This Baker Learned Not to Cry Over Spilt Milk
By Mary Ann Yevuta
For the Wetzel Chronicle
What might fate have in store for a German child who lived through the horrors of World War II? For one little girl, it was to fall in love and marry an American GI from New Martinsville, WV, raise a beautiful family, and become one of the best bakers in the area. Elisabeth (Lisa) Wetzel can be found each week at the Wetzel County Farmers’ Market behind a table laden with an assortment of delectable treats such as traditional German cookies, sweet breads (including this writer’s favorite – rhubarb bread), and cakes. She will bake any time of year for customers who need treats for holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions’ and orders can be placed through her daughter, Heather Parks, at The Bookstore (304-455-5080). By the way, during the growing season if you find yourself with more rhubarb or fruits than you can use, she can find a good use for the excess. Her baking skill, along with her always positive attitude and sense of humor, make her a person whose table at the Farmers’ Market sells out quickly. She was married to the late Bill Wetzel, who was known to Wetzel Countians as a dispatcher for many years at the Wetzel County Sheriff’s Department, and they raised four children.
What was your childhood like? I was born in Bruckmuhl, Germany, the youngest of six children. I had a good childhood but it was hard during the war. My brother, Joseph, got tuberculosis while on a U boat and died at 18; my oldest brother, Tony, was a prisoner in Russia for five years, but he and two others escaped. He made it home, but the other two didn’t.
My mama sometimes took in war orphans. She made it nice for all of us. We had food rations and chickens and a garden. Each household could have one chicken. Pop had rabbits; I didn’t want to eat them but I did. We didn’t have much to eat but Mama always made sure we were fed. She always said, “I ate already,” or “I’m not hungry” so there was enough food for her husband and us kids. She never fussed at us. Papa worked hard all day long, and was grumpy when he was home. He was good to me, though (I was the youngest). He had a bicycle and I’d sit in the front and he’d drive me around in it for fun! We had jobs we had to do after school before we could play. One time I had to get the milk and on the way home I was swinging the pail around and spilled all the milk. I was in trouble because we couldn’t get more milk that week.
Where did you go to school? In Bruckmuhl there was one big school, but the older kids had to take the train to Bad Aibling. When the Americans came, they closed the school and used it for their headquarters. I remember we were happy because they gave us candy and we hadn’t had any for a long time. And we were happy not to have to go to school!
Our principal was not very nice. One time we hid in the bushes and threw our bread rolls at him. And we all had to say “heil Hitler” to him and the Nazi soldier stationed by the door. My friend Inge and I were always late (we stopped at the baker to get a pretzel or roll) and, as punishment, we would have to go to the basement for a few hours after school. When I would get home, mama would say, “Oh, you were late to school again?” One teacher was a witch! Oh, was she mean! She would hit our hands with a stick.
Do you have any favorite Christmas memories? Mama and Papa would go into the room and close the door and decorate the tree. Then we would hear a bell ring and mom would say, “look, Kris Kindle was here!” We would all get a little plate with cookies and knitted mittens or a hat. We also left our shoes out and if we were good, there might be something left in them. There was also a bad Santa, and if we were bad we didn’t get anything. That happened to me once.
What were some of the hardships you experienced during the war? In the wartime it was bad. We would beg farmers for food. Inge and I had a little wagon that we would take to different farms. The smallest farmers always gave us something, but the big ones would say they didn’t have anything. One time, a bunch of us went into a farmer’s fruit trees, right after dark. We looked during day time to see where the best trees were. My sister Anna would shake the trees and we would pick up the apples. Once, the farmer heard us and came out (in his underwear!) and chased us so we ran. I had new shoes that I waited years for and as we were running away, I lost one. No one wanted to go back for it and I never did find my shoe.
Pop had a nice watch and when the Americans came, he dug a hole in the backyard and buried the watch because some of the soldiers took things from the townspeople. When he finally went to get the watch, it was gone; we later found out it was our neighbor who took it. She would bake pies and leave them out, but she would never share! Our other neighbor was my friend Maria’s family. One day, a car pulled up with SS on the side and they went in and Maria’s father had to leave with them. We never saw him again. We think he must have said something against the Nazis. There were posters all over town with a picture of a person with their finger to their lips, meaning don’t talk. We couldn’t trust anyone. There were good Americans and some bad ones. Germans couldn’t go out after 7. Sometimes at night, we would hear screaming.
Amidst all the wartime stress and despair, what did you do to have fun? The Mangfall River went right by our house. In the winter, we would ice skate (we had one pair of skates.) Our town was in the Alps, so we took advantage of the terrain and went sledding.. How stupid we were! When you’re young, you don’t think about danger. In the summer, we swam in the river or picked berries. We would ride our bikes to Bad Aibling or Munich. One time, we were in Munich during an air raid and had to get underground.
How old were you when you started baking? I can’t remember how old I was; I learned cooking and baking from my mom, but it was plain stuff. I loved to bake, and learned more on my own.
How old were you when you got your first job? First, I worked in the wood factory, right out of school at 14. Then I worked at a chocolate factory! That was better.
How did you meet your husband Bill? I was working in Bad Aibling and met him while he was stationed there with the Army. My friends laughed because Bill was so tall and skinny! I loved to dance, and Bill didn’t. An Air Force guy asked me to dance and Bill got jealous and didn’t want me to dance. That was when Bill got his nose broken! Army and Air Force guys were always getting into fights.
What is the most interesting place you’ve traveled to? Japan. We lived right outside of Tokyo by the rice paddies until the government moved us to an apartment downtown. The bath houses took a lot to get used to! I’d run and jump in so no one could see me, and the water was HOT! We also lived right outside Paris for less than a year. We didn’t like it there very much, so Bill put in for Germany again. I moved to the US when I was 27. We came by ship in October and it took a long time. The dependents of the soldiers were low in the ship, and I was seasick the entire trip. I couldn’t get out of bed! The kids were young and getting so hungry. Finally someone followed them down to me and noticed I couldn’t get out of bed and they helped me. I lost 18 pounds. When I got to the US, Bill was still overseas at first so I stayed with Bill’s mom and pop.
What was your new American life like? Bill’s mama was the best woman, besides my mama. She paid for my flight to Germany every couple years sno I could go see my family. We couldn’t afford it because Bill was still in the military and we had four kids. I still talk to my niece Ingrid, who lives in Munich, every week. We talk about food and she makes me jealous for all the things I can’t get over here. English was very hard to learn. I learned by talking to other people. I told Bill I would learn English and he would learn German, but he never did. I eventually found out he understood more German than I thought. Sneaky! My mom really liked Bill right away. He was always so good with kids.
What was the hardest adjustment when you moved to the US? I can’t complain, everyone was really nice. The only thing was racism was bad and I hadn’t seen that before.
What do you feel most grateful for in life? That my family and I are all healthy, and that Heather lives so close nearby. Hopefully I’ll get to visit my daughter, grandkids and great grandkids in Columbus soon! And I’m so lucky to have good friends like Mary and Loretta, and that at 89 I can still bake for the Farmer’s Market!
How did you choose your children’s names? Pete and Gisela are just names I liked, Irene was named after Bill’s mom, Theresa was another name I liked, and I had Heather when I was 44 (surprise!) Theresa and Irene were 15 at the time and they named her.