URSEL PIETZNER nee’ SACHS
(*16 June 1927-†28 July 2015)
In her “retirement”, Ursel Pietzner often conceived of and undertook projects which gave her both joy and focus. About a year before she died, she began to work on a private memoir. This obituary incorporates some excerpts from the memoirs (all in cursive and some slightly edited) to tell Ursel’s story. It is, therefore, also quite personal, and not a chronological recapitulation of dates and activities.
Ursel was born before the Second World War in Germany and died at her beloved home in Camphill Beaver Run, Pennsylvania 88 years later in high summer.
I was born June 16, 1927, a summer child, in the evening. My father climbed over the big iron gate, which was locked, when he heard my mother’s cry in the Elizabethan seminary in Heidelberg (Germany). Their joy was immense. My name was to be Ulrike, or something like that, but I looked too grumpy; they had to call me “Ursula,”—the little bear.
With her two younger sisters, Eva and Renate, she spent her childhood at, and attended, the Odenwaldschule, a well-known, progressive boarding school where her father was the Principal.
My parents met in the school in the early 1920s. They were both teachers: he, art (drawing, painting, sculpting); she music (violin). They were married in 1924 in Freiburg. Before that, apart from teaching, he was responsible for a group of boys (the son of the author Thomas Mann, etc.). During these years, father corresponded with the great philosopher Martin Buber, about child drawings, etc.
For Ursel these were mostly happy years, where she learned a love of nature, was athletic and excelled in sports and played the viola. The family was cultured and musical, with her grandfather (mother’s side) a professor of music coming from the Gdansk area, then still part of Prussia, and her entire family highly accomplished in various instruments. (Sister Renate trained as a concert pianist). Her father read poetry to family on Sunday mornings, and Ursel at an early age learned to draw and sketch with accurate and true observation and a sure hand for proportion and relationship.
Even as a young girl, Ursel was high spirited: I liked to run away, also evenings, sometimes down the long stairs to my admired Olga (senior, from England). This time, when I returned (I was about 5) I got a spanking on my behind, on the laps of father and mother. It was the only time in my life, and we all three cried.
She recalls a later incident of another kind at the school: My special friend was Häschi. We were also roommates. As teenagers, she came once into my room saying: “I will now start to WORK on myself!” I had no idea what she was talking about, but was mightily impressed! (I did this “Working on myself” consciously only many years later in Camphill.)
With the Sachs family having to leave the Odenwaldschule immediately after the war in 1945 (followed shortly by the early death of her father), Ursel moved to Stuttgart and attended the Waldorf School there briefly. She lived with the Killian family in the same house as Karl Schubert, often seeing him walk to the school. On the advice of her father, she took up a practical training in weaving at Schloss Salem near the Lake of Constance. Post war Germany was poor, and Ursel learned to “make do”: We had our lunches, a hot meal, in the restaurant “Schwanen.” The waitress knew us and tried to make our limited portions (on food stamps) as big as possible, but of course, we were always hungry. We could pick up apples under trees, and collect corn ears from harvested fields, to exchange for flour at the bakery. This was an attribute that she carried with her for the remainder of her life- a modest, even Spartan approach, with no need for luxury and no waste or extravagance.
Back in Stuttgart she learned of Dr. König and Camphill, and, in August 1949 journeyed to Scotland with her sister Eva. She was placed in Heathcot, a Camphill school nearby where Carlo Pietzner was Principal and Janet McGavin the Matron. At her arrival, Carlo was away, visiting in Dornach, Switzerland.
Carlo came back soon one evening and the next morning came to the dining room breakfast to greet everybody. I still see him standing at the door, in a brown corduroy suit, with his blue eyes looking around – seeing me, greeting me. Something must have happened then, because I noticed he liked me. The following weeks (and months!) confirmed that. But these were difficult weeks to settle in and learn. And the physical and spiritual situation was so totally new and strange from everything I had ever met.
Her Camphill training was thorough and far-reaching, both inwardly (spiritually) and outwardly: In the house, I became the mother of the “green” nursery, with eight children, mostly cerebral palsy, in different ways. I even had to sleep with them! (My bed was in one corner). The nights could be tough, if Maria B. had a seizure and I was at her bedside. After a while, I moved with some of my children to another room, four in the nursery, two next door with me. My dorm helper was Christof-Andreas Lindenberg! There was much carrying and physical help needed.
