Chapter 2 - War
from Herman's Memoir
Heroes from the Attic:
A Gripping True Story of Traumas and Triumphs
I was born six weeks after Hitler invaded Poland, six weeks after September 1, 1939. Ma would write me years later that she had begun squeezing me out at eight in the morning and was done by eight twenty. I could not wait to conquer the world, so I lowered my little head in order to attack quickly. She nicknamed me Ami, "friend" in the French language, and was so delirious about her squeezings that by ten she wrote her mother of the result. The result was I, a very hairy big baby. Years later she would write that for the next eighteen months I had pulled her bosom out of shape, and because of that I am again in super shape today. Thank you, dear Ma, for feeding me the real stuff and not questionable substitutes.
Siggi joined me in the center of the universe, the Thousand-Year Reich. He arrived two years later and two years into the bigger war after the big war that was to "end all wars." Sensible people do not make wars, or babies during wars, but the Fuehrer paid to produce, to produce cannon fodder. Our Pa needed relief; our Fuehrer into hell needed fodder. That is why we have Siggi.
Our family lived with Mr. Doebele in his apartment in Rheinfelden, Germany. It was the top floor of one of the four-story rowhouses that ringed the Adolf Hitler Square. Mr. Doebele suffered such severe tuberculosis that the hospital had dismissed him, because like so many in this land, he had become hopelessly useless.
The Square was the center of the city, the hub from which five streets radiated like the spokes of a wheel. Our rowhouse was located on a corner, where a spoke joined this hub. It was built of concrete and clay blocks and was finished with stucco like all the others. Its Mansard roof faced south and west to absorb the sun’s rays to boil us during summer. But I cooked too slowly, so Ma placed my crib on the metal-covered bottom of the window recess. With me in it. High above the Square, I burned and blistered so well that Ma would write me years later:
"…people said ‘look at that brown baby,’" and "‘…he looks like a high-mountain babe.’"
Strangely, I suffered a heatstroke. My first big stroke of luck in life. Ma carried me to a nearby doctor who saved my life. I do not remember and did not ask her, but she also would write me in another letter that she had heard our neighbors say:
"Katje walks around the city with a dead baby."
She wrote me that she walked around town with a dead baby. That dead baby was I. Maybe I am weird, but I would not have told this to anyone and certainly not to the "dead baby."
I was cooked, nearly a goner.
Ma was inventive. She also hung me from the ceiling in a shopping net, such as abnormal people used for toting groceries. I cured like a ham, and while I cured I dripped a lot of stuff. Cleverly she placed newspapers on the floor to catch my drippings. This arrangement was better than throwing darts at the portraits of the Fuehrer and his henchmen. I could not see what I hit, but over time, I added a lot to the stinky propaganda in these papers.
Mr. Doebele was counting his days, because his illness had reduced him to a skeleton. He was in great pain and could not sleep. It was hot and Siggi and I also disturbed him with our joie-de-vivre, because it was a screaming lot of fun to be there. Since Mr. Doebele insisted that we leave during the daytime so he could have peace, Ma had to store us in a kindergarten.
Pa wrote Ma after the war, when he did not love her anymore, about her extortion to get him to resign from the church. He also mentioned something about diapers in an aluminum cook pot, and that she left the same unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink. For weeks she licked them, when she should have washed them, and food stuck to them for days. They discovered that they were not compatible, because he did not like the same licked dishes in the sink, while she did not mind having licked anywhere. Since he did not like to lick or wash them either, they found it difficult to resolve this intolerable situation.
They also seemed to have had trouble resolving what to do with Siggi and me.
Ma would write to me:
"Siggi was one and one-half years old (!) and I walked with you to see Sister Annie at the kindergarten at the Evangelical Church. I begged her to let you stay outside in the garden if there were no room for you. Heartlessly, that woman turned us away. I cried until we got back home."
Maybe there was no room for us, because Ma had coerced her sparring partner, Herbert, who also happened to be our father, Siggi’s and mine, to cancel our church membership early in their marriage
She also wrote:
"At that time I was still stupid and had a prejudice against the Catholics. I believe they would have let you stay in their kindergarten."
In desperation she took us to the NSV, a Nazi organization, which took us in. Its kindergarten was furthest from the aluminum and dynamite factories, and Ma reasoned that since the war was rumbling closer we could become collateral damage during bombing raids. In this kindergarten I became hot, raspberry red and began to boil again. So Ma kept me home from this toddlers’ warehouse, much to the annoyance of Mr. Doebele.
