We met our snow angels at the bakery in Cottbus on January 5, 2016. The chance encounter lasted about 1½ hours. The three “snow angels” rescued my husband Tony and me and cared for us in our time of need. Our meeting, and the circumstances surrounding it, is the subject of Snow angels in Cottbus (February 7, 2016.)
Two months ago, on Friday 14 January, Tony and I returned to Cottbus (Chóśebuz in the Lower Sorbian, or Wendish, language). This time it was not snowing, and we didn’t plan on searching for Seigfried Proposch, that phantom Wendish relative of mine we failed to find on our last visit to Cottbus.
Cottbus, population just over 100,000, is the second largest city in the north-eastern state of Brandenburg, Germany. It’s situated about 20 kilometres (as the crow flies) from the border between Germany and Poland. My Wendish ancestors, George and Anna Proposch and family, who migrated to Australia in 1854, came from a village not far from Cottbus.
Today, although only a small minority of the Sorbian people of this region live in Cottbus itself, the city is considered to be the political and cultural centre of the Lower Sorbs (or Wends) in Germany. For more about the Lower Sorbs (Wends), and my Wendish roots, read Easter in Germany: Sorbs, Wends and Easter eggs (April 12, 2017).
. . .
Our train arrived at the Cottbus railway station soon after 5:00 pm. The outside temperature was about 2 degrees Celsius. It was already dark. Silvia and Hartmut, our hosts, were waiting on the end of the platform. We picked them out straight away. After exchanging hugs and greetings, and a brief introduction to Hartmut (“My English is not so good”, he was quick to add), the four of us took the lift to the tunnel below and ambled, chatting excitedly, to the station building.
Silvia told us that the station had been renovated and extended since our last visit. From inside the building, it did look different to how we remembered it.
Once outside, Hartmut and Silvia led the way to the carpark. They told us their car was parked about 100 metres away, so we walked briskly, trying to escape the misty rain. As Hartmut loaded our suitcases into the boot, Tony and I slipped into the back seat of their roomy sedan. Hartmut climbed into the driver’s seat and Silvia took the front passenger seat. As Hartmut turned on the engine, Silvia turned towards Tony and me and announced, “Before we take you home, we are going to the bakery. We hope you are okay with that.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! Of course, we would love to go to the bakery.”
Six years had passed since we stumbled upon that bakery, but it seemed like just the other day…
. . .
Silvia and I began writing to each other soon after we met at the bakery in January 2016. It was the start of a long-distance friendship. Over the months and years that ensued, we kept in touch, although irregularly, by email and messenger.
Last year, on 21 November, soon after Tony and I had decided to visit our family in Germany, and our flights were booked, I contacted Silvia. In an email, I wrote:
Silvia replied straight away:
Silvia is one of our “snow angels”. She speaks fluent English. Indeed, she trained as a teacher of English (and Russian) and worked for many years as an interpreter (German-English, German-Russian). When we first met, Silvia was our interpreter – helping Tony and me (with our limited German) communicate with her mother Waldtraud and sister Diana (the other two snow angels).
. . .
The bakery, Bio-Bäckerei Schmidt, is located on Strasse der Jugend 82, 03046 Cottbus. This year, 2022, marks the Schmidt family’s 60th year of operating the bakery. Silvia’s father, Eberhard Schmidt, established the business in 1962, at a time when Cottbus was part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or “East Germany” (as I knew it). Following Eberhard‘s untimely death in 1996, Silvia’s mother Waldtraud continued to run the bakery, recently handing it over to her daughter Diana (Silvia’s sister).
Diana is a fully qualified, master baker. Indeed, in 2018, Diana became the first female master to head up the Lusatian and Spreewald bakers’ and confectioners’ guild. Today, Diana’s son René (a third generation Schmidt) works with his mother, producing traditional handcrafted organic bread and goodies under the Schmidt family name.
Hartmut parked at the rear of the building, so the four of us entered the bakery through the back door to the kitchen. It was raining a little heavier now, so we wasted no time in reaching the door. On entering the kitchen, we met René, who was chatting with his father Bodo. René’s 4-year-old daughter, Julia, was there too. Diana was busy serving customers in the shop at the front of the premises. While Tony and I made the acquaintance of René and Bodo, and little Julia, Silvia went to get her mother. Waldtraud lives in a house beside the bakery.
Waldtraud soon appeared. She didn’t look any older than when we met six years ago! She laughed and cried out with excitement when she saw Tony and me. She and I hugged each other for a long time. We didn’t need to say anything. Just to be together again meant so much.
Silvia told us that Waldtraud will be 87 years old this year. It’s hard to believe. She’s so sprightly and full of life. There’s still a twinkle in her eyes.
Prompted by Silvia and Waldtraud, Tony and I edged our way past René, Bodo and Hartmut, along the short passageway and down the couple of steps to the shop. The shop was just as I remembered it: cosy and inviting, a warm dry refuge from the cold, damp conditions outside.
Diana was still occupied with customers. She smiled and waved to Tony and me. While we waited and I looked around, I was reminded why this place made such a lasting impression on Tony and me.
Along with its impressive display of freshly baked goods, the shop is choc-a-block with fresh organically grown produce, organic flour and cereals, preserves, condiments, tea, coffee and wine. High up, on each of the four walls, there are shelves displaying collections of vintage coffee grinders, coffee pots, cannisters and sugar bowls. The late Eberhard’s, Diana’s and René’s framed certificates are there too, for all to see, high up on the wall behind the counter.
Waldtraud pointed out the original bread oven. Its door is in plain view, on the wall at the back of the room. Of course, the oven is no longer in use, but its presence is a reminder of the bakery’s early days and small beginnings.
