In accordance with the topic of our first PLOTKI publication – ‘Parallel Worlds’ – my main idea was to compare the life and development of two people in Poland and in Western Germany. The goal was to demonstrate different aspects of women’s life and work in similar generations. One in a former socialist land, the other in a traditional capitalistic state. At first a period of just ten years, beginning in 1985, was to be compared. I soon had to admit the impossibility of such a comparison.
It could have been possible to compare two women with similar backgrounds, education or basically social strata, and then eventually demonstrate the difference between the political tradition of post war Western Germany to that of socialist and post-socialist Poland. My choice, however, was somewhat more intuitive:
Mrs. Rössler, on the one hand, has no higher education and is not particularly politically interested. The main political events of the last half of the century she experienced only indirectly., mainly also because she had to take care of several relatives from the end of the war onwards.
Mrs. Stecka, on the other hand, has a double higher education and worked since 1978 for social welfare in Poland through which she became politicised even without wanting to. Being engaged in social welfare and a catholic organisation simply doubled Mrs. Stecka’s opposition even though she does not see herself as a political activist.
Parallelism is achieved in an abstract way: It is the comparison of two (political) systems with their specific qualities, two different classes and, last but not least, two completely different people with specific ways of thinking and acting. So, they do not describe total parallel worlds, but what they do show are two private stories, of which some aspects are typical for the system and some are representative of social class or personal development.
Mrs. Hannelore Rössler was born in 1924 in Frankfurt/Main as a child of a middle-class family. Her father worked for Messer-Griesheim as an accountant. Her mother had a basic training in sales, and also worked for Messer-Griesheim, where she met her husband. Mrs. Rössler attended the Realschule and as a 15-year old started a similar sales-training at the former coal-trading company Raab-Karcher. In 1953 she met her future husband Mr. Ernst Rössler, who had just come back from an American prisoner-of-war camp. They married 4 years later and had their only child, Margit, in 1959. Since 1961 Mrs. Rössler took care of her child and her sick mother and later of her husband as well, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease until his death in 1999. Due to her family’s anti-militaristic and anti-national-socialistic convictions, the wartime was a long period of fear. Although neither her parents nor Mrs. Rössler herself had been in active opposition to the nazi regime, the situation was dangerous. Several times they were warned for telling political jokes, arguing with nazi neigbhours or expressing different opinions about the war.
According to Mrs. Rössler, they belonged to the widespread ‘pragmatic and cowardly middle class’: not really convinced by the nazi ideology, but on the other hand not political enough to join the active ( and rare ) opposition. After surviving the war in a relatively safe area of Frankfurt, their main worry was to earn money, rebuild the town and stabilize their own life. Even though the nazi time was in fact for them only a mental inconvenience, with no danger of physical harm because of their conformist behaviour, the war and the even harder years after it have been the main influence in her life.
Mrs. Rössler, you told me about your neighbours and the difficult relationship towards them. What happened to your nazi neighbour after the war and how did you deal with the new situation?
Mrs. R: Well, we had to organize our daily life, so we did not talk too much about the past. I know that Americans looked for former nazis and arrested them. But many were released after a few days. With our neighbour nothing occurred. He behaved like usual – just as if nothing had ever happened. Once my mother asked him about the statement, which he made towards us during the war when he tried to frighten us because of my parents’ opinion about nazis. He just walked away. We never spoke about this again. Anyway, all of the more important nazis left for South America, or Argentina.
How was your situation after the war?
Mrs R: Miserable. The Americans forced us to leave our flat so we had to sleep at our friends’. Everything was destroyed, nothing worked, neither public transport nor other social structures. We had nothing to eat and had to dig for rotten potatoes in the fields near Frankfurt. Sometimes my father went by bike to Bavaria and exchanged our private possessions for meat or vegetables. He had to ride for two days in each direction, at night he slept in the woods. Because of my work at the coal trading company, at least we had no problems with heating. I often exchanged preemptive allocations of coal for other goods, people often showed up at our apartment and brought bread or other things. Everyone did it like this.
At this time my father went with me to the first public speech from Schumann. He was old and sick by then but I will never forget the impression he made. I was a social democrat from then on.
In 1953 I met my future husband. He had just returned from an American prisoner-of-war camp. He already had Parkinson’s disease, but was still able to walk. He became sick in Africa were he had been a Wehrmachtsofficer. Two years after the marriage our daughter Margit was born. It was in the year 1959. I could go to work for about two years until 1961, then my mother had a stroke and I had to take care of her and my daughter. Soon afterwards my husband became more and more disabled so I had to care for him. He got a war pension so we were quite well off.
