You are on page 1of 8

Recollections of Brigitta Johanna Siehling

Brigitta Johanna Keuper was born in a private hospital in Münster Westfalen on
October 10, 1934, to Max and Berna Keuper. Her mother picked her name, with her
middle name Johanna after Berna’s mother (also Gitta’s godmother). After her birth,
her mother swore she would never have another child, because of her awful
experience with schüttel-wehen (constant, light contractions) during labor. My mom
reportedly cried a lot when she was a baby, probably because she was hungry! The
midwife told Berna to give her only a small portion of milk, likely a trend at the time.
Apparently Max talked her into having 3 more children, all girls: Maria in 1936
(named by Max), Helga in 1938 (named by Berna) and Ursula in 1939. Helga died
of pneumonia in 1941 when she was 3 years old, antibiotics not having been
discovered yet. Her mother blamed the doctor, who was too busy, and never went
back to him again.
Mother and Father
Gitta’s parents, Alois (“Beautiful Max”) Keuper and Berna Bernhard, met at a
Fasching party in 1929, and got married in December of 1933, at Bönen bei Hamm,
where Max’s sister, Maria Niggemeier lived. She generously paid for their wedding,
too. Berna was 25, and Max was 32. Following the wedding they moved into his
boyhood home in Münster with his spinster sister Grete and his divorced brother
Willy, who agreed to be Gitta’s godfather. Max was the youngest of 11 and his
parents, Heinrich and Rosalie, died before Gitta was born, so she unfortunately
never knew her paternal grandparents.
Max grew up in Münster on Leerer Strasse. Max was the youngest of 11 children,
and a staunch Catholic. His father, Heinrich, was a carpenter/cabinetmaker, and his
shop was located on the same street. Max’s first job was bookkeeping for a
wholesale textile firm in Münster. After this, he got a job teaching at a Catholic
elementary school, first in Dülmen, then in Raesfeld, and finally in Borken. The job
in Borken was his dream job because there was a gymnasium and his sister Josefa
already taught there. Another sister, Maria (Niggemeier), was also a teacher.
Berna was the first-born of Curt Bernhard and Johanna (Düsterbeck) in 1908 and she
grew up in a beautiful house on Piusallee in Münster. She had a privileged
childhood, growing up fashionably dressed, with piano lessons and enrollment in the
1

Catholic high school. However, the depression hit hard in 1929, and Kurt struggled
to earn money in his wood finishing factory (“Dampfsäge (steam-powered sawing)
und Hobelwerk (plane work)”. The Bernhards lost their home, and Berna’s younger
siblings were not able to receive the same privileges as did Berna in her childhood,
a fact they enjoyed teasing her about when reminiscing. During WW II, the
Bernhard family lived on Leerer Strasse, on the 4 th (top) floor of a printing business,
with a rooftop terrace. In contrast to her husband Max, Berna was more relaxed as
a Catholic, maybe because her father was a Protestant (a Lutheran from Hesse) who
converted to Catholicism in order to marry her mother. Berna lived with an aunt
before she was married so that she could learn how to cook and run a household;
maybe that’s why she could cook without following a recipe. Brigitta remembers
her mother making sauerbraten and rouladen.
Max and Berna liked to walk, ride bikes, or visit relatives together. Max would
occasionally visit his sister Josefa and her husband Albert (Gerk) for a few beers and
a game of Skat, a fact which Berna resented a bit as she had to stay home with four
children! She didn’t play cards or drink beer, but she did love a good cup of coffee.
One time she went along with Max to the Gaststätte, but came back to four bawling
children. Back then it was okay to leave sleeping children alone, but apparently
Berna found out her children were not okay with it!
Grandparents
Curt Bernhard, Brigitta’s maternal grandfather, was originally from Hesse. He met
Johanna Düsterbeck in Emsdetten, where he was working as a bookkeeper.
Johanna’s family was wealthy; they owned a Gast Stätte (pub) and a Brennerei
(distillery), where they made their own schnapps. One of the pubs remains to this
day. Johanna brought with her a rather large dowry when she married Curt, and
after their marriage Curt opened his own lumber business using this dowry.
Unfortunately the business went belly up in the 1920’s, because of a cheating
partner, it was believed. Gitta remembers her grandmother being happiest with her
family around her; she still possesses a linen tablecloth that she inherited from
Johanna’s dowry. She remembers Curt having a leg amputated below the knee; it
was likely gangrenous due to diabetes and his smoking.
Growing up
2

