Some are in prison, some are dead;
And none has read my books,
And yet my thoughts turn back to them.
from The Chums
by Theodore Roethke
On a window ledge, above the desk where I grade papers, arrange notes, contend with a phone that does or doesn’t ring, there sits a framed black-and-white photo that was taken fifty years ago: my parents, my aunts and uncles on a daytrip from northern New Jersey to Lake Mohonk, in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Thirteen people, eleven of them German-born, stand on a trail above a lake, a stone cairn and a pine tree just behind them. They are my people, the ones in that picture. They are also my place: where I come from. They’re the ones who knew me when I was small, who had hopes for me, and reservations. Now, they watch me work, their scholarship boy, half klutz, half wunderkind. Dead a long time, right on the edge of oblivion, they reproach me. Why haven’t I written about them? You’re not a kid any more, they remind me. Fair enough. I’m older than they were when our lives touched. I’m nearly as old as they were when they started to die.
There’s Pop, always the leader of the pack, standing out in white short-sleeved shirt, slacks held up by suspenders, as close to dressed-up as he ever got. My mother’s nearby, smiling, holding up her hand, maybe to wave at the camera, maybe to shade her eyes. Was I the photographer? I was along that day in the Catskills but I’m not in the photo. “You were always someplace else, wandering around,” my Tante Hede told me, when I asked her years later. She was my last link to the family past. She remembered holding my mother in her arms, both sobbing, listening to the screams coming from inside the doctor’s office where I was being circumcised. Now she is someplace else too, her ashes scattered around a sycamore tree in our old neighborhood. Walter, Hans, Fritz, Rupert, John, Carrie, Paula, Else, Hede, Maria, Friedel, on the edge of time and memory, except for the stay of execution my words provide. American citizens, New Jersey residents. Residents, as well, of a dogged land which I’ve spent all my life trying to take the measure of, in them, in me: my private Germany.
“My Parents Before I Knew Them.” In my family, I am the custodian of albums, loose photographs, diaries, letters, expired passports, birth and death certificates, all sorts of souvenirs and keepsakes. “My Parents Before I Knew Them” is an album I put together of family photographs taken before my birth, in 1942. Mom and Pop were both 39 when I was born and I missed knowing them when they were young, during their “greenhorn” years in America. I missed a lot. So there is my father, a boy swimming in the Elbe, behind him ships at anchor. And my mother looking melancholy beneath a blossoming Swabian apple tree, homesick even before leaving Germany. And, further back in time, there are whole generations � a grandfather in a spiked World War I helmet, a great-uncle with an iron cross from the Franco-Prussian war, a great aunt who became Mayor of Berlin. There are my grandfathers, a Hamburg coppersmith, a furniture maker in Stuttgart. South Germans and North Germans, wine drinkers versus beer drinkers, potato eaters versus noodle makers, converging on New Jersey, and in me. My mother came first, in 1922. In those days German nannies were still in demand by wealthy New Yorkers and there she is, just out of Ellis Island � she remembered the cockroaches � living near where Zabar’s is today, wheeling somebody’s baby in Riverside Park. Served corn-on-the-cob for the first time, she bit straight into it as if it were a bratwurst. For my father, America’s first magic was the oranges for sale on the streets of New York. No wonder, at the end of his life, he found his way to Florida. During the war, the British blockade, he’d subsisted on turnips. After he came to America, he never ate another turnip. My father was sponsored by the legendary Uncle Bruno, who brought over one greenhorn at a time, half a dozen at least, giving them brief employment as a janitor in a building where he was superintendent, at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. My father slept in the basement, on a cot next to the boiler and, during his first days, couldn’t resist picking things out of the garbage that came down the dumbwaiter, ladies shoes with weeks of wear left in them, perfect for his sister back in Hamburg.
They met, I’m told, at a German picnic in Jersey City. The engagement celebration was at a Horn and Hardart's automat. They were a couple now, the bandy-legged, barrel-chested machinist and the quiet, thoughtful housewife. They did not linger in New York, not even in the German-American enclave of Yorkville, with its beer halls, bakeries and oom-pah-pah. They moved to Miami � married there in 1926 � back to New York, to Philadelphia, then to New Jersey, twenty miles west of the Holland Tunnel, “out in the sticks.” They were finishing up a house there when World War II began and I was born, started to know and to wonder.
