Prof. Mahlendorf's memoir, Chapter 3 (16 pages)
to introduction; chap. 4, chap. 5, chap. 8, chap. 9; UCSB Hist 133c homepage; Hist 133q homepage
note: Prof. Mahlendorf was born in October 1929, so she was 9-11 years old at this time
Chicaneries by the SS and SA and boycotts of stores made Jewish citizens unwelcome even before Hitler proclaimed the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Those who had connections abroad, understood the Nazi threat and were mobile or wealthy enough left the country between 1933-1938. From the beginning of the regime in 1933, the newly appointed minister of Volksaufklärung und Propaganda (propaganda and public enlightenment), Joseph Goebbels, spread his poisonous anti- Semitism in speeches, the press and over the radio. The government imposed one restrictive regulation after the other. Even as early as 1933 and into 1934-1935 Jews lost the right to become citizens, were refused police protection, could not inherit land, and could be arrested without cause and due process and imprisoned in camps and SS houses. They were dismissed from the civil service and from university positionsóall institutions of higher learning were public-- and excluded from the Reichskulturkammer , the public cultural organization to which artists, writers, composers, conductors, actors, journalists had to belong to be able to create, publish, perform, exhibit. The public burning of books at the countryís major universities in May 1933 was only the most conspicuous sign of the persecution of everything Jewish, Communist, Socialist, politically suspect. It included works of socialism, communism, psychoanalysis, modernism, expressionism, Dadaism in German culture. everything the political right thought decadent, Jewish, international, un-German. The press, book trade, both publishers and book dealers as well the many small private lending libraries were Aryanized, that is their owners dispossessed, their stock cleared of anything the Nazis objected to. Within a few months in 1933, Germany emptied of the majority of its cultural and artistic elite.
By 1935 segregation of Jews set in. It became illegal for Jews to use public baths, swimming pools, parks, and public buildings. Gradually over a few years, Jews lost their houses and were confined to ghettoes. Jews could not study at public institutions of higher learning and Jewish pupils had to endure ridicule and humiliation at school. By 1938, they were dismissed from public schools, and by the early forties the few remaining Jewish schools were closed down.
My home town knew little about the Nazi culture war against Weimar and Jewish culture as few people had either the inclination or the education to participate in cultural and intellectual life beyond the reading of the German classics and the attendance of the theater or opera in the provincial capital, Breslau. I learned of the full dimensions of this culture war only after I began to study German literature in the US at Brown University in 1953, when I encountered the works of Jewish and exile writers like Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Else Lasker-Schüler or Gertrud Kolmar. At that time, I examined and got to love and admire the literature, art and culture of Expressionism and Weimar Germany. Even at this first coming to know Weimar Culture, I was appalled that German intellectuals and the educated middle class of the thirties and forties disowned, killed, persecuted or allowed to be persecuted the best minds among them. As a scholar and lover of German literature, music and art, I cannot forgive the Aryan German intellectual Ďeliteí, many of whom were not Nazis, their betrayal of their Jewish fellow citizens and with that betrayal the cultural Western tradition of the Enlightenment in which they were educated. Though through my years of study I have come to understand many of the reasons for the German eliteís moral failure, it still angers me. I still object when contemporary German official publications, without referring to and explaining that infamous history, claim as their own the intellectuals and artists Germany disowned under Nazism.
During the Olympics of 1936, when many foreigners visited Germany, the Nazis temporarily scaled back public displays of Anti-Semitism only to resume persecution more aggressively by 1938. The Nazis used the murder of a Nazi diplomat by an exiled Jewish student in Paris as a pretext to stage a supposedly spontaneous pogrom on Kristallnacht, November 9. 1938. In towns and cities large and small all over Germany, SS and SA men burned synagogues, bashed in the windows of Jewish-owned stores and businesses, looted and demolished their contents, and attacked and imprisoned Jewish citizens. No one living in Germany at the time can claim that they heard nothing during or of Crystal Night. At nine years old, I did hear and see what happened in our town, was frightened by it but I failed to understand its significance.
It was late at night and I was still awake when I heard screaming and crashing, splintering glass. Mother was not home and I was afraid. Even so I rushed to the window. Jochen woke up from my cries. I opened the window and could hear the shouts and commotion more clearly. The gas street light at the T-crossing where Great Church Street terminated into Promenade Street flickered as usual. We stood at the bedroom window that looked out across Promenade Street and up Great Church Street. We saw people running up the street, heard outcries and shots from a distance, and more shattering glass. The horizon turned red. Herr Gurn limped across the front yard out to the street, yelling back to Frau Gurn.
"I cannot see anything; its coming from City Hall Square and beyond, " as he hobbled out of sight. The far-off commotion continued. We stood and shivered in the November night air. Finally after a long wait, Mother came up Great Church Street accompanied by Herr Gurn. They stood and talked at the house door where Frau Gurn was waiting. The distant noise quieted down.
"What happened, Mamma?"
"They broke down the Gerstelís door, bashed in their windows, threw their mattresses, the dentist chair, all his papers down to the street. The Gerstels and their boys were out in their nightshirts; they took Doctor Gerstel away."
"Who? Why? What did Doctor Gerstel do?"
Mother shot me a glance that silenced me; it was the same glance that I received a few years later when I asked questions about sex, "Donít ask," it said, "Donít ever dare to ask again."
Next morning before school I ran the four long blocks up to Münsterberg Street where the Gerstels lived. The grey morning street was still littered papers strewn about. Their iron front gate hung crooked from one upper hinge. The windows were broken, and the street and sidewalk were covered with shards. A blind on a second story window moved in the morning breeze. A few towns- people went by silently, children gathered and stared, some picked up papers. When I got to school, all the children were talking excitedly as we lined up to go to our classrooms. Once I arrived, I saw that Evaís seat next to Ilse was empty.
"Where is Eva? " I asked Fräulein Schäfer.
She banged down the top of her desk, a sign that she was angry and that we were to be quiet at once. She shot me the same glance Mother had the night before. But I was not to be shut up as easily as that.
"I went by the Gerstelís house, " I continued, "Their windows were bashed in. Mother said the boys were out in the street, everything was all lit up, there were a lot of torches. The boys had the measles from us, and you are not supposed to look into the light when you have the measles. Youíll go blind!"
"That is enough, sit down," was all the reply I got. "The Gerstels and Evaís parents are going abroad," and turning to Ilse she said, "Eva will not be back."
For days I kept worrying about the Gerstelís boys having the measles and being exposed to daylight, having to travel on a ship and going blind. They were friends of Jochenís and had caught the measles from us; it was our fault if they went blind. How could the adults be so stupid as to let the boys go about in daylight when they had the measles?
Over the next few weeks, signs appeared at the Jewish stores in town like Kaiserís health food store where Oma used to buy garlic pills good for digestion. Once, when I was about to enter the store to buy cough drops, a man stopped me, pointing to the sign, "Attention, citizens, do not buy from Jews."
"Canít you read?" he said.
