“Meine name ist Tante Lore" said the middle-aged looking woman sitting behind the desk. In reality, the woman was perhaps younger but the navy blue nun's "habit" and white veil she wore made her appear older than she was. "Und sie ist Schwester Inge..", she pointed to the older and skinnier nun sitting next to her. Sister Inge got up from her chair, walked around her desk and stood next to the two boys, appearing to be 9 and 6 years old respectively. The boys had thick black hair, which you did not see at all in Germany in those days. Sister Inge let her hands gently caress the shiny, long black hair on the boys' heads; the texture of the hair felt smooth as silk. She noticed the younger of the two boys was struggling to not cry, confused by the circumstances and the strange tongue spoken by these two women.
Tante Lore und Kinder: Brigitte, Mehmet, Ahmet und Klaus
The older boy, Mehmet, had learned a few words of German in Dusseldorf where they had arrived with their parents about a week ago. He could at least communicate his most basic needs like food, water, bathroom etc. Their mom and dad had just kissed the boys good-bye, left the younger boy in the care of his nine year old brother and left in their newly acquired 1952 model Mercedes sedan, disappearing down the tree-lined boulevard they had just arrived on. The boys noticed that on the wall behind Tante Lore's desk, there was a large wooden artifact in the shape of a cross, with the figure of a bearded, semi-naked man nailed to the wood. They had never seen anything like this. Also in the room was a large, well-stocked bookcase behind the desk, several chairs strewn around and a coffee table with stacks of magazines. The room had long windows extending to the ceiling, partially covered with sheer white drapes that filtered light from the outside. The younger brother, Ahmet, left his older brother's side and went to the window, peering outside with the hope that his parents may still be there. The street was deserted. Down below in the front yard was a garden with flower beds and several weeping willows, which reminded the older boy of their "ranch" home in Ankara. The front yard was fenced in by a low brick wall capped with wrought iron railings. The door to the front yard was also wrought iron, painted green and adorned with small statues of a little boy and a little girl. Ahmet had not started school yet but with the help of his older brother, had figured out how to read. On the sign below the little statuettes, he and read the letters that made up the words "Evangelische Kinderheim". He had no idea what the words meant.
1952 Mercedes at 8 Lubecker Strasse
When they went to bed that night, Mehmet could not fall asleep. He looked over at his younger brother lying in the next bed. Ahmet, exhausted from the day’s activities had fallen asleep right away. In the last week or so, they had seen so many new places and lived through so many new experiences. Mehmet closed his eyes and tried to recount the events of the last few days. His dad had been working as an engineer at the Ministry of Construction in Ankara. About two months ago, he had been sent to a new work assignment in Dusseldorf, which was to last a year. Then, Mehmet, his mom and his little brother had boarded the KLM turboprop airliner to fly to Dusseldorf and join his dad. Their dad met them at the airport. When they left the terminal building, there was a surprise waiting for them. Their dad had bought a used 1952 Mercedes sedan. Their mom sat in the front next to their dad; the two boys threw themselves into the comfy cushions in the back seat of the Mercedes. Now they had their own private family car too! Their dad told them how difficult it had been to get a driver’s license, and also about the house he had rented. Then he gave the two brothers the news that they didn’t like very much. They were going to stay in Dusseldorf for a year. During this time, their parents wanted the two boys to learn German. When they got older, a second language would open many doors for the boys. The easiest way to accomplish this would be to register the boys at a boarding school. Their dad had found such a school at the town of Hilden, about fifty kilometers from Dusseldorf and had already made all necessary arrangements. On weekends mom and dad would pick up the boys from the school and spend time together, visiting all kinds of new and exciting places!
