Some memories of my grandmother

Slightly adapted from a newsletter at the end of 2015. —@vruba, November 2016.

My mother’s mother died in 2015. She was born in Berlin in 1921, at the beginning of the Weimar hyperinflation. The family had money from before the Great War, so they could afford to keep a milk goat in their wrought-iron–fenced yard. In the basement they made a doll theater, and once a week they visited the Kohnreich family and their terrarium of salamanders. Times were very hard but they had enough to be hopeful. The parents were cosmopolitan artists and educators, and when the fascists’ overwound little hustler would argue for national self-sufficiency in his uncultured accent, they were not impressed. Grandma’s descriptions of that man always had a bit of snobbery mixed in the loathing. In old age (to my mother’s tape recorder), she remembered fascist relatives:

Onkel Hans was the oldest of four and my father was the youngest. They looked quite similar, but Onkel Hans was taller and much more athletically built, and had a full head of hair until he was older. He lived in a small town, and being a realist while my father was a dreamer and an artist, he had joined the Nazi Party. He wasn’t a convinced fighter for the cause, but he wanted to eat and he wanted to live well. In a small city there were no Jews or anything. It was just: you belonged and therefore you could eat well. Whereas my father allowed himself the luxury that his family would live in the shadow and he wouldn’t get promoted or anything, but we always had enough to eat.

Soon it was time for the liberal middle class to help their Jewish friends. They made shows of solidarity in public, and more substantial donations and connections in private. One day the block warden came around and showed Grandma’s father a list. It was things they’d done for Jews, with names and dates. The block warden said something like “You have these beautiful young children; you should think of their futures”. They kept the picture of the Leader turned to the wall when there weren’t visitors.

The war came. Grandma’s older brother was studying to be a doctor, and had a radio in the attic for Allied propaganda. One day without asking he made a fire of the family’s old furniture and papers in the yard. He said if he didn’t burn the heirlooms there, the phosphorus would do it in the basement and kill them. And soon, nearby houses went that way. Grandma played the system as best she could, bouncing between schools and majors and keeping her grades high enough to stay exempt. From my mother’s transcriptions again (with links and minor corrections):

I studied geography at the University of Berlin, but it was near the end of the war in 1944, so it was pretty impossible. By then, public transportation was almost nonexistent. We had to come an hour before the lecture was scheduled and give our university passport to the clerk and stand in line with a bucket chain. The buckets full of water were handed from hand to hand in a chain of students to the place where it burned. And after an hour of that, you were allowed to go in the classroom. In the classroom usually the profs did not read from notes because their lectures had been burned and they slept in their clothes and they were exhausted. […]

And then I came to Freiburg. […] But Freiburg was burned down November ’44, 96% burned down, plus my bicycle too.

I had a day before left for an assignment, not Berlin; it was IG Farben. I went to Mannheim and lived in Heidelberg in an old castle with three bunks, three tiers, and there were about 12 students living in one of those big rooms, and every morning we had to go to IG Farben, that was about 5 miles away. Sometimes the rails of the streetcar were up in the air, bombed out, so we walked, and since we were kids, we had shifts of 24 hours, and 24 hours nothing. So the 24 hours nothing we spent going out, it was summertime, into this beautiful surroundings, the woods, and didn’t sleep. So in the morning, at 5:00 when we had to get up, we would go three in a row, side by side, and the middle one would hang her arms over the shoulders of the other people and she would sleep while she was walking, and then we changed. So we got a little sleep. […]

Together with us, one was a man who had [a combat exemption and] only one leg, and he was the main mechanic, and then the rest were Russian prisoners of war. When I and several students walked down these alley-type walks between these 3–5 story high industrial buildings, suddenly a huge chain with links like you have on a big boat fell down from one of these 5 story buildings, just about half a foot from us, and then we looked up and there were those Russians laughing. Several of the people were killed in these little incidents […].

When I worked in the factory, I had this book of poetry by French people, I tried to translate it into German, also with a little poetic touch. That kept me sane, while I did this monotonous work, I did some soldering stuff on tiny little components of some radar thing for 10 hours a day.

The other people around me, I mean, the students were told: you get one hour instruction and then you know what you’re supposed to do. You have to see, through a magnifying glass, if your soldering was accurate. Here are the regulars, and it’s their life, and you are not going to show them up by being faster. You are not doing sabotage work by doing slower. You find the right medium, or else. There were people shot when they didn’t obey those rules.

