Memories of the past

I confess that I am still reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. I find that I cannot read too much of it at once, so a page or two at a time must suffice.
In this book, Frankl describes his experiences in concentration camps in such a matter of fact and clinical way that I sometimes need to reread paragraphs in order to fully understand what it was that he has just said and allow the words to penetrate my mind and soul.
I am not a visual learner but when I am reading, I tend to visualise things in my head and I must say that the images invoked by Frankl’s words are extremely disturbing.
Last night as I closed the book and put it down, I had a sudden flashback to my sixth grade teacher.
Her name was Mrs Kugelmas.
Mrs Kugelmas was old.
Well as old as my 10 year old self pictured her.
In reality she was more than likely in her late 50’s or early 60’s. I know that she retired from teaching when I was in my late teens.
I remember her as being very short and stooped with age. Most of us in the class stood taller than her. She had a beaked nose and wore her hair in permed waves that would fluff up on wet or windy days. Her dress was generally dark. Long sleeved cardigans (sweaters) and long dresses or skirts of navy, black or brown were her preferred choice of clothing. I don’t recall ever seeing her wear something bright and summery.
Mrs Kugelmas was an ‘old school’ teacher. We learned our multiplication tables by rote and we learned our spelling words the same way.
There was a system in our class that if we did well with our spelling words, we were given ‘words in the bank’. These were written in the back of our exercise books and could be used in the times when we had done something wrong and were punished with having to write out our spelling list a number of times.
That was how light punishment worked in our classroom.
If you misbehaved, you spent your lunch hour writing out spelling words x amount of times. In the event that you had ‘words in the bank’ for good behaviour or excellent spelling then these could be deducted from the number of words you needed to write out for your misdemeanors.
I learned to ‘play the system’ and would wait until I had a good number of words in the bank before misbehaving. Generally my misbehaviour consisted of chatting to the girl seated at the desk behind me. I was a small-time classroom offender 😉

For misdemenours that weren’t quite bad enough for the ‘cuts’ (the cane administered across an outstretched palm by the principal), Mrs Kugelmas kept a heavy ruler tucked away on her desk that she would use to hand out justice.
I never received the ruler thank goodness.
However Martin did. I don’t remember Martin’s last name but I recall his greasy, stringy, long blonde hair and his smart mouth.
Martin was always in trouble and he was generally always at the front of the class standing before Mrs Kugelmas with his palm outstretched awaiting punishment.
Until one day, he decided that he didn’t wish to be punished.
There they stood in front of the blackboard – old Mrs Kugelmas with her hand on Martin’s arm admonishing him to hold his hand out and defiant Martin (who must have had a growth spurt or something because on this day he actually stood taller than her).
He stood even taller as he placed his feet on top of Mrs Kugelmas’ sturdy brown shoes and refused to get off. We all laughed (as ten year olds are wont to do at seeing a teacher in distress) and we laughed even harder as her efforts to dislodge this boy off her own feet caused the sleeve of her cardigan to come up and we saw a tattoo on her arm.

I often wonder now (as an adult) if I truly did see numbers tattooed on her arm or whether it was a trick of the light. Maybe it was my childish imagination.
I don’t know.
What I do know, is that Mrs Kugelmas had a Jewish name and in later years this memory began to make a little more sense to me as I learned more of the world and its past.

Last night I attempted to research a little deeper into Mrs Kugelmas and found her on the electoral rolls of that time in the area of my school. I discovered that her first name was Gitte and her occupation was listed as a school teacher.
I also located a birth notice for her daughter and found Mrs Kugelmas’ maiden name was Barnbaum.
Maybe I imagined the tattoo. Maybe I didn’t.
What I do know is that we gave Mrs Kugelmas a hard time without realising that she had a life outside of teaching.
Reading Viktor Frankl’s book has made me realise that quite possibly the life she had  lived was far more harrowing than teaching a class of 10 year olds that included young Martin and myself.
And I am sorry for that.

I’m sorry that those 10 year olds in 1976 were so insensitive to an old lady just trying to do her job.
I’m sorry for laughing.
But most of all (if I remember that tattoo correctly), I’m sorry that humanity failed this woman.
However, I admire her courage.
It takes a very special kind of person to be a teacher that is still teaching me almost 40 years later.

