Friday, September 10, 2021

Guess what? You are a German citizen!

Dear grandchildren,

Let’s take a little break from my father’s writings for this important message: 


(I grew up as a German American - including wearing dirndl dresses to school.) 

I know- I was as shocked to find this out as you are. 

Katharina Schuss, the German Consulate in San Francisco, expressed it most concisely in an email she wrote to me yesterday after reviewing  numerous documents I sent her that showed that my parents were German citizens when I was born. 

Dear Ms. Snider,

I reviewed all your handed in documents, your questionnaire and all correspondence with my colleagues.

 The facts are the following: 

1.       Your parents got married July 13th, 1951  in München

2.       You were born in wedlock on November 29th, 1956 in Berkeley, CA

3.       Your father was a German citizen at the time of your birth (here we need a proof of his citizenship e.g. a copy of his German passport valid in at the time of your birth)

4.       Your father was naturalized US-American citizen in 1959 (naturalization date: 17 April 1959)  

 Acc. to § 4 chapter 1 of the German Citizenship Law effective at the time of your birth, you might have become German citizen through your German father. You are an US American citizen due to the fact of being born in the USA.

In contrast to the United States, German citizenship is not established through birth on German territory, but by descent from a German legal father.

Based on the information you provided, there is a good possibility you are already in possession of German citizenship. 

However, we as a Consulate are not allowed to make legally binding decisions in citizenship matters. For everyone living outside of Germany, this can only be done by the Federal Administration Office in Cologne.

As your claim to German citizenship is based on your father, I would therefore recommend you apply for a so-called “Certificate of Citizenship.” Once the Certificate of Citizenship is issued, you can apply for a German passport.

In your case, we need the following documents to support your application:

·         Proof of your father’s German citizenship (ideally his old German passport if still available)

·         Your father’s US certificate of naturalization

·         Your parents’ marriage certificate

·         Your father’s birth certificate (the long version stating who his parents were)

·         Your mother’s birth certificate (the long version stating who her parents were)

·         Your birth certificate (the long version stating who your parents are)

·         Your current US passport

Please let me know if you have any further questions.

Further information you find on our website:

 Mit freundlichen Grüßen/ Sincerely

Katharina Struß

Vice Consul – Deputy Head of Legal and Consular Affairs

Consulate General of Germany

1960 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94109

So unbeknownst to me, I’ve been a German citizen all along because I was born to a father (I think it’s been amended now to include mother, as well) who was a German citizen on the day of my birth! It turns out that all I need to do is affirm, acknowledge, and accept my German citizenship! This process takes about two years at this point, due to a severe backlog, but when all is said and done, I *and all my direct decedents* will be able to get German passports! Think of it as my Germanness being forgotten or dormant, but in effect since my birth. Then my descendants - YOU! - will have the same status because, like me, you were born to a German parent without being aware. 

My father kept just about every important document he was ever issued. There is a binder on my bookshelf filled with hundreds of these documents. His German passport is not among them. I believe that he (and Mom) were ordered to surrender their German passports upon receipt of their American passports in 1959, and that’s why they can’t be found in Dad’s document binder, but one way or another, I’ll need to find those passports - or copies of them. I’m sure some Bundesamt (official government office) in Germany has them!   

Why am I going through all the trouble to affirm my (and thus your) German citizenship? (Yes, you can have dual citizenship.) Because way back in 1938, when things looked pretty bad in Germany, some lucky people left. After that, it was impossible to leave unless you had the necessary papers, the most obvious and helpful of which was a passport from another country. Who knows when - or if - you or your parents (or even your children!) will want to leave the US? This is definitely not the country it was when my parents immigrated here in 1953 with such high hopes, and I fear the worst for America these days. I want you to have options! 

Much love, 


Monday, September 6, 2021

Eighteen and evolving in Ingolstadt

Dear grandkids,

What is it with this father of mine and his wide open heart?!

Gisela, Nora, Gisela again… and now Thomas meets 28-year-old Ingrid, mother to 4-year-old Karola!

I believe that Dad’s year in Ingolstadt as protector of “broken” Ingrid and Karola influenced him very deeply. It was an important year of maturity, growth, and self-knowledge that, I believe, stayed with him throughout his life.

As Dad writes, “In our rapport, she became younger and in need of a centering bond and I grew older and stronger, reveling in my role of provider of the bond we both needed. And we both felt loved for the role the other played.”

Here are his words:

In August, 1946, Gisela and I tiptoed into a very tentative, very hesitant exchange of letters again. We wrote, with a bit of a cool superiority, about how unforgettable the days of 1944 were, that their luster would never tarnish, and isn't it wonderful that we can now be such good friends.

Gisela was in the middle of her "conversion to a natural authority,” as they called her teacher education, and she was alternately scared and "longing for the new and unknown, for that big unexplored land," as she called the future ahead of her. On the same day that Gisela wrote that, Nora wrote that yes, I'm right, she probably has changed, and "feels like a doll who has learned to say a few sentences, but basically just has to sit in an armchair with a pretty smile and look attractive to men." Of course, they were both exaggerating, but they couldn't have expressed the difference in their personalities and ambitions more clearly.

For me, the future was literally a "big unexplored land.” It looked like we would really emigrate to the USA in the spring of 1947, just after I finished high school.

