◌ Memorial Day
28 May 2012
I wanted to write something for Memorial Day that would dig into how we remember war. It would have quoted, among other things, some of my mother’s family papers. As I looked through them for the parts I wanted, I found myself reading pages at a time, and the piecemeal of old letters and recollections that I got this way was clearly better reading than anything I could write. So I selected passages that seemed fitting to the day and to have some intriguing resonances with each other, corrected a few typos, and made a couple remarks where I couldn’t help it.
My mother’s father
From a travel journal of my mother’s visit to the Czech Republic in 2002:
February 16, Friday. Jen and I are on the bus to Terezín. We conclude that we must have had family members [on her father’s side] go through, as apparently every Czech Jew who didn’t emigrate was first concentrated in Prague, then in Terezín, then often Auschwitz. But why do those two Australian girls want to go there? Out the window is a very thick fog, a fog shrouded graveyard, woods with bare trees, stubbled frosty fields. Fitting.
At the ghetto museum it was cold and misty, frozen everywhere. […]
There was a room in which the names of child inmates were written. Several family names appeared: Hana Skallová 27.3.42; Zdeněk Skall, 2.1.1941; and a whole bunch of Katzes. I wrote some of them down: Jiří [Mom’s father’s middle name], 7.6.39; Tomáš, Beate, Alexandr, Hanus, Otto, Jiří, Moric, Pavel [Mom’s father’s father’s name], Peter [Mom’s second son’s name], Peter, Karel [Czech form of Mom’s first son’s name], Pavel, Karel, Tomas, Josef, Jindřich, Ivo, Leo, Harry, Hannes, Hannes, Erik, Jessy, František [Mom’s father’s mother’s father’s name], Pavel, Joan, Tomas, Gretl, Inge [Mom’s mother’s best friend’s name], Jolana, Zdenka, Zdenka, Milena, Malvina, Marketa, Lucie, Hannah, Josefa, Hanna, Hanna.
Grandpa was usally known by some form of the name Fred. Notes from my aunt Bec’s interviews with him, c. 1983:
Dad was born in Ústí (Aussig in German), Czechoslovakia in 1923, the son of two practicing physicians, Paul [Pavel] and Beatriz [Božena]. […] Grandad had the time to talk and the intelligence to open up new worlds outside of Dad’s home life and school. The infectuous interest in science, industry, space travel, […] as well as an optimistic view on human progress gave rise to Dad’s similar perspectives and interests in life.
They were assimilated Jews, baptized Catholic, although the father and son had no interest in religion. Grandpa’s boyhood friend Holger Heller (who ended up in Brazil as an industrial chemist) recalled his upbringing in a 1996 letter:
Parents going out in the evening used to impose lights-out time on the kids. Fred’s did not, and as Fredi said, it would be pointless, they can’t control anyway. Fred had notes pinned to the inside of his cupboard, scheduling his appointments. Most other parents used to remind and nag their children about their duties. Once, they gave him the choice: Vacations with his parents at some lake in beautiful Austria or a bicycle. He decided on his own. Opted for the bike. What use is a lake? I can create my own by spitting. Sounds trite but it was funny. I used to get shouted at when I did not close doors behind myself. Fred’s mother would use a Czech saying, rudely or crudely translated that you seem to have a carriage-axle stuck in your behind. (Horse carts crossing our streets all the time.)
Czechoslovakia was an unstable remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of WWI (you’ll notice it’s now two countries). Grandpa’s mother’s father, František (Franz) Stejnar, a big influence on him, had been a major-general in WWI – the director of engineering at Pula, the main navy base, in what’s now Croatia. On Czechoslovakia’s long border with Germany and Austria was the Sudetenland, an ethnically German strip. Especially there in Ústí, German-speakers organized a pro-Nazi campaign during the with a grain of truth) that they were being oppressed by the Czechoslovak government. Back to Bec’s notes:
When the Germans invaded, the time came to leave the country.
A worldly freight forwarder planned Dad’s family’s departure from Czechoslovakia to, they eventually decided, Bolivia. Dad’s father was a real impractical man so this fellow took over, earning the admiration of Paul and the scorn of Beatriz. His take-charge attitude impressed Dad, although he was only in their lives for four months. After some hair-raising misadventures, the family got safely to Bolivia, and their furniture followed some years later on a cargo ship across wartime oceans. In contrast to his father, Dad quickly learned to take charge and get things done. He felt that his father depended on others too much so he has tried to live so that he doesn’t.
