Letters from Sonja: My Greatest Day in 1956
Michael-Alexander is born and Sonja's relationship with her in-laws is tested.
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First published: July 26, 2005
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The time for the arrival of our first, long awaited child was coming closer.
On Saturday, September 8th, 1956, when I was preparing lunch I felt unknown movements and I thought that this could be the first sign of the arrival of our baby. We did not have a phone and I could only wait for Hubert to come home in time. That Saturday he came home in a Land rover.
Hubert, being quite experienced with the arrival of babies - Klaus, Peter and Andreas, the children of Hubert’s two older sisters were all born in his mother’s home, just told me to stay calm and keep moving about normally. The lunch was put on the table and Hubert ate. Later in the afternoon Hubert thought we could now go to the hospital. So Hubert brought me there in the Land rover, which used to be, and apparently still is, quite a “hard” car. The nurse on duty did not think it was time, but she kept me there in the maternity ward. Hubert left and went to get a second-hand washing machine for me.
I was still vomiting, but was just left by myself lying in that room.
When the nurse finally came in, I told her that I thought that the baby is on its way. She had a quick look and just said its head is there already. She took the baby away and I heard a loud cry, which I took as a good sign.
At 10 Minutes past 6 p.m that Saturday, September 8th, l956, our son was born at the “European and Asian Hospital” in Kampala, which in later years has been turned into the TV studios of Uganda Television. I am sure the hard Land rover helped a lot. I was taken care of and brought to my room. I had not seen my baby yet. As this was my first child, I thought that this is normal procedure.
Although everything went rather quickly I was quite exhausted and fell asleep.
Later the nurse woke me up and told me that my husband was here and that we should talk together, and she would then bring the baby.
Michael soon after birth.
The nurse left the room and Hubert told me, that our son was born with a split palate, jaw and lip. I had not expected that, although I knew about the possibility of this happening. When I first met my husband’s family I realized that his oldest sister, Mila, had a “hare lip”. I knew that this is hereditary. There was no way of me dropping Hubert at that point. I accepted the fact, knowing that it can happen, but it does not have to happen, that our children will be born with this defect.
The nurse then brought our son. For me, he was the most beautiful baby in the world. His little ears, his tiny hands, everything was so perfect.
The nurse handed me a little bowl with some glucose water. And there started the problem. I had to spoon-feed my little baby, and I was afraid, that he was going to choke. Hubert stayed with me and calmed me down and without any help from the nurse, who had left the room, I was able to feed my baby. I knew that feeding the baby was going to be quite a problem. My baby had to survive and I successfully did feed him, teaspoon after teaspoon. I also vowed that I would do everything to give my baby lots of self-confidence and would never pity him, but bring him up like a perfectly healthy baby.
Hubert had to register the baby. We choose to name him Michael-Alexander. When Hubert came back to tell me that he had registered our son, he said: “Martin, wasn’t it Martin?” I got furious, although Martin would have been a nice name too. Hubert was just joking.
Very soon Dr. McAdams (later Professor McAdams) was sent to me in order to advise me, what can be done about our son’s “hare-lip”. Dr. McAdams was a very fine person. He told me, that he has done several operations in similar cases. He also advised me however, to take our son to Europe and have him operated there, if we could somehow afford it, as in Europe doctors were far more experienced. I really did appreciate his advice. He could have made quite a lot of money if he had not advised us to have the operation done in Europe. Hubert and I talked this over. Although we did not have the necessary money available, we decided that I should take our son to Munich and have him operated there. Fortunately Hubert had just bought a brand new VW beetle, which was a right off after an accident. He replaced all damaged parts and repaired the car. This metallic-silver beetle should have been my first car. We decided to get rid of the car at once and use this money for the operation.
During my stay at the hospital, apart from Hubert, I had only one visitor, Dr. Oberhofer. This visit really did me good.
I could leave hospital the following Saturday. Hubert collected us and when we came home, Paul Kibukamusoke and his brother, Dr. John Kibukamusoke, where waiting in our sitting room for us. What a nice surprise! Hubert did not tell me before and I was so glad indeed to see these friends of ours after a week in that rather unfriendly hospital. They admired my baby and Dr. Kibukamusoke gave me some very valuable advice. I was really very grateful.
I now did not have time to write home to my parents. I, however, found just recently the following letter dated September 9th, 1956, which Hubert sent to my parents and which shows to me, how hard it must have been for him to break the news:
Little Michael-Alexander arrived well.
Sonja is in good health.
Michael has brought with him a torn lip, palate and jaw.