Ma would write me:
"…Old Dr. Bork was in charge of the kindergarten. I asked him every day, for eight days, to examine you. Every day he said that tomorrow Ami will be able to return to the kindergarten and that my thermometer was defective. You had a rash and kept clutching your ear. I asked him to sign you over to the hospital, which he finally did eight days later."
Ma could not muster someone with a car until late that evening to drive us to the hospital in Loerrach, because our Fuehrer had confiscated many private vehicles to help enlarge, or to destroy, his Reich. At the junction of two highways a Nazi guard stopped us. Fear and paranoia permeated the Fatherland. Blood covered the street, Dr. Wehrle’s blood. He had passed through this checkpoint several times that day and each time had shown his identification card. On his last trip through he sped past the sentry without doing so, in order to help with the birth of another cannonball baby. Dutifully protecting his Fatherland, a guard had shot him.
Now a sentry would not let us pass, but Ma insisted that I was very ill. He searched our vehicle, babies must be checked. They could be enemy agents. Ma became hysterical and handed him her fiery red offspring, which convinced the astute soldier that I was indeed very hopeless, and therefore, let us pass so I could be delivered to the hospital.
I continued to pull my right ear but it would not come off. My screaming pain would not leave me.
Dr. Heineman informed Ma that I had a very severe middle ear infection. Since its gooey pus was separated from my brain only by eggshell-thin bone, he had to operate immediately or in a day or two I would be dead.
Had I foreseen the next two dozen years of my life, I would have insisted on that option.
Ma wanted to take me to the hospital in Freiburg because of its reputation, but Dr. Heineman had to carve on me immediately to save my life. He removed everything that was beyond repair, including part of my skull, leaving a shrivelly deep hole behind a customized ear. To scoop and sculpt me the doctor used a saws, knives, needles and pliers. Even so, I still could be an egghead, because he did not crack my eggshell.
I was too young to realize that I was now different and not just a run-of-the-mill production like most other people. Now that I was defective my life was at risk, because Nazis, National Socialists, sooner or later destroyed imperfect bodies and imperfect minds. And perfect bodies and perfect minds if they disagreed with Nazi doctrines. Euthanasia was common under the Hitler regime. It was one reason why people were afraid to speak out or were in deep denial that this was possible.
In other words, this was a wonderful time and a wonderful place for Siggi and me to arrive on this earth, to be among a wonderful people. But we were too young to know this yet.
* * *
After Operation Scoop the Goo, to prevent my odorous death, Dr. Heineman could not guarantee my life nor give Ma much hope. Siggi, craving attention in the sibling rivalry game, followed my leadership to infect an ear or two and joined me in the hospital. Ma worried so much that she turned yellow with jaundice and joined us in the hospital to help build a more colorful family. My little brother remained there for three weeks, while I lingered for more than six. Probably because of allergic reactions, my body sprouted ornamental sores everywhere. Ma would write me years later that I became moist and yellow and looked as if I had been rolled up in one of those German pan-sized pancakes.
Toward the end of my hospital stay, a girl with exotic manners in the bed next to me contorted her face into various idiotic expressions. I watched her with great interest and imitated her. Or maybe I became an authentic exotic also. We proudly played our faces to impress big people, who worried that my latest character building experience had damaged my brain.
Ma would write me that Dr. Heineman reinforced this by telling her:
"When I picked up Ami this morning, to stand him up, he fell over. There is something wrong with him. And always will be."
My doctor said that there will always be something wrong with me. This may be the case, but no one could foresee that someday I would also be blessed far beyond anyone’s expectations.
I lost one ear and received more damage to my already sun-scorched soul. No one was sure if I actually had become mentally or physically more defective from this latest episode. However, after weeks of rehabilitation I learned to walk again and began to act normally, although sluggishly.
After we recovered, we returned home to Mr. Doebele’s apartment. Later, under the threat of bullets and other high-speed objects, Ma bicycled to Saeckingen, to the district office of the NSV to claim a reward for my damaged head. Someone told her that there was insurance for cases such as mine, and that I could receive payments until I died.
I could have become a socialism-damaged socialist on the entitlement side, but Pa forbade Ma to make such a claim on my behalf. Like most everyone in the Fatherland he was afraid of Nazi programs. One program almost devoured him while he was nursing glasses of wine in a café, where he carelessly proclaimed that he did not like the designs of Adolf Hitler, who aspired to be an amateur architect. Pa’s assessment conflicted with politically-ness, so the Gestapo came to lock him up overnight, to teach him respect for his leader.
