Monday, July 6, 2009

Willi Schultheiss

A couple days ago, I sent around to a few friends, and to my sister, a picture of two of our uncles wearing German uniforms. The picture was taken in 1942, give or take.

I also sent a picture of me at age 22 taken in 1962, also wearing a uniform. An American uniform this time. And some silly comment about how, in our family, the men seem to be drawn to uniforms.

Today I got a letter from my sister. She is five years younger than I am and never established the connection with Germany, the German language or the German relatives I did. She also has no apparent awareness of or interest in my attempt at wit.

She wrote:

I showed these pictures to Joe Jr., and Nick [her son and grandson] tonight and they wanted to know if Uncle Willy was still alive and if so where is he? Also, please tell us what you know about them and our real grandfather. It's too bad that we never got to meet him.



P.S. You said that Willi helped Germany win the Olympics-what did he do?

I wrote back:

Dear Karen:

Interesting that you still use the word “real” grandfather. You mean “biological” grandfather. Our “real” grandfather was Vati, the man who game Mom a home and treated her as his own daughter as long as he lived, even though he had no biological relationship to her.

You know, I don’t even remember the guy’s name. I think it was Karl, but I can’t be sure. Karl is the name of one of Großmutter’s brothers as well. Karl Schultheiss died not long before I met Willi in Hamburg. Willi seemed to be genuinely sad that his father never met me, his “grandson.”

I wish I had, of course. After all these years, I have no animosity toward the man. I didn’t see any reason to take him seriously, however. He abandoned Großmutter with a new-born baby and started a new family. I don’t know the details. Possibly Großmutter deserves part of the responsibility. I don’t know. We’ll never know now, of course.

You remember, probably, that he and Großmutter met in Torrington, got married, and went back to Germany on their honeymoon, where he was promptly drafted into the First World War. He then ran away with another woman. Whether that was Willi’s mother, I don’t know.

I was just talking about the picture of Kurt and Willi with Taku over dinner. What a strange thing. I’ll never forget the first time I saw that picture. You can imagine how it struck me to realize we had actual relatives in Nazi uniforms! Now, almost 70 years after that picture was taken it has all receded into an historical event that has little, maybe nothing, to do with us today. They were just two boys in their 20s caught up in world events. Kurt was killed trying to machine gun American bombers bombing Hamburg – the details have receded in my memory. It could have been the British, and it could have been another city. Anyway, I suspect if we could have met him we would hardly see him as a Nazi monster, but more as a kid Nicky or Joey’s age, simply doing what he was told to do.

It is a mystery how and why Großmutter should have gotten that picture. After all, it is a picture of her ex-husband’s kids from the woman he married after he abandoned her. One can only wonder what emotions she had to deal with in looking at that picture. In any case, she got hold of it somehow and kept it. I like to think there was a way for her to remember Karl Schultheiß (if that indeed is what his name was) with some fondness.

When I went to Munich in 1960, she wrote and told me Willi had heard I was in Germany and wanted to meet me. I had gone up to Celle to spend Christmas with Tante Mary, Großmutter’s sister, and her husband, Fritz Kruckenberg. I also went to Hamburg to meet Großmutter’s brother Karl (the family name was Rühmann), his wife Emma, and his children. Sadly, I have no memory of them now and couldn’t find them if I tried. Fritz and Mary had one daughter, Ilona Schaper. Her husband worked as a border guard on the Dutch border, I remember. I met them and their child, but never stayed in touch. One of these people must have been the connection to Karl Schultheiß.

Just at the beginning of summer vacation in 1961, I took the train to Hamburg. Willi and his wife met me at the station. I was only twenty years old at the time, remember, and found the whole experience uncomfortable. I had no idea how to relate to these people. I didn’t know if I even liked them. As time wore on, I decided I didn’t like them, actually.

Willi had followed in his father’s footsteps and gotten interested in horses. His father was a jockey. Willi became very good at dressage and won lots of prizes. He had the silver melted down and made a coffee table out of the trophies, I remember. And I remember at the time thinking how tacky that was, and how pretentious. I don’t know why I was so judgmental, actually. I think I had a chip on my shoulder and was looking for ways to dislike him.

I needn’t have tried so hard. He gave me reason enough. He had married a woman from the nobility and boasted about the “von” in front of her name. Even at twenty I had enough of a working class, even socialist, consciousness to find this disgusting. She was cold and distant. I can only imagine the conversations that went on in their house when he told her he was inviting me to come stay with them. “Who? The grandson of your father by a former wife? What the hell for?”

While we were there, Willi decided to show me Berlin, his home town, so we hopped in the car and drove through what was then called “the Zone” (the Russian Zone – known to Germans as the DDR, the German Democratic Republic). It was terribly exciting for me, even though I still had little to say to this stranger who was acting like I was supposed to be part of his family. Once in Berlin, I noticed the name Schultheis (with one s) all over the place – on a beer. No relation, he told me.