The hair-raising misadventures are unknown. We know they got approval to apply for foreign visas on the first day of June, 1939 (ten weeks after Czechoslovakia was entirely annexed and Jews lost civil rights), but that’s the last hard evidence for a while. My mother told me that her mother told her that Grandpa told her that when the invasion came, he wanted to go to England and join the Czech resistance there (at age 15), but had trouble getting out of Axis territory. His parents’ ship was redirected and they were sent to work as doctors in a camp in southern France. Grandpa went to Milan, wrote for a newspaper, and waited. After a year, his parents bribed or otherwise weaseled their way out and they all left for Bolivia.
That story doesn’t sound right. For example, if the camp was Axis, it must have been after mid-1940, and moving around Axis territory in mid-1941 would have been borderline impossible for Jews; if it was Allied, they would have been crossing back into Axis territory, which is even less likely. Some important point here has been misremembered – it was a month instead of a year, Italy instead of France, a job instead of imprisonment, or something. But this is the nature of the stories I’ve been given. For a sense of how evasive Grandpa was about this, read my mother’s post from yesterday.
When the Katzes got to Bolivia, the political faction that provided their visa had fallen out of favor. Holger Heller says:
In Bolivia Fred’s family had a hard time. Fred’s father was not permitted to practice medicine in La Paz, tried his hand at business, then established himself as a physician in Copacabana, a sanctuary on Lake Titicaca, a picturesque place to visit but not to live at. Your grandmother set up a German-language lending library for immigrants in the capital city.
Grandma (who was not there) says that, under cover of the library, they did a little doctoring on the sly for expats. Grandpa changed his name to Alfredo Ortega and worked a number of picturesque jobs involving railways and tin mines and such. Around the end of the war, after great effort, he got to America. He changed his name to Alfred Norris and started a little import firm in NYC, called Supreme International Company because he had that kind of sense of humor. He went to a dialect coach, and one of my few memories of him is that he would introduce himself as something like
Fred Naurris – a light New York accent stuck. He enlisted or was drafted, we don’t know, and spent mid-1946 to mid-1947 as a technician at White Sands Proving Ground. The only one-on-one conversation I remember having with him was about the fun of analytical chemistry and the different advantages of solid and liquid rocket fuel.
His parents had already come to America to join UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which had the job of caring for non-German refugees in liberated territory. In a letter dated May 6, 1945, from the UNRRA Training Center at the University of Maryland,
Dr B. Katz-Norris (i.e., his mother) writes my grandfather:
Dearest Fredy, this letter shall be written dayly, if possible, so that gives you a better impression of our life here. Yesterday we were in Washington in the afternoon have had 2 hours classes about organization in the UNRRA …. [sic] in the headquarters, travel section, for getting our exit. They are all heartily and friendly and Mr Campbell has a nice proverb over his desk: The impossible we make immediately, only the miraculous takes a little longer. Because our meals in the Training House are nearly all vegetable, so suggested our new friend, he is doctor too a Danese [a Czech-ism for Danish] to take a nice steak. And so we did and your father enjoyed it, but we missed our bus and went late to the dinner and so we had to go into the village (it takes about 5 minutes). In a little nice taverna we get a hamburger for 10 cents and a nice cup of coffee for 5 cents and satisfied we played just a little bridge, gained $3.
In 2012 dollars, the burger was $1.30, the coffee 65¢, and they won about $38. I’m willing to come to terms with my great-grandparents having been card sharks. A passage from Paul on 30 May:
- Ferdinand’s nephew introduced Mr Skoda to John and he will take care of the new-comer and treat him nicely.
- Kramers pretentious sisters had a job offer in NY at $200 each monthly but they prefer to stay there and await a better job—you know they are so intolerably snobbish.
- There is a produce, earned from unripe Papaya. The unripe papaya fruit is slit and the coming forth juice is dried under exclusion of air!! (approximately). The process is like the rubber slashing of Hevea. The produce annihilates proteins 1 part to 20 and a pound is now 1.85 to $2.25. The whole import of US in ’44 was about 150 tons. So perhaps one of our friends (Mr. Hermann?) could try that article, but he should send a sample first (because some kinds of the papaiin are worthless when carelessly dried) and secure a commission for us. That stuff is used in breweries and otherwise, when proteins are to be removed.
He’s describing papain, now best known as meat tenderizer. I’ve posted some of their funnier passages before.
