Chapter 3 - Starvation
from Herman's Memoir
Heroes from the Attic:
A Gripping True Story of Traumas and Triumphs
Ma, Siggi and I reached Simonswolde in East Frisia, east of Holland, seven days after leaving Bavaria. In normal times this trip would take at most a day and a half. A few dozen red brick houses bordered the brick road that wound from village to village and was barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. These were horse and ox-drawn wagons and an occasional motorcar. Sometimes a truck fueled by wood gas generated in a furnace behind the driver also sputtered loudly through the silence.
Drainage ditches paralleled both sides of the road. After lots of rain, a few horse-drawn heavy sleds churned the mud in the lane adjacent to the brick pavement. Clay tiles or thick thatch covered the roofs of the homes, as well as the farmhouses located at the edge of this village. A few Holstein cows resided all winter in the barns that were attached to the front of the farmhouses, contributing heat and the freshest of aromas to these human-animal shelters. Cubic manure piles adorned their front yards, growing bigger throughout the season, while chickens foraged about them.
Inside each barn was a bench with a hole in it. It stank. To answer a call, one often had to walk past the rear ends of the cows to make deposits there. At least one did not have to go outside when it was cold, or into swarms of mosquitoes when it was hot. Flies hatched in the piles and the holes; mosquitoes hatched in the moors, puddles and ponds. And there were many. In the spring, to really season the country air the farmers spread the fertilizer from the piles and the holes over the fields surrounding this village and plowed it under.
Outside of each house was a well. People drew water by dipping a bucket that was hooked to the end of a pole, into it. A few luckier ones, had indoor pumps, where up and down strokes with their iron levers delivered domestic water from only a few feet below ground.
* * *
Simonswolde was so peaceful that there would be no resident peacekeeper for years to come. However, a policeman from a neighboring village a few kilometers away occasionally visited on his bicycle. A shiny silver medallion on his shiny black helmet dazzled us children. There was no need for law enforcement, because there was absolutely no crime in spite of great poverty.
The flat, mostly treeless landscape around Simonswolde added to its humdrum. Long ago, this land was claimed from the North Sea and, like Holland, was protected by dikes, ribboned with canals and dotted with windmills. Numerous ditches also crisscrossed this land for us children to play on, play in and sometimes almost drowned in.
We moved into a small house near the center of Simonswolde, where Aunt Adele and our grandmother were already living. Our aunt was in her early thirties and was still single. Oma, with snow-white hair pulled back into a tiny knot, was widowed, because Ma’s prayers had been answered when grandpa had hanged himself.
Our new home was owned by an old woman, Mrs. Heddens, who lived in a room or two by herself. Bluish, transparent skin draped her skeleton, and I could almost see her insides. On her left cheek a sore was always oozing pus. Whenever a greenish bead formed, she would wipe it off with a twiggy finger. I knew this, because I once surprised her harvesting pus in our common vestibule when our kitchen door stood ajar, casting a dim light into it. Its light bulb had been removed years before, so this was a good place to do our preening and smearing. I was reluctant to touch anything in the areas that we shared with Mrs. Heddens. Her pus was disgusting and she looked quite empty.
I worried. I worried, because I too was oozing pus, and it seemed to match hers in color. I was still too young to know what people had running out of their heads, but at this time I began to realize that I was not symmetrical. I had a deep dent behind my right ear and I did not yet know that this was abnormal.
Operation Scoop the Goo had not stopped my chronic infection. My ear would keep oozing stinky pus for years to come. I habitually scooped it out with my finger and often smeared it off on my clothes and other convenient places. It was normal to ooze and smear. Ancient Mrs. Heddens was doing it too.
While my second set of teeth growing, I also hosted the Rotten Gums Bacterial Tribe. Ma keenly observed in a letter to Pa:
"…Ami pulled six of his own teeth, some of them during class. Five new ones are growing again, but the gums are red and infected in three places. He also has a 103.1 degree fever and has been in bed for three days. The nurse said he has mouth rot…"
Now I had mouth rot as well as ear rot.
Hurrah, the tooth rot fairy came to visit me! However, instead of leaving me money, she gave me extra teeth. My upper fangs did not fall out to be replaced by new ones. Instead, they doubled up, new ones on top of old ones, double-decker style. Meanwhile, my gums oozed culinary pus until I was finally able to spit out the offending teeth. We had no money for a dentist, no matter, because there was no dentist for miles around. However, I did not have to worry that I would become empty from this body leak, because I swallowed this suppuration. It tasted salty but needed some pepper, since I like my food spicy. Sucking pus, squeezing and probing with my tongue, gave me something to do during my boring school hours.
* * *
Because we were so young and Pa visited us in Simonswolde only about once a year, a few days at a time, to spar with his wife and sister-in-law, Siggi and I did not realize that our parents differed as day from night. Their interests were not the same. Ma had only an eighth-grade education, whereas Pa graduated from a technical college. She descended from Frisians in the lowlands, and his ancestors came from the mountains of the Black Forest. She was a teetotaler, who constantly nagged him about the dangers of smoking and alcohol. He never listened to her.
Pa claimed that while he fluffed up goose down blankets with Ma, she read newspapers, maybe because she wanted to enhance her thrill by seething about the politics of man. He could not suppress his pride about his wife’s torrid response, so he bragged about her forte to his lawyers when he filed for divorce. He must have been disturbed by the stories in the papers, because he wanted to read between the lines with Aunt Adele.
Ma was extremely stubborn, domineering and thrifty. Pa was a spendthrift, bent on making up for lost time and lost mind from social upheavals and wars. The only reason they had married was because they were born on the same day of the same year, and they called themselves twins. And this seemed to be the only thing that they had in common. Ma was very intelligent, or so I heard people say over the years, and her purpose in life was to give advice. Never did she accept such from anyone else, and her face belied her overbearing personality. It was round with a soft double chin, and on occasion when she smiled, her face became angelic. But she rarely smiled, because humans had hardened her soul. When she was fourteen she walked out of church, saying:
"I don’t believe in angels, and that they can move through walls."
Whenever Pa did visit us in Simonswolde, Siggi and I always wanted to play with him. But he usually sent us outside to play instead. We never were able to make a connection with our father, and I did not know why this was so. He was a stranger and normally went to bed at noon to nap. Siggi and I always had to be quiet during this hour, even when Pa was not with us, because this was the time when adults always slept.
Once I went upstairs during noon to enjoy a few moments with Pa. However, he was asleep and a cigarette was burning in his ashtray. I took it, tiptoed back down and sucked a cautious puff.
"Ami, did you take my cigarette?" an angry voice came from above.
"Yeah," I coughed with fright.
"You are too young to smoke, bring it back," he ordered me grimly.
