Broken Porzelan chronicles one woman's inspiring journey from a childhood in Yugoslavia to adulthood in America during an unforgettable time in history.
In her memoir Broken Porzelan, Katie Bering shares the touching story of how she overcame tremendous obstacles, first as a child living in Europe during World War II and later becoming a young adult living in Michigan.
Some fifty years later, Katie offers a glimpse into what life was like for a young girl-and victim of Hitler's army- growing up in various parts of Europe and North America during and after World War II. Katie was born into a broken family, an event that subsequently propelled her into a lifelong search for completeness and perfection. When her beloved porcelain doll is accidentally broken when she is four, the image of the doll's once perfect face-now tainted by cracks-continues to haunt Katie throughout her life. From her experiences growing up with a stern mother, who left her unfaithful husband and later married an abusive man, to her voyage as a teenager to live in America, Katie chronicles the poignant story of a shy, reserved girl who must learn to make her own difficult decisions about love.
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By Katie (Katharina Krämer) Bering
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Katie (Katharina Krämer) Bering
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUntimely Birth
I was born to my Mother on a Thursday afternoon on August 12th, 1937, with only a midwife and my Oma (Grandmother) present. My birth was the easiest of my Mother's two deliveries before me. Easiest definitely in the delivery but far from a joyful welcome for my Mother, not that any of this was intentional, but rather it was the timing of my birth. My Oma cleaned the afterbirth and wrapped me in a clean warm blanket. She took me to my Mother's bed. Mother lay listless and limp, and only said, "Oh, another girl," as she held me in her arms. My Oma told me this story many times and each time she did so, she'd remember something more. I never tired of hearing stories of my childhood. Oma added and said, "Ya, I stood at the foot of your Mommi's bed, and I watched her so unhappy. I had tears in my eyes for you."
There was reason to worry, for in three short years, our Mother brought four girls into this world. The first born Margaret named after our father's Mother, and thirteen months later twins, Suzanna, named after our Mother's Mother, and Therezia after my father's Grandmother, were born. My Mother named me Katharina, after her own name. In those days the Godparents' names were the ones mostly given to the child. My sisters preceded me, and had taken the names of family members, and so Mommi's name was left to give to me. Giving us girls traditional names in our culture was actually more important than our birthdays. We celebrated our Namesake day, not our birthdays. Mine fell on November the twenty fifth every year. When my Mother learned she was pregnant with me, our Mother's and Father's marriage was in deep trouble.
"Can you imagine?" Oma told me, "Your Mommi threw your Dati (Father) out. She packed his bags and told him to never come back again." "But why?" I questioned. "Your Dati made a big mistake." Oma continued, "I pleaded and explained to Kati, (my mother's short name) to please forgive him, that in time you will forget. But, your Mommi's mind was made up, and so after many tries your Dati gave up and left us all behind."
Mommi and Dati met in unusual circumstances. First of all, our father was only nineteen years old and our Mother a mature twenty four year old when they married. Our Mother was the youngest of sixteen children, a close family with Mother being the youngest and one of two girls, the rest all boys. Our father, you could say, was an only and pampered child. He had a younger sister, but she died in her teens. His Mother then focused solely on him. And of course marrying an older woman caused doubt, not only for our Father's Mother, but for our Grandmother as well.
"Your Father was a kind man and treated your Mother with respect and I liked him. But, you know," Oma continued, "Joshi (Father's short name) being a good looking man, always dressed in a suit every day for work, was trouble. Your Mommi with so much work raising you girls, she didn't have the energy or the time," Oma explained.
Our Father worked in the downtown square in Gross Kikinda, (Gross meaning large) as a salesman for a fabric store, which was owned by his family. My parents, Katharina Huhn and Josef Krämer, married on August 14th, 1934, in their home city of Kikinda, Jugoslavia. I've never actually seen a wedding picture of my parents, but was told their wedding to be modest, yet beautiful. Our Father with strikingly good looks, a face with strong features, dark hair and full lips, our Mother with small features, flawless skin, perfectly shaped white teeth and dark wavy hair. They were married only a short three years and divorced in 1937, the year I was born.
