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Kurt's Youth in Germany, 1902-1926, as told by Kurt Albert Matthia


As Told by Kurt Albert Matthia

Iím going to try to go back to the early 1900's and tell you about myself, my parents, and my grandparents from both sides of my family. I hope Iíll be able to do it, itís a long way back. I hope Iíll remember. Iíll try to stay as close as I can to the things that really happened so that what I say might help you to understand me better. This will also give you an opportunity that I didnít have ó to know my grandparents, in fact even to know about my parents. Giving you a record of these incidents in our lives may be of some benefit to you. I hope it helps you to better understand first your own parents, yourself, and also your grandparents.

I was born in Mareese bei Marienwerder, West Prussia on December 3, 1902. This was a part of Germany and I never dreamed I would come to the United States.

My father was Albert Johann Matthia, born March 4, 1874, in Jacobsdorf near Konitz, West Prussia. Martha Hedwig Kobitz, my mother, was born in Marienwerder, West Prussia on September 19, 1875. I was born under the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm the Second. He was dethroned after the First World War and exiled to Holland.

Iíll go back to my grandparents first. My fatherís father, Johannes Matthia, and his mother, Regina whose maiden name was Thiede, lived in Insterburg. I cannot say too much about them because I saw them only twice. My parents never spoke anything about them ó at least not to my knowledge or that I heard spoken directly to me.

The first time I remember meeting them was in 1913. During our school vacation that year my parents decided to send my brother Erwin and myself to spend our vacation in Insterburg. We spent about three or four weeks there and really enjoyed our stay.

My grandparents lived on the same property with my Aunt Franziska Figgel, her husband and children. My uncle owned it and had a big nursery and two stores. He did very well. He gave my grandfather a home and a little workshop there so that my grandfather could work as much as he was able. My grandfather was somewhat disabled at that time.

My grandfather was a blond man, somewhat chubby, not too tall. He was a rather quiet person. My brother and I felt he was holding his affection back a little bit. My grandmother was very, very lovely to us. She tried to always protect us when he found something which we didnít do right. She tried to spoil us by giving us an extra piece of sugar. In my time when you got a piece of sugar that was the substitute for candy. He would say, "Donít spoil them," and try to talk her out of it, but she wouldnít give up and she gave it to us. She always took our side.

My father married out of the Catholic religion, and maybe that had something to do with my grandfatherís feelings. I couldnít picture any other way we or my father could have done something to cause him to hold back his feelings and not act more freely. After all, we were only small children and one doesnít hold back oneís feeling for their sonís children. Thatís the way he seemed to react and my grandmother made up for that whenever she could.

I was stung by a wasp while I was there. I guess I was up to something because I was near a roof. I was up somewhere and I got stung all right. It hurt and swelled up pretty badly, but I lived. I also had a great time with my cousins there. Their mother was my fatherís sister and she tried to be very nice to us.

I saw these grandparents the second time just shortly before I left Germany. I visited there to say goodbye. I lived in Konigsberg and it wasnít too far away, so I made a special trip there and said goodbye to them. My grandmother was in her late seventies at that time. She cried and I said, "Donít cry, youíll see me again."

She said, "No, Kurt. I will not see you." She had on a big long skirt with a pocket in it. She got some silver out of her pocket and gave it to me and asked me to spend it. I didnít want to take it but she insisted. She was a beautiful grandmother if there ever was one. I had only seen her twice in my life, but I do feel in my heart that she always was a good person and lovable.

My grandfather Iím sure was all right too, Iím just sad that maybe at that time there was a little friction between my family and the other side of the family which were Catholics. It did come mostly from their side, not from our side. We didnít have any bad feelings against other religions, but the Catholics had a restriction on Catholic children going to the Lutheran Church. When I was there I did visit the Catholic Church and attended the service. They took me gladly and it was all right to go with them. It was forbidden by their church at that time to go into Protestant or other church houses.

I know my father had a brother named Bernhard. He lived in Berlin and only came to visit us once. The problem of religion also affected the relationship he had with our family.

My motherís parents were Gustav Adolph Kobitz and Ernestine Amalie Groch. They lived in the same town where we lived. My grandmother on this side was a big tall woman and she lived to be ninety-three years old. I know a little bit more about them because I spent more years with them. Even then, however, I donít know much about them. It was not practiced then to tell the children much about the family ó or at least my parents didnít. We only got what we did by eavesdropping or by hearing second hand. Really no information was given to us directly. At that time I wasnít interested because no one taught us to have an interest in our family history.

My motherís mother was always very good to me. She tried to do a little bit extra when we visited her or she came to visit us. My grandfather, my motherís father, worked originally as a carpenter and was in charge of a big lumber yard. He did this when my mother was a young girl or until she was just married. They had a house on the river and had a public bathing house. He must have lost the job and the property later. My grandmother and all the rest of the family blamed it on his drinking too much. I guess he drank it away.

I donít remember the early part of their life too much myself. When I was born my grandfather wasnít working for the lumber yard any more. They no longer had the property, and had moved into a two family apartment and rented one room out. Here he also had a small shop in the yard. As I understood, this was the only income he had, but it was enough for them to live on.

I came to know my grandfather later in life when he helped my parents in maintaining our property doing carpentry work. Every so often he was, as we call it, under the influence of alcohol, though he was a good worker. Occasionally I had problems with him because I would use his tools. He hid them every night before he left our home. I used them and he discovered it the next day because he was very particular with them. Somehow he would know that I had used them. He would scold me and even try to catch me. I suppose he wanted to hit me, but I was a little faster at that time than he was and could always duck his attempts to punish me physically. I promised I wouldnít use them any more and then finally I kept my word. As I remember, somebody gave me a saw and a couple of other tools so I didnít have to use his.