Start with my first memory, those long brown rolls of wrapping paper just inside the side door of our house, on the steps leading up to the kitchen, those assembly lines of neighborhood tantes joining my mother in expertly jamming soap, toothpaste, razor blades, coffee, Crisco, into five-pound “Germany packages” headed for bombed-out relatives who were � no double entendre intended � “on the other side.” They took the packages to shipping firms in Yorkville, they drove to Philadelphia when the surrendered German pocket battleship Prinz Eugen arrived on its way to nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands and word came that the German crew was willing to carry packages back across the Atlantic. In Germany, a New Jerseyan in the occupying forces befriended a tante living outside Stuttgart and agreed to pass along packages addressed to him. He was a guest a New Jersey beer parties for years afterward. “We spent thousands and thousands of dollars on those packages,” the neighbor Tante told me years later, when we were both back in Germany. She paused a moment, looked outside the kitchen we were sitting in, out onto the cobblestoned streets, freshly plastered buildings, tidy gardens of a prosperous post-war Germany. “They wouldn’t have done the same for us,” she said. In private moments, they must all have wondered what gifts would have come their way, if Adolf had won.
What we got back were the “Deutschland pakete” that arrived when I sensed our Germanness the most, at Christmas. Our celebration was all on Christmas Eve, Americans waited till after breakfast to open presents. My presents were history by then. We gathered at dusk, my parents, the onkels and tantes, beginning at our house, moving on to two or three others. We sang “Silent Night” in German. That was mandatory, for kids. And the first gifts we opened were the ones from the other side. They didn’t amount to much. Crinkly paper decorated with sprigs of pine, the needles long since fallen off. A necktie my father would never wear, some marzipan for me, some schnappsbohnen � whiskey-filled pralines � that had usually melted en-route. An odd little ceremony before the unwrapping of the big ticket items began, a moment of silence for a hated nation where there were people my parents loved.
I wondered about the war years. My parents were loyal Americans, I was sure of that. My father had worked in a factory that shifted from locomotives to tanks. He’d shrugged off invitations to a pre-war German American Bund camp. Later, when asked whether German Field Marshal Hans Gunter Von Kluge was a relative he fired back, “Oh yeah, that’s my uncle.” And returned to work on tanks. My mother and aunt got dirty looks when they spoke German while shopping. Piddling stuff. But there must have been darker moments that I was too young to notice. How did they feel watching newsreels, hundreds of planes bombing their home cities? The world applauding while their relatives died? What about those slow-coming letters, routed through Switzerland, telling them that one of my uncles had been killed on the Russian front? “In Russland gefallen.” I grew up wondering about the people on the other side. Were there any good ones? No heroes. The South had heroes in the Civil War. But not the Germans? Was there no one to mourn? I remember a rainy afternoon my mother and I spent sitting on the floor of my room, sorting through a box of loose photographs, trips to Florida, the building of our house, my brother’s Boy Scout camping trips and then she was holding a picture of a handsome, sharp-featured fellow in a Luftwaffe uniform. She fell silent. My mother was thoughtful and reticent: the emotions she expressed were thrice-distilled. “That’s your uncle Paul,” she told me after a while. He’d died just two weeks before the war in Europe ended, while riding in a hospital train that had been strafed. He was her favorite brother and she mourned for him. “He was the best of us all,” she said.
My mother saw her favorite brother for the last time in 1936. A photo of that trip sat in the living room: my mother, smiling, surrounded by three brothers and a nephew, all of them in uniform: Paul in Hitler Youth, Fritzle � later killed in Russia � and Walter in Wehrmacht uniforms and Willi in the ominous black of the SS, a swastika armband above his elbow. I studied that picture for years. It fascinated me knowing that uncles of mine, beloved of my mother, could be part of something evil. It complicated my view of good, of evil, of heroes and villains, of war movies with monocled fascist officers, chuckling U-boat captains, hapless sentries quickly stabbed and garroted. I developed what I’ve never lost: an interest in the other side.
For sure, we were Americans in the New Jersey of the fifties. My mother cooked and gardened. She ate a piece of chocolate and read an article in Reader’s Digest every night, and when she worried, it wasn’t about war and loyalty. It was about me. School counselors had called her in and told her that I was something called “college material.” She spent a lot of time wondering where that would lead. Outgoing, opinionated, physical, my father worried not at all. I picture him on Sundays, wearing shorts and, underneath the shorts, a pair of boxer underwear that always were an inch or so longer than the shorts. I see him in the yard, sweating and bare-chested, waving cheerfully to well-dressed church-goers then, when he finished working, sitting on the front stoop with a Ballantine Ale. He was an American success story by then. They all were, and I think of them as happy in America. He took me on camping trips, organized Boy Scout newspaper drives, paid union dues, voted Democrat, never missed the beautiful music on “The Voice of Firestone.” On vacations they went to Florida or went west to national parks, always traveling with tantes and onkels, recording mileage, meals and gas prices along the way and never registering in a motel room until sending one of the women inside, to make sure the place was clean.