The letters cover their staging to London, and then, in late 1945, assignment to Augsburg, southern Germany. From Paul, dated September 15, 1945, on their way there:
Landscape is beautiful, towns and villages damaged in different scale, up to 60% as in Karlsruhe. You must imagine that under the heaps of rubble probably are people’s bodies buried and the impression is tremendous. We have had much discussion about the other nations’ attitude towards the Germans but nothing comes out of it and UNRRA members have no right to do any politics (as goes without saying) so we abstain from all remarks and observe only.
It was interesting to see the reaction of some Germans when an English man looked at the ruins of Karlsruhe. He said it is really terrible, and the Germans told him, yes it is terrible but it is all your fault, if you English would have surrendered in 1940 or 41 all this damage would have been prevented. So you see there is no sense of guilt in the German people and even if they are very humble and do all what they are ordered, their minds are hypocrites and not changed at all. Every German (I am told so, I do not fraternize!) has his story that he was no Nazi, that he was forced to join the NS party because of some important reason but that this and this other German has been a wild Nazi. But this other Nazi has the same story ready and I think it would be a tremendous job to reeducate all the people, much more and longer than the patience of the allies will last.
Nationalism goes wild all over Europe and the outlook for a lasting peace seems to be very small. This is another reason for our plan to try to get to the US [permanently] as soon as possible.
Augsburg was gruesome. It was largely Baltic refugees (DPs, displaced persons, as they were called), and many of them would have understood that what UNRRA wanted, for them to go back home into the Soviet sphere of influence, was hardly better than the DP camps. The letters get pretty dark, mostly in subtext. The civilized, modernizing, cosmopolitan continent they had grown up on was destroyed and didn’t seem to be healing. At the beginning of this cache, Beatrice is writing about half the letters, but over the summer her contributions shrink to notes at the end. Dated 10 October 1945:
Darling Fredy keep healthy and write and write, your letters are the only thing what makes me happy. All the other events here are [Paul scribbled the next words out and wrote “less satisfactory. I changed that without telling mom.”] With all my love, yours, M.
On the 20th, she killed herself. After my grandfather’s death, Holger Heller wrote of her:
His mother caught a disease from the patients she was caring for, if it was not typhus it was something in the line, which cost her her life. I still feel a pang of pain when I remember how I received the news.
As best I can tell, Heller was Grandpa’s closest lifelong friend, the only surviving peer of his childhood, and he lied to him about his mother’s suicide. This is appalling, but because I know and want to know my grandfather as a basically decent guy, I tend to see the truly appalling thing as the feelings that persuaded him to cover it up. And indeed most of what little he said about his life from birth to meeting my grandmother is shown by documents to be half-truths. For example, my mother quotes a talk he gave in 1989 where he said:
In 1938 my father took a contract in South America to get away from the war about to start in Europe.
As we’ve seen, they actually left sometime after 1 June 1939, and it’s hard to phrase their desire not to be in Europe in such neutral terms when you see the stars of David and swastikas stamped on their papers. The public statement might be literally true if that that was when Pavel accepted the contract, or Grandpa might be misremembering the year five decades later, but I think odds are high that he was just lying, and said ’38 instead of ’39 so he didn’t have to publicly recall the Nazis that he did, very rarely, in private.
My mother’s mother
Esther Idler was born in Berlin in 1921. Her parents, Martin and Leonie, were art teachers – and, like my grandfather’s parents, part of the prosperous and openminded upper middle class that flourished in Europe between the wars. Martin had been a sort of artistic layabout until he was drafted into WWI. The story is that he didn’t know restaurants had back rooms until he was ordered to check them for ambushes during the invasion of France. My grandmother recalled around 1998 (not completely accurately, I think it’s safe to assume):
He was in a battalion that was an emergency battalion, and he had seen every one of the major, awful, just awful battles. And after each battle the whole company was put in a sanitarium for six weeks to become halfways functional again. […]
There are many, many stories that he told, and I should write them down. For instance, at Christmas time, they had packets of cigarettes that they would throw out of their trench into the enemy trench. Then the day after Christmas somebody shot into the air and said, OK, now it’s wartime again.
[…] There was no sanitation, and there were rats. Out of the 3,000 in his regiment there, only two survived. He had cholera twice and typhus once. His innards were all scar tissue, he had to be very careful how he ate from then on. His brother Kurt got shot in the brain and a quarter of brain was taken out, and so he was incapacitated and had to be put in a sanitarium after a while. Some people make heroic fables out of wartime activities, it’s too bizarre, it really is, because it’s so dehumanized.
