I was born to a middle class family in Surrey in the UK, I went to private schools and to one of the world’s top universities, I got a good job after my studies, and I’ve lived comfortably since. I’ve travelled to the other side of the world, I’ve been many times to the theatre and to museums, I’ve eaten well – too well, sometimes – and so far had no serious health problems. I have a family that loves me and money in the bank. No, the extraordinary woman is not me, I simply want to draw the comparison to my own quite fortunate life story to date. I may talk of taking risks and making difficult decisions; but this is all within a framework of incredible comfort and security.
This is the story of Käthe Kühle, who last week passed away quietly in her home just weeks before her 100th birthday. She was like a second mother to my own mum, who came to stay with Käthe and her husband Werner as a 15-year-old schoolgirl in the 1960s and who maintained a close relationship with her for these past 50 years.
Tante Käthe, as I called her, was born in 1915, her father a solder in the First World War. She experienced the Depression, the Second World War and its aftermath, the reconstruction of a country and its development into one of the world’s strongest economies.
She met Theo at a friend’s wedding, and he became the love of her life. “When he entered a room, the sun would rise,” she would say. They married in 1938. Although he had studied business, he found no work during the Depression and, like so many others, joined the army and became an officer.
In 1939, of course, the German army invaded Poland and Theo went to war. Käthe took an administrative post in the army so that she could be as close to him as possible. He died in 1943.
I’ve often heard the story of how, going out into the streets during this uncertain period, Käthe would make herself as unattractive as possible and stay out of sight to avoid the otherwise common fate of being raped or sold into a brothel as the Soviets entered the territory. When Germany lost the war, Käthe escaped Potsdam just in time with her furniture piled onto a wagon, crossing the Glienicke Bridge where Soviet soldiers were already stationed and where the border would run between the Eastern bloc and the American sector of West Berlin. She lived with her family in Berlin in a house without windows and with an undetonated bomb somewhere inside.
She found work in a clothes shop in Stuttgart, working late into the night to learn from the others. She was talented and hard working and soon progressed to a managerial position.
One evening, a friend wanted to bring her to a dance at the local rowing club. Reluctantly she went along – and it was there that she got to know Werner. Not young love this time, but a deep affection between two people who had both lived through difficult circumstances. They married in 1950. “A new love, a new happiness.”
Together they moved to Darmstadt, where they spent some good years together. But he too died young, 67 years old and just a few years into his retirement.
“I won’t be beaten,” was Käthe’s motto and though her world had once again imploded she drew on her inner strength. Alone and with others she travelled the world, making new friends and lasting memories, taking photos of everything she saw. She told herself that she’d be able to relive these experiences in her old age, when she could no longer physically travel; and that’s exactly what she did.
I suppose my travels, and blogging, and photography, are partly in that same spirit: making memories for when I’m sitting on my balcony, looking back on the years that have passed. I can only hope that I live such a long life, leaving this world peacefully in my own apartment, having stayed strong through difficult times and made the most of whatever I have, all the while touching the hearts of others.
In memory of Tante Käthe, 1915-2015. I based this blog post on the eulogy my mum delivered yesterday at the funeral in Darmstadt.