Thursday, January 27, 2022

1947 - and a look to the future


 Dearest grandchildren,

This is the last entry of The Rim of the Volcano - Growing Up as a Half-Jew in Nazi Germany, the book that my father, your great-grandfather, Thomas Heumann wrote for his children, grandchildren, and, of course, all of YOU, even if you were still stardust when he penned his memoir. 

It seems fitting that this post comes on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 😢

I suggested to Dad many times that he publish his book, but his answer each time was stern and resolute. "No. This is for my family. If you want it made public, you can do that after I'm gone." When I asked my father why he was so opposed to his story being made public while he was alive, his answer always contained a bit of fear. "People might think that I'm somehow excusing what happened because I survived it, being 'only' a half-Jew." "Does it really matter to anyone but my own family?" "Strangers don't need to know who I am or anything about my life." I think what he really meant by these answers was, 'I don't want to be found; hiding is safer.' The trauma he felt never really left him -- and I've come to realize that it has been passed on to us as very real generational trauma. I'm working through mine by writing this blog, it seems.

Although The Rim of the Volcano is Thomas Heumann's most detailed and complete work, and what he considered his  magnum opus (albeit a private one), he wrote incessantly throughout his life. My plan is to eventually include everything here.

Here is my father's last chapter of Rim:

Of all the years of my life, 1947 was probably the most emotionally intense and, despite its constant commotion, the most lonely. It was a year of great hardships of everyday life, of huge personal decisions, and of endless frustrations. It was the final year when I could still travel to Berlin and Chemnitz, and the year when my heart had to find its way between three women who loved me and when I had to make professional decisions that shaped my entire life. 

The latter was by far the most powerful and the most consuming conflict that was with me every day of the year. 

Nora, who had been so much of my focus for two years, gradually disappeared from my life, not as much because of me, but because of her. When I traveled to the West in the last days of 1945, I left her life. Soon other men, other people, and other interests began to overshadow the mutual promises we had made to each other. She discovered “Kurti” again, who she had known before she knew me. Both of her parents became big shots in Communist Berlin. In her letters to me, her assurances that she was still “mine for life” began to sound less sincere. She was being groomed by her mother to be a smiling, attractively dressed, and properly made-up Red Society socialite in Berlin. After I decided to emigrate to America, and she to Russia, and after I became more agnostic in my outlook on life, and she converted to Catholicism, the ties between us gradually dissolved into nothing. Not amicably, but painlessly apathetic.

Much more grinding and intensely emotional was the conflict between Gisela and Ingrid.  Not between them -- they even corresponded --  but within me. I knew that I had played a vitally important role for Ingrid at a time when her life had fallen apart, and that I had kept her from drowning. I was ten years her junior, but I gladly gave her the very love that had ruined her previous life. She was in divorce proceedings from the great love of her youth, had to flee her home under the most dire circumstances, and lost her father just before we met. And just at the time that she became the first “earthly” love of my life, she came to realize that my most “heavenly” love belonged to Gisela. When I moved to München, she was desperate for my visits to her, as she and her little daughter Karola missed me terribly. 














My father never told me that I was named after anyone, but you gotta wonder... right? He adored little Karola, the first child to whom he felt "parental." Unfortunately, Dad never indicated what Ingrid and Karol's last name was, so finding her would be really hard - but wouldn't it be great if I could?!

Ingrid took care of my things (she even spent days to find a cardboard box to send my laundry to München), and I sent cookies to them (for Karola’s coupons, of course). Yet at the same time, I became fully cognizant of the fact that our ten-year age difference would ultimately mean a final separation. She wrote me long, desperate letters asking me to accept her love without return, telling me that she fully accepted Gisela’s role in my life, but at the same time warned me of the dangers of committing to my first love too seriously and too early, as she had done. But for very simple factual reasons, I had to make her terribly unhappy by leaving her life, as gradually and as gently as I could.

Despite Ingrid’s warnings not to commit to my first love too early and too seriously, my commitment to Gisela, and hers to me, grew and solidified during 1947 in an overwhelming way. We found each other again as I never had expected, and I still do not quite understand today. 

I read that line, "I still do not quite understand today," over and over, realizing two things: One, perhaps Gisela, not my mother, was the "one true love" of Dad's life. And two, if that's true, then what does it mean for my existence? This kind of existential thinking can drive one crazy!

