Amazing Women

The Ephraim Palace in Berlin dedicates its exhibitions to Berlin events and history. Their current collection is about important Berlin women, who shaped our modern world. They were women a hundred years ahead of their time and they had to deal with prejudice and mockery. Most were active in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, up to the rise of fascism in the 1920’s nineteen and came from rich families. They married equally rich husbands, so the risks they took must be judged against the insurance cushion they enjoyed.

Two women caught my particular attention. The first, is the German equivalent of the Hull-born aviator Amy Johnson. Her name was Elly Beinhorn and, because she married the racing driver Bernd Rosemeyer, one researches her as Beinhorn-Rosemeyer. Bernd died in a racing accident within a few years of marriage. Elly lived to be 100, dying in 2007. Amy and Elly both took flying lessons, Amy with help from her father, Elly against the wishes of her family. She had to get by performing in displays to earn enough money for her passion. Then the long distance bug bit both women. They both flew in impossible conditions, often freezing and with no decent navigation once outside the range of radio stations. Amy was the first person to fly solo Europe to Australia and soon afterwards, Elly repeated the feat. She flew in Africa and the Middle East, making money with travelogues.

Hull  and Beverley have an Amy Johnson moth celebration. Beverley is adorned with moth art works, (colourful sculptures about 1 metre across) commemorating Amy’s life. Hull invented the idea of art works to celebrate the famous, when they commissioned a series of 40 toad sculptures to form a toad trail. The toads were sited in Hull in places connected with Philip Larkin, who, in one of his poems, likened his feelings of workplace slavery, to being a squatting toad. The choice of a moth for Amy is more transparent. She flew a de Havilland Gypsy Moth at the beginning of her career. There is a magnificent stained-glass moth, with images of her plane, in front of Norwood House in Beverley.

Elly was passionately anti-fascist, but the fame of Elly and her husband Bernd was hijacked by Hitler, who sent his condolences when Bernd died. Despite Elly’s wishes to have a non-political funeral, the top brass turned up and made the usual speeches about the great German hero Bernd Rosemeyer. Reports suggest Elly stormed from her husband’s funeral in protest. The bravery of that action makes solo to Australia seem tame.

Elly did not volunteer to fly in the Luftwaffe, unlike Amy, who signed up as a pilot in the RAF. As a woman, Amy was not permitted to fly an armed aircraft. She died in January 1941, aged 38, while flying over the Thames estuary. One version of her death, is that she was shot down by friendly fire, after twice giving the wrong recognition signal. She parachuted into the water, but was dragged into the screws of the rescue vessel in high seas. Her body was never recovered.

There is a permanent exhibition to Amy, in Sewerby Hall, on Flamborough Head, and one panel records that Amy was a lousy navigator. That makes flying over oceans and deserts especially daring and the story about giving the wrong identity signal, more likely. What a lovely scatterbrain! Both Sewerby and Berlin exhibitions display charming artefacts connected with their flying lives. Let’s hope Elly gets her permanent corner, too. Why not alongside Amy in Sewerby?

Go to Sewerby in summer. It boasts an amazing walled rose garden, children’s zoo and a cricket pitch on the cliff top. A six lands at the bottom of the cliff and at high tide the ball cannot be retrieved. At low tide one may find a mug prepared to descend over 200 steps. Go to Berlin this summer. The Ephraim Palace has a circular staircase as magnificent as the drop off Sewerby cliffs. For the duration of the exhibition, there is a reproduction of the intense self-portrait of Charlotte Berend-Corinth, framed at the bottom of the stair-well.

 

One of my favourite bike rides is across the Tempelhofer Feld, the original and now disused airport in Berlin. Elly often took off from there. One can exit the airport on its north side, cross the Columbia Damm and enter the Volkspark. This park is hilly, which is unusual in flat Berlin. One is cycling/walking on a Schuttberg, which is an artificial hill, made of rubble from bombed buildings. There are 8 such hills in Berlin and they were created by the so-called Trümmerfrauen (rubble women) after the war. There were no men available in 1945/46. They were either dead or prisoners of war. Someone had to start rebuilding the city, and so young women were offered the work. They accepted, because they received extra fat rations if they did hard physical labour. One such woman has a corner in the Ephraim Palace exhibition. She was Anni Mittelstädt. Her eldest son and her husband fell in the war. Her remaining son, 10 years old in 1945, was ill and needed extra rations. Anni joined the Trümmerfrauen in order to get the maximum rations for herself, but gave them to her son. A colleague of mine when I worked in Lingen, (birthplace of Bernd Rosemeyer) told me that as a Berlin 6 year old in 1945, his job was to hang out around the US army bases and collect the discarded margarine wrappings, take them home and use his little fingers to scrape any remaining fat from them. Anni, doubtless gave her sick son the same job.

Why is Anni celebrated among the thousands of Trümmerfrauen? She created a club for the women who worked clearing the rubble and thus, one remembers their work. Many women died. The buildings were unstable and there was no machinery. The facades were pulled down using ropes and if you couldn’t run fast enough, you were crushed under falling masonry. The masonry was sorted into recyclable bricks and rubbish. The bricks were carried by hand or wheelbarrow to a central store – the rubbish barrowed onto the Schuttberg. The Volkspark hills contain 2.5 million cubic metres of building rubbish. I need a low gear to get back up the hill to the Columbia Damm on a nice asphalt path. Imagine pushing a wooden barrow of broken bricks up a wooden plank.

The corner dedicated to Anni in the Ephraim Palace, has pictures, films and descriptions of the work those women did. Modern Berlin women are so proud of Anni, that I was energetically told off by an attendant for not spending enough time in Anni’s room. Wow! But this is what war means to people.  The attendant was really saying ‘Just don’t forget!’ The Tuareg singer and guitarist Alhousseini Anivolla, has written a song which roughly expresses the opinion, ‘When the men reach for the guns, the women and children pay the price.’ I’m sure he knows. Amy, Elly and Anni, that attendant and my margarine-wrapper colleague, would join the refrain.

 

The Tempelhofer Feld features in my novel, The Last Stop, due on Amazon in 2 weeks.

 

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