Still, Germany remained, for them and for me. It was in the language we spoke at home, so that I went to school with a German accent that caught the attention of a speech therapist: “washing machine, washing machine, washing machine,” I was made to repeat. It was in the food, the roast pork with skin on, potato pancakes, herring salad, rouladen, unfashionable food that I’ll never taste again. It was in the loud, smokey table-banging pinochle they played every weekday night for thirty years, hoots and gibes that roared into the living room where I sat watching “Paladin” and “Gunsmoke.” They played for money that no one won. Losers contributed to a savings account � a sparkasse � that financed the next trip back to Germany. But I never felt more German-in-New Jersey than at the beer parties we had in the summer. I still hear the crunch of cars coming down the driveway, onkels and tantes pulling in from New York and Long Island, carrying cakes and cold cuts they’d picked up in the city. In the afternoon it was cake and coffee, it was garden walks and sitting in lawn chairs, American success stories posing in front of turkeys for pictures they’d send to the other side. As darkness rolled on, things got loud and a little rowdy. They drank beer, they sang old songs, German songs, some homesick, some political and when they decided to dance, an onkel pulled out an accordion and they adjourned inside our garage and those were the sounds I heard from where I was upstairs sleeping, drowsy from the beer they’d given me. Those were my lullabies.
In 1954, the poker-losings added up: we were going back to Germany, my parents, three sets of aunts and uncles and a great aunt who’d known Lou Gehrig’s parents when they were neighbors up on Amsterdam Avenue. “Lou was a nice boy,” she said. There was another man, Hans, a German Jew whom members of a Tante’s family had concealed in their cellar during the war. I was the “Kleine Amerikaner,” the precocious diary keeper:
We all said that we would not cry when we arrived in Stuttgart. Well there is where we made a mistake. We all cried except Pop as far as I could see. Most everybody I had ever heard of in letters was there and there were still some left over. I have never seen so much pure joy before and probably never will again. After that we went to a hall where we could be together for a while. I got a model ship from Tante Martha, the toy shop owner in Winnenden. It was very nice. I really like everyone. We slept at Onkel Walter’s. When we were in Rotterdam Tante Helen threw up from seasickness even though she was no longer at sea.
Two of the uncles I studied for years were waiting for us at the Stuttgart station. Walter was a tall genial man, a furniture maker � that was the family trade � who gave me chores in his shop, sweeping up woodscraps and sawdust. He’d been in the Army, in ski troops and had slipped out of a P.O.W. camp and found his way home. By 1954, Willi � the SS lieutenant � was a sweaty, high-strung corpulent man, endlessly busy host, planning trips and meals a week ahead, meals in, meals out, big and little, hot and cold. He was one of those Germans who came out of the war eating and never stopped. Still, there were remnants of the kind of masculine handsomeness you don’t see anymore: the dark, straight back hair, the heavy beard, the roustabout adventurousness of a Clark Gable or Ernest Hemingway, a Jack Dempsey or Max Schmeling. In a firmly Socialist family, he’d rebelled and joined the Nazi party early. Yet he was there for his socialist brothers, intervening in their behalf when they got in trouble with the new regime. It was always Willi to the rescue, I was told. The stories were impossible to sort out. He’d refused to participate in a firing squad. He had not joined the party to kill Jews he said, and these were Jews from Stuttgart. His insubordination landed him in a punishment battalion � “strafsbattalion” � on the Russian front, where he was gravely wounded, shrapnel that he carried in his head for the rest of his life. It was after this wound or possibly an earlier one, that Hitler, visiting a hospital, gave birth to my best one-degree of separation story: the Fuhrer chucked him under the chin affectionately. In 1945, Willi was in Berlin, swarming with Russians and � the story was � he shed his uniform, put on a civilian suit and made his way through the lines carrying a wreath of flowers, pretending he was on his way to his grandmother’s funeral. “Babushka kaput,” he told the Russians. The Americans came for him once he was home, held him for a couple of years until he was cleared, supposedly by the testimony of one of the Jews he’d spared. Were these stories my parents made up to tell me? That he made up to tell them? That he told himself? I’ll never know. I can only consider the possibilities, which is what my private Germany is all about, the chance of good, of evil, of both, then and now, in them, in me. Possibilities from here to the airport, the currency of the realm.