I felt ashamed and ran off. Gradually all the Jewish stores I had gone to with Oma disappeared almost without my noticing. I forgot Eva and the Gerstel boys after a while. I do not know who told us not to go Schmagoostern to the Preussí sisters as we had always done in the past. They left my life almost without a trace just as much as the Gerstls and my classmate. I forgot about Crystal Night and what I had heard and seen. Jews as living people disappeared from my experience and became an abstraction. There must have been some Jewish people who stayed, but I donít recall ever seeing a person wearing a yellow star after it became obligatory to wear one in 1939. The only person close to anyone Jewish was the son of the druggist on City Hall Square, of whom I became aware toward the end of the war. His mother had been half Jewish. Designated as a quarter Jew, he was allowed to attend high school but not Hitler Youth. I wondered what he felt about being an outsider. I learned a new definition of the word Jewish after Crystal Night, of Jews as dishonest and deceitful. Goebbels on the radio spoke of Jews as untrustworthy, of taking advantage of German good heartedness in business dealings, of an international conspiracy of Jews against Germany. At the time most of it made no sense, but gradually it sunk in.
Later in Junior Hitler Youth, when we learned that Jews were subhuman, were fat and smelled bad, were cowards, I did not associate Eva or the Gerstels and their boys or the Preuss sisters, my parentís friends, with being Jewish. I remembered all of them and the events of Crystal Night in a flash of recognition in May 1945 when somewhere, on the refugee-clogged road in Czechoslovakia, I met emaciated, bald-headed, rag covered figures with huge frightened eyes, newly freed from a concentration camp. "They are Jews, " someone said.
Jochen, when I talked to him about Kristallnacht, remembered different details. "I donít recall what happened at the Gerstelís. But I was friends with the W. boys in whose house Aunt Lene had her apartment. Before Kristallnacht, we used to race our bikes in their yard. Afterwards, the street was littered with paper and glass. Their fatherís safe, emptied of its contents and its door broken off, lay on Frankensteiner Street. The boys looked out of the second story bedroom window. I motioned to them to come down and play but they werenít allowed to." The discrepancies in our respective memories comment eloquently on how individually we experienced this tragic event. Mother, who was the only adult whom I later asked claimed she had no recollection at all of that night. Did she feel so helpless and guilty that she blocked it out?
"What happened to the Preuss sisters, Mother?" I asked at still another occasion in the early 1950s when we spoke of Crystal Night.
"Greteís sister committed suicide. And Grete," came the answer, "had an affair with Uncle Bruno just before he died in 1934. His wife threatened to report us to the SS if we kept up relationships with the Preuss sisters. And that is why we asked Grete to stop coming to the skat evenings for a while. We lost touch with her after that." Afraid that she might snap at me, I did not follow up on her evasive answer. My skepticism about that explanation was confirmed when I talked to Jochen many years later about my conversation with Mother. He too had asked about the Preuss sisters and had received a somewhat different answer about the affair and its consequences. "Brunoís wife threatened to report Grete Preuss to the SS," she told him. "We did not want her to get into trouble. Thatís why we did not see her again." Both Jochen and I remember Motherís telling us another tale about a different time period of her relationship to Grete. Mother had met Grete again on Windmill Hill, way out of town in 1939, just before WW II broke out. They talked until they reached the first houses of town when Grete said, "Let me go ahead and you wait. You donít want to be seen with me. I donít want you to get into trouble."
"Mother let her go ahead," Jochen added. "A few days later, I talked to my skat friends about my anger at Motherís disloyalty to her friend. We vowed that we would not forsake each other like our parents did their friends no matter what the risk."
In early summer 1939 Mother warned me that I would have to spend the summer vacation with Aunt Helene, a cousin of hers, and her family in Zülzendorf, a village about thirty kilometers from home. She had tried to send me to other relatives in the country the previous summer, when Jochen, a year older than I, had been sent to stay with Uncle Kurt. I had protested, misbehaved, fell ill and was sent home early. I had created so much turmoil in my relativesí household that she decided I was still too young to spend six weeks by myself with relatives I scarcely knew.
Ever since Omaís death and the loss of her help with the household and finances, Motherís struggle to feed and care for us had increased. She sought to lighten her load by asking her relatives to take us in for longer breaks from school. Once rationing started in 1939, our stay in the country left her and my younger brother Werner the full use of the rationing cards Jochen and I did not need .
"You know that I wonít have to spend money on food for you and Jochen when you are in the country. Besides, youíll get better food than at home." That was true enough, I realized. Breakfast and supper at our house usually consisted of bread and marmalade or evil-tasting margarine. Dinners were monotonous. Most days, we had Eintopf , a casserole of potatoes and various vegetables boiled in bouillon and thickened with flour. On Saturday, when the fifteen-old household help had her day off, we received a dime each to get a Wiener or some herring. Mother cooked on Sundays, and then half a pound of roast for the four of us produced more delicious smells than substance. But she always made plenty of potato dumplings and cabbage so that we looked forward to the Sunday meal.
"This year," she tried to cajole me, "you are almost grown up, so I am sure youíll be more responsible and wonít worry me and help save expenses"
In fact, I had been saving expenses by getting a free meal, every Friday since Oma died, with two elderly ladies who owned the dress and fabric shop where Mother bought supplies. Initially, I had hated going because the two ladies made me wash up in the kitchen before allowing me into their dining room. Not wanting to feel humiliated, I had learned to wash thoroughly before I went and they were satisfied. I began to like the well-cooked meals their housekeeper provided. Since Omaís death, the fourteen-year-old girls who watched over my younger brother produced unspeakably bad meals for our family at home. In addition to the tasty and varied meal the two ladies served, they owned childrenís books and novels and soon allowed me to stay and read them after our noon dinner. Anyone could win my favorable opinion by providing reading material and better still, allow me to talk to them about what I read. After a while, therefore, I enjoyed my meals with the two women and even was able to say thank you without embarrassment and mean it when I left. Maybe at Aunt Helene ís house they also had books, I tried to console myself in accepting being sent away.
Mother came with me on my first trip to Zülzendorf. It was an hourís train ride away from home, with one change from the national rail lines to a small local line. When we arrived at Zülzendorf station, there was no carriage waiting for us, as had been the case whenever I went to visit relatives with Oma. We walked the mile down to the estate which Uncle Richard, Aunt Heleneís husband, managed for an absentee nobleman. The family lived in the residence, a large and comfortable country house with an adjoining park, from which, now and then, resounded the shrieks and calls of half a dozen peacocks. From the very beginning, Aunt He Helene made it clear by the way she spoke to Mother that she saw us as the poor relations on whom she was bestowing her favors. I disliked her from the minute I heard her speak the kind of High German Silesians use who entertain pretensions to upper class status. An imposing, heavy woman, she towered over Mother who was rather petite. I found out years later that the two cousins had been competitors in their late teens and that Mother, being better looking than Aunt Helene, had lorded it over her. Aunt Helene was now paying back.
I accompanied Mother back to the train station feeling downcast and afraid. But I tried not to cry so as not to worry her.
"Iíll write as soon as I get home," she promised.
I was fearfully homesick and lonely for the next week. Mother did not write, and I was terrified that something had happened to her. Was she ill? Did she have an accident? I could not sleep and if I did fall asleep, I had my old nightmares. I slept in one of the guest rooms up in the attic. The helpís room was at the other end of a long corridor. The estate secretary had her room halfway down the hall. I had hardly talked to anyone since I arrived, and during the days spent hours hiding out in the park and emerging only when called for meals. As I was lying in bed, I looked up at the ceiling and saw a huge spider; then suddenly more spiders crawled up the sides of the wall to the ceiling over my bed. I jumped out of the bed, raced to the door and down the corridor screaming hysterically, "Spiders, spiders all over everything, spiders!" I fell against the secretaryís door, even as the door at the end of the hall opened. Herta, a tall, brown-haired, sixteen year old who was my auntís apprentice in a program for future farm wives, reached me first and put her arms around me. I was shaken by sobs. "Spiders, " was all I could think and say. Herta pushed me into the secretaryís room, who had also responded to the commotion. She led me to the bed, put me down and sat down next to me while the secretary went to my room to check what had frightened me. With both women talking to me gently, I gradually calmed down.