I couldn’t help but think I was in a museum. There were so many interesting things to see. (Little did I know, the next day Silvia would take Tony and me to a museum she and Hartmut have created in Welzow. More about that in Part 2.)
“Would you like a coffee … or tea?” I heard someone asking. It stirred me from my reverie.
“No, thanks. We are fine. I don’t think we will be here long enough. But thanks for asking.”
I remembered Diana offering us tea and coffee on our first visit. We didn’t say no then. We were so grateful to be inside out of the cold. (The temperature that day was about 7 degrees below zero.) I recall Tony and I sat on high stools at a small round table, sipping our hot coffee and being treated to one or two of Diana’s delicious biscuits. It felt like heaven to us.
The last of the customers, a young couple, whom Tony and I met (they spoke to us in English), turned out to be representatives of a city mission who came once a fortnight to collect leftover bread and baked goods for distribution to the needy. When they finally left, loaded with goodies and full of gratitude, René shut the shop. Diana was now free to greet Tony and me, show us her latest creations, and spend time reminiscing.
Last year (2021) Diana celebrated her 60th birthday. Like her mother, she doesn’t look her age. Her smiling eyes and kind face were firmly entrenched in my memory. Then, and now, she seems happy, content with her lot. Although she puts in long hours at the bakery, she enjoys her work and interaction with her customers. Diana told us she makes all the cakes, slices, biscuits and sweets she sells in the shop while René bakes the bread, buns and croissants. Mother and son make a great team. Like Diana, René is a qualified master baker and loves his trade. René, who studied in Berlin, will take over the business when Diana retires.
Diana showed us some of her handiwork, including Nussecken (which translates “nut corners”), that is, vegan nut triangles; Dinkel-Doppel Keks, that is, biscuits made from spelt (dinkel wheat or hulled wheat) flour and joined with icing to form “kisses”; Kalter Hund (literally “cold dog”), also known as hedgehog slice, an uncooked sweet made by combining alternating layers of chocolate and biscuit; and Brotchips (literally “bread chips”), finely sliced old bread re-baked, a healthy substitute for commercially-produced salted potato crisps. Using the Brotchips as an example, Diana said, “Nothing is wasted here.”
Silvia showed us a loaf of bread, a typical example of René’s handiwork. It bears a hand (the Schmidt “trademark”), indicating it is handcrafted, and a snowman (a seasonal symbol).
René drew our attention to his spelt butter croissants. These are his prized creations. He told us he made croissants in the early days, but felt they were not good enough to sell. One day he met an experienced French pastry cook and picked that person’s brain. Then he tried again, experimenting, testing his new-found knowledge. The result? Today, René’s croissants are considered the best in Cottbus!
As always, I had my camera with me. Importantly, I wanted to photograph our “snow angels”, six years on. Silvia was well prepared. She knew the order in which the three of them stood the last time, so she had them line up in that order once again. Indeed, the two photographs, taken six years apart, are so similar – it’s uncanny.
Then I joined our snow angels and (as on the previous occasion) Tony took a photograph of the four of us.
As Silvia and Hartmut signalled our departure, Diana loaded them with our weekend’s supply of bread, bread rolls, croissants, Kalter Hund and nut bars. Tony and I would sample all of these lovingly made goodies over the next couple of days.
. . .
The drive from Cottbus to Welzow (Wjelcej in Lower Sorbian, or Wendish) took about 20 minutes.
It was still raining, although lightly. Hartmut did the driving, while Silvia, Tony and I talked non-stop. Tony and I asked lots of questions like: What is the population of Welzow? Is it a town or a village? What is Welzow famous for? We wanted to know: After all, Silvia and Hartmut had kindly invited Tony and me to spend the weekend with them at their home in Welzow.
The town of Welzow – it’s a town not a village – is situated about 25 kilometres southwest of Cottbus in the district of Spree-Neiße (Lower Sorbian: Wokrejs Sprjewja-Nysa). As we entered the town, Silvia pointed to the sign: “Stadt Welzow – Mĕsto Wjelcej”. Throughout this part of Germany, most civic and street signage is in two languages – German and Lower Sorbian.
The name Welzow (Wjelcej) is first mentioned in December 1547, in the Spremberg City Book. Its meaning, in the Lower Sorbian language, is “a settlement in an area where there are a lot of wolves”. The Lower Sorbs (Wends) were the first settlers in this area.
Today Welzow has a population of about 3000. But the number is decreasing, Silvia told us, as the local coal mining industry winds down and jobs are lost. Open cut mining of lignite (brown coal) commenced at the Welzow-Süd mine in 1959. Mining has been the mainstay of the town and community since then.
I’ve since learnt that the Welzow-Süd mine produces up to 20 million tonnes of lignite each year and covers an area of 108 square kilometres. It’s huge! Indeed, since open cut mining commenced in 1959, the inhabitants of 17 villages in the district had to be resettled to make space for the mine.
Our questions for Silvia and Hartmut kept coming: How long have you lived in Welzow? Where do your children and their families live? How often do you travel to Cottbus? What was life like in the days of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)?
Over the next couple of days, as Tony and I spent time with our friend Silvia and her husband Hartmut, and experienced their warm and generous hospitality, we had these and many other questions about them and their lives answered.
We were in for quite a few surprises…
Snow angels in Cottbus: The reunion (Part 2) – coming soon to this blog.
Sweet friendships refresh the soul and awaken our hearts with joy, for good friends are like the anointing oil that yields the fragrant incense of God’s presence.
Proverbs 27:9 (The Holy Bible – The Passion Translation)