“We”? Who did Dad mean by “we”? Who would emigrate to American in 1947? He and his siblings? Ulli did eventually emigrate (and became a huge part of our lives), while Rainer stayed in Europe (Switzerland), but was the plan for all three of them to emigrate together in 1947? Obviously that didn’t work, as it wasn’t until 1953, after Dad met Mom and my oldest brother Michael was born, that they finally emigrated. But “they” consisted of people not even in Dad’s life in 1946. Curiouser and curiouser!

At the time, I was leaning toward studying Pharmacology which would require a couple of years of hands-on work to earn some money and get to know people and language "over there,” before starting the actual college work. That suited me just fine and gave me all the incentive I needed. I was anxious, I wrote in my diary, to replace the old European horse-and-buggy romanticism with the romance of experiencing something new, even if that new kind of "romance" is colder and more pragmatic than the German Romanticism we knew. But first, I just absolutely had to pass the exam at the end of the Special Course that was about to start.

The course began in September, and it was quite exciting. We read Homer in Greek, we read the Bible in Greek in place of the traditional religion class, we read Socrates’ Apologia, we practiced analytical geometry, and we focused deeply on German composition.

It was good to have older classmates, and I felt quite at home among them. I was just turning eighteen, while the other ten students were between 20 and 28. Among them, I mused, I had the feeling that I could see the outlines of the thinking and its character of the person I hoped to become. It was boys my own age that I had trouble with. If I couldn't be with older friends, I'd rather be with animals, or even with children, whose body, mind, and soul were still in balance. I was becoming a bit set in my outlook. Gisela, on the other hand, felt she was on a never-ending internal journey and felt sorry for people who couldn't relate to her flights of fancy. We were both trying to understand the directions in which our emerging personalities were pulling us. We were experiencing changes in ourselves, and we tried to build bridges from 1944, when everything for us was "eternal,” to our current lives when our focus had to be more pragmatic, realistic, and future-focused.

When fall came and all the students’ rooms were cold or couldn't be heated, five or six of us would go to the Hauptstrasse and study for hours at the coffee house (no, they didn’t have real coffee, of course, only Ersatzkaffee). Sometimes girls from the local girls’ high school sat at the table next to us and tried to study, too, or so they said. It was harder to concentrate then, especially when the girl in the red-white-and-black-striped sweater was there, the petite one with the brown eyes and the short dark hair. But that was just one good reason for doing the homework there. The other reason was that I didn't want to walk the long way home and back again for the afternoon classes.

I had trouble with people who considered themselves "wise and experienced.” That was as close as I remember getting to teenage rebellion. One of those sages was my principal, who called me to his office because I had attended a political meeting "without having obtained the prior approval of the Director of the School.” Oh, how I longed for the freedoms of America! And my landlord, Herr Bürger — “Bürger,” a provincial petit-bourgeois, what a fitting name! — was grinding on my nerves. He taught music he didn't understand to kids he didn't understand. He was small and narrow-minded, with closely-set eyes, and seemed to personify the type of person about whom we had just read in a Horace ode: Odi profanum et arceo — “I hate all that’s commonplace and keep it away from me.” I kept him away from me by moving closer into town.

I forgot how I made the connection for finding the room in town, just a block from the cathedral. Somehow, it must have been through the school. One didn't just find a room through an ad or a note on a bulletin board, but always had to go through official bureaucratic channels. One of the professors at the Gymnasium — not one of mine — had just died, which meant that the family was no longer entitled to the entire floor space of the apartment, and had to take in someone: me. On the first of December I moved to Grießbadgasse 32, into the third-floor apartment where the widow of the professor lived with her daughter Ingrid, and Ingrid's daughter Karola, age four.

The kitchen was the only heated room in the apartment, and the kitchen table was the only place to do my homework, making my integration into the family easy and natural. Little Karola, or Pitti as she was called, was obviously seeking a father figure in her life, and I loved the role. I chopped wood for the kitchen stove, our only heating appliance. I cut up newspaper into toilet paper. I even went shopping for our "family” because, as a "victim of the Nazi regime,” I had a pass that entitled me to go to the front of food lines. I sat and listened, I read stories to little Karola, and I took her for walks to the old town fortifications. I automatically fell into my position in the tribal network: man in the house.

I have to wonder whether I was named – at least partially – after this Karola, who my Dad spoke of lovingly. He never specifically told me I was… nor did I ever ask. But when you think about it, this is the first young child he really knew and loved as an adult. There’s a likely connection, yes?

Why did the Lodging Office assign me to a place with three generations of women?! Did they figure it was an important part of my education? It turned out to be. In fact, what I learned in that apartment in Griesbadgasse was more important for my human development than all the humanistic school wisdom I was working so hard to understand at the Gymnasium.

Ingrid was 28, ten years older than I. She was in a bad state of imbalance because of everything she had been through lately. Four years ago, she had married the man she loved, having known him for five years, a promising stage actor in her beloved homeland of Silesia. They had their little girl Karola. Ingrid was working as Physical Therapist when the war machine rolled over her homeland. Silesia had been designated by the Allies to become a part of Poland. Along with millions of others, Ingrid's family was expelled. They had to flee into the German heartland on foot, taking only what they could carry or put in a small hand-pulled cart. Shortly after that flight, Ingrid's husband left her. The divorce was in process as I met her. And now, on top of the loss of home and husband, her father had died, and she had to care for an old mother and a young daughter at a most precarious and difficult time. Only Ingrid's level-headed, down-to-earth practicality was keeping her above water, and just barely. Then, just in time, I came along as the straw she could grab.