When I had recovered, the secretary said, "I only found one spider, come and look. It is all right. Maybe you had nightmare, but it is all right, we are right here."
"Why donít you come and sleep in my room," Herta added when she saw my hesitation at going to look.
"Selma is gone for the night and her bed is free. Weíll get your bedding and youíll sleep with me. We can look if there are more spiders in the morning."
I worried about uncle and aunt being upset with me for having made a fuss or worse laughing at me for being afraid of a spider. Both women promised they would not tell on me. As I am writing this now it seems to me that this must have been one of the most vivid nightmares I ever had, because I can still see, in my mindís eye, big, fat spiders crawling toward me.
From that day on Herta became my friend and confidant. She calmed me down about Motherís not writing, "You know, donít you, how busy she is. She probably thinks you are having a good time. So donít worry about her not getting around to writing right away."
"She promised to write, I sent her two post cards and a letter already, " I countered with some despair. I talked to Herta about home, about not liking Aunt Helene much (she did not either), about loving to read. Herta knew of an old bookcase in the attic filled with books and told me where to look. Having something to read, I was no longer afraid to stay in my room at night. I was supposed to turn out my lights by ten at the latest. I took the small table lamp under the covers and read however long I pleased. I remember devouring Stormís stepmother novella Viola Tricolor, that summer, Robinson Crusoe, Prince and Pauper, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist. These were books of a quality entirely new to me and I read each over and over again, identifying with the abandoned and lost characters in them, crying over the hard times they suffered, little knowing, of course, that I was crying at feeling lost and deserted.
On my second evening at Zülzendorf , Aunt Helene led me into the hall that connected the kitchen with the dining room.
"Itíll be your job to clean this hall every evening," she told me. "Put the chairs on the table, roll up the runners, and take them out to the back porch. In the morning, bring back the runners and take down the chairs."
I faithfully did just as I was told, but Aunt Helene was never satisfied. The chairs were heavy wooden peasant furniture in high fashion during the Naziís infatuation with German peasant styles. The high backs of the chairs, in solid, grey painted oak, featured cutout hearts surrounded by a wreath of painted flowers, daisies, red poppies, and blue cornflowers. The wreaths continued along the racks of the sideboard, which held lead plates embossed with coats of arms. A heavy, wreath-decorated chest completed the set. I could hardly lift the chairs; the dark-red runners left a coat of dust on my forearms. I came to hate the furniture, the style, the hall and even had nightmares about it all with a gigantic, furious Aunt Helene berating me for "doing it all wrong." When I remembered my chore at Aunt Heleneís years later, I was suddenly shaken with convulsive laughter.
" Of course, I was supposed to sweep the hall and shake out the rugs. But the floor was so much cleaner than ours at home, I never thought of it! And she never told me that I had not swept!"
By the middle of my visit, one Sunday afternoon, every person who worked for my uncle, including Herta and Selma, were ordered to come help bring in the hay. A thunderstorm was threatening and the hay had to be brought into the barn before the first rain. I stood near the horse stable as Uncle Richard was leaving with his buggy.
"He, Ulla," he called to me, "come along, we need all hands."
I refused, feeling injured, "Itís Sunday, I am in my Sunday dress, I cannot go."
"Yes, you can. Everyone is needed, the hay has to get into the barn."
I cried and wept in a temper tantrum as he lifted me into the buggy. Still sniffling I was handed up unto the hay wagon and asked to stamp down the hay as it was forked up by the farmhands and stacked by Herta and Selma. We finished three wagonloads by the time the rain started and had the fourth in the barn when the storm became fierce. From that day on, Uncle Richard made me help in the fields at least for a few hours every day. I was outraged, angry and resentful about having to work like a regular field hand.
On the day I was to leave for home, Uncle Richard called me into his office. The secretary handed me a time sheet she had filled out for me and asked me to check it. I was astounded, as I had not expected to be clocked or paid. I had worked some fifty hours during the three weeks. At eighty pennies per hour, that made earnings of forty marks, more money than I had ever seen, let alone owned.
"You buy yourself what you want with it, " Uncle Richard said, " and mind you, buy what you want! You worked hard for it."
I felt embarrassed for having been so resentful and angry even as I was pleased by the money and even more by the recognition. I learned an important lesson that day: I could work and earn my keep. I could become independent. The depression that had made me languid and interested only in escaping into books lifted. I would start and buy a new winter coat and yes, buy a book, the first Iíd buy for myself. Maybe David Copperfield, which I had not been able to finish for a second time this summer and had to leave behind. I was actually sad to leave, particularly to say good-by to Herta who promised that she would still be there next summer.
Not having had access to the radio and news during my country stay, I had not heard of what the radio announcer described as attacks of Poles on ethnic Germans in Posnia, the Polish territory bordering on my home province of Silesia in the East. The Polish border was less than a hundred miles from my home town. Similar news about Czech attacks on ethnic Germans in the nearby Sudeten had worried us the year before and alerted the population before the German army marched into the Sudeten. With the closeness of the borders to both Poland and Czechoslovakia, we learned early that, like in the many historical conflicts of the past, Silesia might become frontline in a war.
This time, in the case of Poland, Hitler overreached. England and France, in a defense league with Poland, came to Polandís rescue, even if too late. German troops attacked Poland on the entire front in the early morning hours of September 1. 1939. Hitlerís ostensible reason for the attack was his demand for free passage through the Polish Corridor, Posnia, to the internationalized harbor city of Danzig on the Baltic Sea. England and France declared war on Germany a few days later. WWII had begun. Poland was overrun by German troops in a few weeks.
It was late August when I went home from Zülzendorf to Strehlen on the eve of WW II. The train was overcrowded when it arrived on the platform half an hour late. I felt adult having just earned my first money and taking the train by myself. People were talking about Hitlerís ultimatum to Poland.
"There is going to be a war," an old man said to his neighbor on the platform, "Its just like 1914, itís the right time too, August, 1939, just like 1914."
"Itís not like that at all," another man said. "Nobody is shouting for war. Look at the people!"
True, nobody was enthusiastic and shouted "Sieg Heil, " as I had heard it on the radio when Austria and the Sudentenland joined the Reich. The crowd on the platform was anxious, as impatient to get home as I was. The adultsí faces were grim, lined with worry. Finally the train arrived and we got on. At Kamenz station, where I had to change trains, the crowds were even larger. An announcer barked that the train to Breslau was late. As it got dark and there was still no announcement when the train would leave, I went to the waiting room. It too was overcrowded, noisy and smoke-filled. Sandwiches were sold out and my money was not good for anything. Still, I worried that I might lose it, that someone would steal my suitcase if I needed to go to the rest room and left it outside because the restroom floor was dirty and wet with urine. The train came in at about midnight. Of course, it was overcrowded. A whole column of us pressed in at the compartment door. A man lifted my suitcase up to the baggage net as I was pushed further into the compartment from where I could hardly see my case. The train lurched forward, throwing and pressing us against each other. Since I was smaller than the adults whose bulk towered over me, I could hardly breathe. The train stopped endlessly at each of the four stations to Strehlen. Arrived there at last, someone hauled me over the crowd out the door. Someone threw my suitcase after me. Everything was ok.
