Mrs. Gräf with Helmut and Elfriede Sandler at helsa’s 40th anniversary celebration in 1987Mrs. Gräf today at helsa’s 70th anniversary celebration
04.05.2017 helsanews, helsainside

“In the beginning we were like a family”

Interview with one of helsa’s first employees, Mrs. Magdalena Gräf

As part of our anniversary celebrations in our 70th year of business, we had the opportunity to talk with Mrs. Magdalena Gräf (85), who witnessed our company’s founding in 1947 first-hand. 


Mrs. Gräf, let’s start at the very beginning. How and when did you meet Helmut Sandler?

It all started at the end of the Second World War. In 1945, my mother, my six siblings and I fled Lower Silesia (which is now part of Poland) as refugees. My father was in France and had an eye on the front during the war. He saw that the Russians were coming. This is how we wound up staying with farmers in Niederlamitz. And we were poor, poor, poor here. We all lived in one room; it was a terrible time.

I was 14 and had no school leaving certificate. But I had to work because we desperately needed proof of employment. I definitely did not want to work at the local porcelain factory. I always wanted to make hats. Being a milliner – that was my dream. Ultimately, I landed on the island of Borkum and lived with an entrepreneurial family for 18 months as part of the “Work in the Home” mandatory year of service programme.

Helmut Sandler hired me in 1947, together with four other girls who were also refugees. Alongside his father’s cotton factory in Schwarzenbach, Lamitzmühle, he had a larger room where we all worked. We had the “Rupfenzufen” – that is the pickings and pluckings from torn fabrics that came from the factory – on our laps and we placed them on a glued bottom cover, shaped them a bit by hand and then sewed them to the top cover with a felting needle. You really had to have a feel for it, for the shaping and pulling everything together. Then the padding was cut through the middle using a belt cutter.

The shoulder pads were really in demand because at the time, shoulders couldn’t be big or broad enough! We could have worked day and night. And it did improve over time, the situation with food and poverty. A year later the Deutsche Mark was introduced along with the weekly wage packets. Before that we had the Reichsmark and food stamps issued from town hall.

How did things progress for you at helsa?

I worked my way up over time with cleanliness, orderliness and diligence. Fortunately, the grandmas were there to watch my two children while I worked full-time. My husband, Hans Gräf, also worked at helsa, in sales. He spent a lot of time on the road, calling on customers. We both had a very good personal relationship with our boss. Helmut Sandler was a very kind-hearted, humorous and good man. Our other boss, Elfriede Sandler, was a very pretty woman. She worked in the office. In the beginning, we were like a family. We were invited to a number of parties.

Before we moved to Gefrees in 1952, Helmut built another large hall in Schwarzenbach, where the production lines were. The system was modernized but it was still handwork and needed just the right touch. We received one order after another, so we had to work until noon on Saturdays and sometimes even on Sundays.

When helsa had grown so much that it had to relocate to Gefrees, I didn’t want to leave at first. But then I was finally persuaded. I was the forewoman at the plant there. I was a real marathon runner. The work was truly demanding and strenuous. I worked in the cutting room for a long time, near the huge cutters. All in all, I worked for helsa for 42 years, until I retired in 1989 at the age of 58.

What was it like to work for helsa?

There was an incredible amount of work to do. We quickly introduced a shift system; otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to do it all. But we also had wonderful parties and great company excursions. One time, very early on, we took three buses to the Rhine River. “Just the one time and never again,” was Helmut’s conclusion because there was plenty to drink for us young girls and there were a lot of young male students there.

Today helsa thrives on innovative ideas and products. Has that always been the driving force behind helsa?

Yes, Helmut Sandler always rewarded any ideas that employees had on how to optimize processes. Helmut Sandler was open to anything that promised true time savings and usually implemented the ideas in a way that satisfied everyone. That’s how it often went and he was always willing to listen.

Mrs. Gräf, you really seem to have had a strong bond with the Sandler family and their company.

They shaped me and the course of my life, yes. I stayed in touch with them after I retired. After his 80th birthday celebration, he wrote a letter thanking me – very old school: “I was so pleased that you came to celebrate my 80th birthday with me. You were one of the first employees I hired after founding my company on 1 April 1947. I fondly remember the time when my company was a true family business and everyone knew everyone.”


Dear Mrs. Gräf, thank you so much for the interview!

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