Dutifully I returned it to him, afraid that he would spank me. But he never did. Not once in his life would our father spank Siggi and me, except once, years later, he would slap Siggi so hard that he knocked him to the ground after he had reported to Ma what Pa had said about her to our relatives. However, someday Pa would be a lot meaner to us, while being in total denial about his own irresponsibility and its effect on us. He would help change the course of our lives, Siggi’s and mine. He would help to intensify our suffering to biblical proportions.
* * *
I enrolled in grade school. On the first day Ma walked me there. And left me there. I did not want to be there, because I was often frightened without Ma. Ghosts in my soul. However, after two hours in class the teacher gave us children some candy to entice us to come back again. The next day I walked to school by myself to get my candy, but we received no more. Instead, we had to sit patiently on hard wooden benches and pay close attention to the teacher without being allowed to speak or move from our desks.
All children carried their school supplies in leather satchels on their backs. These contained a wood-framed slate with an eraser sponge tethered to it, a slate stylus for writing, a dog-eared book or two, and sandwiches wrapped in newspapers. Since no one could afford to buy pencils or paper, and there were few such items for sale in the store anyway, we did all of our schoolwork on these tablets during our first two years.
When we were thirsty, we dipped water from an old steel barrel in front of the school with a chipped enamel cup. Classes always ended at noon, when everyone had to stand up to pray. One time, just before such a prayer, I waved my hand for permission to run out to the outbuilding to pee. My teacher saw me squirm but began to pray, and while we prayed my prayer was answered.
Two years after I started, Siggi also enrolled in our grade school. Sometimes we walked there wearing wooden clogs, tiny boats with pointed bows and rounded sterns that sounded like ponies clickety-clopping on brick pavement.
After school we plodded home again, to eat lunch prepared by Aunt Adele. Lunch was not hotdogs or pizza with soda. Often it was un-skimmed milk and moldy bread with rancid lard. It could be sour whey and shriveled carrots. However, such foods must have been more nutritious than what many people feast on today, because we rarely were sick and did not become fat or fad away! People who visited us often said that Siggi and I resembled so and so, and that we looked healthy with our red cheeks.
He and I often had to finish our meals under duress, to make us grow strong. Aunt Adele would admonish us to "think about the starving millions in Germany." After lunch, we always had to finish our homework first, under the guard of adults and a whip, before we were allowed to go outside and play.
Homework was not easy for me, and the threat of corporal punishment always filled the air. This intimidated me to the point that my mind shut down, but no one realized this. Not even I, because my mind was shut down. I was simply dumb. For years Siggi and I learned everything with stress and would still learn that way during our slavery many years later. Aunt Adele was always nearby and ready to pinch an arm or pull an ear for any mistakes we made. At times, I would fill my entire slate with homework, and then she would erase it all, and I would have to do it all over again. Only after we finished it to her satisfaction were we allowed to go out, away from threatening adults, who were always grumpy, because they were always hungry and crowded into a small house with no place to which to escape.
* * *
We children played in the fields and jumped over and into ditches. We kicked soccer balls, rolled bicycle wheel rims down the street and played marbles. We flew homemade kites and tossed boiled, colored eggs back and forth on the pastures at Easter time. Because the ground was grassy and soggy, we could throw them far and high numerous times before they would break. Then we ate them. Children always had complete freedom outside, because adults felt that they needed no longer to be supervised after they enrolled in grade school.
We floated our clogs on the canals and ditches. We earned wet-foot whippings from Ma, who always kept her training whip pinned to her waist with a shiny safety pin. She had several such training devices, and her favorite one, my least favorite one, was a half-meter long electrical cord that was covered with bluish-green fabric. It had been part of a 220-volt appliance cable that now electrified Siggi and me. Ma probably liked this one the best, because it could embed streaks of matching color in our pale buttocks..
I will always remember our mother with a stylish wire strap dangling from her waist. For her it was such a simple device, yet seemingly much more effective than armies of experts theorizing and agonizing how to herd children toward proper adulthood. One of the few times, when I really earned her memorable after-the-deed-was-done training was when I created my own little heat. I forgot that Ma had illuminated me in Diesenbach that I was not allowed to burn down cities, and I lit a newspaper in the upstairs bedroom of our Simonswolde home. When it flared up, it became a hot news flash, so I opened the window to deliver it to the world. Just then, someone blasted this still evening: "Mrs. Neuman! Ami is playing with fire." This caused me to drop the fire on the cabinet instead and beat it with bare hands to extinguish it, but not before it scorched a permanent mark on the counter. Ma did not hear this fire call, never found out, but wondered what had caused the dark blemish on the white marble vanity top.
Ma’s spankings caused Siggi and me to always try to be on our best behavior. However, spanking could not keep us dry, because there was so much water in Frisia that even the windowsills had grooves and metal drawers to catch the condensation flowing from the windowpanes.
Water was everywhere, including in our beds. I peed in my sleep and dried it with my body. It was there even if I did not, because everything absorbed the moisture from the sodden air. On the coldest days, before going to bed, we warmed them with hot coal in an iron bowl inside a wicker basket that we placed under the goose down blankets.
When we had sore throats Ma put hot water bottles on our feet and wet, hot compresses around our necks. She advised us that our miseries were the consequences of not obeying, for not keeping dry. For years, she also warned everyone about draft, because exposure to moving air could beget many illnesses. Outside, the wind was harmless but indoors it was an evil spirit that could spawn earaches, tonsillitis and tuberculosis.
Because Siggi and I had few toys, we also played hide and seek, climbed trees, went swimming and sometimes walked to a nearby village. We entertained ourselves and were not programmed, coached, nor supervised by adults whenever we were outdoors. We were free spirits and babysitters were unheard of. All of the children usually behaved well, because they did not like to be punished.
We experimented, interacted, fought, destroyed and created. The ever-present possibility of boredom stimulated our creativity. The development of our imaginations was not dwarfed by zapping electronics or rooms full of toys made of plastic, and therefore, we were always playing with other children, investigating and inventing our own entertainment.
When Siggi and I became really bored, we carved a room into the ground through red, brown and yellow layers of sand to the water table and below. We used a rope and bucket to bail the water that kept seeping in. We sculpted benches and shelves, and covered our bunker with branches.
During our month-long summer vacations, Siggi and I often walked to the other end of Simonswolde to go swimming naked with other children in a man-made lake. Ma did not allow me to go swimming, but I did so anyway, because I enjoyed it so much that I forgot her orders. She did not tell me that water in my ear caused great damage and sometimes punished me for swimming, until the day I figured out how she always knew that I had done so. Messy, wet hair. From then on, I waited until it dried before going home, and this provided the bacterial tribe in my head the perfect milieu to thrive in.
Siggi and I spent a lot of time perching up high in our red beech tree. It was the only such tree in Simonswolde and probably also the biggest. This was our secure world far above the miseries below. We loved to sway in the breeze, to listen to the whisper of the leaves, to watch the people below and the ants busily moving up and down the branches.
