Chapter 1 - The Visit
from Herman's Memoir
Heroes from the Attic:
A Gripping True Story of Traumas and Triumphs
My mother wrote to me in America that she wanted Siggi and me to visit her one last time in Switzerland before she died. She also wanted us to feel her skull. She said that three men had whacked it, and it felt like corrugated metal. Ma had also taped her will to a wall, requesting that her cadaver be sent to the medical school in Basel, with the instructions to photograph her skull before the students cut up her corpse.
She wrote me:
"For one year I will remain in a basin filled with formaldehyde, together with people who come from the penitentiary. My skeleton will then be sent to a school in Switzerland. I will ask the Department of Anatomy to take pictures of my skull or send you the address where it will be displayed."
This was an good reason for Siggi and me to visit our mother before we would have to find her in an even more gruesome state of being.
For many years Ma had lived with Franz in the village of Moehlin, Switzerland. They were in their mid-eighties, not married and I had never met him. She also wrote that she was living in "hell," because some of his relatives wanted to evict them both from his old house so they could remodel it.
Ma also wrote that Franz had lost control over his body. Therefore, she did not have time to answer the many questions about our family in writing that I had asked her recently. She had to change his bag several times a day and wash him as well. If we visited her, she would be able to tell me our family history. She still had an excellent memory and had always wanted to write a book about how people had mistreated Our Trio, that is Ma, Siggi and me.
She invited the two of us to stay upstairs in Franz’s house. I was sure that even if she literally removed one truckload of her stuff from the apartment that she still kept in Rheinfelden, Germany, where I was born, we could not reside there. No one dwells in hell voluntarily, even if it were polished.
In researching information for this memoir, I also read Ma's letters again that I had saved over the years. Much of their contents was new to me, because I had forgotten or repressed so much, including much advice and many admonitions. But now that I was writing, I was eager to learn what she had to say about our family. I was especially curious about her personal experiences in the horrible world that she had lived in before, during, and after the infamous Nazi era. I decided that if I wanted her information, I would have to talk to her face-to-face, because judging from her letters, she could not stay focused on any one subject long enough to elaborate about it in a meaningful manner.
Ma was extremely gregarious, but because of a quirk in her personality, she had few friends, and her nearest relatives lived hundreds of kilometers away. Over the years, Ma had tried to lure Siggi and me to return from America with the material things that she had accumulated since our father had evicted the three of us from our new luxury home so long ago. She had offered us furs, violins and tons of clothes. She was still very poor, and I wondered how she acquired some of these expensive items. But I was not interested in her bribes, because they would only clutter my home, and my mind.
Ma threw me a morsel of what I could learn from her in a letter to my wife Linda:
"…My dear grandfather had a sister who was a widow and had a beautiful farm. She asked an attorney to draw up her last will and testament. She probably did not understand what she signed. Her beautiful villa and the farm suddenly belonged to this abominable attorney. He moved into the villa right away."
"…Dear Ami should quit his job, because what is in my memory will earn him more. It would be very interesting for a movie firm to film the attic with the bats where we lived, and the jail in Saeckingen, where I had to stay because of my homelessness.
"Don’t wait until I can be viewed in the Anatomy Department of the university, dear Ami. It will be very interesting with your Ma, who has loved you more than any other person."
* * *
Even though our mother was living in Switzerland, she still kept an apartment a few miles across the Rhine River in Germany. Its rent was probably paid by the German taxpayers, because welfare officials must have thought that she actually still lived there. Recently she wrote me that she could not access it, because someone had inserted an object into the lock of its only entrance door.
As much as wanting to see my mother again, probably for the last time, I also wanted to find the court documents that she assured me were still in her possession. I was curious about how it had been possible for our parents to shred our family for so long, with such intensity and why no one had stopped their destructive behavior. I wanted to learn how laws could be twisted to favor liars and crooks. Siggi and I had learned from outstanding personal experiences that the weaker you are, the more abused you are, and the more exploited you will be. At least this had certainly been true in our case.