It was past two oíclock in the morning. The station was filled with anxious people, but I did not recognize anyone I knew. I lugged my suitcase home alone since no one had come to meet me. I had written them the time, of course. But since the train was hours late, no one had stayed to wait. I was angry and hungry, and the ten minute way home from the station stretched endlessly. The house door was locked, I knew, and so I stopped in the front yard below our bedroom window and pelted it with pebbles. After a long while, Mother heard me.
"Thank God, you are here. We left the front door open. Just turn the key when you are in."
She was asleep by the time I got to the bedroom and so was my younger brother, Werner. Jochen had not yet returned from Uncle Kurtís.
As I woke up next morning Mother was already at work in the living room. By this time, she had two apprentices: Lotte, a dark-haired, freckled and boisterous seventeen-year old; and Ida, a sandy-haired, pale hunchback with a snickering laugh. Lotte, who had quickly become a member of the family, spoke about her date the night before, and about how much she was looking forward to their vacation coming up the next day.
" Aunt Lene, I and Werner are leaving for Charlottenbrunn tomorrow, " Mother informed me. "Jochen is staying at Uncle Kurtís for another week. I have asked Aunt Friede in Segen to take you for a week. You can walk to school from Segen; itís only a kilometer. Werner and I will take you out there tonight."
I knew protest was in vain, but I tried it anyway, "Why canít I ever go with you? You always take the boys, never me."
I sulked for the rest of the day and at dusk walked the mile with them to Segen and Aunt Friedeís, my suitcase in my brotherís old baby buggy.
Two nights later, I was aroused by a very distant thunder, about which I am still not sure if I imagined it, anxious as I was. Strange shadows created by a dim street light coming in from the village street below filled my room, a guestroom on the second floor of the farm house, far away from the family. The thunder did not come closer, and that frightened me even more. Was it a thunderstorm? There was no lightning. Sometimes, a faint rattattattatat sound seemed to follow the thunder. I was afraid to leave my bed. There was no other sound in the house or in the night outside. I lay awake as the distant thunder continued, it seemed to me, for ages. Suddenly it was morning. The sun shone into my window and I knew it was later than usual. The thundering noise had stopped but the downstairs echoed with voices and clattering dishes. No one had woken me up to go to school. I jumped into my clothes and rushed down to the kitchen. Downstairs the hallway was crowded with soldiers and so were the kitchen and the yard outside. Aunt Friede was making them coffee.
"WAR, " the radio blared as a choir began singing "Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles." I could hardly contain my trembling with fright.
"Youíll be ok," said a soldier who saw my tears beginning to flow.
"I wonít be," I thought, "where is Mother and Werner? How will they get home now it is war?"
My Uncle Friedemann was sitting on the kitchen sofa, very still, grey- faced, his lips twitching. I had usually been afraid of him, because he never spoke and sometimes acted crazy because he had been buried alive in a trench during WWI. Now I felt a kinship with him because he was obviously as scared as I was.
"There wonít be any school today, "Aunt Friede said, " the front is close and we have to take care of the reserves. So why donít you help me with making sandwiches for the soldiers. "
My fear left as she kept me busy all day. Mother telephoned late that evening and talked to Aunt Friede. They had returned safely after a horrendous train journey. I was to return home next day.
After the first day of the war, in September 1939, the adults assured me, there was little reason to keep being afraid. The radio told us that the front had moved away from the Silesian border into Poland and, after a week, German troops marched triumphantly into Warsaw. I vividly remember one of the few newsreels I saw at that time. Usually I did not have money to go to the movies, as my brother and I did not receive pocket money. But I was rich for a few weeks from the summerís work, so I could afford to go to the movies. I have forgotten what the feature was, but the newsreel that preceded it stayed with me. As some marching music was playing, the camera zoomed in on and then followed a crowd of refugees escaping and then caught on the open road as the German army overtook them. Women, teenagers, children, and old men carried their few possessions, a birdcage, a doll, a rabbit. Some lugged suitcases, others pulled small hand-wagons. Farmers urged along slow moving cattle and pulled at bridled, limping horses. Their faces pale with exhaustion, their eyes wide open with terror, their clothes disheveled, these haggard people trudged along out of sync with the newsreelís brisk march music. The voice of an announcer repeated over and over again a proverb I later learned dated from the Thirty Yearsí War, "God smote them into the dust/ both men and horses, men and wagons." Right then in the darkened movie house, I understood clearly, as a shudder went down my spine, what it meant to be defeated. In 1945, during the Russian invasion, when I was stumbling along a country road in a similar refugee crowd, that image appeared in my mindís eye as the announcerís words of six years earlier resounded in my head, over and over and over again. But for us, in the fall 1939, life went on as it had before the war. For the time being we were glad that the war against Poland ended and life seemed to return to normal.
For me in 1939/40, even at age nine, another, more personal campaign began and came to occupy my life: my struggle to obtain a higher education. To mediate the dimensions of this struggle to the reader, let me outline the historical and social forces that were aligned against me. While by 1939 public grade schools to the eighth grade were free in Germany, all schools of higher education beyond age ten charged tuition, including all middle schools, technical, professional, and business colleges, even secretarial schools. Despite the democratic claims of Weimar Germany and the professions of faith in class equality in education by the Nazis, the German higher education system remained the elitist, male institution for a professional and higher civil service class that it had become in the course of the 19th century. Girls up to Weimar Germany were largely excluded from that educational system and restricted to all female high schools which did not offer any or, at best, limited access to university study. These restrictions on female education ceased during the Weimar Republic óat least formally--as a result of the first Womenís Movement. The Nazis, however, reversed the trend and discouraged higher education for women, particularly for an education preparatory to university study. Moreover, they cut attendance for women in the universities by two thirds and forced those young women intrepid enough to try for university admission to spend six months in the National Labor Service helping on farms or with families of many children before being allowed to enter university.
The well-regulated, exclusive, conservative school system had given the German Reich as well as the Weimar Republic its extraordinary class stability. Middle and upper class parents chose their childrenís future at age ten by enrolling them for an entrance exam to the high schools. There was no or little second chance beyond age ten to gain admission to higher education. The exams were structured to favor pupils of middle and upper class backgrounds. Access to all middle and leading career paths in the state and the civil service was only through some form of higher education. The lower classes because of tuition costs, class prejudice by the teaching profession, and lack of information and background remained largely excluded from higher education. Yet, through taxation, the lower class paid the greatest share of the costs of higher education. The entrance examinations and a few stipends for tuition support for the poor maintained the illusion that higher education was accessible to all gifted children regardless of class. While educational opportunities for anyone traditionally disadvantaged did not improve noticeably after West Germany became the Federal Republic in 1949, East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, initiated profound reforms that guaranteed access to higher education for the working classóthough initially at the expense of the former middle and upper class. In the West, it was only the student rebellion of the late 1960s that gradually brought about educational opportunity for all children regardless of class. I only learned much later as a scholar of childhood that for all these reasons the stakes against my receiving a higher education were almost impossibly high.