Mother told me this story only once, as we sat together on two lawnchairs, a rare moment talking about my Father. Mother went on to share with me after so many years of silence, on that unforgettable afternoon. I cleared my thoughts quickly, so I would not miss one single word that I was anxiously waiting to hear. Mother cleared her throat, as she calmly told me. After I threw your Father out, he was misled by someone who indicated that I was ready to take him back. Your Father arrived one afternoon with two black Horses and a black lacquered carriage. He stood in the doorway, dressed in his best navy blue suit so good looking and attractive, Mother smiled a little as if she visualized him standing next to us at that moment. The look on his face, I knew he was happy. "What are you doing here?" I asked him, sarcastically. "I heard you want me back," he said. "Oh, you did." I started to laugh, you know that kind of laugh that makes you feel like a fool and then said to him, "You're mistaken if you think so." Mother explained, shaking her head, "Oh, Käthe, I was so hurt and I wanted to hurt him back." "When I found them together that afternoon so many years ago," she continued, "I was so worked up that all the way home I couldn't breathe." She stopped talking. "Tell me more Mother." Reluctantly, she told me.
"Well, I found a note in his suit pocket one afternoon and it was from a girl. You know, men," she tried to make light of it, but I could tell even after all those years that a part of her still hurt, "the note read, Joshi, please meet me in the vineyard tomorrow, at one in the afternoon, okay?" My Mother looked away, almost apologizing to me and said, "I went to the vineyard and found them there, lying on the grass between the rows of the grapes." she stopped talking and I didn't ask any more questions.
But, she did tell me this. "I did something that bothers me to this day." she explained. The girl that your Father met that day worked downtown next to the tailor shop, where your'e Father worked. I knew the girl's father. Being so angry, I walked downtown, and told the young girl's Father what she did with my husband. Oh, Käthe, oh, he hit that girl so hard and humiliated her, in front of that store so everyone could hear and see. I wanted to stop the Father but he wouldn't listen. I heard that he disowned this young girl as well. Oh, it was awful. It was something I should have never done." Mother took my hand and said, "Your Father was very good to me. In spite of everything, I want you to know that." Her voice trailed off.
At that moment, how that afternoon must have changed the once happy and trusting woman, my Mother, and us girls, forever.
Chapter TwoA Doll for Katharina
My first recollection of my childhood came when I was only four years old. My first Christmas memory was a visit from Krampus. Krampus dressed in red to resemble a devil and chains part of the scaring tactics when he entered the room. The reason for his visit was mainly to scare children to be good for the Christmas Season. If we were good, hopefully we would receive a small gift when Kristkindl came to our house on Christmas morning. The anticipation of Krampus coming, and it was to be tonight, made me shiver all over. I didn't like Krampus at all. Mommi summoned us girls into the long hallway, where we stood all in a row, waiting for Krampus. "Now," Mommi reminded us, "answer all his questions when Krampus talks to you." I jumped as I heard the chains rattling outside the door. By the time Krampus asked my older sister Grete (Margaret) a question, I started to shake from fright. I ran over to my Mother and wrapped my little arms around her leg. Mommi tried to push me away, but stopped when I started to cry. That night, too frightened to fall asleep, I tiptoed to my sister Grete's room and crawled into bed with her. I was so quiet that she didn't know I was there.
As I walked into the kitchen the next morning for breakfast, everyone was already by the table waiting for me. "What's the matter Käthe? Didn't you like Krampus last night?" my Mother said smiling. I shook my head, "No", with a pouty look on my face. Everyone in the room was snickering and laughing at me. With every moment passing I became more embarrassed and didn't like it at all that my family thought I was a scaredy cat. I ate my breakfast in silence with my head down. As soon as I was done, I said my thank you, as always, and walked directly to my room.
