Unexamined Lives

The story of the 20th century as lived by residents in the Derbyshire village of Borrowash


Only Connect – Elvira Poulter

‘The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the boundary?’ (Pablo Casals).

When ‘Unexamined Lives’ started to take shape in 2011, it was sometimes difficult for interviewees to understand what it was all about. Should they talk about buildings or people? Did those people have to be Borrowash residents, past or present? What about people who were linked to the village in another way? Now, five years and 34 written Lives later, the word that most nearly sums up the essence of the project is ‘connection.’ Anthony Heron, who with Paul Hart has conducted most of the interviews, describes the concept in this way:

‘Unexamined Lives’ only works if you look at it rather as you’d look at a train station; something that connects people for a moment in time before they go their separate ways and arrive at different destinations. What we are doing is examining the significance that Borrowash has for them – wherever they find themselves now.’

This approach has taken us beyond the boundaries of one Derbyshire village, across oceans and time spans as the 19th century became the 20th century that itself gave way to the 21st. The Life of Elvie Poulter shows just how ‘Unexamined Lives’ works.

2014 was a unique year because it marked the centenary of the outbreak of a war that changed the world and everyone in it irrevocably. We researched the background behind the time-worn names on the Ockbrook and Borrowash War Memorial and struck gold with Borrowash resident, Walter Day; who died amidst the carnage at Passchendale on 11th October, 1917. I wrote about Walter in a World War One remembrance article for ‘The Derby Telegraph’ and this resulted in a phone call from Brian Day, Walter’s great nephew, who lives with his wife Maureen in the Cornish village of Menheniot. Brian knew little about his great uncle beyond the name, but talked vividly about another Walter and another war. ‘German Walter’ was a Prisoner of War who lived in the Alvaston camp, near to Brian’s childhood home in Derbyshire, during World War Two. After the war, when the national mood began to incline towards reconciliation, Walter was befriended by Brian’s parents who visited his camp and invited him and a fellow POW to share the Day’s Christmas dinner. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between a German family and its English counterpart and I was delighted to make contact via Brian with Dr Walter Greiner then in his nineties who told me the story of his wartime experiences and his wife Anita’s flight from the encroaching Russian army:

‘She was a secretary in Konigsberg. She fled when the Soviets came to East Prussia, to Berlin. The very long distance to Berlin she had to walk- it took more than four weeks. Very dreadful to remember.’

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When my account of Walter’s experiences appeared in ‘The Derby Telegraph,’ it struck a chord with Wirksworth reader, Peggy Waters. The former Peggy Cairnie from Hyde in Cheshire joined the Shropshire Land Army in World War Two aged 19. On her first day, she met the man who would become her future husband. By the mid 1960s, the Waters were living in Hong Kong and enjoying a vibrant social life with a couple of similar age; Tommy Poulter and his German wife, Elvie. During trips to the swimming baths, or maybe at one of Elvie’s favourite bingo sessions, the women reminisced about the war. Elvie’s account of her flight from the Russian advance upon Konigsberg in 1944 made a strong impression upon Peggy:

‘I left Konigsberg in 1944, trying to escape from the Russians. We stayed with my sister’s people and then asked to be evacuated because at that time, you had to have permission to travel and we couldn’t say that we were going to stay there; we had to pretend we were going on holiday and once we were there, we stayed. We got evacuated on three different farms – there were my two sisters and my auntie; my mother and grandmother decided to stay behind and they didn’t leave Konigsberg until January 1945 and we never heard from them until March.’

Life took its course, bringing Peggy to Derbyshire and Elvie to Harrogate but they continued to keep in touch. By 2014, Elvie was a widow and had not seen Peggy for 13 years although they shared the occasional telephone call. Now, for Peggy, Walter Greiner’s account of his wife’s wartime ordeal reminded her of Elvie’s own flight from Konigsberg. Might Anita and Elvie have met in 1944? Could the two have even been friends? Peggy was intrigued and contacted ‘The Derby Telegraph’. Two months later, Anthony Heron and Paul Hart set off to Harrogate to interview Elvie Poulter, for ‘Unexamined Lives.’