When Jochen was ten and Mother asked him if he wished to go to high school, he had refused. He wanted to become a farmer and administer a large farm like Uncle Kurt. He did not need high school for that; an apprenticeship in farming and agricultural school after eight years of grade school would suffice. Jochenís refusal left me out in the cold, in early 1940, when I was ten. I definitely wanted to go at least to middle school like my friends. Both my parents had gone to high school, Father even to the Technische Hochschule (engineering college) in Hanover. I wanted to learn a foreign language like my friends would. Even then I was fascinated by history, geography, and books, and I believed that high school would nourish these interests. In Motherís family it had not been the practice to send girls to high school. But she had gone to a lycée, a school for girls from "good families," who went on to cooking school and marriage. She had learned dressmaking with Aunt Lene only to pass the time until getting married. My friendsí parents had signed them up for middle school, the former lycée my mother had attended, that was now a six year high school rather than the eight year university preparatory high school for boys, the Gymnasium. Only one very bright, ambitious girl from my grade school class said her parents had entered her name to take the entrance examination for the Gymnasium. And somehow, I was already aware that not going to high school or middle school would condemn me to a lower class existence for the rest of my life.
"Itís not right that you should be better educated than your brother, " said Mother, even though she prided herself on being a feminist of the 1920s.
"Besides, youíd have to get a scholarship. I donít have the money for either paying twenty marks a month in tuition or support you for two or more years of education beyond age fourteen when you will graduate from grade school. And when I went to the Lycée," she clinched her argument, "we all looked down on the poor scholarship students. I wouldnít want that for you."
As if I had not been humiliated before without anyoneís caring, I thought to myself
Despite Motherís objections, I desperately wanted to go to high school --or at least to middle school where Gretel Hartmann, another friend, and Rita Boxhammer were headed. All the kids in fourth grade whose parents were anybody in town were going to go to middle or high school. I did not want to be left in primary school with the quarry kids and have to go to work at age fourteen at the local cigar factory, or do housework for other people, or, at best, as Mother planned for me, be apprenticed to a beautician. She did not want me to become a dressmaker ever and have to deal with customers who were never satisfied and who never paid her in time. That was too hard.
"Beauticians are paid right away and you donít have to give credit; you donít have to work nights as I do," she tried to convince me.
Even at ten, becoming a beautician seemed grotesque to me. I hated artificial hairdos, cosmetics revolted me; I wanted my hair straight and natural. I did not want to be cooped up in a salon smelly with permanent lotions, with chattering, gossiping women. I took it as a matter of course that like mother I would have to have a job and earn my keep when I grew up. The previous summer I had heard Aunt Helene at Zülzendorf say, with a sneer, "Ulla, you better learn a trade. Your father would not have married your mother without a dowry. No man would marry a woman without dowry."
Mother, I knew, would not be able to give me a dowry. So marriage was out. For the time being, I begged Motherís to change her decision, to go talk to Fräulein Schäfer , my teacher and tell her how badly I wanted to take the entrance exam and go to middle school. "You know I wonít have another chance to go to high school if I donít go now," I argued.
She finally did go and told me when she came back, "Fräulein Schäfer says you are an average student. You would have trouble making it in a high school because your spelling and your handwriting are poor." Both were true, but I did not think you could call me a poor student because of that. I certainly read and wrote better than Bärbel who had tutoring help. I still hoped that Fräulein Schäfer would take the initiative on her own and register me to take the entrance exam. After all, she now knew how badly I wanted to go.
When Fräulein Schäfer read aloud the names of the children she had registered for the exams, I watched her desperately, my heart raced, I promised God Iíd be in church every Sunday if she called my name. I was not among those chosen. All the other girls who I thought would be called were called. Anna, the best student of the class, was registered for the exam as a scholarship girl even though her parents, Bohemian day laborers, said they could not pay tuition Ėafter all, education was not needed for a working class girl, it only gave her the wrong ideas. Except for Anna, they all passed, we found out a week later, even Bärbel who, we all knew, could hardly read and who made as many mistakes in dictation as I did. High school was a matter of class, we learned, and Annaís parents did not cut it. Bärbelís did.
"I knew it, " commented Agatha who was a year older and wiser than we were. She spoke with the cynicism about poverty, social class and high school that the quarry kids used to protect themselves from being humiliated. I had no such defense. I withdrew further into biking and reading; I refused to do home work from then on, copied problems and essays from Anna during break just in case I had to show something to the teacher. By that time I began to distrust and discount most adultsí opinions, particularly my motherís. Even earlier, I had remained skeptical when Fräulein Schäfer said we should not eat during a thunderstorm because God was angry and talking to us. During the next thunderstorm, I had taken a piece of bread, stood at the window and slowly eaten it. When I had my first period at twelve and Mother said I should skip Saturday night bath and going swimming, I went swimming, decided that there were no ill effects and continued with both.
I was grateful later in life that I had not attended either high school or middle school. I lost most of my friends then, to be sure. But I gained immeasurably in social awareness and understanding by never acquiring the kind of snobbery that children learn when they are segregated at an early age from those who, because of poverty, race, ethnicity, or any other prejudice, are excluded from the opportunities offered to the middle and upper classes. Most of the children in my fifth grade form, forever barred from higher education, had talents none of their teachers ever suspected. All were street smart. They had wit and were quick with words. They talked freely about matters which were taboo in my family, like sex, or their parentsí fights, their work life, their quarrels with neighbors, brawls in pubs, couples making out in parks, a world different from my book world, my motherís work life at home--a world repulsive and frightening to me and yet fascinating. I felt shy with my class mates most of the time and only occasionally participated in their talk with a snide remark about the teacher, enough at any rate that they left me alone and did not tease me as a bookworm. Many of them, possibly because their parents had been either Socialists or Communists, showed no enthusiasm about what our teachers thought should inspire us, neither about the glorious history of our country nor about our being fortunate to live during a time of national victories under Hitlerís leadership. While the school registered them as I was with Hitler Youth when they were tenóHY became obligatory for girls from age ten on in 1939--they participated minimally and with obvious dislike. They came to HY activities just enough so that they were not reported to the authorities. At the time, I neither cared nor understood what they were doing beyond the fact that they had other interests than I had, like boys, film stars, romances, the current hits of popular culture, or having fun and being silly. I accepted their indifference to history, geography, and to the great causes espoused in the kind of propaganda literature I was beginning to read. I perceived them as apathetic to my enthusiasms just as I was to theirs.
After Easter break when the "upper crust, " as Agatha called them, had left, we got a new teacher. Fräulein Balzer, a thin, nervous, middle-aged woman with a high pitched, screeching voice, sported a short, black, bobbed hairdo and had bangs. She confessed to us that she was religious and enthused about the Führer, both in the same breath.
"God will protect our beloved Führer. You are blessed to have him as a leader. He has erased the shame of the Treaty of Versailles and regained for us the territories Germany lost after WWI." She spoke with saccharine sweetness. Our soldiers were never just soldiers. " Our courageous heroes fought most ferociously." She taught me to hate both false sweetness and superlatives.
Most of the girls made fun of her. Helga, as good a caricaturist at twelve as any I came to appreciate later, drew pictures of her seated in a chair on the dais, thin legs with rolled stockings peeking forth from her hitched-up skirt, pot belly, two thin, low slung breasts, triangle face with compressed lips, bangs, Pinocchio nose, teardrops on cheeks and tip of nose. Fräulein Balzer had little control of us. We did whatever we wanted to; foursomes played cards on their desk, with two of them turning their backs to the teacher in front; others talked, gossiped and giggled; I read or daydreamed through most of the riotous Bedlam, unaware of either my classmates or Fräulein Balzer.