When I was about ten years old, they couldnít maintain their apartment and moved to a four-family house on Toepfer Strasse. My aunt lived in the same building and it was close to our home on Lazaretts Strasse.

My grandmother was a very good woman ó a very good grandmother. She suffered by the bad habit my grandfather had. It made her life rather hard and unhappy in many ways, but she still would keep up her spirit and maintain her dignity. She was very kind to us. I can only say the best about her.

I feel that due to my grandfatherís drinking I could not really know him well enough. I mentioned quite a bit here about his drinking and I hope you learn ó I learned it myself ó drinking can bring a lot of misery and unhappiness in a family. I believe that drinking, smoking and any other such things completely destroy the will of persons who use them. These things make a family and those who are close to them really unhappy. Iím grateful that we are Mormon and that we abstain from alcohol, smoking and these things which interfere and bring lots of unhappiness and bring on sickness. So this was my grandfather and grandmother on my motherís side.

My father met my mother in Marienwerder where he worked as a proof-reader for the Marienwerder Zeitung. This was the name of the only local newspaper and served the local Kreis or county. My mother's brother, Arthur, apprenticed as a printer at the same paper. He later moved to Magdeburg to practice his trade and make his home.

My mother had a sister named Hedwig whose husband, Franz Schwerdfeger, also worked for the paper in Marienwerder as the printing press operator. Albin Schandrach, her sister Frieda's husband, was a printer in Marienwerder too until he moved to Danzig

My parents had seven children. All were born at home. The first died shortly after birth, and the last was stillborn. The oldest in the family was my brother Erwin, born in 1900. Then came Lotti, me, Hilde, and Herta who was born in 1909. The last stillborn child came in 1920 when my mother was forty-five years old.

During my first years we lived in Mareese which lies in the country below the city of Marienwerder. When I was three or four we moved from Mareese to the city of Marienwerder. This was before I went to kindergarten. We rented an apartment in a three family house on Knieberg Strasse until 1910. The first remembrance I have of living in the apartment house on Knieberg Strasse is going to Kindergarten.

I remember quite clearly when I was about five years old I went to a kindergarten which was operated by the Evangelische Lutherische Kirche. Sisters from the church taught at the school. I became the pet of one of the sisters. I remember she would sit me on the window sill next to her when she would teach or talk to the rest of the children. Naturally, I felt very comfortable about that. Maybe I was crying, I don't know.

I had long hair at that time. My parents let my hair grow for some reason. Maybe this was the style in Germany at that time for boys to have long hair. I cannot verify it or say yes or no, but I did have long hair. The sisters used to play with and comb my hair. These incidents I remember. I enjoyed being in this kindergarten. I probably went there for two years, maybe a little bit more.

Every Christmas we had a Christmas party. In this region there was always snow and cold weather at Christmas time. Snow always makes Christmas pretty. We had cold dry snow like you might find in Montana. We had really beautiful, cold winter days.

We had other little parties too, but the Christmas parties stand out in my recollections. We would go to a gymnasium (secondary school) which was just around the corner, almost bordering the kindergarten property. There we had a Christmas celebration combining several nursery schools. It was towards evening -- we went there on Christmas evening. It was so beautiful. We all dressed up for these parties. Santa Claus came and threw a big bag of nuts and candy on the floor. Everyone picked up as much as he could get -- beautiful cookies and candies and nuts. It was free for all. Each one got a big bag to fill up. It is really enjoyable when you're at that age. You're eyes pop out. You can see these things flying around on the floor just for your taking.

Then we each got a present. The boys usually got a trumpet or a drum. I got a trumpet -- a shiny little thing -- and so beautiful. Oh, I must have been very, very happy about it because it's still so strong in my mind. The girls were all given a little doll from Santa Claus. So this made a beautiful evening. Later our parents took us home all full of excitement and enjoyment. I'm sure they enjoyed our excitement and our happiness with us.

The owner of the house on Knieberg Strasse, a cabinet maker, lived in the lower part of the house and had a cabinet shop at back of the property. It was a large and beautiful property landscaped with trees and shrubs and surrounded by a fence. I became rather friendly with the owner and visited his shop quite often I watched him making furniture -planing, sawing, and hammering. I really took great interest in it. Sometimes he gave me a piece of wood and let me tinker around a little bit. Sometimes when he wasn't looking I took some of his tools which I shouldn't have taken. One time I took a plane and I cut my hand. He was sort of gentle so he didn't scold me much. If he did, it was very gentle. He took me outside and took big green leaves off the lawn. He put a big leaf on my cut and said, "That will help you stop bleeding." I had to hold it there with my other hand. It stopped in a very little while and I stopped crying.

He also had a daughter who seemed to be pretty tall to me. I guess she was sixteen or seventeen years old at that time. She took a liking to me and would take me around the garden. I remember sitting on the lawn with her and with flowers all around. She would tell me stories. I don't remember now what kind of stories she told me, but she definitely entertained me and I had the feeling that she loved me. We sat on the lawn and I enjoyed it so very much there. That's the first time that I really discovered nature and how beautiful it can be.

Today, I describe this scene as an adult. At that time I must have been attracted by her kindness and love. When you're small that's all you can go by -- the kindness and love which a person gives you. As I look back, all through my life I remembered that scene on the lawn and this period of my life. The lawn was all covered with yellow dandelions. They looked like a beautiful carpet. Here today and probably all through Europe they take the dandelions out. They think they spoil the lawn. I think it was a beautiful thing -leave the dandelions in. The color scheme left such a beautiful picture in my eyes with the bees all around.

