by Elizabeth Teicher
My autobiography begins with the earliest memories that I have of my family and the small ethnic German village in Slavonia now in Croatia where I was born in 1914 and continues with our exciting journey to Milwaukee when I was seven years old.
The book describes the obstacles and opportunities that faced me as an immigrant child and young woman. Meeting my husband, George, our courtship and marriage, and the raising of our seven children play an important role in my memoirs.
The book continues after George’s death in 1975, telling about the new life that I had to make for myself, while sharing, with my children and their families, their joys and sorrows.
My story includes people of six generations and covers events in their lives through January 1994.
1. WHEN THE CUCKOO CALLED AT SUNDOWN
The setting of my first home seems like a good place to start our family history. From there I’ll go on to the present as well as my memory will take me. I will try to name the locations of each place as well as I can; some will have changed for the better.
The anecdotes I’ll use to inform, involve, or entertain you will be as accurate as I can make them. Aside from personal memory, there will be stories from reliable witnesses or hearsay that have stood the test of time, have remained relevant, and contain interest or enjoyment.
First of all, I want to assure everyone that the only embarrassing or shocking tales you will read may be about people you know, but only such as those who have been dead for a long time. This was the primary rule about nonfiction writing I learned in my very first writing class, circa 1940, Ethel Gintoft.
I’ll start with what I recall about Hrastovac, the small village where I was born in 1914. Hrastovac, Austria-Hungary now in the country of Croatia, is about 26 kilometers west of Daruvar and about a two-hour drive E of Zagreb. The village had only two rows of houses facing each other across a rutted dirt road, which ended in a small cluster of buildings where the business of the village was conducted. There was an inn (Gasthaus) with a tavern where food was served on the first floor. On the second floor were sleeping rooms for overnight guests. The village had one grocery store and a one-room schoolhouse, which also served as the church on Sundays. I seem to remember a flour-mill in the vicinity because Grandfather Ochs was a miller.
Photo: Peter (1847-1918) and Maria Schneider (Abt.1854- ? ) Ochs. Peter was one of the first settlers in Hrastovac and owned the store and the flour mill. Photo ca. 1911.
Our house was long and narrow, built of a kind of mud walls that needed whitewashing from time to time. Some distances behind the house were outbuildings, which included one shed for cow garden paraphernalia and another larger one for a horse and wagon. On one side of the house was an outdoor patio where we often played at the end of the day. From there we could see woods behind the house and enjoy an unobstructed view of the sunset. From the patio was a single entrance into the house leading into a hallway, from which we could enter the front room or the kitchen, the only two rooms in the house.
The front room was damp and sparsely furnished and contained our good clothes, which were taken out only on Sunday mornings for church. If there was ever a guest (ein Gast) admitted into that sterile room, I fail to remember it. One of my earliest memories, and the only enjoyable one I have of the phantom room, is of Grandma emerging every Sunday morning carrying Grandpa’s church clothes over her arm, the hand of the other clutching his shoes, and his hat perched saucily on her head. * Mary and I waited for this antic of Grandma’s every Sunday, and it never grew stale for us. This little scene took place in the kitchen, as did most everything else. It was the heart of the house.
Happily the kitchen was almost twice the size of that other room. This is where life was lived, day in and day out, with the fragrance of strings of dried garlic and red peppers hanging on the walls and the lingering smells of baking bread and home cooking.
At the back end of the kitchen was a cupboard for dishes and foodstuffs and an iron stove which was used for cooking. During the winter, the stove was the only source of heat for the house. In hot weather, perishables were lowered into the well in the yard to keep them cool.
Two feather beds soft as clouds flanked the walls on either side of the kitchen. Each bed was covered with a sheet and piled high with snow-white pillows. There was no bed spread, and underneath it all was a prickly mattress filled with straw. The whiteness of the bedding was a housewife’s claim to respectability.
I was born in that kitchen, in one of those beds, fifteen months after my sister, Mary, when my mother was just two months short of her eighteenth birthday. Grandma and the midwife were the only attendants, no antiseptic, no anesthesia—just hot water, soap, and clean, white rags. The man of the house, with his nerves and his nausea, was usually dispatched to a neighbor’s house. This was woman’s work!
Papa must have been in the army then, as I have no memory or his presence while living in Grandma and Grandpa Kehl’s house. I remember Mama being very relaxed and happy, as living with Grandma was for all of us, especially when Grandpa wasn’t around.