As a matter of fact, the first week they spent in Dusseldorf had been delightful. Both brothers liked this city very much. Dad had gotten a few days off that first week, and the family spent a lot of time together sightseeing in the city. Mehmet most liked a wide boulevard called “Koenigsallee” lined with majestic trees. This reminded him of Ataturk Boulevard in the Kizilay district of Ankara, but was broader and more beautiful. It was December and the stores on both sides of the boulevard had been illuminated with festive Christmas colors and lights. There was one department store among these called Kaufhof, which had no equivalent at the time in Turkey. Self moving stairs called escalators going up and down between the floors, and the different types of merchandise displayed on each floor had impressed Mehmet. Especially the top floor-- that was his favorite! This was the floor dedicated to toys. And what toys! Electric trains, propellor airplanes, toy helicopters you could fly above your head, remote control automobiles...Mehmet had seen the “Japanese” toy store in Istanbul, but this store was something else. It had maybe ten, maybe a hundred times as more toys than the Japanese store. Ahmet on the other hand liked the ground floor where the display windows were stocked with colorful decorations and animated characters. Each window had a different theme: Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Marx und Morris. These dolls all looked so life-like that you felt they were going to jump right out of the window and start walking! Ahmet’s favorite was the Noah’s Ark exhibit with the animals in it. A huge wooden ship was bobbing up and down on choppy waters and an old man with a white beard was at the helm, trying to steer the ship to safety. From the open doors to the steerage section below deck, you could see giraffes peeking their heads, lions and tigers were roaring, horses and donkeys eating the hay. Ahmet wanted his mom to always stop at this store window whenever they came to Koenigsallee. That night, Mehmet fell asleep reliving these memories
The next morning, the two brothers woke up to the sound of Aunt Inge’s voice. Aunt Inge was holding two large, white bath towels and a bar of soap, which she handed to the boys, muttering some words and showing them the bathroom. Mehmet knew the meaning of the words “waschen”and “baden” . He grabbed the tooth brushes they had brought from home, and told his younger brother “let’s go wash up”. When they entered the boys’ bathroom, they were in for a big surprise. Here all the boys were walking around buck naked, taking showers in open stalls. The two brothers were very embarrassed to do the same, but they took this development in stride. This must be the custom here, they thought, even though it offended their sense of modesty. They undressed, and trying to cover themselves as much as they could from view, walked timidly towards the shower stalls in the corner of the room. After the shower, Mehmet dried his younger brother’s hair carefully with the towel. He knew that Ahmet experienced severe ear pain from time to time so his head must always be kept dry and warm.
At the breakfast table, they were given the small loaves of bread called “broetchen” and raspberry jam. The brothers loved these little breads; they were so fresh and crispy. However, they did not like the brownish, salty substance the other kids were spreading onto their broetchen. When they asked the other kids “was ist das” , they were told it’s called “Fussangel”. Mehmet did not know what this word meant, he puckered his lips in confusion. The boy sitting next to Mehmet, named Thomas, said “Das ist Schwein butter, meine Mutter sagt “Esse nicht schwein fleisch und schwein butter”. Mehmet learned that day that “Schwein” meant Pig (Swine). There was a pig pen behind the Children’s Home, which Thomas had pointed to as he explained what Fussangel was. Later he learned that “Schwein” was one of the worst swear words you could call a person, along with “Doofmann”
Thomas became Mehmet’s best friend after that day. He was different than the other children at the Children’s Home. His hair was darker than the rest of the German kids, a shade of chestnut brown. His father was deceased. His mom lived in a distant country called “Israel”. On weekends, all the kids were visited by their families but Thomas was all alone. No matter, Thomas was happy with his mother’s infrequent visits to Germany, even if it meant seeing her once a year. In those days, many kids had a hobby of stamp collecting. Mehmet had traded some Turkish stamps in return for some Israeli stamps that Thomas had received from his mom. Mehmet had never had any Israeli stamps before; he put them in an envelope and decided to save them for the rest of his life.
The Children’s Home consisted of two separate buildings on the same parcel of land. The first building at the entrance contained the Schwesters’ living quarters, dining hall, and the children’s study, rest and play areas. The building in the rear of the property housed the dormitories, bathrooms and showers. The entire compound was within walking distance of the school that Mehmet went to.
Mehmet had started third grade in Ankara. But here, because he did not speak German, he had to start in first grade again. He was promoted to second grade two months later, and finally he would be allowed back into third grade around the middle of the academic year. One vivid memory Mehmet had at this school was that one of his teachers had a prosthetic arm made of wood.
Although it had been more than ten years since the end of World War II, the effects of the war continued to be felt by the people in Germany. In Dusseldorf, there were numerous buildings fenced off by wooden barriers that had been turned into rubble by the British bombs. In the town of Hilden, there was also a British military base not too far from the Children’s Home. British soldiers from this base would often pass in front of the Home, with arrogant and superior attitudes. Germans did not like these soldiers at all. The area around the Home was a wooded countryside. The Sisters would often take the children to the woods in nice weather, letting them enjoy nature and observe plants and animals. In these excursions, Mehmet noticed some stone structures that looked like staircases that descended below ground level. He would never know whether these were crypts where the dead were buried or bomb shelters.