That’s the war experience, headachy, undernourished, no energy, not enough sleep, and dragging yourself. “Why didn’t you do something about it?” You can’t! You just barely drag yourself. You don’t have any good ideas anymore, either. When they say, “Well, those Cambodians that get massacred by the millions, why don’t they do something about it?” They cannot anymore, they are starved, they are starved mentally and physically, they are just being mowed down.

This is one thing about a dictatorship. The intellectuals and the ones who had their second thoughts – and again I have to say they didn’t know about the concentration camps, nobody did – they did not, were not accustomed to, were not practiced, were not motivated to use violence. And against violence you can only work with violence, or you are getting put at the wall and shot. And that’s why I am ambiguous about the military.

Freiburg was only the first firebombing that she narrowly avoided:

I studied in Würzburg for a semester and then a very peculiar event happened. A dentist lived in the apartment building where Suzanne [her sister] and I rented a room. Suzanne had by that time joined me, she had come from the east where the fighting had started, and she was put into a cattle car and shipped west. She gave my address and so she joined me. We were warned by the dentist who had sort of found out that we were not Nazis, and he told us that the Nazi officials had already left, with their furniture. And he said there’ll be a major attack in a few days so invite yourselves to whoever you know, even if it’s a slight acquaintance, and get out of the city.

So we did, we invited ourselves to some friends that we had in Bad Mergentheim. And three days later, the city was 89% destroyed. How that happened, I don’t know. How this man had forewarned us. There were hundreds and thousands of civilians living there. And of course the wounded in the hospitals, all killed. The sky was red for three days and three nights. Windowpanes rattled, some windows were broken too, and that was about 50 miles away in Bad Mergentheim. And then the ashes fell.

She saw many airstrikes on duty as a nurse:

There are several things that I still remember. Like the air raids had started already, and a young woman was brought in and, a beautiful young woman, and they laid her out on the operating table with a shield between her and her body so she couldn’t see what was going on. She was heavily sedated, but she was with it. She asked what happened to her two little children. Below her, down to the hips, the skin and everything was ripped off, and you saw the heart bouncing and the lungs exposed and everything, so that was her death, and they didn’t tell her. I still remember that picture. She didn’t feel anything, she said, “Is everything OK?” […]

Even now when there are those maneuvers on the 4th of July, the massive drone of the airplanes, all these things rush back. We had, because we lived in the suburb, there were air raid shelters, but they were about half a mile away. We stayed in our house, it was a two story house plus a full basement. We had fortified this one basement according to instructions with timber and so, and there we had set bunks, and slept on the bunks. Everybody had little suitcases, with mostly photographs. And every once in a while one of us would run up through the house and look […] there were those little ignition bombs, they were about like a foot and a half long, and narrow and pointed, and they would go through the roofs and into the house.

For a time she was a nurse on trains that brought the injured back from the front, and because the Nazis sometimes smuggled arms under the Red Cross insignia, the Allies would sometimes strafe medical trains. When the planes came she dragged stretchers into the woods or fields as fast as she could, then waited for the tracks to be repaired. Her brother Axel antagonized enough Nazi officers that he got assigned to the front. He’d trained as a doctor, but he was handy with electronics and machinery, so they put him with the signal corps. He would call home at odd hours when the lines were clear and report that he had been making friends with Russian peasants or delivering the babies of French farmers – enemies. Grandma said:

It was Christmas, the 25th, 1944, and everybody knew already it was going towards the end, everybody was exhausted and overextended and stuff. By that time he was an officer, and he was a full fledged medical doctor. There was a first aid station right at the front, and he was at the field hospital, and supplies had to be brought to the first aid station at the front, and his sergeant was a family man, and he had gotten a package from her. My brother said OK, now you just open your package and reminisce nostalgically of the home front and I’ll take the medications that go to the front. He went on a motorcycle and on the way he was hit by a bomb and then we have no idea was it just hamburger left over or what. Then there were the mass graves, so my mother went there and there was a little cross and there was his name on it and she didn’t know, was it him. Just half a mile from there was the cemetery of the American casualties and there was Axel’s cousin who was a musician, the only son of that family with the name of Martin Ideler, named after my father. A musician, and this is the tragedy of war.