Photo: Jakob (1863-1946) and Elizabeth Messner Kehl; Photo 1911.
Living in Hrastovac those first few years of my life left me with gifts I could not have acquired in the city, such as one purely bucolic incident that left a memory I treasure. I have never shared it with anyone, nor have I ever understood it. It has never been repeated or forgotten. Why haven’t I ever written it down? Perhaps the time has come…
I was probably four or five years old and pleasantly warm and tired from play. Mary and I each had a handful of cherries to eat before we were to come into the house for our Saturday night baths. Mary went in, and I looked dreamily about at my surroundings. The brilliant sunset, the clover-scented breeze caressing my face, the last cherry sweet on my tongue. Suddenly, the two-note call of a cuckoo sounded from the woods. My heart jumped, my breathing accelerated, and I felt faint. I think there was some kind of gap in the time at that point because it was a couple of minutes before I heard Grandma’s voice called me, “Komm ins Haus, Liebschen!”
What happened then and there? How often had I thought of that moment, trying to understand it, and failing to do so, putting it out of my mind until another time.
Well! I understand it now—in 1994! After writing it down countless times, resurrecting the sight and my feelings to the best of my ability, it suddenly became clear to me—the sight of the sunset, the touch and smell of the evening breeze on my face, the last of the cherries sweet on my tongue—four of my senses involved simultaneously! At that moment I heard the two-note call of the cuckoo from the woods. 1-2-3-4-5. That’s when it happened! The call of the cuckoo made number five! All five senses came together in one magic moment! I’ve got it! By, George, I think I’ve finally got it! Nirvana!
Dear God, how beautiful is your world, and to think that I held that special moment within me for almost a lifetime. Now I am able to share its significance with my loved ones!
P.S. I assure you, the following chapters won’t always end on such a philosophical note. This one was a long time being born.
2. CUSTOMS AND CELEBRATIONS
One of the things that really surprised me in the recall of my childhood home (in view of the fact almost 300 years had passed since the first Ochs and Kehl family left Germany) is how well their ethnicity had survived. Comparing them to the Croats who surrounded our village on all sides, they still looked like Germans, even in my memory of them.
For the uninformed, I’d better explain how true Germans happened to settle in Croatia in the first place. In the late seventeen hundreds, thousands of families from southwest Germany decided to travel to eastern Europe because of their discontent with the government and living conditions to take advantage of a homesteading deal there (many by way of the Danube River–that is why they and their descendents are called Donauschwaben). The land had been ravaged by a protracted war with Turkey, and settlers were offered land to farm with up to three years free taxes. The Ochs name and Kehl, my mother’s maiden name, appeared on the original roster. Considering how little they changed, how they clung to their German customs and language, and how different they remained from the Croatians in the early 1920’s, they were indeed a tenacious lot.
I’ll start with weddings in my description of the customs I remember most. The bride in white in such hinterlands was of course, unheard of. My mother caused a sensation when she was married in a blue one-piece dress brought along from Brazil. The typical bride in Hrastovac wore a brightly colored peasant-type skirt and blouse, and a wreath of flowers in her hair, fresh ones in season and crepe paper roses in winter. Every village had a young woman who was taught or self-taught to make crepe paper roses to help satisfy a certain inherent beauty hunger through the winter.
After the ceremony in the church, a local wedding custom followed. The new bride, with her husband and wedding party, walked the length of the town, and all of the town’s inhabitants awaited them to tie a colored silk ribbon around the bride’s arm. At the end of the road, she crossed over to the other side where her other arm was likewise adorned, which would bring her to the other end. There was considerable competition for the prettiest ribbons, which were saved for little girls of the future.
The German wedding dinners were so popular and ingrained into the culture; they even crossed the Atlantic, becoming a part of several generations of weddings in Milwaukee. Chicken soup made from countless fresh chickens and cooked with homemade noodles cut fine as thread was not easily given up!
The wedding dance likewise did not change much. During the Bride Dance, every guest got a spin with the bride—man, woman or child. Each was required to pay for the honor by depositing a money token into the waiting lap of the bride’s mother. This custom did not die easily either; however the guests felt about it. The lovely thing about weddings was that nobody counted the cost once they got into the spirit of it! The babies slept in their mothers’ arms; the older children were found in the wee hours in strange corners but always carried home in the loving arms of their parents (who had slightly tipsy steps!) to wake up in their beds in the morning.
