One last conversation with a living legend: Margot Tanner


Margot Tanner displays one of the numerous original works of art she has created. / W.C. Mann

CULLMAN – This week, the Cullman community will bid farewell to a woman with a remarkable story, who has created a series of other remarkable stories in her time here.  Margot Tanner has for years been active in the Cullman Historical Society, Friends of Frankweiler and Cullman First United Methodist Church.  She has been an advocate for immigrant families, and has taught English and art in the Cullman area, in addition to sharing her personal stories with thousands of area students.  On Aug. 24, Tanner will leave to relocate near her son and grandson in Mesa, Arizona.  On Saturday, I had the privilege of stopping by her home near Johnson’s Crossing for a visit, as she took a little time out of her packing to tell her story one more time.

Tanner’s story is almost too much for one person.  In a community full of people with German names who can’t read, write or speak the language, she can.  She has, in fact, served as a translator and interpreter for the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce, Cullman County Historical Society and Friends of Frankweiler; she translated documents from the German prisoner of war camp in Aliceville, one of the largest Allied POW camps of WWII.

Tanner’s English surname (courtesy of her late husband John) masks her heritage, but her accent gives it away instantly.  She was born and raised in Germany, living through the depredations and horrors of Hitler’s regime and the war, before marrying a U.S. serviceman and accompanying him to his home in rural Cullman County in the 1950s.

“I met him while he was stationed in Germany,” Tanner began, “and I worked for the U.S. Air Force in Bitburg, and I got a job there, and that’s where I met him.  And so, we came to Cullman when he retired.” 

As a military wife, Tanner lived in France, Ohio, Texas, England and Selma, Alabama.

She continued, “My husband retired in Fort Worth, Texas, and then his dad offered him 20 acres of land, then we moved in.  I never wanted to come to Cullman.”

More…much more on that, later.  There’s so much to Tanner’s story before that moment, and I had to back up and hear it.

Growing up German at the worst possible time

“In Germany, my home is Eshwege,” explained Tanner.  “My father was a police officer, and he taught bookkeeping, and we got shipped from Eshwege to Kassel, and from there we got shipped to Stuttgart.  From there, my father got shipped to Suhl in Thuringia.”

As her father was a government employee, Tanner was required to join the Hitler Youth.  Her family lived in areas removed from the front lines and some of the more notorious Nazi atrocities.  Thanks to a powerful state propaganda program, she spent most of the war years under the impression that Germany was winning the war, despite increasing shortages of food and other necessities.

Living in a war zone

“The first time I noticed the danger,” continued Tanner, “was when we lived in Vaihingen, close to Stuttgart, where I saw German tanks maneuvering down the road.  And we had these kilometer stones, and they knocked those over and left it. (Destruction of road markers and signs is a common defensive practice in preparation for invasion.)

“From Thuringia, we lived in a police academy.  Three houses belonged to families–we had apartments–and the rest of the houses were designated for troops.  They were mostly young policemen that wanted to become police officers, not army.  This had nothing to do with the army. 

“I had about a mile and a half or 2 miles to walk to school, and there were no school buses and no cars.  You barely ever saw cars on the road, except for military vehicles, because there was no gas.  And no snow plows; we had to walk through pretty deep snow.  It’s kind of like the state of Colorado. 

“I went to a higher school of learning, and, fortunately, since Hitler wanted to rule the whole world, I learned English, French and Latin.  And that, of course, came to my advantage when the war was over.”

Meeting her first American

“My first encounter was in 1945.  We lived up on a hill, and the Americans were on (the next) hill, and there was a valley.  We lived halfway up this hill.  So, the artillery was shooting back and forth, and we were scared for our lives.  We lived in the bunkers.

“One day, we didn’t hear any more shooting.  We were getting hungry in the bunkers, so I told my mother, ‘We have to go and find some food for the rest of the people.’  Of course, she cried, and this friend of mine and I crawled on our tummies down to the mess hall.  We went and got some food.  The food was still hot, since this came all of a sudden, because Hitler said we were winning the war.

“We brought the food.  Then, a few days later, we ran out of food again, so we ventured outside.  Machine gun fire was hitting (around) us, but we made it through and went down on the hill.  As we looked down into the area where the police had their trucks, we were in the grass, and we were looking down there, and there we saw these strange soldiers.  My friend and I looked up, and as we looked up, this hand came on my shoulder and pulled me up, and said, ‘Do you speak English?’  That was my first encounter with an American.

“Of course, we were scared to death.  We walked back to the bunker, and we were shaking.  We were afraid, because these American soldiers had their guns down and the bayonets in our backs, because the SS troops had come through that area before the American troops and had hung flags in every one of the buildings.  They wanted to make sure there were no German soldiers left.  We finally told the soldiers that there were women and children in the shelters, but no men.