Elvie Marholz was the youngest child in her family, and a self-confessed Daddy’s girl:

‘My mother came from a large family because her parents were on a big river barge. She was looking after the family a lot and she only wanted one child; then she had another one and then after 11 years, another one. She had no time for me. I spent a lot of time with my Dad and he had a lot of patience with me and I can just imagine her saying ‘Well, you want to take her, you have her!’

Her father had suffered a serious head wound in the First World War and worked as a foreman before dying suddenly of a brain haemorrhage just a year before Elvie’s flight from Konigsberg. The upsetting nature of the death was intensified because Mr Marholz’s doctor insisted that he had died of a heart attack and in the midst of her grief, Elvie’s mother was forced to contest the diagnosis. If her husband’s death could be proved to be related to his war wound, she would be eligible for a widow’s pension; if, not she would not. Fortunately, for the family, Elvie’s brother in law stepped in:

‘My brother in law was in the Medical Corp and spoke to his doctor, so they had to open my Dad up again and after six weeks, they sent his brain to Berlin. Anyway, it was a brain haemorrhage and that was just a year before we left Konigsberg.’

Many years later, Elvie returned to Konigsberg and visited what had been the cemetery where the father she had loved (as well as her grandmother and a niece) had been buried. She observed the site and its changes with mixed feelings:

‘It was flattened. All the stones were taken away and I asked this old Russian – I said ‘This used to be a cemetery, you know.’ He said yes it was, but they’d made it a playground. Kids were playing on top of my Dad’s grave – but I always say I don’t blame them … a lot of things were done wrong, weren’t they?’

In her own way, Elvie was articulating the thoughts of Walter Greiner:

‘This war was unnecessary; it was started by Germany and was dreadful and painful to us and all the surrounding countries.’

and in her late eighties, she is still struggling to make sense of the atrocities and understand the way that she and others in Germany thought at the time.

‘You see, sometimes I think, do the people on top always know what they are doing, or do they look back in hindsight and say they shouldn’t have done that? I read a book of Hermann Goring’s life and he was a pilot in the First World War and he said that Germany was very frightened of the Communists and always when the country is in need, the Communists come in, don’t they?’

For Elvie and her friends, life at the time seemed very different and hindsight was irrelevant in a climate of Nazi propaganda:

‘Then you know, I think Hitler was seen as the better option – but when I look back – I mean, if I said to you that I did belong to Hitler Youth…’

To young people like Elvie Marholz in days gone by, ‘Hitler Youth’ was about anything but politics and most closely resembled a course in healthy living with a strong emphasis on volunteering and public-spirited behaviour:

‘We didn’t do any politics, we did hard work! In the winter, we had to go for the old people to get coal on our sledges; we had to visit soldiers – kids of 10 years old, visiting wounded soldiers, talking to them; collecting money and herbs for medicine. You know, we had to pick them and dry them and they would be 2lbs in weight – well, 2lbs is a heck of a lot of herbs!’

Healthy minds went hand in hand with healthy bodies (we did get a lot of sport and I did like that) and Elvie describes her childhood as idyllic:

‘We had a lovely life as children.’

It is hard not to concur when she talks about the high standard of education at her very progressive school; a place where learning was fun and teachers were enthusiastic and responsible:

‘When I first came to England, we were far more advanced where I grew up than they were. The headmaster was very progressive and the school had a piece of land where we learned about growing things; we had to go potato picking and because we only had morning school, the teachers had to put a lot of effort into everything. We had our own swimming pool for the whole town, just for children to teach them to swim and each school had to take turns in providing a teacher for a month so that we could learn to swim. At seven years old I had three certificates because it didn’t cost anything, it was all free.’

Konigsberg itself was a pleasant place to live with its own opera house, cathedral, concert hall, playhouse and zoo as well as plenty of colleges and commercial colleges. It was a university city too; a German intellectual and cultural centre, but the thousands of Polish and Jewish people interned there by the Nazis were existing (rather than living) in appalling conditions.

