Looking back at 2014, it is easy to remember the top stories, mostly because they were tragic, grisly, violent, or terrifying; Robin Williams, Ebola, Ferguson, Isis, Malaysia Air Flight 17. All too often the sad stories outweigh the happy ones. One story that didn’t get much airtime was this one: Nov. 9, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
During the first week in November of 2014, National Public Radio crowdsourced for stories about people who owned a piece of the Berlin Wall, the structure that imprisoned thousands of Germans, including my father’s family, preventing their exit from the German Democratic Republic, the western edge of the iron curtain. NPR wanted to hear from people who owned a piece of the wall and how they came by it.
I immediately ran upstairs to locate my three precious pieces of die Mauer. I thought of my mother, Gertrude Kertscher, her German class and a boy with a dream of coming to America from East Germany. As I held the fragments in my
hand, wonderful memories came rushing back to me.
I scoured my Rolodex and tried the address I had for Thomas Rehfeld, the young man who sent the pieces of the Berlin Wall to us. He was still living in Chemnitz, Germany, and I reached him by phone. We spoke for a long time reminiscing about his visit to the U.S. Afterwards, he emailed copies of all of the newspaper articles that were written about his visit, which he had been saving since 1990.
As the German teacher at Dover High School, my mother ran exchange programs every other year. The program always included a trip to East Berlin. In 1985, during their tour of the city, a young man followed my mother's group at a distance. When Gertrude and her students stopped for coffee, he approached them, saying he had heard them speaking English and asked if he could practice his English with them. They struck up a conversation and very quickly became friends. He stayed with them the entire day. When they neared Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Thomas said to one of the girls: “That is the gate to freedom and I’ll never be able to go through it.” (Daily Record, January 23, 1990). After spending an afternoon together, Thomas and the group parted tearfully, exchanging addresses and promising to write.
The trips to Germany continued, Thomas and the students exchanged cards, letters and gifts. He met them again in East Berlin on a subsequent trip in 1987.
In 1989 when the Berlin Wall - die Mauer - came down, Thomas chiseled off a few pieces and sent them to his American friends in the German club at Dover High School. Knowing how desperately Thomas wanted to visit the U.S., the students came up with a plan to help make his dream come true. They decided to sell the pieces of the wall to raise funds to buy his plane ticket. Thomas shipped several boxes of these Mauerstücken through a connection with the U.S. Air Force. His plane fare and all of his travel expenses were paid by the students’ sales of those pieces of the wall. My three pieces came from the German club’s “Bring Thomas to the USA” fundraiser. From the Daily Record, May of 1990: “They built a wall in 1961 that was like a prison for us East Germans and now I am able to travel with the help of the wall. It’s kind of ironic.”
Thomas came to America in May of 1990 and stayed for three months. He spent a few weeks at our house on Lake Hopatcong where I got to know him. He spoke to all of the local schools and clubs, visited Washington, D.C., New York City and worked as a housepainter. He was struck by the friendliness and generosity of the Americans he met.
From the Star Ledger, May 1990:
“Being here is a great feeling. Not so easy to describe in words. I had heard so many things about this great country—about the big cities, but to see with my own eyes, that’s a great experience. Here in America, the people are very different. Here they are more open and very emotional. There’s a very big difference.”
I am so grateful for these tangible bits of history, for Thomas’s friendship and for my mother who made all of these stories possible. She was a remarkable woman who made remarkable things happen.
Cooking is the gift from Gertrude I treasure most. It is my creative outlet, my joy and a tangible connection to my heritage. In this column, I thought I would
share a very typical German recipe with you, Beef Goulasch with Spätzle.
Cooking time – 3 hours
3 pounds well-marbled beef chuck steak with bone, trimmed of excess fat and cut into large cubes
2 large onions (about 2 cups), sliced into crescents
salt and pepper
½ cup red wine
For the gravy:
5 tablespoons flour
½ cup water
Place the onions in a Dutch oven. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add in the beef cubes, the bones and the red wine. Bring to just a simmer and let it cook for three hours. Take off the heat.
Shake the flour and water together in a small jar with a lid. Set aside.
Scoop the beef cubes and cooked onions with a slotted spoon into a large bowl and pour the cooking liquid into another bowl. Turn the heat up to high under the Dutch oven and put the drained beef cubes and onions back in. Stir and scrape the onions being careful not to burn them and, using tongs, turn the beef cubes so that they brown well on all sides. Add the cooking liquid back into the browned meat and onions. With a wooden spoon, loosen up any nice browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat down very low.
Pour the flour-water mixture a little bit at a time into the Goulasch, stirring gently until the gravy thickens. Take off heat, cover, and make the Spätzle.
2 ½ cups flour
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup cold water
Combine the ingredients in a large bowl with a wooden spoon.
Bring a large stockpot of well-salted water to a boil. Scrape the Spätzle dough into a potato ricer or a colander with large holes and press the dough into the boiling water. I use a Spätzlebrett, that I inherited from my grandmother. It looks like a large cheese grater and it is used with a metal scraper.
After the Spätzle “schwimm” (float), scoop them out of the stockpot with a slotted spoon and drain in a colander.
Note: soak the Spätzle-making equipment in COLD water to avoid a hellish cleanup afterwards.
Reheat the Goulasch for a few minutes and serve with the Spätzle, string beans or red cabbage and a salad. Serves five. Guten Appetit!