How do you remember the economic development in Germany?
Mrs. R: I can remember how from one day to another the stores were packed with all kinds of goods. We all got 40.- DM and the Reichsmark became worthless. 40.- DM was quite a lot, a bread-roll was about 5 Pf. so you could really get something for your money. We could soon buy our first car, a VW Beetle, we fetched it from Wolfsburg since they were cheaper there.
The Wall is an important part of German history. What did you think about this development?
Mrs. R: We saw this on TV. It scared us. At the same time we received plenty of letters from the former DDR. Totally unknown people wrote to us and asked for help and care. I wondered where they had our address from. Many of my friends received those letters. We sent packages with clothes or food. For us it was not so hard anymore, so we wanted to help. After a while all these letters became more and more demanding, ‘couldn’t we get this, or else’. This was the turning point for me. We were all outraged, we also worked hard yet asked no-one for help. They did not even reply to our post, not even a ‘thank you’, nothing. Because of these demands many people became angry. After the re-unification, relatives of my son-in-law arrived. At first they were welcome, but when they tried to stay as long as possible I changed my opinion.
But you would agree that the re-unification was politically necessary?
Mrs. R: Sure it was. They are German as well. And the shootings at the border in Berlin – awful. You know the wealth just made us dizzy, ignorant. But on the other hand we were not rich either. It was their greed, then and now, which affected me. We had to build our town alone, brick by brick, day by day. No one helped us.
What do you think about the 1968 movement?
Mrs. R: I did not follow it. Sure, we saw something on TV, and I know about all the fights with the police. But I really do not feel connected with it. I dislike Cohn-Bendit, and Fischer – I did not know anything about him then.
So you had no relation to the student movement. What about you, have you never thought about studying?
Mrs. R: Well I did not attend the high school so I could not, even if I would like to. Later my mother and my husband needed my help. For me it has been more important to earn money. And it was not common for women to get a higher education. I know only one of my girlfriends who studied; all the others did a vocational training or just got married. My father simply could not afford to pay for high school, which cost about 12.- RM per month. Realschule cost only 7.- RM. I know that only one of my school friends attended and passed high school. I helped my daughter to get as high a qualification as possible. Everything I could not achieve, I tried to help my daughter achieve. After the war we first had to calm down, it was such an incident, we had to stabilize first.
Is there a decision you would like to undo?
Mrs. R: I would not marry again. I always thought highly of my husband, he courted me, was very gallant, always thoughtful. We could talk for hours, which was important. I also loved his very exciting family. His mother was a Hungarian countess, his father an officer in the k.u.k. Austro-Hungarian army. But he was not my big love, which had fallen apart some time before I met him. I was tired from the war and the uncertainty, the poverty. Perhaps I was a little bit egoistic, too, just looking for someone who could hold me, give me the feeling of security. Now, although I am very happy to have Margit, I can say I would not decide like this again. I would rather stay alone. My whole life I have been surrounded by sick people, all this sacrifice I made, I am sure this would not happen again.
Were you forced to this marriage by your family or your religiousness, or otherwise?
Mrs. R: No, my family was quite traditional but they did not force me to this decision. And my faith was not the reason either. I have not often been in church although there was a time in my life when religion was important for me. Later I started to doubt more and more about all these catholic rules, the pope, the infallibility, and so on. I discussed this with my priest but it was somehow over. And my husband’s whole family is very anthroposophy-orientated, it fascinated me more and more. Now I am still faithful and believe in the immorality of souls and a little bit in reincarnation. But I am done with the Catholics.
Mrs. Anna Stecka, born 1930 in Warsaw, is the child of a Polish academic family. Her parents were both teachers. Mrs. Stecka studied geography and biology in Lublin. There she met her future husband Zbigniew Stecki, who studied forestry. During her studies she worked as an assistant for the university, later as a doctoral mentor. In 1953 she moved with her husband to Kurnik, a small town near to Posen. Her husband worked for the dendrological institute in Kurnik, where he later became director. Mrs. Stecka stopped working after the birth of her first daughter, but nonetheless she started to study catholic theology in 1961 in Lublin. Since the 80ies she has worked in religious welfare. After a while she specialized in the welfare of single mothers. This lead to the foundation of the ‘Organisation for the care of single mothers’. Since 1990 she has been the president of this organisation.
Mrs. Stecka describes the main aspect of her life as faith and trust according to Christianity. Her search for spiritual values is due to her experiences during the war. Her whole life was influenced by this short period and its consequences.
