.”
“Papa? A cook? He can hardly make toast!”
Being a cook didn’t sound heroic, but it seemed safer than being a cavalryman, even if you were cutting potatoes while machine guns were firing all around you.
“Say a prayer every night, Elsa. For Papa, and all the men. This war has gone on much too long.”
As Elsa stared at the passing soldiers, a limping Frenchman turned his head, peering at the sights around him as if to distract himself from his humiliation and defeat.
“Where will the French soldiers go?”
“The wounded will be hospitalized at Miller School, just a few blocks away.”
Elsa stared at the Frenchman as he glanced upward. Of course she couldn’t see the color of his eyes from such a distance, even if it were high noon, but she imagined they were brown, like hers, and gentle. He looked as if he were barely sixteen years old, just the age of the young men she had recently been admiring. She felt an odd twinge of guilt. This man could kill my father, she thought. But he looked so pathetic and guileless. They all did. And she wondered again why the world had chosen this strange way to work out its problems.
The onlookers cheered again as the last of the troops marched on. Elsa and Mütterchen watched silently as their neighbors dispersed to their houses for the remainder of a night’s sleep. Elsa returned to her bed with a kiss on the cheek from Mütterchen. Her Mama and siblings had slept through the commotion. If it had not been for Mütterchen, the haunting parade of soldiers – victorious, forlorn, and trudging through the darkness – would have seemed like a dream.
During great hardship, do we become more attuned to beauty and kindness? Or was Elsa still, at heart, an eleven-year-old girl ready to dive into life? Whatever the reason, Elsa could describe the first snow that winter in vivid detail: how the snow-kissed rooftops sparkled in spectacular rows, how pine needles glistened as the morning sun hit their icy coating, how she kicked snow with her laced-up boots as she waited for her friend, Frieda Füller.
Frieda Füller was the only other Jewish girl who attended Ühland Lutheran Schüle. Her friendship with Elsa was born of circumstance, forged by religion and neighborhood, rather than temperament. Elsa was gregarious and charming; Frieda was reserved and studious. But they enjoyed their mile-long walk to school, absorbing the changing city around them.
Even in the midst of war, the tavern owner set up rows of glasses for lunchtime customers splurging on a glass or two of potent apple wine. The broom factory, which once opened its doors no later than 7:30am, was now boarded up, awaiting a time of peace when workers would again be available and housewives could consider such luxuries as a new broom. The ambrosia of fresh bread and pastry no longer wafted through the air, and their absence was almost palpable as Elsa passed the abandoned bakery, her stomach churning.
Past the synagogue, beyond the stone wall, stood Fräu Hiller, awaiting the last of her students.
Elsa and Frieda shook the snow from their hats and coats, pulled out their books and readied themselves for the day. The daily routine commenced: Elsa dipped her pen in the inkwell and carefully lettered her name on top of the page. The class studied the poetry of Heinrich Heine and reviewed the triumphs of German might.
Elsa’s mind wandered.
“Don’t worry, Mäuschen,” Papa had written. “I’ll be home again soon.” He seemed so sure of himself that she wanted to believe. She did believe. But then she saw the wounded soldiers, more and more of them, walking the streets aimlessly, mumbling about their lost friends and the muddy hell of the trenches. It was hard to imagine that this war, whatever it was about, was a good thing for the German people. In the back of her mind she could hear Frau Hiller’s voice droning on about German military might, last year’s sinking of the Lusitania, the new fleet of submarines ready to attack the Allies. World history was unfolding, but it seemed no more real than the tales of Medieval Europe. What felt real were turnips and potatoes for dinner night after night, few men to court her sister Erika, the absence of the Papa who called her “little mouse” and made her laugh.
But what made this school day so memorable was what happened next.
After a short recess outdoors, Elsa and her fellow students returned to class to find their teacher pacing in front of her desk in a silent rage. The students hushed.
“I want to know who stole the money,” Frau Hiller hissed. “Bring it to me now and accept responsibility for your actions.”
The girls searched each other with their eyes, looking for clues.
“Here it is almost Christmas, and I have a thief among you. Here, in the middle of war, when we must all join together…”
The lament continued for some time. Fräu Hiller counted to ein hundert. She closed her eyes and begged the prankster to return the 20 marks that had been hidden in her desk. When that failed, she ordered the girls to write Sie sollst nicht stehlen (Thou shalt not steal) in two columns for what seemed like an eternity. She offered the perpetrator one last chance to confess.