From 1954, I remember the taste of hard cider, the coarseness of toilet paper, the whiff of fresh bread at dawn, wafting out of bakeries onto cobblestone streets. We visited all three of Ludwig’s Bavarian castles, drove across the Alps down to Venice, my uncle wisecracking about the slovenly performance of the Duce’s troops in World War II, the same jokes that circulated in New Jersey’s public high schools: “Want to buy a rifle that was owned by an Italian war hero? Never been fired, only dropped once.” That was it: history into stories, jokes, and silence.
I wonder how we looked to them, we German-Americans who sent back pictures of the turkeys we ate at Thanksgiving, the cars we drove to Florida. I wonder what they thought of me, the chubby baseball fan who spoke broken German. I wonder, as with all reunions, which prevailed, the feeling of distance or connection. They never talked about the war, not when I was around and, I’d bet, not when I wasn’t. No talk of politics or principles, no finding of fault, no measuring of private virtue and public crime. That’s one vote for distance. But there were moments when we drove down bombed-out streets, there were pauses when they talked about the dead. There was the look on my mother’s face when we visited the Luftwaffe pilot’s grave, the date of his death just a couple of weeks before the end of the war in Europe. In that, in the unspoken love and pole-axed silence, there was a recognition that what had happened to them could have happened to us. We were family. One vote for connection.
If you grow up in New Jersey and have a knack for words, New York City is your Oz. Driving along wooded roads in the Watchung Mountains, parking in secluded cul de sacs on high school dates, I’d see that river of traffic down on Route 22, headed for the tunnel, that carpet of lights spread out below, shopping centers, factories, endless suburbs, my New Jersey alive and pungent, just stinking with promise. And, in the distance, the towers of Manhattan, where the future waited. And the past. When I moved there in 1970 to work for Life magazine, I was drawn to the old German neighborhood of Yorkville. I strolled 86th Street, where Germans once drank beer and danced. When I jogged around the northern end of Central Park, I nodded at the building where my father had slept in the basement, his first night in America. In Riverside Park, watching the sun set over New Jersey’s richly polluted skies, I imagined my mother pushing a baby carriage along these very paths, meeting up with other nannies sitting on this same bench. I felt close to them, sometimes. On Broadway, there was a barbershop, one of the last that offered shaves. The barbers were Italians of my father’s generation, skillful and reserved. Stretched out in a chair, my face covered with a hot towel, I’d glance up at a stamped tin ceiling, a slowly turning fan. A baseball game was on the radio. Your world, Pop, I said to myself. Even as it was all slipping away.
“There goes another one,” they used to say when they got a bad news phone call, when a Christmas or two passed without a card arriving. My mother was the first to go, laconic and heart-felt in her final words to me. With a friend waiting in the driveway, my ride back to graduate school at the University of Chicago, I ducked into her bedroom to say goodbye. She cried, whenever we parted. “See,” she said to me, holding back her tears. “I’ve finally learned to say goodbye.” The next minute I was gone and a month later so was she. My father never forgave her for ruining one last trip out west, one last trip to Germany. Before long, they all were making terminal moves. “This one will last me out,” they said when they bought new cars. Unable to pay suburban property taxes after they stopped working, they moved to retirement communities in South Jersey, in the Pine Barrens near Lakewood, within jogging distance of the place where the Hindenburg had crashed. My father flirted with going back to Hamburg, of sitting in a beer garden above the Elbe, watching ships sail in from around the world. It appealed to him, being old where he’d been young. But in the end, Florida won: today’s oranges over yesterday’s turnips. I was halfway around the world when he died. So I have no last words. My brother was there at the end. Seeing my father in pain, he asked whether “You want a shot, Pop?” “Yes,” Pop said, “I’d like a shot.” But it came in a syringe, not in the whiskey glass he’d wanted.
Before long, my private Germany was hard to find. It wasn’t in New Jersey, it wasn’t in Germany. And certainly not in New York. The Germans didn’t stick around the old neighborhood and once they were gone, their businesses were replaced by Irish bars, Korean fruit stands, discount clothing stores and running shoe shops. You could see it in the parades on Fifth Avenue. St. Patrick’s Day was raucous and hard-drinking, Puerto Rican parades bristled with horn-blowing machismo, the State of Israel celebration with pride and clout. The German Von Steuben parade was an orderly procession that disbanded on 86th Street in a neighborhood that no longer existed. Manhattan had more Ethiopian restaurants than German. It was over, almost everywhere. Except in me.
