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  • Writer's pictureIlka Knüppel

1920 - Ruth is born healthy - then Scarlet Fever.

Ruth Rosa Luise Mühlmann was born on the second floor of the family home on a hot, clear July day in 1920 in the Magdeburg neighborhood of Neue Neustadt. The average high temperature for July 11 in Magdeburg is 76 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius). Their two story house located on Nachtweide Strasse 31 A doubled as her father’s print office which was located on the first floor. The building where Ruth was born is now gone, replaced by an electronic shop. Paul Mühlmann is listed as a Schriftsetzer, a typesetter, on Ruth’s birth certificate. Ruth’s two middle names were after her two grandmothers: Rosa Lorenz Mühlmann and Luise Kӓstner Perlitz.

Nachtweide Str. 31 in 2020. This building stands where Paul’s home and print shop stood before being bombed out during the war. Author’s photo.

Paul and Emma had Ruth baptized into the Lutheran faith at Sankt Nicolai Church on Brüderstraße 1A in Magdeburg on October 24, 1920.

Sankt Nicolai Church, Magdeburg, Germany, 2020. Author’s photo.

Ruth was the first child of Emma and Paul. Ruth was joined one year later, August 10, 1921, by a blue eyed, blonde haired little brother named Heinz Christian Felix Mühlmann. Heinz’s two middle names were after his grandfathers, Christian Perlitz and Felix Mühlmann. The little family of four was happy in their place at Nachtweide Strasse 31. The Great War was over, Paul had a steady income, food was more reliably available, and the future looked bright. There exists one adorable picture of them together although the exact date is not known, either 1924 or 1925. Ruth, in her little checkered dress, appears to be about three years old, making Heinz, in his sailor uniform, about two years of age. They are posed in front of a garden, quite possibly their grandfather’s, Christian Perlitz, garden in Alvensleben.

Ruth and her brother, Heinz, in 1924 or 1925 in their grandfather’s garden at Friedensstraße 81, Alvensleben, Germany.

Magdeburg was founded in 805 CE by Charlemagne along the banks of the Elbe River. A church was built at the site where the Magdeburg Cathedral would later stand. Completed in 1520, it is the oldest Gothic cathedral in Germany. By the 1920's when Ruth was born, Mayor Hermann Beims was focusing on the architecture of Magdeburg and the city architect, Bruno Taut, was in charge of town planning for more room for green spaces in the city. Magdeburg made the effort in the 1920’s to be consistent in function and design for social housing in the city. The Herman-Beim-Siedling development in Magdeburg was of national importance at the time it was built. It set creative and functional standards in housing projects, its uniformity and unity are remarkable, the large proportion of original substance still standing justifies their high value.

“The settlement built from 1925 to 1929 on Große Diesdorfer Straße (since 1931 Hermann-Beims-Siedlung) was carried out from the development plan down to the structural details by the city expansion office, i.e. from a single source. In addition to the goal of creating affordable housing, the architects put a reform of social housing in the foreground: no side wings and rear buildings, main orientation of the streets from north to south, three-storey terraced house development, large green courtyards and differentiation of residential and access streets. The average size of an apartment in the historic Hermann-Beims-Siedlung was 63 square meters and was thus oriented to the requirements and possibilities of the twenties. At the time of the settlement's construction, four to five people lived in an apartment unit. All apartments are oriented on both sides, which allows good lighting and cross ventilation. Despite the small size, the apartment layout is cheap and well thought-out, the room layout can be done flexibly. Many apartments have balconies or loggias. A bathroom was provided for all apartments, although for cost reasons some of the bathroom equipment was not installed immediately. The heating was done with individual ovens.”

Aerial photo is from November 1931 City Archives. Stadtarchiv, Magdeburg.

