🇩🇪 Maria & Wiebke

Vreden, May 2022  

5 minutes ago there were ten of us sitting at the dining table of the big farmhouse, with homemade cakes and coffee. Now there are only three of us: Maria, the grandma, 84, her grandaughter Wiebke, 18, and me, 26. At the end of May, I drove to Vreden, near the Dutch border in North Rhine-Westphalia to visit Maria and Wiebke. Maria is my great aunt, my grandpa's sister-in-law. I may have seen Maria once as a child at a party; saying that I know her and Wiebke would be an overstatement. On the way to the interview, my aunt and I drove through several small towns and villages. In the region of Münsterland, there are a lot of large farms, which are often passed down to children in their families. The entrances of the villages are marked by rows of stores selling supplies for farm work. The Landladen Lösing (agriculture store) in Vreden, for example, sells animal feed, work clothes or agricultural supplies, as is written in the shop window. When I get out of the car at Wiebke's, the smell of cows immediately hits me. The road to the house of Maria Lösing leads out of the village center through a forest road. Here, things get difficult when tractors pass us on the narrow roads. When we arrive, a huge gate opens automatically, and we drive along the carefully mowed lawn and park. In front of the house is a wayside cross. As I learn later, Maria's family was able to buy the house because, as a Catholic family, they undertook to take care of the cross station by buying the house. Maria's daughters knew about the interview and surprisingly, there were not five of us but twice as many at the round table. After conversations about family changes and changes in the village, the daughters and other guests go for a walk, while I remain at the dining table with Wiebke and her grandmother. 

To Work

Maria has lived in Münsterland all her life. At the age of 15 Maria started to work. She became a maid on a farm in nearby Borken and took care of the housework. They had free time only every two weeks, on Sunday afternoons. She was the only maid there for three years and earned 60 DM, which would be about 30€ today. Maria adds, "There was no opportunity and there was nothing else to do but work." In her early 20s Maria arrived in Crosewick and worked in a new farm, with cows, sows and piglets. "I always enjoyed doing that." Wiebke remembers a story she's heard before from her grandma: "That's right when it was cold, the piglets and pigs went into the oven, which was a little hot and open, or into warm water, so they wouldn't freeze to death." You can't tell that Maria worked for a long time on the farm. Her hands are well-groomed, with age spots and wrinkles."We have experienced a lot in Vreden, but it has always been fun." Maria will repeat this sentence to several stories during the interview with a broad smile. 

During the interview, I notice that Wiebke and her grandmother are dressed similarly. Both have striped blue and white shirts. Wiebke wears the shirt open, with a black turtleneck underneath and a necklace. Maria has her shirt buttoned almost to the top, a beige cardigan over it, and a pearl necklace around her neck. In Münsterland, many older people, as well as those who are not so old, speak Plattdeutsch, a combination of Dutch and German. That's why I sometimes have trouble understanding Maria. Maria is hard of hearing and sometimes the answers miss the questions a bit. She tells the stories that go through her head. When I turn to Wiebke to ask for her opinion or impressions, we often exchange only three or four sentences. The conversation jumps back and forth a bit as a result. 

“We didn't get much of the young life back then,"Maria continues. During festivities in the village, however, she and her husband were always right at the front. "It was the best times in the village." With the neighbours, they also played together and after the festival, they would eat something small at someone's house, often a fried egg. “Yeah, we do that, too. When we're out in the evening, we also stop at someone's house in between to eat something,"Wiebke replies to her grandma, who inquires if she does the same today. The midnight snack is well known across generations. "I can really understand,"Maria continues, "that Corona was very difficult, especially for the younger ones. I also thought, ‘Let the youth out again!’"I ask Wiebke if she has ever worked here in the small town. "Yes, sometimes here and there with the neighbours, babysitting, in the quiet bakery where there was hardly a customer and before high school I waited tables in a pub on weekends.”