Provided he lives through the next two weeks,
Sonja will fly to Munich with him to have him operated there.
In a great hurry – Yours Hubert”
Hubert had also informed his family. They never congratulated me on the birth of my baby. Instead Hubert’s mother wrote to Hubert only to tell him to send the baby to them with a stewardess, as only she and my sister-in-law Mila would know how to deal with the baby. She also told Hubert that she had always said, that I should take good care during my pregnancy, which apparently I did not do and so she made me responsible for Michael being born with a harelip. My mother-in-law insisted that Mila was born with a harelip as her favourite sister died while she was carrying Mila. I knew that this was ridiculous. She certainly was a very well educated woman and knew better than that. What I found very hard to cope with was her accusation that I did not take care during pregnancy and therefore Michael got a harelip.
Of course Hubert knew that I would never agree to Michael being sent to Germany with a stewardess. So in spite of everything, I had to go to Munich and stay with my in-laws until Michael had been operated.
Hubert's mother with her 4 grandchildren.
This opened a crack in the relationship between my mother-in-law and me. I never said anything about my feelings regarding that to Hubert, as I knew he was quite aware what his mother did to me with those remarks. I also knew, that in spite of that, Hubert did love his mother. I actually have no diplomatic ability, but in this case, I just swallowed everything. I always respected my mother-in-law, but there was no love between us anymore.
I wrote my first letter home on September 17th, in which I asked my parents to place a birth announcement in the two daily newspapers of Stuttgart according to my design. This announcement brought me quite a lot of mail from Stuttgart. Especially my former two bosses and former colleagues and neighbours wrote to me. In this letter I also talked about my plans of bringing Michael to Germany for an operation. I could not make real plans yet, as the baby needed some vaccinations, a passport etc. I further wrote:
Since Saturday we are at home. During the day Michael is a real angel. During night however he does not want me to sleep. (This changed very quickly.) Michael has gained weight already. Although feeding him is rather strenuous for me, every time I do feed him it makes me very happy to see how well he is eating. Since the first “meal” he eats very well from the spoon. But until I have the meal ready and then fed to him, it takes me more or less 2 hours, five times every day. At birth Michael’s weight was 6 lbs. and 15-½ oz., which equals 3l64 g. This is not really a lot for a boy, but a week later he already weighs much more than at the time of birth.
In spite of the split lip, in my opinion, Michael has a lovely little face and a nicely shaped head. He has a very marked boy’s face, blue eyes and a lot of very straight hair in my colour. I can however not tell whom he resembles. In hospital they all thought that he looks like me.
I will contact you as soon as we are in Germany.
October 5th, 1956:
I just would like to let you know, that we are still in Kampala. Things are not happening as fast as we would like it. We have both had our Smallpox vaccination. Michael still needs a Yellow Fever vaccination. (In the end he did not get a yellow fever vaccination and we travelled without one.) We are still waiting for the birth certificate, which has to be entered in my passport. We also still have to wait for the re-entry permit to Uganda. If everything goes well, we will be flying to Germany on October 15th.
Michael is doing very well. He is a very strong and healthy child. Doctors of all races and nationalities have already seen Michael and all of them are enthusiastic about him. Regarding the operation, all these doctors are very optimistic. Even if the operation turns out half as well as predicted, I will be very pleased.
The Italian lady, who is living in the same building as we are, has also got a son. Raphaele is exactly one week younger than Michael.”
At last we could fly to Germany on October 23rd, 1956. We arrived in Munich the next day. The flight from Kampala to Nairobi by East African Airways was in a DC 3, which was a very narrow two-engine aeroplane. I was sitting there with Michael in his carrycot on my lap. In Nairobi, we were met by Gustl Hofmann, who took us from Eastleigh Airport to the new International Airport, which was opened in 1954. Gustl was of great help to us. From there we flew by SAS in a DC 6 to Zurich, where we received “VIP”-treatment compared to these days. Two ground-hostesses met me at the aircraft and carried the baby in the carrycot for me. At the airport they brought me to a special baby room, were a baby nurse took over. She changed nappies and so on, fed the baby, for whom I had to use powdered milk during the trip. I could just relax until the flight went on to Munich in another DC 3, were my sister-in-law, Mila met us.
Michael at the day of baptism.
On October 31st, 1956 I wrote to my parents:
Yesterday, and today, I went from doctor to doctor with Michael. The weather was horrible, rainy and cold and we had to do everything by tram. In the end there are two doctors left, in whom I have great confidence.
