Choate, Heidi: 1950 – 1958

My first army teaching experience was at Schofield Post School, Schofield Barracks in the (then) Territory of Hawaii.

I went to Germany in 1950 and was assigned to Aschaffenburg. During the school year 1951-1952, I was first assigned to Augsburg and then (when troops moved) was transferred to Nürnburg (December until June 1952). After a year at home I again enlisted” and went to Heidelberg (1953-54). Three years later I taught for the Air Force at Tachikawa Airbase in Japan (1957-58).

The following are just a few notations from my years in Germany. I have six volumes filled with diary-type accounts, souvenirs, and hundred of slides. BUT I can’t begin to do justice to those fascinating days and experiences! How does one condense those fabulous years into a few paragraphs?

I had always wanted to return to Europe and overseas teaching afforded a golden opportunity. “Return” because I was born in Norway and immigrated to the United States, at age four, via Germany.

On our ship (U.S.N.S. General George W. Goethals) were several teachers going overseas for the first time and some returnees. A former college classmate and friends of friends were among them. New friendships were readily formed and there was never a lack of traveling companions.

I feel that American Dependents Schools teachers were a rather special group. For the most part they were dedicated professionals who were good role models for our country. Most had a sense of adventure, loved to travel, to learn, and made good use of the opportunities offered. Adjectives that come to mind are: friendly, polite, patient, and good-humored.

A recruiter once told me that FLEXIBILTTY was an important characteristic, and flexible we had to be. We did not know our assignment (location or grade) ahead of time, nor did we know the living and teaching conditions. Our school situations varied greatly. My first school, in Aschaffenburg, was in a former Nazi officers’ club in a Kaserne. I had two very small rooms but, fortunately, had an aide who could supervise the second room across the hall. We had a lovely assembly room upstairs. It had been a ballroom. My “best” school was the newly built one in Nürnberg. Most of us had brought over some of our own teaching material, but our available school supplies were usually adequate.

I enjoyed my classes, mostly first-graders. The children were perhaps more self-sufficient than many of the children I had taught at home. Discipline problems were not insurmountable. The parents were cooperative and grateful. We had opportunities to visit German schools as well as being visited by German teachers. The German classes that I visited seemed very structured. A memorable compliment for me was when a German teacher (visiting my class in Heidelberg) said, “How do you maintain such disciplined freedom?”

Housing for us could usually be described as “simple but adequate.” “Home” was, at times, a hotel room or a small shared, apartment, or a dormitory arrangement. It varied from wooden boxes for cupboards in cramped quarters to a large apartment completely furnished including china and crystal. Where we lived was secondary since we traveled as much as time and money would allow.

Traveling by train from Bremerhaven where we had debarked from our ship, we had our first impressions of Germany. We passed through many fairy-book villages, saw our first castle on a hill and were impressed with the beauty of the country. As we approached Frankfurt we came upon the depressing signs of war destruction (5 years after the war ended!). The Hauptbahnhof, where our trip ended, was badly damaged. There were remains of bombed-out buildings, shell holes and rubble that wild growth was trying to cover. Parts of walls were standing with a bath or toilet, perhaps, hanging from what had once been an apartment. These black shells of apartments were intermingled with less-damaged buildings where people now lived, sometimes on just the first floor, where above them and around them there was nothing. The streets were cleared of rubble, but it was obvious that it would take a long time to erase the marks left by the war. We later became accustomed to the contrast of serene untouched villages and the devastation in the larger cities.

In an early letter to my parents I wrote (in 1950), “The attitude of the German people varies. Some are obviously respectful of the occupation but try not to show it. For the most part the people with whom we have become acquainted have been friendly, helpful and enjoy our poor attempts to speak the language. Many speak English well. Some who are in a serving capacity (waitresses, janitors, porters, etc.) are very humble and bow and apologize and try so hard to please us in every way. We try hard to erase any idea of “class” distinction.”

We met many wonderful German people who became our friends. Frau Frederich, my aide at Aschaffenburg, had been a concert pianist (Sometimes after school we would hear her playing the piano in the upstairs ballroom). She invited us to local concerts and was our guest at a concert in Frankfurt. We were invited to a supper at her small apartment and were joined later by some of her friends who played various instruments and we were treated to a musical evening.

