The first 18 years

Irma Gather (1903-1994) tells of her childhood and youth between 1903 and 1921.

Irma Gather (circa 1990)

The Pre-History

My father’s family comes from Wuppertal. The grandfather had a big butcher’s shop, but when he died my father, who had trained as a butcher, was only 15 years old; too young to continue the butcher’s shop. The eldest son then ran the business, and my father, as the youngest offspring, made the switch. The “Sohn” family, on the mother’s side, comes from the Bergisches Land, near Nümbrecht. The landscape is very beautiful there.

Mom and Dad met at a funeral, in the cemetery. They married Christmas 1900 in Gelsenkirchen.

My mother and her brother got married pretty much at the same time. He then went to Berlin and continued his education since he didn’t have much money at home. For a while, Mr. Sohn was also the chairman of the brokers’ association in Germany. During the Nazi era he was removed from office; he would be pro-Jewish. But after the war things picked up again for him. Professionally, he was a successful man.

My parents slowly muddled their way up. In Gelsenkirchen they first had a poultry shop and an open shop where they sold great biscuits. But since they didn’t earn enough and the third child was born, my father started a haulage business in Buhr. We moved. All I can remember from Gelsenkirchen is the shop. Our first three children were born in Gelsenkirchen and Hilde in 1906 in Buhr, where we had an apartment on the large market square. I can still see her lying in the pram. I wasn’t jealous. I only remember how once our grandmother, my father’s mother, played Santa Claus. With a mask over her face, she threw a bag of treats through the window. I got a terrible shock, but afterwards everything was fine again.

Hotel life

Since my mother was always a bit ill, we moved to the Rhine in 1907. With a mortgage and a small down payment, my parents bought the Düsseldorfer Hof, a middle-class hotel in the town of Rolandseck. We renovated thoroughly, we drove the dirt out by the cartload. My father was a tidy man and had a keen sense of beauty: Hilde inherited that from him. A unique idea, for example, was the Roland arch in the garden. We built it with lava stones from the fire-breathing mountain in Godesberg.

In the garden you sat under Spanish grapes. In the summer, we children used to stand on the chairs and nibble on them. There was also a crescent-style arbor in the garden. Four stairs led up. It was completely surrounded by hedge roses and there were six tables for our guests to have coffee at.

When we moved to the Düsseldorfer Hof in Rolandseck, I was five, Robert was six and a half and Hilde was two. In one photo we four children are standing with our father in front of the arbor.

We had all kinds of fruit: sugar-sweet yellow plums, apples of paradise and peaches! When we ate them, the juice ran down our hands!

There were two small ponds for our ducks and geese. Between the two ponds lay a bed of flowers. A little higher up in the garden we had gooseberries, fenugreeks and plums. My mother canned a lot of fruit: currants, strawberries, sweet and sour fenugreeks…

If we crossed the street, we were right on the Rhine. However, there was still the garden of the rich people. But down to the left you were right on the Rhine. That’s where the coffee ships sailed: Cologne-Düsseldorf steamers. There were neither cars nor buses back then, so day trippers from Cologne and Bonn came to us on the coffee train or coffee ship and spent a lovely afternoon.

The summers were hot. We were often out of heat and didn’t have to go to school. At the back of the garden we had three small, black and white checkered houses, that was the chicken coop. The breeds were kept separate: small bantams that my father brought with him, red Icelandic and white Rhineland. The hen with the little ones had an extra spot for themselves. My mother and the other women traded the chickens among themselves. When I was seven, we once had a wicked mother hen that would peck at the head of her chicks until they were dead. I can’t forget that. A malicious mother, that also exists in animals.

We also had a hunting dog, as well as a carousel and a slide.

And then the forest! In the forest, where we were looking for wild strawberries and blackberries, it was like a fairy tale. Otherwise, in the summer we were always in the water: sun, water and forest, a very healthy time.

The winter, on the other hand, was hard. I fell on my butt at least ten times on black ice, but I couldn’t say: “Teacher, it’s black ice, that’s why I can’t come.” I like the harsh manners of the time. If you were late, you had to wait at the door for ten minutes. Then I was afraid of being late because I didn’t want to stand at the door in front of the whole class.