On one such trip in the woods, Mehmet had wandered away from the rest of his group and was walking by himself near a creek, when he noticed three British soldiers approaching him. The soldiers saw his dark hair and realizing that he was not German, tried to speak with him. Mehmet, for his part, tried to tell them he was Turkish. The soldiers were drinking beer out of tall green bottles and appeared to be quite drunk. They were alternately taking swigs from their beer and drags from their cigarettes, while singing military marches or perhaps drunken bar songs. The young boy felt threatened by the aggressive attitude of these soldiers, which he had not experienced in his own country, and quickly left that area and returned to his friends.
Thirty minutes later, thick black smoke started to rise from the section of the woods where Mehmet had met the British soldiers The pine forest started burning like tinder. All of a sudden, the flames had started encircling the children, and the “Bruder”s and “Schwester”s started to lead them to safety. They heard the sirens of the Fire Engines and then the German police arrived on the scene. The police questioned the Brothers and Sisters. Had anyone seen what caused the fire? The caretakers were telling the police that when the fire started, they were quite far from where the first smoke was visible. While the police was persistently continued the interrogation, the dark- haired youth stepped forward, and as best as he could with his limited German, told them about the three drunk British soldiers he had encountered. One of the soldiers, while he was singing, had flicked his cigarette butt down to bunch of dry pine cones lying on the ground. The police took down the description of the three soldiers and thanked the boy. When the children returned to the Home, the fire was already under control. Mehmet would never know whether these drunk British soldiers had been subjected to any kind of discipline or punishment.
Unlike his older brother, Ahmet had not been able to adapt to the new school. Their parents stopped by to visit the boys at the Home mid-week, not even waiting for the first Saturday. Ahmet did not speak with his mom and dad at all. It was as if he had forgotten how to speak Turkish or lost his faculty of speech. But of course, he had to get used to this new arrangement, willingly or not. Because Ahmet was too young for school, he was attended the kindergarten section of the Home with little kids his own age.. But he had no intention of becoming friends with them either. He spent most of his time watching the fish in the big aquarium in the main lounge. Through the algae-encrusted green glass of the aquarium, he would watch air bubbles rise to the surface of the water, and observe the constant hustle of the little gold fish for morsels of fish food that were dropped in their midst. Who knows, maybe he felt a certain kinship to these small creatures…
One day Ahmet was not feeling well at all. After dinner, there was a birthday celebration for one of the children at the Home. The children had eaten chocolate birthday cake and had sang songs and played games. Two of the “Bruder”s had hoisted the birthday boy on their shoulders and let him touch the ceiling with his hands. This custom, which the Turkish boys were not familiar with, meant that the child had grown up so much that he could even touch the ceiling. But little Ahmet was not paying attention to these festivities. He had a bad earache in his left ear, which was getting worse as the night went on. About an hour after they went to bed that night, Mehmet woke up with the sound of his little brother crying. Right away, he went to the adjacent room to let Aunt Inge know. She took Ahmet’s temperature, which was over 40 degrees Celsius . The little boy kept holding his left ear. The “Schwester”s and “Bruder”s bundled Ahmet up and rushed him to the nearest hospital by car.
The older brother was waiting uneasily in the Principal’s office and trying to figure out what was happening. Tante Lore phoned the boys’ parents. In reality, she knew they would be out of town in Bremen today but tried anyway. They were not home. The doctors at the hospital advised that the little boy be taken immediately into surgery, but first they needed the parents’ consent. Tante Lore did not have a choice. For Ahmet’s well- being , they had to operate on him tonight. Would Mehmet -as next of kin --consent to surgery on his younger brother ?.Everything was going to be fine. “Ja, Alles Klaar” muttered the older boy .
That night, Ahmet had a successful surgery. A few days later, when the boys’ parents returned to town and heard the news, they rushed to the hospital in the town of Hilden. Little Ahmet was doing fine and was ready to be discharged from the hospital. Mom and Dad took Ahmet and drove him to their home in Dusseldorf. “We made a mistake” they said to themselves. It was OK maybe for Mehmet to stay at the Children’s Home, but Ahmet was too young. He still needed mom and dad’s loving care. After this incident, Ahmet did not return to the Children’s Home. The little boy, who did not speak at all in the first few days after coming back from the Children’s Home, eventually started to talk to his parents again, and in German!
