Growing up in Berlin in the 1930s, WWII

In 1931, when Birgit (Biggi to family members and friends) Paul was 3 years old  and about to turn 4, the family lived in Lichterfelde, in the outskirts of Berlin. It was an area with many children and Birgit enjoyed making friends on the playground. She was very excited about her upcoming birthday and told one of her friends that she was about to turn 4 on June 10.

“That’s great, are you having a party?” the little girl  asked. “Yes,” Birgit responded – she had not heard about any birthday plans, but a celebration sounded like a good idea. She invited her other neighborhood friends who then went home to inform their parents about the birthday party invitation.

Birgit somehow forgot to tell her parents about the party she was planning for herself. Hildegard had not made any preparations beyond the usual small family celebration. June 10 came and at 2 in the afternoon the door bell rang. Outside was a little girl wearing a fancy dress carrying a wrapped gift. She was soon followed by several other dressed up gift-carrying children. Hildegard  realized that this was a party and sent the maid out for cake and streamers. Birgit’s birthday party became a life-long happy memory.

In the mid-1930s the German economy was coming back thanks to  the large scale infrastructure program Hitler had launched. Germans believed in their country again after many years of gloom following WWI – the flu epidemic of 1918, the Hyperinflation, The Great Depression with mass unemployment were now behind and people began to have hopes for the future.


Birgit in 1943 wearing her first adult hat.

Hildegard and Bengt were living separately for 6 years during the worst parts of the Great Depression. While Hildegard and her children lived with her parents her two older sisters kept advising her to divorce Bengt and the best way to do so. Hildegard, however, insisted on keeping the family together and in 1938 their economy allowed them to re-unite.

As Hitler rose to power,  the other children began attending Hitler Jugend after school. Birgit and Heye were  not allowed to join because they were not German citizens. Being Swedish, they were outsiders in an increasingly nationalistic environment.

Once WWII started, however, Birgit appreciated the family’s Swedish citizenship, which prevented her brother and father from being drafted by Hitler’s army. As the war progressed her class mates started coming to school wearing black ribbons mourning fathers and brothers and other close male relatives lost in battle.

berlin 1937

Heye, Christa, Hildegard and Birgit watching a parade to celebrate a visit by Mussolini in Berlin in 1937.

In 1937, my grandfather took this picture of his family during a Nazi parade to celebrate a visit by Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Hildegard looks bored. The children are waving Italian flags – they were not allowed by their parents to have Nazi flags. Everyone were commanded to be out in the streets to celebrate the historic meeting of Hitler and Mussolini.

The war went on and the family got more and more used to bombings and food shortages. Birgit spent hours and hours lining up for the family’s daily rations of canned vegetables, rotten potatoes and other meager nutrition sources. Because Christa was a young child, the family was allotted a pint on milk per day. Birgit always remembers how upset her mother was when she accidentally spilled the precious milk in the sink: “Asch, die schone milch,” Hildegard cried as the milk disappeared down the drain. Hunger became a part of every day life.

Daily life was interrupted by wailing sirens warning about approaching bomb raids. Once the sirens rang, one had to find shelter fast and then wait until the attack was over. One day Heye was on his way home when he heard the sirens. At first he planned to enter the shelter where he usually sat out the raids, but something made him continue to a larger, sturdier built shelter further away. By the time he reached that shelter, the Allied bombers were almost above him. He manage to find safety and once the strike was over he walked home passing the first shelter, which had been bombed to crumbles – no survivors.

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The Paul Family in Stockholm 1945 – 1951

In early 1945, when the war was almost over, the Paul family was reluctantly evacuated to Sweden by the Swedish consulate. They found a one-bedroom apartment on Arkitektvägen in Bromma, then in the outskirts of Stockholm. The apartment was near public transportation – a subway stop was a short walk away and the airport was close as well.

As a child I sometimes spent the night and recall the sounds of the airplanes in the morning.  The humming airplane propeller noise was kind of soothing, as if to remind me that I was not at home, but a grandpa’s place. Bengt enjoyed to paint, take photographs and read. He always cooked the same meal for me: fried pork chops with boiled potatoes and canned peas followed by canned fruit mix with whipped cream.