With all my work -- mornings at Interpreters’ school, afternoons at Bauer Kompressoren -- I wrote her almost daily, and she wrote to me as often, although our letters took anywhere from three to 30 days to reach their recipient, probably because they had to go through Occupation Force censors.  My longing for her occupied me each day, and for many long nights. It was pure torture, but the absence made our hearts grow fonder, and we committed ourselves to each other in more serious terms, in total chastity until we would be “old enough and mature enough,” and had finished our education - she as a teacher, I as an engineer… or whatever.

But would she wait? Could she wait? As a virgin? The principal of the school where she taught had his eyes on her and he applied a great deal of pressure on her to become his mistress, his wife. Gisela described the details of his desperation for a relationship with her, yet, she said, she resisted him for two reasons: one, she really wanted to wait for me, and two, he was too old. Forty years old! Ancient! She was not about to give into his desires for her “this late in his life”! But she felt so sorry for the old, lonely man -- what to do??  But then, when he finally had realized the “tremendous” difference in age between 20 and 40, and he started talking to her about school, meetings, and union matters, she wasn’t interested. Ah, women! Ah, men! Finally, after having pursued Gisela for a year, he got married to someone else, and Gisela was free from the guilty feelings and glad that she had resisted him. 

Meanwhile, I continued to send her and her family little packages filled with cheese, chocolate, and sausages, just as Rainer had brought his Western treasures to us in the Russian Zone in late 1945.

In 1947, it was still possible to travel between Russian and Western occupation zones, although a permit was required for each trip. I traveled to Chemnitz and Berlin a few times that year, sometimes with Rainer and sometimes alone. The reason was ostensibly to retrieve items we left behind in 1945, or to handle inheritance matters -- but in reality it was to see Gisela, and a time or two even Nora in Berlin. Rainer was divorcing Renate, and he took up with Inge Künstner, on the surface a better and classier mate for him. At the end of 1947, the trips had to stop altogether because, as a result of the bitter London Conference, the Iron Curtain descended upon Europe. Now the borders between East and West closed definitively. The prospect of ever seeing each other became practically nil, and any hope of having her come to the West disappeared.

Fast forward to 1985: Gisela married before I did in 1951, became widowed (I believe), and her second marriage ended in divorce. She never had children. She maintained her dreamy, idealistic, unworldly personality all her life. She remained best friends with her childhood neighbor, my cousin Gaby. In 1985, when Gisela was killed by a collision with a bicyclist, Gaby told me: “Na die hat dich über alles geliebt, ihr ganzes Leben lang![1]

In Winter, the engineering program started in earnest, so after absolving my half-year of improvising plumbing and stoking crushed coal, I got to get my feet wet with serious study by taking a whole semester of non-engineering courses, without which one could not graduate. So why not get them out of the way first?  Of the 14 units I took, half were things like Administrative Law, Patent Basics, and Goethe’s “Faust”, but I also took courses in drawing and Descriptive Geometry. 














At the Technical University in München  I befriended Hans Holzhausen, an upcoming Electronics Engineer, and we became a good friend for life. His mother, known to us all as “Muttchen,” semi adopted me. Both she and Hans would play an important role throughout my “third life,” the college years. And just as I was about to begin my fourth life, my move to America, they moved to South Africa.











Maybe I’ll write about my third life (college) and my “fourth life” (emigration and the first years in America) some other time. It’s a whole other book!

My father did eventually write about his "other lives," beginning with his fourth life, and I will add those to this blog. But as far as I know, he never wrote in detail about the years 1948 to 1950. I asked him once why he skipped those years in his many memoirs, and his answer was that "it might upset your mother." I'm not sure exactly what that meant, but I suspect that it might have read like... well, like some of the swooning chapters of this book, but with a little (or a lot!) less romantic innocence. 


[1] “I can tell you that she loved you all her life, above everything.”


Sunday, January 23, 2022

Waiting for America

 Dear grandchildren,

I've started each entry with "Dear grandchildren," plural. But actually, until just a bit over a week ago, I had only one grandchild, 2-year-old Leo. He is now a big brother! Adayla was named after her great great great grandmother, Thomas' favorite grandmother, Adele (her parents spelled it so people in America would pronounce it correctly). I'll be writing more about Adele when I transcribe Das Märchen Haus, which describes Adele's memories of her own childhood in Wermelskirchen, Germany.