Butchering Day, as awful as it sounds, was another custom that refused to die in rural life. In reading a collection of Wallace Stegner’s short stories, I found that the description of Butchering Days in the author’s life in Saskatchewan was almost identical to the custom in Hrastovac. The only difference I found was that the Canadians caught the blood in a bowl for blood pudding, the Germans, for blood sausage. One sounds as bad as the other to me!
According to Stegner, the slaughter took place in the early morning. He described the pig as very nervous, even suspicious. Some people who have had a pet put to sleep can certainly identify with that. The pig was held down or tied up, whatever it took to get its cooperation in having its throat slit. I was given a part in the only butchering I remember before we left for America. I was seven years old and was at that time the city child from Brot who was believed to be in need of toughening. I was told that I must hold the pig’s tail until it stopped squealing (was dead). Somehow, I allowed someone to get me to take hold of the animal’s tail. At the first squeal, I let go and ran and hid behind my grandmother’s outdoor oven, to the laughter of the –uh–butchers. As the day wore on, however, I forced this part of my non-participation to the back of my mind, unwilling to be left out of the merrymaking. After smelling the sumptuous bratwurst made from a well-guarded family recipe, I weakened still more, and found it so delicious that I was perfectly able to put aside the memory of its grisly origin.
The high point of the day was reserved for the evening, after the dishes were washed. A sudden, sharp tapping on the window pane was the cue for the older children to go out into the frosty air and retrieve a piece of paper that had been prepared by non-present neighbors. It contained a comic verse about every member of the butchering party. In retrospect, I remember the hearty laughter for the verses about the men (they were not for the ears of children!). By this time there had been considerable wine consumed, and the party reached boisterous proportions! I know now that most of the adults present had no more than four years of schooling, some less, some none at all. To think they would conceive this kind of ending for this particular affair. Somehow I like that! *
Every community has, I’m sure, some kind of Thanksgiving–a Harvest Feast. Goose was the preferred bird for ours. It was, of course, my fleet-of-foot grandmother who was put in charge of catching and fattening the creature. I watched her from a distance. She grasped the unhappy bird by the neck, held it tightly between her knees, and started to push dry kernels of corn down its throat with her index finger. “Komm zu mir, mein Kind,” she called to me. I tried not to watch her as she laughed and talked, continuing to fatten our harvest dinner. The bird’s wings flapped wildly, and to this day I can see its beady, terrified little eyes! I reminded myself over and over, “Grandma is a kind and gentle person, she is, she is!” I’ve never stopped being thankful that our American Thanksgiving turkey comes from the meat market all ready to be stuffed and put into the oven to roast!
Christmas celebrations in Hrastovac were quite similar to ours. Santa Claus was replaced by a kind of Father Christmas, Beltsnickel, who came early on Christmas Eve and was awaited by children with delicious fear and trembling. Once the children answered, “Yes” to his gruff question, “Have you been good?” they were asked to sing a Weinacht’s Lied (Christmas song). Then he reached into his bag and threw handfuls of nuts and unwrapped hard Christmas candy on the floor, making his departure with a final “Frohliche Weinachten!” for the children had been good, of course.
The next loved Christian holiday of children was Easter. No baskets of candy and eggs, only colored hard-boiled eggs placed by the Easter rabbit in handmade straw nests. Each child hid his or hers in the hay of the barn. Big, bad brothers were often known to get up with the sun and help themselves to some of their sisters’ eggs!
The worst such case took place in the Ochs family. My father and his older brother Pete ate their five sisters’ eggs and replaced them with…horse apples! The howls of the girls awakened the parents and were soon replace by those of the boys when the truth was revealed. Such early-morning noise was enough to awaken a good many neighbors, and the story became a classic. Needless to say, the boys never did that again!
* Eva Müller Ruppert told us that it was slightly different in Hrastovac; the children didn’t go outside to get the piece of paper that contained the comic verse. Instead, after the men, tapped on the window, the father opened the window. The men had a long stick with the verse attached to it. When the father took the verse off the stick, the mother would put a donut in its place.
3. THE OCHS CLAN
Now I will go on to my paternal grandparents’ generation and try to show you what life was like for them. My grandfather, Peter Ochs, defected from the ironclad convention of the village by marrying a girl from a neighboring village…and a Catholic as well! Neither one ever neither accepted the other’s religion nor showed the slightest interest in it. Such prejudice was accepted without apology or pang of conscience.
