By Jeff Hodges
In the early 1990s I traveled to Germany to shoot a promotional video for the Goebel Porcelain Company in Bavaria, Germany. At that time Goebel was the manufacturer of the Hummel Figurines—those ingenuous pastel porcelain renderings of children and animals that lurked on our grandmothers’ bookshelves with a cloying cuteness that inspired homicidal fantasies among 12 year olds with BB guns.
Pre-adolescents weren’t the only ones who found them objectionable.
Adolf Hitler attacked the figurines, denouncing the depiction of German children with “hydrocephalic” heads. And from the March 1937 issue of SA Man, the magazine of the Brown Shirts:
“There is no place in the ranks of German artists for the likes of her. No, the ‘beloved Fatherland’ cannot remain calm when Germany’s youth are portrayed as brainless sissies”.
“Her” was Sister Maria Innocentia, formerly Berta Hummel, a nun in the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of Siessen. Her paintings of “brainless sissies” were commissioned in 1935 by the Goebel Porcelain Company to be reproduced as figurines and provided a small income for the Congregation, even though the disapproving Nazis took half the proceeds.
Germany was beautiful and friendly. We filmed the Hummel craftsmen and interviewed the Goebel family. The crew became enamored with Germany, happily barking out “Guten Morgen,” and “danka” at every opportunity.
But I was mad at Germany. I liked the Germans but I wasn’t ready to forgive the Nazis for what they had done to Europe and America and the Jews and Romany. I churlishly refused to speak any German except for “Luftwaffe” and “Blitzkrieg” and snuck in references to Dachau and Auschwitz at every opportunity.
Perhaps it was because my Uncle Bob was shot down over Austria and ended up in Stalag Luft III. The deprivations he suffered on The Long March finished him off not long after he returned to the United States. Perhaps it was the footage of the liberation of Auschwitz we watched in high school that left us traumatized and speechless. Or maybe it was Hogan’s Heroes.
We needed some footage of Sister Maria Innocentia’s convent. The convent was in Bad Saulgau, a pretty town that had hosted the concentration camp Saulgau during World War II. To our surprise, the Congregation denied us entry as a TV crew and we had to settle for shooting the building from a nearby hillside. Afterwards we decided to pay an admission fee and visit Sister Maria Innocentia’s grave.
It was hard to find. Finally we found an elderly nun and asked her to help us. She led us to a tombstone hidden by shrubbery, and in broken English asked us where we were from. We told her we were making a video about Hummels and wondered if she had known Sister Maria Innocentia.
She spoke so softly that it was almost impossible to understand her. We gathered around as she told her story.
She had been at the convent with Sister Maria for many years. In 1944 the Nazis threw most of them out to make room for German officers and concentration camp officials. The remaining nuns were relegated to a small section of the building without any heat and no means of support. The grounds were used for raising pigs whose diet was supplemented by the corpses from the concentration camp. The pigs were slaughtered, ground up and fed to the German Army. As I observed the expressions on my companion’s faces, I wondered how many collectors ever got to hear this version of the Hummel story.
Right after Saulgau was liberated, Sister Maria Innocentia died from tuberculosis. The Hummel figurines became enormously popular with Allied soldiers stationed in Germany after the war and then as souvenirs for tourists and subsequently skyrocketed in price as a collector’s item.
We each returned home with a Hummel figurine called “The Photographer” depicting a lovable towhead with a box camera and a cute dachshund peering up from under the tripod. Mine is safely stashed away, still in its box, for my grandchildren—perhaps to use for target practice, if necessary.