One day, I climbed to the top of the apple tree on our side of the house, lost my grip and crashed. On the way down, I strafed a barb wire fence, whose barbs caught my home-sewn shorts and ripped them open from top to bottom as if cut with scissors. Miraculously, the fence did not touch me, the earth gently caught me, and I was unhurt.
Over the years we occasionally did have a few toys that came from unknown and distant sources. One was a metal ocean liner that was painted in great detail and could be wound up to drive a propeller. We spent hours assembling cranes, bridges and vehicles with an erector set that we received from our relatives in America. On one of his visits Pa brought us a little steam engine that actually worked. A lump of burning paraffin under the boiler brought it to whirring and whistling.
After we played with these toys for a few weeks or months, they always mysteriously disappeared, and I suspect that Ma traded them for food and clothing. We celebrated our birthdays only when we received a present and this was rare. So rare that when I went outside one morning a neighbor asked me:
"Whose birthday is it today?"
"I don’t know," I mumbled.
"Happy birthday to you," she responded.
After this revelation, I hurried back into the house to get my present. But all I received was a bowl full of watery Jell-O, which I also shared with friends.
* * *
One summer day, Waltraut, a neighbor girl, who was a year or two older than I, led me to a field outside the village and into the rye. Deep into the rye. The air was warm, the setting romantic. She lifted her skirt, lowered her panty, and asked me to bare myself also. I studied her, and I felt the same luring fascination I had had once before, when I had bent over to watch my cousin Maike squat in a pasture. Now I wondered what activity required nakedness in a grain field as Waltraut held on to my spigot and said:
"Stick it in here."
"Why?" I asked inquisitively.
"Big people do it all the time," she replied knowingly.
It made sense to me anatomically, but we could we not join, and I did not know what the purpose of doing so would be? Without further explanation she ceased her endeavor, and I spent little time puzzling about this as we went back to the village. A little voice informed me, however, not to tell Ma, who claimed that children grew in kindergartens, gardens to grow children.
I was not yet ready for this catcher in the rye.
* * *
One kind of entertainment for men and boys in East Frisia is Klootschiessen. It could be called road bowling with an oak ball, a Kloot, four to five inches in diameter and without finger holes. Each of the two teams of one or more players has its own Kloot. They take turns tossing them down the road from the same initial starting line. To do so, the player makes a quick dash, then hurls it with a final thrust. They mark the places where the balls come to rest, and from there, continue taking turns throwing their Kloots. After a kilometer or two, they reverse direction to play back toward the starting line. The ball of the team that reaches it first, after each team takes an equal number of throws, wins the game.
We boys used to compete against each other on an informal basis, because none of our spare time was planned or organized. When retrieving our Kloots, we sometimes got wet feet to the great dismay of our mother, who scolded or spanked us, but with little success, to teach us to keep dry.
* * *
Many of Siggi’s and my hand-me-down clothes were too big, too small and often full of holes. And if they came without, we created them. For example, since my legs were growing crooked, my ankles pounded each other, rubbing holes through my boots, socks, and through my hide. In the evenings I had to soak my socks with water to take them off, because they were caked to my feet with blood.
To force my legs to grow straighter, Ma wanted to have special insoles made for me. For this, she requested Pa in Bavaria to send us plaster of Paris bandages, but he was unable to procure them. Later someone found such, and I remember when a nurse in the city of Aurich placed cold, wet matrixes on my feet to form molds for my insoles. These were to help me walk like the hero that I was forced to be but did not want to be.
Pa was, however, able to find other items that we desperately needed. He wrote Ma with a typewriter whose letters were filled with a lot of dirt:
"I will bring seeds, if I can find them. Since you have become a little friendlier and more decent, I will leave here on March 24th. For our birthday I will bring a bottle of liqueur, which we will drink in the name of the children. I will bring sugar and wheat flour for the torte, so that we at least can celebrate our twin birthday.
"I will bring the bike without tires, because they are worn out and can’t be used anymore. Maybe you can have some shipped from America. I have to keep my bike here to use for my job, inasmuch as I cannot buy a small car yet.
"I have to use my fountain pen daily for professional purposes, since I have to sign a lot of plans, and that is our bread."
In many of his letters Pa complained to Ma that he could barely read her writing. Her pencil was too hard; her penmanship a scribble. She wanted him to send her a pen, but Pa would not or could not buy her one. Ma asked me to also write letters to Pa in Bavaria, but this was very difficult for me at that time. I had to repeat my first grade, because there was a shortage of teachers, and I had no classes for many weeks, and then only for two hours a day for the remainder of the year. Ma described my predicament to Pa in a letter:
"All children born after April 1, 1939 have to repeat the first grade and I am sorry that we tormented Ami so much during the winter, that everything was in vain. He does not want to return to the first grade again."
It would be decades before I would find this letter and learn that my mother actually did recognize that she was tormenting me.
* * *
I had a difficult time in school, also because I was paying little attention to my teachers. Their droning often put me into a trance. They considered me slow-witted and dull. Just because my speech was a slow monotone, and their words sometimes sounded muffled, people must have assumed that my brain was the antithesis of Albert Einstein’s.
One of my teachers, Mr. Lindeman, was most convinced of this. He spanked me, and boosted my fragile ego by calling me "Moon Face." He also assigned me the hero’s designation of Suelzenkopf, gristle head, informing the world that my head was filled with ground up ears, snouts and tails. Suelzenkopf stuck to me for most of the six years that we lived in Simonswolde.
In one of his letters, Pa accused Ma of having a chummy relationship with Mr. Lindeman. This could have been true, because I remember how Ma had cried when he moved away from Simonswolde after he retired, but I was happy to get him out of my hair.
I did not pay enough attention in class, even though there were no distractions. Our classroom walls were white and bare. Children sat quietly at desks, in precise rows, facing their master. Once I failed to hear, to understand, Lindeman’s homework assignment. I thought for a few moments about what he might have said, but failed to decode his message and was too shy to ask him to repeat it. It could draw another unkind remark from him.
Back home, I meekly mumbled to Ma that I did not know what I had to do for my German homework. Her mother instinct drove her, on her bicycle, to Lindeman’s house to ask him what he had assigned. Later she informed me that I was to compose sentences using adjectives such as "dumb," "fat" and "lazy." With lightning speed I understood the message Lindeman had sent me. Headcheese is dumb. Moon Face is fat. Suelzenkopf is lazy. I truly believed that I was dumb, because people told me so. Moreover, insults, scolding and spanking were the only special ed that I ever received, because no other special education programs came into being until decades later.
To escape from the depressing effects of my special ed, I spent a lot of my spare time reading. I disappeared in books. The first one I ever read entirely was Robinson Crusoe. I daydreamed in class about this story, to sway in palm trees and drift in blue lagoons.
