Hannah Blog

April 15, 2008

Autobiography of an Immigrant Child–Introduction

Filed under: Autobiography,Notes from the Household — hannah @ 8:50 am

Although I have been waiting over forty years for my mother to die, this story is not about my relationship with her, except when it seems useful to explain why my perceptions are so different from hers. We are both immigrants. However, while my mother came to America from Germany after World War II in order to escape a marriage that had served its purpose–to legitimize the conception and birth of a child–my arrival differed from that of native born children only in that, having been brought into a strange place somewhat later, I was more consciously aware of the experience.


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On the other hand, by the age of eight I had already experienced so many changes that a strange environment had come to seem almost routine. But, before I address the specifics of that experience, I should probably provide a brief explanation of how, according to the recollections of my parents, I came to be. It is relevant because while my coming to America after World War II was not a consequence of that conflict, it was related. Indeed, had there been no war, I might never have come to be. For, the primary reason why my mother, who had transformed herself from a ballet dancer with the Munich Opera into the owner of a dressmaking business, decided at the age of thirty-three that she wanted a husband and a child, was because her younger brother, an Alpine Ranger, on whom she relied for emotional and psychological support, had been killed in a very early engagement of the developing conflict. With his death and the closing of Germany’s borders she was bereft of her brother’s affection, as well as their plans to follow in the footsteps of a number of aunts and uncles who had emigrated to the United States. So, according to my father’s recollections and interpretations, she closed up shop, went on vacation, met and married my father within a month and gave birth to me nine months later in Aachen, my father’s home, while he served in the Army into which he had been drafted in spite of the fact that he was already 38 years old.

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Consequently, while I suppose we were living on my father’s military pay, my first few months were punctuated by being bombarded and most nights were spent in the basement until my mother decided it wasn’t worth dying for Hitler and removed us from Aachen, in the industrial Rhineland, to a less vulnerable resort area in the Austrian Alps. Then, when whatever permit she required to stay there expired, she found lodgings for us in an out-building on an Alpine farm–two rooms above a chicken coop, bake-oven and wash-house that were not being used because the farmer’s parents, for whom they were intended when the son came of age, had already died. Years later, when I read HEIDI and then saw the movie, the story seemed almost familiar.

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The farm was about as far up in the Alpine foot-hills as permanent settlements could be sustained–at the end of a dirt track for horse-drawn carts or sleds, a twenty-minute walk from the nearest hamlet and two hours from the nearest town. There was no running water; no electricity. But the privy was actually attached to the house, at the end of a veranda on the second floor–pleasantly breezy in the summer but too cold to use in winter.

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I suspect that the reason the farmer and his wife were agreeable to having us move into this house was because the space was not being used and, since they had only one son of their own and an adopted girl (who later became young farmer’s wife), an extra hand to bring in the harvest and help with the slaughter of pigs and goats probably seemed a good idea. Besides, the turmoil of war had already resulted in the accumulation of a great store of furs and yard goods, not to mention jewelry and such, which the farmer’s wife had ta when we finally arrived in Munich the next morning, or, more precisely, when the boxcar had been halted for an extraordinarily long time and someone finally thought to slide open the entrance and we discovered ourselves in a landscape of rubble as far as the eye could see (not unlike what the South Bronx looks like after decades of deterioration), there was nothing to do but unload all that baggage at the side of the track and leave it until some transport could be arranged. And it all stayed just where she left it, perhaps because most of the containers were too large for one person to carry off.

So, we set off on foot to search for two of my mother’s friends (one being my godmother) who had sat out the war in Munich. Though their house was still standing, the street-side wall was propped up with a telephone pole and an official sign gave notice that the building was unsafe for human habitation. (Obviously, even total military defeat had not succeeded in completely extinguishing the bureaucratic routine). Nevertheless, being a normal child attracted to buttons, I insisted on pushing what turned out to be a doorbell. As a result of which my nominal godmother stepped out onto a small verandah, not unlike one of those figures emerging from a weathervane or musical clock, and chided us for having taken so long to arrive. Since they were just two single women occupying a full two story house, they were eager to share their quarters–cracked walls, missing windows, inoperative plumbing and heating system, notwithstanding–with friends, rather than some displaced persons from the Eastern regions.

