My maternal grandmother Gunda Lambton (née von Davidson) lived what seems like more than one life. She was a creative and resourceful person who always found a way through the difficulties she encountered. As an artist, she used whatever tools and materials she could find and afford. She never stopped creating and learning and even went on to become a published author in her 60s. She still had new books in the works at the time of her death, aged 99.
This post is about her early life in Germany.
Gunda was born in Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea coast of Germany in 1914. She was the eldest of five children.
Her father Eduard was descended from Scottish traders...
...who moved to Danzig in the early 17th century, which means that I have Scottish ancestry on both sides of my family. For such a tiny nation, we Scots get around!
My great-grandfather Eduard holding my grandmother Gunda.
Her mother Maud Lee Williams was born in 1885 in Birkenhead, England.
She loved art and especially music. At 17 she came to Germany to study and eventually met and married Eduard who was the cousin of two of her friends — sisters who ran the boarding school that she had attended.
My great-grandmother Maud holding my grandmother's sister Gisela.
Eduard was a Lieutenant Commander in the German Navy during World War I. In 1918 when the navy discharged its officers, he lost his job and afterwards seems to have struggled. He worked as an agricultural apprentice on an estate for a while. He tried selling insurance. Nothing he did really succeeded.
The years between the world wars were very difficult.
The German economy was in free fall and malnutrition was commonplace. The family didn't have enough to eat, often surviving on feed turnips. Gunda and her sister Gisela both suffered from a number of diseases including diphtheria for which they were hospitalized.
It's my understanding that during one of these illnesses Gunda was given a book filled with photographs of animals and she entertained herself by drawing them. I'm struck by how many artists and writers experienced a lengthy childhood illness which isolated them and gave them long stretches of time to develop their art.
Maud took Gunda with her on one of her trips home to England. Later Gunda wondered if Maud had wanted to show her to their English relations as an example of the hardships they were experiencing in Germany, since Gunda was so emaciated.
Her grandmother's ordinary English home seemed like a luxurious paradise to Gunda compared to what she was used to. When she came home from her trip she entertained her siblings with descriptions of all the different treats she had been served daily at tea time.
Maud received a small inheritance from her English family.
Thanks to extreme inflation in Germany, she was able to use it to buy a small, fairly isolated farm near the village of Bliesendorf. Though she and Eduard worked hard at farming, that wasn't much of a success either.
Despite the intense difficulties experienced by her parents, Gunda's memories of her years on the farm were entirely happy. "We felt surrounded by indescribable wealth."
She and her sister Gisela and their two brothers Detlev and Heinz were close in age. (Their youngest brother Erik was born in 1926 and was 12 years younger than Gunda.)
The children took care of goats, climbed in birch trees, daydreamed while gazing at the cherry and heather blossoms. Home-grown vegetables and fruit were plentiful. The children were taught by a rotation of live-in teachers who would each stay for a season or two.
Gisela feeding the goats in front of the Bliesendorf farmhouse.
In 1926 the family moved to a small colony of artists and architects outside Darmstadt...
...so that the children could attend regular schools in the city. Some of their neighbors were followers of Rudolf Steiner and sent their children to the nearby Waldorf school. This all changed later as the Nazi Party came into increased power in the 1930s and all non-conformists were forced underground.
Gunda enjoyed the creative adults in this community and their unique, colorful homes and handmade clothes. She took dance and art classes and drew caricatures and wrote limericks about her friends and teachers. She played with her neighboring friends in their overgrown garden, climbing trees and digging tunnels. Their mother didn’t mind.
Meanwhile at her school she witnessed Jewish classmates being rejected by long time friends and at home her own father started to make nationalist statements that upset her. The political situation was volatile and chaotic.
Once Gunda had matriculated she escaped.
She went to stay with her English grandmother, who helped her find a position as a student teacher at a boarding school in England. From there she went on to study Spanish in Barcelona, hoping to find secretarial employment that used her language skills.
Soon after returning from Spain Gunda met my future grandfather, Garth Williams.
Once they were engaged she followed him to Italy and soon after they moved to London.
You can read about that part of the story here.
Gunda's returns to Germany were brief. On one of these trips home she bumped into a Jewish schoolfriend on the tram. They sat together and exchanged stories of dealing with bureaucracy. Gunda needed to get a "Certificate of Fitness for Marriage" in order to wed my grandfather. Her friend was trying to get to the United States but finding it difficult to get a visa. (She did end up moving to America).
My grandmother had an elderly aunt who worked at the station and must have seen them. She warned Gunda that it was risky to be seen talking to a Jewish girl. But later this same aunt, when Jews were forced to wear yellow stars, approached each person she met wearing a star and shook their hand.
When the Second World War started, Gunda was in London. And from there she was evacuated to Canada where she ended up spending the rest of her life.
More about that next time.
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SO interesting to get snippets of your family history on both sides!! Thanks for sharing the stories. Only having known the ‘older’ Gunda , I was happy to hear about the really young Gunda!
Estyn, you are an excellent writer. I quite enjoyed reading this part of your grandmother’s story. Well done.
I swear I can see your face in that picture of great-grandmother Maud.
Thanks for sharing!