Meet Mitzi a victim of war whose life is a fascinating tale of love, war and a triumph of the human spirit
- Credit: Archant
Amid all our talk of loneliness, we must not forget that many older people actually look after themselves quite nicely ? with a bit of help here and there.
Steven Russell meets one lady whose strength of character was tested in ways we can only imagine.
You can’t help admiring Maria Seiler’s pluck ? and hoping that, if and when you enter your 10th decade, you have even a 10th of her spirit and determination.
She might have turned 90 in the summer and suffered a few tumbles in recent times, but Maria is clearly in no mood to let time dictate how she lives. Not without a fight, anyway. “I can still walk! I don’t want a stick!” she insists, a glint in her eye.
“If the weather is good, I keep myself busy. I don’t feel like 90, but as I’m getting older I find I can’t do as much as I used to.”
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This lady known since childhood as Mitzi has been living a largely independent life in Bury St Edmunds: knitting, gardening in short bursts when the weather is kind; walking to her clubs and taking the bus to town when she can. In 2013, she even went on a coach holiday to Scotland.
Not that long ago, she used to catch the bus to Newmarket, Stowmarket or Sudbury for a day out, but in the past year it’s been harder to predict what she’ll feel like when she gets up, and what the weather might bring. So she didn’t have any such trips in 2014.
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Mitzi does attend sessions designed to reduce the risk of falls, run by Age UK Suffolk, and is thinking about taking advantage of its befriending service - somethign we are highlighting through our Shine a Light on Loneliness campaign.
She appears pretty happy with life ? especially if it’s a night for Coronation Street!
One could never guess she endured an awful time around the end of the Second World War, as eastern Europe was thrown into turmoil. Separated from her family, she was sent to Russia by cattle truck and forced to work... at gunpoint.
It’s not something she finds easy to talk about today ? the conditions were pretty grim and frightening, and some memories do bring tears ? but Mitzi’s experiences should remind us not to stereotype older folk. Every one has had an amazing (perhaps surprising) life, and society should not lump them together as one homogenous mass. Each is an individual with a story.
The lands we now know as Romania once included many sizeable German-speaking communities, which developed from the end of the 11th Century.
However, after Russia’s Red Army arrived in 1944, Joseph Stalin ordered ethnic German civilians be sent to Germany or the Soviet Union ? in the latter, they were used as forced labour. Most were released in the early 1950s.
“It’s upsetting, when you start from the beginning,” says Mitzi, who had worked in a shoeshop in the Transylvanian town of Sibiu (its Romanian name) or Hermannstadt (German). “I was 20 when the Russians took me.
“When the Russians came, the Romanians shouted where the German-speaking people lived. They (the troops) said ‘Pack something in your bag; you’re going on six months’ holiday.’ You know those wagons they put animals in?” Cattle trucks. “In there, up to Russia for work. Two years there.”
German-speaking people from different places were grouped together and sent onto the fields to toil. “We went with the guns either side. When we were ill, they couldn’t do anything with us, so they let us go into East Germany, to farmers who needed workers. Well, I had never worked on a farm, but I learned to milk a cow!
“One friend who was with me in Russia had some uncles in West Germany and they said ‘If you can, come over the border.’ We went ‘black’ over the border. Then, they weren’t that strict. I lived a few years in Germany.”
And later something really rather incredible and romantic happened to bring Mitzi to Suffolk.
A woman who had been in Russia, friends with Mitzi, came to England and married a former prisoner of war. That couple were friends with a German-speaking Romanian called Thomas, who had been a PoW here for a couple of years.
They suggested Mitzi and Thomas write to each other regularly, since they spoke the same language and he had no relatives. He worked on a Suffolk farm, sharing a caravan with three other men and earning £5 a week as a labourer.
A former member of the Romanian army, Tommy had been taken as a prisoner to Italy and on to England. After peace was declared, and he was a free man from 1947, he didn’t want to go back.
And then Mitzi’s friend urged: Come for a holiday. “I came on holiday and have been on holiday ever since!” she laughs.
It was in 1952 that Mitzi travelled over to Ixworth Thorpe for, she imagined, a fortnight’s stay. She and Tommy, having got to know each other through their letters over a couple of years or so, decided pretty much there and then to get married. And did.
“We might have passed in the same street in Romania. I used to work in a shoe shop; he was a butcher. We’d both walk down the same street, but we didn’t know each other. We had to come to England to meet!