In order to attract larger parties, my parents hired a dance teacher named Weisskirchen in the summer. The first daughters from Bonn and the surrounding area appeared, wrapped in white clothes, in our hotel for dance and etiquette lessons. Hilde and I, as innkeeper children, watched the goings-on from the door. I can still see the ballet master in front of me: tall and slim, just like in the film! “And one, two, three, quadrillion everything…”

Later my parents founded a carnival association. The head gardener of Consul Schnitzler from Oberwinter was the president. Another character was Herr Bauer. Our club had exactly one car (!), not much compared to the city, but I found it much nicer. They drove the car to Rolandseck, Rolandswerth, Rolandseck-Oberwinter. We had meetings in the evenings. We had a hall big enough for that. A lot was improvised and therefore didn’t have to cost a lot: empty beer barrels, planks and a carpet over them and a table was ready. The carnival associations from the surrounding area came to visit the meetings, which began in November. That ran until Shrove Monday. The meetings were funnier and less political than today, all under the alias Kaiser.

The Emperor’s Birthday

The Emperor’s birthday was on January 27th. In Oberwinter we performed round dances with the whole school. All girls had long hair back then and we wore black and white hair bands to honor the emperor and celebrate the day. The boys also wore a bow, everyone was happy to take part. Discipline was just as strict as that of the soldiers. As the tallest, I was always a wingman. Then we sang, mostly in three parts:

The Emperor is a dear man
he lives in Berlin…


The flag is flying black-white-red,
from our ship’s mast…

The emperor’s birthday dinner, it was always a topic: every year at a different one in the hotel. Of course, everyone made an enormous effort. But then they all came. It was wonderful… a wonderful meal.. and everything possible was discussed, what exactly I don’t remember today. It was always quite fun! I remember that they always said that so-and-so always ate so much, I can still remember that. And my mother always had to make handmade speeches. Lots of preparation; when we went to school in the morning, she was already in bed and memorizing the prologues. She didn’t like doing it, but: business, business…!

She even went to the Bütt in Cologne. Anyone who was in the Cologne Bütt back then was something. My mother was tall and beautiful, she looked great. Once she left as a bunch of grapes. Wonderful! With a big hat full of grapes and a costume in golden yellow like the wine, and there were grapes everywhere. Well, we as kids adored them. What our mother could do!

The New Year’s Ball

Somehow a twenty mark piece ended up in a Berlin bale. The person who found the twenty mark piece was then ball queen or ball king. We baked so many Berliners! They used to cost five pfennigs. They always just opened it up. I remember that in one corner everything was full of Berliners. They only wanted the twenty mark piece.

The Battle Festival

The next day we fed the Berliners to the pigs. We had two pigs. We slaughtered one of them in the spring and one in the fall, and then there was a slaughter festival in town every time. In such a small place you can always come up with something to get people involved.

The Bowling Club

And Friday came the bowling club. Then there were potato pancakes for the whole column, because we had everything. We were a medium-sized hotel, not a fine one, because they never have a bowling alley. As a result, we also had more sales.

The arrival of the coffee ships

When ships came in the summer.. they always called my father the friendly gentleman from the gas station, that was even in the newspapers before.. then he stood at the door and called:

“Come in everyone, big zoological garden!!”

People all came in and then there was always something special: Homemade something like this, homebaked something like that. One of my father’s sisters was a wonderful baker because she was a receptionist in quite a few royal houses. My mother was more at the buffet and watched the money.

The beginning of the war in 1914

And suddenly the war came. I can still see the horse. Then a horse rode up with the police and had orders for my father. He was only 38 or 39 with Krin. Every ten minutes someone would walk past the tracks with a rifle at their side. Since the military moved a lot of material by train, it was important to protect the route against assassination attempts. The railroad guards were not concerned with catching deserters.

The blind fanaticism

The enthusiasm among the soldiers was boundless: “Germany wins!!”. They hung on the trains like grapes to get to the front as quickly as possible. 40 years without war, finally the time had come. “Germany, Germany above all!” They painted the trains, I’ve never seen such enthusiasm in my life as they did back then. And that will never come again. So many boys fell back then. My father was too realistic to fall into such primitive fanaticism. He knew how to find pressure posts, just like Philipp. Otherwise he would never have come back.

The commercial school in Bonn

We had an awful lot to learn! When I went to the business school in Bonn, I was already on the train at six o’clock. There was only one train: at 6:10 am. First I walked to the Rolandseck train station and then I waited another hour and a half in Bonn until school started. There were more students in the waiting room. There were always more boys than girls. We learned or we had fun. I wasn’t afraid! I preferred to take part. We were around 15, 16, 17 years old.

a prank

At the train station there was a furniture store with an old lady. We went in and I asked, feigning genuine interest, “Do you have night potties, too?” That was fun.

The kiss

Robert, my eldest brother, always went with me. When he went to class he kissed the teacher first. He was such a handsome, tall guy, and it was just for fun, it wasn’t evil.

