Remembering the early days of the US Occupation of Germany

Posted 02.25.11

WIESBADEN, GERMANY | It was my first day at the U.S. military dependent's school in Wiesbaden, Germany. I was thirteen years old, in the eighth grade, and you would think I would have learned something in those thirteen years.

Dee-Dee dropped her open purse in the aisle by my desk. It lay on the floor between us. Discretion would demand I keep my mouth shut. Instead, "Are those your mother's cigarettes" came pouring out of my mouth.

There it was: incontrovertible evidence that I was a geek. Worse, I was naive, a nothing socially. I was obviously beneath notice, if not contempt. It was my first day in school and I was branded for life. Thus started my three years in Germany as an American Air Force dependent child.

It was 1948 and Germany was just beginning the post-World War II recovery process. Wiesbaden, my home for the next thirty-six months or so, had barely been touched by the war. It was an old spa city, not involved in the production of war munitions, so was spared all but a few of the bombing runs by the allies. Most of the bombs that did hit the city were dropped in error by pilots thinking they were over Frankfurt.

In looking back at those years, I am struck by the schizophrenic nature of our life there. In school we were doing all the requisite teen-age things: Going to football games (six-man teams because of a small talent pool), going on dates (some did), falling in love, sneaking parents' cigarettes and alcohol, having slumber parties, going to classes, and even, on occasion, learning something.

Outside of school we ran into the realities of a country struggling to recover from war. The Marshall Plan was in full swing, as was the Berlin Airlift. Bombers filled with coal, food, and other necessities of life for the city of Berlin landed and took off from Rhine-Main Air Force base every sixty seconds around the clock. As part of the recovery plan for the country, each officer's household (I can't speak for the enlisted men's families [EDITOR’S NOTE: I was there at the same time, my Dad was a M/Sgt. and we had a maid and a shared furnaceman/gardner, too) had to employ a maid, and every four or five households were required to share a gardener as well. I had come from a Midwestern environment where only the most wealthy employed servants. It was a heady experience to have people working in our home.

What an interesting assortment of characters assumed the role of maid!

Ursula was the first. She spoke virtually no English but was exceedingly adept at stealing sheets, towels, and my lingerie. It wasn't until I realized I only had the "drawers" I wore that my parents tumbled to the fact that she had been ripping us off.

Her modus operandi included (apparently, as we never caught her in action) going upstairs to the maid's room on the third floor of the house and wrapping sheets around herself and stuffing her bra with coffee before she left for the day. I'm sure her pockets were stuffed with contraband as well.

After Ursula, Marianne Hochwald came to work for us. She not only spoke excellent English, she was more "hip" than any American you could find. She moved in, lived on the third floor of the house, dated a GI named Conrad (she called him Connie), answered the phone by saying " shoot it, it's your nickel", delighted us kids and gave my father migraines. Invariably she would answer the phone when the Colonel's (my Dad) commanding officer was calling.

Marianne left us when she became pregnant by Connie, married him, and moved to the states. In a rather poignant request she asked us to drop in and see her in Ohio. She couldn't understand "dropping in to see her in Ohio" would be a task requiring some planning. We were truly sorry to see her go, and eventually lost track of her.

She was succeeded by Emme. Emme was a frail wraith. She had been abused during the war, although she never was able to tell us exactly how. As a consequence she was deathly afraid of water getting near her head. As long as we kept that in mind she would be okay, she told us.

Emme's main contribution to our family life was baked goods. She had trained as a pastry chef before the war and made us all manner of kuchen, strudel, and exquisitely decorated birthday cakes. I especially recall a porcupine cake she made for my brother's third birthday -- almonds studded the buttercream. Yum!

In addition to baking, Emme consumed considerable quantities of vermouth. A doctor had told her it would be good for her heart, and so each time she and her gentleman friend Gunther had a fight, Emme would hit the bottle. Alas, the drinking finally became too much and my mother let her go. That precipitated one last bout of drinking before we could get her moved out.

By 1951, the German economy was beginning to improve slightly and our life began to change in subtle ways. Fewer and fewer people came to the door to sell their prized possessions. Black Market cigarette trading stopped when the base commander's wife was accused of doing it. My mother was victimized by a counterfeit ring when she sold some coffee and cigarettes in Rudesheim. She was so ashamed she never tried it again. Men assigned the task of taking up the cobblestones, cleaning and resetting them on the street finally left for other jobs.

And, by 1951 I had actually had a boy friend, gone to a dance, become slightly less geeky and was nervously looking forward to attending high school in the states.

My time in Germany was the most significant time in my life. The odd thing is that I so seldom speak of it to anyone. Most people don't understand the magnitude of what the German people had to deal with after the war. A friend from Berlin once said to me "Why did it bother you so much? You won the war." At that point it was no longer about who had won and who had lost. It was about an embarrassment of riches in the face of people who had nothing. That was profoundly humbling.

Mary Campisi Ferree is a fomer US Air Force brat, now living in Coloroado.

Copyright © 2011 Mary Ferree/Log Cabin Chronicles/02.11