I could feel it, as the years passed. My old man was punctual. Dinner on the table at six o’clock sharp. If someone invited us for 8:30 Pop was on the doorstep on the dot, even if the host came to the door in a bathrobe. I’m like that now, too. And I share his obsession with work done on time, always a little bit extra, even if people laugh at you. I feel his admiration for smarts even if out of shyness, arrogance, whatever ... I sense that some kinds of cleverness are not for me. I concur that a bill left unpaid, sitting on a table overnight, is as troubling as an unpulled weed in a garden and � this from my mother � that the morning after a rainy day is a perfect day for weeding. I garden more than I ever dreamed, listen to more opera, believe that any large withdrawal from my savings account is the first step leading to death in the gutter. And I can’t bring myself to throw out an article of clothing that has “wear” left in it, however soiled and out of fashion it might be. And, incredibly, I’m neater. “Ein Platz F�r Alles, und Alles in Sein Platz:” a place for everything and everything in its place. The kid who spent years trying to convince his parents that messy was not the same as dirty, that kid puts his clothes away now! There are more serious things too. There’s that in-bred feeling for the other side, even though the other side � my father in this case � didn’t support me. His commitment to the United States was firm. When I had my doubts about Viet Nam, he treated me as I were shirking garden work. “You think you can pick your wars?” he asked. That was the point exactly, I said, and Germans of all people should have learned by now. He wasn’t impressed. Still, my private Germany resurged during the seventies, that interest in the other side. In my darkest moods, I pictured a war crimes trial, America’s first taste of victor’s justice. I didn’t want to see it, mind you, but I had to wonder. I’d read endlessly about Nuremberg. How would Americans acquit themselves? Was Robert McNamara our Albert Speer, Westmoreland our Keitel. Who would feign madness like Hess? Discover religion, like Hans Frank? Who, like Goering, would bait and ridicule, knowing he had a capsule of cyanide hidden in his rectum? I couldn’t help it. Being American, yet resident of a private Germany, meant that winners and losers, heroes and villains connected in me. I had ties to a nation that had known spectacular defeat and that gave me an edge on America in the seventies. Germans, in their awkward way, were ahead of Americans. Germans knew, Germans learned: that good men do bad. That lives are lost for nothing. In school I’d been taught that America never started a war. That was lesson one. And never lost a war. Lesson two. In Germany, wars were started and lost. And everyone with some German in them had traveled to a place no American had ever been, way out on the last frontier: defeat.
On the afternoon of my fortieth high school reunion, I head home. I turn the car I rented at Newark Airport down the street I know by heart, past where we waited for the school bus, past the neighbor’s house and I slow, I stop, looking in at where I lived. My private Germany, an American place in the last analysis. A miracle of love for America, of abiding concern for the people on the other side. They pulled it off quietly, cheerfully. They made less of it than I have. Two owners since the old man sold, but the trees he planted on weekends tower over the tiny house. I see the stoop where he drank his Ballantine Ale, the chicken coop out back, my bedroom window. The place is still there � the landscape of spruce and maples, the gravel driveway, the remnant gardens. It’s the kind of golden-rich autumn afternoon that conduces to memory, that invites nostalgia. But no one’s home. An empty stage inside an empty theater. The houses outlasted us all, the onkels and tantes, the people who built, sold, traded up, moved out into America. I’ve been missing them for years, that bunch, resenting every intervening day that separated them from me, leaving me to wonder about a chess set that Willi carved after the war while the Americans held him in Dachau, a dress sword with a swastika that belonged to Paul, a beer stein with socialist heroes, from Spartacus to Liebknecht, to Marx and Engels, a kind of Miller Time in left-wing heaven, courtesy of my father’s father, a collection of letters, yellow and crumbling, logs from long-ago trips to Florida, diaries that end in death. And that reproaching photo across my desk, all these things with no one to claim them, after me. And yet, I was stopped cold by that remark in Bellow’s Ravelstein that, no matter what we say we think, despite all our tough talk, a part of us believes that we will someday talk with our parents again. Sometimes it feels that they are still out there, with their short-sleeved shirts and their big American cars, their small houses and spectacular gardens, waiting for me. “Sit on the table...eat your plate,” they tell their kids at dinnertime. Rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, laughing at Jackie Gleason and waiting for me. And my aunt was right, I was always someplace, always wandering off. For years they were drifting away from me, further into the past, the way an island sinks beneath the horizon. But now I feel time rounding, I feel myself coming closer to them, a reunion imminent in my private Germany and many conversations we never got to have, along with beer and cake and the smell of cut grass and drowsy with Ballantine beer, I will fall asleep in my house, my room, hearing the songs of the other side as they escape into no man’s land from time’s dug-in trenches and go sailing out into the New Jersey evening.