Yet the 15 year old Elvie saw things very differently:

‘We experienced the Russian Army coming in and taking over. It was a frightening thought – there was so much propaganda and I think the biggest thing was always for a woman, hiding from the Russians. There were a lot of rapes going on – rapes for watches. It was rapes and watches for the Russians because a lot in the Russian Army were very primitive. They had never seen a watch in their life! Mongols, and some Russians – the first thing they used to say was ‘Yuri, Yuri’ which meant you had to hand your watch over. Sometimes they didn’t know that you had to wind it up to make it go, so they just got another one and some of them had a row of watches on their arms.’

Elvie left Konigsberg in 1944 ‘trying to get away from the advancing Russian Army’ and it was easier said than done:

‘We stayed with my sister’s people in law, and then asked to be evacuated because at that time, you had to have permission to travel and we couldn’t say that we were going to stay there, we had to pretend we were going on holiday and once we were there, we stayed. We got evacuated on three different farms – there were my two sisters and my auntie but my mother and grandmother decided to stay behind and they didn’t leave Konigsberg until January 1945 and we never heard from then until March.’

Elvie and her family were living just outside Dresden when the Russians took over. Night time curfews were imposed but the German teenagers tried to make the best of it, playing records in their little youth club and trying to ignore the provocative behaviour of the Russian soldiers, brought in to spoil the fun by their Commissar:

‘He used to bring them in from the village where we lived and they were drunk, they used to spit on the floor and they were awful but we couldn’t stop them coming.’

Sometimes the youth club dances overran the curfew hour and then returning home safely could not be guaranteed. On one occasion, Elvie and a 16 year old boy were attempting to cross the road after curfew and were spotted by two Russian soldiers who were leaving a pub. The soldiers; a private and a sergeant, were not in the mood for leniency (even though the people in the pub could all vouch for Elvie) and decided upon a show of authority. Elvie was to be hauled up in front of their senior officers and then who knew what would happen to her? The soldiers put her in their wagon and set off. Despite her terror, Elvie determined upon escape:

‘I knew I jolly well wasn’t going! Anyway, halfway down the road, we turned into this farm way and one of them got off the wagon and was doing something to the horses and I knew something was going to happen and the private said to me ‘Quick – run! (pointing to his sergeant) ‘because he is no good!’

She didn’t need to be asked twice and started to run but the sergeant saw her and whipped out his gun:

‘Just as I was turning onto the main road, he shot and I thought, I must run like mad because he can’t , but he caught me again and it was right in front of the Post Office where people were living there and the windows were open. They heard the shot and he was so mad that I had run away and he still had his pistol. He just hit me over the head and I thought I was going to die, the blood was rushing down. All the blood was gushing in my face.’

Elvie was convinced that she was dying but this was not her uppermost fear:

‘I thought, whatever am I going to tell my mother? She will go mad! I couldn’t go to my mum with all this blood dripping down me you know.’

Fortunately a friend was on hand with a plaster and Elvie managed to satisfy her mother’s curiosity by saying she had banged her head on the way home. Next morning, however, her story was in ruins when her aunt arrived:

‘She used to get all the news and she said to my Mother, ‘the Russians picked her up last night.’

Mrs Marholz then determined to march Elvie off to the doctor ‘to see whether I had been raped.’ Elvie was able to convince her family that there was no need because everybody had witnessed the incident with the soldier and there was no way a public rape could be hushed up, but it seemed to symbolise the precarious nature of life under Russian rule. There were other privations too; food was scarce and so was money:

‘I hadn’t been able to work but if you wanted coupons, food coupons you had to find a job and I worked on a farm where we lived – of course, being a city girl, I had never worked on a farm but I did it for food, never for money.’

It was time to leave Konigsberg for a fresh start in West Germany and although Elvi’s mother, now widowed, was not yet ready to take a step into the unknown, Elvi decided to make the journey even though she knew she might never see her mother again:

‘I said that I would go on my own because one of my sisters had already got to the West-the other one refused to go but we did put our names down and we went by transport.’

Beforehand, those bound for the West were holed up in filthy, disease-ridden camps:

‘We had to wait about four weeks in this camp to get the allowance And it was like old army camps, barracks; women and men were all mixed up in beds and the Army brought a lot of disease in and scabies. I was covered with them and we had no medication, no cream or anything.’

and in the absence of medical help, people resorted to homespun remedies with mixed results:

‘I was crawling with lice. I had never had lice in my life and I remember my mother using paraffin to kill them and she nearly killed me! I was all blistered, but mind you, my hair was lovely afterwards! It smelled for quite a few days but it was shiny!’