The girls fidgeted. The snow had waned and twilight turned to darkness. No one came forward. Anticipating freedom, the girls watched the clock. But 5 o’clock came and went. Fräu Hiller’s class could hear their schoolmates rushing out the door, bantering and laughing as if this were a normal day.
By 5:30, Elsa remembered, a girl in the back row was sobbing. Frieda had braided and rebraided her own hair at least three times. Elsa worried that she might get in trouble for being late, or that Mama would worry. Stomachs growled with hunger. Though only a meager dinner awaited, at least it would stop the gnawing emptiness, and even a chilly house would feel warm and comfortable compared to this prison. And, Elsa remembered with clarity, it was the first night of Chanukah! She was frustrated and anxious to get home.
In her later years, Elsa would reflect on Fräu Hiller’s excess with greater generosity of spirit. “It was almost impossible to save money in that time. Fräu Hiller must have been so upset. Maybe she was having a nervous breakdown.”
It was, after all, just one week before Christmas. Ordinarily, the community burst with excitement: tannenbaume were lit with candles, little ones were pampered with gifts, families baked liebküchen. But, in the winter of 1916, even the faithful questioned how they could celebrate birth when so much death surrounded them. The Kaiser’s proclamation of victory-at-hand notwithstanding, seeds of doubt had taken root. The pews of the Lutheran church would be largely covered with skirts.
Inside the classroom that December evening, the ordeal stretched on. The sky grew winter dark. Gaslamps flickered in houses as families gathered. In Jewish homes, candles were being kindled to commemorate the first night of the Festival of Lights. Fräu Hiller’s face seemed unsoftened by the passage of time. It was six o’clock.
And then, the children heard something, someone, just outside the school. A door flung open and a chill swept through the room. Heavy footsteps made their way down the hallway to the entrance of Frau Hiller’s class. In the shadowy doorway stood a preposterously large man in German uniform. Elsa’s gaze traveled from the stranger’s snow-covered boots, dripping on the wooden floor, to his broad shoulders and angular chin. Even Fräu Hiller’s heart must have raced at the mere size of the man and the surprise of his presence.
When he took a step into the light, Elsa saw familiar eyes. It was her Uncle Franz! And he was angry.
“How dare you keep these children here?” he bellowed. Fräu Hiller, perhaps worn out by now, had no response.
Franz glanced up and down the rows to find his niece. “Elsa?” he said loudly. Elsa stood.
“Yes, Uncle Franz?”
“It’s time to go now,” he said more gently. “Collect your things. Your Mama is waiting.” Franz turned to the other students. “All your Mamas are waiting.”
Without another word, each girl gathered her belongings and prepared to leave. Uncle Franz took Elsa by the hand.
“I am home on furlough for three days. I am tired, but I am glad to see you.”
They passed down the hallway, out of the school and into the dark night. Twenty-two young girls with knapsacks and mittens trailed behind them as devotedly as the children of Hamlin followed the Pied Piper. But Franz would not lead them to the sea. He was their liberator. He was taking them home.
Perhaps Fräu Hiller would find the missing money in the back of a drawer or in an embroidered purse where it had been hidden and then forgotten. The students would never be told, and the afternoon never spoken of again. Long after my mother died, I realized that this story of deliverance, and the night of celebration that followed, was the only time that Elsa mentioned her Uncle Franz. Whether he survived his service in World War I, I will never know.
Every family has its secrets, I suppose. I didn’t learn ours until I was 27 years old and becoming serious about a man who would become my husband, a man who was not Jewish. My father was distraught that I might marry out of our faith. I didn’t want to hurt him; I dearly loved my father and cherished my Jewish upbringing. But this relationship felt right, and I was having a heck of a time navigating this family minefield when my mother took me for a walk and confided in me that her mother was not Jewish. Not Jewish! How could that be? I had never suspected! She told me, of course, because she wanted me to know that my father was not as intractable as he seemed. After all, he had married her – despite her less than kosher pedigree.
It was then that my Mom began to talk more openly about her childhood – like that evening that Uncle Franz, home on leave, brought Elsa home.