What kind of war experience had such an influence on you?
Mrs. S: My parents experienced, soon after the invasion of the Germans, the brutality of national-socialism. They were expropriated, their quite representative house was confiscated for the Wehrmacht. They were moved to the border of the Jewish ghetto. Also, my mother and I, with our black hair and darker skin, were regarded as Jews and often treated like they were. At 13 I was beaten up on the street by soldiers, my father was maltreated and forced to work in Lublin.
Have these happenings permanently changed your image of Germany and the Germans?
Mrs. S: At this time we also had courses in religion in our underground education. These were given by a former Christian-orthodox woman who had converted to Catholicism. She was able to convey the idea of christian values to me. My search for something I could believe in and use against this inhuman situation was successful. I was looking for values strong enough to survive this horrible time. In my opinion, someone who is really convinced about spiritual and ethic rules is not able to hate. I do not hate Germans or former nazis. They are humans with faults and guilt, in the same way as we are. To divide into higher, lower or anti- human beings as they did would be as wrong as they were. Sure, my husband and I often thought about the personal behaviour of Germans in our age-group whom we talked to. But I cannot judge or hate them.
Have you, or have people you knew, been in active opposition to the national-socialists?
Mrs. S: We were educated in the underground, I myself attended and finished three school-classes during the occupation. My father himself was a teacher in an underground high-school. This was the kind of opposition which seemed to be useful and which was punished with the death penalty, just like armed defence. If you mean the partisans, no we were not partisans.
Mrs. Stecka, your education is striking. Was it common for women of your generation to complete an academic education or was this a result of your family background?
Mrs. S: No, I cannot say that I was someone special. It was rather common for Poland that women completed an academic education. It was often even the case that more women than men studied. There are plenty of families with women who are more highly educated than their husbands. Men often have a technical education, or no education at all. Their reason was the need to earn money as soon as possible.
What was the reason for your second course of studies?
Mrs. S: One reason was the, in my opinion, miserable religious education on the government’s side, which was always badly neglected by the socialist state. Besides, it was extremely difficult for me, with my catholic engagement, to find a job: as a mother of three children and active catholic I did not fit the image of women in socialist Poland.
Do the roots of your religiousness lie in your family or are there other reasons?
Mrs. S: My parents were not related to Catholicism in any particular way. They were both baptised, but did not practise: my father was more an agnostic, my mother did not show a lot of religiosity either. The reason for my early turn to Catholicism was due to a war-related search for strong values, which I found in the Catholic faith.
You have moved from one opposition into another. Were there moments of desperation and doubt?
Mrs. S: Sure, there were. Especially under the socialist regime, which wasn’t only long in duration but was also marked by inner political conflicts and fractionalisation, there were situations where I was not sure of my conviction. It was very obvious when I had to be reduced to the role of motherhood. The church had forced this into a certain direction as well. For several years I was no longer convinced by the infallibility of the official interpretation. But after all, the people in an institution are the ones who fail; the idea and the values are not touched by this. After a long analysis I have decided to stay in the Catholic church.
How did your husband behave? Could you count on his support or did he share the idea of the female role-model supported by the church?
Mrs. S: Contrary to me, my husband comes from a traditional catholic family. His attitude concerning women was therefore conservative. But there came a point when it was economically necessary that I had regular work. I found this in the church’s social welfare work.
How would you describe the effects of the breakdown of the socialist system on your work?
Mrs. S: The breakdown lead at first to the desired freedom, the freedom of speech and information. At the same time it caused a significantly bigger differentiation and unequal division of wealth in the society. In my work I have witnessed a huge demand for social welfare during the war-crisis and after ’89. During war-time it was the almost total splitting of the society that forced many, especially men, into a very ambivalent position. We supported many people then, who did not know how to behave or where to seek advice. Now we are witnesses to a development where only the youngest generation can orientate themselves; many people are too weak and tired of searching for a position to adapt to the new situation.
Was your work before the breakdown regarded as political engagement?
Mrs. S: It was always primarily socially orientated, that made it political. During the time of socialism we were a group of 100 persons (in the Posen region) who, through their advisory function and practical aims, always had to deal with the current problems. The fact that we cared for the poor and that we recognised social grievance made us automatically politicised and sometimes abused. But the organisation was never an explicitly political one and was therefore not under ideological opposition to the official opinion, mainly because of its practical work.
Was the breakdown for you the most important political happening?
Mrs. S: No, that was the war and its consequences.