Sister Franziska today in her flat in Berlin. Portrarit Katja Harbi.
It is now two years since Hildegard did not return from the hospital and Sissy still misses her. But her father, Alois, talked for a long time with her and the other children about her friend and explained that she must now be happy in heaven with Jesus. Hadn´t he said after all,
“Let the children come to me. For the kingdom of heaven belongs to them?”
Whenever she was worried, woken in the night by the sound of the airplanes or when the only game that was played in the schoolyard was war, her father told her that everything would be all right, and because he said it, she believed him.
Although she was always ready to help others, Sissy was always strong willed and was never afraid to put her ideas into action. Whenever the kids in the village had done something that maybe they shouldn´t have, Sissy was usually in the thick of it, if not indeed the ringleader.
One winter day the village children were bored and longed for the ice and snow that were so much fun. Sissy had a think, and that evening, whilst her parents sat and read at home, took a hose from her garden and calmly flooded a neighbours meadow. Sissy was then proud to announce to the other kids.
“It´ll freeze tonight and then in the morning we can all go ice skating.”
As the, more muddy than really icy, meadow was discovered the next morning, in every village kitchen the same thing was heard from all the kids.
“Sissy said we could do it. “
“Sissy said it was ok. “
“It was Sissy´s idea. “
When her father sat down next to her at the breakfast table, she admitted her part, before he had even posed the question. Even as he told her off, he couldn´t help admiring, couldn’t help simply liking her, for her honesty and her daring.
Indeed, Sissy had gone so far as to organise a robbery. The girls´ target was the village shop. Sissy gave each of the girls precise instructions. Two girls were to keep the shop assistant busy asking for things they knew were hard to find. Two girls were to talk to anyone who approached the shop so they wouldn´t come in, and Anna, the littlest was to steal five bottles of perfume.
And it was the perfect crime, until however, as good catholic girls, they had to immediately go to confession to confess the crime and then be able to enjoy the perfume with a clean conscience. As Sissy waited outside the confessional to go in, the last of the five girls, the first three waiting beside her, the priest suddenly and noisily came bustling out of the confessional and ordered them all to come with him back to the shop to give back all that they had stolen.
Wilhemina and Alois were not pleased but they knew children will be children. But one day in late summer, Sissy, having found behind an old barn a perfect hiding place, organised the children to harvest all the ripe strawberries and blueberries from around the village. Thankfully her father saw the toing and froing of the children from his workshop window and stopped them. It was the only time he physically punished her. Food was already becoming scarce in the village.
Then in 1941, as the bombing raids increased, there came three nights of terrible weather. Three days of thunder, lightning, rain and gale force winds. Father was the leader of the volunteers in the village who made up the fire brigade.
As he climbed out of his bed in the early hours of the first morning of the storm and looked through the bedroom window, he knew that the farmers, with their frightened animals, and so many outbuildings, would need help. He turned back to take leave of his wife, but she was already up and had gone downstairs.
As he came downstairs and reached for his raincoat, Wilhelmina was there by his side and put an apple in his free hand.
“And I´ve put some rolls in the pockets of your coat. Don´t forget to eat them! “
Alois knew that there wasn´t much left in the house to eat, but before he could speak, she said.
“And I know the forecast is bad, and the winds are likely to get worse, but come home whenever you can even if its only for half an hour.“
Alois could not meet her eyes, but he nodded. A brief hug, and then he disappeared into the darkness.
As he left the garden and ran in the direction of the Fire Station, he could make out that just in this small part of the village, three, maybe four, roofs had been blown off the barns and cow sheds. It was hard to distinguish the howling of the winds from the cries of the animals.
He had reached the station. There was no light inside. He shouted.
„Hallo is anyone there? Do we know yet if there are any houses were the roof has gone? “
From out of the darkness came a grim voice.
„Ten….. at least.“
His young colleague had now put the light on and the two set to work in silence to prepare the fire engine.
The rain and the winds didn´t stop for three days and nights.
Finally after the third sunset, three firemen came carrying father and brought him up to his bedroom. At last all the families, animals and stores had been brought under cover. The emergency was over. But then father himself had collapsed.
He was exhausted. At first it seemed, as mother sat by his bedside, that all he needed was to sleep. Only reluctantly did Wilhemina want to acknowledge, in her relief and joy, that he was finally safe at home, that his heavy, difficult breathing meant that something more serious could be wrong.
In the early hours, she went into Sissy´s bedroom to wake her, although she was not the oldest, she could be trusted the most.
„Sissy! Sissy, wake up. You´ve got to go and fetch the doctor. “
Father now lay in the hospital. He was suffering from a severe infection in both his lungs. Because mother so often in these days was at Alois´ bedside, Sissy looked after the other children and always tried to think of new games to play, cooking and baking, washing and keeping the house clean.
As the doctor looked at her sleeping husband, his breathing still uneven and laboured, she saw his eyes narrow and lips tighten. She immediately asked.
“Is there really nothing that we can do? “
“Your husband urgently needs a new medicine. Penicillin. But we just don´t have it in Germany. “
“Who does have it then? “
Now the doctor looked her full in the face.
“They do have it in England. “
He didn´t want to give her false hope so he did not mention that maybe there was a way.
Just a day later in the War office in London, the Minister had just a moment of surprise as the General at the end of his report, mentioned as if in passing.
„And I wanted to let you know that yesterday we sent some Penicillin, at the request of a German General to a Hospital in Münster. Not a large amount of course, but hopefully sufficient. “
The Minister paused, then.
“I don´t have any objection. Indeed the way things are going we may be looking for some compassion from the Wehrmacht before too long. But may I ask who it was for? “
“A carpenter. “
Now, the minister could not hide his surprise.
”A carpenter! “
„With seven children. “
„Oh, I see“.
And with a nod the minister brought the meeting to a close.
Sadly, this part of our story does not have a happy end. The German doctors could not understand the notes in English and the instructions on the medicine itself were in Latin. Perhaps the Latin was poorly expressed or the doctors in Münster misunderstood. But the penicillin that Alois should only gradually have received in small doses, was given to him all at once and in less than a quarter of an hour he was dead.
In the family for a while the grief was almost unendurable. The youngest child was just six weeks old. Mother could have brought a complaint, but against whom? She had seen the compassion in the eyes of all the doctors. She knew that they had wanted only the best for her husband. Her duty was now to hold the family together. Wilhemina insisted that the children should all be at the funeral, which was unusual at this time. And afterwards they went for a while regularly all together to his grave. They prayed and they cried together.
Sissy had seen her father just one last time in his coffin at the funeral. She was sure, despite her grief that he had smiled at her.