These are the stories of why my parents were pacifists.
Leonie was an athlete and wanted to try out for the 1916 Olympics, but they were cancelled by the war. She became an assitant nurse for the Red Cross, which is how they met.
Then [about 1919] my mother began teaching, but her students were the children who had grown up with mothers working and fathers in the war, or orphaned, and she couldn’t handle them. They were just too undisciplined, too wild. She was teaching art, and they would just put the tables one on top of the other and kick them so they would fall down, and the principal came in, you know?
A story Grandma has told me often, from roughly 1920:
Arnold Haase Dubosc was a pupil of my father Martin Ideler, who was art instructor at a high school. Arnold was a maybe eleventh or twelfth grader. In the back of the art class, which was a large room, he had some private conversations while Martin was lecturing, and Martin got annoyed. He took a piece of chalk and threw it through the room and hit Arnold in the head.
Arnold was most impressed by the accuracy of his throw. After class he went to the teacher and apologized for having misbehaved and told him that actually he was very impressed with Martin’s lecture and that he was interested in art and that to show his goodwill he would from now on be attentive and really make good use of what Martin had to offer.
A lifelong friendship developed between the very spoiled Jewish boy and the still young teacher, whom they called “The Boy” because he looked so young. When there was an influenza epidemic, Arnold came to our household to help. Everybody had the flu and this young man started cooking for us, and cleaning up for us, and doing some of the chores that had to be done for people who are very, very sick.
Before that, though, my father, who was always a Francophile, was invited to Paris by young Arnold to stay with him and to study a little bit in the Louvre and the art scene of the city. They had a grand time together. That was in 1926, eight years after the end of WWI. Of course, the Germans were always called Bosch, which means putrid abscess, that was the name for Germans in general. There was still a very strong sentiment against “the enemy.”
Grandma had an older brother, Axel, and a younger sister, Suzanne.
Well, it was a time when there was no milk for the toddlers. The cows had to be given to France as a retribution and formula hadn’t been developed yet so it was a pretty trying thing. Grandma and mother decided to buy a pregnant goat. The goat had twin kids and gave milk. So Axel, who was two years old then, had his milk, goat milk.
And then Suzanne was born a year and a half later. I was a very sturdy kid. My brother would tease me a little bit sometimes and I was very good natured about it until I had enough and then I would get furious and then he was afraid of me. Suzanne, the little one, was much more delicate, and very pretty, so she and Axel fought. I was always the mediator. […]
We lived off the surplus of a more glorious and richer era. That was true for most families who lived there. […] It was an older, once quite affluent suburb and the front lawns were made into vegetable gardens. Since we were all in the same boat, the young ones didn’t have the feeling that there was hardship. That was just the way it was.
She describes her parents’ circle:
Another one was a Jewish girl, Therese “Resl” Katzenstein, with whom she had been in nurse’s training. Her parents had a big sanitarium and donated it during the war, the first World War, to be turned over into a military hospital. And for that they were spared stuff, they were one of the Edeljuden [honorable Jews], which they didn’t appreciate. As a protest, every New Year’s morning, we visited them, parading through the streets with big pots of chrysanthemums or winter flowers, and gave them our respects.
She describes a number of Nazi relatives, for example:
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.
(Let me interrupt here to say that she’s told me how to make bread with sawdust, and when I was small and she was quite well off, she still ate every part of an apple except the seeds, and all the cartilage and marrow from chicken breasts. So did Grandpa. The only other person I’ve met with those eating habits hid in barns during the Cultural Revolution. I think she means they always had enough to eat by comparison with people who were truly malnourished.)
Just for conviction’s sake, he didn’t want to sell his soul. But Hans didn’t feel he was selling his soul. He lived a good life in a small town as a judge and a respected citizen, and he didn’t ever do anything wrong, and so he was an upright honest person. We admired him. […]
One of the reasons our family could not warm up to the Nazi ideology, was we lived in Berlin, and we had many relatives, and they came from all parts of the country to the conventions, staged mostly in wintertime. Then our house was just like a hotel with relatives from all over, and they would talk about their professions and how they are being treated and what is expected of them from the Nazi standpoint, and they had their strong misgivings oftentimes, especially when they had to deal with foreign countries or had been dealing with them beforehand. As I said, the people in agriculture were the ones who were the most credulous because they were the most isolated.