Our “maid”, Frau Schoeder, formerly a well-to-do lady from Dresden treated me like a daughter, running to get special food, etc. when I was ill with the flu. We were “adopted” by the Bucheckers in whose home we stayed while seeing the 1950 Passion play in Oberammergau. In our visits with the family we could always count on, as Rosa said, “a cozy, warm house with much singing and guitar playing.” On each visit they would urge us to climb the Kofel (mountain) with them, “an easy path to the top.” When we finally did go I found it to be one of the most frightening experiences of my life! At the Red Ox in Heidelberg we became acquainted with so many – Maria, the professor’s wife, George, the piano player, the Roderers who owned an antique shop where they invited us for a late snack and a look around. We met students of the University who escorted us around, and with whom we had interesting discussions.

Our friend Reta, who worked for Special Services, told us about former years that held many hardships for them. Her mother once passed out in the street from lack of food. Reta finally had swallowed her pride to ask for a bar of soap so “I would feel clean” after seeing the large supply at the Special Service Club. She said that she and her cousins were very happy to have warm red dresses that her aunt had made from the old nazi flags (which were to have been destroyed).

This reminds me that we could find almost anything and everything either in our P.X. or in the German stores. What seemed inexpensive to us, when translated into Marks, would be out of sight in cost for most Germans. (A can of cocoa or a can of coffee was one of the best gifts that could be given to them. We knew that there was much black-marketing going on but we could also avoid it.) A young girl at the Deutches Post telephone exchange earned about 130 Marks per month. A pair of shoes cost her about 40 Marks and her rent was 30 Marks per month. The rate of exchange for us was approximately 4 Marks to the dollar.

Oh, yes, when we first arrived in 1950 the garbage cans in the post were marked “edible” and “non-edible” in German. German employees would rescue coffee grounds, heat them in an oven to use them to make coffee at home.

I mentioned that we were there to travel, also, and travel we did – all over Germany, Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, England, Yugoslavia, etc. We traveled by train, plane, tram, bus, and metro. I finally bought a third-hand Renault which enabled us to go to many interesting off-the-beaten-path places on weekends and holidays.

In those days we needed “gray passes” to travel to Vienna or Berlin in the Russian zone. These passes were subject to cancellation if conditions warranted and we were subject to checks by the Russians who came aboard our train on the way to those destinations. There was no friendliness shown here!

Some of our experiences were of a serious nature. One trip into East Berlin (before the wall) became frightening. We left the opera that we were attending that night and asked for information about our return train. No one would speak to us! We made (fortunately) a good guess and caught the right train back to the west. We realized then that we had been rather foolish. On another trip to East Berlin, on a Communist Rally Day, a young man approached us and asked if we could help him to escape. In February 1951 we were alerted to a possible attack by Russia. We had rucksacks packed with emergency supplies and had been informed as to how to help evacuate the school children, and the route to take to the Swiss border.

Most of our experiences, however, were happy ones. People so often went out of the way to do nice things for us. One time we were sharing a table with some Austrians in a restaurant in Griming, not far out of Vienna. When it was discovered that we had not heard the “master” (Anton Karas of Third Man fame) play, they located him and brought him to our table to play for us.

One summer vacation my friend Alice and I were traveling to Geneva on the lake ship. We spent a fascinating afternoon with a lovely lady who asked if she could join us. It was Edna Ferber, author of Giant, So Big, etc. She was interested in hearing about our experiences as teachers in Germany!

One Christmas Eve in Rome Kittie and I were walking to St. Peter’s. An Italian tour group was just getting on their bus and we asked the driver the best way to get there. They insisted that we join them on their bus since they were going there too. They ushered us to a place on the side so that we could see Pope Pius XII when he entered. As we awaited his arrival, standing crowded together in that huge cathedral, we heard voices. First in one language, then in another and another. We all joined in singing, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” It remains one of my most cherished memories.

One memory leads to another and another. These are just a few.

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