The place was adorned by interesting objects; a pencil holder that looked like an elephant, thin china cups with dragon fly-shaped ears and, of course, grandpa’s old Underwood typewriter and his Leica-camera (with film that was never properly winded when he asked me to hold my pose).


Bengt at his desk in Bromma. Natalie (his mother) in the foreground.

The apartment had a balcony facing the street, a kitchen with a small dining table and a gas stove, a small bedroom facing the backyard, a small bath room and a living room where my grandparents slept during the time Birgit and Christa lived at home. Heye was renting a student room and did not live at Arkitektvägen.

Bengt’s mother Natalie wanted to live in Stockholm, but none of her sons, nor her daughter Tali, who lived in a cottage at Lidingo,  had the means to welcome her as a permanent guest. Bengt and Hildegard struggled to make ends meet. Holger and Herta had 4 children and no space and Tali pretended her income was artist stipends, but in reality she lived on welfare. Natalie had to move in with Hedda in Saffle; the daughter she liked the least of her 4 surviving children. As an art teacher Hedda had a steady income and her own apartment. Natalie, who had been born in a wealthy family, grown up in a patrician villa and got a 1 million D-mark dowry in 1897 did not complain – she lived until age 82 and attended several of her great grand children’s christenings.

Thus, money for higher education for the Paul siblings did not exist.Thanks to a rich and childless brother of Adolf, Uncle Oscar, Heye could continue to study medicine and become a doctor.To my mother’s dismay, Uncle Oscar kept asking whether she had a secret fiance – he was prepared to pay a dowry, but thought it would be a waste to pay for an education since girls were supposed to marry and stay home raising children. Birgit’s parents also demanded that she stay home from school if they needed help with household chores, thus emphasizing that the need for education came second to the demands of housekeeping.

Christa, Heye and Birgit in 1947 in Stockholm.

Birgit settled for a short education and became a schoolteacher outside Strängnäs by lake Mälaren. The teaching position came with a cottage and fire wood. There was a brick oven to heat the place and a well for drinking and portable water in the back yard. Somewhat primitive, but to Birgit it was wonderful to be independent and have her own income.

After a few years, teaching the same material over and over started to become tedious so when uncle Oscar died and my mother inherited money, she used it to obtain a higher education at the University of Uppsala, a 45-minute train ride from Stockholm. She moved there and started study language and literature in the fall of 1951.

My grandfather was interested in the supernatural and in interpreting handwriting. In 1951 he and three others founded the Stockholm Grafological Society. In addition to believe he could read people’s personality in their hand writing, he also dabbed in automatic writing and card reading.

The former means that one holds a pen and the pen writes on its own, giving messages from the spirits. Once the pen wrote “sprich nicht mit den Namenlosen” (do not speak with those without names). My grand father followed that advice and gave up automatic writing.

He sometimes read the cards for his good friends Sofie and Hans Gabler. Once they asked about their son Hava’s upcoming marriage. “He will marry a blond woman,” my grandfather read in the cards. “No, no,” the Gablers said, “he is engaged to a brunette.” A week before the scheduled wedding his fiancée cancelled. When Hava came with his new bride-to-be, she was indeed blond.

Another time Bengt told Hans Gabler that he would have to take a trip to Germany soon. This was shortly after the war, which had broken out when the Gablers lived in London. At the time Hans had no wish to return to his homeland. But soon came news that he had been accused of treason, and he was forced back to defend himself in court.

Bengt and Hildegard continued to work as freelance journalists in Stockholm. Bengt did some radio and later wrote economic reports about Sweden regularly for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Now and then Hildegard sold articles to magazines, including the at that time popular Idun. Shortly before her death, she wrote a charming story about a kingdom of smell called “Luktuania” where people had two noses instead of one. She was extremely sensitive to odors and could not stand bad smells.