Silently a real wild animal sneaked up from behind and tore my ear. I suppressed a cry. However, such treatment did not seem to be the solution to loosen the knots in my gristle. So Mr. Lindeman decided one day that more drastic measures were needed.
According to protocol: "Suelzenkopf, come here," he shouted.
I fell out of a palm tree with a thud.
He could not punish me with paid administrative leave, because such a severe corrective action had not been invented yet.
Tail between legs, I followed him to the front of the class.
"Lean over this desk."
Trembling, I complied. Forgot my name. Lindeman gripped his stick; I gripped the desktop with both paws and pressed my face to the cold, hard oak. Dirty old wood. Smell of ages. I forced myself to flee from my body.
"When" whip, I squeezed my sphincter to keep stuff from blowing out,
When Lindeman thought that he had cured my post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by fire bombings and other human affairs, he ordered me back to my desk and said something that I had felt to be the case for a long time:
"Suelzenkopf, there’s no hope for you."
These were the truest, and falsest, words ever spoken in Simonswolde. They caused the saddest feelings anyone ever had in this little village.
After school, Ma and I happened to meet Mr. Lindeman on the street.
"I tried to beat some brains into your son," he proudly informed her.
And I will remember these words forever, "Good, stay always firmly on him," she encouraged him further.
After we returned, she locked me in the coal closet. To be spanked by a teacher was a punishable offense, to be rewarded with long sulking in the blackest night in the universe.
As much as Lindeman was enamored with me, he was even more so with Siggi, but in the opposite way. He spoiled him. Siggi was quick to respond to questions, and Lindeman noted on his first report card that "Siggi made a very good start." He liked him so much that he even offered to adopt him. An old man wanted to adopt a little boy. Besides his quick wit, Siggi was had long golden locks, while I wore an obstreperous brush like our Uncle Fritz, but with an additional bristling tuft, like the hair on the back of a frightened dog.
* * *
Pa and Ma knew that written words could destroy targets at great distances. Pa’s letters made Ma grouchy, and when she wrote him, she also became grouchy. Siggi and I always worried about our hides when someone became grouchy. Consider the impact of salvos delivered by mail, hundreds of kilometers away, with deadly accuracy. The following excerpts were from Ma to Pa:
"…I sat with the boys for hours outside without protection on the railroad tracks to wait for a train. We could have been there overnight. You could have been at least a little concerned, or made an effort to help us with the luggage into a cattle wagon. But my Dandy chased after his passions!!!
"…Since 1945 you came here to scoop off the cream from us, but you never said that we should live with you or anything like that. All your letters are lies in order to create a basis for a divorce. But the reality is quite different!!! Let me illuminate your black soul before a judge, you poor soul.
"Have you already consummated your marriage, or is your dear bride still lying in bed? It is nearly like a thrombosis after a birth…
"…And I have written about wooden pegs for resoling our shoes. I cannot have Ami’s shoes resoled because they are totally worn through. These pegs come from Bavaria and cannot cross the zone borders…"
Presumably, this last statement referred to travel restrictions between the Allied occupation zones of Germany.
Ma also wrote him about other concerns, but Pa did little to help or console her:
"Since Adele had her operation she has been much worse. She says that it is better with her thyroid, but she is now quick-tempered, in an evil mood like never before. She grinds on our nerves from morning to night. She will certainly end in a mental institution when she does not have her mother anymore who allows her everything, and will end in suicide. Little Siggi wants to console me and has already said: ‘Mama, Aunt Adele will soon be dead.’ Ami says, ‘No wait, I will soon be a strong man and then I will spank her thoroughly.’"
"Because of the food we have to stay here. It is of no use to be hungry every four hours. It is like a sickness. Ami and little Siggi have red cheeks and are misbehaving. I have a lot of grief with them, they should get more whipping."
Did our mother want to create sadists, masochists, rapists or terrorists?
She continued: "Ami is a dear one to me, but he is easily despaired and cannot stand his ground. Also when I have to go to Aurich, I always like to take Ami with me. When Siggi comes along, then it is Ami who takes him by the hand. He is the good and dear home spirit, is tired in the evening, readily despaired and despondent. On the whole he is sensitive and easily lets his head hang down. Courage is not his forte. It is a difficult development until he learns normal self-defense. He does not learn particularly easily and always goes for practical work."
* * *
Because of the constant threat of getting scolded or whipped by adults, Siggi and I always felt like having to walk on eggs. By now we had learned not to even think about the present-day evermore-popular entertainment of stealing, raping, vandalizing and such. We had learned to always wash our hands before eating and do our homework to the best of our abilities. We were taught to respect for others and were not allowed to interrupt the conversations of adults. We had to as them first, "May I please have the word?"
Other than doing a few stupid things, we were almost angels. In sum, these acts consisted of throwing a Kloot through a window pane, scorching the cabinet and coming home late at precise meal times. And of course always getting wet and dirty from roaming around in mud, puddles and ditches.
Adele sometimes warned Siggi and me, to be still, while holding her hand to her heart, exclaiming, "Quiet! My heart is beating!" Oddly, she did not time its beats, and when she felt that her heart was beating incorrectly, she adjusted it by beating Siggi and me. Once her heart raced so much that she threw a kilo loaf of unsliced Frisian bread at Pa’s head.
Unfortunately, she missed and knocked a sliding door off its track. However, Pa was already off track from too much alcohol, too much war and too many women, and this speeding bread might have helped to knock him back on track!
* * *
Unbeknownst to Siggi and me, Pa filed for divorce. The sparring partners kept this fact hidden from us until several years later. In the meantime they continued to lay the groundwork for their divorce by writing lots of letters with excuses and accusations, including what Ma wrote to her attorney in Aurich:
"(A family from Simonswolde said that my husband with his friend Dr. Hagen drank 300 bottles of schnapps according to his own words. He told me during his last visit here that he pays up to 200 marks for a bottle of schnapps!) He wants to take in a Miss Koessler and establish a triangular relationship with us. Besides Miss Koessler, he has a dozen more such, and similar relationships, simultaneously and sequentially, all with sexual traffic…"
In Pa’s letters to his own lawyers, he listed some of the reasons why a divorce should be granted:
"…The accused one proposes to marry an American, emigrate with our children, then return after ten to fifteen years to marry me again. In several dozen letters she has called me a swindler, imposter, deserter, coward, a lazy person, abortionist, a tramp, dirty from top to bottom…
"…What kind of impression does the court have, when my wife reads the newspaper and eats apples during sex, with the cynical reason this was the only time she had to do so…"
Ma and Pa’s missiles did not miss their targets and were employed numerous times, in slight variations, over a period of years. Ma would not return to Southern Germany until he quit drinking and guaranteed us enough food. She reminded him of some of the worries that they had had toward the end of the war, when each had tried to pawn off the other one to other potential spouses. She wrote:
"The Russians could have come to Diesenbach. We thought our children would be abducted. You often said that if we lose the war, we could count on the fact that we would be carried off and the children would be taken away from us. To prepare for our worst fears, we secretly kept close to Walli and Wastel, so that in case of emergency, they would have pity on our children and take them with them and care for them. Still today, the boys would answer to people that they want to go with Walli and Wastel.
