The Third Reich encouraged large families, and in fact rewarded and created idols of women with large families.
Women with at least four children received medals. If they bore at least eight children and were either Aryan or women from absorbed Germanic countries such as Austria or Danzig, they received the highest honor, a gold medal. Those with six children earned a silver cross, for four children, a bronze cross. Many citizens were needed to provide workers and soldiers, and to populate occupied and annexed territories. I believe I overheard my mother once mentioning she would like to have the bronze Mutterkreuz. Ownership granted higher value rationing cards.
Frau Haberland, who lived near us, had been awarded the gold Mutterkreuz, Cross of Honor of the German Mother, for having eight children. Her loud shrieks at her unruly children beied her physique. She was tiny, less than five feet tall, and her hair was generally uncombed and her appearance sloppy. Most of the time, when she stormed out the back door of their apartment, she was still in her nightgown. To me, she looked just like the witch in my Hansel and Gretel book. When I saw her children playing outside, they appeared dirty, and they spoke in an uneducated street jargon.
Inside the Hieke store, among a number of waiting and gossiping women, she was not visible because of her shortness. However, I detected her because she stood alone, excluded from the gossip. Once I overheard another woman say, “That woman is dirty and smells so bad.”
“Stay away from them. They are a bad influence,” my father said. What’s a bad influence. I should probably find out. But I obeyed my father and never asked why.
When Frau Haberland entered the store, the usual group of four or five gossiping women suddenly hushed. But they chattered jealously as soon as she left. Because gold cross mothers received many more food rationing stamps than the other women, who had to do with much less, they were bitter and despised the honored women. That was the exact opposite effect expected by the Nazi government, which held mothers with many children in high esteem.
In June 1941, classes were ordered to assemble in the school yard. Teachers formed a half circle around our principal, who announced that the glorious German Wehrmacht (Armed Forces) had attached the Soviet Union with 134 full fighting divisions, more than three million men, on a broad front reaching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea to the south. Our troops were supported by 650,000 men from allies Finland and Romania.
“The objective of this war effort is the destruction of the Soviet Union and permanent elimination of the Communist threat. We will seize prime land within Soviet borders for long-term German settlement,” the principal said.
He continued. “You each have to do everything you can to support our effort. Be proud to be a German, and show it. The school is supporting the state in every way possible.”
Shortly after that, we were called for another assembly. Our school was chosen to become active producers of raw material for silk production. Our product would be used to make two types of military parachutes by a factory in Cologne.
That directive drastically changed our biology curriculum. Previously, we maintained a garden tract beside the schoolyard. Students used hand spades to plant and harvest various herbs,carrots, bush beans, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, kale, cauliflower, rhubarb, and spinach, as well as strawberry and gooseberry bushes. Commercial fertilizer and pesticides were not available. We students spread horse manure to fertilize and we hand-picked potato bugs off the leaves.
“These bugs are being dropped by our enemies from British war planes to try to starve us,” teachers told us. My friends and I questioned that fact secretly in our minds because we had never seen any airplanes in all the war years so far. Goerlitz was far east in Germany, unreachable by Allied bombers.
We boys in class welcomed the change from fruit and vegetable farming to sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms. We sometimes carried worms in our pockets and decided it would be more interesting.
We planted thousands of mulberry bushes not only in our garden but up the street a mile toward the railroad tracks. School officials received thousands of silk moths, kept in the teacher’s conference room in cartons and crates on top of the huge table in the room. We students placed about 100 silk moths in each container. They were stacked and kept under a constant temperature of about 22 degrees Celsius (72 Fahrenheit) in the darkened room. Within a few days, each moth laid 300 to 400 eggs the size of the head of a pin, and then died.
The 40 cartons in the room produced an estimated 1.6 million eggs, incubated for 10 days until they hatched into larval caterpillars, each a quarter of an inch long. We students became a military machine to collect mulberry leaves for the growing silkworms. Children from various classes walked the country roads to pick young twigs with leaves, carrying them in their arms to throw into the cartons. Each larva eats 50,000 times its initial weight in plant material and after about six weeks, become about three inches long and 10,000 times heavier than when hatched.
Entering the room became an ordeal for students. Upon opening the door, our nose was attacked with a strong stench, and we covered our ears from the rasping muching sounds of more than a million silkworm larvae.
Like ants, termites and cows, these greens-eating creatures do nothing but munch, poop and fart. We tried to hold our breath during deliveries but could not avoid coming up for air, followed by frantic gagging. One girl in our class was excused from leaf delivery because she threw up. The boys tried to play it tough, but we paid with extended coughing spells and nausea.