Ma’s court documents and her tales would be a great help in writing my memoir. I had counted the names of the many lawyers and judges in her letters, who had helped dissolve, torment and impoverish our "family" in an unending war filled with schemes, lies and threats of murder. I also I wanted to learn if it were our turbulent life that caused, at least in part, my caustic humor and blunt honesty. Or had it been it mainly Ma’s whip that had been such an effective tool? Siggi and I make some people quiver when we confront them with unpleasant truth. We do this to win friends and influence people by sharing the lessons of our extremely unusual experiences.
Siggi has published dozens of articles, and his observations on many issues are unique and out of the mainstream. For example, one was a twelve-page article called Reflections On Conventional Versus Non-conventional Trade Development to advise on how to boost the economic performance of his state. Another article was titled To Liberate Women, Depoliticize Men.
* * *
I also wanted to visit to the land of my birth again, because I wanted to find the missing pieces of my life. But after returning to my adopted country from previous visits to Europe, weeks would pass before my gloom would lift. I wanted to live in both places, hoping to strengthen my roots by cementing together those that had grown in worlds so far apart. However, my gloom was mostly caused by the widening contrast between European and American landscapes. The broad European middle class was growing much wealthier, whereas in great contrast, America’s middle class has been shrinking in numbers and growing much poorer.
I weighed the pros and cons of this trip for many months. I was concerned about the mental and physical health of my mother. Would Siggi and I be able to deal with her aberrant behavior? Would she be able to deal with our foreign behavior? Recently she wrote me that she had made only one request of me, to send her toothbrushes. I never did. But later she wrote that she had found a good source of them at the old age home across the street. When its residents died, some of their useless items were thrown out and Ma collected these from its garbage.
Over the years, Siggi had attacked Ma about her obsessive hoarding, verbally and in writing. I understood her emotional craving for her collection of fine garbage and could forgive her. Twice during her lifetime the German currency had been destroyed and survival had depended on bartering. She was afraid that this might become necessary again, thereby causing her to accumulate everything. But Siggi could not accept that. He accused her of valuing her junk more than her family. This was very true. This was very untrue. Ma could never change.
Siggi planned to travel to Europe and would meet me there if I were to decide to go. But I had many doubts about such a reunion. Ma had been pleading with us to help clean her apartment so she could die in peace. Siggi and I were not sure how to search for the mementos that we might want from there. Something in us craved for them; but we were also pained by them. We would find memorabilia in schoolbooks and toys that we had crafted. We knew that all of these would still be there, buried in deep clutter, as had been the memories of them in my soul.
What would we do with our frail mother? What if she died from the excitement or torment of our visit? Should we deliver her corpse "To Whom It May Concern" in a suitcase to the university in Basel? Was Ma’s final request her final attempt to gain sympathy from someone, anyone?
My questions and doubts could only be resolved if I returned to the land of my birth. This would be the first time that our mother, my brother and I would be together in thirty-five years. We would have a fine time, because we were a closely-knit family, as well as a blown up family. When I had received the announcement of my father’s death during the nineteen-seventies, my only comment at that time had been, "Well, the old bastard finally croaked." Then I went into a bedroom and closed the door. I cried. But I do not know if I cried for myself or for my father.
* * *
Siggi picked me up at the Zurich airport, and we drove to Rheinfelden, Germany, to stay at a bed and breakfast. It was the middle of summer and central Europe was suffering from a hundred-year heat wave. In addition, there was almost no air conditioning or insect screening, and I wondered how the walls of my room had gotten so bloody. To keep cool, I had to keep my window open at night, and I soon figured out that no one had been murdered here. During my nightly mosquito hunts, I also added to its décor with bloody mosquito splatter.
The day following my arrival, while still suffering jetlag, we drove back to Switzerland across the Rhine River, to visit our mother. Without previous announcement we walked into her "living room," where she and Franz were sitting in immense disorder watching television. She was wearing two pairs of glasses, on top of each other, so she could see better and removed one pair so she could see us even better. Her face momentarily lit up before turning to a frown. Her body was frail with a slight dowager’s hump that mismatched her much younger face that had surprisingly few wrinkles and no "horrid age spots."