When Elvie and her sister eventually left the camp they were faced with an arduous journey in extremely cramped circumstances with people herded together like animals in a pen:

‘Well, we had no money because the money was no good and we managed to get on a train, an open cattle wagon in February. It was bitter cold and it took us two hours to get to Bremen but as there were so many people in there, we kept warm, it was just our heads blowing in the wind.’

There was no welcoming party to greet the travellers upon their arrival and further ordeals lay in store. Elvie’s sister was living on Bremen Island where her husband was being kept as a Prisoner of War but before Elvie could think about embarking upon the final stage of her journey she needed rest and food and neither were in ready supply. Bremen itself as she describes it was unfamiliar and decidedly unsafe:

We’d got there late at night because we had to walk from one station to another and there’d been bombing raids. We got to this little place before we got on the boat to go to the island at night and we asked the Padre at a local church if we could stay a night in it. There was just one blanket and it was frozen and there was no hot drink; we just had a glass of water and some dried bread which was hardly anything, was it?’

After a very uncomfortable night it was time to look for the boat that would take the sisters to Bremen Island but the weather conditions threw up obstacles of their own:

‘The boat couldn’t come in because the harbour was frozen so we had to walk a kilometre on ice before we could reach the boat. It was bitter, bitter, cold.’

It had been the worst journey of her life and unfortunately, Elvie’s eventual reunion with her sister on Breman Island was to be a disappointing anti-climax:

‘My sister couldn’t accommodate us for long and they found me a job.’

She had exchanged the daily perils of Konigsberg and existing side by side with the unpredictable and hostile Russian soldiers, for a life of thankless drudgery and must have wondered which was worse. She had no professional training so a job as a housemaid with the added bonus of food and a roof over her head was about all she was fit for:

‘I got 30 marks a month which was about 30 shillings and the black market was so high. I didn’t smoke then, but a cigarette was 10 marks. So for 30 marks, I worked for three cigarettes a month! For food and a roof over my head, I started work about 6 o’clock in the morning when the kids woke me up and I worked until about 10 o’clock. They had a bakery so I had to work to help them in the shop. I had to do the housework and look after the kids. I was only 16 by then!’

Six months of relentless slave labour was more than enough and to make matters worse, Elvie’s mother, (who had left Konigsberg without even the proof of her war widow’s pension) had arrived on the island and was finding it very hard to settle. There was no prospect of another job for Elvie and she decided to exchange Bremen Island for Hamburg where there might be more opportunities for a young girl than an island where ‘there was no work, just tourism.’

Her first experience of life in a big city was as dispiriting and frustrating as the rest of Elvie’s wartime experiences:

‘You couldn’t get permission to live there unless you had a place to live and you couldn’t get a job if you hadn’t a place to live. I thought I’ve come all that way to Hamburg to get a job and I can’t get permission to stay!’

Fortunately, help was at hand – of a sort. A friendly woman advised that a way round the problem would be to try to get a job working for British families. It would still be domestic work but she would get permission to stay and when Elvie visited the English Labour Exchange the advice proved to be correct. She went into service with the family of an English Army Major and his French wife, representatives of two of the nations at war with Germany until very recently. Yet the atmosphere in the household was welcoming and Elvie acquired a new skill; learning to speak and read English:

‘I picked up English then because I never had English at school. She spoke German too and I learned a lot from listening to them and because I love reading I started off with English magazines, getting taught myself really and anyway, after a while she said that I spoke good English and could get extra money.’

A 10% pay rise amounted to 10 cigarettes a month on the black market, and Elvie’s employer also handed down some of her cast-off dresses, but there was a problem with shoes because Elvie’s feet were too big to fit into them. Luckily, the situation eased:

‘One day they announced you could go to the local food office where they changed the money from marks to Dmarks – that was a blessing! Do you know that the shops were empty, but as soon as the money changed, the shops were loaded? Where did they keep all the food because the windows had been empty? So everybody got 40 demarks and your first wage was paid in demarks. The first thing I did was to buy myself a pair of shoes because there was nothing left of my original shoes. I don’t know how I managed!’