Her spiritual journey and experiences are described with some self-irony and humor. For example: I became a Community member, after talked with Karl Koenig, the fatherly “king,” which included the Festival of Offering (Sunday service.) What did I understand? The services, anyway, were strange and difficult for me, not “understanding” anything. In a children’s Service in Heathcot, I learned, for the first time, that the weekly gospel reading was different every Sunday only after the celebrant who was holding the service had forgotten his bible and stood there in deep silence, looking into space until someone had run over to the house and brought him a bible! The Offering Service to which I had to go, only for adults, at festivals, was still more “holy.” He (Dr. Koenig) lovingly called Eva and me the “heathen sisters.”
Of course, it would be wrong to characterize Ursel’s relationship to either the community of the Sunday services in this way. Indeed, she developed a profound and earnest relationship to both for many decades, living deeply into the mood and words of the Sunday Service, and carrying a serious commitment to the striving and study of the inner Camphill Community and anthroposophy. She carried considerable responsibilities for both.
Although the work in Heathcot was still young and new, Ursel went for 18 months between September 20, 1951 and early 1953 to southern England to help build up the work of Ringwood Sheiling Schools. She recalls: Well, this was now absolutely like pioneering life! Apart from cooking, we had to do everything! Children, school, therapies, walks, entertainment (acting out fairy tales on Sundays was great fun!), excursions, etc.
For some three years Ursel resisted the wish of Carlo to marry her, finally consenting in San Gimigano, Tuscany on a group journey to Italy with Carlo, Christof-Andreas Lindenberg, and Reg Bould. She and Carlo were married on Whitmonday, May 25, 1953.
Later that same year, Carlo and Ursel went to Glencraig in N. Ireland to build up Camphill. Here her three children, Clemens, Christiana, and Cornelius were born. These were intense years, raising the young family with the many inner and outer aspects and responsibilities of deepening the community. There were also public and personal relations to attend to in Belfast that were important for Glencraig.
Denis Rebeck, President of the great shipworks Harland & Wolf (they had built the Titanic), was a large, jolly, kind man. He invited Carlo and me to the launching of a big new oceanliner which we attended (I had to wear a hat and gloves, borrowed from Dr. Janet).
Denis and his wife came to Glencraig, invited for a dinner and film slideshow. Carlo and cooked (was proud of his cooking!) but used for the soup sharp cayenne pepper instead of paprika by mistake! Imagine the result! Then, the film spooled off the reel into a big heap on the floor. Denis had so much fun, and for a long time thereafter could tease Carlo about those mishaps.
In 1961, again at the request of Dr. Koenig, the Pietzner family, together with Mary Elmquist and Renate, sailed to America to pioneer Camphill in upstate New York (Copake) and expand Downingtown Special Schools in Pennsylvania. Upon arrival in Copake: Gladys Hahn had prepared Orchard House (Copake) for us, before she and Bill left. Her warnings were serious: poison ivy, hunters that shoot at anything that moves (unless you wore orange clothing) and it was September 1961, hunting season!- black widow spiders that are very poisonous, rattle snakes in some areas…
Carlo spent a great deal of time in Copake, and Ursel and the children in Downingtown Special Schools. As the latter did not provide the conditions for the necessary growth, Ursel spent many weekends (with her children in tow) driving around the countryside looking for a suitable property. She found Beaver Run and it was acquired in 1963. Camphill Children’s Village was soon born with the consolidation of Downingtown and Donegal Springs. It was here that Ursel could develop roots, raising her family, directing the growth of Beaver Run together with Carlo and others, and integrating herself slowly into American culture and climate. Yet most of the new environment was indeed familiar, a little unsettling, and full of surprises and experiences, not all of them benevolent.
A typical story of “leading by example,” was the harvesting of the unknown large zucchini/squash-like vegetables that were growing wild in the garden in Beaver Run in the first year after we moved there. These were harvested, duly boiled and served to the large Whitestone household for lunch. It tasted truly awful! In fact, one could not eat it; it was just too horrible! Ursel, and her dear mother Elizabeth who was visiting at the time, stoically forced down the disastrous lunch as a good example to us. (I still don’t know how they did it.) I simply refused to eat and would not partake of this “America”! Well, it turned out the “vegetable” was a decorative gourd, and by no means ever intended to be eaten: Ursel and her mother paid for their brave stoicism and leadership by being sick all afternoon. Welcome to the new world!
I learned to drive, in the evening (no time by day) with our maintenance man. I was the first of our female coworkers who passed the test the first time! So, Carlo and I went to Washington to celebrate (visiting Eunice Shriver, sister to John F. and Robert Kennedy, presenting her with a lovely enamel bowl from Copake).