"At the end of the war we had great horrors. When the Americans arrived instead of the Russians, you gave me the advice to search for an American, to at least achieve that the children can escape the undeserved misery…"
Regarding the illnesses that Siggi and I had suffered, Pa wrote the following:
"…You know that both we parents are at fault for Ami’s and Siggi’s illnesses. We have always said that we could not raise children in that apartment, and now we cannot repeat the same mistake again."
"I am worried about Ami’s TB symptoms which were discovered through the test patch on his chest. Early on I saw this coming and warned for many years that in your house, where Mama still is so afflicted with it and has much expectoration, the danger of infection is much greater. Now we have a sick child and I will take the dear boys with me during the winter, and both of them will be educated in an elite school…"
* * *
One fall afternoon we heard a desperate squealing and grunting coming from a farm up the road. Siggi and I ran to the commotion at this Frisian country scene. Next to the obligatory manure pile in front of a thatched-roofed farmhouse were two men wrestling a pig. The pig was squealing, the men were grunting. Siggi and I were stunned.
To calm down the pig, someone hammered a spike into its head.
"Ami, look. They’re washing a pig," Siggi observed.
"We’d better be careful," I responded.
Someone slit its throat, drained its blood into a big bowl and then wrestled it into a hot tub. It was made with steel-banded oak wood staves and was identical to the one we bathed in weekly in our kitchen. While the men scraped off its dirt and bristles, the farmwife stirred the pig’s blood with a bare hand while adding ingredients.
"Why are you stirring the blood?" I inquired shyly.
"I am making blood sausage," she replied.
I had eaten blood sausage before. It was black, contained chunks of white lard, tasted delicious and had no government-mandated warning on its intestine skin.
The men proceeded to cut open the pig’s belly, removed its innards, some of which they threw onto the manure pile. Little Siggi and I stood side by side, holding hands, watching with earnest faces.
"You will be next!" the farmer exclaimed while looking directly at us. Instinctively we stepped back, because we were not sure if he meant it.
He tossed something at us.
"Here’s the bladder," he said. "Blow it up and you can play with it."
With great excitement, we took our new toy home, where I rinsed it, blew it up, and then tied it shut. It tasted bitter. I did not think that pig’s pee would taste bitter, I thought it would be salty. Maybe it was the little trichinas that we had been warned about, but I did not see any. We were anxious to cure our translucent bladder so we could play soccer with it.
Aunt Adele asked where we had found it. She commanded us to go back to retrieve the pig’s lungs and anything that looked edible. Siggi and I balked, because we ignorantly assumed that anything from manure would not be edible but agreed to fetch it, always being aware of the ever-present whip. We returned to the scent and the scene of slaughter. Slowly we approached the manure pile, while looking around for witnesses. We were about to steal, and when we felt unobserved we climbed it.
Pigs root for truffles. Vultures rip cadavers. Children suffer.
The viscera glistened on the soggy manure altar, our public trough, our pork barrel. We grabbed some entrails, quickly wrapped them in newspapers and dropped them into the shopping net that we had brought with us.
We hurried home. I felt guilty for stealing and for not having washed my hands. Oma, instead of pasting reminders in our communal waterless privy, simply told us to always wash our hands before handling foodstuff, and we always obeyed. Now Siggi and I grabbed the food while ignoring the advice that had been pounded into us. Maybe we could wash the food instead before eating it. After we placed our mouth-watering quarry on the kitchen table, we went back out to play.
* * *
"Eat this," ordered Ma.
Siggi and I stirred around the gourmet potpourri on our plates, each waiting for the other one to take the first bite. I could not bring myself to try one, thinking about where these innards had been.
As we wavered, Ma helped in our decision when she reached for her waist ornament.
"I will eat it," I mumbled courageously.
We slowly consumed most of this nutritious, if not delicious, meal of lungs, and had to do so with formal table manners. Chunks of rubbery air tubes provided good exercise for our jaws, more so than the gum that we received from America. It also strengthened our characters so we could deal more effectively with future gourmet meals, and assorted garbage that people might dish out to us for the rest of our lives.
The moral then is, when you can’t afford enough food, or don’t have mental health counselor, stay close to a manure pile.
After we finished eating, we washed the dishes, a chore we greatly disliked, Siggi and I. Since I was older, I had to fetch water from the pump in the barn. After doing dishes we discarded the dirty water into the gutter of the cow stalls, from where it ran into an open cesspool in the backyard.
Within hours, not unexpectedly, the results of our haute cuisine hit us. Pain in the gut, which had spared us the pain in the butt, which would not have prevented our pain in the gut, since we would have had to eat this stuff anyway, properly, after the pain in our whipped butts. After rolling around the floor for an hour or two, parts of the pig escaped again. We released it with competitive up-chucking, Siggi and I. Then Ma fed our chuckings to our chickens, and they seemed to like them.
We were often aware that we had guts, because we induced intense feelings there by eating anything resembling food, wasting nothing. Often we did not know what strange morsels Aunt Adele disguised in soups and sauces, and I would not be surprised if there had been mice and maggots!
One of the real delicacies that we truly enjoyed was black, whole grain, whole kernel rye bread. The kind that people throw at each other. When fresh, that is no more than two weeks old, it tasted so sweet that it did not even require a spread. A local baker baked it every morning, and it was so dense that it was usually sold, unsliced, in half loaves, one kilo at a time. To this day I still yearn for this bread. It makes my mouth water. One time Ma recovered part of a loaf from a secret place. I knew that this was pain in the gut or butt bread, because I recognized its shape, a block of gray, furry fungus that Ma sliced, moistened and garnished with sugar. Then forced us to eat it.
Even two or three years after the end of World War II, many people were still very hungry. To help feed his ill father, Pa wrote to a farmer, asking him if he could trade him some food for my grandfather and received the following reply:
"Very honored Mr. Neuman!
"I have to report with great regret, that in spite of my best intention, it is not possible in this respect to help him, because I, in spite of my pursuit of agriculture, receive food vouchers myself and have only as much to live on as I can get with them. And this is too little to live on, and too much to die on. We do not know anymore what bacon is since the occupation here, because there are no pigs anymore and we receive monthly one hundred grams of fat per person. Everything else is taken away from us."
Even if lots of food had been available, most people would not have had enough money to buy it. As the new Deutschmark was introduced, the old Reichsmark became worthless. Each month the government issued seventy-five new marks to each adult and probably less for children. Therefore, bartering became a way of life out of necessity. Ma would write me that one egg was worth about one new Deutschmark, somewhat less than twenty-five cents at that time. At today’s inflation-adjusted valuations this sum would be several dollars.