Peter Ochs 1883-1970. Peter, served his military obligation before WWI began and sponsored the author’s family when they immigrated to Milwaukee, WI in 1921 and also paid their passage.
Photo: Peter Ochs 1883-1970. Peter, served his military obligation before WWI began and sponsored the author’s family when they immigrated to Milwaukee, WI, in 1921 and also paid their passage. Photo ca. 1917
Grandfather Ochs was a chubby grandfatherly type. He was the village miller and ran after the grandchildren waving floury hands, making funny white faces. He also owned the only grocery store in the village. A stop there meant a handmade paper cone of rock candy, the only candy available in those parts. It was called Zucher (rhymes with looker), which has a literal translation of the word sugar.
There is a charming story about the first Christmas Eve of their married life. Grandpa found his young wife (Maria Schneider Ochs) in tears after the baby was asleep. On questioning her tenderly, she admitted she missed the midnight mass of her church. “Go get your shawl and I’ll get the horse and wagon,” he said. The nearest Catholic Church was in Garesnica, a ride of perhaps an hours and a half. This became a favorite Christmas story of the village, whose residents no doubt listened each year for the return of the wagon early Christmas morning.
Peter and Maris’s first son was Peter, my father’s older brother and maker of much mischief in his time. He married at an early age and had two children, a boy and a girl, after which his wife left his bed, as she wanted no more children. This was common, as it was the only available form of birth control, and no doubt hard on the marriage! Peter had no intention of putting up with it. He divorced his wife and married Katherine Stumpf, a sixteen-year-old beauty who bore him 14 children of which 12 survived. They immigrated to America (Milwaukee) after the fourth child was born.
The “Big Family” of Peter Ochs and Katharina, nee Stumpf, who played a very important part in Elisabeth’s life before her marriage to George.
From left to right: Bottom row: Frank, Richard, Eli, Anne, Marjorie
Standing: Philip, Carl, John, Peter, Peter Sen., Katharina, Elizabeth (Betty) Kay, Mary.
Photo taken on Katharina’s birthday, 22nd of March 1942.
The second child of the mixed (interfaith) marriage was my father John (called Hans), your grandfather. At the age of 18, he and two of his friends took off for North Dakota, where they worked in the woods for two years. My father, unlike his brother, Peter, was not a talker, and nothing whatever is known about those two years. I assume they cut down tees. On his return, he either joined the army or was drafted. My mother, Mary, and I stayed at Grandma Kehl’s home until the war was over. Mary, my brother, and I were all born during the war years.
Elizabeth and Mary Ochs (sitting), ca. 1917. Who could be the girl standing?
I will not go into such details about all of the children of Peter and Mary, but there are some interesting stories here. My father’s oldest sister was Katherine, mother of my cousin Katherine, who you remember. Katherine, Sr. fell in love with a second cousin, Jacob Ochs. Even in those days, parents objected to such marriages, no doubt due to the stories about royalty. The cousin couple paid no heed, eloped, and Katherine Ochs remained the bride’s name.
Their first son was born, and from birth had some kind of mental deficiency that was never diagnosed in Hrastovac, nor later in Milwaukee. He never attended school, and after early childhood and adolescence he was kept at home. The only thing I remember about him is how he walked the streets of Milwaukee with his head lowered to his chest, mumbling to himself. Parents warned their children about him.
The only two people in the relation (or the city) who befriended him were his sister, Lena, and his uncle, my father. My father gave him haircuts, a skill he had learned in the army. Cousins Peter and Mary had six more children after Jacob, all mentally sound. My cousin, Katherine, was the only one born in the U.S. and never knew her father, as he died when she was two.
My father’s third sibling was Elizabeth. We called her Listant. I might inject the information that bringing new names into a family was considered faithless…at least a form of snobbery. Elizabeth married a Hungarian, Szanto—only a Turk was considered lower! The marriage failed; she divorced him and left for America, extracting a promise from him to send her only son, Stephen, age 3, to her when he was older. She promised to send his fare.
All through our childhood, we listened to Listant’s stories about her son, Stephie. Listant liked a good time, and in her twenties she married a handsome saloonkeeper from Milwaukee, Philip Drechsler. He was sentenced to jail for ten months for selling whiskey during the prohibition. Listant took up with Philip’s 350-lb. bartender named Louis and divorced Philip to marry him.
