Helga and Joe Ellul, both well-known in their professional circles, have been successful in many aspects of their lives, but their proudest achievement always comes down to family. Before reminiscing their wedding day on 16th April 1977 with Bliss Magazine, they looked back at their early years together that were equally fascinating.
Helga moved to Malta from her native Germany in 1974. At the time, she worked at the Germany-based head office of the company that would eventually produce Playmobil figurines, with the plan to live here for one year in order to help organise the Malta factory. Later, Helga became CEO of Playmobil Malta, a role she held until 2012, until she left to set up her own consultancy company, Advise Ltd.
“I arrived in February and I was looking for ways to meet people and integrate, but I wasn’t the kind of girl who enjoyed going to a bar to chat, so I thought a sports club would be a good place,” she smiles. “I had a Maltese friend who I knew already, and he suggested I join him at the Union Club, where he was playing tennis in a final match. That is where I met Joe.” Joe nodded in agreement, saying on that very day, he invited Helga to the dinner dance that same evening. That spontaneous gesture lead her to extending her stay in Malta. One year turned into two and their relationship blossomed, but until that point, marriage was not on her mind. Having children, however, was.
“When I told Joe I wanted a family, he believed we should get married. So, in Christmas of 1976, he presented me with a ring. I asked him ‘what is this ring?’, and he left it up to me to see it as an engagement ring or not – he wouldn’t risk being told no!” she laughs. Joe adds that, by that point, they had been together for three years, but for Helga, deciding whether to get married was not easy.
“I knew that Joe loves Malta and I liked it too, but it was a big decision for me to move here permanently. I still had a flat in Germany and although I loved my job here, getting married meant I’d chosen Malta as my new home,” she says. “I talked to my bosses in Germany and they were very happy for me to stay on because the factory in Malta was growing, so we decided to get married.”
It was also important for Helga to continue working after getting married. “Back then, it was normal for the wife to stay home and bring up the children, and I wasn’t ready for that,” she explains. “But Joe was understanding – his mother and sister were both in business and he was accustomed to that life, so he accepted my wishes as long as we both managed. This has been the motto of our marriage: we are a team and there are no defined roles,” says Helga. “He was always extremely supportive, and that made it easier for me to have the life I wanted, to have a career and a family too.”
And this seemed to be the key to their remarkable dynamic after 43 years of marriage. “At the beginning of every marriage there’s love, of course, but there must be friendship, a partnership, a team. It was always a team effort – never me or him, always us. And our children knew that too growing up,” Helga says.
But before planning on having kids, the couple set their wedding date for 16th April 1977 and planned it together in just four months. Mass was celebrated at St Aloysius College, a place which meant a lot to Joe as a former college student. “Part of the mass was in German, which was meaningful for me and my parents. It helped them feel less foreign, especially as weddings in Germany are very different to Maltese ones,” says Helga. “The mass, which Fr Eminyan made so personal, was my favourite part of the day.”
Around noon, the couple made their way to the Hotel Phoenicia for a stand-up reception which was held in the main lounge of the hotel, which accommodated 600 guests. “From my side of the family, only my parents were here for our wedding and some colleagues from the factory – the rest were all Joe’s family, friends, and friends of his parents,” Helga jokes. “But his parents took great care of my parents on the day.”
For her wedding dress, the bride-to-be had no idea where to begin looking, without the help of her mother who was in Germany, her mother-in-law who was in Italy, and with very few female friends. “I approached Maria Fleri Soler whom I knew, and was an expert seamstress, and asked her to make my wedding dress. She had never made a wedding dress before, but I pleaded with her, and she accepted,” says Helga. Maria bought lace from London and created a blouse-like bodice with a long, soft skirt that had small pleats and a band at the waist. “I didn’t want a stiff dress, but rather something light and modern, with flowers. I was very much a ‘flower power’ girl at the time,” she says, prompting Joe to chuckle.
Although Joe was a little anxious on the morning of the wedding, it didn’t stop him from using his time wisely. Helga recalls how, while she was getting ready at his parents’ home, Joe had plenty of time to spare. “We planned to stay at our new home after the wedding, so that morning, Joe – who loves cacti – visited my flat to move all the cacti plants on my windowsill to our home so they’d be there when we move in. Imagine that – the morning of his wedding, he had time to think of the cacti! I always laughed about that, typical him.”
After the wedding, the newlyweds enjoyed a three-week honeymoon driving through several European countries, all the way up to Scotland. Over the following few years, they welcomed two children, Christian and Chiara, who now have two children each of their own, making Helga and Joe proud grandparents of four.
Keen to share her own advice on what makes their 43-year marriage work, Helga dives right in. “In my upbringing, we believed that if something breaks, you fix it and not throw it away, and if there is a crack, take care of it so that it doesn’t break further.”
“Marriage is a journey, there are ups and downs, one wouldn’t be honest if they say it’s all fairy tales. There are tough times, especially with young children and trying to establish yourself, but don’t be impatient when things get difficult – communicate, share it and go through it, it’s worth it,” she says. “Because I think the loveliest thing after all that, having lived your life, had your children and then your grandchildren, is that you know each other inside out. When you’re older, you reap the benefits of that closeness. And there is comfort in that.”
Tyler Calleja Jackson (recent photos)