Since we had to grub on manure, Siggi and I were fortunate to have two aunts in America who sent us packages. These always smelled delectable, like marshmallows, spearmint, cocoa and candy. They smelled like America. I could smell America’s newness, its far away places, even before we opened them. In one of these packages was a used coat that fit me quite well. It was made of wool, with brightly colored square patterns unlike the dark clothes everyone wore.
Many of our packages also contained cigarettes, tea or coffee, because these were scarce and expensive in post-war Germany, did not spoil and were easily shipped. East Frisians craved tea as much as the English and Dutch, and some less fortunate addicts even drank ersatz coffee of roasted cereal grains. We bartered these items mostly for food, and used clothing. Since Ma and Aunt Adele thought that the farmers would have pity on us, they asked Siggi and me to solicit them for milk. We offered them tea or money, and they usually traded us a liter or two for one tea bag, rarely wanting money.
Ma traded a pack of cigarettes for one black chicken, Gretchen, and I was very protective of her. When the neighbor’s rooster mounted her, pecked at her comb, and maybe also somewhere else, I courageously chased him off with a stick. Ma also bartered for one dozen brown eggs that had been fertilized. Gretchen patiently hatched them and created twelve baby chicks, all hens and no roosters. Remembering the good old days, Ma would write me years later:
"…It was a miracle that these eggs all hatched females, and we lived a long time from our Chickens of Luck, because we had little other income for Pa never sent us anything. We used our excess eggs for bartering, and these chickens provided the greatest source of income."
Our poverty would have been less severe if Pa had not gotten his paws on Ma’s inheritance. After her two brothers perished in Russia, and her father stretched his neck, she inherited some of their Holstein cows. She sold them and macho Pa took this money to build a house in Bavaria. Or so he wrote us. He was in deep denial that we were freezing and starving. This was evident from the total lack of concern that he showed for us in the numerous letters that he wrote to us in East Frisia and because he sent us very few packages and no money.
We were so starved for toys, food and clothing that Siggi and I tore into the packages from America like hungry hyenas. Shortly before one Christmas, Oma was resting on her couch and watched us rip one open. Among the usual items we found a red balloon. Oma ordered us to put it back into the package so she could present it to us for Christmas. We had never seen a real balloon and were anxious to fly it like we did our kites that we built from the wrapping paper and string of these packages.
We bragged to our friends about our balloon, and they arrived on Christmas Day to witness its launching. We blew it up and tied a long string to it. Instead of rising, the balloon tumbled to the ground. As with our kites, we ran with it to give it lift, and I tried to force it up by sheer will power, because my ego and honor was at stake. To lighten the balloons load, I cut off its string and let go. A gust of wind blew it away and across the fields, and even though we ran after it, we never found it again and left me deflated.
* * *
Siggi and I spent much of our spare time outdoors. We often wandered about, always curious, always looking for something to find or do. Occasionally we found objects from World War II, such as a potato masher hand grenade. We tossed it about and had no idea that it might be dangerous, because it looked only somewhat like a cut-off baseball bat stuck into a steel cylinder.
We found a military-type canister in a ditch that contained a rotten egg in a lot of salt. Nearby we found a steel helmet and ribbons of bullets that we also took home. While we were hammering off the bullets to see what was in them, Ma came out and was horrified. I did not know why she was horrified, because I was not horrified, and I was always the first to be terrified. She lifted a board of the cesspool cover and dumped our powder into it, creating explosive fertilizer. She also took away our remaining ammo and had a neighbor try to pound a flat spot on top of the helmet to make it into a bowl.
There were two cesspools next to the back of our house. A covered one that received excrements from the stinking hole inside the barn, and an uncovered one nearby for dish and bath water. Whenever the covered pool was full, full of poop, pee and maggots, a farmer scooped it out with a bucket, which had a very long handle, to prevent him from kicking the bucket, into a big ox-drawn wooden cask on wheels, to spread this potpourri over fields before plowing it under.
These agricultural practices, combined with our ancient personal hygiene and sanitation methods, seemed to have caused surprisingly few illnesses. In contrast to this, we now have laws requiring signs in chemically sanitized public restrooms, instructing people how to wash hands, for so many seconds, complete with a series of pictures depicting this process. In spite of such laws, germicides and practices, we now have screaming headlines about E.coli happening all across the land.
There are many huge underlying secrets in these differences between then and now that have yet to be discovered by the masses and the most brilliant scientists.
* * *
In the early years after the war, the best way to get to Aurich was with bicycle or a horse-drawn wagon. Occasionally, a farmer took people on his flatbed wagon that had enormous tires from a crashed airplane. When I was about seven or eight years old, I traveled on this crowded wagon, while Ma pedaled ahead on her bike and planned to meet me in this city.
However, when we arrived at our destination, Ma was not there. I was lost, because she had not instructed me what to do. I walked around aimlessly until I met a guardian angel who had also come from Simonswolde. I informed her that I could not find my mother. She walked me to the police station, where I anxiously waited until Ma did indeed arrive there. She carried me on her bike to a second-hand store, where I was to remain for several days, while she returned back home.
I had always been very timid and uncomfortable around strangers. I did not trust them, because some of them had been evil, and it did not take long for my suspicions to be confirmed again. I was loitering outside the store, when an older boy walked by and without provocation, without a word, he pounded his fist into my solar plexus. Since I was tough, his fist did not enter my guts where it might have gotten stuck. However, I doubled over and staggered back into the store. Mrs. Second-Hand asked me, what happened to you, as I was tumbling to the floor.
I was glad to return to Simonswolde where I had friends and the village bully, Rewert Kuhlman, now long departed, liked to attack me. Bullying was his hobby, and I was his favorite target, because I had always been a chicken. When he came after me again, I ran away as fast as I could to save my hide. Our father had not taught us, Siggi and me, how to defend ourselves against bullies, and more importantly, how to be bullies.
The bloody face of a schoolmate flashed through my mind. I had breathlessly watched when Rewert had pounded it with a stick, until it was no longer identifiable.
My temper rose.
Like a flash, my guardian angel warned me to defend myself!
Without thinking, I stopped running, bent over, picked up sand, turned around and threw it into Rewert’s face. I commenced pounding it with both fists as rapidly as I could until blood and tears were flowing. I gained further courage from the cheering of friends. Rewert stood paralyzed like a post, until I was afraid of what I might do to him, and therefore, ceased to apply justice. He ran home, while I basked in the glow of victory, because I did not yet know about lawyers.
* * *
Our family was not only under attack by horrible humanoids but also by other creatures. We hosted lice, fleas, microbes and who knows what. A neighbor always cut my hair regularly with hand clippers, and unbeknownst to me Ma once must have instructed him to skin my head in order to render my lice homeless. The barber began to trim normally, made small talk, then without warning went across the top of my head and sheared off my little animal farm.