40 thoughts on “Memories of the past

  1. Was the number in fade blue ink and about 8-10digits/letters long, located just above the pulse on the inside of one arm? If so, then you saw it. I had a friend, Dora, who with her husband Zack had immigrated to Canada from South Africa. She was 70 at the time and it was about 30 years ago. I used to go on Saturdays and play scrabble with Dora’s friend while Dora watched (her choice) and we would speak of many things. Dora always wore long sleeved blouses and one day she rolled up her sleeves to do the dishes while we were there. I saw the Nazi registration number on the inside of her wrist and knew she had been in a concevtration camp during WW II. She had lost all of her family and would have been dead herself except the Allies overran the camp and freed the prisoners. The intelligence officer for the Allies was a young man on exchange whose name was Zack. They fell in love and eventually married and moved to his native S.A. She had been a Russian Jew when the war started. When the political scene got too dangerous in S.A, and it wasn’t any better in Russia, they moved to Canada where I met them.

    I mentioned to Dora that tattoos could be removed, and she said she did not want it removed. She said that she never wanted to forget and did not want the world to ever forget the hatred and torture and death and inhumanity that that tattoo represented. Hard to argue with that.

    Like your Mrs Kugelmas, Dora was a very special person who would go unnoticed on the street and yet had an inner core of strength that was unmatched in the world.

    Awesome post Suz – very thought provoking.


    1. It sounds as if you had a wonderful friend in Dora.
      I really don’t know if my memory is serving me correctly and that is why I said ‘maybe’ about it. I would never be able to testify in a court of law about it because of my uncertainty. However it is what I believe so that is how I wrote it.
      Thanks for reading and commenting Paul.


      1. Haha…well not exactly, but I see now that she was just a human being dealing with a bunch of rowdy kids. My best friend (her star pupil) and I used to play tricks on each other during class, with me usually getting into trouble. It was worth it, though. Making my best friend laugh was the best ever. 😉


  2. Ahh, its funny the memories we keep of school and our perceptions at the time. Kids still don’t believe teachers have a life outside the classroom. I still recall early this year telling my class about my family. One child asked if I saw them much. I told them I was happy they still lived with me but they would soon probably move out to have their own families. One little boy earnestly asked as the rest ran off to play outside “Where do you all sleep here and do you have a bathroom ?” I think I broke his innocence more than if I’d told him the truth about Santa Claus by the look on his face when I told him where we lived lol.
    I dont want to be remembered as the teacher that administered pain but I hope I’m remembered as the teacher that bought learning to life.


  3. So sad if that was the case. It amazes me how as we grow and learn and are educated, we look back on our life and see all the ‘bad’ things we did for what they truly were. As kids, it all just seems innocent. Had we known back then though what we know now, there are so many things that we would have never done. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find all those people we may have caused hurt to or unneeded stress, and have the opportunity to apologize and make it right? You didn’t know though, so don’t beat yourself up for it. But it is a good lesson to teach others.


    1. I think children are so insular and live only in their own little worlds, that the thought of them impacting on the wider world around them wouldn’t even cross their minds. (Mind you there are a few adults like that as well).
      If it was the case then I am sorry that I was naughty in class and laughed when this incident took place but I am pleased that she appeared to have a much better life here in Australia than the one she had previously.


      1. You’re right. As children (adults sometimes) it’s very hard to see beyond their world and into the world around them. It is wonderful that she was able to make it through and live life again, after what she may have gone through.


  4. Well said Sue. It takes me back to my school days and when you could break a teacher it was great. … nothing to be proud of in an adults eyes. Lovely post, well meaning and well versed. Made me think!


  5. Great post Sue with such a wonderful nostalgic feel. Your teacher reminded me of my Mrs. Woods. I love thinking back to the days when I was very young and “before” problems in the house. Wouldn’t you just love to relive just one day as a young girl? I would.

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  6. Looking back at our 10 year old selves through our mature eyes can certainly change the perspective. And to imagine what your teacher’s life was before she came into the classroom….and what demons she still undoubtedly wrestled with. I remember the first time I saw the tattooed numbers on someone’s arm- I could not get the image out of my head or stop thinking about what horrors the person must have endured.


    1. See I am not 100% sure that my memory is correct in what I saw which is why I said ‘if’ however yes, she must have endured far worse horrors than ratbag 10 year olds.


  7. Mother was in hospital once with a woman named Nina who had a concentration camp tattoo on her arm. I must have been about twelve and I knew very well what the tattoo signified. I couldn’t help thinking about the things she must have been through and the injustice of her ending up in hospital in Southampton England so many years later with cancer. These things are hard to remember but should never be forgotten.

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