Then suddenly, "Bang." Balzerís desktop would come crashing down not just once but repeatedly; pencils scattered, paper flew about, books hit the floor. "Bang, Bang," she smashed down the desktop again and again until everyone stopped talking and looked at her in shock and growing consternation. Loud sobs followed, her head down, convulsively crying into a huge, white, polka-dotted handkerchief that covered her face, she sobbed on and on. For the rest of day, we kept quiet. My face burned with shame, for her, for me, for us? As I got older, I pitied her. I continued reading. But any time the school inspector came to examine us for what we had learned, as he did twice a year, I put my book away and answered his questions. Not that I had learned any of the geography or the history, the poems or the vocabulary in class. My reading and curiosity about maps and encyclopedias provided all of that and the inspector was satisfied. Fräulein Balzer was happy with the arrangement; she left me alone to read if I helped her when the inspector came.
From my fifth to my eighth grade, whenever former classmates and friends now in high school saw me, they ignored me and I learned to do the same. Hanne--still as poor a speller as ever--and I drew closer together. Rita whom I knew only as one fourth grade classmate among many who left for Middle School, returned to our primary school class a year later. Both of her parents had died of tuberculosis and she had been in a sanatorium for many months to be cured of the TB she too had contracted. I was fascinated by her familyís illness that had claimed first her baby brother, then her mother, finally her father, the smith, but spared her. She had missed almost a year of school and was too delicate to catch up. She lived with her Aunt Agnes, a dressmaker like my mother in two upstairs rooms above the former smithy on the corner of Promenade Street and Woiselwitz Street. They no longer used Ritaís parentsí apartment downstairs by the smithy and did not rent it because it was too damp and unhealthy. I liked Rita, who was a quiet and thoughtful girl. Most of the time she was too tired, I now think too depressed, to come out to play with Hanne and me; but I always went to ask her if she would. Her aunt encouraged my coming. I could sometimes talk Rita into taking a walk with me or to read together. I felt at ease in the two quiet upstairs rooms Rita shared with her aunt, rooms orderly, comfortable, warm and clean, so different from the hubbub and disorder at home. I learned what a loving relative does when I saw Fräulein Boxhammer look at Rita fondly, encourage her to go play or gently comb her unruly, dark and curly hair.
I also became friends with Erika, a classmate, whose father worked as foreman in the quarries. They lived in the New Settlement Houses, duplexes that had replaced the barracks way out on Breslauer Road. Like myself, Erika was a reader, and we spent endless afternoons reading penny novels in her parentsí attic dormer, which served as her and her sisterís bedroom. As we became teenagers, playing with my brother and his friends as well as reading boysí books gradually came to an end. Erikaís penny novels were mostly romances; we consumed them by the pound and talked about our daydreams. Erika with long, silky, ash-blond hair, regular features, and a petite figure wanted to become a famous film star and I dreamt of being a world traveler as a spy, or as an explorer--never mind my brotherís reminder, "girls cannot be Ö"--slashing my way through primeval forests, climbing the Himalayas, swimming the Amazon River, traveling through African Savannahs.
Ritaís aunt provided us with reading of a different kind, with collections of legends and Germanic sagas, with a volume of Classical Myths and Legends, with Grimmsí, Bechsteinís and Andersenís fairy tales, and the Miss Intrepidity series--books by what I later learned was a Jewish writer--about an upper class girl growing up in Berlin. They were novels for teens that Fräulein Boxhammer had read during her childhood. My familyís meager book shelf provided the Auerbachís Childrenís Calendar, yearly editions of stories, riddles, and games from the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, of which we had a score. In addition, Father had left us several popular historical and WWI novels, a few volumes of an encyclopedia, an atlas, and a medical encyclopedia that held no interest yet for ten to twelve year olds--with the exception of illustrations of human reproductive organs. I found none of the childrenís literature, particularly the books for girls, or the romances, as exciting as the boysí adventure stories, the Dickens novels at the Zülzendorf relatives, and the Torring adventures had been. Needless to say, I shared the medical encyclopedia illustrations with my friends until Mother caught us giggling over them and locked them up in her desk.
The winter of 1939-40 passed with the adults speculating which country, France or England, Hitler would move against next. A surprise attack in another Blitzkrieg (a Ďwar fast as lightningí) happened next. On April 9. 1940, the German navy, assisted by army and parachute divisions, attacked neutral Denmark and Norway. Hitler and his generals had decided to risk a fast take-over of these two neutral countries, so as to protect the Northern flank from potential surprises by the British, to secure their access to Swedish iron ore through the Northern harbor of Narvik, and to acquire stations for their fleet for the looming invasion of the British Isles. Neither Norwegians nor Danes had more than a few hours of warning. Their small standing armies and navies were no match for the then largest fleet of about a hundred vessels Hitler had launched. Air borne troops dropped into Oslo while an ultimatum threatened Denmark still in a defensive league with Germany with the leveling of Kopenhagen unless resistance ceased. After a brief and brave resistance of several days of both countries, the governments capitulated .
Fräulein Balzer started our class with a new project that same Spring of 1940. She asked us to bring a fresh, lined copy book and the last weekís news papers, scissors, and glue. "Weíll start on Monday." During the preceding weeks, the radio repeatedly interrupted regular programming with a signature fanfare from Lisztís preludes, I believe. An announcer barked, "Attention! Attention! A Special News Report! On the Führerís orders, our Navy has launched landing parties along the coast of Norway from Narvik to Christiansand. A beachhead has been established in Narvik Harbor." The national anthem followed. News report after special news report glued us to the radio in the living room, gradually intoxicating us with the victories of our troops.
"British warship sunk off Narvik!"ó"Narvik taken by our paratroopers!" "German troops in Oslo"Ė-"Trondheim in German hands!"--"The King of Denmark escaped, Denmark surrendered!"
Marching music filled our living room in the pauses between special reports as regular programming stopped for a few days. The Strehlen Daily displayed pictures of our troops at war, and these we cut out in class and pasted into our copybooks. We added maps of Norway and Denmark printed in the paper, and located the movement of German troops on them. Battles got a blue star drawn by colored pencil. We marked victories with red stars.
France to make sure that she never again would be attacked by Germany as it had in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and then again WWI (1914), had built, so we were told, the worldís strongest fortifications, the Maginot Line, all along its border to Germany. Its border on the North to Belgium was open. At the outbreak of war, Britain and its Allies had stationed an Expeditionary Force of ten divisions of infantry, a tank brigade and a detachment of the Royal Air Force at this border in the event of a German attack . And through this "backdoor" Hitler attacked France on May 10. 1940.
The two forces, the Allied and the German, that opposed each other were almost evenly matched. But the French army remained posted in full strength behind the Maginot Line and the communication and coordination between the British and Allied forces was poor. Hitlerís armies had the advantage of surprise and of superior coordination. Our radio announcer ridiculed French and British defense strategy. Hitlerís armies marched quickly through neutral Belgium and the Netherlands, bombed these countriesí air fields, destroyed Rotterdamóan hour after the Netherlands had capitulated--engaged the Expeditionary Force and pushed into France. Meanwhile, German tank divisions entered France through the Ardennes Mountains to the North of the Maginot Line which the French had believed impassable to tanks. These tank divisions cut off communication between the French and British forces. The French attempted an attack on the approaching Germans but were defeated. The Expeditionary Force, poorly coordinated and never practiced in the field of battle, was driven back. After a futile counterattack near Arras, the Expeditionary Force pulled back toward Dunkirk. Between May 27. to June 4. close to 860 vessels from destroyers to small yachts rescued some 340 000 British soldiers and parts of the French army (140 000 men) from falling into German hands. Paris fell June 14. German troops marched on the Champs Elysée on June 21. By June 22, two thirds of France was occupied and the French, under Marshal Pertain, capitulated. When France had capitulated, Italy and Japan joined Hitlerís war against England with the three powers calling themselves The Axis. With the fall of France, and the defeat of the British Expeditionary force at Dunkirk, Hitler believed that Britain would seek peace. When the British failed to surrender, the Luftwaffe (German air force) attacked British air fields and finally bombed London and Coventry. The air war of the Battle of Britain went into the late Fall of 1940 in the course of which the Royal Air Force defeated the Luftwaffe. Because of the superiority of the Royal Air Force, Hitler never tried an amphibious assault on the British Isles.