I knew that I would be teased again in school, because no kid had ever had a short bristle hair style before, and I was totally bald now. Even though it was not permissible to wear headgear in class, Ma asked me to wear my new red leather riding cap from America. Ashamed of wearing it, I walked into the classroom, followed by Ma, who whispered to my teacher. Regardless of Ma had told the teacher, my magic cap did not shield me from ridicule. During recess a sneaky student pulled off my cap in order to thrill everyone but me with Schadenfreude, the enjoyment of other people’s miseries.
We also enjoyed many other benefits of our romantic, old-time hygiene. Since there were no public toilets, we often relieved ourselves wherever we could hide outdoors. One day, I felt a sudden strong urge to purge myself and jumped into nearby bushes. I knew from my tickling sensation that my outpouring would be unique. I turned around to see what I had created: Dozens of pale worms wriggling on the ground in the groovy spaghetti party.
Scared to death, I hurried home and asked Ma if worms could eat people.
"What kind of worms?"
"I am full of wiggly worms."
"We will get rid of them."
She fed me a bitter powder to exterminate any remaining parasites, but it did not rid me of the ringworm fungus on head.
Ma continued to write Pa in Diesenbach about our problems. So to protect himself from our great pain, he went into denial by replying as though he knew nothing about them.
For example he wrote:
"Now we definitely have the building permit for our little house in Diesenbach. Nothing was changed in my plans and the work will continue starting next Monday so that the rough construction will be finished by Christmas. Then we will finally have a civilized residence and also will be able to follow intellectual and cultural pursuits…
"…Should you send me cigarettes or anything, I promise to quit smoking. I need my health for the future, which can, as I believe today, in spite of the fate of war, become very great for us and I want to enjoy it with my three dear ones in many years of health…
"…I need the cigarettes for purposes of trade for butter, wine, etc.…"
While Ma, Aunt Adele, Oma, Siggi and I cultured worms, lice and bacterial strains in the North, Pa built a house for himself, and the future wife he was dreaming about, or had nightmares about, in the South. Not only that, he even informed Ma that he wanted to build an identical second one as a rental.
* * *
The winter of 1947/48 was one of the coldest in a century and paralyzed much of Europe. Trains froze to tracks, and there was little fuel available. In addition, so much snow accumulated that we did not have to attend school. Siggi and I burrowed a tunnel into the snow and crawled over the top without collapsing it. General Lucius Clay, commander of the occupying American troops, called Germany’s predicament "truly appalling."
Fortunately, during the previous summer, Our Trio had cut blocks of peat out of the bog and had stacked them up to dry before carting them home. We burned this peat, along with a little coal that we had scavenged, in our living room stove during the coldest days and huddled around it. When someone entered our room and left the door to the hallway open moments too long, Ma would shout in anger, "Coal thief, coal thief."
To save fuel, Adele also cooked here, instead on our kitchen stove. Even so, the temperature in our living room dropped below freezing. Ma wrote to Pa that "our chamber pots under the beds froze nightly for almost three months," and he usually responded about his own suffering.
Oma spent the end of her life on the couch over her freezing chamber pot and under a down blanket. For almost twenty years she had suffered bronchial catarrh and entertained people by coughing and spitting into a mug. She always kept a damp cloth by her sofa so she could wipe her face afterwards. Like Mrs. Heddens, she only grew ever shorter and skinnier, but never seemed to get quite empty However, one morning her washcloth was frozen, as was the pee in her pot.
And so was Oma. Days later someone loaded her wrinkled, ghostly white shell onto a farmer’s cart and hauled it to her nearby birthplace for burial. Her set of teeth that she had always kept beside her went with her. My grandmother rumbled down the brick road to her grave inside a black box and was followed by a small procession of dark figures, their heads drooping with sorrow.
* * *
When ice covered the canals criss-crossing the land, we children skated through the fields with medieval skates. These were made of wood with steel blades and were fastened to our boots with leather straps and string. Although they were designed for long distance skating, we also played ice hockey, and when their long, curved blades hooked each other, we suffered painful crashes.
One winter, Ma acquired a new sled from a stranger who came to our village and paid for it with two handsful of beans that she had harvested from her garden. Excitedly, my best friend Kriene deBoer and I took this sled out on a frozen canal. Its ice began cracking ominously and caused Kriene to ease back to shore. I cautiously continued sliding along while quoting Ma who had recently told me:
"If you are afraid, you will never get anywhere in this world."
She never told me that sometimes it was important to be afraid, and that life was full of surprises. I wanted to get somewhere so I continued to test her theory. The ice cracked and crackled with each cautious step, until I went somewhere. Crash, splash, down I went. I beat my way to shore, while still grasping the towrope of my sled. Kriene helped pull me out and pulled me home. By the time we arrived there, I was lightheaded and shivering. My clothes were beginning to feel stiff as I staggered into the vestibule. I called Ma who came hurrying down the stairs:
"If I I c confess s s omething, will y you not sp p pank me?" I chattered with dizziness.
"Of course not," she worriedly replied.
"I b b broke through th e e i i ce."
She removed my clothes, gently dried me and led me to bed. Even though I had been afraid of it, she never gave me my usual reward for getting wet.
* * *
For as long as I could remember, everyone in our crowded house always wore grim expressions. Grief was always present. The constant sorrow on Ma’s face saddened me greatly and was reflected on my own. But I never knew why this was so, because I thought that our life was normal and would ask her, "Ma, why are you so sad?"
"Little Bird, I will tell you when you’re older," was her usual reply. She never mentioned her marital problems to Siggi an me. The following letter again indicated the source of some of her torments. While we were freezing and starving, Pa seemed to be in total denial about our plight and was totally disconnected from the brutal reality of his family. He wrote:
"If you should shy away from this trip with me to Wollbach and are without happiness and have great reluctance, Miss Lore will travel with me in order to clean and iron.
"…Please write to attorney Grosswilde to get the children baptized and join the church, which I will do myself also."
"I myself can immediately make fluid 6000 marks, but I need an additional 5-6000 marks to be able to pay for the car.
"Through construction supervision and planning I still can earn approximately 12,000 marks this year. I would like to choke back my monthly income somewhat; otherwise the taxes will be too high.
"So in all things, you can be at peace and be happy about my visit in four weeks. Inform me about the auto situation right away, if I should buy a car and send me by return mail 5,000 marks."
Pa had wasted a lot of ink to convince Mama that he was in dire need also and undoubtedly had written many of his letters with the help of wine. Was the hate between my parents so great that it inhibited the financial support of their children, even though such would result into sizable tax write-offs to help re-populate the country? Whenever Pa did write a sympathetic comment to us, it seemed to paint artificial empathy in order to make himself look good before a divorce court.