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Hildegard and Bengt

Hildegard, WWI and the Paul Family

In 1912 Germany formed The Triple Alliance, also called The Central Powers, with Italy and Austria-Hungary. On June 28, 1914 Austrian archduke Frances Ferdinand and his wife were shot in Sarajevo and Hungary-Austria declared war on Serbia. Soon one European country after the other joined and the initial conflict snowballed into a full-fledged war. On Sept. 5, 1914, Russia, France, and Great Britain concluded the Treaty of London, calling their union the Allied, or Entente, Powers, or simply the Allies.

The war affected the Koenig family as both Harry and the only son Robert served in the Marine, Harry as a doctor and Robert as an officer. In addition, Kathe served as a nurse at the Front (see separate post). In the last year of the war, Robert was killed when his ship hit a mine. He was close to Hildegard and she took the loss very hard. Even many years after his death, a casual reference to Robert would make her burst out in tears.

Robert Koenig 1914

Robert Koenig in his WWI uniform. He perished when his ship hit a mine.

During the war, Harry Koenig was working on a ship outside France. We have dinner invitations from that period hanging in our kitchen area. Dated Le Nouvion April 17, 1915 one has Tomato Soup, Bratwurst with cabbage, Pheasant “am Spitz mit Beilage” on the menu. The other, dated April 15, 1915, and has a rhyme in German. On November 11 1918, after four years of aimless war fought mainly in the trenches, WWI ended. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on November 28 the same year. Germany was severely punished which economic sanctions, a plan to prevent future wars that severely backfired.The war concluded, Harry Koenig returned to Berlin. Hildegard, who had turned 19 on November 20, 1918 had spent most of her teenage years living through a major war.

Hildegard before a costume party wearing a Biedermeier dress in 1919.

Short and slender with brown eyes and rich, dark hair framing a narrow face with a straight nose, Hildegard was considered a very attractive woman. As the youngest of four surviving children, her parents had spoiled her. She grew up in a Prussian home where dinner should be brought forward the moment the man of the house entered the door. “Punktlichkeit ist die Höflichkeit der Koenige” was the family motto, playing with their name, which is the German word for king. (Punctuality is the politeness of kings).

Even though he doted on his youngest daughter, Harry Koenig’s general idea of child rearing was strict and mirrored his military background. A child’s upbringing should be concluded by age four, he used to say. His Prussian definition, and a common definition of a role model child, was a child who obeyed without asking any questions. To be seen, but not heard was the prevailing ideal until Adolf Hitler easily manipulated the majority of a generation whose will power had been broken at an early age. The economic sanctions from the end of WWI had led to hyperinflation and mass unemployment, which created a need for a strong leader and someone who could restore faith in the country and its people.

Hildegard and Bengt – early years

Hildegard and Bengt were high school sweethearts. Hildegard was the only girl in an all male class. She had chosen to continue her studies after her basic education was concluded, which was unusual at the time. Harry Koenig had promised each child either a dowry or a university education. Hildegard decided to get a half of both, quitting her university studies to get married in March 1923.

Hildegard and Bengt came from very different families. His background was the bohemian where guests came and went, and paychecks were sometimes large and sometimes non-existent. He loved lingering at the breakfast table enjoying long conversations after sleeping in. Hildegard was up at the crack of dawn and ready for bed by the time her husband started to gear up in the evening.

Hildegard was initially fascinated with the artistic family Paul. She was particularly taken by Bengt and had a great deal of respect for his father. In winter Adolf used to skate with his family at the public skating rink in Berlin. He struck quite a figure displaying his ice skating skill. With her strict background, Hildegard considered Bengt’s siblings as odd, and did not get along particularly well with them. The youngest son Holger had been taken out of school by his father to become a great artist and studied in Sweden with Albert Engstrom, his father’s friend. See separate post about Holger.  The twins never married. Tali became an artist and painted mainly in oil without much commercial success. She did not want to part with her good work, and lived her last years in a cottage on Lidingö on welfare.

