When the colognes stole coals

When the colognes stole coals

Joseph Cardinal Frings © N.N. (CBA)

The neologism "fringsen" is derived from former Cardinal Josef Frings – and in the years after the Second World War, it developed into a popular term for stealing at the highest point of need.

Cologne in the second post-war winter: It was cold in the city, which had been badly damaged by hail of bombs. Bitter cold. For the last time in 1946 – 70 years ago – thick ice floes floated on the Rhine. People were freezing in December at up to 15 degrees below zero, and they had almost nothing to eat.

"Klutten klauen"

Odile Zernko was 16 at the time. She lived with her parents in the Cologne suburb of Riehl. The retired teacher remembers the time after 1945: "Our apartment was destroyed by shellfire. My father was in hospital after his return from the Westwall. For some bread we had to queue for hours, and often we got nothing. Despite freezing temperatures outside, we could only heat one room in our apartment. But if we were already starving, we didn’t want to freeze as well." That’s why the slogan was "Klutten klauen", translated as "stealing coals".

The freight trains from the lignite mining area, Zernko remembers, came over the Niehler Damm, where they sometimes stood around without a locomotive. In the evening, in the darkness, it took the young people half an hour with a backpack to reach this place. The clever ones quickly learned the tricks of coal theft: Climbing onto the last two or three wagons so that there was still enough time to jump off when the train started. "Some children froze to death because they didn’t get down fast enough and didn’t survive the icy night in the open wagon all the way to Belgium."

Sometimes, instead of briquettes, there was hard coal, "huge lumps" that had to be crushed first. "They stank because our furnaces were not suitable for hard coal."Once a railroad official and a policeman caught me and scolded me. But they let me go, because I had only discovered one briquette left in the empty wagon". Her father, a customs officer, did not like the idea of stealing.

New Year’s Eve sermon by Cardinal Frings

Then came New Year’s Eve – and Cologne Archbishop Josef Frings to St. Engelbert in Riehl. "Mother and I, we were not the most pious and we were a little late. I can still remember the dark, crowded church. Everybody sat in the benches with thick jackets and caps. The cardinal preached from the pulpit, and everyone would have heard a pin drop." How long the speech lasted, the now 86-year-old no longer knows, "but it was short, because it was nasty cold."But brevity is the spice of life – and the sentence with which Frings made history and struck a chord with the times: "We are living in times when, in times of need, individuals will also be allowed to take what they need to preserve their lives and health, if they cannot obtain it in any other way, through their work or by asking for it."

"Frings gave us the green light," says Zernko, "because who likes to steal??" The mother went home and "kept rubbing these words in the father’s face". Now, in Cologne and the surrounding area, not only the coal trains for the Allied foreign countries were looted, but also trucks belonging to local merchants. The fact that the Rhinelanders did more than their cardinal had meant is probably due to their exuberant nature.

Fringsen became a household word

Frings himself later described his memories without any pathos: "Since I had chosen the motto, ‘Ordered for the people,’ I also saw it as my task to help those who were in need." Because he did not believe "a decent life" was possible under the prevailing circumstances, he dared to make the "somewhat bold move" – with many limitations. "But this then went like wildfire through the whole diocese. Everywhere coals were bravely stolen."And "Fringsen" became a household word not only in Cologne.

But the enthusiasm for the rampant form of procurement was not boundless. The British military administration wanted to hold Frings accountable. When the interlocutor at the crucial appointment in Dusseldorf was late, Frings left the military administration after a quarter of an hour and said to his chauffeur: "Now hurry away, it couldn’t have gone better!"

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