Life in the Major’s household had other advantages too. Elvie had become reluctantly accustomed to observing standards of personal hygiene that were less than exacting; now her fortunes took a welcome upturn:

‘I sometimes don’t know how smelly we would all be because the soap was awful, so working for this Major I could have a bath every day! I had my own lovely bath soap which I hadn’t seen for years; the soap we had we called it ‘war soap’ – there was no lather, it was just milk when you washed. It left your skin terrible you know.’

There was no shortage of money in the Major’s home and they enjoyed the finer things in life, such as entertaining and dining with silver cutlery. Yet domestic service was still akin to drudgery and Elvie wanted to have a social life and a boyfriend instead of waitressing at other people’s dinner parties and working until 9pm every night. She left the Major after 9 months and took a new job with a Lieutenant Colonel and his wife who were less partial to entertaining ‘so I had evenings free and I didn’t have to serve at table.’

The relative lack of formality suited Elvie and she enjoyed practising her English on the Colonel:

‘He was funny. I had lovely laughs with him. My English wasn’t perfect and I used to have to clean his brass buttons if they were going out. One time he came into the kitchen and said ‘Hm, Elvie – we are going out tonight.’ I said ‘Shall I clean your bottom?’ and he looked at me as he went out and I could hear them laughing their heads off so I thought I’d said something – anyway, she came in and tears were falling down her face. I said ‘What have I done?’ and she said ‘Elvie, this is a BUTTON!’ and then I realised what I’d said so we had a lot of laughs.’

Elvie’s grasp of English improved as the Colonel’s wife took an interest in her and corrected her pronunciation. In her free time, she started to explore the neighbourhood and was shopping at a store sale with a friend when they caught the attention of a couple of English soldiers. During the war, fraternising with German women was strongly discouraged by senior English officers, but in the post war era, rules were relaxed and the English soldiers invited Elvie and her friend to a dance. Elvie’s first impression of her future husband was not favourable:

‘My friend said that he’d invited us to go to the dance – well, he never spoke to me! I thought, arrogant bloke, I don’t like him.’

Tommy Poulter may not have taken her fancy, but there were aspects of Friday night dances that were quite irresistible to young, hungry German girls and a few intimate favours were a small price to pay

‘I thought I will go to the dance – for a good feed! That was the most important thing because food was still quite bad in Germany and he’d said, well, if I didn’t enjoy the dance then I’d have a good meal – you know a bit like English women and the Americans, isn’t it? When I look back, you do what you have to and I don’t blame any woman for it. If you have children, for example and they need feeding, it doesn’t matter the other part, you know. You can put up with it.’

In any case, a dance with the military was not intimidating to Elvie because the Colonel kept an open house to soldiers. She determined to have fun:

‘I knew a lot of soldiers so once I was at the dance I was all tight and I never saw him only once all night. I thought, he can get lost, you know. So my friend says, ‘Are you going to see him again?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t like him because he never says anything you know.’ He was a very shy young man and as I didn’t realise at the moment, a very strict Methodist – you couldn’t joke or have anything to drink or anything, and if my friend was telling me a joke, I used to have to kick her ankle because he was offended and I said ‘No, I don’t want to see him again.’

Elvie and Tommy were clearly completely incompatible but when Sunday came round, the prospect of a night staying in was enough to drive Elvie to risk a second date with the tongue-tied soldier:

‘I thought, well, I am a bit bored, I’ll see if he is still there — and that’s how we got going.’

It was hardly the most romantic start to a relationship, but once she had made her mind up, Elvie didn’t drag her heels. Three months later, she was engaged to be married to Tommy but there were still hurdles to be overcome before she could become Mrs Poulter. Working for the respected Colonel was a mark in her favour, but prejudice against German girls was still paramount in English Army circles and Tommy was told to take a holiday before his marriage. Elvie remains suspicious of the reasoning behind the order:

‘I think it was for the parents to talk him out of it – anyway, he took me with him and I came to England before I got married and I saw Harrogate. I always said I would love to settle here. I loved The Stray – all that green you know.’