Father and the boys backyard of Lubecker Strasse Haus
Sunday breakfast with cofee at the patio
As far as Mehmet, when he went back to his bed at the Children’s Home, he would greatly miss his younger brother’s comforting presence by his side. This feeling of loneliness and longing for his family was to be a recurring theme not only at the Children’s Home but also at other boarding schools later in his life. At these schools, whenever he was sick or felt lonely in the dormitory, Mehmet would play a game. He imagined hiding his brother under his comforter, unbeknownst to his friends and teachers. He would share with his imaginary little brother some of the food that was brought to his bedside when he was sick. He would talk to Ahmet all day in the dorm room and try to forget his loneliness this way.
On Saturdays, Mehmet could not wait for the black Mercedes sedan to appear at the Children’s Home. After his family arrived, they would all pile in the car, drive on narrow country roads through the pine forests, and then cruise onto the “Autobahn” headed to Dusseldorf. Here, they lived in the first floor of a multi-family home with a private garden.
Their home in Dusseldorf was on the first floor of a multi-family home with a private garden.
In the second floor of the house lived their landlady, who was a youngish widow. Frau Ingrid’s husband had died in the war. The boys would play in the backyard which was stocked with several apple trees. They were forbidden to pluck apples from the trees ; Frau Ingrid only allowed the boys to eat the apples that had already fallen to the ground. According to their dad, Germans had suffered a great deal during and in the after the war, and as a result, were very thrifty people. Many times at home, their meals consisted of nothing but some cabbage, potatoes, and a tiny bit of pork. But in our Turkish family’s household, the situation was different. They would have Sunday breakfast in the back patio. Breakfast with little “broetchen” breads, fresh butter, jams and salami tasted so great! The children liked hot chocolate when they lived in Turkey, but here they loved coffee with milk. Their dad had bought a Braun coffee maker. The coffee beans would be ground in the mixer, and then brewed with steam in this espresso machine. A heavenly coffee aroma would then waft all around them.
Boys with their mom at the backyard
One of the things that surprised Mehmet the most in Germany were the grocery stores. In these stores, you pushed a cart around which you filled on your own with food items and then paid the cashier on the way out. In the grocery stores back in Turkey, there was no such system. Little Ahmet most liked the little candy on a stick wrapped in cellophane that were placed by the registers on your way out. You held these lollipops by the little handle and licked.
Another one of Ahmet’s favorite places was the cafeteria in the basement of the Kaufhof on Koenigsallee. Here people ate while standing at round, high-top tables. Ahmet was only tall enough to reach the storage section built into the lower part of the tables where people put briefcases, hats etc. His mom would put a frankfurter plate in this lower compartment for Ahmet to eat.
Mehmet, on the other hand, would put mustard on his frankfurter. This would burn his mouth and he would feel smoke coming out of his ears, and in fact his brain, and he would try to cool himself off by sipping through a straw in a glass bottle, a drink called Coca Cola. He had tried this dark brown colored beverage for the first time here and found it to be really refreshing and much better tasting than the “gazoz” back home. In Ankara back in those days, there was neither such a beverage nor the straws you would put inside a glass bottle to sip it with.
Weekends went by quickly, whereas week days were very slow for Mehmet. He had gained favor with the teacher with the prosthetic arm at school, and was getting good grades. Although he was a well behaved kid that the Schwesters liked at the Children’s Home, he would still get into occasional tussles with the German kids. Turkey was to sweep the gold medals in wrestling in the Melbourne Summer Olympics. Mehmet always tried to prove to the German kids the expression “strong like a Turk”. He would pretend he was sometimes Huseyin Akbas, other times Mustafa Dagistanli, and would start wrestling the blond German boys. One of these times, he had pinned his opponent to the ground and saw that the German kid was bleeding from his head. The Bruders rushed the boy to the school’s infirmary, and Mehmet was taken into Tante Lore’s office. Here the old Schwester called the little Turk on the carpet and scolded him harshly. Mehmet was forbidden to wrestle with his friends !
The month of December was a very festive and colorful time in and around Dusseldorf, especially for children. Big, fat snowflakes enveloped the pine forests like a white blanket and all of the lakes and ponds in the city and countryside were frozen. The two brothers spent time together on weekends, putting on their white snow boots and playing with the snow on the street. Sledding and ice skating were the favorite pastimes of the two brothers during these beautiful winter days.Frequently, they would take their “Rosebud” branded wooden sled to the hills nearby, slide down on the “Schlitten” , and then walk back up the hill to do it again. Whenever they went into the city, they would take their ice skates with them. Here, a little pond in a park was frozen solid and had turned into an ice skating rink enjoyed by all the city dwellers, children, the young and the old alike. The two brothers quickly learned how to skate after initially wiping out a lot, and really loved this new activity.
