My husband Tony and I arrived by train at Cottbus (Chósésbuz) at 12.40 pm on Tuesday 5 January. The outside temperature was -7 degrees Celcius and it was snowing.
The sky was grey and visibility low in the dull light. Everywhere we looked the landscape was covered by a thick white blanket of snow. Tiny splashes of muted colour (the cars parked outside the railway station, for example) punctuated the monochrome winter scene. It was beautiful to behold, magical, exciting.
We had been in Germany about 6 weeks, since late November, but this was our first day in the snow. It began to snow in Dresden earlier that day when we boarded the train for Cottbus. Up until then it had been a mild winter in most of Europe, quite unseasonal, we were told.
Now, you may be wondering: Where is Cottbus? Why visit Cottbus? I’ve never heard of Cottbus…
Cottbus, population about 100,000, is a university city in the state of Brandenburg, Germany. It is located on the River Spree, about 125 km southeast of Berlin and 20 km from the Polish border. Cottbus is the cultural centre of the Wends, one of two minority Slavic people groups living in eastern Germany. Many signs in Cottbus are bilingual: in the local language (Wendish / Lower Sorbian) and German.
Our visit to Cottbus was personal.
My great-great-great-grandfather George Proposch (1799-1877) and his family migrated to Australia from Babow, near Cottbus, in 1854. The family belonged to the Wendish people group.
I wanted to see for myself where they came from, where they lived and, hopefully, meet some descendants of the Proposch family who live in that part of Germany. That was my mission.
At 3.00 pm, after settling in to our apartment, while there was still daylight we decided to venture outside. It was snowing and the temperature was 7 degrees below zero. We donned many layers of clothing to help us brave the cold.
We planned to take a tram trip to Madlow, about 20 minutes south of Cottbus, in search of a man named Siegfried Proposch. A few weeks previously we discovered his name and address online in the phone directory, and we decided we would try to meet him. Apparently he owned a bakery in Madlow.
Before leaving the apartment, I checked the directions our son Daniel had given us. We had to catch Tram No 3 to Madlow, on Marienstraße. On the map our landlady gave us, I could see that Marienstraße was nearby, off Bahnhofstraße in which our apartment was located. It was simple. We took the map with us, but I had the route clear in my mind. I knew where to go.
This is what actually happened…
We set off down Bahnhofstraße in the direction of the Hauptbahnhof (railway station), where we had been just a couple of hours earlier. As Daniel told us, walking on fresh snow makes a squeaky, crunchy sound underfoot. It felt a little like walking on coarse wet sand (although with boots on), but with more sound effects. We had walked about 100 metres, when I realised that we were going in the wrong direction.
I told Tony that I needed to check the map. We were standing on the footpath in the middle of the railway overpass bridge. Tony could not believe it: I wanted to look at the map – here! It was snowing, the icy wind was blowing the falling snow into our faces (which stung) and it was freezing. In the wind, the “real feel” was -13 degrees Celcius! I fumbled to open the map with my gloved fingers and to hold it steady against the wind.
Yes. We were going in the wrong direction. I tried to convince Tony that if we kept walking across the railway overpass bridge to the main road (Stadtring), and follow it to Straße der Jugend, we would reach the tramline. Tony asked a passer-by for directions and he said the same thing.
It was 3.06 pm. Although we were feeling very cold and annoyed with each other, before leaving the overpass bridge I paused to take photos of the railway complex below and our pathway in both directions, as a record of our being there and of my follly.
We trudged another 10 minutes in the snow before we found the tram stop. We asked a woman waiting at the stop if we could catch Tram 3 to Madlow there. Yes, we could. Do you buy the tickets on the tram? Again the answer was “yes”. But then I realised that we would need coins to do so. I had a couple of €50 notes in my purse; that was all. No coins.
By now, we were thinking: This excursion is not going to plan. First we headed in the wrong direction, and ended up walking a lot further than we needed to, in the snow and (for us) the bitter cold. Second, it’s taking a lot longer than we expected. It’s getting late: it will be dark soon. We can’t catch the tram until we get some coins so we can buy tickets! How and when will this drama end?
We found a bakery, but not the one we were looking for.
Tony and I agreed that we would find a shop where we could buy something and ask for coins in the change. We headed down Straße der Jugend, in the direction of the city. We hadn’t gone far when we found a bakery. “This will do”, I said to Tony. “I will buy us some bread rolls for breakfast tomorrow.” Tony followed me into the shop. Not only were we frustrated but we were also cold, so it was a huge relief to enter this warm inviting place. It was about 3.20 pm, and very dull outside. The lights were on in the bakery.