The couple received permission to marry after 2nd March but yet again things did not run smoothly. The wedding was to take place in an Army church, but Elvie and Tommy quarrelled on the way:

‘I said you can get married yourself, I’m going home!’

Eighteen months later and with a four month old baby in tow, the couple regularised their situation and their next move was to England, as Tommy took up an Army posting.

Unfortunately, life in a new country was not straightforward for Elvie and her English husband who could still speak no German (‘every time Tommy said ‘Yah’ I used to give him a kick you know – he didn’t speak German at all,’) because the Army had no family accommodation. Elvie rented a room at the extortionate price of 35 shillings per week and then, in a stroke of luck, Tommy found some suitable accommodation for them all nearby his Army camp, only to be given the unwelcome news that he was being posted to Korea. Then began a new pattern in Elvie’s life; home alone with the children or parcelling up the children, packing a suitcase and following her husband as his Army career took him to far-flung corners of the world. The dreadful journey from Konigsberg to Bremen had brought its own perils – usually to do with the naked struggle to survive; now very different dangers presented themselves:

‘Off I went to Singapore and I bought myself a lovely swimsuit because we had a swimming pool on board. My little boy, Leslie was a wild one and I had to watch out looking for him all the time because he was so independent. Anyway, I was in my cabin and I was getting him ready for his meal and he said, ‘Mam, can I wait in the passage?’ He was only two and he was a good talker. I said ‘Don’t you go away, I’ll just wash my hands and face,’ and when I came out he was gone! I looked everywhere in the boat. I thought ‘He’s gone over! He’s gone over somewhere!’ I looked everywhere on the boat and I reported it and they looked from top to bottom and couldn’t find him anywhere as nobody had ever thought of looking in the dining room. And he was sitting there, having his dinner and we had the whole boat out looking for him. Oh God!’

Marriage to Tommy introduced the girl from Konigsberg to countries that she would never have seen had it not been for a world war that changed the rules of play. Elvie might never have left Germany, but now she was experiencing different cultures and ways of living. In Singapore, luxury, gentility and privilege were matched by squalor and poverty and Elvie was alert to the contrast:

‘When I first got to Singapore, I thought it was all garden parties and white hats and I forgot about the smell of rubber and the drains because now it’s lovely. I’ve seen it since it became independent, you know, but then there were tampons on the road; they were washing each other on the road and poor was very poor.’

Hong Kong was another temporary posting although not as popular with Elvie as Singapore (‘I always say ‘made in Hong Kong – cheap and nasty!’) and meanwhile her family was increasing:

‘I had two boys born in Singapore, one boy in Hong Kong, one in England and two in Germany.’

but eventually Tommy’s Army career drew to a close and he joined the Crown Agency, an organisation in existence between 1833-1974 with administrative and financial responsibilities for territories that had been part of the British Empire. Again, the lifestyle was luxurious:

‘Three years before the Shah was thrown out in 1974 – the money was marvellous! I think the average wage in England was about £3,000 and we had £12,000 a year with free accommodation, free boarding school money for the boys and it was lovely.’

and when it was time to return to England, Elvie and Tommy were sufficiently financially secure to buy a large house in Wetherby and then Harrogate. For the first time in her life, Elvie obtained a job that she really enjoyed, working as a hotel conference supervisor. She is now a widow but has written a book about her wartime experiences and although she did not meet Anita Greiner when the two fled from Konigsberg, ‘Unexamined Lives’ put her in contact with Anita’s husband, Walter, before his death in December 2015. Today, Elvie can no longer undertake journeys of any type, but the world now comes to her in the form of her extended family:

‘We are very international, all of us. My niece’s daughter is married to a Dutchman. One of my nephews is courting a Polish girl. I married an Englishman; one of my granddaughters was married to a Slovakian, another one to a New Zealander, so we are very international, you know. Some of them are visiting next month and I don’t know where they are going to sleep – some of them will be on the floor because I have always had an open house.’

Elvie Marholz, the child who grew up in a country captured (albeit temporarily) by the most destructive and aggressive nationalism in history and who left the country of her birth to become an international traveller, has finally evolved into a happy and fulfilled woman of the world.

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