Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 23, 2024


Our 30-plus-year friendship with Bärbel began in 1991 with a chance selection of her pension - bed and breakfast - in Petersdorf, Germany. Son Matthias and friend Heidrun were managing Haus Friederike while she was away visiting her brother. Heidrun spoke little English, but Matthias was proficient. Each day, the two insisted that husband Art and I give them details of our adventures. Art's mother Donna was with us to see where her ancestors had lived in eastern Germany and Poland. With her effusive personality, she was an immediate hit.

We invited Heidrun and her son Mirko to visit us for Christmas, but Heidrun suggested it might be wiser to invite Bärbel instead of Mirko. She reasoned that her son was young and would more than likely have opportunities to visit the U.S., while this might be the only chance for her and Bärbel. The fact that Bärbel knew some English was another factor in her suggestion.

The two women were to fly to Kansas City, but Art decided at the last minute to intercept them in Chicago so we could celebrate Christmas with Donna in Appleton, Wisconsin first.

One of Heidrun and Bärbel's favorite activities was shopping. Soviet occupation of the Eastern Bloc countries between World War II and 1989 meant consumer items were in short supply and the lines to purchase them were long. Once the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, things started to change, albeit slowly at first. On more than one occasion, we dropped the two off downtown in the morning and didn't pick them up until after dark. They were like the proverbial "kids in a candy shop."

In Appleton, we had boisterous get-togethers with Art's relatives, shopped for groceries at Piggly Wiggly, and attended a Christmas Eve service because Bärbel wanted to see what one was like in the States.

On the trip to Kansas, we stopped to shop and eat at Iowa's Amana Colonies. Near Wymore, Nebraska, it was snowing so hard that Art had to stop the car and get out to determine where the highway was!

Once home, our whirlwind pace continued. We traveled to Burns to see my parents on the family farm, ate with them and my first husband's parents, and visited a friend who made quilts.

On our return journey to Manhattan, Art received a speeding ticket. The trooper was completely surprised and amused when we asked to take a picture of them with him!

More shopping and a New Year's Eve celebration with friends followed. Then, they were off for home.

Art saw both women in 1993 when he visited Petersdorf with his aunt Ione, but Heidrun died not long after from breast cancer. By then, Bärbel had met Günter. Art said he could tell the two were enthralled with each other.

I didn't see Bärbel again until 2001, when Art and I took daughters Mariya and Katie with us on their first trip to Europe. She and Günter had been married a few years by then, and they were living in his home in Nuremberg.

During the last 20-plus years, we saw Bärbel and her family multiple times, both in Petersdorf and in Nuremberg.

When we happened to be in Germany on her birthday, we were always included in family celebrations. On her 75th birthday in 2013, Art and I were invited on a family "tour" to see the places in Thuringia where she grew to womanhood and where she met her first husband Heinz, who had died a few years before the Wall came down.

Other years, we took day trips to villages in eastern Germany with Bärbel and Günter. They knew so much about the culture, history, architecture and educational system of the area. She had taught art and Günter, who had been a financial adviser for banks, was a good pencil sketcher and painter. They always seemed to know a café where we could buy local pastries and other specialties.

In 2016, we accompanied them to the huge flea market in Slubice, Poland. A few days later, we stopped by the bungalow in Petersdorf, where Bärbel served us tea, coffee, and cake with strawberries and ice cream. Three hours passed quickly, as we talked about our families, politics, technology, and this and that.

Günter died in 2018, and Bärbel moved back to her bungalow in Petersdorf.

We saw her again in 2019, 2022 and just this past summer when we had Art's cousin Kris with us. Between our not-very-good German and Bärbel's much-better English, we were able to converse about our families and trips and about her experiences as a young refugee after World War II, trying to escape the Red Army with her brother and mother.

That was our last visit. In January, we received the very sad news that Bärbel had died.

Matthias said he and his brothers complied with her wishes to have her last moments at home surrounded by family. When Art shared a few of his memories with Matthias, Matthias responded with:

Thanks again for your warm words and friendship. I think this is very much in line with a sentence she wrote and placed into her documents: "Betrachtet mich nicht als gestorben, denn ich lebe in denen, die ich von Herzen geliebt!" (Do not consider me dead, for I live in those whom I loved with my heart.)

When I put away our Christmas ornaments, I saw the tiny knitted stockings and the delicate lace ornaments she had given us. At Easter, I will put the painted wooden eggs she gave us in a basket as a centerpiece on our dining room table. Our bedroom has a small medallion Bärbel and Günter gave Art. It reads, "Unser Freund - Arthur the angel" (Our friend - Arthur the angel). In our car is the little pink "pocket angel" Bärbel gave us to keep us safe when traveling.

Rest in peace, dear Bärbel. You do live on in our hearts.

Top (l-r):Haus Friederike sign. The pension was named for Bärbel's mother; part of those who gathered for Bärbel's 75th birthday celebration; Bärbel with Art's cousin Kris and me last summer; who can resist grocery shopping in Poland when the asparagus and strawberries are in season?; Bärbel reads a book to Mariya in 1991. Bottom (l-r): Bärbel and Heidrun with the state trooper; Günter and Bärbel making supper in Nuremberg; Bärbel reading the birthday card Katie made for her; a photo from an album Bärbel shared with her as a youngster doing her schoolwork; Bärbel and Matthias enjoy some coffee. Inset: medallion given to Art.

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