As I had on the farm, I was able to make some small contributions to the maintenance of the household we set up. I collected cigarette butts discarded by the American soldiers in the streets, stripped them, and presented the tobacco as birthday and Christmas tokens to the ladies. I also spent many hours waiting in line to get the weekly milk and butter rations and, scrounging through the neighborhood rubble, even managed to find a chimney cap for a little coal stove vented through a boarded-up window. Then, having come down with a case of whooping cough that hung on for several months, I was dispatched to stay with my mother’s parents in a small town in the foothills of the German Alps. My grandfather had been transfered there at the beginning of the war (whether in spite of or because of his adherence to the Social Democratic Party, I don’t know) and continued in his employ as a bus driver for the Postal Service.

Perhaps because of his experience as a veteran on the First World War, my grandfather probably wanted and certainly benefited from his transfer out of Munich to this rural area. Not only were the village in the valley and the farms on the hillsides relatively safe from attack, but by providing transportation and delivering their mail and parcels my grandfather was able to maintain good relations with the farmers on his route and, in effect, bring home the bacon (and vegetables and butter and other farm produce) when, in the aftermath of the war, there was little if anything to buy in the markets. At least I suspect that’s how we came to have a five gallon crock full of eggs preserved in brine in our basement–eggs which proved to be a temptation that the refugees who had been quartered in the neighborhood school found impossible to resist and whose disappearance actually went unnoticed, until I reported that I had seen the school grounds littered with egg-shells. While my mother was both sorely distressed that our basement had been burgled and reconfirmed in her low opinion of the refugees, I confess to having felt some sense of importance as the bearer of information about an actual event. Besides, I was never particularly fond of the regional delicacies (Mehlspeisen) my mother concocted out of sugar, milk, flour and eggs. Nor was I particularly enthusiastic about the contents of the CARE packages that were sent to us under the auspices of some relatives in California. There was chocolate, which I didn’t like, and powdered eggs, which didn’t compare to the fresh ones in our basement, and coffee, tea and cigarettes which, except for the tea, probably ended up being bartered for more desirable commodities. While my mother never tired of explaining how much she and the German people suffered after the war because all the staples were rationed and in short supply, that was in large part because that’s what Americans wanted to hear. Certainly it was true that getting food was a complicated daily enterprise. However, as I was to discover years later, daily excursions to market were a well-established and even desirable aspect of middle-class life. In any case, my normal fare of some sort of milk porridge (wheat, rice or oatmeal) was invariable. As far as I was concerned, nothing that arrived in the CARE packages could make it more palatable.

What I did like to eat was the canned peas and carrots served up in the cafeteria at the American Army base where my father let me come with him to work from time to time. I’m not sure how my father managed to get a job repairing typewriters at the base. Before being drafted into the war affort he had been a traveling salesman. During the war, having been set to guard a warehouse somewhere in Austria or Italy, he surrendered to the allies as soon as he could and spent four years as an American prisoner of war in a camp in France. I don’t think he learned how to repair typewriters there; he did make a wonderful Christmas creche out of cardboard and wood and asserted ever after that he never felt so good since the mountain air seemed to have cured the chronic bronchitis he had always suffered from. In any case, once he was located through inquiries via Switzerland and my grandmother’s brother in California and finally returned to his family in Munich, having been a good prisoner may have served to recommend him for a job with the Americans. And so, sometimes when there was a school holiday and he had to work, my father took me with him to sit quietly in his workroom and then be rewarded with a hot lunch, especially all the peas and carrots that, for some reason, many of the other diners at the long tables didn’t seem to want. Later in the day, he might bring me an ice cream cone, as well. But it’s the peas and carrots that really stick in my mind. Probably because my enthusiasm made the Americans laugh.