A bubble of joy momentarily rose in mother’s soul. We did not exchange greetings, did not hug, even though I had resolved to do so. Ma’s mouth kicked into action, not with advice as before, but with subtle excuses and reasons for her past behavior. Thoughts burst forth rapidly, skipping from subject to subject. Pointing to a photo of her young father hanging on the wall, she said:
"He hanged himself. When I was small, I prayed: Dear God, I wish my father were dead. Amen."
I wondered why she was an atheist when such an important prayer had been answered.
I interrupted her: "Ma, how are you?" wanting to bring our conversation to a more soothing level. But this was not possible. Years of brooding kept pouring from her soul and Siggi and I could not stop her.
She presented me with a strap, holding it as if to sell me a tie.
"See this. This is what I used to spank you with."
"No," I said, "I don’t remember it, but I remember two others. They were made of rubber and wire." I did not know why I said that, because I did not feel any animosity towards her, only sadness. I thought it to be a miracle that she had lived this long, physically intact, and apparently suffering only from a dysfunctional thought process.
Before too long Siggi rushed out of the house. The pain!
"I’ll wait for you in the car, Neuman," he said on his way out.
Not long thereafter I followed him. The pain! My fourth visit with our mother in thirty-five years ended in about thirty minutes. Numbly, we drove back across the Rhine River to cruise aimlessly around the city of my birth, speaking little as we passed through our old neighborhoods. Everything was so prosperous, clean and well maintained even though Rheinfelden still had dynamite, aluminum and other factories. To us it was blatantly obvious that the middle class in many European countries had greatly expanded and grown a lot wealthier as well, while many areas in America had stagnated or even greatly declined, twisted statistics notwithstanding. This also caused me great pain.
Two days later Siggi and I made another courageous charge on Franz’s house and immediately asked Ma for the key to her German apartment.
"I will go with you," she insisted.
"But why? We want to go there alone," I said.
"No, I will go with you!"
Siggi and I did not want her to come with us, because she would add to our homesickness, or whatever our complex emotions could be called. She would cackle with advice and draw the attention of her neighbors. As children we had not wanted to be with her in public, because of her incessant nagging. Although she had a sweet, beautiful face, it contradicted her overbearing personality and irrational behavior. For years, her neighbors must have wondered about the things that she had dragged into her home. Therefore, we wanted to sneak in now and take a quiet survey of her German nest. Since she could crash stone walls with her delicate bullhead, we relented, and the three of us drove to her apartment.
Muggy heat and gloom filled our car, and we spoke very little. We walked up one flight of stairs, where Ma fumbled for the right key among a messy bundle of strings, keys and safety pins. I noticed that there was no obstruction in the lock as she had claimed. When she opened the door an intensely repugnant musty odor rolled over us from the dark vestibule. I held my breath, because it was hard to breathe in hell, and Siggi cussed while stepping back out. He had always treated his body with great care. However, it had always been easier for us to soothe our bodies than our souls.
"Open the windows," he exclaimed.
I groped for a light switch and flipped it on, but the power had been shut off years ago. This was the first time that I had been here, because Ma had moved to this apartment after my last visit. In the sweltering darkness I tried to push open the door to the first cell of mother’s hell.
What I saw was worse than I had anticipated. The entire room was filled with dark gloom. It was a tangled sculpture created by a tormented mind. The core of a frozen tornado. Clutter hurled against the walls, vortexing up to the ceilings. Boxes, bike wheels, lamps, newspapers and clothing. There were hundreds of objects mangled in a tomb-like atmosphere. I climbed through the vortex, bored my way to the window that was hidden on the far side behind a moth-eaten blanket. I opened it as far as I could. Barely breathing, I struggled to the next room to open another hole to the world. Though sweating, I was unaware of my physical discomfort, because the heat, mustiness and motherly creations had numbed my mind.
As I groped around, I realized that she had not lived here for many years, because all of the kitchen and bathroom fixtures were totally buried as well. I looked for artifacts from my youth such as drawings, toys, school papers and books. Of the thousands of objects in Ma’s shrine I recognized only the rounded top corner of an imbedded old wardrobe. Two mattresses were stacked on top of it, wedged between it and the ceiling.
My long-forgotten feeling of shame and disgust intensified. Once more I had that sinking feeling in my heart and belly. As I stumbled back out of the apartment, Siggi came back up the staircase. I exhaled and inhaled deeply.