Through incidents such as this I became aware of the greatness of the creation which I know today God created for us on this earth. I'm grateful that I came to appreciate it. I've done it all through my life -- I appreciate the creations of our Heavenly Father.

I remember another incident, one which gave me an ickky, funny feeling. The wife of the cabinet maker was sitting outside on the stoop or steps of the house on Knieberg Strasse. She was leaning her head back and had a glass on the top of her head. Underneath the glass was a bloodsucker. This was a treatment for high blood pressure at that time. Naturally it took my eye and interest. I walked closer and she asked me if I wanted it on my head. I screamed and then she said she wouldn't do it. She let me watch and I came to understand what a blood sucker was.

I was taught by my parents as a small child that there were blood suckers in the rivers and we should take them off our feet. They will not kill you -- they just take so much blood and then drop right off again. I didn't have a great liking for blood suckers because I felt they take blood away from you. I probably associated them with pain and really still feel kind of ickky about the whole thing. I remember this incident vividly too.

I lost my hair at Knieberg Strasse. Because I was growing older, my parents decided that I should have my first haircut. Within a few months I would have to go to the grade school and it was time that I should part with my hair. I became aware of this and knew the barber was coming. The barber, who was also a dentist, came to our apartment. When he came they couldn't find me. I was hiding under the bed. Finally, they dragged me out. It was only after much crying that I succumbed to having my hair cut. I don't know why I cried. Maybe it was my first experience of having somebody cut something off my body, or maybe I was anticipating pain. I have a suspicion that I might have had other ideas about losing my hair because my father had no hair. He was bald and I probably didn't want to look like him. Well, whatever it was, they got my hair all right. The hair was used on my oldest sister's doll and this thought pacified me somewhat.

The grade school, like the kindergarten, was operated by the Lutheran church. There was also a Catholic school in the city. Both were controlled by the government. They were financed by the school tax. The churches were both government established. There was not a separation of church and state at that time. There did not seem to be any problems with this arrangement.

One incident I remember at school was that each year we celebrated the Kaiser's birthday on January 27th. I was loyal to him like I am to the President of the United States today. We displayed the Emperor's flag on the side of our home. School was let out on this day for a field day. One year I won the first prize for shot-put. My prize was an autographed photograph of the Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. In about 1910 we moved from Knieberg Strasse to an apartment in another house. The owner of this property had, adjoining it, a business bottling sodas and beer. He had the facilities there which were needed for this kind of business -- a stable, a big deep freeze, and buildings where they stored the beer and other drinks such as sodas, to keep them cool. The property was like a country fair or country store. There were two houses. We lived in one and he lived in the other one. He conducted his business from the same house he lived in. The lower part was used for bottling and office work.

The deep freeze was interesting. It was a large building which was lined with cork for insulation. You smelled the cork when you went in. In the center of the building was a huge pit filled with ice cut from the lakes during the winter. Around the outside were the kegs of beer and soda which would stay cool all through the summer.

As a child of six, I made myself acquainted there. It was quite helpful that the owner was a friend of my father. At first, I moved around the property and was sort of accepted. Finally, I made myself more and more visible and, due to my willingness to help and do things around there, I think I gained their confidence and trust in me. By my being obedient they accepted me. I felt quite proud about it and I could move around there like a little kingfish.

The owner also had children, but they were younger than I. I was six, and they were probably three or four. The owner bought a donkey and said I should take care of it. I could give the children rides and could have my own rides.

I became a part of and knew every angle of the business. You would find me in the stable or in the wagon or wherever, even bottling. I learned all about the business you might say. Because of this I feel I was rewarded very much. I don't think it was necessarily my smile. I don't even know if I had a smile which would encourage people to tolerate or be nice to me. I think it was through my willingness to help, through discipline and obedience, and through doing what I had been told to do.

The people there trusted me. I could not picture that the drivers of the wagons would have taken me along or that my parents would have let me go if they thought I was going to be a problem child. The drivers wouldn't have wanted to be baby-sitters. That would have been ridiculous -- they had business to do. I'm sure that this was brought on by being obedient and trustworthy. In this way I became one like them and they accepted me. My father and mother never objected when I went twenty miles away for a day with a driver -sometimes even overnight. They knew that I would be well.

I unloaded bottles during the night which I thought was a thrill for me. There were thousands of bottles which were loaded in big railroad cars. They were packed in straw and we had to feel them out and pack them in big wooden boxes which had about twenty-four compartments for soda or whatever. I experienced all this and I was the youngest party in that crew. I think I probably did my share with the strength I had at that time. I sure did my share when it came to eating. 1 got my share like the adults because I was a good eater. I felt perfectly in full harmony and was given the opportunity to experience a lot.

I didn't get compensated. I probably did get something occasionally, but I don't remember too well because I didn't need money. If I did get any kind of compensation I gave it to my parents. I didn't need it. I got all I wanted otherwise -- the little things a child my age needed. I can only say the reward was terrific. By work and by discipline and by obedience many, many rewards are waiting for a person. All through my life I have found you get rewarded for these things.

Without putting in this effort, I never would have enjoyed these full experiences and the joy which life in a place like this gave me. We took rides in the haywagon with my folks, some friends of ours, and the owner in the spring and summertime. We had a great time.

You will get challenges and experiences in life. You can use them or throw them away. I hope that I used most of them -- I think I did. I elaborate a little bit on this because I find, the more I think about it, I must have been quite capable in my young age. I was even trusted with horses on the road. From what I have seen in my later life, the things I did are usually done by adults.

Don't think I was perfect! I did get into mischief too, like other children. My father was very active in a shooting club. Between age seven and eight I took a bullet from my father's rifle, put it on a stone and hit it with another huge stone. Part of the bullet hit me in the hand and I was taken to the doctor.

