Astrid Phillips

    May, 2011:

    A Chemistry Degree in Post-War Germany

    There are some lucky students whose education is paid for by their fathers.  I planned to be one of them.  My father had put my older sister through medical school and was ready for me.  Unfortunately Herr Hitler aggravated the Russians, and they overran Germany. My father had the choice of leaving everything he had- house, job and bank account and bringing us to safety or to run the risk of death at the hands of the Russians.  We arrived in the western part of Germany with our lives and the clothes on our backs.  My father was 56 when he had to try to build up a career again.  That meant I had to go to college on a shoe string.  There was no choice of colleges, so I went to the nearest one where I could commute to class while living at home.  Every morning, I took a bus to the railroad station, caught the 6 a.m. train for a 90 minute ride to the city, boarded a subway for the nearest stop to the university, which was a further 5 minute walk.  Evenings I reversed these steps.  At home, my parents were having marital difficulties so I often had to serve as a peacemaker instead of attending to my studies.  But to paraphrase Sarah Palin- the difference between a determined German girl and a pitbull is only lipstick, and I needed all the determination I had.

    In the chemistry course, we had to buy all our own glassware and chemicals, so I occasionally worked at student jobs.  I finally completed all the requirements and took my final exams which in Germany are all orals.  The examiner in physics was someone I had befriended in the cafeteria, so that wasn’t too scary, and I passed physics easily.  Then I had to face two chemistry professors: one in organic and another in inorganic, who was the head of the Institute.  I stood in great awe of him and was very nervous.  I fell apart completely and confessed that my sister had given me a sedative for my nervous condition- Tourette syndrome.  The professors were horrified- they passed me, but advised me not to pursue graduate work.  I ignored their advice and enrolled in a southern university in Germany.  There the male students wanted to know what I was doing there taking jobs from them instead of being home having babies.  Once a professor began his lecture with the words “gentlemen “, and noticing me said “Miss Holtz, this lecture is over your head- I give you five minutes to leave”.  I told him I preferred to stay.

    At the end of the semester, orals were given and all the students who had come from another university failed.  At this point I had had enough.  I married, came to North America and to my surprise found an abundance of job opportunities.  I worked in industry by day, and taught laboratories at university in the evening- altogether a satisfying ending for my story.

    By Astrid Phillips