"Did you open some windows?" he asked me.
"Two of them, not very far. Too much junk in the way," I responded.
"You better let this place air out before you get sick," Siggi admonished me. Then he said, "What is causing that stink?"
"Smells like mothballs, mouse seasoning and mother’s armpits to me," I responded.
Courageously, I ventured back in to explore our catacombs. Siggi followed. Ma was wedged in the tangle of her dominion, lost in thought, scrutinizing some papers and was unaware of us. Her face was serious, the way I remembered it from my childhood, when I had sometimes asked her: "Ma, why do you look so sad?"
"Little bird, I will explain when you’re older," she had always answered.
"Where are the court documents?" I startled her.
"In that cupboard," she responded, pointing to one side.
I had to move clutter to get to a dining room cabinet, thereby causing dust to rise to enhance hell’s miasma. Its first drawer contained only plastic flowers. I thought this to be odd, because I had never seen such in this land before. There was no plastic on the graves or in the many window flower boxes of the homes. Ma had saved many old newspapers, to be read again some day, to refresh the ammunition for Ma’s admonitions.
I lost hope that I would find what I came here for. It would take days of hard work to bore through this mother lode, to discover the items that were deposited there. Siggi and I could heave stuff out of the window into a dumpster, while we kept hidden inside. But Ma would never permit this and scream hysterically. Furthermore, it was muggy and hot, and I did not have the heart to sever Ma from her precious possessions. They belonged to her. They belonged to me.
Quietly the three of us riffled through separate graves. I crawled and climbed around, sometimes having to stoop to clear the ceiling. I had to balance on broom handles, coffeepots and many other unusual objects. I did find something worthwhile, a bundle of new toothbrushes still in their original wrappings and put them into my pocket. When Ma came to the entrance of my tomb, I tossed them to her, while saying, "Here, you wanted some toothbrushes."
She dismissed me with a disgruntled wave and did not take them.
The discomfort of hell soon drove us back to our rental car, and I instinctively scanned the windows around us. My long forgotten desire to be invisible overcame me again. I knew that all of the world’s eyes were upon us, because I could feel their mockery.
Because I could not have a focused conversation with Ma, it was all the more important for me to find the court documents. After our unsuccessful exploratory expedition, I tried to dispel my gloom with objective thoughts, while the three of us silently returned to Moehlin, where we left Ma with Franz without a goodbye.
* * *
The hot, muggy days passed, while Siggi and I drove around the region where we were born. We had come to tour and sightsee, as well as to visit relatives in Germany and Switzerland. But we could not leave the place that oppressed us, the grave of our souls.
This is my home! There has to be a mother, there has to be a father! Maybe we could be reborn. We stopped to visit many of the beautiful churches, to find relief inside from the humid heat and to admire their treasures. Many of them were unlocked every day, and even when no one was present. This impressed me greatly.
"In America it would not be possible to keep a church unlocked," Siggi said to me. "They would be vandalized within hours or days," he continued.
"Why would anyone do that? You and I never even thought of destroying anything. Experts would agree that we could be justified to rape, pillage and murder," I said.
"Yea, shall we start right now? With our ol’ lawyers?" Siggi replied.
"If we get caught, they will defend us by claiming that we made mistakes. We could whine about our rotten childhood."
I continued, "We would get pampered and become famous with front page publicity. The only thing I ever destroyed intentionally was the antenna on your father’s car. I was mad and took a swipe at it. Broke it off. Even felt guilty then."
For dinner Siggi and I often returned to the same restaurant in the Black Forest, because it was cooler there, with less air and noise pollution. We needed peace. Often we had to wait a long time for custom-prepared meals. Sometimes we spoke little and at other times we discussed our past at great length. We even joked about it. We had the weirdest and funniest parents on earth. Two fools who should have been born two days earlier, on April Fools Day.
"What shall we do about your mother’s junk?" I questioned Siggi.
"That’s not my problem. I’ve come to realize that for most of my life your parents have burdened me. And this junk of your mother. I’ve told her many times that she valued it more than her children. Therefore I have no responsibility to clean it up," Siggi answered.