* * * *

My father was a gregarious man; a natural born salesman who had little interest in belongings. While my mother no doubt found these character traits attractive when he brought her presents, to the extent that my father considered and dispensed her belongings as his own, his generosity became the bane of her existence. In addition, although my father seemed quite content with the living arrangements he encountered upon his return–sharing a house with two single ladies who, while they maintained their own servant and kitchen, were a constant presence–my father was not a lively companion when he returned home. Rather, he preferred to read the newspaper after dinner and frequently fell asleep in his chair while my mother continued to “work.” That is, he failed to satisfy my mother’s preference to be either entertained or engaged in some physical task. Reading was only allowed just before going to sleep in bed, because, as she claimed for the rest of her life, reading was forbidden to her by her mother when she was a child. But, while it was true that my mother’s formal education ended at about eighth grade, her father and my father, who both had less formal education than she, were avid readers and kept themselves informed about current events. And it was her mother who sent me a whole set of the German classics, including a translation of Shakespeare, one book at a time, and thus nurtured my love of books and reading. In any event, the indictment of my father as irresponsible and uncommunicative was not, in the long run, particularly persuasive. As long as her husband was missing or unaccounted for, my mother made every effort to locate his whereabouts, much as she kept track and finally retrieved those belongings she had hidden under the bake-oven on the farm. Indeed, just as she illegally crossed the border through the woods into Austria to collect the latter, she traveled without authorization on a series of freight trains to Aachen to discover if her father-in-law had heard from his son. However, not long after he had been recovered, which must have been about 1946, she began making plans to emigrate on the grounds that because my father refused to consider divorce and, under German law, she could not get one by herself, she had no option but to leave the country in order to protect her child from the negative influences of this man. That was just an excuse. It took many retellings of her version of the story of her life for me to realize that my mother’s regret at not having left Germany before the war was central to her subsequent behavior. Not only would her brother have survived, if he and she had left Germany before emigration visas were denied, but her continued interaction with her Jewish clients even after such commercial connections were banned by Hitler’s regime would have made more sense had I been able to realize that this behavior, obviously not based on any ethical commitment, arose from her perception that it might prove useful to assist these clients (by making sure that they would be well dressed as they removed themselves and their belongings from a country where they weren’t wanted), because being still able to do what she had been denied they might be in a position to repay her later. As, indeed, they did.

In other words, her firm conviction and oft repeated assertion that Jewish Germans needn’t have died, if they had just left the country when they were first ordered to do so, which I found particularly repulsive, arose not so much out of an unrealized anti-Semitic attitude (which she just as firmly denied) as a feeling of envy or jealous regret arising from her perception that those who died had failed to take advantage of an opportunity of which she had been deprived. In any event, although my father did seem responsible for making my mother cry from time to time, I never thought of him as anything but caring. Even when he took me to the Oktoberfest, a rather low-class event where people ate spit-roasted chicken with their fingers and drank lots of beer–reason enough for my mother to shun it–and bought himself a whole chicken of which I only got the bones to gnaw, I didn’t feel deprived. After all, what I wanted was a helium balloon and I got it and then when I let go of the string and the balloon flew off into the wild blue yonder, he got me another. And when that one went flat over night and the little wrinkled wad of rubber hanging from the end of the string I had tied to my wrist reduced me to tears, my father went back to the fairgrounds to get me still another balloon. Since I was already seven years old at the time–something I know as a matter of fact because the outing to the Oktoberfest was the subject of one of my weekly school essays–it would not have been unreasonable to suggest that the loss of the first balloon should teach me not to be careless. That would have been my mother’s response. On the other hand, she insisted for years after having conferred with my teacher that my description of having gotten the bones to gnaw, while my father ate the chicken, was evidence of my imagination and a talent for creative fiction. Perhaps my mother was reluctant to take my recitation at face value because, from her perspective, it presented my father in a poor light or, if it revealed resentment on my part, such emotions ought not to be made public. Why the teacher chose this particular essay to discuss with my mother I have no way of knowing, since my mother had a habit of never letting me know of such discussion until long after they happened. In this particular instance I learned of it in eighth grade when my mother allowed that my good grades in English were consistent with the linguistic talents I had displayed in second grade. Which suggests that perhaps that earlier discussion took place in the context of my having made good progress learning to read and write standard German, considering that I had learned to speak in the dialect of the Tyrolean farmers and thus had even more bad habits to overcome than the children who learned to speak in the Bavarian dialect. In any case, my mother’s assessment of my capabilities and interests had little relevance to what I could actually accomplish.