As it got close to Christmas time, the family started receiving colorful holiday cards in the mail, decorated with reindeer, Christmas tree and Santa Claus figures, and embossed with shiny white glitter that resembled snowflakes. Mehmet really loved these cards. They would place the cards on the mantle above the fireplace, next to the small framed photo of Ataturk. The boys were accustomed to New Year’s celebrations in Turkey, but they also liked this German holiday called “Weihnachten” that was celebrated several days before. Every home had a Christmas tree for the season, no matter how small, decorated with green, yellow and red glass balls, various ornaments and white tinsel that symbolized snow. Under the trees were various gifts for the children wrapped in colorful wrapping papers, bows, ribbons. How interesting were all these customs for Mehmet and Ahmet!
The night before Christmas, the whole family had been invited to the home of Herr Koffink, who was a colleague of their dad from the Krupp Company. The home of Herr and Frau Koffink was full of beautiful delights that the children would not forget-- a majestic christmas tree rising all the way onto the ceiling and gilded angel figurines placed in the window sills! These baby angels had burning candles underneath them, and were sitting on a merry-go-round like carousel that was powered by the heat generated from the candles to go ‘round and ‘round while they blew into the long horns placed in their mouths.
Another decoration in the Koffings’ house that fascinated Mehmet was the little Manger Scene placed on a small table. In this barn were small, illuminated figures of cows, sheep and date trees. The barn had a wooden roof but was open in the front. Inside was a woman with a white scarf, rocking a cradle. Inside the cradle was a new born baby with a golden halo around his head. Mehmet was very impressed with this new tableau and asked his father what this represented. His father said: “Look son, this baby figure represents the infant Jesus, which our religion also recognizes as a prophet. But I want you to know this: our religion is here.” As he said this, he put his hand on his heart. “In our system of belief, there is no need for such visual effects and icons to endear a religion to a young child. Don’t you ever forget this!”
That night Mehmet did not quite understand why his dad was irritated by this event. But even though most of his adult life was going to be lived in western countries with the Christmas tradition, he never forgot what his father said. Wherever he experienced a Christmas, he would enjoy the colorful festivity of the season, but would find greater joy when he thought of what was in his heart.
At the Christmas party adults drank alcoholic beverages called “schnapps” while kids ate ginger cookies and sipped their beloved Coca Cola from glass bottles using straws. When it was time to open presents, our family drew a very large gift box. Together they opened it carefully, inside was another smaller box, which when opened contained another box and so on, until finally they opened the last box which was the size of an adult hand. When they opened this last box, inside they found nestled among red chocolate wrappers, a toy automobile made of chocolate! The car was an exact model of an Opel Kapitan. It appeared that Herr Koffing already knew that the Turkish family would buy a new Opel Kapitan and take it back home to Ankara.
Christmas morning 1955 was rather uneventful at the Turkish family’s house in Dusseldorf. The dad made the coffee. The mom put the broetchen in the toaster. The children came down to the breakfast table in their pajamas with sleepy eyes. A completely ordinary day, with nothing special happening. But a week later, New Year’s Day was so different! When the children sat at the breakfast table again on the first day of January of 1956, they could not believe what they saw! An electric train set was set on the rug in front of the fireplace in their living room. The black, Marklin brand locomotive had its headlights turned on, and was pulling the red and green train cars behind it, going round and round on the oval shaped tracks, moving through little train stations and landscape. Next to the train station, there was a toy propeller plane that could be made to move on its rubber tires, which had the word “Lufthansa” printed on its fuselage. Right next to the plane was a toy red, remote- control, model Opel Kapitan automobile! The two brothers were looking at each other and their parents with incredulous eyes, as if asking “are these things really ours”? Their mom and dad patted the boys’ dark hair. This was a New Year’s Day morning that the whole family could never forget: January 1, 1956.
Original story in Turkish written by Cem Özmeral March 5, 2007
English Translation by Mustafa Ozmeral, editing by Kathy Ozmeral December 9, 2017
1 my name is Aunt Lore
2 and she is Sister Inge
3 Evangelical Children's Home
5 to bathe
6 what is that
7 That is lard from a pig, my mother says ‘do not eat swine meat and butter’