THE TAOS NEWS April 5-11, 2012
Know your neighbor: Heidi Smith
By Kathy Córdova
For The Taos News
Traumatic events, while hurtful to those living them, may help others who learn from them. Heidi Smith lived in Germany during World War II, and as a Taosena, shares her experiences through her book “After the Bombs — My Berlin.”
“I never thought that I would write a book,” Smith said of this endeavor. “Throughout the years, people asked me many questions, and I gradually completed my story to share it with others,” she added.
Q: Could you please discuss your formative years in Germany?
A: In the early 1900s, my mother, the late Edith Sieg, was raised by her grandparents. She married my father August Sieg, and he served as a member of the military during World War II. Therefore, he wasn’t at home with us very often. He died toward the end of the war, so our mother raised my sister Margot and me in Berlin.
We were mainly a female family group, and on occasion, we would visit with an uncle. My sister experienced tuberculosis and had to go to a hospital, so I lost both my dad and my sister in hose times.
I grew up after the bombs attacked our country. We lived in a big city, but people who lived in the country had a different experience. In our city, buildings were blown up and rubble existed.
Country buildings were not harmed, but the residents there experienced the same food shortage as the rest of us. My book includes a photo taken in 1956. Even 11 years after the war, the rubble was still there.
War is ugly. It doesn’t end when leaders say it ends. Rebuilding takes a long time. I know because I lived it.
When leaders declare war (Iraq is an example), they must think of the children that are affected. People will remember war, and the problems they experienced will never go away.
My mother encouraged the arts (music, concerts, etc.) but she also felt that they wouldn’t get us a job. I had always wanted to be a nurse so I could help people, especially children, so I started babysitting since I was 12 years old. I saved my money for school and hoped for other financial help. Then, I learned that the government would only finance the education for one child, and that person was my sister.
I was crushed. I attended business school because it was more affordable, but my heart wasn’t there.
After I finished school, I decided to leave home because I didn’t want to be stuck. Also, it was encouraged to spend a year abroad at that time to help broaden one’s horizons. Even though I didn’t want to use my business skills at that time, I later learned that the education was not wasted, as I have used the knowledge throughout my later life.
I agreed to go to Switzerland as a governess. When I got there, a woman met me at the train station and told me that the family’s governess had decided not to leave after all, so the job was not available.
However, the woman offered me a job as a cook. I told her that I didn’t know how to cook, and she said that she’d teach me. The woman was a good teacher and I learned to cook international cuisine — French, Swiss and Italian — for 1 ½ years.
Then, I decided to leave that part of the world and head to the United States.
Q: Please describe your new life in the United States.
A: I took a boat to the United States. I obtained a green card so I could work. I arrived in New York and received a position as a governess. It didn’t work out at all. The family really wanted a cleaning woman.
I had paid my own way, so I wasn’t obligated to stay. I then took a position as a private chef for Harcourt Brace and World Publishing Company.
Eventually, I moved to a Vermont ski area. There, I met Trent Smith. We were both ski bums, skiing by day and working in the evening. Trent had a restaurant. We married. If I had never left home, I wouldn’t have met Trent, so that was the best thing that could happen.
I produced canvas bags and sold wholesale and retail. I shipped to shops all over the country. In 1984, I sold the manufacturing business that I owned.
Q: How did your book evolve?
A: After I sold my business, I took a writing class at the University of Vermont. I didn’t like the journalism style of writing, but I liked general interest topics. I joined the Writing League and continued writing.
When my mother visited us every summer, she did not speak English. I had to answer the questions my children asked her.
When I was a substitute teacher and junior high track and field and cross-country coach, my students asked questions: Are you a Nazi? How did your country work? I tried to explain my life, but people had already made up their minds.
Then, the wall separating East and West Berlin came down in 1989. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. I had family members on both sides of the wall. I was living in Vermont then, and I took the next plane to Berlin.
Eventually, I came to realize that writing a book would be helpful to my children and others. I recently enjoyed a well attended book signing at the Blumenschein Museum. Now, after passing through many hoops, my book will soon become available through ebooks on Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well as hard copies at the Blumenschein Museum. I am very happy.
Q: Please tell the readers about your family.
A: Trent and I have three children. Jason and his wife Sheryl live in Amman, Jordan, where he works for the State Department. They raise our granddaughter June Elyse, 4. I have visited the country, and it’s quite peaceful.
Andrea Smith, our second child, lives in Brooklyn. She and her fiancé plan to marry in Taos this summer. Our son Derek and his wife Suzanne raise our grandson Dylan, 14, in Wilmington, N.C. where the family once lived. My sister Margot still lives in Berlin.
Q: Could you please discuss your spare time activities?
A: What spare time? The day isn’t long enough. We love to travel, usually by car. Every other year, the entire family meets on the coast of North Carolina in late fall for a family reunion. Trent and I also love to go to northern California.
I belong to a Wednesday Writers’ Group and take a writing class at UNM-Taos. I garden, hike and cook.
I volunteer at the TCA, belong to Los Jardineros, Taos Art Group and Fall Arts. I paint in my own studio. I also work part time at the Blumenschein Museum.
From a war-torn life to my current creative surroundings, I feel blessed to share my book with others.