I spoke to the shop attendant, an attractive woman in her 50s, in my limited German, “Ich hatte gern drei Brotchen, bitte.” I pointed to the ones I wanted. She packeted the bread, and I handed over a €50 note. Not knowing how to ask for coins in German, I began, “Ich möchte bitte … Geld …” then quickly added in English, “I would like some coins, please.”
The woman looked at me curiously. Clearly she did not know what I meant.
A voice behind me said something in German to the woman, explaining what I wanted. She responded by counting out lots of coins, and I thanked her in German. I turned around, and one of the two women standing at a table behind me, the younger of the two, the red-headed one, smiled and said: “My sister doesn’t speak much English. But I speak English. Where do you come from?”
I answered: Australia. Tony and I introduced ourselves. We also explained that we were planning to take the tram to Madlow, to find a Siegfried Proposch, whom we believed owned a bakery there.
Of course, the three women were interested in this. They knew all the bakers and bakeries in this district! What a strange co-incidence, we thought later. The women told us that Siegfried Proposch’s bakery in Madlow had been closed for 2 or 3 years. After making a few enquiries by phone, they reported that Siegfried may now manage the bakery in the Kaufland Shopping Centre just outside Madlow.
This was how we met Silvia, Diana and Waltraud, our “snow angels”.
Tony and I were total strangers, first-time customers who walked in off the street, and these women welcomed us, showed interest in us and offered us a cup of coffee and something to eat. Touched by their warmth and openness, we readily accepted their hospitality.
We spent about an hour in their company. We conversed about Australia, our respective families, our reason for coming to Cottbus, the Sorbs and the Wends, life in the former East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, GDR), life in Germany today, and much more.
We discovered that Silvia and Diana, sisters, had been schoolteachers, just like Tony and me. Diana left teaching to become a master baker. She is co-owner and manager of the Schmidt family bakery, Bio-Bäckerei Schmidt. Waltraud, Silvia’s and Diana’s mother, a sprightly 82-year-old, still likes to serve in the shop. She attended to a number of customers while we were there.
Silvia, who does not live in Cottbus, pays her mother and sister a visit once every two weeks or so. This was one of those occasions. Silvia marvelled that she was present in the shop when we made our appearance. She told us she is not usually there.
She said, “Someone wanted us to meet each other today.”
I showed Silvia the written material about the Proposch Family I had with me, and she asked if she could take a copy. Having an interest in family history herself, she offered to make enquiries on our behalf about members of the Proposch family who may still live in the district. We exchanged email addresses and promised to keep in touch.
But this was not the end of their generosity.
Before we left, Diana took us on a tour of the bakery. The kitchen is located at the back of the shop. Here, bread, buns and cakes are baked daily. She showed us the various pieces of equipment they use, including a 1920s mixer! The bakery, which dates from 1889, has been in the Schmidt family since 1962, when Waltraud and her late husband took it over. Now, Diana is in charge of the bakery, with the help of her son and another qualified baker.
Diana and Silvia gave us a parting gift: A Schmidt Bakery version of the famous Dresden Stollen (traditional German Christmas cake) in a Schmidt Bakery cloth bag. Silvia told us she was responsible for the design on the cloth bags. Diana said that their Stollen is unique, superior to any other, in that they do not add any sugar to the mix. The fruit, she said, provides enough sweetness. Overwhelmed by their generosity and kindness, we told them we would take the Stollen back to Mannheim, to share with our son and daughter-in-law.
The last act of kindness was Silvia’s driving us in her car to the Kaufland Shopping Centre, where she hoped we would find Siegfried Proposch. Silvia told us she lives about 25 kilometres from Cottbus, and that she was on her way home. She insisted it was not out of her way. When we left the bakery at about 4.25 pm, it was already dark. We watched as Silvia scraped the thick deposit of snow off the windscreen and the windows of her car.
Silvia dropped us off at Kaufland at 4.40 pm. We thanked her once again, and waved goodbye to our new friend.
We didn’t find Siegfried Proposch at the Kaufland bakery.
The shop attendant there had never heard of him.
Of course, we were very disappointed that we did not find this man Siegfried Proposch. But then we recalled the events of the afternoon, and praised God for His goodness to us.
We marvelled that the path we took, as a result of us first going the wrong way, then second, needing to obtain coins, led us to the Schmidt family bakery. Here we met three “angels”. They welcomed us, invited us to stay and looked after us, in a way that we did not expect or deserve. In the New Testament Christians are encouraged to show such hospitality, without reserve:
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
In our case, we were the strangers and our hosts the angels: our “snow angels”.
Since we met on 5 January, Silvia and I have been exchanging emails and photos. On 21 January, Silvia sent me an email and attached a number of winter landscape photos she took, including this one, with the comment “the angel is me”.
Little did she know that I was writing a story about our meeting in Cottbus and that I had coined the phrase “snow angels” to describe her, Diana and Waltraud.
Isn’t that just amazing?