The politics got worse and the war began. There is a story I can’t find to quote that the block warden visited her father one day, gave him a list of things he’d done to criticize Hitler or help Jews – with names and dates – and told him to consider the safety of his family. Grandma kept switching studies as non–war-related academic departments were closed. She has a few stories about her experiences in
volunteer labor, one of which I posted here. Or this one:
I was allowed to go there [Freiburg] because I was already in the 9th semester, and had to be an A+ student, otherwise you ended up in the ammunition factory. I had worked in the ammunition factory, the other times, and once I was a char woman, together with prisoners of war, or refugees, women from the Baltic states, Estonia and so forth, and I worked right alongside. We started with the men’s johns, and women’s johns. There was a conference room for the upper upper people, and my uncle, Walther von Wiese und Kaiserswaldau, was a general [actually a captain in the army and a lieutenant colonel of the SS Division zur Vergeltung/Retaliation Division, which did the V rockets] in there, and “Quiet, there are these important people,” and I laughed, and said, “There is my uncle in there, and I have dinner with him, and he is just a kindly, wonderful old man.” He’s just a military general, you make your plans on the green table, if you do that, there will be 10,000 casualties, if you do that, there will be 20,000 casualties, so we pick the lower ones.
Or this one:
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.
I studied in Würzburg for a semester and then a very peculiar event happened. A dentist lived in the apartment building where Suzanne 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 99% 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. It was stupendous.
The RAF put the destruction at 89%. They could see its fire from 240 km (150 miles) away, and 3000 corpses were found the next day. After Freiburg, this was the second firebombing of a city that Grandma escaped just in time.
Her brother Axel was a tinkerer. He raised small animals and did all sorts of little projects. He had an illegal radio receiver for Allied propaganda in the attic. Grandma has told me this story many times:
The basement in our house had all kinds of old furniture, dolls and whatnots in it. We needed the space for a bomb shelter, but Mutti demurred; there were memories. Then they started the phosphorus bombing, and the pellets would burn their way down through the roof and through all the floors of the house and end up in the basement on all the stuff that was stored there, linens and stuff. One day we came back from a tea party with the ladies, and found Axel tending the remains of a bonfire in the back yard. He had burned everything. “Well, it had to go sometime, didn’t it?” Above, all the crab apples on the tree had been roasted, and they ate them.
Like essentially every young man, he was drafted:
Now it was wartime, and Axel was in the midst of his medical studies, when he got leave to go to the university, but the rest of the time he was in the army. He was assigned, as he was very technically minded, to the Signal Corps, which was communications. Every time our phone rang at very odd hours like three o’clock in the morning, or five o’clock in the morning, we knew it was Axel telephoning from a far away place where their armies were located, such as in Southern Russia, and the lines were clear, and he could do his personal messages.
He phoned us and he said, “Oh, it’s winter here and everything is snowed in, and I just came in to the signal station from where I am housed right now, and that is in a tiny little hut in a village near Odessa,” and we said, “How is that?”
“Oh,” he said, “It’s a small Russian farm family, a man and a sick wife and a little boy. I prefer to stay with them rather than in the barracks.”
And we said, “Oh, isn’t this enemy country? We know how you feel about them, but how do they feel about you?”
He said, “Well, first they were very subservient, and they said, ‘It’s wintertime and you have the place of honor on top of the great tile stove,’” which is a big platform and you put straw on top of it and it’s nice and warm and it’s right under the roof where the family sleeps, and maybe you move a newborn piglet or a sick hen, but that is the place of honor.
And so the farmer pleaded, “Could you please let my wife sleep there too with you, because she’s sick?”
And so my brother said, “No way. You put a little straw on the floor for me, and you and your wife sleep up there.” And that of course that endeared them, that the enemy would do stuff like that.
The Nazi advance on the Eastern Front is one of the most brutal invasions recorded. Rape and murder were the norm. Some unknown but apparently large number of German soldiers chose to be summarily executed, or step out of line and shoot themselves, rather than participate. I have no idea what the whole story is. She goes on:
He was also interested in pediatrics because he loved children, in fact his first experience with interning with this old pediatrician who was very much in the picture of our childhood upbringing, he studied newborns and their reactions, and he came home elated at that time, and said, “Wow, I could do observations and little experiments with these newborns and they are more interesting even than my mice!”