“They got the women out, and they put us in a circle.  This I will never forget.  My mom and the women were all crying, because we don’t know what’s going to happen to us next, and the soldiers were with their guns.  I told my mother to close her eyes because, I said, ‘We may be shot.  We may never see each other again.  Just close your eyes.’  So we all closed our eyes and waited to be shot.  I hear the wind blowing through the pine trees, and I’m ready to die.

“And then, all of a sudden, I heard motor noises.  Of course, I opened my eyes; and there were American soldiers coming in jeeps, vehicles we had never seen before.  And they got out, and they went around and gave us each rations.  And I truly thought we had arrived in Heaven; we were all dead and gone.  So, that was my first encounter with Americans.

“Since I could speak English, I translated for everybody.  And the women, my mom and the rest of the ladies there, we did the laundry work and we got food in exchange.  It was a very pleasant time.

“After about two months was when the Americans left and the Soviets came.  That’s another story.  We had to leave our home in 20 minutes, just leave, go, never come back.  I didn’t know where my father was.  We found out that my father was alive.  There were no telephones, no trucks, no cars, no running water, no food.  Many people starved to death.

“I went across the border illegally into West Germany.  It took me three weeks to find my father.  Then I came back.  I slept in ditches, in barns, whatever.  I made it back, and I got my mom and my siblings, and we went across the border again to bring my family over to my relatives that all lived in West Germany.  On our way back, my cousin and I–we were then 16–we were beaten and raped by Soviet soldiers; but we made it.”

Outsider in Cullman

By the time her husband left the Air Force, the kleine-stadt (small-town) girl had grown accustomed to the big city life of Fort Worth.  She was not excited about the prospect of relocating to the family farm near Holly Pond.

“I liked the town (Cullman),” Tanner explained, “but where we went out in the country, there was a different story; because people in those days–I was considered a war bride–it was in ‘55.  Of course, I had different ways.  We stayed with my in-laws.  I had never seen an outhouse.  We all had running water and electricity (in Germany).  So I encountered something from what we called ‘olden times.’ 

“I got used to it because, by then, I got used to anything.  But the people, they stayed away from me, because I was different.  It hurt me, but I realize today that anything that is different, people don’t like.  They’re afraid of it, so they leave it alone.  It still goes on today.

Coming to town

“I ran into a lady one time, when I went to the post office.  She said, ‘Oh, you look so nice.  Where did you get your hat?’  I told her I made them.  She said, ‘You have an accent.  You come home with me.  You’ve got to meet my mother.’  That’s the first impression I had of Cullman, the city: they were very friendly.  Mrs. Frances McDonald, she kind of took me in, and she made a Methodist out of me, because I was a Lutheran.  And this is where it started.

“Now, I love Cullman, but outside of Cullman I had problems with the people, because I was different.  One time I went to a cloth store.  I was standing there, and these two ladies were standing there buying material; one said to the other, ‘Have you heard that strange German woman that lives down yonder in the woods?’  ‘Yeah, she’s really strange.  She goes around with a buggy and buckets of water, and waters her plants.  I never heard of something like that.’  See, we didn’t have any money to buy a water hose.  So they went on and I asked the saleslady, ‘Do you know this crazy German woman?’  And she was embarrassed, because I was standing there and I said, ‘I am the crazy German woman!’”

From outsider to neighbor

As she became more acquainted with the community, and better known by it, Tanner began to be accepted and drawn in.  Mary Ellen Holloway recruited her into First Methodist Church, where she sang in the choir.  When Stanley Johnson found out that he had a native German in the neighborhood, he called on her to join the Friends of Frankweiler.  From there, Tanner became involved in the translation of early German documents in Cullman’s archives.  She also became active as an interpreter for German visitors to the city.

Tanner related the beginning of her relationship with the city government.

“In 1975 I had a hysterectomy, and I was lying in the hospital.  And I had a private room.  So one day, the nurse came in and said, ‘Ms. Tanner, you have some visitors, but they wanted to know if they could come in.’  I said, ‘Sure.’  She said, ‘Let me clean up the room, because they’re from the Chamber of Commerce.’

“So they came in and asked me that these German people were coming, and if I would help them with the translations–they found out I was German–and would I know where they could get German bread and rolls.  At that time, you could get them from Publix in Huntsville.  So I helped them while I was lying in the bed!  That’s how it all started.”