To learn

Wiebke is rather reserved, making shorter sentences in the conversation, listening a lot, but sometimes sharing a memory with her grandma. She seems intimidated by all her grandma's stories. Wiebke just turned 18 and is currently in the graduation phase. Because of Corona, she only had a small celebration with ten people. She says that at 18, between studying, meeting friends and partying, she didn't experience much. Wiebke doesn't know exactly what she'll do after graduation. But she knows two things: I will take a break for 1 year and would like to study later either in Freiburg or in Berlin, to experience something other than Vreden. “But I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to come back regularly." I will take a break for 1 year and would like to study later either in Freiburg or in Berlin, to experience something other than Vreden. “But I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to come back regularly." For now, though, she's enjoying the last few weeks with her friends in the small town and has signed up to take lessons for her driver's licence. She's not necessarily looking forward to driving, though. So far, she rides her bike a lot, since everything is nearby, although some of her friends have a car to make more distant trips. Her classmates have various plans after high school. Several are catching up on trips they had planned before Corona, some are starting college and some are starting an apprenticeship in September. Maria asks whether studying or doing an apprenticeship is seen as equivalent today. "Yes"reflects Wiebke, “It's actually looked upon favourably if someone does an apprenticeship or something manual again." Maria remembers that they used to all have to go to church before they went to school. She continues"But we didn't have politics at all ... languages either. All in all, we didn't have that many hours. At noon, we were also back home to help and work".

The most formative thing in her younger years, Wiebke says, was Corona, although the war of aggression on Ukraine that started 2 months ago also "changed the perspective (on) how quickly war can come, too. It does feel a little closer, but not like grandma experienced it, right on your doorstep, but closer than when you were a kid and there was war in some countries." The war was discussed in individual subjects at school, for example in geography. There, the students compared the refugee intake between 2015 and 2022. Among friends, the war has also become a topic of conversation. But Wiebke still feels that"it's up to you to inform yourself.

Prayer and Compassion 

Maria doesn't find one event that is particular when I ask her. " We've been through so much, I can't say there's one thing. " Nevertheless, in the course of the conversation, while discussing the concept of power, Maria recalls a situation that had a long-term impact on her. She recounts:

"Bocholt was bombed, about 15 km away from where we lived. That night we really learned to pray. It burned in the evening with lights out - the planes were howling and shooting, so you can't imagine what we experienced there. Our grandmother prayed very loudly at that time, and we were so afraid that we got out of it okay. After that, we probably had to take in refugees from Bocholt. Die You can never forget that night in your life." When she came back from school during the war and heard the planes flying low, she hid with comrades in the ditch or in the woods. "At home, there were horses in the pasture and they just shot at the horses. It was horrible what we witnessed there. You wouldn't want to live in the war again." says Maria touched. Once our house burned down and we had to go to the neighbours. All nine siblings were scattered everywhere, that hurts... even today for Ukrainians, when you have to leave everything, it hurts.” She doesn't tell me more about the division of the family, and I don't ask out of modesty. Later I learned that the fire of the family house brought a lot of trauma and shaped the whole family for a long time.

After the Chernobyl disaster, Maria hosted children from Belarus at home on two occasions, for four weeks. Wiebke asks ""How did you actually communicate? By drawing or showing?”, "At the beginning, it was hard to communicate, but eventually it worked. These were young kids, 8 or 10, and a bit malnourished. I played with them. The children were very grateful. I often weighed them because they were very thin." The children came through a program from the town, where you had to sign up to take in children. For a long time, the children and Maria wrote letters to each other, until no one in the village could translate the into Russian anymore.Today, people are again showing willingness to help“ says Maria and are taking in refugees from Ukraine. I think that's right, people are grateful for it. She also knows several families in Vreden who have taken in Ukrainian refugees. Neither Maria nor Wiebke can remember similar programs from the town and private reception in 2015 except that since 2015 two international classes were open in Wiebkes school. Both think it is right and important that people can be accepted in Vreden. Maria will not forget the gratitude that is communicated.

We are slowly finishing the interview. From the window we see all the sisters coming back from the walk. Wiebke, Maria and I go outside for a photo."So, did you have an interesting conversation?"my aunt asks. "I definitely learned something,"Maria replies. I'm very happy to hear that because I have a lot of stories and information in my head after the interview and I'm already wondering how I'm going to process it. After all the photos and final thoughts are shared, we slowly say goodbye and drive through the big gate back towards the village.

For the first interview in Germany, I had more difficulty finding a grandmother who felt willing to enter the conversation. One grandmother declined because she had a divorce at about the current age of her granddaughter, and this was very difficult at the time because it was also not accepted. It wasn't until a few months later that I sat down to work on Wiebke and Maria's interview again, when a friend sent me the cover of her book. I was unsure under which aspect I should tell the stories of the two women. On the back cover of the book, the author addresses the younger generation while speaking of their grandparents, “À la différence d’avec vous, leur jeunesse n’a pas duré très longtemps.” (1) When I think of Maria and Wiebke, I wonder how much of this is still true. Nevertheless, hasn't Wiebke's carefree youth already ceased since Corona? 

(1) "Unlike with you, their youth did not last very long."