Gitta grew upon Paulskamp Strasse in Borken. Her family rented the first floor of a
house, and the upstairs renters were a family with two boys; Gitta and her sisters
were quite intrigued with these boys! The first floor consisted of two bedrooms, a
Herrenzimmer, a kitchen and a large family room with a long table where the girls
did puzzles, colored, etc. In the backyard was a sandbox, a swing, and a horizontal
bar (really for hanging rugs to beat) that they would jump over. Looking out of their
front window they could see the grade school where Max taught. Some of her
chores at home included washing the tile entryway, and squeezing water out of the
rinsed clothes. They did not have a washer or dryer! Think Cinderella here! Gitta’s
favorite food growing up was vanilla pudding. She did not care for sauerkraut or
lima beans. Her parents did not make her eat everything on her plate, although
there was not enough food to waste and portions were very small.
There were two years separating each sister, and they got along well, which is good,
because they all shared the same bedroom! They were all quiet and bookish, and
did well in school. Brigitta remembers Maria being the most generous. They had no
radio or TV until after the war. The girls played piano or read books for
entertainment; Gitta’s favorite book growing up was Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Berna and
Maria were both good at the piano, Gitta and Ulla not so much. When Gitta was
about 7 years old, she was not a very good swimmer and almost drowned at the
local swimming hole; fortunately an older neighbor boy rescued her.
The Keupers did not have any pets. Gitta’s first friends were her sisters, but when
she was older she had a best friend in high school named Elisabeth Wevers, whose
mother was a Welchering. Bernie and Elisabeth shared a great grandmother, so
Elisabeth was 3rd cousin to Gitta’s future husband. She and Elisabeth would read to
each other from magazines, and crochet and knit together.
Brigitta inherited her father’s love of books and art. Max owned a set of Heinrich
Heine’s books, significant because many of Heine’s writings were banned and
burned during the rise of the Third Reich. Needless to say, Max was not a fan of the
Nazi party. He was also a lover of fine art; he collected the beautiful drawings that
each pack of cigarettes contained (he was a smoker). He would glue them into an
album, and Gitta remembers looking through the album and being so fascinated by
the art that she would research the artists further in their Encyclopedia Brockhaus
collection. Max liked to pick berries and mushrooms. Max taught 6 th (or 7th) grade
3

and he was known to be a strict but fair teacher. Once he brought Gitta to school to
watch a movie, a Grimm’s fairy tale called, “Märchen von einem, der auszog, das
Fürchten zu lernen.”

(“Tall Tales of One who Set Out to Learn Fear”). Brigitta

learned how to knit and crochet from her mother. Like her mother, she is nonconfrontational and wants everyone to get along peacefully. Also like her mother,
she is class-conscious, and wanted her children well-dressed and well-educated.
In 1942, when Gitta was 8, she remembers looking out of their basement window
during a bombing and seeing a building on fire. It was possibly shortly after this
that they were evacuated to the rural town of Hohenwepel, near WarburgPaderborn. Max, her father, was already MIA at this point. He had been reported by
another teacher for defying Hitler by praying in school, and was punished by being
sent to the Russian front. Gitta was only 8 years old at the time, and did not realize
the gravity of his marching orders. Her mother minimized his leaving by telling her
that because he was an older soldier (he was 43), he would merely be guarding
POWs. We know now from his letters to Berna that he indeed saw fighting on the
front in one of many skirmishes with Russian soldiers that saw his demise in the
cold of December 1943, probably. In Hohenwepel, they lived in the upstairs room of
an old farmhouse – no bathrooms! They used buckets. Her mother would steal
eggs from the hen house to get extra food, as there was a shortage. They stayed in
Hohenwepel until the end of the war. The farmhouse was bombed at the end of the
war and burned to the ground. Gitta’s mother and sisters moved back to Paulskamp
with the daughter of their landlord, but they had to live in one room because three
other families were also living there. Eventually they all moved out.
Schooling
Brigitta started kindergarten at 5 years of age, but it wasn’t school, it was a play
group. She did not like it! School hours were 7:30 am – 1:00 pm, Monday through
Saturday. During 1st through 4th grades her classes were moved around because her
school was bombed. Gymnasium started in 5th grade. There were two buildings,
one for farm kids (trade school) and one for students going on to university. After
school, Gitta and her sisters had lots of unstructured time – they read, or played
outside.

4

School was co-ed and there were 40 kids in one grade. You had to pay tuition. They
did not wear uniforms, and walked everywhere. Some kids who lived far away took
the train to get to school. In Germany the school day is shorter but you have to go
on Saturdays. She hated math, but loved languages and history, and she was one
of the best spellers, however they did not have spelling bees, so her talent went
unrecognized. Toni Schmidt was her teacher in 1 st – 4th grades. She got hit on the
hand once for a spelling error and was devastated and mortified!!
Once Gymnasium started in 5th grade, you had different teachers for every subject.
At age 14 years you were done with elementary school (basic schooling). You
started to learn a trade at this time, but still went to school once a week. Brigitta
was not able to finish high school in Borken because it was converted to a seminary.
She had to take a train to Bocholt
She did not make Abitur (the test to get into college). Instead she went to a higher
trade school in Ahlen, Westfalen. The school was called St. Michael’s and it was run
by Notre Dame nuns; there she learned typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, business
English and French. She graduated in one year. Later they made it a two-year
course.