Tanner translated numerous German documents in Cullman’s archives; in some cases, documents even many other Germans could not read.  The traditional handwriting used by many Germans during the time of Cullman’s founding and early settlement was abolished by Hitler, on the suspicion that the style had Jewish roots.  Tanner was among the last students to learn the style before it was banned, so she proved to be a blessing to the museum and Friends of Frankweiler.

She was also called on by the Aliceville Historical Society, which preserves the records and personal correspondence of German prisoners held in that town’s POW camp during WWII.  Tanner spent months translating personal letters, along with copies of a newspaper published by the prisoners themselves.

Advocate for outsiders

Even before she encountered prejudice in Cullman County, Tanner knew what bigotry was.  She had seen how Jews were treated in her own country, and she had been treated as an outsider in her own land by the Russians.  By the time she and her husband arrived at Craig AFB in Selma, she was able to begin doing something about it. 

Tanner related, “I went and worked at Tepper’s at that time.  It’s gone, now.  I sold a black lady something.  This other lady came in, and there were two other sales clerks, and she said to me, ‘I need someone to wait on me.’  I said, ‘There’s two other sales clerks.’  She said, ‘No, I want you.’  I said, ‘I have another customer.’  She said, ‘Where?’  I said, ‘This lady right here.’  ‘I don’t see one. I want you.’  I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I have a customer.  Her money’s as good as yours.’  I lost my job.

“So I went across the street and worked for a Jewish guy, and his brother just came back from Germany.  He hated Germans!  Then the first guy (from Tepper’s) hired me back, because customers had been asking about me.  So I went back, and that black lady came and brought me a turkey and all the trimmings for Thanksgiving.  She said she could never forget that I stood up for her.

“I had a Jewish doctor, and he almost let me starve to death.  My husband was TDY (away on a temporary training assignment) that was in Selma.  My husband came in and said, ‘You look terrible,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m so hungry.’  He said, ‘I’m going to go to the base commander.  We’ll get that doctor fired.’  I said, ‘No.  No, don’t.”  So I confronted the Jewish doctor and said, ‘You know, I was a little girl when that happened with the Jews.  I didn’t see anything until one time I saw how they were treated.  The hate has to stop, right now and right here.’  And he agreed.

“So when I came here to Cullman, in the choir I heard sometimes, ‘German people are stingy, they’re hateful, and they want everything to be right.’  I said, ‘No, that’s not true.  It takes all kinds of people, not just German people.  There are people all over this world like that.’

“One time I sorted the music, and these two people said, ‘Hmm, how come you’re sorting out the folders?  You’re just like the SS.’  I said, ‘Listen–if I were the SS, you’d be dead by now!’

“When the Hispanics came (to First Methodist Church), I tried to get people to help.  In a way, I identified with them.  They were strange; they couldn’t manage the language.  Anyway, we got the Hispanic mission started; it was very interesting.

“I happened to meet German people who came (to Cullman), and they didn’t want to mix with American students at East Elementary School, and I told them, ‘You have to mix with everybody.’

Tanner shared other stories, anecdotes and opinions.  Some were hilarious, like her account of her naturalization ceremony when she became flustered during the judge’s questioning and, in a panic, reverted to youthful muscle memory and rendered the Nazi salute during the Pledge of Allegiance (The judge was amused and overlooked her nervousness).  Some were insistent, like her view that immigrants should be required to learn the common language of their new home country.  All were well-thought out, well-communicated and meaningful.

As we finished our conversation, Tanner took me around and showed me some of the paintings and drawings she has done over the years.  She displayed her book collection and honored me by taking out the one little book she carried during her escape to West Germany, a journal, to show me samples of her and her sister’s handwriting and to translate some of its entries for me.  We looked at some of her numerous awards, and she even played “Amazing Grace” on her harmonica, an instrument she took up as a child because it was easy to carry and provided her a welcome distraction from wartime life in Germany.

The final word

Tanner stated, “I’m grateful to God that He sent me here, a place where I never wanted to go, because I found so many ways of explaining to people, going to people, talking to them.  I have been going to the middle school in Cullman since 2000 and talked about my years as a child, and how I grew up, the war, my testimony–how I became a Christian.  And I’m still asked to do that.

“People are so kind, especially around here.  They don’t want me to go.  I have a lot of people who come and visit me.  So Cullman is, to me, the most friendly town, for not ever wanting to live here, the most friendly town I ever lived in.  Everybody is ready to help.  My church–I have never experienced so much love.  When they gave me a farewell party in my church, everybody came: my Sunday School class, the museum, everybody.  I’m just amazed, such an outpouring of love. 

“I always want to call Cullman a Heaven on earth.  This is the city which is a Heaven on earth.”

Despite her decision to relocate near her family in Arizona, Tanner insisted, “Cullman will always be my home.”

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