We kids loved Louis. He was funny and generous with treats from the tavern. He died at 65, and Elizabeth, nearing 70, sold their saloon business and retired. Her first act, then, was to send for her Stephie, who was still in Europe. By this time we were all tired of hearing about him. She had an open house for the relation to welcome him. Stephie turned out to be an overweight late-middle-aged man, surly to the point of being arrogant, and not a bit interested in his mother’s family. George and I stopped at their tavern one summer evening, and Stephie was more arrogant than ever.
Within the first couple of years after he arrived, Stephie convinced his mother to buy a large tavern in Slinger, Wisconsin, and put her in the kitchen as the cook. He’d been known to say he would become a big shot if it killed him, and indeed it did. Before the first two years were over, he suffered a fatal heart attack. When notified, all the family was reputed to have said, “Good!” right out loud, and I’m afraid I was one of them!
In conclusion I would like to tell you about my father’s youngest sister, Christina. Though the youngest, Christina was married and moved away before I was old enough to know her. I’d heard a great deal about her; she was greatly loved. I never met her until she paid a visit to say good-bye to our family before we left for America.
Christina was beautiful and gay, and I loved her the minute I met her and knew that I always would. She had three beautiful children and played like a child with all of us, even turned somersaults in her long skirts. When she spoke with us, she talked no differently than she did with the grown-ups. I felt we were the same age, and I loved it.
There was a high pear tree in Grandma’s yard. The pears were ripe, and we stuffed ourselves sick on them. Christina gobbled with the rest of us, laughing and letting the juice run down her chin and wiping it on her sleeve, just like us. It was wonderful, one of the happiest days of my life, but down deep there lurked the knowledge I would never see her gain, and of course I didn’t.
A picture of Grandma and Grandpa (Peter and Maria Ochs) is hanging in the cottage in Rhinelander. Grandpa has a white beard, and Grandma is wearing a babushka. The married women of Hrastovac always wore the babushka. The way each woman tied indicated her babushka indicated the village from which she came. The knot was tucked under her chin with considerable pressure.
4. LIFE IN BROD
Although Mary and I were born only 15 months apart, there were almost four years between my brother, Johnny, and me. The answer was, of course, the war. I have a vague memory of my mother telling somebody, in a voice tinged with pride, “Johnny was furlough baby,” so he was probably born in Brod, where we were living when the war ended. Brod was a small city about an hour’s train ride from Hrastovac. Mary and I had many visits back and forth, as she continued to live with Grandma and Grandpa Kehl in Hrastovac until we left for America. *
Photos: Anna Maria Kehl Ochs (1894-1987) (far right), daughter of Jakob and Elizabeth Messner Kehl. Photo taken in Brazil shortly before Anna Maria’s and Johann Ochs’ marriage in Hrastovac. Photo ca. 1912 – At left: Johann “John” Ochs (1885-1941). Photo ca. 1910
The house we lived in was near the depot. A troop train stopped there frequently to allow the young soldiers to get out for some exercise; I remember them throwing a ball and otherwise horsing around. Whenever this happened, I saw tears in my mother’s eyes, and when I asked her why she was crying, she would shake her head and walk away. Many years later I asked her about these young soldiers again, and she told me they were all boys on their way to the front. Brod, I have since learned, was the city to which Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of the Archduke Ferdinand, escaped and hid for two years before he was found and executed for his crime.
Papa had a job at the railroad—yes—it must have been after the war. I do remember how nice it was to have him coming home every evening.
These were happy time. The incident I remember most clearly was one of those I relived with absolute clarity for many years and still recall better than most. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was waiting for Papa to come home, as he had promised to take us to the fair after supper. Mama dressed me up early, and I had a new red bow in my hair. The hours dragged by. I kept running to look at my reflection in the well to make sure I’d look nice for Papa.
It was starting to turn dark when I decided I’d better start praying to my Himmel Dadi (heaven daddy) about it. This phrase was the deity small children were taught to address in prayer. I know Papa never did get home to take us to the fair, but neither do I remember any sense of disappointment that my prayer was not answered. Did I really make the best of such situations, or does a child block them out, as psychology would have it today? I really don’t know. Whatever the case, I became, as a child, and remain to this day, adept at taking disappointment in stride.
It was while we were living in Brod that we must have started plans to immigrate to the United States. I remember frequent exchanges of mail about it. Grandma Kehl cried at the mention of the word America. My sister, Mary, possibly coached by Grandma, always maintained the she was “not coming with” but always made sure to say where she was going to hide…usually in Grandma’s outdoor oven!