Now when people say, how can you come to America and become a really a dedicated citizen when all this happened through American bombs, I say, well, this is the story behind it, I just don’t believe in war. And in fact there were things too, that people didn’t talk about, on the front lines, when there were those mass killings and so, there were many German soldiers who were ordered to shoot and they shot themselves, they said I don’t do this. We don’t talk about that. But we know about it, because they were people from my father’s friends.

So no, war is insidious […] nowadays when it’s ideology, to make people happy and therefore you kill 6 million... You know there were more civilians dead with the flu after [WWI] than casualties in the war. But all my girlfriends couldn’t marry because there were no men. And it was a half a generation at least. There was old Adenauer, a 70 year old man, but the work was carried out by the women from the ditch digger to the judge, you know [a family friend]’s sister was a judge. Everything was done by women. The clearing of the rubble of Berlin was done by women.

After Würzburg burned, as the Allies came into Germany, Grandma stayed in the small town of Bad Mergentheim. When the GIs rolled up, everyone expected revenge. The whole German population had mobilized. Even Grandma, a lefty art student, had worked in an ammunition factory. So there would certainly be humiliation, reprisal – an occupation as hard as the war. But there was not. Grandma said the GIs took off their helmets and split their rations with the hungry children of the town. She said: Even with their uniforms on, they knew they were human beings.

She got work with the occupation, helping organize free concerts (“no Wagner”), singing in the choir, and making things like posters. A French Jewish friend, who had lost his whole family, wrote to his congressperson to vouch that Grandma and her immediate family had been anti-Nazi and had tried to help. (He had been a student of her father.) With this, she could come to America. She arrived in New York on the SS Homeland in February ’52. (Thanks to @benhammersley for help finding the travel records.) Her sponsors gave her advice and about $850 in 2015 dollars, and she headed for California. She worked as an au pair while looking for something bigger. Her accent didn’t help in the postwar years – it’s always the way that immigrants are confused with what they’re leaving.

She applied to Disney but they turned her down because she’d studied art, and women could only work on inbetweening and such, nothing too creative. She weakened her résumé and played dumb, and they hired her for Peter Pan. Her scrapbooks from this time have sketches and photos of people like fellow Disney artists and Rita Hayworth’s stand-in (“She had a Shakespeare company, and was a much better actress than Hayworth”). She found Disney sexist and esthetically frustrating, and after the Peter Pan crunch she went to work at the studio of Betty Brenon, an animator who was always under-credited and hardly appears now in histories.

She dated another European immigrant, a man from a Czech Jewish family who had barely left Axis territory in time. He didn’t like to talk about his past. He had his parents and one surviving childhood friend; everyone else was gone. He’d written antifascist propaganda in Italy, fled to Bolivia just in time (probably via Hochschild’s Express Judio route), and naturalized in the US by enlisting in the Army to translate captured papers. Now he was teaching economics. Grandma, transcribed in the third person:

[Grandma] told [her mother] she was dating a businessman, but was holding out for an artist. [Her father] said let’s have a look at him. Come on, waiting for an artist, this is fantasy. Look at Picasso. Artists’ wives have to give up their own career to put food on the table. You marry a businessman, you can have a family and everything.

They married in Santa Barbara because if they had done it in Los Angeles, all their friends would have come, and they couldn’t afford a party. Grandma was 33. Grandpa did have good business sense – he became a CPA – and they lived in increasing comfort over the second half of the century. They had three daughters, whom they raised in Hollywood-the-neighborhood but almost totally insulated from Hollywood-the-Hollywood. One of the many exchange students they hosted became a de facto fourth daughter. Grandma renovated two houses and picked up a fair amount of Japanese. As they had more time and money, they traveled around the world. Grandma painted for almost her whole life, only losing skill in the last years, and she could sing for even longer.

There will be real obituaries and eulogies for Grandma – ones that don’t move into fast-forward in 1954, ones that get to her as a person. And while my personal grief involves remembering some of these stories, that’s not why I put them here. I want to say: The experience of world war is disappearing from us in this decade. The pain in the middle of Europe’s twentieth century is compressing into encyclopedic phrases. We have these last years with our eldest friends and relatives, and that’s a private privilege. But we also have these last years with their understanding of what it means for some of the most powerful nations in the world to be openly fascist, and that’s a public need.