Hedda was better equipped to take care of herself. She studied and became an art teacher, a profession she continued after moving to Sweden together with Holger in the 1930s. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. She had a German accent and had to get Swedish credentials before any school would hire her. She lived to be 93 years old and died on August 14, 1995, three days before Peter was born. During her lifetime she had lived thrifty and invested her savings in the Swedish stock market and left SEK3 million to her brothers’ children.

Adolf was something of a maverick. He once asked Hildegard what she wanted her children to become. “Etwas Normales” she replied (something normal), probably with her sisters- and brother-in-law in mind who had chosen bohemian careers. “Um Gottens will, bloss nichts Normales,” he answered. (For God’s sake, anything but normal). Before getting married Hildegard took a class in how to run a household. Her mother had never taught her or her two sisters how to cook, plan purchases and other household management necessities. Hildegard writes in her autobiographical book “Marianne Hat Kinder” about how her mother said, “oh, I just do it by intuition,” whenever she asked how much of each ingredients to use in a particular dish. It is likely that Auguste envied her daughters who were given the opportunity of university education and closely guarded her territories.

Hildegard never seemed content her housewife career. It was impossible to impose the rigid household rules that she had grown up with on her husband. Instead of coming home at 12:00 sharp as promised, he would come at 12:30 and lunch would be cold. Bengt wasn’t interested in having meals waiting for him. He preferred to relax and look through the papers before getting ready to eat. Hildegard, however, could not compromise. She wanted things her way. They both had hot tempers, were stubborn and fought a lot.

My mother has early memories of Hildegard feeling stuck at home rearing children and taking care of laundry, cleaning and cooking. That made my mother decide she would become a professional with a career outside the home when she grew up. Bengt was not too excited about Hildegard abandoning her studies to get married, making him the sole breadwinner, although in the early 1920s this was the usual pattern. Having grown up in a home where money was either plenty or scarce, he wanted stability. Therefore he took a Ph.D. in Political Economics and got a job with a bank.

Bengt wasn’t happy at the bank, however, and when he was laid off shortly after getting married he looked for a career in other fields. He settled on journalism and became an editor for “Die Ostsee  Rundschau” published by Nordische Gesellschaft in Lubeck, a job where his father’s connections came in handy. In 1924,  the family moved from Berlin to Lűbeck, a picturesque city in north Germany that used to be an important port during the Hansaetic period in the Middle Ages.

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The Koenig Family Spent Many Years Abroad

My grandmother Hildegard Paul (b. Koenig)  and her two older sisters, Editha and Käthe and an older brother Robert spent much of their childhood abroad. Another sister died young while the family was living in Zanzibar off Africa’s east coast.

Hildegard’s father Harry Koenig was a high-ranking general physician in the German Navy. His work took him and his family to Zanzibar, an island outside Tanzania on the African East Coast, a German colony 1885-1914, where their first child Editha was born in 1890. When Hildegard was little the family moved to China and lived there for a couple of years before returning to Germany.  Before deciding to accept the position as surgeon in the Far East, Harry Koenig asked the family maid Varvi if she would come with them if they moved across the globe. Varvi was the stable bedrock the household rested upon, and first after getting her approval Harry asked his wife Auguste.

Käthe, Editha and Hildegard in China in 1905.

The picture to the above is of my grandmother, her older sisters Editha (Ditha) and  Käthe wearing traditional Japanese outfits posing for the camera in 1905. In one of the pictures one can see the Japanese sandals that I have in my home. It is unclear whether the family also lived in Japan.

The family traveled by boat and train to Tsingtau (Quindao), a strategically important port town in the Shandong province on the east coast of China, which was controlled by Germany until World War I. (1898-1914).  The Germans transformed this small fishing village into a modern town with safe drinking water, a sewer system, electricity, and government buildings and built a railroad to Jinan, the province capital. The area had the highest school density and the highest student enrollment in all of China, with primary, secondary and vocational schools funded by Germany and Protestant and Roman Catholic missions. In 1903 German business people started a brewery that today is well-known under the name Tsingtao Brewery.