I only mention it as the basis of my ultimate conclusion that parental involvement in their children’s education is of dubious value. Although I certainly learned to read and write, as well as addition, subtraction and the multiplication tables up to twelve before the end of the second grade, I am not sure how much school I actually attended. For, in addition to the whooping cough, I caught the measles, the mumps and had to have my tonsils taken out. And each recuperation seemed to entail a visit with the grandparents once the symptoms were gone but the possibility of contagion still remained. It may well be that the adults in the house found my presence disruptive though I was quite content to spend long hours by myself in the walled garden, making mud pies and picking the strawberries, currants, gooseberries, raspberries and cherries that the birds didn’t get first. In any case, I have no memory of any outings as a family. Rather, any excursions seemed more designed to get me out of somebody’s way. Except for that one time when my mother took me to a performance of HANSL UND GRETL, the opera. Since she had danced there herself as a member of the ballet troupe, my mother had a particular interest in seeing how past glories of the opera house which had been virtually leveled during the war were being restored. Then, of course, like most other German children, it was considered important for me to be exposed to this story of two children abandoned by their parents and further deceived with the offer of good things from an old hag. Why the lesson that most adults, including one’s parents, were not to be trusted–a theme found in many other of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm–was considered an important staple of German culture was and remains unclear. But, given the history of events, it would seem that in preparing their children to distrust their elders Germans were set up to believe anyone who claimed to be telling the truth, especially if it was hard, to be truthful–sort of like the assumption that if medicine tastes bad it must be good for you. Which may well account for why friends and relations, as they became aware of my mother’s plans to take me to America, all had virtually identical responses. Whether they meant to reassure me, I wasn’t sure. In any event, what they all told me was that I was going to the “land of wild Indians,” presumably a reference to a general lack of civilized behavior and culture, and that “Americans love children.” Perhaps they thought that one would cancel the other out.

* * * *

Since my mother has always insisted that it took over two years to secure an immigration visa and we set off in the spring of 1949, I have to conclude that she had begun her efforts soon after, or even before, my father returned from his internment. In any case, although I was aware at the time of only some of the elements of her scheme–most specifically the sale of her wedding dress to a young woman who worked at the American embassy, which was disappointing since I had been hoping to grow into it–the complexity of such an enterprise would seem to belie the usual perception of emigration as an act of desperation. Having just been defeated in a horrendous military conflict, ordinary Germans were, of course, not immediately welcome to come to the United States. Only displaced persons from the Eastern areas and certain victims of war were able to secure transport, after languishing in various resettlement centers and compounds, to the land of opportunity. However, perhaps out of a sense of disassociation with what had gone on, a certain segment of the population, my mother included, felt no reluctance whatever in asking to be let out. Which I suppose is how my mother made contact with the employee of the embassy and, having cemented her new acquaintance with the sale of a wedding dress (an item that was virtually impossible to acquire elsewhere), was made privy to the information that an emigrant quota was under consideration and that once it was publicly announced, interested persons could mail in requests for applications for visas to be issued on a first come, first served basis. So, what was important was that the request would be received as soon as possible after the announcement, but not before. And this was facilitated by the new-found friend holding the letters in her desk and running out to drop them in the mailbox at the appropriate time. That was how my mother and I ended up with immigration visas numbered 64 and 65.

That was probably the easiest part. Since Germans were not permitted to take any money out of the country and the United States required that any new immigrant have a sponsor, my grandmother’s brother in California had to be persuaded to vouch for his niece and purchase our transatlantic and transcontinental transport. And then, of course, there was the matter of my father’s agreement to have both his wife and his daughter take off for a part of the globe in which he had absolutely no interest. Since he professed to be disinclined to either a divorce or even a physical separation, my mother offered to leave all her belongings (the furniture, rugs, bedding, linens and silver) behind in exchange for his permission to take herself and me to California. Then, at the last moment she reconsidered and decided that her life would be just too hard without her silver-coated porcelain teapot and I was tasked with pleading with my father to release both the teapot and me. Which he did. Aside from the fact that he wasn’t a tea drinker, he was actually quite certain that my mother would come to her senses and we would come back. Finally, in the spring of 1949, when everything had been arranged, my mother baked a twenty dollar bill into a pound cake (even possessing foreign currency being forbidden) and we took it aboard a night-train to Sweden where we embarked on a thirteen day voyage on the SS STOCKHOLM. Since the seas were rough and the S.S. STOCKHOLM, which would some years later collide with the ANDREA DORIA, did not ride the swells smoothly, most of the passengers suffered from seasickness (Dramamine not having yet been invented) all but the first and the last days and there was little choice but to take refuge in the narrow bunks, four to a cabin in the airless bowels of the ship, or seek some relief from the nausea on deck by inhaling the ocean breezes and making sure not to spit into the wind. Since for some reason my mother and I had bunks in separate cabins, I had no trouble deciding to spend most of my time on deck. And that’s where I was when we came in sight of land and when, as we steamed past the Statue of Liberty, my mother suggested we throw the last of the pound cake to the sea gulls–a fitting introduction, I guess, to the land of surplus. Although she arrived in American with six hundred dollars in debt and only twenty dollars in her pocket the promise of the good life made even my mother act with abandon.

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