With the ongoing integration into the new environment, Beaver Run grew rapidly, partially through the interest of the federal government at the time which financed the construction of five residential houses simultaneously. Also Ursel’s role in Beaver Run expanded. In her words: Carlo began to delegate tasks: I took over admissions. He had said WE had to carry the karma with the children and their parents! That was scary to begin with, but then I learned and became confident. Coworker admissions with the visas, etc., from abroad, of course, was also my task.
Slowly I took on a lot of administration, and I think in the course of years became, and felt like, the soul of Beaver Run. I had also to travel overseas, for the Community, for conferences, also to Dornach and for the international seminar teachers. Taking over from Carlo was an honor.
In another chapter, Ursel writes: My responsibilities for Beaver Run and trust in people. And in the Being of Beaver Run, made me think of every coworker and houseparent for years every evening before going to sleep! That was good.
Carlo’s death in Copake in April of 1986 (The cloud formation on that day was extraordinarily unusual; it was written about in the local paper. In the evening the western sky was aflame in brilliant manifold colors. Little Sanne (granddaughter) said: “Look, Carlo is painting!” Yes, who knows…) was clearly a significant event in many ways. In a certain way it also “freed” Ursel to develop her own considerable gifts and capabilities and grow ever further into her role, taking on her own persona and identity, deepening her character, in her way. She was 12 years younger than Carlo, and not yet 60 when he died. She was no longer “Carlo’s wife.” She was Ursel. Something new and independent emerged.
There were many journeys over the years, many family vacations, and special trips that were important to Ursel. She writes of her camping expeditions with Clemens: Clemens and I once drove down to Virginia, camping our way through the Shenandoah Valley. Then coming from the south meeting up north in Chincoteague with family. At the last stop in the south, we got fried chicken and beer and ate those most happily in the car in the parking lot!
Of another trip: Cornelius invited me to come with them, first to the wedding of Jofrey McWilliam on an island near Seattle. Then on to Hawaii, where he was to have a workshop in a medical conference. Honolulu and beach were the first impressions. Then many more: lava, beaches, people, food (pineapple fields). Many great memories. Clemens and Claudia also came. Swimming, volcano visits, traditional festivities, touring around.
And then the numerous visits to Norway where she visited Christiana and her family. She loved to be there, and went as often as she could, sometimes flying alone, often accompanied by Hedda or someone else. And she would stay for weeks, well taken care of in all respects by her daughter. A special highlight for her 85th birthday was a celebration hosted by Christiana. Ursel’s three children and their partners were there, and this special week is commemorated in a picture book that she so enjoyed.
In the last (nearly three) decades of her life, Ursel developed a large and diverse circle of friends. She was genuinely interested in people, could be (and was) direct and occasionally sharp. She said what she thought, and would “cut to the chase.” Some would say that this was being honest. She was honest to herself; that is, authentic, (and occasionally eccentric). She preferred things (speeches, for example) to be rather shorter than longer. She would often be the one to say what needed to be said in difficult community settings, eschewing diplomacy for the plain, sometimes hard, truth. She had her likes and dislikes, and she also had her opinions. But she could change them, and was willing to work on them.
She was spiritually stalwart and also in this regard honest. This led her to question, especially in her later years, assumptions and anthroposophical homilies that, in my view, had carried and supported her striving for many of her earlier years.
On each of my visits to Beaver Run in the last years we always had several deeper talks. Once we had covered the catching up, and the soul and life-level of exchange, we spoke about deep, genuine questions she had. These amazed me for she was so open and without ambition. And it amazed and moved me that she was even concerned about such questions in her old age. There was no guile or cleverness that was intended to “stimulate conversation”—just deep human, spiritual, questing.
Ursel concluded her Memoirs with the Calendar of the Soul Verse 34, (Nov 24-30). She felt much closer to the German original, and wasn’t really happy with the English translation.
Gehimnisvoll das Alt-Bewahret
Mit neuerstandnem Eigensein
Im Innern sich belebend fühlen:
Es soll erweckend Weltenkräfte
In meines Lebens Aussenwerk ergiessen
Und werdend mich ins Dasein prägen.
And finally, to close, she writes:
I am myself, my destiny is fulfilled, and what I can still give to the “Aussenwelt” (outer world), may be a little love, a little lightness, a little joy, and a very little wisdom. And gratitude for all that has been.
My Angel knows.
Dornach, August 2015