Many things from this part of my life stand out in my memory -- things that impressed my mind, soul, and heart at that age. Like the sleigh rides. Riding in the sleigh in the cold winter, stars up in heaven -- cold, brisk. The horses dressed with beautiful belts with ornaments on them -steaming. Running in the cold their bodies give a steam away. We huddled up behind, sitting in the sleigh covered up by big blankets and furs -- icicles on our noses. The horses have them freezing on their nostrils At the same time it gives you such a peaceful and great feeling.

Well, it was great. All these things mold your life, your character, and leave an impression on your mind. There were so many experiences. When these times came to an end, they came to a good end because my parents bought their own property. The friend of my father where we lived tried to stop my father from moving. As I understand he wanted him to go into business with him at that time, but my father didn't do it because he wanted to buy his own place.

We bought our own house in 1912 when I was 10 years old. It was located at Lazaretts Strasse number 7. That means hospital street. There was a hospital way up at the end of the street. We were thrilled with our own home. There were actually two houses, the one we lived in and another for two tenants. There was a large glass enclosed verandah on the house and there were outbuildings for animals and a shop.

The house was on a larger property on the outskirts of the city of Marienwerder. The part of the property where the houses stood was on a hill -- the street was high. Gradually it sloped way down -- it was a pretty steep drop. We had terraces going down gradually and then it became level again.

The property behind the house was for the vegetable garden and animals. Then it sloped away into an orchard. We had plenty of fruit trees -- pears, apples, plums, almost any fruit you wanted. We had berries. At the bottom on the border of the property was a small ditch with water running year round where we planted willows right in the water. Porcupines, frogs and sometimes a small fish could be found by the water. We also had a well from which we would pull water up. Once my little pet goat jumped in the well.

All this sounds very nice but it meant work. We had to work -- and I did. At all times we had to help our parents. We each had our room and we had to maintain it, and we had to help our parents in every way. You just can't have a home and use it -- you have to maintain it. We were brought up in such a manner. I can truthfully say that I am grateful and thankful that I was taught to live this way by my parents. I understood that my parents worked to maintain a house, and that there was no other way but for us to help them. It was not alone for the sake of helping them, but also to prepare us for our future life. I think this is a good opportunity to emphasize this. All during this time -- I was there until I was eighteen years old -- I worked and helped them.

I also had lots of pleasure and fun with my parents, with my sisters and brother, and by myself. There was always time left for us after we had our chores done. It may have been late in the day, or early in the morning, or only in the mid days. Whenever it was, we had fun and played. I remember once I tried knocking pine cones down from a fir tree by standing on a fence and hitting them with a pitch fork. It was the very pointed type of fork used for hay. One of the tines went into my wrist and blood spurted all over -- scaring the wits out of me. I ran back to the house where my mother first slapped me and then doctored it herself.

I had the privilege and opportunity to have animals around me -- which I loved. I had time to lay in the garden or be up in the trees and dream. I let my thoughts wander. I had my dog around me -- animals around, birds around. I'm so grateful that I had this opportunity. I do feel that my childhood was a very, very excellent one, but I didn't have everything, in fact, in 1914, about two years after we moved into the house on Lazaretts Strasse, the First World War broke out.

My brother Erwin and I were on summer vacation in Insterburg with my father's parents and my aunt Franziska Figgel, my father's sister, when the war broke out. On August 14, 1914, we were called home by our parents. -It was difficult to get us home because troops were being transported to Russia. We had to get special permission to use the trains to get back home.

My father was immediately drafted into the artillery although he was forty years old and had five children at home. By the time we got home he had his orders. There were only a few days left to spend with my father before he went to war. He left on about the 28th of August with only two weeks notice. He came back only once to visit right after his artillery group was reassembled. After that he was gone for four and one-half years. You can picture how I missed my father during those years while I was growing up. His absence affected my life greatly. There were many things that I missed. I feel he was gone during the years of my life when I needed him the most.

I have previously told about some of the problems of my grandfather on my mother's side, Gustav Kobitz, the carpenter. He also had many things to his credit. He was a veteran of the 1870 war with France. When the First World War started he volunteered for service in the army. He was sixty-five years old and they couldn't accept him, but they gave him an assignment to guard a bridge over the Weichsel River about fifteen miles away. The bridges were guarded to prevent sabotage -- blowing them up. We were close to the border of Russia. I was old enough to recognize that he really couldn't prevent anyone from destroying the bridge because he was pretty shaky already, but he served with pride and was very sober about it.

My mother had problems trying to maintain us, raise us, and keep up the property. The only way it could be done was through work. Everything we had had to be reported to the government and used for the war effort. We had very little. Once I killed a pig at midnight so we didn't have to report it. My mother was an excellent seamstress and sewed uniforms for the soldiers. We children had to sew buttons on them. We worked on this during the evening and late nighttime hours. We sat around the table and each one was sewing something on the uniforms. We'd sing together. We'd talk together.

We had very little to eat. We had no sugar or butter, but we got milk from our goats. Sometimes we had nothing better than potatoes and apples. My mother fried the potatoes in coffee grounds. She cooked the apples in water. We needed ration stamps to get bread. We had no bread or flour. Once when I was in a store I stole some ration stamps from the grocer. When I got home they burned like fire in my pocket and to make things worse the grocer came right behind me. My mother bawled me out, but not too bad. We managed and we pulled through.

My father went first to the Russian front. During this time my mother got notified that my father was lost in Russia. She did not hear from him for a long time and tolerated that for quite a while. Finally, when she didn't get any answer to her inquiries, she decided she was going to look for him. She left us five children at home in the care of her sister, my aunt Hedwig, and my mother went off to the Russian border to find her husband. We stayed in our own place, my aunt and uncle looked after us.