Ma reminded Pa later in a letter:
"…before it was too late I wanted to sue the NSV and you scared rabbit could not bear this. Ami would have surely received a good sum for the loss of his ear but today it is too late."
Ma wanted to know if I would be able to go swimming. Could water in my ear cause infections in my brain? Instead of trying it out by pouring a liter into my head, to see what bubbled back out, she bicycled to Dr. Heineman in Loerrach with Siggi and me. Siggi sat in front and I on the luggage rack behind her behind.
She asked the doctor: "Can Ami go swimming?"
"I do not know," he said.
This could have been the trip that someone from Loerrach would tell me about years later. She told me that the three of us had stopped at her house to warm up, because Siggi and I were shivering and blue. Therefore, her family had thought that our mother was crazy. Even so, blue is still my favorite color, and I still love the outdoors, the sun and high places.
* * *
Although Pa was not visiting brothels, he said, he kept his wedding ring in his billfold and carried abortion medicine for emergencies whenever he traveled. Ma reminded him in a letter:
"A person, who goes on trips with Dr. Lippel’s prescriptions, and remembers and dreams about miscarriages by the railroad embankment, can never stay calm…
"…if you knew about the efforts I made to change the locks, so they could not get in! But you with your frivolous friendship with the baker’s daughters have made a mess and I am supposed to take it."
When I asked Ma about our father’s fornicating habits, she wrote back:
"One of the baker's daughters was on a train and had to pull the emergency brake so she could get off. She then had a miscarriage by the railroad track, by him, as he explained it to me himself."
Pa was not only afraid of creating pregnancies and acquiring infections but also of being drafted into the military. Naturally, he was inducted and served for fourteen months. After he survived the raid on Dieppe, he feigned an illness that could not be verified with certainty. Wisely he told Ma that it was better to live for his country than to die for it. He feigned severe lumbago and checked into a military hospital, where he was bundled in cotton blankets to ease his phantom pain. While there, he yearned for his years in technical college with its free-flowing women, wine and beer. He had been known there as the "Racing Pencil," because he had developed and drafted designs faster than anyone else. He had managed this even though, or because, he would show up in his classes pickled with alcohol. His professor had asked him how he could be so talented when he was so often plastered.
While in the hospital, Pa learned of an opportunity that he thought would keep him out of further battles. As an architectural engineer he could help rebuild conquered France and avoid encounters with Ivan, Tommy and Ami, i.e., the Russians, English and Americans. He applied at the Organization Todt and was appointed Chief of Reconstruction for Alsace-Lorraine, the area west of the Black Forest across the Rhine River that had been a historical bouncing ball between the French and the Germans.
Eventually Pa was transferred to Regensburg to work with the Messerschmidt factories. We moved there also and shortly thereafter to neighboring Regenstauf. But not long after that, our apartment was bombed, so we moved to the village of Diesenbach, where we resided in the dance hall of a beer garden restaurant. Allied bombings were causing a severe housing shortage, even though there were not as many live people as before.
The restaurant owner, Mr. Pirzer, was an excellent cook, and this was the first time that Siggi and I ate hot meals, because Ma never cooked. "Cooking destroys vitamins," she told people for years. Mr. Pirzer’s delicious food made such an impression that I still remember some of it. I have not had these dishes since we moved away from Bavaria in 1945, tasty salty balls of grated potatoes and pasta pouches with mouth-watering fillings. These had been the only standard and cooked meals for Siggi and me, and maybe that is why I remember them so well, because years of uniquely rotten, immune system energizing diets were to follow.
* * *
The war was fully upon us.
Whenever an air raid warning sounded, we ran or bicycled to a beer cellar cave in Regentstauf and remained there until after the all clear signal. A heavy door, like a castle gate, protected its entrance. Sometimes we also had to flee into the cellar of our restaurant home, because there was too little time to get to more secure locations. I still remember the defensive equipment in our hallway and basement: tubs and buckets full of sand and water, shovels and hand pumps, two kinds of gas masks, one for adults and one for children. Siggi and I would blew vigorously into our masks to cause their flat rubber nose valves to snore like giants.
I remember once running with Ma past a house from whence a woman carrying two flowerpots came screaming, "a fire-bomb hit my house." We did not care that much about flowers and kept running to a hellhole underground. When the sirens announced the end of the bombing, we returned to a conflagration in which the flowerpot-less house was also burning down.