"We don’t have parents. We are only by-products of their encounters," I responded. "There are a few things I want from her apartment."
"Ma said that she had three thousand marks in there," Siggi returned.
"Could we rent a dumpster. Park it below the window, and just throw her stuff into it?"
"We could. But can you?"
"I am not sure, it would be too depressing. And it is so hot and stinky in there."
We could not throw out the treasures of our mother. We could not throw out the presently biggest burden in our lives.
"The social welfare office provided this apartment. They helped with her creation. Let them clean it out," suggested Siggi.
"Yeah, but the shame," I replied. "All I want is those court documents. Otherwise, why did I travel so far? I cannot stand to visit Ma for very long, even though I want to. I even want to hug her to help heal pain. Even these beautiful villages are depressing. I will have to return to the States and look at ugly shacks. I read that in my state as many as one out of eight people live in mobile homes."
Siggi replied: "I read many years ago that Idaho had more millionaires per capita than any other state. So far we have not seen a single trailer house or "double-wide" here. Some of these houses are hundreds of years old. And still look new. Even the new ones will last that long."
As far as we could tell, the land of our birth had been changing fast, and for the better. Judging by the homes and yards, it was difficult to distinguish between the rich and the poor neighborhoods. Even the entrance doors of homes were pieces of art. Many of them were handcrafted from wrought iron, hammered or cast metal, oak or stained glass. For example, the entrance door to a village in-home restaurant that was made of a one-inch thick tempered glass panel set behind a heavy, hand-forged, ornamental wrought iron grille.
I noticed that the seemingly oversized rain gutters and downspouts on the houses were made of copper. This prompted us to find the cheapest ones, so we kept looking for them as we drove around. We thought that we had finally found, such but on closer inspection discovered that these downspouts were not made of plastic, iron or aluminum. They were made of welded stainless steel.
"These people have pride. They build everything to last a thousand years," Siggi said to me.
"But in America we have Desert Sky Mobile Home Estates, with flags flying. Here there are no estates," I replied sarcastically. "But things are not so rosy here either."
"What do you mean? Look around you. Where can you find so much beauty in America?"
"Mostly with the rich, mostly in nature. But remember what got us to America," I said to him.
Siggi would not acknowledge problems in Germany, and his temper rose instantly. The Rheinfelden newspaper was publishing a lot about pollution in this region. We had looked at an area that was located next to the house of our friend, Juergen, where Siggi and I had camped in his backyard as children. This half-block was now cordoned off, and no one was allowed to enter. Its soil was contaminated with dioxin to a depth of more than one hundred eighty feet and would be very expensive to process.
This one block area was now identified as the most dioxin-polluted site in the world. During the reconstruction after WWII, the bomb craters around Rheinfelden had been filled with the toxic waste from the factories. Later I would learn from a website in Switzerland that such waste had been used to remodel the entire townscape until well into the seventies. Seemingly only now was this evil deed being publicized. I would have to be paid at least fifteen dollars and twenty-five cents before I would pollute the earth in such a fashion!
Juergen’s backyard was also the place where someone had stolen our new tent in the middle of the night. It was to be our haven away from our hot attic during the warm summer nights. We also had kept our bedding and our beebee gun in it, along with a few other belongings. Late one night, we had heard the cracking of the tiny grenades that children threw during celebrations. Wrapped in paper, these blew up on impact. Crack. Crack. We had crawled out of our tent with our beebee gun and had found no one outside, but I had yelled, "Shoot whoever is hiding out there." I had wanted to intimidate whoever was there, so that he would leave us in peace.
The next night it had rained, so Siggi and I had stayed in our batty attic but had left our tent in place. During that night Juergen’s mother thought that she had heard the firecrackers again, and the following morning our tent and its content was gone.
* * *
While Siggi and I waited for our meals to arrive, we studied the long menu of our favorite country restaurant. It was always quiet here. There was very rarely any background music playing in stores, restaurants and other public places. Therefore, one was able to think more clearly and converse more easily.
Sometimes deep thinking can be even be productive.
After we enjoyed a delicious dinner, I said to my brother, "I am going to find those divorce documents."