My mother found my father in a hospital. He had received a leg wound, not from a gunshot but from a horse. The artillery was moved by horses, and somehow he had been hit by a horse. He was hospitalized quite some time. She came home again satisfied about having seen him and that our father and her husband was alive. She told us that he would be sent to France after he was healed.

We were under the additional threat of having to flee -an alert. We lived in West Prussia and were continuously under this threat. The Russians had already invaded part of East Prussia. Because my cousins from Insterburg were closer to the border, many of them came to live with us. Others moved to a different area. The German army later defeated Russia, chased the Russians out of the part of Germany they had invaded, and finally made peace with Russia.

During the War I finished eighth grade and graduated school with good grades. My brother Erwin, two years older, was able to go on to the gymnasium or high school and then to two years of college. My parents had to pay for this higher education.

Being the oldest, my brother became somewhat of a favored child in the family, but I really didn't resent it. It was a tradition in Europe that the first born got a better education and was given other advantages by their parents. Except in well-to-do families, the other children were usually taught a trade by serving an apprenticeship.

In my early youth, and especially while my father was away to the War, Erwin was excused from the normal physical chores children had to do in German families. He would take all day doing his schoolwork.. Taking the place of the man of the house, I could only spend a little time studying because I had the other work to do. Sometimes this upset me. Once, however, my father did write and thank me for all the work I did at home.

Being older, Erwin did not spend his time with me but rather with his own schoolmates. It seemed to me that he felt I was not as smart as he because he had a higher education. These experiences caused a little gap to develop between my brother and I. It didn't do much harm, but it was present whenever we met all through our youth. But as Erwin, my sisters, and I grew older we never had any animosity toward each other nor did we argue. In later life when we were about sixty years old, I saw Erwin three times, once here in the United States and twice in Germany. During these meetings I really came to love and respect him. Unfortunately, during youth we often see things in a distorted and selfish manner. When we mature we have to leave these petty feelings behind -- life is too short. Erwin's passing away affected me quite a bit.

I mention these minor things because I have seen people psychologically affected in later life by the traditions they experienced or the emotions they felt in their youth. They can carry feelings against their parents, brothers, or sisters which affect their relationships.

There were good times too. I remember going with Erwin to his friend's house where they showed old time movies. They didn't move then. All there was to it was a box with a candle on the inside. Glass slides were pushed through, and they would shine up on the wall. Some were comical drawings and others were natural still life pictures.

The war made matters worse as far as my education was concerned. At fourteen years of age I had to choose my life's trade. Finally I told my mother I would become a machinist, and I began my four year apprenticeship with the Mareese Kleinbahn, a small gauge railroad.

At this young age I became acquainted with steam engines. Because many men were away at war, I had the opportunity to fire the steam engines, even drive them around the yard, and to do a man's work. We had to work nights a lot because the engines had to be washed, cleaned, checked over, and have any emergency repairs made. This was done about once a week depending on whether the engine was on heavy duty or light duty. The engine had to be cooled off when it came in at night. We came in about midnight and started by taking the water out of the boilers. We took the bearings and pumps apart, and checked everything out. When it was necessary, we made quick repairs. I participated in all this work.

When I first began my apprenticeship with the railroad I had a serious accident. I was carrying two pails of hot water from an engine to put in a big trough. Near the trough was the large transmission wheel which drove all the machinery in the shop, and a very tall ladder was standing near the wheel. I must have pushed the ladder into the spokes of the transmission wheel, and the ladder hit me on the side of the head. I was very fortunate that the accident was not fatal.

Another accident during my apprenticeship on the railroad happened as I walked up a hill and crossed a railroad trestle. Just as I was crossing, a train came, but I didn't hear it until the engineer blew the whistle. I got scared and squeezed myself thin on the trestle so the train wouldn't hit me. A step extension on the train caught me in the knee and I was injured. I could have been seriously injured or killed.

Erwin became sick in 1917. First they treated him for rheumatic pains, and then finally he had to go to the Konigsberg University clinic or hospital and have an operation. He had an inflammation of the marrow of the bone in the upper part of his leg. At this time hospitals were overloaded with wounded soldiers. He had to have special permission to enter the hospital as a civilian. The operation was successful but it took a long time before he was able to walk again and continue with school. Although he was generally well again by the time the war was over and my father came home, slivers of bone continued to work out of his leg and he had re-infections for many years. So it was that during his youth Erwin spent time with the wounded soldiers from the war. I think the sickness and misery that he went through himself and that he saw at the hospital brought him closer to God and influenced his later spiritual feelings.

The railroad where I apprenticed used Russian and Polish war prisoners who were mechanics and gave them some financial compensation. Some of the prisoners were from Ukrania, Lithuania, and some from Yugoslavia. These countries were all under Russian rule so when they were captured in the war, they became German prisoners. We used these mechanics because the German mechanics had all been drafted and were on the front. The prisoners working on the railroad were given more freedom than they would have had in a prison camp and were boarded on a farm near Mareese.

I became very friendly with the prisoners and learned a little Russian and Polish. Even though I was a boy of only sixteen, because I could communicate with them, I was put in charge of them. I was used as a translator. The prisoners and I became quite close. Many times I brought them back to their nearby quarters on the farm where they got their lodging and meals. The government paid the farmer for this, and the prisoners were paid some extra money by the railroad. When a prisoner became ill they asked me to take him to the doctor -- a military doctor. I was trusted to take them. It was felt that they would not run away from me because of the good relationship I had with them.