I do not recall specifics of these major events of summer and fall 1940 except for a continuous sense of exhilaration. But I do remember several newspaper cuts-outs of the French campaign vividly. One showed Marshal Petain and Hitler in the railroad coach in the Compiègne forrest with Petain bent over signing the capitulation. "That is the place where the dishonorable armistice was imposed on our army at the end of WWI, " I noted into my copy book beneath the picture. Another picture showed a jumble of battered, burnt and shot-up tanks, guns, trucks, and armaments abandoned by the British at Dunkirk. I donít recall my inscription, nor do I remember the beginning bombing of Britain by the Luftwaffe in July 1940, preparatory for the Invasion of the British Isles. By that time I was back at Zülzendorf where I had no access to news either by radio or the paper. And I never learned of the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.
Rejoicing over our victories of the Spring of 1940, Fräulein Balzer replaced the map of Germany that hung next to Hitlerís picture with a huge map of Europe. At about this time, a framed Nazi slogan in Gothic lettering , "You are Nothing. Your People are Everything," replaced the earlier proverb "God Protect this House" above the door of our classroom. Over the next two years, we traced the advance of German troops in blue and red. We got all the way to a blue Stalingrad. After the Sixth Army capitulated at Stalingrad in early 1943, Fräulein Balzer gave up the exercise of following the movements of our troups. Both occasions--the appearance of a new nationalist proverb and the sudden dropping of the war geography after Stalingrad--illustrate an important aspect of the relationship between the adults and us children: They assigned tasks, made demands and pronouncements, changed plans, announced prohibitions without explanation or reason. I wondered about each occasion of such wordless impositions and learned to provide my own interpretations without, however, communicating my understanding to anyone. I did believe that I was nothing; unimportant as the sign in our classroom said. All that mattered was the fatherland. When I overheard the girls in my class talking, I realized that they grumbled rebelliously to each other about adult imposed tasks and slogans or ridiculed adult turnabouts like Fräulein Balzerís. I was envious of their rowdy, bantering camaraderie but did not participate in such intimacy, feeling that I would be disloyal to the bellicose causes that our teacher, the radio, and everyone I knew espoused.
I learned the geography of Europe filling copybook after copybook with maps and pictures of soldiers and conquered countries and cities. We had to accompany the pictures with a narration of the news and whatever we thought noteworthy about the picture. Before our troops invaded Poland, every newscast had reported attacks by Poles against the German minorities in Poland. Therefore, when Hitler ordered the German army to attack, I understood that we were defending our people. The attack against Norway and Denmark came as a surprise, but I soon learned to write that Hitler had only foiled British and French plans to invade these neutral countries. And of course, France and Britain had been our arch enemy since WWI and long before that. It was our historic mission to fight them! It was always the fault of the other side as I filled my copybooks with pictures of German soldiers in Holland, Belgium, and France. I absorbed the national rationalization game like a sponge.
This time around I enjoyed my stay at Zülzendorf. Much had changed since my last visit. Many of the male field hands had been called up; therefore my offer of help in the fields was accepted as a matter of course. Another adolescent, Erich, a boy from Berlin, a relative of Uncle Richardís, had the guestroom next to mine. All I remember about him is his huge appetite. On baking day, at Friday supper, he could eat an entire half of a huge loaf of bread just out of the oven. I tried to match him but could not even hope to compete. I took a much more active interest in what was going on around me now that I knew the routines of the household and was no longer constantly afraid. I loved everything about baking, and even made my peace with Aunt He Helene because she took center stage in baking. Thursday night, after Herta, Selma and I had cleaned up the huge farm kitchen, Aunt Helene poured a large sack of flour into a wooden trough that she placed next to the warm oven. She made a dell in the middle of the heap of flour and poured sourdough riser into it, mixing it with a little of the flour, and covering the thickened paste with a little more flour. An hour or so later, she prepared the dough by adding water, salt, butter and kneading it into one large roll. During the next few hours, the roll swelled up so that it almost overflowed the sides of the trough. Just before bedtime, she slapped the risen mass so that the air escaped and kneaded the dough once again and put it next to the stove for another rising. I never saw her form the actual loaves or what else happened at day-break because, when I got to the kitchen in the morning, three or four loaves still sat rising on wooden trays while Herta and Selma had already carried some twelve loaves over to the huge brick oven in the bake house next to the cow stable. The entire farmyard smelled of baking bread.
Before going out to the fields, I always went over to the bake house to watch the first load of chestnut brown, shiny loaves taken out with a big flat wooden paddle. While Herta took out the loaves, Aunt Helene painted the remaining loaves with a milky looking mixture to ready them for the oven. Trays with Streusselkuchen, a cake topped with a crumble of butter and sugar, stood ready to follow the remaining loaves into the oven, and some of the village farmwomen brought their trays of cakes to fill up the space left in the oven. When we returned from the fields at night, and trudged through the kitchen on our way to wash up, Herta often handed Erich and me a slice of bread still warm and dripping with fresh butter. I never ever tasted bread half as delicious as this fresh slice with its heavy crust.
Together will all the other women, I worked a full eight hours in the fields every day except most Sundays. The men drove the mower, the trucks and the horse-drawn wagons. Erich was allowed to drive a wagon, and I thought it was a much lighter task compared to my binding the sheaves of wheat and piling them upright against each other to dry out. It took me a few days to learn to twist the blades of straw into a thick rope and to tie it around the sheaf without the knot slipping apart once I picked up the sheaf and put it upright against my partnerís sheaves.
The foreman had me join a team of two the first week, and I could barely keep up with them. The second week he paired me with Wanda, a Polish woman. She was a huge, powerful, truly majestic woman. Even with my mind poisoned by propaganda (Poles are lazy, are stupid), I did not think of being anything but respectful to her. By mid-morning I was so exhausted that I began to sob involuntarily as the foreman kept yelling at me to catch up with the others. Wanda slowed down deliberately, daring the foreman to make her move faster by muttering what I thought were curses in Polish. Occasionally, she tied a sheaf for me that would not stay tied. This first day working with her, I came to trust her and from then on, at every new assignment, I just stood next to her so that I could work with her. She spoke very little German and I no Polish at all. But in the course of the summer I learned a few words of Polish, and she learned more of German.
Usually, the next team over to our right was two Italian women, Anita and Maria. Anita and Wanda kidded each other good-humouredly by gestures and in broken German. That is how I found out that Wanda worked as forced labor, that is slave labor. Anita and Maria were guest workers, part of a seasonal labor force that came in early summer and left for Italy after the October potato harvest. Anita and Maria could go to the Saturday night dances at the local pub while Wanda could not even leave her room after dark. I took all this in, felt vaguely troubled even as I accepted her slave status. It would not even have occurred to me to think that it was unjust. I liked these workers much better than the German field hands, my countrymen. Even when I was used to the bending, the binding, the pace of the work, I wanted to be with Wanda and Anita. I felt comfortable with them, while I resented the coarse sexual jokes, rough bantering, and the angry back and forth of the German hands.
