German woman gets to thank Portland woman in person for post-WWII CARE packages
It took 64 years, but the story of how a middle-class family in Coulee Dam made sure that life was just a bit more bearable in post World War II Germany for a war widow and her young daughter finally has come to a close.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PORTLAND — It took 64 years, but the story of how a middle-class family in Coulee Dam made sure that life was just a bit more bearable in post-World-War-II Germany for a war widow and her young daughter finally has come to a close.
A now-67-year-old German woman finally got to thank in person an 88-year-old American woman. They embraced. There were a few tears. The memories flooded back.
Every four or five weeks starting in 1946, packages stuffed with clothing and food would arrive in the town of Syke in northern Germany in what was known as the British Zone.
It was like Christmas for the war widow and the young daughter, now 67, whose married name is Barbara Mathes.
Now, after all those years, Mathes wanted to find someone from that American family — the Benjamins — and thank them personally.
It turned out the last remaining member of the Benjamins is Lois Lobdell, the 88-year-old.
They had never talked before their meeting Monday. Still, the two were instantly at ease with each other.
Mathes was 4 when those first packages arrived in postwar Germany.
Oh, how she and her mom, Erna Wagner, looked forward to opening the cardboard boxes. The packages kept arriving until the mid-1950s, more than 70 boxes in all. By then, the 4-year-old had become a teenager.
Mathes remembered the time one of the boxes contained a girl's swimsuit.
She proudly went to the town's public swimming pool and climbed up to the diving board.
"Nobody had such a suit! I just stood there in it," Mathes said.
A personal connection
After the war, Germany was shattered economically. There was a barter economy. Kids would pick up coal that had dropped off trains, and their parents would trade that coal for food from farmers.
Americans responded to the plight of their former enemy in that typical American manner: They sent help. Movie stars from Bob Hope to Ingrid Bergman to Ronald Reagan posed alongside CARE boxes.
Among some of the prizes to be found in the boxes sent to Erna Wagner and her daughter were clothing, shoes, tins of meat, coffee, Burpee vegetable seeds for planting their own garden, and the ever-prized Cadbury chocolate bars.
The packages were sent by the family of an engineer working on the construction of Grand Coulee Dam — Chester Benjamin. He and his wife, Marie, lived in what was known as "Engineer's Town" in Coulee Dam — look-alike, modest frame homes constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation for maybe a couple of thousand dollars each.
When the Coulee Dam Community Church asked its members to help with the CARE packages, the Benjamins signed up.
"Hitler and the government was the enemy. My dad considered the people the victims," said Lobdell.
Many families simply gave money to CARE, which then bought the package contents. The Benjamins bought the items themselves.
And Chester Benjamin also did something else: He wanted to establish a personal connection with the German family. He even took it upon himself to learn German.
Over the years, a sizable stack of photos, letters and postcards accumulated on both sides.
When her mom died last year at age 89, Mathes took over possession of all that material from the United States.
Lobdell's parents died decades ago. She now has possession of all those letters from Germany, and something else: vivid memories.
"Uncle Ben lives here"
In 1946, Lobdell was 24, a registered nurse and mother to a 1-year-old daughter, and a year later, to a son. Her husband, John Lobdell, was a Navy pilot often away on assignment.
And so Lobdell would spend the times while her husband was gone with her parents in Coulee Dam.
She remembered one day getting in the mail a paper outline of Mathes' foot. Then Lobdell's daughter, Marilyn, and Grandpa Benjamin went and got shoes to fit that outline.
The adults certainly valued the canned food considerably more than the Cadbury chocolates.
In those years, Mathes and her mother were living with the mom's parents in Syke. Mathes' father was in the German army and had been killed in the Battle of Leningrad. He died never knowing his baby daughter had been born.
Back then, before Bubble Wrap, Lobdell remembered, dry popcorn — "not buttered" — was used as packing material for items like the chocolates, homemade cookies and anything else that was breakable.
"My mother would put the chocolate in the cupboard, and I got one piece a day," said Mathes.
From Germany, Erna Wagner wrote the Benjamins, thanking them for what in America were everyday items, "It's getting colder. A cup of sweet tea is nice. We're always very proud if someone comes to see us, and we offer him a cup of tea, and cookies."
The mother put to use the Burpee vegetable seeds the Benjamins sent.
"I am digging in the garden to prepare it for the winter. It is hard work but I enjoy it. I like to work outside. I hope you also have a good harvest in your garden," she wrote.
From America, Benjamin would send a postcard with an arrow showing housing by Grand Coulee Dam. "Onkel Ben wohnt hier," he wrote, for, "Uncle Ben lives here."
The young Mathes certainly got an unusual look at America. One postcard that Benjamin mailed showed a sheepherder with several hundred sheep behind him, crossing the dam.
In the cards, Benjamin would ask if a particular CARE box had arrived. Being the engineer, he numbered and itemized them all.
"Yesterday, I sent package No. 59. There are four pairs of long stockings and three pairs of short stockings, and also three pieces of fine soap. I love you. Good-bye, Uncle Ben."
From Germany, Mathes sometimes made drawings to send the Benjamins — of a Christmas tree, of a vase with flowers.
The Benjamins got photos of Mathes in pigtails, playing an accordion, or posing with a neighborhood dog.
She'd relate happenings in her life, such as her pet white mouse, which her uncle had given her. The mouse had been used by a magician in his act, and the uncle knew the magician.
"My mouse is very great and strong!" Mathes wrote. "She has gotten bigger and wider and she always wants to come to my bed."
Reconnecting via e-mail
Mathes, who had taught German and French in public schools, and her husband, Nikolaus, a patent attorney, decided to make a trip to America. They live in Wuppertal, a city of some 360,000.
Planning their U.S. trip, the couple looked at a map of this country, and there it was, Grand Coulee Dam.
Google searches didn't help much in locating what had happened to the Benjamins. The family no longer was in that area. Chester Benjamin died in 1965 at age 69. He had had Parkinson's and cancer. Marie Benjamin died in 1985.
But with the help of this newspaper and The Star, a weekly newspaper serving the Grand Coulee Dam area, which ran an article asking if anybody remembered the Benjamins, Lois Lobdell was located in Portland.
Lobdell e-mailed Mathes, "Just today I learned that you were alive and going to be in the United States. I have thought of you many times and this is like a dream come true."
The two women met and it really was like old friends seeing each other again.
In this Internet age, they plan to stay in touch.
Lobdell signs off her e-mails to Mathes, "Much love."
Mathes responds, "With love and many hugs."
There is no more unfinished business.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com