By Judith Kambestad
“The Villa Urbig was just as I remembered it.”
The final summit conference of World War II was held in Potsdam in Soviet-occupied Germany. As its site, the Russians chose the once-luxurious and relatively unscathed suburb of Babelsburg, giving two days’ notice to residents to clear out (never to return).
Frau Gerick, owner of Villa Urbig, and her 16-year-old niece Marie Louise, moved in with relatives in what remained of their home in Berlin. Their gardener stayed behind, told them who was in their house, and managed to bring them some personal items they had left behind.
Forty-five years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany, repossession of the villas was offered, given proof of ownership or inheritance, a token payment of one deutschmark, and the owner’s agreement to restore and live in the property. Neither Gericke nor her sister could afford to restore the villa, so it was turned over to the government and purchased by a German businessman as a wedding present for his bride. They restored the 10,000-square-foot villa to its appearance in the 1930s, including the artistic forest scene wallpaper in the dining room. The Berlin Wall had actually stood between the villa and the lake. When we were there the wall had been taken down and the area was heaps of dirt and rock. The owners were planning to landscape the grounds and to add a boat dock.
Mary Soames was a 22-year-old Army officer when she accompanied her father to Potsdam as his aide-de-camp. Her mother had charged her with taking good care of her war-weary father. Exhausted, upon arriving at the Villa Urbig, Churchill “flopped into a wicker chair and demanded a large whisky,” Mary recalled. “That was not typical of him. It was a very exciting time, but very worrying, since we didn’t know what was going to happen to Europe. I just tried to make myself useful round the house while all these important people were coming and going. I sort of acted as a bit of a hostess to my father.”
Lady Soames found the salmon-pink villa with a lawn running down to a lovely lake “just as I remember it.” There was a curved cement bench where Churchill would have private conversations. She remembered the difficulties, in a threadbare, defeated country, of even basic household tasks.
After being hosted at dinners by Truman and Stalin (“small, dapper, rather twinkly”), it was her turn to direct a dinner party for the Big Three. Flowers were a real problem. She found a few nondescript specimens on the grounds and gathered them with relief. During the meeting she remembered accompanying her father to a shattered Berlin, where they viewed Hitler’s bunker and the spot where his and Eva Braun’s bodies were burned: “It was hot, dusty and windy—destruction everywhere— no trees.” Later, to receive the results of the final tally in the British general election, “we packed up and returned to London. We never came back.” To his shock but also his premonition, her father was out of office.
At the 2006 dedication, Mary handed the brass plaque to the owner’s wife, Monika Egger. Marie Louise Gericke, the former owner’s niece, now 81, was on hand too, and the first thing Mary said to her was: “I am so sorry you had to move out for us.” Marie had worked in the British Embassy in Washington for twenty years, so they had much in common. Together they engaged in long conversations. “It’s very much to my relief,” Mary added, “that you bear no ill-will towards me.”
My late husband Jerry was a Churchill Centre mainstay whom we miss. These notes are from my journal during the dedication of a plaque on the Villa Urbig, Babelsburg, Churchill’s Potsdam headquarters, following the 2006 conference. Earlier, Jerry noticed that the Truman and Stalin villas had historical markers and began an effort to mark Churchill’s. By 2006 he was too ill to attend, so I kept a minute-by-minute journal for him, including Lady Soames’s remarks. —JK
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