Previously he had written to Ma who had requested him to send us a bike:
"…A bicycle I have to keep with me in any case, so that I always can control the construction site in Regensburg in the summer."
He also insisted on buying a car, but it did not have to be the luxury convertible that he wanted. Also, any kind of automobile would draw the envy of people, because few of them could afford one. To pay for it, he wanted to spend all of Ma’s inheritance. This was confusing, because he also had claimed that he needed this money to build us a home in Bavaria.
At about this time Pa’s boss, Dr. Hagen, wrote a letter certifying that Pa was indispensable to the companies for which he worked. This was in response to Ma’s request for Pa to move to Simonswolde, which was ludicrous, because during this era there was absolutely no construction activity in this region. However, he could help in our garden, which he never did, not even during the rare times when he visited us. Poor Ma always had to hand-spade and tend our garden by herself.
While Pa was visiting us at a later date, Dr. Hagen sent a telegram requesting his immediate return. He was in danger of losing his residence, because refugee families were making a claim on it. Therefore, Pa quickly returned to Bavaria and wrote us:
"My Dearest One and Children!
"Last Monday evening a refugee arrived here with a family of six people and furniture. He violently wanted to obtain my room as their residence. Through Dr. Hagen’s active interference it was possible to prevent this man from his brazen endeavor. After a few days, Dr. Hagen was able to finish this matter with the help of the officials, the police and the Pirzers. A great excitement prevailed here.
"So my treasure, everything is falling into place again. Now I have shortly informed you of everything of importance."
In his letters Pa addressed Ma with various titles, depending on his mood or frustrations with her. His eloquent salutations ranged from "My Dearest Treasure" to "Dear Fury of Criticism," and from "Dear Katje" to "Obligatory Critical Theorist."
* * *
Four years after World War II, Ma traveled back to Southern Germany but did not tell Siggi and me that she was going to court. She also did not tell us that our judges and lawyers could rob us and absolve our father of his responsibilities, even while pretending to help us, because she did not yet know this herself. And furthermore, they would even allow our father to rob himself. Now that Ma had not been able to hook an American, she fought to keep her husband and wanted to appear personally before the judge to prevent Pa from achieving his greatest dream, to get rid of us.
During her stay in the South, Ma planned to live in a poorhouse, but when she arrived there, she was told that it was closed for remodeling. Desperate and strong-willed Ma went to the city hall and demanded to sleep in jail. Because she was so persistent, the mayor relented and let her share a jail cell with a female prisoner at night.
During the daytime, Ma spent a lot of time sitting in the waiting room of the railroad station, to study documents and write letters. Whenever someone she knew would come in, she hid her face behind a newspaper. Her determined efforts helped her win this court process and the judgment was short. She would write me someday:
"The complaint is rejected. There is nothing that can be proved to be a cause for a divorce. The plaintiff must bear all court costs."
Some time after Ma returned to Simonswolde, she received another summons for another lawsuit, and I suspect that we had to eat a greater assortment of garbage in order to pay for her long train fare. She would write me many years later that Pa was so determined to rid himself of his family that he employed the most influential lawyer he could find, Professor Dr. Fuhrler. Dr. Fuhler was a close friend of German Chancellor Adenauer, "the Father of the New Germany." This professor was one of Pa’s lawyers for ten years and was also, or later even became, president of the European Parliament. A big guy.
While Pa hired turbo lawyers, Ma could not afford one. She went to a bureaucracy and applied for assistance under the poverty rights law. Under its program she was assigned a lawyer who was paid for by tax payers.
She made this thousand-kilometer trip back to Rheinfelden, again by train, because she was as determined to stay married as her husband was to get rid of us. A new law had been passed that included insanity as one of the few reasons for divorce, and Chief Judge Kaulbach said that Pa had offered half a dozen witnesses to show that Ma was mentally ill. But when the time came for them to appear in court to testify against her, they all gave reasons for not being able to do so. Only a building inspector of Rheinfelden rode with him to Freiburg where he announced:
"It appears to me, I mean, this woman is not normal."
The judge wanted to confirm this accusation and ordered Ma’s head to be examined. The following Monday, she arrived at appointed time at the health bureau in Saeckingen. After a three and a half hour wait, she was called from the waiting room, and years later she would describe her interview in a letter to me in America as follows:
"How you men mistreat abandoned women!" she told the examiner.
"With you the examination will take longer. The others were all examined for tuberculosis and other diseases," he responded.
"What is your name?"
"Where do you live?"
"How did you get here?"
"What is your marital status?"
"Married," Ma answered in a mocking voice.
The inspector concluded the examination: "You are very intelligent. What did you study at the university?"
She answered: "Nothing, but unfortunately I have been forced to study mankind."
I never learned if the examiner also practiced phrenology to obtain the diagnosis from his scientific observations, but after a life like hers, with a dented head like hers, anyone would be at least slightly loco, and Pa must have known this when he married her.
* * *
In one of her letters to Pa, Ma had included a list of the bills that she had had to pay while they were still together in Southern Germany before and into the war. It included twenty-six re-occurring items ranging from rent and floor waxing, to garage rent and shooting club dues. She also had sent him a doctor’s prescription, which requested that the daughter of Mrs. Heddens move into our over-crowded house in Simonswolde, because she also had tuberculosis and needed a place to stay. This meant that our family would have to move out.
On the back of this prescription, Ma scribbled the following note:
"The boys cannot remain here any more, their beds will go to the attic. The doctor and nurse wrote that they cannot help us any more. I myself cannot find shelter. My bed has already been in the hallway for a long time, since 1949. I was told that I can only legally live where my husband resides."
We were going to be thrown out of the sardine can house, where we lived during the six postwar years. At various times, different Eastern refugees also lived there in separate rooms. One of them was an old woman with giant teeth and a coarse voice. She lived above us and we could hear her praying rosaries for hours and for days. When she died, a male refugee moved in, but he kept quiet. He owned only the clothes on his back and a greasy comb. He did not seem to have job or next of kin and was a smoker of homemade cigarettes of dried cherry leaves that he skillfully rolled in newsprint.
Ma knew that her private war would intensify, and she would have to remain at the battlefront. Therefore, she sent for Siggi and me to join her in Rheinfelden. We traveled back to Southern Germany by ourselves, again by train, but this time comfortably in passenger cars and mostly on schedule. I still remembered when we had passed through many damaged cities before. This country was still in the process of repairing its extensive war damage, and there were many of the huge cranes that had become a common sight throughout Western Germany. These were always the first to appear on the construction sites, even for the erection of single-family homes, to hover over the rising buildings until after the roofing was completed.
Siggi and I were now nine and eleven years old and did not know that we were traveling directly to ground zero of another war. However, at that time we were sure that our lives would soon get much, much better! It could possibly not get worse.
* * *