Later in the day as we, the twins and I, played in our favourite spot in the sunny hallway, Susi whispered to me, "Käthe, don't be scared of Krampus. It's Hans Onkel (Uncle John) all dressed in red." "No! Really!" surprised, I raised my voice. "Shhh, shhh." She put her finger over her lips. "Mommi wouldn't like it if she knew I told you." "Well, how do you know?" "Grete told me and I recognized Hans Onkels voice." Well hearing this wonderful news put my confidence back intact. The day ended happy and I never told this secret to anyone ever. Although I didn't understand how long it would be until Christmas, our traditional celebrations were a sure sign that the Christmas season had begun.
Four weeks before Christmas an Advent wreath of evergreens was hung from the ceiling over the dining table with four candles placed on the wreath. The candles were held in place with a steel clamp that was connected to the wreath. On the first Advent Sunday one white candle burned and left on for awhile. We'd gather around the wreath and while we watched the candle, said a short prayer as a Family. I loved the smell of evergreens in the house. On the second week, this procedure was repeated with one more candle lit, leaving the fourth one for last. Of course we knew then it was Christmas.
There was one more tradition. Mommi planted wheat kernels in a shallow glass bowl, about the same time as the wreath appeared. I remember watching these gentle green perfectly straight grasses grow to the height of a drinking glass which was placed in the middle of the bowl. Mommi informed us when this wheat grew tall that we would have a blessed and good year. I remember sitting by this bowl for hours and I could swear I saw these grasses grow right in front of me. The bowl of wheat stayed in the kitchen and was watered sparingly. When it reached about six inches high to the top of the glass we knew then it was Christmas. I was convinced that the four weeks before Christmas determined my fate of being worthy of good things to come to me throughout the whole year.
While we waited anxiously for Christmas, we'd pass the time outside playing in the courtyard. By this time enough snow had fallen on the ground for us to make snowballs. Once in awhile one of those snowballs would be too hard and hurt on contact. But, we knew if we fought amongst ourselves that we'd end up in our bedrooms and playing would be over for all of us. If one of us got hurt, we'd try to take care of ourselves and never ever tattle on each other. My Mother put the scare in us, for she was strict most of the time. Oma was very different from my Mother. When Mother yelled at me and scolded me, I found my Oma's lap warm and comforting. She gently stroked my hair, and spoke these words. "There, there, my sweet child, it'll be ok, you'll see."
After my Father and Mothers divorce, my Oma, Mothers Mother and Mother's Brother, Hans moved in, the only family I ever knew.
In those few weeks before Christmas, Mommi and Hans Onkel paced the floor together and spoke of war, Partisans and Russians. Words I hadn't heard before. The worry was just not in their faces, but also in their tone of voice. Our house most of the time was orderly and happy. Hans Onkel, Oma and Mommi talked endlessly, when they worked in the kitchen together. Their admiration for one another made us feel secure in our daily lives.
We children were totally unaware that in the 1940s our family had grave concerns and deeply troubled over the world at war. More and more people in our city heard of the horrible devastation throughout Europe. The news spread quickly of a troubled future ahead for us folks that lived for centuries in the old Jugoslavia and spoke German, called Donau Schwaben. The reason for this concern was mostly because we were of German descent.
The day before Christmas, I woke to the excitement buzzing around the house. The smell of cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and lemon reached every corner of the house. I loved that spicy aroma, the smell of fresh cookies baking in the oven, and my Mother's delicious nut and poppy seed strudels, for we couldn't wait to indulge in this wonderful baking. It must have been then that my love of the Christmas spirit began.
On cold afternoons, I took my wooden spinning top that our Hans Onkel made for us and went to play. We also passed the time with a game that needed a long piece of string, or a heavy piece of wool thread. Only two could play Cat's Cradle, making formations and taking the string from each other's hands and creating new ones. We didn't have any toys. When I asked Mommi if and when I'd get a toy her answer was always the same, "Oh someday, my child, you will get one, just be patient."