I want to tell you about the way these prisoners washed themselves. They always had only cold water on the farm -or anyplace. They had to wash with cold water. They would take water in their mouth, warm it up, and then spit it back in their hands and wash their face with it. I thought that was a little unsanitary, but that's how they overcame the cold water problem.

Some of the prisoners got packages from Russia which they shared with me. They got breads baked in the form of a little, hard, square cookie. It was so hard you couldn't chew it. You had to let it dissolve in your mouth, but they tasted good. They gave me this bread often, which I liked and enjoyed very much. I shared other things with them, and I came to be involved with them more than just while we were working together.

There were two prisoners in particular that I became very friendly with, one from Riga and one from Ukrania. The Ukrainian worked for a nearby bakery in Marienwerder, the other worked at the railroad. At the end of September in 1918 there was rumor that the war was coming to an end. These two approached me to help them and asked me if I could keep a secret. I said it depended on what it was, and they told me they wanted to flee. I suppose they had quite some confidence in me because I could have easily spoiled their plans. I asked them to let me think about it and told them I would let them know in a couple of days.

I was torn between my patriotism for my country and my friendship with these men. I didn't think I could talk to my mother about it, and my father was away. I searched my conscience and my soul. My soul decided to help them and tell no one. I warned the prisoners that they may be shot or severely punished. They said they were willing to pay the consequences, but they wanted to go home. There had been rumors that there would be peace at that time, and maybe that helped me decide to do it. In fact, peace did come about a month and one-half later, on November 11, 1918.

Having made my decision, I had to go to buy civilian clothes for them. They needed civilian clothes because all they had were the striped uniforms the prisoners had to wear. It was difficult for me to buy the clothes for several reasons. Although I was sixteen years old, my mother had always bought my clothes. It was not customary for boys to go into clothing stores and buy clothes. Also, someone might question where a boy my age would get the money to buy two suits during war time. They were expensive. Besides, I had to buy clothes that would not even fit me. Despite these difficulties, because I was big for my age, I did go into a store and lied in order to help them. I said that I was buying the clothes for my brother who was sick. I bought one suit at one store, and went to another store for the second suit. I also bought them some food and other things they needed.

When the two prisoners made their escape, the Ukranian stole the horse, wagon, and all the bread which was to be delivered that day from the bakery where he worked. I never heard from them again and, to this day> I do not know if they made it -- but I hope they did. I never told my parents nor anyone else at that time. I still feel good that I did help them.

My father fought in France until the end of the war. Because of the socialist revolution in Germany, transportation was generally disrupted. He had to find his own way home from France, even walking some of the way. It took one and one-half months after the armistice until I saw him again. He came home for the first time in four years just shortly before Christmas in December of 1918. We were very happy to see him. I had missed him greatly and lost something by his absence.

The war affected my father quite a bit. As you probably have heard, when people spend so many years in war or in a prison camp, they have to get used to civilian life again. My father had to go through this process himself. When he came back he had changed, and I could never get close to him again in the same way.

He had completely lost all faith in a church, though he still had faith in God. He also turned toward the radical or socialist side politically. I remember wanting to join a white collar Gymnastic club. He told me I could not join that one, I would have to join the labor club. I was obedient but stubborn and joined neither, but I did not hold it against him. I understood how he felt with the experiences he had, but I was old enough to know what I wanted. I leaned away from the socialists, later even more so because of ugly incidents I experienced during the revolution. I loved my father very much but could not break the barrier between us again. After the end of the war and his return, however, our life at home did become more normal.

My brother, Erwin finished college with a major in finances. He had done well in school getting a rounded education, but he was especially good in math. After graduation he began work with the German government in the treasury department. He did well and was liked. First he worked in Marienwerder and later in East Prussia. However' in 1919 he changed his mind about his career and returned home. He had met two Pentecostal gentlemen, become their friend, and became converted to the Pentecostal religion. He had decided to become a minister. This change of plans did not make my parents very happy. They had made an effort to educate him, and now, after a successful start in his field of education, he had decided to leave his job. Erwin later left home for a year or two to attend theological school.

In 1919 when my brother had just converted to the Pentecostal church, an incident occurred that was very significant in our lives. To help you understand I need to explain something about our home. In our family we did our own slaughtering and made our own wurst and goodies. We had no refrigerators, of course, but there were places where these were kept. It was forbidden to go to these places where the goodies were kept and eat them as you pleased. I often felt very hungry, especially during the war time when we didn't get too much to eat. I could smell good stuff a mile away and was sure to find it regardless of where my mother hid it. I would help myself, trying not to be too hoggish. I'd take a thin slice and not a half pound. I hoped that my mother wouldn't notice it. I even got wise and sliced the worst just like she did. Every time I got caught

I thought I must have cut a piece crooked or something. I played a game, sort of -- although I didn't feel I was doing anything too wrong. I knew I shouldn't do it and that I would get punished if I got caught, but I thought it was worth being punished for what I had taken.

As I said, the incident with my brother occurred one day soon after his religious conversion. We were both at home, and I went into the kitchen. Erwin immediately thought that Kurt always wants to go eat when it's not eating time.However, this time I was not in the kitchen for food. I don't know what I was looking for, but it was definitely not for food.

Soon Erwin followed me into the kitchen, and I asked myself, "What is he coming in for?' He had come home late and hadn't had his evening meal. He took his meal and went into the dining room to eat. I stayed in the kitchen. He thought that I was going to help myself, but I didn't. As I went back to where he was eating, he suddenly said to me, "Kurt, I have to apologize to you."

1 asked, "What for? You didn't do anything wrong." I didn't know what he could have done wrong.