The straw itself was vulnerable. I was terribly lonely for human contact, although I was beginning to experience the new blossoming of the old romance with Gisela. That budding relationship had the drawback of being all by mail, and I was, shall we say, a curious young man.

The more Nora turned away from me, the more I remembered what I had - cruelly - sacrificed for Nora: Gisela, my real love, whose photo I had carried in a pouch around my neck all through the months of camp and on the walk through Saxony after liberation. I felt that I went through all this just for her. Gisela, the first girl to whom I had become engaged on a magic early-August day of 1944. Our innocent and pure love was the first for both of us, romantic as none since then, secret and defiant to our parents who objected strongly to what they didn’t know. That was what I wanted, she was I, she was my alter ego — why could I ever have felt otherwise?

It was with a delicious hint of melancholy that I now saw the feminine tenderness in all Gisela’s exuberant curiosity for unknown experiences and far-away places. She would not turn down the America I dreamed of, but would incorporate it in dreams of her own. How could I ever have left the one human being who, at one time, had been the angel of my pure and overflowing love? I started courting her again, tentative at first, not daring to think that she would be able to take me back now. In defiance of my real thoughts, I pretended that we were good friends now, and I called our mutual first love two years earlier “cheering to heaven, heartsick to death.” Which it was, at least in my own role as Gisela’s Cherubino.

Right into this heartbreaking decision between Nora and Gisela dropped Ingrid.

She was the one who was present in my life and she was the one with the greatest need of a strong arm around her shoulders, even if that arm was 10 years her junior. For two years she dedicated her mind, body, and soul to support a huge almost untenable load. Ingrid delighted in that young man who had fluttered into her house and life. She attached herself to me, and I found myself in a new role. Although I was much younger, I reveled in the feeling of being a real support to someone. I began to understand what Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach meant when she had said that "the people to whom we are a brace give us our support in life.” Before Christmas came, we had become very important to one another.

Ingrid Karola and Thomas 1946 Ingolstadt

(Ingrid, Karola, and Thomas – Ingolstadt, 1946)

It was warm and tender and liberating. Ingrid was the first real woman in my life. It was a wonderful experience to take her under my wing, while she took me under hers. And Ingrid did not say, as Nora had, "You are still so young!" In our rapport, she became younger and in need of a centering bond and I grew older and stronger, reveling in my role of provider of the bond we both needed. And we both felt loved for the role the other played. Why was it that all girls I had known were looking for more guidance and strength from me (I thought), but the only mature woman, Ingrid, said that the strongest bond she felt to me was her sense of feeling harbored and protected?

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Thomas the philosopher

Dearest grandchildren,

In this post, my father gets philosophical – and I get melancholy.

When I was looking for a meaningful reading for Dad’s funeral in 2017, I only had to go as far as his words in this little chapter of his book, The Rim of the Volcano. And reflecting on that reading made me reflect on his death… which made me reflect on his life… which made me realize that, in many ways, I am only really beginning to understand my father now, four years after his death, as I examine and ponder every word of his writings.

I chose to read the bolded words in this entry at Dad’s memorial because they so perfectly describe his philosophy about religion, science, compassion, knowledge, faith, order/chaos, nature, physics, and… well, the electromagnetic and space-time spectrum!

I share all of Dad’s philosophies that he describes here. Is that because he quietly and carefully imparted them upon me over the years? Or is it just happenstance, since we lived in the same family and community at the same time, even though we were separated by a generation? I don’t know, but I do know that I am grateful to Dad for urging us to always think, to question, to ponder, and to reflect. He reflected by writing, and I am grateful to have “inherited” that passion.

I decided to include photos from Dad’s memorial in this post because this important time in Ingolstadt is where Dad began to formulate his life philosophy that was brought full circle at his memorial.

I wish Dad could pull up a chair in my office and sit with me for a bit as I try to bring his words to life for his great-great grandchildren. Oh, how he would have loved you!

God, I miss him.

Here you go, dear grandchildren. Here are your great-grandfather’s words. Remember to always question, ponder, and reflect!

The summer of 1946 was terribly lonely for me. There was no picture of a woman in my room that summer. Nora’s picture had been dethroned. The picture I saw in my mind was that of Gisela, but it had become hazy. My first love. My pure love. My oh-so-innocent love. Would there ever be a chance that she would enter my life again? The eighth of August 1944 -- so very, very long ago, still smoldered in my soul, buried under two years of intensive living.

Professor Klatt from Vienna, a friend of my parents, had written in one of his books that "a young person who is still in the process of developing needs a great deal of solitude." I wrote that into my collection of poems and aphorisms at the time as a sort of consolation – the very wise Professor Klatt said it, so it must be true for me! But I didn't like this “important” solitude one bit. What did he think I should do with my riches of solitude? Brood? Think? Dream? Ruminate over all the newness one must digest when one is young? Why is it better to do that at home alone, in the quiet of one’s lonely little room? I didn't get it and I fought it. It wasn't until later that I realized that, while you learn about others in groups, you learn about yourself by meditating alone.

Two powerful influences on me during this time consisted of a Catholic student and a Priest teacher. Both were after me to save my half-Jewish, Protestant-raised soul. I had lengthy discourses with both, but the more they tried, the more they moved me away from the believes of my childhood. I still felt comfortable being called a Protestant (there wasn’t a drop of religion in the half-Jewish part of me), but I had practiced no religion for many years now, other than admiring Baroque churches, getting to know more of Bach's music, and looking at the religious pictures in my father's collection. My religious feelings were -- and still are! -- quite well summarized by Immanuel Kant: "There are two things which fill me with ever greater admiration, the more my mind contemplates them: the starry sky above me and the moral imperatives within me."