The family stayed long enough in China for Harry and Auguste to become fluent in mandarin, which their used as their secret language after moving back to Germany.  Among her siblings Hildegard was closest to Robert and Käthe who were close to her in age. Editha was nine years older than Hildegard.

Käthe, Auguste, Harry, Hildegard, Robert and Editha Koenig returning from China in 1909.

Upon returning to Germany in 1909, Harry became the chief of medicine of a large sanatorium in Tegel outside Berlin where Hildegard received much attention being his youngest daughter, and a lively, charming child. She was not happy about leaving Tegel for Berlin when her father retired from that position and moved to Kaiserallee, today named Bundesallee, in Berlin. Auguste did not care much for Berlin either and once Harry permanently retired  they moved to Cuxhafen on the north shore of Germany where they had been spending summers.

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The Koenigs – Huguenots, physicians, merchants and ministers

My grandmother Hildegard was the daughter of Harry and Auguste (born Siegismund) Koenig. Hildegard was born on November 20 in 1899 in Bremenhafen, a coastal town in northwestern Germany.

Hildegard came from a family of merchants and ministers. Harry’s mother Adele Koenig had been born Mellet in Switzerland where her father had found work as a minister after his family had fled France. They were Huguenots, French Protestants and members of what used to be France’s most industrious and advanced class during the 16th century. But in 1629 the Huguenots were stripped of political power and in 1685 King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes that had previously guaranteed them religious and political freedom. As a result many Huguenots fled to other protestant European countries and the United States.

In Switzerland, Adele’s family had enjoyed political and religious freedom, but that did not protect them from financial hardships. After her father became unemployed when she was fifteen, Adele and her ten siblings had to help support the family. One brother was seven when he was sent to live with relatives in Paris with a name sign around his neck. My mother sees parallels with how aunt Christa was sent to relatives in Sweden during World War II without knowing much Swedish.

Adele Mellet was supporting herself as a language teacher and a governess in Edinburgh, Scotland where she met Robert Koenig who was teaching her German. They became engaged in 1849 when he was 20 and she 19. Initially his family was against the engagement, saying they were too young. Once the family had been introduced to Adele, however, they were very pleased with their son’s choice and after a five-years engagement Adele and Robert married.

Adele’s first language was French, which she spoke with her children. Her oldest daughter whom my mother remembers as Tante Emmy emigrated to New York City where she became a French teacher. Every summer Tante Emmy traveled by boat to Europe where she spent her vacation visiting relatives. Adele and Robert lived in many places during their life. Their son Harry was to follow that pattern.

Auguste Siegismund grew up on one of the Frisian Islands off Germany’s northern coast. Just like her husband, Auguste’s father was a physician. While Harry was outgoing and gregarious Auguste was shy and quiet. She was a great cook and loved the life she was leading with Harry and the many interesting places his career as “Marine Stabsarzt” took them to. Her shyness never stopped her from hosting the many dinner parties that were a part of her husband’s job description. Hildegard, however, recalled being raised mostly by nannies and never getting to spend as much time as she would have liked with her mother.

Auguste (b. Siegismund) and Harry Koenig's engagement pictures.

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Käthe Riefenstahl (b.Koenig), my great aunt

My grandmother Hildegard’s two-year older sister Käthe was her closest sibling.

Käthe was a warm and caring woman who was practical and intelligent. She worked as an x-ray nurse at the front during World War I.  In the middle of the chaos of war the x-ray machine crashed. With no repair technicians available, Käthe  took the entire apparatus apart while her colleagues stood around and said “Sister Käthe  you’ll never get that thing together again”. Not only did she managed to assemble the x-ray machine; to her colleagues’ surprise she had also repaired the machine, which was now working again. As evident in the picture below from 1915, Käthe was a beauty.

From left: Käthe, Ditha and Hildegard Koenig in 1915.