He answered, "Yes, I did do something wrong. I thought you were taking food. I shouldn't have these thoughts, and I feel that I shouldn't think that way any more. I really want to apologize to you. I want you to forgive me."

I said, "Well, I gladly forgive you. Although there is nothing really to forgive because next time I'm going to take food. I really didn't have intentions this time, but I don't feel that you have to apologize."

Through this incident I realized that Erwin really did change to a new life and way of living. It left a great impression on me that stayed in later life. It shows how one event. can change the lives and thinking of two human beings.

I finished my apprenticeship on June 30, 1921. I was eighteen years old. In order to enter my trade I had to be tested and accepted by the guild. My final test was to design and forge a stilson wrench. The guild masters examined the completed wrench and measured it carefully against my original drawings. I received a guild certificate dated July 8, 1921.

I received a letter of recommendation from the railroad a year later which said:

It is hereby certified that the journeyman mechanic Kurt Matthia studied machine mechanics from July 1, 1917 through June 30, 1921 at our workshop in Marienwerder

Matthia has attained all necessary knowledge for his field through his diligent effort and is graduated as a talented workman with the best wishes for his future career.

My parents wanted me to take a job in Marienwerder, but it was the custom to leave home as a journeyman after one's apprenticeship. I decided to do this and left for Walsum in the Rheinland where I had heard work was available in a big shipyard.

When I got there I could not find work as a machinist. Instead, I took training in the shipyard as an electric welder. This was a new trade developed in the shipbuilding industry as a method of saving weight by eliminating rivets. They were much advanced compared to what I found in the United States when I came in 1927. I stayed at that job about a year and then went to Dusseldorf where I worked high construction. For a few months I made good money and was able to dress very well. That job ended when the building was finished.

Next, I hired on with the Stoats Eisenbahn in Dusseldorf to work at my trade. The railroad was a government operation at that time. So were the post office and, as I mentioned, the churches. That has generally been the extent of German socialism in industry. I was however covered by their social security system at the time and would have even collected some benefits if I had had more work in Germany to my credit before I left for the United States.

This was the period of the great inflation under the Weimar Republic. I was paid as much as one million Deutchmarks for one week's work and was able to buy one suit. The next day the same goods would cost twice as much.

When I was about twenty, the French reoccupied Dusseldorf and other areas of Germany. In the process, the first step was to take over the railroad. They expected the German employees to stay on the job but the German government ordered us to quit. As an incentive the German government promised to pay our salaries as before. To give us the money they gave us different secret locations where we would go to get the money. But finally the French got wise to the scheme and when payday came the French came and confiscated the money.

After this I was able to get a job razing a three story brick and steel building. Myself and two friends who had been with me at the shipyard and with me on the high construction job, got the contract. The three of us took the whole thing down by hand with sledge hammers. We finished the contract ahead of schedule.

The economy continued to go downhill at that time. Without any income I could not exist, so for a while I took any odd jobs I could get to keep my head above water. About three times I smuggled whiskey and fabric to the Holland border by trolley car. We wrapped the fabric around our bodies Twice I was physically kicked out by the border police -- an actual boot in the rear. They did not put us in jail because we had already sold the goods and there was no evidence.

Another time I had a job bringing chocolate candy to a store with a two-wheel cart. The cart was loaded very high, and as I pushed it up a hill, I could not see over it. I bumped slightly into a French officer who then deliberately threw the whole cart over.

This incident made me decide to go back home to Marienwerder. I wrote and asked my parents to send money. After receiving the money I was ready to leave, but I had to get a permit from the French commission to leave Dusseldorf. They did not want anyone working for the railroad to leave so I had to lie to get out. I told them I was just there visiting and had gotten caught by the French occupation. As I waited in a long line to go through this procedure, I was hit with the butt of a carbine by a French soldier who didn't think I was moving fast enough. This was my last goodbye from the French

When I arrived home everything looked too small after living in the big city and in large city homes. On December 2, 1923, I got a job in Stuhm, an hour's ride by train from Marienwerder. There I worked for a friend of the family named Max Futter repairing electric motors and wiring. I worked there for only about three and one-half months. It was a very small operation. I left because there really wasn't enough work. He had retained me as a favor. I left on March 18, 1924. Herr Futter wrote, "Because of continuing work shortages, I am unfortunately required to lay you off. Should the work situation improve again, you may later find employment with me."

After I got home and before I left Futter's, my grandfather, Gustav Kobitz, had a stroke. My grandmother, Ernestine, couldn't care for him alone. He was confined to bed and could hardly speak. He couldn't talk any more, just mumble, making sounds. One had to guess what he wanted to say. He had a rope on the bed to pull himself up. I was asked to stay nights at my grandmother's house to help her with my grandfather.

For about three weeks I slept in his room on a couch and helped him when he woke up coughing or called for something. Sometimes when he woke up we knew he needed something to drink, so I would give him some milk. He had very much difficulty drinking and would fumble and spill it completely.

But when I got some wine for him -- then he wouldn't spill a drop. When he saw and tasted the wine he recognized it, and he would try his best not to spill anything. So I knew that he had enough control yet to drink what he wanted to drink. It is rather comical what man can do under those circumstances. He died on February 12, 1924, and was given a military funeral and buried with military honors.

On March 27, 1924, I got back on at the railroad where I took my apprenticeship. They had since incorporated repair of farm machinery into their business due to the economic bad times. I was hired to work on these repairs along with other things. As a part of my job I had to travel out to other cities to purchase parts. I fell into the habit of making full day trips of it and took friends along. Also, I had difficulty with the division superintendent because I was not humble enough for him. I was not an apprentice and he was new since I left before. Ultimately he demanded I do something I would not do and he told me he would have to discharge me. I said that was all right and so I left the job on January 9, 1925. However, he didn't give me a bad report on my record saying, "The mechanic, Kurt Matthia, worked in this shop from March 27, 1924, until today. During this time Matthia was a member of the health insurance plan of the East German Railway Association of Konigsberg. His leaving is the result of a workforce reduction."