The more my two Catholic friends talked, the more I doubted. They only managed to instill three things in me: first, a thorough dislike for people with missionary zeal; second, a growing feeling that people had to invent religions to make themselves feel good; and most importantly, the realization that our own perceptions of heaven and earth are conditioned by a mind that could not possibly conceive of how huge the space-time spectrum is. I was just learning about the electromagnetic spectrum. It told me that our senses, being optimized for the great experiment called "evolution" (we didn't know about DNA in those days) can only perceive that minuscule part of the spectrum which we require for procreating and evolving. We happen to live in three dimensions, so the mind cannot visualize another dimension any more than a dog, say, can know what "reading" is.

The older I got, and the more I learned about the ingenious balance between order and chaos in the "big experiment" of nature and physics, and the more respect I gained for the grandeur behind the experiment. I developed an awe for realizing that vastly larger realities we cannot comprehend must exist, but I cannot get myself to worship them so they are benevolent to me, or ask their protection or forgiveness. But then — every time I watch the goldfish in the pond and observe their behavior, I think: ‘They have no idea I'm watching them. They hide when I approach, and they compete for the food I give them, but they don’t understand my presence. Is someone watching me in my fish bowl? And if someone is watching my behavior, is someone also watching that someone’s behavior?!’ It all felt so convoluted and yet, it made so much sense.

Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,

and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.

I have never felt the need to develop a more profound theology than that in all of my adult life, but I'm not completely comfortable with it. What if there really is a God, and now he's mad at me? When I was eighteen years old, I longed for more, because my conscience and my surroundings told me I should. But even then, I found it hard to relate to any of the organized beliefs. I wanted knowledge, not faith. Today I find it interesting to study religions as a means of studying people. Isn't it presumptuous to say you "know" something that nobody can truly know? But I envy religious people for the peace their blind faith gives them, and I'm thankful for religions to have inspired the world's most magnificent art.

Handel wrote in the “Messiah,” that wonderful aria, “I know that my redeemer liveth.” What did he “know”? Did he really know? Did he think he knew? Did he believe he knew? Did he question whether he actually knew? Did he think questioning was a sin? What inspired that beautiful aria?

Don't I believe in anything then? Yes, I do, but you can’t really call it a religion. It seems that we establish the outlines of a belief system rather early in life and have it undergo its own evolution as we experience the world and people. I was well over 50 before I found the perfect credo for myself, and I have had it in front of me under the glass on my desk ever since.

Invitation front - no lines1

Sir Kenneth Clark expressed it with a clarity that cannot be improved upon:

"I believe that order is better than chaos, and creation is better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. Overall, I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human compassion is more valuable than ideology.

"I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last 2000 years, and so we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves.

"I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people's feeling by satisfying our own egos. And that we are part of a great whole which, for convenience, we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters.

Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible."

Invitation back - no lines

Program - pub1-A

Program - pub2-A

Thomas continues… from Ingolstadt in 1946.

I digress. Yes, life for me was very intense back in Ingolstadt 1946, and it was about to get more so.

The school year was over in mid-July. My report card was… well, charitable. It said that I was a “meticulous and well-behaved student who achieved, thanks to his great diligence, satisfactory results, except for the old languages which presented some difficulties.” That was an understatement. I got Ds in Latin and Greek, Cs in English and German, and just “satisfactory” in the rest of the subjects. The automatic “A” in Religion (despite my agnosticism!) didn’t make up for it.

Worse was the pre-printed reminder on the bottom of my report card: “To repeat Junior year, as required by law.”

The reason for that little legal wrinkle was this: Few of Germany’s universities had survived the war intact. During the four years of the war, millions of young men had to give up college for military service. Now, all at once, they came back to the ruins of their homes and their colleges. At the same time, a wave of new high school graduates was ready to graduate to compete with the returnees. Clearly, something had to be done. So West Germany — not the Russian Eastern zone — held the wave back by legislating an intensified extra year in high school which, for Seniors, could often count as a semester of college. At the same time, they arranged special crash programs for returning soldiers who had been drafted into the army out of high school. It was the way to get them a high school diploma fast before the younger students would graduate.

Here was my chance. We wanted to emigrate to America in 1947 and I couldn’t wait until summer 1948 to get my high school diploma. Using the interruption of my education under the Nazis as a justification, I used my summer vacation to apply for and pursue a very special permission from the Bavarian Ministry of Education to attend one of those Special Courses. It worked. Instead of spending two full years with high school kids to get the piece of paper entitling me to enter a university, I got permission to attend a six-month high-pressure crash course along with former soldiers.

Off to Ingolstadt

Dear grandchildren,

In April, 1946, when my father moved alone to Ingolstadt, Germany, just a year after WWII ended, he was just 17. He was alone in the world, with both parents dead and having just left his brother and sister in München. Thomas’ year in Ingolstadt will prove to be one of the most influential in his life.