“I didn’t know how it would work, but we clicked!” she remembers. “You can’t describe it. Was it because we spoke the same language? I had nobody to go back to and he had nobody.”
After they’d married at the register office in the morning, Thomas went to work, hoeing sugar beet, that afternoon! They had no money and he needed the overtime, so that was their honeymoon.
“When we married, we didn’t have a chair or a table or anything,” she says. “We had to go to secondhand shops and gradually buy what we needed. I’ve still got some of the furniture now, around me. They do me. I keep them as clean as I can. I keep occupied.”
Their son was born in 1953. Mitzi’s English at that point was virtually non-existent, and she was confused when the hospital staff appeared to be talking about a horse. “I think they were saying ‘You’re going like a horse...’ - over the nine months!”
She remembers that during her early days in England many people thought she was from Poland, and most didn’t even know where Romania was.
Some years after they married, Thomas changed jobs and worked for another farmer, who sorted them out with a nice home to live in.
The new employer’s wife asked Mitzi to work for her in the house and help with the four children. Mitzi is enormously proud of the fact she worked for the farmer’s wife for the rest of her life. She saw the youngsters grow up and have children of their own, and now is appreciative of their visits when they bring the next generation to see her.
Working in a domestic setting also helped her learn English, as the family corrected her when she got her words wrong.
Mitzi and her husband didn’t waste their pennies. If Tommy wanted a beer, he drank one at home. If they entertained friends, it was at home. Much cheaper that way.
They scrimped and saved while living in agricultural accommodation, and eventually managed to buy their own house in Bury St Edmunds. They rented it out to Americans, knowing it was there ? and theirs ? whenever they needed to move in.
“That’s why I’m so happy to be here,” says Mitzi. “Nobody can chuck me out.”
You can understand why that need for security is strong. Even today, Mitzi sometimes wakes in the night, crying. She dreams of a thump on the door ? the kind of thing that might have happened 70 years ago.
Tommy retired at 65. Sadly, he developed cancer and died in 2006.
Today, Mitzi insists she’s not lonely or bored, “because I keep myself occupied. Evenings, I watch Coronation Street and those things. If it’s cold, I put my electric blanket on. I’m always, always cold, so if there’s nothing else on the TV I go to bed and put a little bit of heating on”.
She attends a friendship club twice a month ? she enjoyed an outing to a carol concert at Snape Maltings – and an over-60s club once a month.
Then there are the weekly Age UK Suffolk falls prevention sessions, which offer exercises to improve strength and balance. Mitzi walks there and back if it’s a nice day.
“Sam” ? the activity co-ordinator ? “is so bubbly. She is such a happy person and always laughing. I don’t know where she gets her stamina from!
“She makes you do all this exercise but she makes you laugh as well. That’s what I like; nobody’s miserable. It gets me out. It might help. I can’t say yes; I can’t say no. But I’m still walking. That’s the main thing!”
Mitzi’s had three falls. Once, the phone rang and she hurried to answer it. “I slipped down each stair. I had only socks on. You can imagine the backbone, how that hurt!”
The worst tumble, last year, saw her fall flat on her face. “I broke my glasses; I hit my head. I cracked my wrist.” It meant an ambulance ride to hospital. “When I looked in the mirror, oh my god! You see the black eye! And I had a pair of old glasses I had to wear. I was more worried about the glasses than myself.”
It was Mitzi’s daughter-in-law who heard about the falls classes and suggested they might help. She’s also wonderful at helping fill in forms and sort out pills so Mitzi knows what to take.
Mitzi’s grateful to her son, too, for juggling work commitments and distance ? he and his wife live in Suffolk but he works about 25 miles away. He comes to see her, helps with the heavy shopping and mows the grass.
Many of her local friends have died over the years, she reports, or have problems getting out and about. The same goes for some of her older neighbours.
On occasion, she admits, a week can pass without her having a conversation with anyone apart from her son or daughter-in-law.
There is a friend in Ipswich, and another in Norfolk, but they’re hard to get to and she doesn’t want to be a burden on her family.
Mitzi’s brother died some time ago, but she does still have a sister in Germany ? a lady now 83. They talk on the phone, but she thinks it unlikely she’ll ever again travel to Europe.
Mitzi had a German passport she’d renew by post. Now, she says, you have to go to London in person, and she can’t imagine doing that.
She walks me to the door and talks about her pride in trying to keep the front garden tidy ? particularly tough in the autumn and winter, when the wet leaves fall.
“I can’t do as much as I used to, but I’m still trying...”