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.
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.