And – it only struck me, at this very moment writing this, but Großmutter used to talk fondly of Berlin. Since she went to America as a servant girl at the age of 16 straight off the farm, there was no way she could have taken a trip to Berlin before then. She must have gone to Berlin with her husband and spent time there with him before he left for the war. When I finally got to know Berlin, especially when I finally got into East Berlin, I used to imagine her walking down Unter den Linden and sticking her nose in the show windows. When I lived in Berlin, Potsdamer Platz was a pile of rubble which you could see by peering over the wall, famous for being the location of Hitler’s bunker. Today it has been completely rebuilt and is the center of the new city of Berlin. When I was there last summer I wondered what she would have made of it, and I marveled at the fact that I was walking around a busy city center my that impressed my grandmother almost a hundred years earlier.

But I’m wandering away from the story of Willi Schultheiss…

I got the idea somehow that Willi had won the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 for Germany in dressage. He was definitely involved in the team, somehow, but when I later researched the event I see he was part of the team but not a star of the event. Possibly he was making himself out to be bigger than he actually was. Possibly my German was faulty. I don’t know. If you look up the event, you can see Germany won a silver and three bronze metals, but Willi Schultheiß’ name does not appear on the credits: .

On the other hand, there are ample references to Willi as a trainer, so perhaps he was there and possibly he was “the” trainer behind the successes.

If you dig, you can find several references to him in the literature. This sentence, for example, appears in an article on the Trakehner horses:,%20Jan/Traks%20Part%201/Part%201.html

…In the 1950s famous dressage riders in Germany such as Willi Schultheiss, Harry Boldt or Otto Lörke would ride Trakehner dressage horses…

Other references to him as trainer can be found at the following websites:

That last reference shows he was still working as a trainer in 1974-5.

But this reference

contains the sentence:
“Erika Falk, who was a longtime student of the late Willi Schultheiss, and trained such great horses as Cindy Ishoys "Dynasty".
If he were still alive, he would be something like 90 years old.

Additionally, I don’t know if you can find the place, but try going to:

It is a book review and it contains this (to me) very interesting description of Willi:
Schultheiss was a genius of a rider. He would get on a horse that looked as if it was built like a post-and-rail fence, and within a minute it took on the most unbelievable shape. I would watch, and because I didn’t speak German, I would take in by osmosis how he worked and what he did. I was mesmerized by the fact that this man could get on any horse and produce animation that I had never seen before.
When we got to Berlin, we stayed in the house of Axel Springer. I was blown away by that. I had heard somebody once describe him as the “William Randolph Hearst of Germany.” He wasn’t that big, but he was one of the richest men in Germany and he had enormous influence. He had an estate in Berlin in the Grunewald where we stayed. We were the only people there, besides the dozen or so servants who came out of the walls and scared the shit out of me each time they would appear silently to put something in front of me or take away an empty plate. Willi sat at one end of the table and I sat at the other – too far away for conversation.

Willi’s accomplishments as dressage trainer caught the attention of Axel Springer’s wife (his third, I believe – he had five in all), who had seven prize Arabian horses. “Get me that man,” she apparently ordered her husband. And he did. He built Willi and his wife a beautiful house just outside the Hamburg-Blankenese mansion and apparently all Willi was doing, or so I thought, was running over to the stables every day to train the horses.

(If you have never heard the name Axel Springer, check out this Wikipedia site: . It mentions the fact that he owned about a fourth of all the newspapers in Germany – 180 of them. And that he was a right-winger.)

As it turned out the famous Viennese Lippizaner horses were giving an exhibition in Berlin, and we got to see them. I was clueless until, some time later, I saw them again in Vienna and realized what it was I was seeing. They’re probably the most famous show horses in the world, and here I was sitting with one of the world’s most famous horse trainers watching them perform, and all I could think of was how can I get away from this horse’s ass.

That evening, Willi met some of his navy buddies (come to think of it, I have no idea what he was doing in an army uniform in that picture. Was it actually a navy uniform? I have never thought about that before) and I was bored stiff sitting there unable to follow their conversation and watching them get drunker and drunker and more and more obnoxious. The next day we headed back to West Germany. When we got to Hannover, I asked him to drop me off at the train station. He was highly insulted that I wouldn’t go back to Hamburg with him, but I couldn’t stand him another moment. “Make sure you send my wife some flowers,” he said to me. And that is the last I ever saw him or heard from him. When I got back to Munich, I immediately went out and wired some flowers to say thanks for the hospitality. And my duty, I told myself, was done. That very day I was on a train with three friends for Venice and a two month trip around Italy and Greece, during which time I doubt I gave him a moment’s thought.

What a pity I was such a dickhead. I just didn’t have the maturity to put up with his boorishness. If I had, we might have stayed in contact and there is so much I might have learned from him. About family. About Germany. About what it was like to experience the war from the German side. I got plenty of that from other people over the years, of course. But it would have been nice to have a relationship with somebody who considered me family and gotten it from him, who might have been more open about his thoughts. And, who knows, if I had put him and Mom together somehow, it might have done her some good. He seemed to be genuinely curious about her. She, unfortunately (or not so unfortunately, maybe) never showed any interest in looking him up. I had his address and phone number. She could have if she had wanted to.

Anyway, that’s virtually everything I know about this mystery man who entered my life for three or four days in 1961 and then went out as fast as he came in. “All my life I’ve been dreaming about finding a rich uncle,” I used to tell friends. “And then it turns out I’ve got one, and I toss him out.”

Sorry, Willi. If I had it to do over again, I would do it differently.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it. As a rider just discovering his important teachings, it humanizes and personalizes him to see a little window into your few days together.