I had little commerce with the German field laborers, in part, I am sure, because I was the niece of the administrator. They dealt with me at a distance and kept me out of their often brutal teasing. Many of the women brought along their teen-aged children, and subjected them, particularly their daughters, to humiliations which I was terrified to observe, let alone to suffer myself. One day, an especially mean looking older woman stopped one of the thirteen year olds, grabbed her, bellowing with laughter, "Letís see if youíre a virgin." She held the girlís upper body under the elbow of one arm while she reached down between the girlís legs. The girl screamed as the other women and the foreman laughed uproariously. The foreign workers did not laugh, but Wanda moved close to the mean woman, a huge shadow, and looked down on her, silently, her face intent with anger. The woman let the girl go, grumbled a few curse words in Wandaís direction and turned back to her work.
They all hated the foreman, and I came to share their hatred. He rang a bell in the morning, calling the women to work. He had words for the rhythmical ringing. "Kommt schinden und schuften, ihr Hunde, verfluchten." ("Come toil and slave, you damned bitches.") He drove us all relentlessly with curses and threats. Uncle Richard, who knew of this meanness never interfered. I understood only years later that the foremanís meanness allowed him to appear to be a gentleman. At the time, I liked Uncle Richard and was flattered if on some evenings he allowed me to come along with him in his buggy to inspect the fields. We drove through the quiet dusk. He answered my questions. He taught me what crops grew best where and why; how to judge when to harvest wheat, and barley and rye; how to test soils by color and consistency; how to estimate losses from rainstorms. Even today, when I ride by fields, I know at a glance what the crop is and the quality of the soil. I loved the rides in his buggy through the mild evening, when the sun cast its last rays over the ripe and dark-yellow wheat fields and a breeze rippled through them like through an endless golden sea .
I soon came to understand from my uncleís joking at the dinner table that my relatives had little use for anything related to the Nazi Party. Aunt Heleneís youngest brother, the family neíer-do-well, had advanced to the position of a high Party functionary and served as the butt of many jokes when he visited the family. I accepted their dislike of the Party just as I accepted Wandaís not being allowed to leave her room after dark. I would have liked my relatives better if my aunt had not criticized and spoken badly about my mother. For that reason, I learned to be quiet about anything that I experienced at home, afraid that she would use it against me and Mother.
Tired out as I was from the fieldwork, I still read into the nights. Among the books in the attic I made a new discovery: a volume of poetry. We had learned poetry by heart since first grade, and I memorized verses easily. A few readings aloud fixed the poem in my mind as rhythm and rhymes carried me along. I also liked reciting poems in front of the class. I preferred the drama of ballads to nature poetry. But when reading stories and novels, I skipped the interspersed poems as ballast that detracted from the plot. The year before, I had just pushed the volume of poems to the back of the bookcase. This year, as I looked for a poem I knew from school, an Eichendorff poem caught my eye, "Kaiserkrohn und Peonion rot/ die müssen verzaubert sein." ("Sweet Williams and Peonies red,/ Must be enchanted.") The flowers, reminiscent of those Oma grew in her garden, the poemís morbid images, the melody of rhyme and assonance, the simple, repetitive folksong rhythm put me under their spell. I did not care, really, what the words meant. I responded to the feeling of sadness the poem evoked in me. I took the volume down to my room and from then on looked first for any poems Eichendorff wrote; then went on to those by Mörike and Storm. I was entranced by atmosphere and sentiment. I had found another way out of reality--poetry. Whenever I found work in the fields too hard, when I felt threatened by the rough-housing of the field workers, when I hated sitting through dinner conversations that bored me, I escaped into a poem, reciting it silently to myself, taking shelter in the melody of verse. The payment of a hefty sum for my summerís work brought me down to earth. I decided to buy material for a sky-blue wool winter dress and ask Mother to make it for me. On the train ride home, I designed the dress in my mind.
The return home after this summer in the country was even harder than last yearís. I compared the shabbiness of our furniture, the rarely washed sheets of our beds, the grime of our kitchen with the elegance of my auntís dining room, the cleanliness of the farm kitchen, the freshly laundered sheets I received once a week at her house. I even was tempted to find the peasant furniture of my auntís hall tasteful. I felt out of sorts in getting back to school, my former friends not talking to me and making fun of me for staying behind in grade school.
I fell ill the day after school started. I woke up with a headache Tuesday morning. I knew Mother would not let me stay home; therefore, I went to school. During break time, I went to the restroom and threw up. I asked Fräulein Balzer to let me go home.
She touched my forehead and said, "Go home. I think you have a fever."
Mother was waiting on a customer when I arrived; I went to the bedroom and lay down. I woke up late in the afternoon and felt very hot. I called Mother and told her I thought I was really sick. She took my temperature, and it must have been very high because I heard her telephoning Dr. Brücke, our family physician. Dr. Brücke had treated Father and Oma. He had seen us through measles, mumps, and any number of upset stomachs that he called being school-sick. If you were school-sick you did not get any food except Zwieback and black currant juice for the day. If you were still sick after two days, something was probably wrong with you. Mother did not like calling him as she could ill afford the co-payment she had to give.
He told her that there was a lot of scarlet fever about: "Does she have a rash on her stomach?" It turned out that I did.
"You will have to stay in bed for at least three weeks," Mother told me, "Your brothers may not have been infected yet; they should not stay here."
Aunt Lene, at whose house Jochen spent most days, took them in. I was glad that I could not go to school. I had time to read as much as I wanted to, after the fever went down and the headaches stopped. I asked Mother if she could buy me, from my summer earnings, a few sheets of paper dolls to cut out and play with. Because of the war economy, they were no longer available. As a substitute, I made my own dolls and designed dresses for them, using Motherís old fashion magazines as models. I spent the three weeks day-dreaming, reading, designing, and making up stories. Then I began writing down the stories I made up, lying in the bedroom, staring at the soft green wall and the faint reddish abstract pattern that interrupted the uniform green. I learned to tell my temperature by watching the reddish pattern. When it turned a deeper red, and the green background into a shriller green, my temperature was up.
The current fourteen-year-old household help, Martha, was no longer required to mind my younger brother, so she kept me company, and I read to her. I interspersed the reading from a book of short stories with a story of my own I was very proud of. It was trivial enough; a fantasy about a film company shooting at the local quarry that met a young girl who wanted to be an actress. I donít remember the rest of the story, but when I finished reading it to her, I told her, all puffed up," I wrote it."
She laughed, "No, I donít believe that. You are pulling my leg. You could not have written it."
Rather than taking her remark as a compliment, I was insulted and never again wrote a story except when I could not avoid it as a school assignment. I understood the force of this ridiculing rejection of me as a writer only when I worked on a literary study of writing blocks some thirty years later.
I finally did get bored with lying in bed and was glad when could go back to school. Mother made the blue dress, just as I had designed it during my illness, a full skirt, tight bodice, long sleeves with a border of abstract embroidery running across my chest, the upper sleeves, and the back. I felt adult and independent because I had paid not only for the material but also for the colorful yarns for the embroidery. Talking to Mother during my illness about my wishes for the design, the material and the embroidery brought me closer to her. My brothers being at Aunt Leneís, she had time for me. I came to like her during this period. She was the kind of adult who impresses an adolescent by her ability to have fun and to conduct a lively back and forth about family foibles for which my summer stay at Zülzendorf and her dislike of my aunt, her cousin provided ample material. My illness gave us a brief respite from the war.