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“My mum became a fighter the day she got pregnant with me”

Ingrid Thorius is an 80-year-old retired head nurse and a familiar face around Moabit. We talked to her about life, her mother and her neighbourhood.

Image for “My mum became a fighter the day she got pregnant with me”
Photo by Sigrid Malmgren

Klara Franke is remembered as Kiezmutter, a ‘mother’ to all those Moabiters whose dignity and homes she helped rescue. But she also was a biological mum. Today Ingrid Thorius is an 80-year-old retired head nurse and a familiar face in Moabit, where she’s known as Franke’s daughter, but also as Kiezschwester (neighbourhood nurse) for her decades-long dedication to the Krankenhaus Moabit. A lifelong Moabiter, she saw the chestnuts being planted when she moved into her tiny apartment on Pritzwalker Straße, a stone’s throw from the monumental entrance of the district court, Amtsgericht Tiergarten. Thirty years have passed, and the chestnuts have grown way past Thorius’ window toward the sunny Moabit sky. We joined Ingrid Thorius on her balcony for a chat about life, her mother and her beloved neighbourhood.

Thorius sits down at her little coffee table and lights up a cigarette.

Only light ones! I tried to stop but it always caught up with me… Like those French and the ladies: I can’t help it! [hoarse, deep laughter]. Nothing’s more important than laughing. That’s what I always told my patients.

She stops to shout “Hallo” to some passersby on the street below her balcony.

That’s my Moabit. We moved here when I was only three years old. That was in 1934. All around Lehrter Straße were military barracks, there were no cars and we kids played on the street the whole day long. We lived in pretty luxurious conditions back then: Vorderhaus, four rooms and a bathroom. Most families shared a bathroom in between the floors. There were dozens of Kneipen on Lehrter Straße where the workers went and drank. But I didn’t see much of that as a child. We played; I was a tomboy, playing Treibball, Völkerball [dodgeball], or stealing ammunition from the barracks during the war years. One time we got caught stealing ammunition and making it explode. They arrested us kids, me and about 10 or 20 boys. My mum was the first parent to show up at the police station, and she convinced the officer to let us all go.

How do you remember wartime Moabit?

Those years we spent hours and hours in the bomb shelter. Luckily our house stayed more or less intact and was rebuilt quickly after the war. My mum was one of Berlin’s Trümmerfrauen [the women who cleaned up the rubble after the war], as for us, we just played amongst the ruins.

She was a very strong woman already…

I think my mum became a fighter the day she got pregnant with me. My grandma was strictly religious, and since my mum wasn’t married she wanted her to have an abortion. But my mum refused. She fought to keep me. Right after my birth I was given to the nuns, to an orphanage. But still, my mum fought to get me back. And when I was three years old, she managed to take me home.

T here are countless pictures on the wall of her tiny flat , some painted by her patients, a Käthe Kollwitz drawing, and again and again the face of an old lady, Thorius’ mum. One of them shows the iconic silhouette of the hunched little lady with a walking stick.

That’s how I remember her, exactly like this. I’m bad at going to the cemetery regularly. So I hung my mum’s pictures everywhere instead.

Klara Franke was a very busy woman…

God, she was busy… Always on the run somewhere in the Kiez. Always helping someone. She had a knack for passing those values she stood for on to people around her.

Did she have any time for you at all?

We were very close. My mother was always there for me. And later, I for her, when I supported her financially.

Today you’re the patron of the Klara Franke Prize… How do you remember your mother as an activist?

She had a strong sense of justice. And she was so tolerant. She tried to understand everyone. What she did made me very proud. But most of the time, there was no way that I could accompany her on her protests. I had to work – 48 hours a week! Nightshifts. She always said: “Ingrid, you are married to your hospital…”

The hospital is now long gone… Moabit has changed a lot, hasn’t it?

I remember how after the war Moabit flourished: buildings had been renovated, there were cinemas at every corner, watchmakers, butchers, Tante-Emma-Läden (family-run shops). They have all disappeared today. Wilsnacker Straße, for example, has become empty. And my street as well. It makes me angry. And now, the property tycoons have arrived!

What would Klara Franke think about Moabit today?

If my mum was still alive, it would drive her crazy. My mum wanted Lehrter Straße to be a “people’s avenue,” where tenants would be able to pay their rent. Instead, now rents go up and up and up. That’s the same process you see happening in Prenzlauer Berg or Kreuzberg or, what’s the name of the street where they just protested? Right, Liebigstraße. At least some people rise against it. But sadly, not enough. Look at the old people, all these retirees who have so much time. Do you see them at demos?

How does life feel for you nowadays in Moabit?

It’s poor here. And those gambling halls sprouting up out of nowhere like mushrooms in autumn. People here don’t have a lot of money. Why would they gamble? The population has also changed. Look at the nameplates of my house. So many Arab and Turkish families have moved in. There is not one German family with children living here anymore.

Any good changes?

I love the riverbanks on the Spree. That’s beautiful. You know, I grew up here. It’s where my roots are. Everybody knows me, because of my job, because of my mum. If people see me on the street, they yell: “Oh, there she is, Schwester Ingrid!” That’s what I love about living here.

She stands up and steps towards the railing of her balcony. Her fingers run over the pink geranium in the flowerbox.

I like it wild and elemental. My flowers grow how they want. That’s just like me. I only do what I want.