The Mühlmann family, which by this time included Ruth's brother Gunter, born in 1928, moved in the summer of 1933 to the western side of Magdeburg to the address in the Stadtfeld West section of the city with the Neues Bauen style brick building: Walbecker Straße 37 A. It was very fortunate for them because on January 16, 1945, the Royal Air Force completed a fire-bombing mission which destroyed large sections of Magdeburg. 2,500 people are estimated to have died in that bombing. More bombings followed in 1945. Before the war, Magdeburg had 330,000 citizens; in April of 1945, there were 90,000 residents. Bomb damage can still be seen along Nachtweide Strasse today.

Walbecker Straße 37 in January 2020. Author's photo.

Scarlet Fever Strikes

Unfortunately, sometime after her second birthday, Ruth contracted Scarlet Fever. One hundred years before Ruth contracted the disease, Helen Keller was a victim of the same affliction at the age of 18 months, losing her sight and hearing. The character of Beth in Little Women, who was based on the author’s real life sister, was another well known case of Scarlet Fever. The famous children’s book about a child with Scarlet Fever and his favorite stuffed animal, The Velveteen Rabbit, was published in 1922, the same year Ruth would have been ill. Agathe Von Trapp died from Scarlet Fever in 1922 and the movie based on the Von Trapp family, The Sound of Music, was the first movie I ever saw in a theater and was, incidentally, my introduction to the Nazis.

An example of an American Scarlet Fever outbreak sign in Connecticut in the United States.

China's devastating epidemic of Scarlet Fever from 1921 to 1922, killed 50,000 of the 200,000 residents of Kunming, the capital and largest city of Yunnan province in southwest China. In the United States, 1870 census data reveals the mortality rate for Scarlet Fever after the Civil War was 15 - 30 times higher in the urban areas of the northern states than the more rural southern states. The higher death rate in the urban areas seems to give credence to the medical studies that suggested “malnutrition during pregnancy caused increased susceptibility in subsequent children”. Emma conceived Ruth in the autumn of 1919. In post World War I Germany, food shortages were common. With Ruth being born in 1920, it is likely Emma had insufficient nutrition while pregnant. “Protein deficiency seems to be associated with a much higher incidence of complications.” While Scarlet Fever does not seem to have been as virulent in 1922 with a smaller number sickened in Germany in that year (32,436 reported cases with a 3.3% mortality rate) it still affected many of its victims with rheumatic fever and brain infections. Scarlet Fever was still a leading cause of infant deaths in the early 20th century and Dr. Hugh Paul, Medical Officer of Health, in Staffs, England, wrote the largest relative mortality from Scarlet Fever in the 20th Century was “undoubtedly Germany.”

Illustration of child afflicted with Scarlet Fever. Public Domain.

Where or from whom Ruth, a previously healthy child, contracted Scarlet Fever is unknown. The length of her illness and recuperation time is also unknown. What is known is that after the illness, Ruth had some degree of intellectual disability. The degree of mental impairment is not known, however records from Neinstedt Hospital document that Ruth was deemed 'unable to work' on October 11, 1939, by the chief physician due to a diagnosis of “Schwachsinn”. (There will be several future blog posts on Neinstedt Hospital.) Schwachsinn can mean several things, all having the same general meaning: imbecility, idiocy, cretinism, feeblemindedness, mental deficiency, etc.

Copy of actual medical record of Ruth's diagnosis:

Author's translation:

October 11, 1939

Medical Certificate!

The patient conscripted to Neinstedter Anstalten

Ruth Mühlmann

born on July 11, 1920 in Magdeburg, suffers from “Schwachsinn”

The Chief Physician of Neinstedt Anstalten

Ruth may have had other complications from Scarlet Fever. Scarlet Fever, besides causing cognitive impairment, can also develop into arthritis, meningitis, rheumatic fever, and rheumatic arthritis. There is a photo of Ruth holding a cane while she was 14 years old.

Elsbeth Perlitz, Ruth Mühlmann , Marie Kӓstner, Paul and Emma Mühlmann, and family friend, Greta Eggert, 1935.

While Ruth was fortunate enough to survive this health event at age 2, it would directly relate to her death at the hands of the Nazis 18 years later.

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