After school

In Hohenzollern, where the first cannon was fired in Bonn, we sometimes went to a café together after school, because our train always didn’t return until three o’clock. School was usually over at one o’clock, so we always had about two hours.

The cruel penalties

The teachers were generally very strict and forced us to do an excessive amount of homework. If someone messed something up, they had to hold out their fingers and get hit with a stick. It hurt a lot. The boys were pulled up by the hairs until they couldn’t take it anymore and yelled ‘Ouch’. Robert got way too many hits but just laughed. Once his pants burst. He was wearing a pair of little blue linen panties. The teacher hit as hard as he could. There were built-in inkwells in the table, with a sliding lid, we didn’t know any fountain pens back then, and Robert called out: “Mr. Teacher, Mr. Teacher, my Pillemann is hanging in the inkwell!” His pants had burst. The teacher could have broken him, but Robert would never have cried in his life. Man, Robert was tough!

The other brother was good and nice. He wasn’t that smart and had to learn more and harder until he could finally do something. Robert could do everything and he never learned. He knew almost everything.

How many times have I done the tasks for him! Actually only out of fear that he could be hit so badly again, out of compassion. My mother, of course, couldn’t deal with him at all, especially after my father was in the war.

I’m fine, your turnip!

Robert went into the army voluntarily at the age of 16, in 1916. My mother was partly happy, partly worried because she didn’t know if and when he would come back. Sometimes he didn’t write for three or four months and she often cried for him: “The boy died… the boy died…” She asked the battalion, the company. No, no, everything would be fine. Suddenly a card came. Robert stands on a small field locomotive and shovels coal.

“Dear mother, I’m fine, greetings, your turnip!”

The misery during the war

Once, during the war, we went with the school to the Mount of Olives in the Siebengebirge. There we could hear the thunder of Verdun. Stalingrad and Verdun are a bit similar. One drank the other’s piss to stay alive. Awful.

When they retreated, they were just racks.

In the last year of the war we were also hungry. Glad we had our dad! First he was with Trenk, horse supply, and when the opportunity arose, he became a butcher. As he was working in Charleville, he would ask travelers if they would be so kind as to lend him their leave card so he could mail a package to his family. So he was able to send us meat. He would send us fat or chunks of bacon wrapped in a bubble for camouflage and cooked it anyway. The hunger was so great that nobody can imagine. You were also not allowed to tell anyone that you had something to eat.

And then, when the war was over, came the terrible flu. 20 million Germans died. In Cologne, the epidemic was particularly devastating. There was no medication or treatment. We lost the war and they cut everything off from us.

The soldiers also brought dysentery with them. This disease causes excruciating pain and you only have to go to the bathroom for six weeks. The only thing you can eat is mint tea and rusks. The dysentery makes you totally exhausted.

The hotel becomes a hospital

One of the soldiers had his leg amputated. Man who screamed like crazy. The whole hall was full of wounded soldiers. The nurses and the hospital were paid for by the state. We got 50 cents for each bed. For a while that was my parents’ only source of income, but we also got food from the soldiers’ kitchen. In the end, our family consisted of five children.

The end of the war

Yes, and then the last German soldiers drove back, so emaciated that the horses almost fell over on the road. Once we stole a sausage from a military truck. She was as hard as a rock. It was impossible to eat them. How should our soldiers feed themselves on such rations? Who knows what stuff was in there! At times we even ate rats, rat liver sausage from Hamburg. Hunger hurts. That was in 1918.

The last soldiers drove over on the ferry. Those who did not make it halfway across the Rhine were taken prisoner. The whole village stood by the Rhine and trembled for the last few soldiers of ours.

Honnef was free. But we belonged to the arch of the bridge. Germany was divided into French, American and English sections. Some swam over to Honnef at night, into freedom, to escape captivity. Robert the turnip sometimes brought people to Honnef by boat. He did a lot for other people.

In the second war he saved the whole of Rolandseck. He locked everyone in the castle. The train station was there then. Now it is a large museum of Bonn, under monument protection. The family of Paul Vincent, my friend from school, had a restaurant there. He and Robert had summoned all the villagers to the castle. My brother ran towards the Americans alone, arms outstretched, and called out to them. I don’t remember what, but his English saved him. Not a single shot was fired in Rolandseck. They didn’t get anyone out, he fought for the people.

The other day he was still in the newspaper, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Many sent him cards and flowers. He didn’t know fear. Once the ship on which he was sailing went down. But he didn’t go down. He had this strong will to live.