What is most valuable in these stories, for me, aside from knowing the life of someone close to me, is an understanding of evil. Grandma was clear that Nazis did not appear out of nowhere as interiorless, historyless avatars of violence. They were neighbors, uncles, the waiter, the mayor, the ladies who lunch, the teens laughing on their way to band practice, the woman who made your socks, your dad’s army buddy who saved his life, the post office clerk with the lazy eye, the teacher who keeps the PTA running, the witty guy at poker night, the garbageman who whistles showtunes, the librarian who feeds your cat when you travel. They saw a way out of national and personal distress. They thought the angry politician was maybe not the most trustworthy person, and some of his ideas were a little extreme, but at least he was a corrective to the bureaucratic Weimar incompetence. They found purpose and belonging. And they enabled a war of aggression, and many of them harassed, robbed, imprisoned, enslaved, gassed, drowned, froze, burned, buried, shot, raped, experimented upon, and worked to death their fellow people.

It’s not enough to remember Nazis as symbols of evil. What happened to six million people was not done by metaphors for wickedness, it was done by other people with hands and brains like ours. They were infected with the idea that there are intrinsically good people and intrinsically evil people. They were extremely evil, but not intrinsically. They were wrong in ways that you and I can be wrong. This is the most terrifying thing I know, and I know it from Grandma. What do “it can happen here” and “never again” mean? I can’t know the way that Grandpa did or Grandma did.

With this knowledge, she led a life of ideological moderation, active respect for other cultures, and firm but not rigid ideals. She did not adopt the American civic taboo on comparing anything in national politics, however distantly and carefully, to fascism. Her worldview was something like: After WWI, her parents and their generation had been trying to educate everyone, to help build an enlightened culture and an equitable society. Fascism killed millions of people and erased that generation’s work. Now the important thing was to pick up momentum again – to rebuild a healthy human environment, starting today, and this time more resistant to fascism.

I knew Grandma as a grandmother. When I was very young, she was a gentle but earthy old woman with an odd accent, distinctive taste in art, and some mannerisms left from working as a nurse. And some inexplicable habits, like eating the cartilage and marrow out of a chicken breast if not in polite company, or seeming uncomfortable about low-flying planes sometimes. These stories showed up slowly. “Well, when I was young, sometimes food was scarce. You know, mixing a little sawdust in the bread dough as filler, this kind of thing.”

For a while, I thought she had shifted gears in the ’50s: that she had turned away – that the war had turned her away – from the bohemian liveliness and the meliorist ideals of her youth, and that she had signed over to an American blandness of Disney, housewifehood, art in spare time, a comfortable retirement, and so on. Gradually I saw how much that idea came from books and not from her. I had tried to see her life in terms of Big Ideas And Social Trends: the Weimar times were Like This, WWII was Like That, America in the ’50s was This Other Thing.

I was going backwards. What matters first about the Weimar times is what they were like to live inside. That’s not all that matters, but nothing else matters if that doesn’t. We can’t see into a person’s life through copula sentences: “The Weimar period was materially difficult but intellectually productive”, “Some Allied bombings were ethically troubling”, “The midcentury Hollywood animation establishment was sexist”. Those don’t begin. But maybe: Feeding the goat with dandelions picked from the sidewalks of Lichterfelde. The way the raining city-ashes smelled. That Betty Brenon hired only women at her studio so they could get work done. I can only see Grandma starting with what she saw.

From there, it’s obvious that she did not let go, was not subsumed into the history textbook subheds of the century; she was always moving under her own power, in catastrophies and in merely imperfect systems. And so was everyone. Grandma was special in many ways, but point to anyone and so are they. Some of us are lucky enough to get to a place where our work can accrete, where we can build a piece of the world we want. Many of us are not. War is only one of the forces that can destroy a person’s chances, or a generation’s work, or a generation. The weight of history is intolerable, an ocean-trench pressure, if we try to take it as a weight. Talking with Grandma helped me take it as a liquid, something that we can equalize against without being crushed, something whose unintelligible mass we can, with luck, push through and move within.

I hope that we will remember the people who are leaving us now as people. I hope that, one day, we will be remembered as people.