Only 18 when she was sent to the battle fields, Käthe’s experiences must have been absolutely horrible – nothing in her cosseted upbringing could possibly have prepared her for the scale of human suffering she encountered in the field hospitals. To cope, she turned to morphine and became a life-long addict.

It was during World War I she met her husband-to-be, Hans Riefenstahl (a distant  relative of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s propaganda movie maker). Hans was older, had been married before and had children with his previous wife. Käthe‘s parents were against the marriage and told her she was too young. Käthe, however, was determined to marry Hans.

“If you don’t let me marry him, I’ll just wait until I am 21 and then I’ll marry him,” she told her parents who caved in and let them marry. Hans was a district doctor and he probably enabled her  continued morphine use.

Käthe and Hans had three children, Kristel, Inger and Hans. The family lived in Balje, Germany, near where the river Elbe connects to the North Sea.  Back then  the  roads were mostly made from dirt and frequent precipitation turned them into mudslides. To avoid getting stuck in the  mud,  Hans Riefenstahl often visited his patients on horseback.

My aunt Christa recalls visiting their large and comfortable home with her mother. The Riefenstahls had a car with a driver whom Christa detested. To demonstrate her dislike Christa took the driver’s hat and threw it in a mud puddle (and was punishment by her mother). Among the thing’s Christa appreciated in the house was a samovar always filled with hot water, which Käthe had kept from her childhood in the Far East.

My uncle Heye says Käthe was his favorite aunt. At her home he could relax and enjoy himself. As opposed to his mother, Käthe would not try to teach him good manners or educate him at all. Heye and Käthe’s youngest child Hans were about the same age and played during his visits.

Käthe was actively involved in her husband’s medical practice. She knew all his patients well, and in addition to assisting  and recording their medical history, she kept track of where they lived, how they were doing and what was going on in their lives in general. Hans would always ask his wife to give him medical and social details about his patients before he headed out to visit them.

Käthe’s mother Auguste lived with Käthe and her family the four years Auguste was a widow after her husband Harry Koenig passed away. My mother has had very little contact with Käthe’s children and I don’t know my second cousins.

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My grandfather Bengt Paul – early years

Natalie Paul b. Brehmer was her husband’s muse and a darling of his artist friends. My parents have art works by Albert Engström and Jean Sibelius dedicated to Tali Brehmer, and my mother recalls her as a unique woman. “There was just something very special about her.” Natalie was creative and calm, a counterbalance to her husband’s hot temper and fierce outbursts.

Within a year or so after they were married, Adolf and Natalie had their first baby, a boy named Hans. Their second child, my grandfather Bengt, was born on June 16, 1899. In 1902 Natalie gave birth to twin girls, Tali and Hedda, and five years later Holger was born (in 1907).

All children except Hans reached adult age. Hans died, probably around age eight, after falling off a rocking horse fatally injuring his head. The accident occurred while he and his twin sisters were playing, supervised by their beloved nanny. The nanny made the twins swear never to reveal the cause of the head injury that killed Hans, or she would be sacked. The twins faithfully kept the secret and in 1967 Tali died without having revealed the truth. Their parents and brothers never knew the real cause of Hans’s death. Not until her parents and all her siblings were dead did Hedda reveal the cause of Hans’s death to my mother.

Bengt and his siblings grew up in Berlin speaking some Swedish at home and were also sent to Sweden to spend time at their Uncle Oscar’s farm Stråken. Several of Bengt’s aunts and uncles and their families lived at Stråken for extended time periods, and there were always cousins to play with and plenty of activities to participate in.

Watching his father’s career waxing and waning over the years, Bengt decided early on not to follow his career path. The family went from boom to bust – a book sold well and they lived high until the money ran out and they had to scramble until next book deal or film project paid off. There are letters from Natalie to her siblings asking for financial assistance, which must have been very hard for her to write.

Instead of going into the arts, Bengt graduated with a Ph.D in political economics, at the University of Greifswald in 1923. The title of his thesis was Die wirtschaftlichen Ursachen der sozialen Erscheinungsformen. Ein Beitrag zur sozialen Dynamik.

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