To me, Dad was always absolutely and steadfastly dependable, organized, and methodical. In reading his memoir again - this time very closely, as I am editing it – I realize where these traits come from. Unlike you and me, Thomas had no one to depend on but himself. At an age when you and I plan fun high school graduation festivities and events, Thomas literally had to figure out his path forward, and he had to do this completely alone, with no support (emotional, financial, or otherwise) from anyone, anywhere. I always knew that I could fall back on my parents if and when I needed it. You will surely be able to do the same with your parents. But Thomas couldn’t depend on such a fortunate safety net. Can you imagine?!

With time, it became more and more obvious that the situation in the small apartment at Schulstraße 5 in Solln was untenable. It was extremely crowded, and soon Rainer and Renate would need room for the baby who was due to be born very soon. I was tired of Renate constantly mocking and belittling me, just as Rainer did, and Ulli couldn’t stand much more of Renate’s relentless bossiness.

One day, Ulli had not yet finished a task that Renate had ordered her to do after school, so Renate tried to punish Ulli by locking her in a broom closet, whereupon Ulli — sweet gentle Ulli! — turned around and slapped Renate in the face! I knew that things had deteriorated to a point that I had to get out – and soon.

Ulli 1953

(Sweet, gentle Ulli.)

With Rainer’s help, I began furiously looking for living opportunities and a Gymnasium (high school) out of town. We finally found both in Ingolstadt, about 50 miles away. I was gone a few days after Andreas was born. Within a year, Rainer and Renate were in divorce proceedings.

Ingolstadt, which lies right at the center of Bavaria between München and Nürnberg, is a thousand years old and one of the few cities in Germany that was virtually unscathed by the war. The Liebfrauenmünster cathedral dominates the town, towering over the densely-huddled houses like a hen over her chicks to make sure they don’t get into too much trouble — not an unintended effect, I'm sure.


Today, Ingolstadt is a major modern city, with industry, cultural events, museums, and a castle, plus several very good schools - all the things a modern city needs. But in 1946, it was a much smaller provincial town. As far as I could tell, Ingolstadt didn’t have much to offer other than a magnificent fifteenth-century cathedral and a “konvikt” – a catholic boarding school, where I was supposed to make my home for the next year or so, as ordered by both my legal guardian, my father’s business associate Konsul Rothe, and by Rainer. No kidding - I was supposed to make this place my home! Knowing some English, I knew that a place called a “konvikt” didn’t bode well for my freedom.

My hunch was right. Today, when I hear about monks in their cells, or nuns in the refectory, I think of that place. It was dark, dank, and forbidding, although it was now inhabited by kids. Most of the students who went to the Gymnasium (the high school just around the corner) lived there, and to keep me out of trouble, Rothe and Rainer decided that I should be a “convict” there too, but I refused. First, I wasn’t Catholic, and second, I just didn’t want to. No way. And I told the principal, who understood surprisingly well, I thought.

Ingolstadt konvikt school

(The “konvikt” school today. It must have been renovated…)

“Come to think of it,” the principal said when I met with him, “There’s Herr Bürger, the piano teacher. The Lodging Office says he must take two students into his guest room. Why not go see him? I’m sure they’ll take good care of you. They live at Reiterstraße 4.”

Anything would be better than the Konvikt. Reiterstraße is a twenty-minute walk from town: go by the Frauenmünster, walk out through the gate of the old inner-city walls, by the outer fortifications, and beyond the cemetery. I got to know that walk quite well.

The Bürger’s house was a nice, friendly little place, the kind of single-family house not very common in Germany in those days. There was a small garden around it, with well-tended vegetable beds and some kitsch dwarf figurines. In the bright April sun, it looked quite inviting.

I rang the bell at the garden gate and immediately met my new best friend for the next seven months: he came lumbering out the front door, ahead of his master. He was a classic brown, white and black St. Bernard, not quite as massive as his very fluffy fur made him look. He wasn’t young anymore, probably beyond the brandy keg age, I thought.

“Sit down, Burschi,” said the man. I made friends with Burschi right then and there on the front steps, and decided that I wanted to live there, even before I had seen the room.

The room was nice enough, small but light. A table, two beds against bare walls, and a simple washstand. The walls were stenciled with flowers - a bit too feminine for me, but so what. The Municipal Lodging Office gave its blessing, and I moved in.

The subjects taught at the Gymnasium were the same subjects I was used to. Always first: Religion. Everyone always gets an automatic A in Religion. Even I got one. Then there was German, Latin, Greek, English, Math, Physics, History, Geography.

I entered the Junior class at the end of April, when there were only ten weeks left in the school year, and of course I remained the new kid in class all spring. I had a hard time. I felt academically inferior to these kids, but on the other hand I considered myself superior to them as a person, having gathered a few knocks of life in the years leading up to my attendance. Unlike the improvised school in München, this was the real thing with 28 hours of classes a week, plus loads of mandatory homework. It was a peace-time schedule, peace-time expectations, and — the worst part — the same old, humorless, calcified boys’ peace-time prep-school teachers. The Classic Philologians were the worst. They must have been the model for Prévert’s poem “The Correct Way”:

A chaque kilomètre                                   At every mile marker

chaque anné                                             year after year

des vieilards au front borné                      the most narrow-minded geezers

indique aux enfants la route                     teach children the right way

d’un geste de ciment armé.                      with faces of reinforced concrete.