* Pictures of Papa and Mama before they were married are hanging in the cottage in Rhinelander. Papa is wearing his soldier’s uniform from WWI.
5. GREEDY GRANDPA
What a demeaning title to use about one’s maternal grandfather! Actually, it’s comparatively mild! Grandpa Kehl had more serious flaws than the name would suggest, nasty as it sounds. The stories that earned this one for him were of a lighter, perhaps amusing kind that could be told in the presence of children before they were old enough to be exposed to the darker ones.
There is one other story of the benign kind you kids may remember. Grandma had clothes drying on the line one day, leaving them out in the afternoon sun to bleach. Just before sundown, a heavy shower soaked them, so she left them on the line to finish drying in the morning. The next day Grandpa discovered that his white Sunday shirt was gone. “Die verdamten Ziegeuner!” (Those damn Gypsies!), Grandpa swore. He was sure that it was the gypsies who stole it!
Some time later he stopped at a fair, a carnival-like picnic with halves of roasting pigs enticing passersby with their aroma. Grandpa stopped to eat and spotted a gypsy wearing his Sunday shirt! He had his own way of identifying it, and letting out a yell that alerted the culprit, he took chase and caught him and went home with his shirt! I like to tell that story. It is the only story that we knew of that my grandfather came out the hero. After all as his progeny, we owe him something!
The adjective “greedy” is actually somewhat misleading. It wasn’t the largest portions which Grandpa considered his just due but the choice ones, such as the white meat of chicken, should this be his favorite. In Brazil, where he lived with his family for 15 years, garden yields provided watermelon the year round, and they were not cut across, but lengthwise. Then the middle (the heart) was removed in long strips for Grandpa. The rest of the family got the seedy side parts. Grandma never thought of questioning his right to this anymore than she had any qualms about bringing his Sunday clothes to the kitchen for him.
Of the six children born to my grandparents, three were lost in infancy. Such statistics were not uncommon in those days. The third child, a 3-year-old girl named Mariechen (the diminutive of Mary), was stricken with a serious undiagnosed illness. When the doctor was called (he came from a considerable distance), the child was already dying. Grandpa was frantic. He refused to accept the doctor’s verdict. Picking the child up, he held her close, screaming, “Nein, nein, mein Kind! Du musst nicht sterben!” (No, no, my child, you must not die! I will not let you die!). Grandma did her best to quiet him, worrying that the child might hear and understand.
The doctor was appalled and left Grandma to deal with this madman. Grandma still wept copiously over this scene years later. She was always ahead of her time and in that instance had been concerned about the possible state of the child’s consciousness. She told us that forgiving Grandpa for this was the hardest thing she had ever done, but what could she do? She was already carrying their next child.
When Grandma first informed her mother that she planned to marry Jacob Kehl, Great-Grandma wept for a week, trying to dissuade her. His reputation as a human devil was already established and preceded him wherever he went. Somehow, however, he never ran afoul of the law. Grandma said he was too smart for that! Physical abuse of his wife was as far as he went; there was no law against wife beating. He never beat up a neighbor or a townsman. Self-preservation was his first priority at all times!
There were times when Grandpa could be quite charming. That is, he could be as charming as he needed to be to get what he wanted. Even as children, we learned to recognize his self-serving signs and were watchful of them…a sad state of affairs. When his second kleines Mariechen, my mother, was one year old, he decided to move his family to Brazil. The family believes today that it was homesteading that drew him there, opportunist that he was. I can only hope that Grandma went willingly on such a long sea voyage with a one-year-old. However, it was Grandpa who made all the decisions. He had great powers of persuasion, and Grandma was known to have what we now call a selective memory, the two qualities that probably kept them together.
Grandpa seemed to be, by nature, an entrepreneur; or possibly he needed a serious challenge to get his mind off petty concerns and behave like a decent human being. At any rate, it did not take him long to set himself up in the meat business in Sao Paulo. The climate was hot, there was no refrigeration, and foxy Grandpa was soon smoking his much-celebrated bratwurst of Butchering Days fame. It brought him a thriving business in no time. *
Photo: Jakob Kehl and his wife, Elisabeth “Ersze” Messner Kehl,
with their children, Anna Maria“Mary” and Jacob “Jake” in Brazil. Photo ca. 1900
He had a beautiful house built for his family and hired maids, young girls from the interior, who worked for low wages. Soon the old symptoms of self-gratification reappeared. When Grandma found him in bed with a pretty young maid, it was the last straw. “In our own house!” she wailed. She left him with all three of their children for another village where a wealthy physician hired her as cook and housekeeper, housing all three of her children in the contract.