On Christmas Eve the preparations were anything but calm in our house. Mommi was far too busy with last minute doings. For one of us to get her attention was not too good. I knew all I had to do was follow my sisters and imitate everything they did and I would be okay. Finally, Christmas Eve was here. Our Aunt from my Father's side joined us for this festive evening. Nanna, a teacher by profession and also a spinster, was very educated, Mommi told us. Nanna played the piano. Most of the time our piano was closed, but not on Christmas Eve.
We knew by the knock at the door that it was Nanna. She was so happy to see us, as she gave us a kiss on the cheek, and handed us a beautifully wrapped bar of expensive chocolate. The way our eyes lit up to Nanna, it was clear to see our admiration for her, as we thanked her politely. Mommi made us change into our floor length nightgowns earlier. Mommi made the matching nightgowns with warm and soft fabric, the style a simple yoke with a round collar. The color was off white, with three buttons in front for us to easily slip into and pull over our heads. We lined up by the piano and waited to sing for our family. Nanna moved the piano chair just exactly into place and sat down. When Nanna nodded her head we knew that was our cue to sing. We had been practicing and we started singing the first song, Oh Tannenbaum, then, Leise Riselt der Schnee. Mommi, Hans Onkel and Oma stood directly across from us. The pride in their faces was clear to see, as we harmonised every tone with our childlike voices and finished our singing with, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, definitely the song I liked the most.
Nanna clapped her hands, "Oh my, the singing is even better than last year." With a smile, Nanna gave each one of us one more hug and a kiss, as we politely said "Good night" to her. Mommi with her hands together, stooped down, looking at us, "Time for bed, girls. You know Kristkindl is coming in the morning and you need your sleep." "Okay Mommi," we agreed immediately. Hans Onkel grabbed my hand and I skipped all the way to my room. Hans Onkel let go of my hand, then fluffed my pillow and pulled the feather duvet on one side, so I could jump in. "Okay now," he said, as he stroked my cheek, "have a good sleep now, sweet child." My uncle was a gentle man and I loved him very much. He smiled at me as he closed the door behind him.
I pressed my hands together tightly, like I did every night. It is a sin to go to bed and not say a prayer, so I always did. Tonight, I ended my prayer not with my usual Amen, but with selfish wants. "Please God, could I please have a doll this Christmas. I will be so good, I promise. Please God," I pleaded.
Christmas Morning 1941.
Susi came and woke me. "Good Morning Käthe," she said. "Did you have a good sleep?" "Yes I did," I answered. "And you?" "Me too," she said, as she stretched her arms up to the ceiling. We took turns washing our hands and faces in the basin that stood on the dresser next to my bed. The basin had to be filled with fresh water the night before, one of Mommi's strict orders. We had to be careful not to spill water on the wooden cabinet, for it left a mark. We girls wore our hair in braids most of the time, but not today. On special occasions, such as Christmas, we'd fuss and brush each other's hair until shiny and most of the waves from the braids slightly softened. Mommi finished by pulling the hair straight back from our forehead, secured with a clip, so a large bow that matched our dresses was tied, the finishing touch. Mommi worked hard to make us white crisp pinafores, with ruffles along the side of the opening by the shoulders down to the waist, with a large bow in the back. These pinafores were worn over hand-me-down dresses. Every two years or so Grete was fitted for a new dress when she outgrew it and it was handed down until the dress fit me. That year my dress was pink. I peeked as Mommi ironed them, and they hung in a row on hooks. The pink was the smallest, so I knew it was mine.
Excerpted from Broken Porzelan by Katie (Katharina Krämer) Bering Copyright © 2010 by Katie (Katharina Krämer) Bering. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. Untimely Birth....................1
2. A Doll for Katharina....................5
3. Destiny Unknown, Shipped and Condemned....................38
4. Forsaken In the Barracks....................69
5. Innocent Love....................141
6. The Americanization of Käthe....................151
7. Pond of Plum Dumplings....................178
8. Defining the Dance of Life....................206