Now, as long as we are at Prévert, I loved this poem, mainly because it describes something I was not. I would have given anything if I could be this boy:

Il dit non avec la tête                                With his head he says no

mais il dit oui avec le cœur                      but with his heart he says yes

il dit oui à ce qu’il aime                             he says yes to those he loves

il dit non au professeur                            he says no to the teacher

il est debout                                             he’s at the blackboard

on le questionne                                      he’s being asked

et tout les problèmes sont posé               asked all those questions

soudain le fou rire le prend                      suddenly a crazy laugh grabs him

et il efface tout                                         and he erases everything

les chiffres et les mots                             the numbers and the words

les dates et les noms                               the dates and the names

les phrase et les pièges                           the phrases and the traps

et malgré les menace du maître              and in spite of the teacher’s threats

sous les hués des enfants prodiges        under the boos of the “good” kids

avec des craies de toutes les couleurs   with chalks of all colors

sur le tableau noir de malheur                 on the blackboard of misery

il dessine le visage du bonheur.              he draws a happy face.

I shouldn’t be so rough on the teachers. After all, they probably would have been very happy to retire, but only they could continue where teaching had ceased before the collapse. There just were no young teachers. The few that had chosen to teach antique languages before the war were either dead, wounded, or in captivity. Writing this now, I don’t even know whether a thought like that would ever have occurred to me at the time. Is that because I was too wrapped up in my own problems? Or was it just an accepted practice to be “down on teachers”? Or -- more likely -- was it because everyone knew that there was no point to even think about it, as nothing could be changed. We have a tendency to accept without thinking what general knowledge and common consciousness around us is, and we only actively consider what is controversial in our society at any given time. How critical should we be today of Washington or Jefferson because they kept slaves? “Everybody did it.”

There was one memorable exception: the young, smart, attractive German teacher – who was a woman! I guessed that she was probably a graduate student of German Literature before being drafted as hospital worker (or something like it) during the war. Somehow, I had caught her attention, and she, mine. I liked her teaching, and I was eager to learn and to please her.

Toward the end of the school year, she taught us some Middle High German. I already knew Walther von der Vogelweide and loved his poetry. To give that part of our language studies a fitting conclusion, she said, she just had to share a poem, written 500 years earlier, although it wasn’t in the textbook. She did it, she said, because it was her favorite, and after all, we were big boys now. For months, she taught from the teacher’s desk in front of the class. But I will never forget what happened on this day, She stood up, book in hand, and walked through the neat row of desks, right into the class, stopping at my desk, where she sat down on it, right smack in front of me, and began to read:

Under der linden                                       Under the linden tree

an der heide                                             by the heath

dâ unser zweier bette                               there was the bed of both of us

dâ muget ir vinden                                    where you could find

schône beide                                            flowers and grass,

gebrochen bluomen unde gras,               broken both —

vor dem walde in einem tal                      by the forest, in a valley,

tandaradei, tandaradei,                            tandaradei, tandaradei

schône sanc diu nahtegal.                       lovely sang the nightingale.

Wow — was she really reading that kind of poetry to us? What she did that day is something I had never, ever seen in all my school life: the teacher sat, facing the class sideways, on top of a student’s desk — MINE! Her figure - close enough to touch! Thinking about it, I can still feel my heart in my throat, my face on fire. She read on:

Ich kam gegangen                                    I came walking

zuo der ouwe:                                           to the glen:

dô was mîn friedel komen ê.                    my beloved was already there.

Dâ wart ich enpfangen,                            there he received me,

hêre frouwe! —                                        Holy Virgin! —

daz ich bin sælic iemer mê.                     so that I'm happy evermore.

Kuster mich? wol tûsentstundt:               Did he kiss me? A thousand times!

tandaradei! tandaradei!                            tandaradei, tandaradei

Seht wie rôt mir ist der munt.                   see how red my mouth is!

Daz er bî mir læge,                                  That he lay with me,

wessez iemen                                          if anyone knew it

(nu enwelle got!) sô schamt ich mich.     (God forbid!) I would be ashamed.

Wes er mit mir pflæge                             What he did with me

niemer niemen                                        nobody will ever know that

bevinde daz, wan er unt ich                    except he and I

und ein kleinez vogellîn,                         and a tiny little bird,

tandaradei, tandaradei,                           tandaradei, tandaradei

daz mac wol getriuwe sîn.                       who should keep our secret.

From that day on, did I have a huge secret crush on her? Tan-dara-dei!!

Something else happened during those days that was almost as exciting. My uncles William and Edgar, my father's brothers, wrote from Hollywood: “Come to America, the sooner the better!” Now THAT was something to look forward to! We didn't have a good grasp of what America was really like; we were only sure of a few things: there was no hunger, and no cold winter. Instead of destroyed cities there was wide-open spaces, both physically and, more importantly, mentally. In America, there would be no more of this German narrow-mindedness, and no fear that someday Germans would come after us again, maybe not like the Nazis, but in some new form. According to William and Edgar, few things were forbidden in America, and people were happy, not depressed and suffering like here.

I said YES to that idea with all my heart.

Wait! What is this?! Both William and Edgar emigrated to America – and were already here in 1946?! How do we not know this story? I know that there’s a story behind Edgar’s emigration to America – he came via France and Africa – but how and when did William come to America, and how and when did he return to Germany (where he died in 1966)? I know that he was in advertising, and that he learned a great deal about advertising in New York City (during the Mad Men years?), but what’s the back story? And if Thomas’ brothers were already in the US, why didn’t my parents use them as representatives when they emigrated in 1953? So many questions… and so few opportunities to find answers!