There is a charming story about her tenure there that shows a strong side of Grandma’s character that she could use to her advantage, did she so choose. She seriously injured her right index finger with a kitchen knife. The physician treated the wound without success, and he eventually told Grandma that the finger would have to be amputated. She refused and said that she would take care of it herself!
Doctors did considerable traveling to other villages, sometimes for extended periods of time. When he left, the finger still not healed, Grandma applied an old family poultice of chewed-up rye bread (human saliva was considered to promote healing). “The rye bread must be stale and moldy, the moldier, the better” (shades of penicillin?). By the time her employer returned, the finger was completely healed. “How…what did you do, Frau Kehl?” he asked, his eyes wide in disbelief. “That,” said Grandma, “is something the good doctor need not know (das brauch der Herr Doctor gar nicht zu wissen).”
She stayed on as his housekeeper for two years. Perhaps that is what she needed to do to prove to herself that she could get along without her husband. At any rate, after two years of Grandpa’s pleading, Grandma relented and returned, not only to him, but also to Hrastovac, with my mother and her brother, Uncle Jake. My mother’s oldest sister, Elizabeth, remained in Brazil where she ultimately married and raised a family. Her grandson, Arturo Hirsch, and his wife came to visit us in 1990.
My mother was a beauty at 16, considered just ripe for marriage in those times. The young swains of the village were soon competing for her favors, the front-runners being Henry Lotz and John Ochs. Henry, a happy-go-lucky type, lost out to John Ochs, who was handsome, serious, and gentle.
The January wedding was a cut above the usual Hrastovac weddings. The bride wore a one-piece Brazilian dress of fine turquoise serge and silk flowers (in lieu of crepe paper) in her hair. Grandpa made sure the wine was the finest, and Grandma saw to it that the chicken soup, with noodles cut fine as thread, was on the menu.
*A picture of Grandma and Grandpa (Jacob and Elizabeth Kehl) is hanging in the cottage in Rhinelander. Grandma is sitting, and standing are Grandpa, my mother, and my Uncle Jake (Jacob), who lived in Ohio. Grandpa Kehl had three occupations. He was a farmer; he was in the meatpacking business (bratwurst) and the wool-dying business. As Mother indicated, Jakob and family dressed differently than the people in Hrastovac, probably like they did in Brazil. My mother was born in Hrastovac and traveled to Brazil when she was a baby. She had an older sister, Elizabeth, who married a Hirsh who stayed in Brazil after the family moved back to Hrastovac. My mother visited her sister in 1968 that she had not seen in 60 years. Her sister’s descendants’ surname is Hirsch. Arturo Hirsch, my cousin, came to the United States in 1991, and the family had a party to welcome him and his wife, Lola. We have since lost track of where he is living in Brazil today.
6. GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES WITH BLUE SATIN SASHES
It was in the summer of 1985 that my brother, Johnny, died in his California home at the age of 67. Helen, Phil, and I flew there to attend the funeral. Mary, as usual, wanted “to remember him as he was”. After the funeral, I asked my sister-in-law, “Judy, do you know what ever happened to our family passport?”
Judy’s eyes widened. “Why, Ma gave that to Johnny after Pa died,” she told me. “She thought that was the place for it. He was such a cute little fellow,” she added.
I was greatly moved seeing that passport again. I couldn’t believe what a handsome man my father had been, and little Johnny had those round rosy cheeks (whatever happened to children’s rosy cheeks?). Ma wasn’t as attractive as I remembered her. The sun slanted into her eyes, and her lovely brown hair was pulled back into a pug.
Passport photo of Johann Ochs’ family prior to their leaving for Milwaukee,WI. Left to right “Hansi”, Johann, Maria “Mary”,Anna Maria, and Elizabeth. Photo 1921
I had to have one of those pictures! I arranged with Judy to take the passport back with me to have a negative made and subsequent copies of the photo made for all of my family. I did this and sent one to each of Judy’s three beautiful daughters as well. That was at least 10 years ago, before I’d ever thought of writing the family history. It occurs to me that the pictures will now take on extra meaning.
I’m sorry about the above detour, my dears, but I really believe that the idea of the family history was conceived at that time. Writing it is truly an arduous task, but I do believe it will contain much information that is worth preserving.