But first, let's finish Thomas' book, The Rim of the Volcano. I'm realizing with these last few entries that Thomas no longer speaks of the war - and really, why should he? He wanted nothing more than to put those grim years behind him and focus on the future, which included plans to emigrate to America. It would be a dream-come-true for him to to be able to leave the ruins of a defeated, demoralized, and destroyed country and begin anew in a country that he heard was free, beautiful, and exciting. He couldn't wait. But, it seemed, he had to.

Read on.

In April 1947, I completed my Abitur (comparable to a high school diploma, but with a 13th year) from the Special Returning Soldiers course. My grades were nothing to write home about (if I had had one), but they were good enough to get by without having to take any oral exams which, as an introvert, I dreaded. My grade in religion was “sehr gut,” my math and English grades were ‘gut,” and everything else was “befriedigened” - sufficient. As it turned out, I earned my Abitur in the same year as my former classmates in Chemnitz. So now what? 

We planned to emigrate to America that year, so improving my English became my top priority. Ulli and her new friend Beate (who ended up being a lifelong friend) were already going to the Dolmetscherschule, interpreter’s school which, I decided, was a good idea for anyone planning to emigrate to America. So that became my next stop, too. My English was already pretty good, but this was as close as one could get to being immersed in a foreign language. Using Readers Digest magazines as textbooks, I learned about Lord Leverhulme, founder of Lever Brothers in England, something that would earned me top respect from Leverhulme’s niece who, it turned out, would become Rainer’s future mother-in-law. I also learned a bit more about women. I befriended Helga, the prettiest girl in class, and we studied together for weeks. When I was finally brave enough to visit her room one day (no phone then!), hoping to take our acquaintance to the next level, her landlady had news for me. “She moved out two days ago, to marry the very rich Generaldirektor of such-and-such a big company. She didn’t leave a new address.” So much for loyalty!

When it rains, it pours. The same troubled week, I found out that all our dreams about emigrating to America were just that: a dream. We were told that there were just too many DP’s (Displaced Persons in UN language) who had priority even over we “Rassisch Verfolgte[1]” who had not been in one of the worst concentration camps.

“How long might that be?” we wanted to know.

“Who knows! Three years, four, maybe six  -- until all of them are taken care of.” 

Meanwhile, instead of us emigrating to America, my father’s brother, Uncle William (who, in 1937, had urged my father to leave Germany while he still could) came back to Germany from a few years in the US. While there, he learned the secrets of American advertising, and he figured -- rightly -- that the emerging economy of Germany must by now be ripe for exposure to a kind of super-modern commercialism. He founded what might have been the first American-style advertising agency in Germany, Heumann Werbegesellschaft  in Frankfurt, the center of West German commerce. And with that, our invitation to America ended at the same time that the US Embassy told us that we would have to wait years before we could emigrate. And with Uncle William’s return to Germany, we no longer had a contact in America. We were thoroughly discouraged.

Uncle William











 I decided to go to college, hoping that I could graduate before the emigration plans would become active again. The threat of an armed conflict between West and East at that time amounted only to verbal “teasing,” but Churchill probably meant it when he said “We’ve slaughtered the wrong pig!”  If such a war would break out, Germany would surely be very much at the center of it. The Berlin airlift of 1948, in which the Soviet Union blocked the Western Allies' transportation access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control, proved it soon enough.  If that war would ever break out, I wanted to be as far away as possible -- and on the right side. Nora, with her “noble Communist ideals” could be in love with Russia, but I wanted nothing to do with it. I wanted to go to America, and the sooner the better. If that meant an incomplete college education, so be it. Nothing could be worse that being in the middle of a war again. That fear for me was even stronger than the fear of Germans finding another way to go after Jews or half-Jews like me – which was also a terrifying thought. 

Luckily, the Cold War remained cold – at least at that time.

I turned back to my studies. It was time to make some life-altering decisions. Where should I study, and what subject? Should I go to university or Technische Hochschule[2]? I wanted to stay in, but could I? How would I navigate these next years? Every decision, it seemed, came with life-altering ramifications. I’d had enough of life-altering ramifications; I simply wanted to settle in, go to school, and emigrate to America as soon as I was able.