“All my heart,” indeed. My heart was becoming more and more available. As the spring of 1946 turned into a warm summer, Nora’s letters turned colder and colder. At first I thought she was simply as wrapped up in school as she claimed. In the East Zone, she said, they had to work so much harder than we did. She was falling victim to the Communist propaganda, heating up even at that early stage in the "cold war": things were done "right" in the East and "wrong" in the West. Unlike us, in the decadent West, they were working for the bright new Communist Society of Progress. She gave her demanding school work as the reason why her letters became rarer and shorter, and wondered, she wrote, if she really deserved my love and trust. Soon, she started writing about the big society parties her parents took her to, about the hours she spent sunning herself on the balcony, and about the bad grades she got because she was "too lazy.” Sometimes she would send me dried flowers she had picked from the garden of our destroyed place in Chemnitz. At the end of each letter, she would put a sentence about still being “mine,” about longing for me, and so on. At first, I was blind to her increasing coldness, not wanting to believe it, and I began to cajole her, finally lecturing her in my best schoolmaster’s style. Her letters became even more sobering. She gradually started seeing more of her old (and much older) friend Kurt Bienert, a school friend of Rainer’s.

I think I was simply too young for her and her hormones, and too far away. Besides, she wanted to convert to Catholicism, and was taking lectures about the sin she had committed. "The priest", she wrote, "can forgive that only if the woman is ready to do all she can to free herself from the man." She was doing all she could. Her father, in his intellectual Communism, became a big shot in the health system of East Germany, drove around in his big BMW with the red government banner when the rest of East Germans had to live in a Third World economy. "Mummi", now on the Berlin City Council, made sure that daughter Nora was stylishly dressed and made up. But that didn't keep Nora from joining the FDJ, the Communist Youth Organization. She wrote: “I believe we young people, who consider ourselves as the intelligentsia of Germany, must cooperate in the rebuilding of the New Germany. I think Mummi will agree with my step, and Dad for sure. They both are doing the same thing, anyway.” Reading her letters today I am embarrassed how blind I was, how selectively I read them, and how, in my romantic naiveté, I believed her continued assurances. The confused duplicity of conversion to Catholicism and new Communist membership as being akin to her assurances of faithfulness to me and innocent times with Kurt. I just didn't see it.

By the time I wrote to her about our plans to go to America, she wrote that oh well, then we’ll just have to go our separate ways, because she wasn’t going to the West — if anything, she would go to Russia, her new big love. What little correspondence there was after that faded away into trivia. She slipped from my thought and from my life.

Nora was married two years later to someone with a Russian name, and eventually had four children. I have no idea if she ever made it to Catholicism or to Russia. In 1990, when I sent her my story The Longest year in the Young Life of Peter Bauer — which, after all, was partly her story — she thanked me with all the warmth of Moscow in February.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Post-war poetry

Dear grandchildren,

What 17-year-old guy (or girl) do you know who loves poetry this much?! As I mentioned previously, my father Thomas had the sole of a poet. He was about as far from “macho” as one could get and never understood the testosterone-driven hyper-masculinity that American society clearly found so appealing in the 70s and 80s (look up the TV shows Magnum PI, Miami Vice, and MacGyver), and even through the early 2000s.

In this post, like the last few, Thomas continues to turn inward and we get to know more about his spirit and thoughtful personality as a young man. War and daily survival are no longer his sole focus and he is able to settle back into school and begin to ponder what he wants the rest of his life to look like.

Here are his words – and some poems!

I wrote to Nora: “You have no idea how anxious I am to start a normal, regular life and to get back into learning again! Being so unproductive in Adelsberg was the hardest part of those months.” I’m not sure how sincerely I meant that. Much of what we wrote in letters that went back and forth every few days consisted of things we had heard, but not quite digested. How could we have? Nora was a few months older than I, and probably many months ahead of me in maturity, although I wouldn’t have admitted it then. Her letters spoke of real yearning and commitment; they sounded very honest and they probably were. I was longing for the dark winter evenings when we took endless walks in the forests around her parents’ house in Adelsberg. Those walks, for me, were the essence of being together:

Es hat nun all die Stunden

still vor sich hingeschneit.

Die Erde ist verschwunden

in Schnee und Ewigkeit.

Und langsam schon und leise

verwandelt sich der Tag.

Der Abend auf seine Weise

erhebt sich hinter dem Hag.

Wir wollen nichts mehr sagen,

die Worte sind so laut.

Was wir im Herzen tragen,

ist uns ja alles vertraut.

Und wenn dann so beim Wandern

sich Schulter an Schulter lehnt,

fühlt einer in dem andern,

wie er sich nach ihm sehnt.

Die Flocken fallen und wehen,

die Dämmerung hüllt uns ein.

Wir wollen nur ... so ... hingehen ...

und ganz beieinander sein.

-- Manfred Hausmann

It has for all these hours

been snowing silently.

The earth has almost vanished

in white eternity.

Now very still and slowly

the day transforms itself.

The evening in its manner

rises behind the grove.

Let us not even whisper.

Our words, they are so loud.

We know so well what thinking

Lies deep in our hearts.


And then, when, in so walking,

shoulder and shoulder meet,

one senses in the other

the longing thoughts we share.

The flakes are falling and drifting,

The dusk envelops us.

Let’s just ... keep ... walking,

and feel together and close.