The lyricist who wrote the songs for the movie The Sound of Music did his research well. Set in the post WWI era, the dream of little girls was indeed white dresses with blue satin sashes. I can’t imagine how my parents could have afforded to buy two of them for Mary and me, with the expense of the journey to America just ahead. The only time I clearly remember us wearing them was that summer day when the whole family walked up and down the road of Hrastovac for our good-bye visit to our relatives and friends—and I also remember the photographer well. Nobody in the village owned a camera in 1921.
We left our birthplace a very few days later and spent the first night at the home of my father’s second cousin in Vienna. The letter containing the invitation, which my father read aloud, also contained the exciting information that the only daughter of the family had broken her engagement to a fine Viennese gentleman and was now engaged to marry a Turk! These relatives were very fine people, and we were warned to be on our best behavior. This warning, added to our first sight of the apartment building where an elevator took us to the fifth floor, was enough to render us mute for the duration of the visit.
When Papa’s cousin told us we were to meet the Turk after dinner, we were tense with anticipation. Somehow I expected trouble. It was a great relief (tinged with faint disappointment) to find that he was a most courteous and handsome gentleman. My fears had been unfounded; fine people did not make trouble.
The journey from Vienna to Antwerp, our port of departure, was beautiful beyond description, even to my seven-year-old eyes. Mary and I took turns at the window seat as the train wound its way through the Alps. We chose a spectacular snow-capped peak in the distance and vowed not to take our eyes off of it until we reached it. Sooner or later, a curve in the tracks or a long, dark tunnel would make it necessary for us to choose a new target for our game.
After arriving in Antwerp, I learned that we would have a three-day wait for our ship, the “Samland”. Our parents had a special fund for this trip; it was by far the sweetest time in all of our family life. We had all our meals in the hotel dining room. Most of the diners were friendly and spoke enough German to voice the familiar refrain of what “gute Kinder” we were. This no doubt pleased our parents even more than their Kinder.
It was Papa who continued to remind us children to notice things we must remember nicht vergessen (not to forget). The exceptional beauty spots, beginning with the mountains, and then the fields and fields of tulips, each a different color, all dazzled the eyes. The hotel had a swimming beach, and Papa played with us kids in the ocean every afternoon, a forerunner of our fondness for the beach on Lake Michigan in Milwaukee.
There was a carnival, or more likely, a fairground in Antwerp with a roller coaster that had a fearful-looking ride over some kind of canyon. Papa offered a ticket for anyone of us brave enough to take that ride (exempting himself). Mama was the only taker. We watched her ups and downs with bated breath, and when her hat blew off, she just laughed. Never could I have imagined Mama laughing over a loss of any kind!
I remember very clearly the day we boarded the ship. The kids all sat cross-legged on one side of the deck, waiting for we knew not what. Suddenly the ship gave a mighty heave, and we all slid squealing to the other side. My mother was weeping when we came back. “Why are you crying, Mama?” (Warum weinst du, Mama?) we wondered. She only shook her head and cried harder.
Papa and I were the only ones to avoid seasickness. Mama stayed below deck for three whole days, and I can still see her squinting in the bright sunlight as Papa carried her to a deck chair and tucked her into a blanket, where she drew deep, deep breaths of the fresh ocean air.
Mary and I were given separate sleeping quarters from Hansi and our parents. We shared a room containing two bunk beds with a Polish woman and her son, who was about our age. A storm came that lasted three days and three nights, and we became so engrossed in watching and listening to them talk in a strange language as they prayed with their rosaries, we quite forgot to be afraid. I remember no fear whatever…or is that the selective memory I’ve always been accused of inheriting from Grandma?
The voyage across the ocean lasted two weeks. We docked at the port of Philadelphia and spent the next couple of days waiting in line for something or other. The first and the best thing was the bath, our first since leaving home—Mama, Mary, and me in different quarters from Papa’s and Hansi’s. I remember that the food was atrocious; as the ship’s had been—no snacks between meals–we ate anything that was set before us.
It took us three days to go by train from Philadelphia to Milwaukee. We changed trains frequently, day and night. I can still see us sitting on benches as Papa paced up and down, up and down, with Hansi fast asleep in his arms. That long ago, Papa was already afflicted with “restless legs”, which I was doomed to inherit.
All in all, for me the memory of the journey will always be one of a completely untarnished and wonderful family time. Everyone was nice to everyone else twenty-four hours a day…no quarrels, no scolding, just all of us happy to be together.