We had kept Ma’s keys from our first safari to her apartment. They were a messy collection of every type, including ancient big skeleton keys. It had taken Siggi and me several days to regain our emotional stamina to return there, and we would do so several more times during our sojourn here. We dug around in her helter-skelter, but only for short periods. I found a plastic bag containing glossy porno magazines. I scanned the naked couples in wonderfully interlocking and contorted positions and deducted that Ma had probably found this literature in her classy garbage mines.
I pulled out an egg carton filled with black, shriveled fruit from under a cupboard. It was garnished with mouse droppings, the inescapable spicing from my slavery days. There was an unopened carton of ancient orange juice and other exotic delicacies. Finally, I discovered a foot-thick bundle wrapped in a newspaper dated 1952, the year Pa received a divorce. I determined that this could be some of the documentation that I wanted and placed them into a bright-yellow backpack I found nearby.
"Siggi, I found something. Let’s go."
We drove into a forest, parked our car, and opened the rucksack to inspect our find. A musty odor escaped from the folders that mostly contained letters written by our parents, including a few from relatives and some official documents. It was obvious that these files were prepared as evidence for a judge. One of these folders contained only love letters to our mother during the years Adolf Hitler came into power. Quietly we studied our newly-discovered family history in the darkening forest. We knew very little about it and were anxious to learn more.
I was disappointed that most of the official papers were missing. There would have to be hundreds of documents generated during the subsequent fourteen, fifteen or more years of court activities. Therefore, we returned a few more times to Ma’s apartment to find additional court files but without success. The biggest reason for this was that we could not bring ourselves to dwell in Ma’s clutter long enough. Like workers handling hazardous materials, we limited our exposure to keep within reasonable health guidelines. Furthermore, Siggi and I never threw out one single item, leaving it all behind in forgotten silence.
* * *
Before we flew back to America, we returned Ma’s keys to her. We arrived at her place in Moehlin at about eleven fifteen. Siggi stayed in our car, because he could not face his mother again. A long lost battered son could not face his battered mother anymore. I still wanted to talk with her at great length, and also assure her that I was not bitter about what she, Pa and so many others had done to my little brother and me.
At one time Ma had written that, "What we will never forgive is that the police never helped us when our ‘father’ wanted to kill us. Poor Ami has required years to overcome the consequences of this terrible intimidation."
With a mixture of bravado and trepidation, I entered Ma’s living room. Within minutes of my arrival, she realized that it was nearly eleven-thirty, lunchtime at the old age home.
Without any greetings, Ma accused me: "You came just during lunchtime so you would not have to stay very long."
"I did not realize that your lunch starts this early," I replied.
"I have to go now, or the Old Age Home will get mad with me because I’ve reserved lunch for today," Ma continued. "I could tell you many interesting stories. And you come just before lunch. Don’t you have a heart? Forty-two people who have tormented me are now dead, or very ill. Remember that, Ami."
Another familiar emotional bomb from our past hit me. Like so many times before, it destroyed all of my objective thoughts. I did not say, "Dear Mama, don’t worry, maybe I can eat there also."
Instead I blurted, "I’m leaving. Good bye."
"Will you take this to the city hall in Rheinfelden?" she asked me, while handing me a sheet of paper. It appeared to be a completed form to reserve a place in a German old age home.
"No I won’t take it, but I will mail it for you and pay the postage."
Ma followed me out of the house, insisting that I take her form, but I obstinately refused. With a final wave of rejection, paper in hand, she shuffle-jogged down the sidewalk to her lunch. Her long white hair was fluttering about her battered skull. I watched her with great sadness. She never looked back and disappeared around the corner of a building. I resisted my urge to run after her. And hug her. But I was not even man enough to yell out that I loved her.
I wondered if I would ever see her again. Maybe only her dented skull? Maybe in heaven?
* * *
On my long flight back I wondered why I had taken this trip. I had found only a very small portion of the files that I wanted and had visited only a few relatives after Siggi already had returned to the States. For one long month we had been immersed in stifling heat and depressing gloom from our past. And worse, our visit with our mother had been a total disaster. Again. She had written us for help to clean out her apartment, so she "could die in peace." When we arrived there, she did not ask us to do so, and we had left it as we had found it.
* * *