My father came back from Russia shortly before the end of the war in 1918. He wore a long beard.

The American occupation

And when the soldiers were halfway across the Rhine in the first war, the band played Deutschland, Deutschland über alles and we cried. I didn’t know what to expect under the occupation. And the first check came up on the street, motorbike with an attendant.

Rolandseck had about a hundred inhabitants; there were only villas and hotels. In the evening we had a garrison of two thousand men in town. In no time 35 soldiers were in the house, there was no time to think. They walked around the house giving instructions in English. Move beds together, four men here, three men there. We all had to go to one room. Father and mother had their own room with little Leni.

But then we were very, very….. struck by how nice they were. On the first evening they brought a whole bucket of lard.

Americans often ate sauerkraut with bacon and jam. Afterwards we cooked for them too. My father slaughtered horses and cows. At that time they were running around freely, they didn’t belong to anyone. The Americans had suffered many hardships during the war and they tasted it twice as much. We had canned beans by the barrel. We bought stacks of cakes from friends in Bonn who had a large pastry shop. We called them foam shit because there weren’t many good ingredients back then: most of it was foam!

That’s where we made our first money. I learned arithmetic at the buffet: one paid in francs, one in cash. Herbert inherited a lot from him, for sure! He got up at 5 or 6 in the morning and walked around. My mother slept longer and stayed up later in the evenings.

The wine shop after the war

After all the work and trouble with the soldiers and the nurses, my mother was ill. So we sold the old house, bought a new one and renovated it. It is no longer ours, but it still stands today. It had a wonderful rock cellar with a large gate through which water ran down. We expanded this cellar and started a wine shop. My father had already started trading in wine during and shortly after the war: he kept falling on his feet!

Before us, the Mehler family had a Kuckie factory in the house, as they used to call shoe polish. The Mehlers went to Cologne and had an automobile agency there. They later offered us a Renault agency in Essen. We slaughtered everything, and where the Kuckie were, wine was always packed in crates. When I was rinsing bottles and bottling wine, I was sometimes soaked to the navel. There was little labor after the war and we did as much as we could ourselves.

Gottschalk & Murmann against the rest of the world

We picked up barrels from the train station with the wagon. If it was no longer possible, I always had to come: “Irma, you have to come back! They can’t get the barrel up there.” I just said: “What?!… you can’t get the barrel up there?…”, put me down: “And one… two… hurry!” and the barrel was up. I had bear powers! Also at school, at the border ball game, the girls mostly won against the boys. When Amalie or I got the ball, the boys already knew: we can’t run as far as they throw the ball away.

Robert spent a year in Battenburg in a wine company to train as an office clerk. The little brother Erich went to the viniculture school in Ahrweiler. We had a little more money then. I went to economics school in Eisenach for a year. I came back in October 1920 and in January I met Philipp. By the following October I was already married!

The summer of 1921 was incredibly hot, I looked like a Negro! There was also a lot of fun with the wine shop. The Hotel Metropol in Königswinter only had one son named Thomas. You always wanted him to marry Hilde. In the evening he drove up in the boat, with a band and full of wine. We hung lanterns and drove up the Rhine with the illuminated boat and chapel. The moon was shining, we danced and had a lot of fun.

The household school 1919/20

We were at the boarding school in Eisenach with 110 girls. It was also a seminar for domestic teachers. Everyone had their daily schedule, one did the broom closet, another the hallway… and then there was coffee! It was sparse: malt coffee, two slices of bread and jam, no butter. Then we had to work all day. I have remained true to three of my friends from that time for the rest of my life. Leni Barbell and Frau Dokter came from Thuringia, and Peule from Heidelberg.

First we had cooking, then teaching materials. This was about the nutritional value of flour, for example. Slaughtering meat and making sausages were also part of the program. We worked in groups of two. The basic rule was to always keep the table clean. The classes were different. Some only went for half a year, others two years. There are parents who say, ‘The main thing is that the child is in good hands there.’

We hadn’t heard anything about eight hour days. At noon and in the afternoon we had two hours free and went for walks, sometimes including natural history lessons. City leave was limited to one hour. Those who did not come back on time faced a certain punishment. The boarding school was located on the mountain, on Bornerstrasse. It was a big, long building, and an extra building where the teachers were trained. We learned parties, set the table and decorate. Since I was the only one from the Rhineland, it was my job to make carnival decorations. We even took apart sewing machines so we knew how they worked. Mrs. Börrlin headed our class.