The one, Dr. Lutz, is from a Protestant hospital and the other one, Prof. Oberniedermaier, from the Catholic University Children’s Clinic. I have first seen Dr. Lutz. He really is a very, very kind person. After I learned that he was a scholar of Prof. Oberniedermaier I decided to see the “master” himself. Prof. Oberniedermaier was very concise and extremely to the point. I had the impression of him doing such operations like on a conveyor. The decision is actually very difficult for me. Both are strangers to me. What shall I do? So much depends on the outcome of the operation.
My mother-in-law wanted me to have Michael operated in a Catholic hospital. I opted for Prof. Oberniedermaier, because he had a lot of experience. He told me that he could operate the baby at the beginning of December. During this first operation the lip and the bottom of the nose would be closed. In about 2 ½ to 3 years Michael would have to be operated again in order to close the split palate. At the age of 10, the jaw will have to be regulated. Michael would have to stay at the hospital for two weeks for this first operation. After that, we could travel back to Africa and we could be there for Christmas. This would be wonderful. If only politics did not mess-up my plans! The political situation on the African continent was very stressed because of the Suez crisis.
In Europe on October 23rd, 1956, students and workers took to the streets of Budapest (the capital of Hungary). We were on the brink of another war. The newsreaders in Germany read the daily news with such a broken voice, which made me shiver! Sometimes I thought that we would not make it home to Uganda again.
What I now try to sort out every day is how I could come to Reichenbach to see you. It is impossible to travel with Michael. He has not quite overcome the change of climate and under no circumstances must he become sick. I perhaps could come by myself, but not yet, as I am still feeding Michael. I do not want to change him to artificial food, although at the moment it has already become half and half. Mila does not think that I can carry on feeding the baby very long, but I want to feed the baby at least partly as long as somehow possible. When Michael is at the hospital, I, of course want to be in Munich, and after he can leave the hospital we want to fly back home as quickly as possible. Perhaps in about 2 weeks I could come for a couple of days. I don’t know what to do. What do you think? Perhaps you could come to Munich on a Sunday. I have no idea if this would be possible for you. Please let me know what you are thinking.
Michael also has not been baptised yet. I would like to have him baptised in Munich before he has to go to hospital. Please let me know, whether Gerd would like to be Michael’s Godfather.
I cannot even tell you, how glad I will be once the operation is over. When I only imagine, that my little “Spatz” (sparrow) has to be operated, this is enough to drive me to despair. Hopefully everything goes well. Don’t you know anybody who has already done such an operation or someone with a successfully operated harelip, who could be asked?
Fortunately Michael is very well. He already weighs 4600 g. He is hearing and seeing and is laughing so that one could think to hear him jubilant. He is not especially gentle but seems to be quite hot-tempered at times. I got so used to his little mouth and would rather not have it operated. I know that this is not possible. Please, please do write to me soon.
Michael at the day of baptism.
Michael was baptised in Munich at St. Sylvester, but Gerd could not become his Godfather according to the rules of the Catholic Church. (We do come from a “mixed” marriage. Our father used to be Protestant and our mother Catholic). I was baptized Catholic and Gerd Protestant. Instead Hubert’s cousin Joseph became Michael’s godfather.
I went to Reichenbach for a very quick visit without the baby. My parents were very disappointed.
The operation was very successful. I was not allowed to see the baby during the time he was in the hospital, which was very hard on me.
We flew back to Kampala on December 16th, 1956. My brother Gerd, then 17, came to Munich to see the baby and see us off at the airport.
On Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1956, I wrote from Kampala as follows:
We happily landed in Africa again. Michy is coughing a bit and I arrived with badly swollen legs and feet. Apart from that we are quite well, especially Michy who is feeling much better than he was in Germany. The first day back in Kampala was a very hot day.
Michy proved himself to be a real African. He was so happy. Also during the nights he is sleeping well again and I don’t have to carry him around. (My sister-in-law was constantly carrying Michy on her arms.)
Michy is not very fond of vegetables.
Hopefully Gerd arrived well again in Reichenbach.
December 30th, 1956
Michy is very well. He has completely changed since we are at home again. He is very good and a real little sunshine, always ready for a smile. What did Gerd say about the operation? It would be exaggerated to say that there is no scar, but it is really well done and the redness will disappear.
I had so many very nice letters. I would like my mother-in-law to see them. I at once wrote to her and Mila but did not get any reply. Hubert does not write.
Why was Gerd not very enthusiastic about Munich?
Happy New Year!
Michael at the beach in Entebbe shortly after our return from Germany
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First published: July 26, 2005