27 April 2017

my grandmother, three weddings and two wars

summer 1914
Look at the young woman sitting in the front right, my grandmother in her white dress and her fancy shoes with the pretty bow, she just celebrated her 22nd birthday. A few weeks ago, the archduke of Austria and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that triggered the first world war. I wonder how much she cared about it. There, in her picturesque little Franconian hometown. At the time of this wedding, the war has already begun. Five of the men are in uniform. Did they worry? Did they feel enthusiastic,  heroic or even patriotic? The two brothers of my grandmother are not in this picture.  Maybe they have already joined the royal Bavarian army of king Ludwig III, who pledged allegiance to the German emperor, maybe they are well on their way to fight in the battle of Lorraine.
I find it hard to imagine that Franconia at the time was not part of Germany, that all the schmaltzy stuff, the gossip and stories about the glamorous lives of the Bavarian kings, the sugar coated Disney castles by the lakes shadowed by the grand panorama of Alpine mountains, where today the tourist buses queue for parking, was at the center of adulation of my grandmother's youth.
During WWI, with her brothers and her father in uniform, she managed the family's hardware shop, the blacksmith's forge, she became a coal merchant and a haulier. She often talked about this time, she was happy, the war and the men (who put her in her place) were far away. And she was good at her job.
Her hometown did not suffer any damage. Her brothers returned unharmed. She handed over the business to them in excellent shape and got ready for what was considered her real life.

summer 1919
The war over, five years later, here she is at her sister's wedding to the owner of the local brick factory.  An excellent match for the town and the two families. Franconians tend to think that way. Newly married herself, she is standing behind the groom, who initially had asked for her hand in marriage but she turned him down (too slick, never liked that mustache, she claimed). Instead, she holds on to her own precious catch, my grandfather, who read law in Munich and was already on his way to become a judge. This was not a love story. I don't think she looked for one. She wanted - and found - status, financially and socially. Everything was going to plan.
The wedding party is gathered here in the courtyard of her sister's future family home. My father has many stories of childhood holidays in and around this courtyard, climbing onto the kitchen window ledge to ask for a slice of fresh sourdough bread with jam, chasing chickens and piglets across the cobblestones, carriage horses being fed and watered, bicycle races with cousins, lanterns illuminating summer evenings with family gatherings, charades, amateur theatre and singing.
My great grandmother looks tiny, as if she is hiding (5th from the right in the front) but I am sure, she was on top of the world, both her daughters now in good and prosperous hands. And that short fellow - with his ears sticking out - standing next to the bride, he became the great tragic love of my father's sister. Since childhood and forever. But she wasn't even born yet and their sad story would not unfold for many years. 

summer 1939
Leaping forward twenty years and another war is on the horizon. By now, my grandmother has achieved what she set out for - and more. Her husband (not in this picture) has climbed to the top of the career ladder, the family is living in the house that she designed herself (where my father is living now), she has a large garden, an orchard and a maid. She now has three children, the third, my father, an unfortunate and unwanted late surprise. She is standing behind the bride of her younger brother. Her first born, my godfather, beside the bride, is wearing the uniform of the Reich Labour Service, a compulsory duty introduced by hitler for all young people aged 18 to 25. He was in his last week and due to start university in the autumn. Next to him, his sister, my wild aunt. Her tragic love story already heavy on her heart.
Behind the groom, we see the groom from the previous picture and his wife, the young bride from 1919 now wearing glasses, their three teenage children in the row below her.
My great grandmother, much aged, sits beside the groom.
Where were you?, I ask my father. He cannot remember. And your father? He probably had to be elsewhere. As usual.
The young people in the second row, my godfather, my wild aunt, their three cousins next to the groom, they all went to war, one way or another. One did not come back, Hardy, third from the right. He is missing in Russia.
But today, everybody in this picture is dead.


  1. What fascinating family history -- and it's interesting to think about it in the context of what was going on in the world at the time! You have such amazing family photos. (As I've said before.)

  2. These photos are so evocative and tell such interesting old stories. My maternal grandparents were still living in Germany at the time of the first two photos. I don't think there are any photos of them from that time. I wish there were. It is always so interesting to get a sense of the personal histories within the larger context of the times. I find it amazing that your father is living in the house that his mother designed. Wow!

  3. These wedding group shots are so wonderful. Also, fun to see how people age from wedding to wedding.

  4. What a fascinating history. I hope you will tell us the great tragic love story of your wild aunt.

  5. Quite fascinating. I have been thinking a lot about my forebears too, and reflecting that they are all dead except for one aunt. Many of my cousins are gone, too. And yet they were so solid and real once upon a time.

  6. It's fascinating to have a series ... I think it's interesting we see them in black and white when they were posing in full colour.