TRADITIONS
Christmas and St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) were Brigitta’s major family traditions. On
the eve before St. Nicholas Day, the girls would put a cube of sugar in their slippers
for St. Nicholas’ white horse. The next morning the sugar would be gone, and in its
place an apple or orange, some nuts, and maybe some chocolate.

One of the biggest thrills she had growing up was going to Kirmes (Kirchweih-Messe,
dedication fair) . Kirmes was a big church carnival having to do with the dedication
of a church. You could go on rides, but it wasn’t free.
Gitta’s aunt and uncle took her to Schützenfest in Borken once. She learned how to
dance ballroom style at school: the waltz, the foxtrot, and the tango. She got a
new dress for the dance.
5

Maitremse
Maitremse is an old neighborhood custom particular to the city of Borken. The word
Tremse refers to the colorful bell-shaped decoration hanging over the streets in May.
The Tremse is made by decorating a wire frame in the shape of a bell with colorful
garlands, fans and paper chains, and distinctive long chains of blown-out eggshells.
In the interior hangs a white dove carved out of wood, “die Duwe”. The reason for
Tremse and the year it was first celebrated are facts that remain mysterious; it may
have its origins in a pagan celebration of Springtime, with the dove later given the
Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit.
During early post-war years the Tremsefeier (Tremse celebration) was considered a
special event, always held on May 1st. It was organized by the oldest schoolgirls in
each neighborhood, and they were called Basen (“older cousins”). Starting in April,
these older girls would mobilize the younger children to go door-to-door asking for
donations from the neighbors, or they would ask passers-by, “ein Penning för de
Tremse”. Especially in the 1930’s, one eyewitness recalls, this collection was tightly
organized; the cans were sealed and the names of collectors and their affiliations
were recorded. This then was the money the neighborhood had to fund the cost of
Maitremse.
The money was used to buy cake and cocoa. The older girls then hosted an event
for the younger children of the neighborhood on the afternoon of May 1st, where
they would sit at long tables under the Tremse, partaking of cake and punch. Die
Basen would also supervise the younger children in picking flowers in front of the
city, and singing and playing under the Tremse. Meanwhile, the age-matched boys
would work on cutting down a birch tree and raising it up for use as a Maypole. The
Maypole was decorated with glowing lanterns and the older children would gather

6

around it, sing traditional May songs (like, “Ein Mal eins ist Gott allein”), and the
teen-agers would dance around it.
Tremse was more widespread in the past than it is today. It has been documented
as occurring in Ramsdorf and Dülmen, but was first mentioned in Bocholt in 1432 in
conjunction with St. Batholomew on August 24 th. The celebration of Tremse came to
a halt during World War I, but was brought back during the 1920s and 30s. Today
Tremse is organized by adults and is limited to one afternoon before May 1 st, and the
songs that are sung today are modern, so that the children will enjoy singing and
dancing to them.

ADULTHOOD
Gitta’s first job was as an office worker (typist, shorthand) for a textile factory called
Gruters, which no longer exists. She lived at home and walked to work for two
years. She smoked cigarettes occasionally after she started working, but never got
addicted. She gave her mother half of her paycheck, 25 marks, and she joined a
book club and bought books at Bertelsmann Publishers. Then, although they never
got engaged, she married Bernie, with whom she had been in love since elementary
school. They saw each other every day in school; she thought he was very
handsome, and he gave her lots of eye contact, which she returned! Bernie claims
he checked on her grades to make sure she wasn’t “a dim bulb”. He was her first
crush, her first boyfriend, and her first kiss! On their first date they went hiking
around Borken. She liked his upbeat personality, and he liked her shy, quiet
manner. He invited her to his high school graduation dance (in ’49 or ’50) when she
was 15. He also took her to Nordeney, the biggest island in the North Sea (East
Friesian). They spent the day walking around; Bernie managed to take some lovely

7

photos of her, and he kissed her good bye at the front door. Bernie proposed in
writing to Gitta’s mother, who responded with, “See how you can handle her…”
Bernie worked at McInerney’s for a short time, then was hired by Hill Machinery in
1953. He joined the army (Korean War) from ’53 – ’55, worked for a year, then
married Gitta in Borken September 28, 1956; it was a small wedding and Bernie
paid for it. They went to Bremen for their honeymoon, then took a big boat called
“The Seven Seas” to Montreal. The trip took 11 days and Gitta was seasick for most
of it. Frank and Mary Brechting came with them; they had been visiting Paris
because Frank was in France during WWI. Her wedding trousseau consisted of: 6
sheets that did not fit the beds here, 6 towels, one suitcase full of books and
monogrammed silverware. Adolf mailed their crystal to them but a lot of it got
smashed during transport to America.

Family Life
Their first house was 2060 Sinclair in Grand Rapids, where all 5 kids lived, until the
twins were 9 months old, whereupon they moved to 1412 Worcester. They never
really talked about how many kids they wanted, but after the (adorable) twins came
along, Bernie said, 5 is enough!

8