I continued to live in the very small apartment in Solln with Rainer, Renate, Ulli, and baby Andreas, but that soon became untenable. Already, Rainer and Renate were divorcing.  Rainer had met Inge, the wealthy niece of one of the Lever brothers. With her came different plans for Rainer, such as a move to Switzerland, where they could access Inge’s considerable wealth. 

What followed were many trips to the München city offices and the Wohnungsamt, the lodging bureau. Yes, the city was deeply involved in who lived where. It turned out that a legal citizen of München was defined as someone who was a resident on July 31, 1945. Luckily, I could prove that Rainer, proactive as he was, had already registered me with police as a resident with him in April, 1945.














 That left the even more difficult task of a room assignment by the bureau. After many visits, and hours of standing in line, I was assigned a room at Thierschstrasse 26, second floor. That’s where I was going to spend the next four years, and in those years München (not Chemnitz) became the city that I would always consider as “home.”















 Despite having just completed a high school education that focused on truly “academic” studies like medicine, law, and theology, I decided that a technical field was more my kind of thing. We lived in a defeated and desperately needy country, so all medical schools were hopelessly overcrowded. When I was young, I had wanted to become a veterinarian, but now veterinary medicine seemed to be a useless luxury. So how does one combine the attractions of the study of law with a technical field? One becomes a patent attorney, which required first the technical degree of Diplomingenieur, and then a law degree. Seemed reasonable, though tentative. 

Or should I become the bridge builder, as my mother always wanted, an expression of her romantic imagination, nothing else. 

In any case, I was on my way to the München Technical University. But first I’d need to register. 

To get to the registration office, I had to balancing carefully along a thin board which had been laid across a large bombed-out section of the badly damaged building. Once inside, I was immediately informed that everybody wanted to study structural engineering because Germany was in ruins so not only bridges, but roads, buildings, and the entire infrastructure of the country would need to be rebuilt. Sorry, the structural engineering program was full. How about mechanical engineering, or electrical?  I didn’t have to ponder this decision. Electrons and I have a rather uneasy relationship, unlike my relationship with screws and bolts and steam engines, so my decision was made: mechanical it was.  Now I needed permission to live in München (which I already had) and money to finance my education. 











Ah yes – money.

Rainer had secured a loan for me at a local bank with which my father had previously had connections. That was great, but it was not enough, so I managed to obtain some additional support from the State Ministry for Racially, Religiously, and Politically Persecuted People under Nazi Rule. That covered tuition, plus a stipend of DM 100 during the school year (about $ 25.00 a month!) and DM 75 during vacations. 













 Once again I “walked the plank” to the TH admissions office to register, but once again I faced another hurdle. This time I learned that I would be required to serve six months in the Student Auxiliary Service to help repair the destroyed university buildings. I was put on a list of hopeful Mechanical Engineering freshmen for winter semester, 1948/49 and I was also assigned an apprentice position with a small local plumbing company. Most of the plumbing work in the TH buildings consisted of salvaging what pieces we could from destroyed buildings, cleaning them, straightening twisted pipe (if we could), rethreading them, and then installing them in the new buildings. As it turned out, working as a plumber was a major part of my education, not in terms of a degree, but for very practical reason that later in my life I would have houses to take care of. I learned the art of making do, of improvising, working with what could be made available.

Omi's note: Dad was always good at this - sometimes to the exasperation of his very American teenage daughter who wanted new stuff. But no - Dad always insisted on using up what you have, modifying what you could, and making do.

Sometimes we worked with mechanical linkages, drives, gearing, cams, interlocks, and other gizmos and gadgets. I loved it. That’s what I wanted to learn, I decided. How much better these models were than new electrical circuits that you can’t get your hands on and that make no sense!

In spring I transferred to the Wärmekraft Building, the power plant for the TH. In addition to heat, they would also provide the steam power for the labs for university departments that worked with steam engines, heat transfer, turbines, should such departments ever exist again. The work was not as interesting and consisted mainly of preventing the coal hoppers that were fed from a conveyor belt above the furnaces from plugging up.  That assignment had the advantage of introducing me to students who would become close friends for the coming four years: Sigi (who eventually became an Engineering professor at the TH), Walter, and Wolfgang.

[1] German-speaking Racially Persecuted Persons

[2] Technical University