He was killed on Christmas, the 25th, 1944, and everybody knew already it was the end, everybody was exhausted and overextended and stuff. By that time he was an officer, and 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 to the front. His sergeant was a family man and he had gotten a package from his wife. 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.
After the war:
After Würtzburg was destroyed we were refugees and lived in Bad Mergentheim for six years. The only jobs for outsiders were with the Occupation Army.
I worked as a maid for food and money from the U.S. Army. My German employer was a lumberman, one of the richer citizens of Bad Mergentheim. He’d supplied the flooring for Hitler’s palace in the mountains. He was a big, slow man who wasn’t evil, but went with the times.
This was the same general area as the Augsburg UNRRA camp, and Grandma describes interacting with Baltic DPs at about the time Paul and Beatrice were there.
Grandma has told me many stories about the war, including maimed but conscious people dying, her brother’s death, the smell of firebombing, seeing her co-workers shot on false charges, finding out about the Holocaust and realizing that people she knew must have known – but the only one that she seems to let get to her around me is what happened when the Americans took Bad Mergentheim. The Germans had been hoping it would be the Americans instead of the Soviets, but they expected a certain amount of rape and pillage. They knew that the troops had just been killing and being killed by Germans. But the GIs took off their helmets and shared their rations with the German children. Grandma tends to cry when she describes this.
Picking up exactly where we left off at the beginning, in her description of Arnold Haase, the Jewish kid whom her father hit with the chalk:
Later on Arnold had an opportunity to go to Paris as a representative of a German branch of Telefunken, of one of the radio stations. […] When the Nazi times came he became a French citizen.
Then he married a French lady. […] They had two children. His parents, who had fled from Berlin to France, were seized by the occupation people and sent to Auschwitz and there was no more mention of them, so they perished there.
Right after the war, Arnold who was by that time an officer in the French army, looked up my parents in Berlin, in the rubble, so they all cried together. He said it was one of the hardest things for him as a Frenchman, to fight against the Germans.
Later on, being established in the French radio world, he was sent to America and he established himself in New York. When I wanted to go to the United States after the war, he and his family were very influential in making it possible for me to come to the United States because of the testimonial of the attitude of my parents toward him and his folks during the Nazi time.
So when I came to New York, Arnold met me at the ship. I couldn’t take any German money along because it was not yet acknowledged by the international community as valid, so nobody had any money on them. They took me in into their family […]. They told me how to manage with very little money, and they gave me $100 which at that time was quite a bit of money, and of course fed me and housed me and gave me advice. Evenings we’d sit around and Arnold would play the piano, and his son too, his 10-year-old son. Arnold played Bach, fantastic, I mean, virtuoso.
Then she went to join her sister, who had married a GI, in LA. She applied at Disney, but it didn’t hire women artists (unless they were lesbian, she says), so she took the art school off her résumé, reapplied, and ended up doing frame painting for Peter Pan.
I was dating Fred Norris. One day, Fred called, wanting a date, and I said, no, I’m entertaining my folks. He said, “I still want to come.” I told Vati [her mother] I was dating a businessman, but was holding out for an artist. Vati 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.” After Fred’s visit, Vati said, “Don’t discount this young man. He has potential, he’s sincere, give him a chance.” […]
The ceremony was in City Hall in Santa Barbara, because we had too many friends in Los Angeles and couldn’t afford to entertain them all.
They had three daughters. Grandpa died in 1995. Grandma lives in Beaverton.
Grandma and Grandpa both saw things that can’t be dealt with, and so took irreparable emotional damage, but they had opposite responses.
Grandma talks for hours if you ask. She avoids only the most meaninglessly gruesome stories. She wants people to know what happened. Unlike many people who weren’t there, she is perfectly willing to point to things in contemporary politics and say “You know, this is how Hitler started”. She needs to pass this on, so that a generation of civilians who have no idea what war is will have some antibodies. She’s partly succeeded.
Grandpa talked very rarely. He became extremely practical, like the worldly freight forwarder. He tried to make it not have happened. There was nothing to be gained by bringing up the hunger and desperation, the fear and shame, the homicide, suicide, and genocide – why not let the past eat it? He just wanted the life of simple virtues and sensible comforts that his parents had been building in the ’30s. He partly succeeded.
Two considerations never enter into either of their stories that I’ve seen: that there was anything odd about a German and a Jew marrying just after WWII, and that there was anywhere they wanted to end up other than America.
This is what I think about on Memorial Day.