Trude the genius

One of my friends was Trude Herrmann from Berlin-Rathenau. Her husband returned ill from the war and died. That hit her hard. I learned more from her than from the whole school, she was a genius. She was probably a few years older than me. She painted, patched and cooked, she could do everything. She was very quick with men. A man-hot noodle she was! She photographed and developed herself — that was very progressive at the time. The thousandth could not do that. Her parental home wasn’t overly rich, from home they had to make a s themselves!” She grabbed a pencil, made a few sketches, bought black linen, wool and then she made the writing case.

At her home, with her parents, she had made a hairdresser’s toilet out of wine crates, and in no time at all she conjured up a sofa cushion or a cube from silk and scraps of fabric. Personally, I may not have always been on the same page with her, but there’s no denying her genius.

Minna and the wrong cream

At boarding school we often laughed all night long. I really learned how to make coffee from the beautiful Peule Schmücker.

The others called me Minna because I had a good character and was always willing to help. I was balanced and fun. I wasn’t allowed to make coffee, that made me angry. Nevertheless, I maintained diplomatic silence. Most liked me. Sometimes they sang for me.

Irma, you are my sun, hollahiaho
everything screams bliss, hollahiaho

Of course Trude knew how to make fake cream again and I “obtained” the things she needed in the kitchen: whisk, bowl, semolina flour…

adventures in the city

Twice Trude and I stayed in town over time to meet boys. We got caught. One of our directors was called jellyfish because it was so fat and the other horsefly, apparently the efficient one…

Trude with the big mouth! Now that it was important, she said: “You go in, you go in!” – “Yes, I’ll go in,” I said, “she won’t kill me!” The directors scolded us and we were punished curfew for weeks.

Others went out at night, we stood on the balcony and waved when the coast was clear to come back. There were curious girls among us who wanted to experience something. Fifteen-year-old Lole from Vienna, however, was naive. She had a single room and was probably from a very rich family. With the candle she stood outside on the balcony while below the young men from the high school sang:

the women of the world,

are worse than money

with her love…

Lit by the candle, Lole in her flimsy negligee was a gorgeous sight for the suitors.

The visit to the capital

After boarding school I visited my uncle in Berlin for three weeks. That was in November/December 1921. He always wanted to adopt me, he was so fond of me. Of course, I also met my friends from Berlin. One was from Charlottenburg and one from Oranienburg. Drinking coffee at Café Kranzler. I don’t know how I managed to get through the subway. A wonder. My mother’s brother, Willi Sohn, ordered a clairvoyant. He asked Ms. Rose: “What will happen to my Irmchen?” She looked at me: “Next Christmas Irmchen will be married. She will marry well and have three children.” And that’s how it happened.

Pictures of Rolandseck and the Murmann family

Catherine card, by Nikolai v. astudin
Rolandseck, Nonnenwerth Island and Siebengebirge
The Murmann family managed the white Düsseldorfer Hof from 1907

Rolandseck, in the garden of the Düsseldorfer Hof around 1910
(from left to right: Erich, Lisette, Hildegard, father Robert, Irma, son Robert)
The parents

Father Robert Murman
Born June 14, 1876 in Wuppertal-Elberfeld,
died May 24, 1937 in Remagen.

Mother Lisette Murmann (nee son)
Born September 24, 1877 in Hupperichroth,
died November 20, 1925 in Godesberg.
The couple married in Gelsenkirchen in December 1900 and had five children.

The children of the Lisette and Robert Murmann family

Son Robert Murman
Born September 2nd, 1901 in Gelsenkirchen, died in Rolandseck around 1990.

Daughter Irma Murman
Born April 1, 1903 in Gelsenkirchen, died June 5, 1994 in Mettmann

Son Erich Murmann (with mother Lisette)
Born September 17, 1904 in Gelsenkirchen, died in Rolandseck around 1950

Daughter Hildegard (Hilde) Murmann
Born February 23, 1906 in Buhr, died in Bochum around 1980

Daughter Lieselene (Leni) Murmann
Born June 29, 1915 in Rolandseck, died August 2, 1954 in Berlin

How this pamphlet came about

I compiled the text based on an interview from 1981. I taped the interview with my grandmother, who had a great talent for storytelling and to share her eventful life with others.

Twelve years later, on the occasion of Grandma Irma’s ninetieth birthday, on April 1, 1993, I transcribed the interview and presented it as a gift.

In 2002, Margot Rudolph-Gather revised the text. In the appendix we have added some pictures of Rolandseck and the Murmann family.

I wish all readers a lot of fun discovering a time long gone.

Berlin, March 2004
John Philipp Gather