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Proper attire for a night at the opera

Monday, November 20, 2006

Cousins Horst, Helga and Ingebord Grassmann.
(Walt Sehnert)
On the trip to Germany with my wife, Jean, son, Matt, and my father, Walter, we were able to make contact with a cousin of Walter's from his mother's side of the family, Horst Grassmann, of Hannover.

Horst was about the same age as Walter, but before our trip to Germany the two had never met. Like all of the German relatives we met, Horst, his wife Ingebord, and daughter, Helga, could not have been more gracious.

Horst had a very interesting story to tell. During World War II he was drafted into the German army. He found himself in the central headquarters in Berlin, as a radio operator, in the closing days of the war.

He said that they all realized that the war was lost, and the only mystery was whether the Americans or the Russians would reach Berlin first. Eventually it became apparent that the Americans had quit advancing and were waiting for the Russians to capture Berlin. So Horst took advantage of the confusion and slipped away from his post, out of Berlin, and headed west, into the Allied lines.

Horst managed to make it to a small farm near the Holland border, where he met up with his wife, Ingebord, who had been living with relatives on a small farm.

This was a very difficult time for the Germans, as it was for all the Europeans. Horst and Ingebord worked on the farm, but there was no money for pay. Indeed, there was barely enough food to keep them alive. Yet, the relatives shared what they had with Horst and Inge and they all managed to survive, subsisting almost entirely on vegetables in summer, and watery potato soup all winter.

At the end of two years on the farm, Horst, who was well over six feet tall and had been robust, weighed just over 80 pounds.

Finally Horst and Ingebord made their way to Hannover where Horst got work helping to clean up the city. (Hannover, a city of about 500,000 people was 80 percent destroyed in one 24-hour period of saturation bombing, by RAF and American bombers.)

Although Horst did not know it at the time, the rebuilding of Hannover would be his life's work. A very ambitious man, he worked during the day, and studied at night, becoming an engineer in due time. When we visited him, he occupied an important position in the city government. Somewhere along the way he had also taught himself English, and was able to communicate with us very clearly, though sometimes in rather archaic expressions, reflecting the text book English, from which he had learned.

Horst was tall, dignified and ramrod straight -- a "take charge" sort of man. At times he reminded us of the strict, no nonsense German officer of the movies, as he planned our activities. Since Horst and Inge knew that Jean was a musician they were eager to show us the best that Germany had to offer, musically speaking.

On one occasion they took us to a concert, featuring Germany's leading baritone singer. Another time they arranged for us to attend the Opera in their newly rebuilt Operahaus. This was one of the high points of the social season, and we were pleased to accompany them. But at almost the last minute, they announced that they only purchased two tickets. We would go alone.

In a very nice way they asked us what we had in the way of clothes to wear to the Opera.

My suit was acceptable, but when Jean showed them the dress she planned to wear they were adamant that it was unsuitable. But we should not worry. Ingebord had a dress for Jean that would be just right. When it turned out that the dress was half again too large, a strange green color and one with a lot of drapes and folds, Jean suggested that perhaps she should wear her own after all. They would not hear of it. Ingebord proceeded to alter it, taking it in here and there, and announced that it would do just fine.

Of course Jean did not want to hurt anyone's feelings, so she acquiesced, and we prepared to leave the house for the opera. "Ach, Jean, wait one moment!," Ingebord said, and in that moment was back with the crowning touch for her outfit -- a fur Stoll, one of those with the mink's head still attached on one end, and the feet on the other. The smell of moth balls was very apparent, but again there could be no refusal.

And so we set off for the largest event of the social season, Jean feeling like she was dressed for a Halloween party. We boarded the city bus, Jean wearing her snow boots, and carrying her dress shoes in a bag to be changed when we arrived at the Operahaus (we were assured that "everyone would arrive the same way and we should not worry."

The Operahaus was beautiful. It was one of the buildings whose restoration Horst had supervised, and of which he was very proud. And the Opera itself was the treat of a lifetime. The singers were top notch (and even if they did sing in German we were able to follow the story very easily), and the scenery was breathtaking.

That part we enjoyed immensely. The part we (Jean) did not enjoy was her dress. It's true that most of the women were splendidly gowned, and furred, but they were dressed in the present day styles. Jean felt that she was something straight out of pre-war Germany, and imagined that she was getting strange looks from the ladies in attendance -- to the extent that during the intermission she refused to go into the foyer for refreshments, where the beautiful people congregated to admire and be admired. Jean preferred to stay in her seat.

Eventually the evening was over and we again made our way, via city bus, to Grassmanns' home. Inge-bord and Helga were excited about the evening and wanted to know all the details.

Fortunately we were able to report that the evening had been something that we had only dreamed about, that we certainly had nothing so grand in Nebraska.

Finally Jean could resist no longer.

"Ingebord, do you go to the Opera often?"

"Ach, yes, we used to go very often," was her reply.

Jean persisted, "When was the last time you went to the Opera?"

"Ach, sadly, it has been years now. We haven't been to the opera since before the war."

"Yes," said Jean. "Somehow, I thought that might be the case."

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