Without the thick mink fur coat and abundance of gold jewellery as self-protection, Edith Kieselbach cannot jump over her shadow and accept outside help. For half a year, her daughter, a single mother of three children, has relied on the help of ‘Cuxhavener Tafel’ (an organisation that gives food to the disadvantaged). However her shame is too great to accept groceries which are virtually free and which were intended for the dustbins. However without the goods from the organisation ‘Tafel’, the family would not be fed sufficiently. Therefore Grandmother Edith, who for the first time in their lives sees her family faced with acute poverty, takes on the role of collecting the groceries from the ‘Tafel’.
For half an hour she sat on the beige coloured plastic stool and waited to be called up. Impatient, she fiddled around with her red certificate, she then hid her hands back into the pockets of her flowing grey mink coat. She gazed to the other side of the room. Her face still allows past beauty to be guessed. Her red lipstick is no longer painted with the same accuracy as it was before and her big pearl earrings hang from her sagging earlobes.
With her, sitting in the room are the poor, the afflicted, the woeful. Torn and his ragged jeans, run-down shoes and a ridiculous remainder of a sole. “The majority here have not even seen water yet today”, Edith whisperes.
The room in which they are all waiting, smells of fish and stale food products – like a dustbin. It is part of a former brick building that has been cleared for demolition in the port city of Cuxhaven on the North Sea. You get into the dark room through a long corridor. Dried plants at the side. White tiled walls. Unsteady chairs. A tatty sofa and an old leather armchair. Demolition of morale. The brick floor had long been swept. It is cold and drafty. A mother, about 20 years old, pulls up the zip on her daughter’s fleece.
It is Monday morning, half past 10. Everyone is waiting for their turn in order to receive their ration of food. They are in need and are supplied with food by the ‘Cuxhavener Tafel’. People who have lost their jobs, or perhaps didn’t have one. People from foreign lands, and their hope for a better life is left stranded. And increasingly, people who do indeed work whose wage is not sufficient to adequately provide for their families.
None of these things apply to Edith Kieselbach. The 72 year old pensioner has worked her whole life. For a long time for a lawyer and later, in the management of a nursing home. Her husband died a few years ago. From their pension she can live well alone. The hard-earned money is enough for trips to the theatre, beautiful clothes and sometimes a trip to the nearby Hamburg. Edith is separated worlds away from the other people, not just by the number on their bank account. “During their first visits to the Tafel, the other customers were astonished”, Edith explains. “They needed some time to comprehend that, like them, I was there to pick up food and not donating to the clothes collection”.
“I feel like a beggar, whenever I am here”.
But Edith Kieselbach is not here to get cheap food for herself. Her young daughter is dependent on the help from the Tafel. The hairdresser is a single mother to three children. She does not dare enter the ‘Tafel’ because the shame is too great if she were to be recognised by someone. “I can’t do it, I don’t want to be poor”, she says. Therefore the Grandmother steps in. Every Monday Edith comes to the ‘Tafel’ to pick up the food. Every time, once more, she must overcome herself and immerse herself in a world that is so unfamiliar to her. Here, where her presence makes her feel ashamed, she needs her thick fur coat as armour to make her feel safe; as she does not want “to feel like a beggar”.
Simply putting money into her daughter’s hand is out of the question for Edith. “I’m simply not doing it for myself. I want her to come back out here again. I help her so that she can help herself”.
The big steel door slowly opens and out steps a small woman in a maroon blouse. “Can numbers 150 to 200 please come in”. The leader of the Tafel, Barb Lockstein, has called the next group to the counter. Throughout the waiting area people get up, with their big shopping bags that they have brought with them and go through the door into a large hall.
Opposite Edith Kieselbach, a woman, with a veil over her hair, starts crying quietly. Her friend next to her comforts her, then they both get up and go into the hall. “That’s how I felt after my first visit here”, says Edith, when she sees the woman. “The first visit is always terrible. You feel as if the ground has been pulled from underneath your feet”. “I did not know what to expect here. And at the same time I was so mad at my daughter for hiding from her responsibilities. No-one wants to be here.”