The sound of sizzling schellkuchen and the sweet aroma of the fried pastry were the perfect holiday welcome. Mama’s leaden worry instantly disappeared when her youngest daughter arrived, safe and sound. In a corner of the parlor, Mütterchen stood beside a scrawny three-foot pine decorated with red ribbon, her shoulders draped with her most festive shawl. Despite the war, Christmas would be celebrated.
Elsa gave her a peck on the cheek and wished her grandmother Fröhliche Weinachten.
“See what Uncle Franz brought me?”
“It’s a beautiful tree,” Elsa lied, looking around for the Menorah. "Can we have Chanukah now, Mama?”
Chanukah felt strange without Papa to lead them in song, but Mama was committed to carrying on the Jewish traditions, especially in Wilhelm’s absence. Gertrud was born and raised a Christian, but her love for Wilhelm Stern exceeded her dedication to the religion of her birth. Had she truly adopted Judaism in her heart? All that can be said for certain is that she went through the motions faithfully, memorizing the Shabbos blessings, covering her head with a lace doily, lighting the candles every Friday night, and, most importantly, teaching these sacred rituals to Elsa and her sister, Erika.
The Festival of Lights comes only once a year, so its customs were a bit more challenging. Mama gathered the children around to light a candle to mark the first night of Chanukah. Together, they recited the Hebrew blessings, providing a safety net if any one voice should falter.
In the candlelight, Mama led the children in a tentative chorus of Maoz Tzur, as her brother, Uncle Franz, looked on with curiosity. When the song ended, Mütterchen kissed each of her grandchildren gently on the forehead.
Despite the war, Mama still managed to create a special gift for each child: new scarves for Gerhart and Günther, an embroidered handkerchief for Erika, and a round, crocheted pocket that Elsa could use to pin money to her dress.
“And this...is from your Papa.” Mama held up an awkward package. “It arrived by post today.” The children tore open the paper and found a note.
I baked it myself, their father had written.
“A loaf of komissbröt!” Mama laughed. “It has a bit of mold on it, but I think we can trim the bread and eat it just the same.”
They hurried to the kitchen table, giggling at the thought of their Papa as a baker.
WW1 staple: Kommisbrot
Also known as Kriegsbrot (War Bread), special ingredients are cocoa and brown sugar. When flour was low, sawdust was sometimes mixed in.
After months on the Russian front, Wilhelm Stern was granted leave by the army of Kaiser Wilhelm II. (Earlier in the war, the German military allowed no such privilege, so convinced were they that the war would soon be over.) Papa’s visit home was memorable for what he left behind.
“I have a surprise,” Mama announced two months later. The family gathered round with curiosity. Gertrud made gentle circles on her stomach.
“You are with child?” Mütterchen blurted out.
“Mama’s going to have a baby!” Erika screamed as she finally realized what was being said.
“It is unexpected. We didn’t plan to have another baby, certainly not now, with Papa away and the whole world upside down. So…I’m counting on all of you to do your share.” Each child nodded obediently. Elsa remembers hearing Mama whisper to Mütterchen, “There must have been a hole in the condom.”
Elsa sat quietly as she realized that she would no longer be the youngest child. In fact, she would be a teenager when the baby was born! She wasn’t sure how life would change with an infant around the house, but she rather liked the idea.
Thinner but uninjured, Papa returned home in plenty of time to welcome his son, Heinz Josef, to the Stern family. The Russian Bolsheviks had abandoned their bloody fight with Germany, waging war instead with their own imperial government and sparing Wilhelm and his fellow soldiers the final Allied offensive. The family was thrilled with the distraction of a baby. Josef was charming from the first and abundantly spoiled by the attention of his siblings. Elsa was particularly taken with him and affectionately called him “Buby.”
Little Joe was just one year old when Mama asked Elsa to be her special helpmate. Elsa would take her “Bubby” for long strolls in the park, feed him, play with him, and keep Mama company. And to do all this, she had to abandon her schooling. It was not that important for Elsa, Mama explained. She was beautiful and delightful and would easily find a husband when the time came. Further education seemed unnecessary.
The logic of that decision was not debated. And being fourteen years old, Elsa didn’t mind a bit.
It was not until she was more than halfway through her long life that it occurred to my mother that, perhaps, her parents had inadvertently done her a disservice.