Gitta Reppmann's First Moving Indian Summer, Northfield, Minnesota, 1992.
Gitta's Life - a Reflection of her Favorite Poem: Theodor Storm's Rose Bush
The humility and joie de vivre of a severely disabled person leave us speechless. Gitta Reppmann's multifaceted life is reflected symbolically in a huge rose bush. The rootstock is her father Helmut Ortmann, a Hamburg merchant and cosmopolitan, to whom she felt a special attachment. Her most significant relationship was with the love of her life. Yogi Reppmann, whom Gitta met by chance in 1990 when she was boarding a ferry for Norway at Kiel's Oslo Scandinavia Pier. But the bush also has sharp thorns: Gitta survived a catastrophic accident in Iowa in 1996 with severe disabilities. Nevertheless, she bears her fate with grateful humility. "I live!" Gitta calls out, clenching her fist, and adds with a cheerful smile: "I'm not in pain."
The older of two sisters, Gitta Ortmann was born in Hamburg on September 24, 1946. Her father took Gitta along with him on sales trips in northern Germany, offering chocolate and groceries for sale. Before he was a coffee roaster and later on an accountant. During the North African campaign in World War II, Ortmann contracted malaria. He had two hobbies, traveling and changing residences. No sooner had her father bought a house for the family than he was already looking for the next one. What Ortmann actually wanted to do was emigrate, but his wife Gertrud, who lived in Oersdorf near Kaltenkirchen (Segeberg District) until she was 96 years old, wouldn't hear of it.
Like many of her capable contemporaries, Gitta did not begin the fulfilling career she had always had in mind until later in life. Following her graduation from high school in Quickborn (Pinneberg District) and a year as an au pair in London, she completed a commercial apprenticeship with the major Hamburg shipping company HAPAG. After night school and the completion of another degree, Gitta studied dentistry in Marburg (Hessen). There, she was in the care of the same physician during the birth of two children, Astrid (1973) and Henning (1977) Knigge. Her husband, who was also a dentist, left her and the children. Both became academics and produced with their spouses five doctorates.
Their membership in the non-partisan Europe—Union brought Gitta and Yogi together at the end of September 1990. She was treasurer of the Schwarzenbek local association (Duchy of Lauenburg District) and he was the newly appointed managing director for the state of Schleswig-Holstein. Yogi's first task was to accompany about twenty members of the association to a conference in Norway titled "Northern European Conversations". It was on the way to the ferry that their paths crossed. Yogi had just returned from international travels with a carpenter friend, lugging a huge hitchhiker's backpack; this, however, did not prevent him from playing the cavalier and carrying Gitta's suitcase on board.
It was love at first sight, as both openly admitted a short while later. And there was plenty to talk about. Not so much about Europe anymore, because at this point in their lives Yogi and Gitta were inspired to thoroughly explore the United States. He had already traveled through "Ami-Land" as a student, while she had never been there. Their extensive travel plans and their fondness for each other soon led them to decide to do things together. Gitta and Yogi moved into an apartment near the train station in Kiel, and soon their plans for traveling in the U.S. began to intensify. It was she who urged Yogi to complete his doctoral thesis on the 1848 emigration of Schleswig-Holsteiners to America.
While still in north Germany, the couple moved to Yogi's hometown of Flensburg. Shortly afterwards, Gitta joined Yogi in his bi-annual "commute" across the Atlantic: America for six months in the winter (because of the dry cold), and six months in Schleswig-Holstein in the summer. They made many friends in America and were quick to agree that they had a weakness for the Midwestern lifestyle. Eventually, they took a trip to Las Vegas and got married there. Yogi wrote books, organized trips and conferences. He held assistant professorships at two colleges in Northfield, Minnesota, and joined the Rotary Club there. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the couple built a modest house in this charming small town — south of Minneapolis.
Then, in March 1996, Gitta was the victim of a catastrophic accident. While traveling in western Iowa, a gust of wind swept her car off a slippery road and down an eight-foot slope. But there was a blessing in disguise: a policeman happened to be nearby and ordered a rapid ambulance transport. News of the tragic accident spread like wildfire. In Northfield, about 200 miles away, people were shocked. Church bells were rung as a symbol of hope, and John Gorder, a Lutheran pastor from Northfield, rushed to Gitta's bedside at the intensive care unit in Sioux City, Iowa, where he prayed for her.
Gitta was in a coma for five weeks, and though her life hung by a thread, she survived. Her right arm remains crippled, and her right leg is capable of only limited movement. Help with walking and the use of a wheelchair have become indispensable aids. Gitta's sense of balance is weakened, as is the left hemisphere of her brain where language is formed. Even so, Gitta is able to follow conversations and television programs without difficulty, and she catches the punch lines of jokes. At home, she is cared for by Yogi and by guests from abroad who are there for a visit. Gitta always needs a break after a few hours, but when it is time for a nap her bed is near at hand. Despite all this, Gitta shows a great deal of patience, humor, and humility. She needs nothing strong to drink; water and coffee with milk are sufficient.
More than ever before, Gitta forms the center of life for her constant help and provider Yogi, who immediately responds to her every need, whether it be a bite to eat, a trip to the bathroom, or a heating pad. Despite the hardships in her life, she does not in the least make a grumpy impression. Friends and neighbors experience the life-confirming aura that emanates from her, something that does not seem to have diminished over time. She reacts to jokes with an amused laugh, and her small, but usually sufficient vocabulary is enough to express herself: “Great - No, no - I don't know - Maybe - We'll see – We love each other." The people she speaks with have long since appropriated these set pieces with a smile.
The Nightingale Theodor Storm (Singable to the Berg Melody) Because it was the nightingale That through the night was singing, There came to her in sweetest song, Where echoes sound and ring again, The roses bursting open. She was but an innocent child Whose thoughts became more pressing. Although she holds her summer hat, She bears the heat of beating sun In silent contemplation. Because it was the nightingale That through the night was singing, There came to her in sweetest song, Where echoes sound and ring again, The roses bursting open.
Translation: © David Paley