Poverty is increasing day by day
Edith is number 293 and still has to wait a little while until her group is called inside. Today there are a lot more people than usual, and a long queue has been formed in the lobby. Hardly anyone speaks. Everyone can hear the conversations of the goods issue. “Would you like a few vine tomatoes or would you rather three bananas?” – “I’d rather the bananas”.
Across three long tables, customers are served food that was compiled beforehand by one of about 60 volunteers from Tafel. Depending on the size of the family, the helper must take special care to distribute the food evenly, so that enough bananas, cabbage and bread are still there for the customers at the end of the day. Although the surrounding supermarkets donated diligently, Barb Lockstein explains, but with the growing demand, they must often send people back home almost empty handed. Since its establishment eleven years ago, the number of people who receive food from the Cuxhaven panel has quadrupled, from 500 to over 2000 – in a city with only 50,000 inhabitants.
Slowly the line for the food products pushes forwards, past a metal green till placed on a table. Seated at the checkout is Mrs. Gruns. Each customer pays a small fee of €1.50 for a one-person household and €2 for two people. “Towards the end of the month we unfortunately experience again and again people having to take the food on credit,” says Mrs. Gruns. “You cannot even begin to imagine how awful it must feel for the people affected. People will often shed tears in front of me. This is not anything that people need to be ashamed of, we know that we need to cut corners”.
Alleviating the shame will take time
Edith talks to a small and very thin woman in front of her. In the meantime, she introduces herself to the others. The leather jacket woman has a hole at the elbow. She works in a hotel as a cleaning lady at the beach. Behind her hangs a large poster of the Joint Welfare Association with the words “poor despite working”. Without the help they get here, she could not make ends meet, she says. Just the idea that their machine could break down or she would need to buy new clothes, causes her “dizziness and headaches.” For about ten years she has been continually reducing her expenditure. “I heckle behind the rising prices, everything is becoming more and more expensive and I must somehow absorb the costs”. It has therefore terminated all of their insurance and personal liabilities.
The woman has been a customer of the Tafel since its creation. She still remembers the time when customers had to wait for hours at the door of the social welfare centre in the city because the Tafel had only been allocated a few rooms in the cellar of the building. “You should be grateful that you have had this luxury since you’ve been here”, she grinned. “Especially in freezing temperatures it is quite a drudgery. And it is also much more discreet than before because you no longer have to stand at the door for the whole word to see you”.
Barb Lockstein approaches, through the crowd, and welcomes Edith and her interlocutor. “Have you seen our little lady?” she asks, pointing to the blonde girl in the pink fleece jacket. Lockstein et al very much like talking to the customers of the Tafel. “I want to take away from them their discomfort. Nobody needs to feel ashamed being here. “The first visit to the Tafel is very difficult for everyone. We see it often that people take a brief look and then start crying. Many tell us then that they feel as if they are begging.” She gently strokes her hand over Edith’s shoulder. Over time, the inhibitions have been degraded and sometimes there is a very relaxed cooperation. “We care about each other and since it’s obvious that one wonders how it keeps running smoothly with the husband or the daughter at school. The people then notice that we take sincere interest and that we always have an open ear for all. One simply needs a lot of empathy”.
The queue moves forward and it is finally Edith’s turn. “Would you like rye bread?” the assistant asks with the blue patterned skirt. “We have just got it- it is very fresh!”
Edith puts two large bags filled to the top into the trunk of her car and drives to her daughter’s in the city. She would like to deliver the groceries quickly because she is invited for coffee with a friend. When she rings for her daughter no-one comes down .So she takes the bags to the fourth floor of the old building, where her daughter has just moved in with her boyfriend and three children. When Edith arrives at the top, her daughter tells her about her latest pregnancy. And thus Edith’s hopes for better times at last have been crushed.