Sister Franziska today. Portrait by Katja Harbi.
Over the summer I have been working with a neighbor on writing about, and reflecting on her life. She experienced the Nazi period as a child, and grew into maturity during the war and then the years of hardship after Germany´s defeat. Shaped by the Christianity of her parents, she eventually became a nun and then a missionary in Communist East Germany.
When I put it to her that she was a remarkable woman, she agreed that she had, at least, had an interesting life. Then we agreed to work together to write a little about that life. So over the next seven weeks a blog will appear each week written about significant moments in her long life.
Some moments from Sister Franziska´s life.
„When is Hildegard coming back? “ Sissy asked for the third time on this beautiful summer morning.
Frances, always known in the family as Sissy, is only seven, but she is already practical, intelligent and cheeky.
Her mother tells her again that she doesn´t know.
Her mother, Wihelmina, is in fact very worried, frightened even. How can you explain to a little girl that her friend, full of life and mischief, a little slow to learn some things, but perfectly healthy has been taken to hospital, and, ´by mistake´, been given an injection from which she has died?
And so Hildegard is never coming back. She can hardly understand it herself. What can her little Sissy make of it?
It is 1939 in a village near the Cathedral city of Münster in the west of Germany, not far from the Dutch border.
Frances, always known in the family as Sissy, was born in 1932. She was the second of seven children. All the other children were tall, dark haired and pretty. Sissy, on the other hand, was small and blonde with a plain round face. Her eyes, however, were bright and alert, showing the direction of her thoughts, which were almost always quickly followed up by action. She was the child of whom neighbours and relatives would say, with a mixture of admiration and trepidation, ´she already knows her own mind, that little one´.
The family lived in a small village. In the village there were the farmers, and self-employed small business people like her father. He, Alois, was a carpenter. He was a good natured man, well respected in the village and over time the family had become quite prosperous. There was even, for a while, a housemaid who helped Wilhemina, with the housework and her ever growing family.
Wilhemina and Alois on their Wedding Day.
Wihelmina gave birth every year for six years, each taken, as she put it, from the palm of God´s hand. Then after two years a last child. Birthdays, Christmas and Easter were all heartily celebrated, Gertrude played harmonica, Hans the trumpet, and Uncle Franz, who always came to visit at these times, led the choir of Sissy, Hans, Auguste, Marianna, Toni and Tina.
Looking back, Sister Franziska has little doubt that Catholicism played a central role in the joy in life and the self-confidence of the shoals of children who lived in the village. Although perhaps it was more the faith in the village families themselves that made a sense of a loving God a constant presence in their lives. Sissy learnt to pray from her mother, but also that she could talk to God, and even argue with him. But she also learnt the commandments and that God was a strict God. Sin should be avoided; but only because He wanted the happiness of all his children that only a good life could bring.
In its openness to the world and its inclusivity this understanding of God in Sister Franziska´s family was perhaps ahead of its time. Village life in the 1930s had also a dark side. On the surface united by religion, the village was in reality divided by intolerance and prejudice.
The division between the classes in the village was strongly enforced. The farmer families married among themselves, as did the small business people. That meant, of course, marriages between blood relatives and an increased occurrence of incest.
Unfortunately the parish priest also believed he had the right to intervene in the lives of the families and friends in the village. Sissy´s neighbours were a big family, and the only Protestant family in the village. One of the daughters, nine year old Hildegard had long been Sissy´s friend.
Hildegard, extreme left, and friends from the village.
One day the priest came to Sissy and told her that a friendship with Hildegard could endanger her immortal soul.
“It would be better Frances not to spend so much time with her”.
Although she was still only seven Sissy understood straight away that she must, for a while at least, avoid, not Hildegard, but the parish priest and the church. She knew that God did not love Hildegard any less than he loved her and that their friendship could never be a sin.
And then, of course, there were also the National Socialists. The whole family, but especially Wilhemina, were suspected by the Nazis of helping Jewish people. She had worked for fifteen years as a cook for a prosperous Jewish family who owned a local factory. But worse still, the two families were friendly and the couple had been guests at Wilhemina and Alois´ wedding. They were also generous people who often brought presents and gifts for Sissy and her six brothers and sisters.
But under the Nazis life for Jews in the village became ever more difficult. Perhaps out of jealousy someone reported Wilhemina to the SS. The informant claimed to have seen Jewish men in the family garden one night and that they had been digging and burying things there.
The SS came several times and searched the house and, in particular, the garden, systematically dividing the garden into sections and driving pitch forks into the ground to try to find what might have been buried there. But they found nothing. They questioned mother again and again but she always answered that she knew nothing about it.
The parents and three of the five children of the Jewish family were eventually taken away and murdered in Auschwitz.
Ten years later, in the very hard first years after the war, a young man turned up in the village. He was one of the two children whose escape to America the parents had managed to organize. He brought with him a piece of paper, a simply drawn map that his father had given to him. It showed where in the family garden his father had indeed buried a small box with some valuable objects and some important documents.
When his father had come to Wilhemina and asked her if could bury something in her garden, she agreed but with the condition that she did not want to be told where he had buried it. Then when she was asked about it, she could always answer I don´t know.
The young man went directly to a blackcurrant bush in the garden and dug beneath it. And there he found the box left for him by his parents. Like them, he was both thankful and generous, and left behind a handsome sum of money to help the family in their need.
Of course, at the time, Wilhemina and Alois did all they could to protect Sissy and the other children from the visits of the SS. But Wilhemina knew she would not in the end be able to protect Sissy from Hildegard´s disappearance.
The English and Catholic novelist, Graham Greene, once wrote that in every childhood, there comes a moment when a window into the future is opened, and from this moment we can trace the sense and meaning of a life. Perhaps, for Sister Franziska, was this moment when, Wilhelmina no longer able to protect her from the pain, she realized her friend Hildegard was not coming back. Very likely murdered by the Nazis, paradoxically, this terrible incident only confirmed and deepened all Frances had learnt from her family about God and love and the dignity of every individual person.
Left to right. Martin, his sister Hildegard and Sissy.
And for over seventy years now the light of their innocent and unshakeable friendship still shines through that dark window.