At one time, in the corner of the yellow stucco walls of Pirzers’ restaurant I created my own flames, when I lit some matches. Therefore, Ma showed me off by baring my butt in public, did not wash me, but licked me instead with a whip. Maybe that is why I remember this so well, because years of whipping were to follow. Everyone else seemed to be allowed to burn whole cities, but I was not allowed to make my own little fire. I could not understand this.
Whenever I heard air raid sirens, but only from my left, I started screaming. One day, after they announced the end of terror, Our Trio, Ma, Siggi and I, emerged from the earth and walked back to our dance hall home. A single plane appeared over the trees and swooped down on us. Ma would write me years later that she had screamed: "Run, scatter, run!" She wanted us to disperse so we would not present a single target. I ran unto the steel bridge which we were about to cross, while invisible objects were briefly zinging off its structure.
Our thrills did not only come from the sky but also from the ground, mostly as unfriendly and sometimes as friendly fire. While I was playing on the street, two men walked by and one of them said to me:
"Come here. Let me cut off your ears!"
He pulled out a pocketknife, folded out a blade, tested its edge with an expert thumb, and glanced at me with an evilly fiery eye. I froze in place, trembling, stammering: "Dddddd … ddd … ddon’t …" I was already earless enough and could not let him make a silk purse out of me. Screaming with angst in my soul and pee in my pants, the little ham I was, I dashed home, where I buried my snout in Ma’s skirt to draw comfort from the familiar scent therein.
* * *
During the Winter of 1945, near the climax of the war in Germany, when our Fuehrer courageously holed up in an underground bunker in Berlin, little Siggi and I courageously moved into the above ground children’s clinic in Regensburg, because we had diphtheria. This illness makes breathing difficult and can damage organs. And kill people, especially because we had no antibiotics.
During our microbial tournament, Siggi and I stoked hot fires within us to burn up diphtheria bacteria. I still have two invoices for our hospital stay that prove that this deadly illness might have saved us from a certain fiery death, because during that time our apartment went up in flames. However, while we fought to keep alive, our underground leader would soon blow away his own.
One day, after we had returned from the clinic to our beerhall home, I was eating a pancake with applesauce, sweet applesauce. Suddenly air raid sirens began to scream, advertising another ripple on our river of life. Applesauce. There was terror in applesauce and I could not eat it again for decades. I did not know what it was, its flavor or texture. My liking of apple pie would someday even help me become a good American.
However, during most of my early life I would eat almost everything else, from animal guts retrieved from manure to stale cattle feed with rodent doodoo, because such food would help keep me alive and even quite healthy.
My mayhem ghost also caused me to develop abnormally in that I cannot watch war movies. I find exploding humans and screaming sirens deeply saddening, instead of uplifting like this seems to be for many people, because they play games of destruction on video, even to the point of suffering seizures.
Hard as I have tried, I have not always been able to avoid this mayhem ghost that could torture me at unexpected times. For example, my wife and I would one day watch Not Without My Daughter in a movie theater. I had not remembered my mayhem ghost since my first war and forgot that it existed. This movie was based on the true story about an American girl who married an Iranian boy, and I did not expect to be instilled with the terror of air raid sirens in this movie. This brought out my mayhem ghost. Nor did it occur to me that after so many years the siren’s wail would still bother me.
I forced myself to remain in the middle of the crowded theatre to discover how intense the pain in my soul could get and try to slay this ghost. I had to convince myself that it was only a ghost, and that I had nothing to fear. It was only a distant memory of my childhood survivor reality shows.
Upon leaving the theater I burst out sobbing uncontrollably. A fist gripped my heart, and I wanted to rip it out, so that it would not hurt anymore. Squirting tears, gasping for air, I tried to explain to my worried wife that I was all right.
"I’m OK, sob, FlowerBear, sob, I’m just entertaining these people. Baahhhh. In case they found the movie boring. Bahhh."
That is what I would have said, had my joking brain cells not been paralyzed by the wail of siren.
* * *
When our American liberators began marching into Diesenbach, its citizens must have felt immense relief. They replaced all formerly required Nazi flags with white sheets and towels, symbols of surrender. Several American soldiers walked up to the fence of our restaurant garden, where Siggi and I were playing. One of them, with the whitest teeth gleaming in the blackest face, gave us each an orange.