In 1925 my brother Erwin told me I could get a job in the post office bank (Postscheckamt) in Konigsberg. In the United States we have postal money orders, but in Germany the post office also had banking services just like any other bank. I was hired on May 1, 1925 as a feinmechanik for repair of office machines like typewriters and adding machines. I learned to repair the machines on the job and took to the work very nicely. I lived at Konigstrasse Nr. 56 near the university, lake, and castle.

The job was clean, and I could be dressed well. The people I worked with were nice with the exception of the department heads who were mostly retired military officers. However, the head of the bank who hired me through my brother was not military but rather a well educated civilian

The head of my department, a military man, wore a monocle and had all the mannerisms of a typical bureaucrat. His name was Herr Zahlman. Whenever he came to our shop I had a hard time suppressing my laughter at the way he acted. One day, three other mechanics and I were in the shop, and I was standing on top of a bench doing an impersonation of Herr Zahlman. I even had a piece of glass for the monocle. While I was thus in my act, who came in but Herr Zahlman himself. He took one look, turned around and slammed the door. I thought my goose was cooked. Within two or three minutes I was called in by his superior. I admitted what I did, and this man said I would have to see the head of the bank who had hired me. As I entered he said, "Now let's have it." I said I was sorry about what I did, but I didn't expect him to come in. I said that I didn't mean any harm, but that the man was funny. I told the bank head I would apologize to Herr Zahlman personally. I asked him that if Herr Zahlman would accept the apology and forgive me, could I stay with the job. He agreed. I went to Herr Zahlman, looked him in the eye and apologized. He accepted the apology, and I thanked him for it. After that we were able to work together, but I didn't ever feel good about what had happened. I recognized I had made a mistake.

When I left my job with the Postscheckamt on August 28, my letter of recommendation said:

His work remained primarily in repair of various adding machine and typewriter systems. In addition, he has become familiar with acetylene welding and has also worked on the lathe.

Mr. Matthia has always performed his assigned work willingly and to satisfaction. His conduct was good. His leaving resulted from his own wish.

One of the reasons I decided to leave Germany was that employment was bad and inflation had started again. I had experienced the effects of the high inflation before. So, although I had the job with the Postscheckamt, I decided to quit the job and leave Germany. I would have gone to any country probably, but I ended up in the United States because Erwin was able to get someone to sponsor me through his church.

It was not my intention to leave Germany permanently, but rather to make good money and return to Germany to get a higher education. After all, I couldn't speak any English and would have a difficult time going to school in America, or other country for that matter. I was issued a passport card of recommendation for emigrants by the German Emigration Department on July 21, 1926 .It listed my trade as mechanic.

I left Germany in late September from the port, of Hamburg on a ship also named the "Hamburg." It was a fine, modern ship, and I came tourist class. I had a second-class double cabin which I shared with another person. I had a good time coming over on the ship. I also met very nice people that time. Many people were returning to the United States from a visit to Germany, and many were immigrants like I was. I made friends with some of them.

I really enjoyed the ocean trip which took about ten days. We usually had lovely weather. I especially liked to lay on the deck in a nice chair and dream. Occasionally I saw lost birds landing on the ship taking a free ride for a while, and trying again. You look at the great waters for days, and the fog and birds flying

A band played music quite often on deck to entertain us. It was really nice. One time we had a very heavy storm. It threw all our dishes from the table while we were eating, and the piano moved right across the floor. Otherwise, nothing happened. These storms are not unusual. Everyone has to go down below deck. There is a big dance room or dining room where you can sit, or eat, or dance, or watch movies. They had all these things to entertain the passengers when they could not be on the deck.

There was a couple on the boat, I forgot their name, which I became very friendly with. They were people who had just visited Germany, but they were German born. In fact, they helped me out when I arrived in New York. They loaned me twenty-five dollars to show the immigration officer I had to have that much money to enter the United States, but I only had five dollars left. I originally had twenty-five dollars, but it was so wonderful on the boat that I spent it. I don't know why I did it, but I did it. I guess it was such a nice trip that I didn't worry too much about it when I spent it.

I was also supposed to have somebody there to take me off the boat so that I wouldn't be stranded here all by myself not knowing the language or anything about the United States. Unfortunately, the people who had vouched for my entry and who were supposed to come and get me were from Buffalo. They didn't come to get me, and I had no intention of going to Buffalo. I wanted to stay in New York.

We arrived in the United States on October 4, 1926 at Pier eighty-six in downtown Manhattan. It was a very hot day. I was dressed for wintertime because it was October and it was colder in Germany. I had my overcoat on and carried two suitcases. The temperature was about eighty as the ship landed at a pier in downtown New York.

When the immigration officer who helped me heard that I had nobody to meet me, he sent me back below the deck. He said they had to decide what they were going to do with me.

If they felt they couldn't let me go without having somebody there, they would probably send me to Ellis Island. I was rather upset by that. I had heard of Ellis Island before. It is an Island by Manhattan where immigrants who didn't have somebody picking them up stayed until the immigration authorities decided what to do with them. They might be there for months.

I couldn't do anything about it, so I waited until I got called up on the deck in front of them the second time. They questioned me back and forth again. I guess I gave them smart enough answers. I said, I thought that I could manage alone and so on and so forth. Finally the immigration officer said, "Well, I guess you're intelligent enough to get by." So they let me go.

© 1999 Kurt A. Matthia

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