Since the American soldiers were very kind to us and also ended our tyranny, Siggi and I developed a great liking for them. And so did Pa and Ma but also for other reasons. Pa wanted to get rid of Ma, but Ma did not want to lose Pa. A few years hence, he would write to his lawyer that he had found a legal basis for divorce. He had surprised Ma, his sparring partner, at two in the morning, being squeezed in the arms of an "American bull." Instead of rescuing her from his grip, Pa was delighted and hoped that she might marry him and move to America with Siggi and me.
I do not know when Ma and Pa began another war, their private little Progenitors’ War. But Ma told Pa that she wanted to escape the post-war chaos in Germany, the destruction of almost everything. In stark contrast, Pa told Ma he wanted to adopt a young medical student. She could clean and cook, and he promised not to have sex with her. His promise is documented in letters that our parents wrote each other during their periods of separation, and which I would exhume many years later from their uniquely decorated tomb, our mother’s apartment.
The intense discord with her husband caused Ma to leave Bavaria and return to the place of her birth, to live with her mother and sister in North Germany. Pa stayed behind, lonely with only a maid and a surplus of women. After he had been "de-nazified" by the Allies, he became employed to inventory the remains of the Messerschmidt factory in Bavaria.
Several months after the official end of World War II in Europe, on the tenth of September, 1945, Our Trio lingered by a railroad track for many hours with hundreds of people, waiting for a train to arrive. There were no schedules, because of track damage and personnel, fuel and equipment shortages. Pa was not there to see us off, to tell us that he loved us, to squeeze and hug us, to assure us that he would soon join us again.
Our railroad scene was much like in the movie Schindler’s List. The huge steam locomotive and boxcars were all sooty black to befit the mood of the country. Ma, while carrying Siggi in her arms, pushed me through the crowd. She lifted us into a boxcar and climbed into it herself. (Somewhat like this) When it became jammed with people that down on the straw-covered floor, two men pulled our door shut and locked it. I remember pounding and shouting on the outside for us to open up again. I heard someone explain to the outsiders that our box was already full of children that had lost their parents.
Our route mostly followed the Rhine River to the North Sea. We traveled most of our thousand-kilometer journey in crowded boxcars, where people survived on what little food they carried with them. They peed into pots and they peed into pans, and when Siggi and I had to pee, Ma held up our dented aluminum can. I was old enough to be embarrassed exposing my tender organ of the pubic to the public. To avoid this, I squeezed my muscles to hold back the flow. I squirmed around to postpone the inevitable, often until it was too late.
Whenever our train stopped, travelers disposed of gallons of urine. Some of them hurried off to find private places for further hygiene and to fill containers with drinking water. They bought or bartered items being hawked on the station platforms, and this was the usual routine during most of our stops. Along the way, Ma asked a one-legged stranger on crutches to help her struggle our ninety-kilo wicker trunk across several tracks to switch us to a mostly empty coal train.
While sitting on our trunk, we were able to see over the sides of our coal car. We were alone now but were far less comfortable, because sooty smoke and coal dust buffeted us to burn our eyes and choke our lungs.
* * *
At the ages of three and five, Siggi and I did not realize that we had lived all of our lives in a war, the most devastating war in history. Traveling through Germany gave us a close-up view of its destruction. Whole cities had been bombed and burned into black, jagged gravestones rising from masonry rubble; grim reminders of our recent past to be remembered forever. Or to be forgotten.
We had been terrified in Diesenbach watching a train across the river explode from one end to the other. Ma would write me years later, confirming my memories, that she had thought that this had been a surprise air raid, and therefore, ran with Siggi and me to the nearby forest for cover. Along the way, soldiers watching from a doorway informed us that this was not a bombing raid but a sabotaged munitions train.
Siggi and I were too young to understand the reasons for the violence and destruction around us, to comprehend the purpose of our frequent moving from here to there, from hither and yon and back. We always had stayed tethered to Ma, because she was our only comfort.
During the few times that we had been with our father, I felt uneasy with him. He had taken me bathing naked in the Regen River and tried to dip me under. Pa had found my screaming amusing, because he had a smirk on his face, and I did not like it. I stopped screaming momentarily when a partial man struggled out of the water before us. His arms were more or less missing and one leg had departed as well. Now I was certain that it was dangerous to go swimming and continued to scream until I could draw no more air.
No, Pa could not be trusted. Once he had walked with me into the forest to look at an anti-aircraft cannon that had been blown apart by the Allies. There were big holes in the ground and bodies, and parts of bodies, hanging in trees and strewn all around.
"Don’t cry, Ami," Pa soothed me, "they can’t hurt you. It is all over now." Therefore, our lives could only get better!
* * *