Ah yes, Nora… But there’s no time for dreaming! Reality demands that I try to buy some pencils for Nora! She’s taking drawing lessons and can’t find pencils, especially soft ones, in the Russian Zone.

For the first time in three years, I would soon return to a classroom. My old school in Chemnitz was a Humanistisches Gymnasium – that is, a college prep school emphasizing Latin, Greek, and the Humanist liberal education and the values that go along with them. The Theresiengymnasium in München was beginning to operate again on a limited basis. The school rooms near the Goetheplatz had been largely spared from bomb damage, the old Nazi teachers had been thrown out, and just enough coal was available to at least keep the rooms from freezing. Most of the windows were still boarded up.

Theresiengymnasium today

(Theresiengymnasium today)

Like my Gymnasium in Chemnitz, it had the pedigree of a proper old school from the years after the First World War. It looked oddly familiar: dark hallways, massive wooden handrails on the stairs, with knobs on top to keep kids from having fun by sliding down on them. It even smelled like my school in Chemnitz, a mixture of locker room, pissoir, and chalk. Just about now my old classmates were probably returning to their own lives. I felt awkward: re-entering a childhood world as a walking anachronism.

The principal looked at my papers from Chemnitz. The report card from 1942 told him that Geography and Physics were my only “good” subjects; the rest were average or below, with Math and History just barely passing. The report card of March 1943, when the Nazis had thrown me out of school, wasn’t much better: Math was still terrible. So was Greek. But then I also had a piece of paper saying that I was certifiably “meticulous, courteous, focused, and tenacious,” plus affidavits about the private lessons in four languages and all that, and about the Nazi labor camp. The principal studied me, then studied the papers, weighing his guidelines carefully. He finally accepted me as the equivalent of a Junior — provisionally.

The two months I spent at the Theresiengymnasium apparently made little academic impression on me, because I hardly remember any of it. In fact, I remember nothing at all about Latin and Greek, other than how difficult it was to get back into studying. It had only been a year and a half since I last sat down to study a subject or write a paper, but what a tumultuous time it was! I’m positive my achievements in class were less than impressive.

I was especially impressed by two things: the classes were coed (a first-time and rather uncomfortable experience for me!) and the German lessons were interesting. I found study buddies in a clearly very sophisticated young man and a very pretty (but, OK, less sophisticated) young woman. The German teacher, to my great surprise, was a woman! Never in my life, in any school, had I seen a woman teacher before. She had a particular fondness for poetry (and thus, I, a fondness for her) and showed us how differently Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and Nicolaus Lenau used similar images to deal with loss:

Meine eingelegten Ruder triefen,

Tropfen fallen langsam in die Tiefen.

Nichts, das mich verdroß! Nichts, das mich erfreute!

Nieder rinnt ein schmerzensloses Heute!

Unter mir — ach, aus dem Licht verschwunden —

Träumen noch die schönern meiner Stunden.

Aus der blauen Tiefe ruft das Gestern:

Sind im Licht noch manche meiner Schwestern?


Lying on my vessel’s edge, my oars are dripping.

Drops are falling slowly, slowly in the deep.

Nothing that upsets me, nothing cheers me up.

A present without pain is trickling down.

Below me — ah, from daylight vanished —

Lie my bygone fairer hours, dreaming.

From the azure depths, the past is calling:

Are there sisters up there in the light?

The other poem, by Lenau, still comes to mind today when I’m near a stream:

Sahst du ein Glück vorübergehn,

Das nie sich wiederfindet,

Ist’s gut in einen Strom zu sehn

Wo alles wogt und schwindet.....

...Hinträumend wird Vergessenheit

Des Herzens Wunde schließen.

Die Seele sieht in ihrem Leid

Sich selbst vorüberfließen.


When you have met a passing bliss

that never will return,

It’s good to stare into a stream

Where all is surge and fading...

...And as you dream, forgetting will

Heal all your pain and heartbreak.

Your soul will see itself

Flow past, with all its anguish.

We analyzed these poems to death in class, but neither of them touched me especially deeply. I’m sure they were chosen by the teacher because there was still so much misery all around and so much healing to be done. Not a single one of the kids in class had come through the war without major losses: a father, an older brother, a friend, a home, an entire homeland. So much of the immediate past was still so painful – like festering wounds of the soul.

Our teacher read one poem to us and didn’t even ask us to analyze it. It is by Lulu von Strauß und Torney, who was still alive then:

Und wenn ich selber längst gestorben bin,

Wird meine Erde blühend stehn,

Und Saat und Sichel, Schnee und Sommerpracht,

Und weißer Tag und blaue Mitternacht

Wird über die geliebte Scholle gehn.

Und werden Tage ganz wie heute sein:

Die Gärten voll vom Dufte der Syringen,

Und weiße Wolken, die im Blauen ziehn,

Und junger Felder seidnes Ährengrün,

Und drüberhin ein endlos Lerchensingen.

Und werden Kinder lachen vor dem Tor

Und an den Hecken grüne Zweige brechen,

Und werden Mädchen wandern Arm in Arm

Und durch den Sommerabend, still und warm,

Mit leisen Lippen von der Liebe sprechen.

Und wird wie heut der junge Erdentag

Von keinem Gestern wissen mehr, noch sagen;

Und wird wie heut doch jeder Sommerwind

Aus tausend Tagen, die vergessen sind,

Geheime Süße auf den Flügeln tragen.


And even then, when I am long dead

My earth will stand in bloom again,

And seed and sickle, snow and summer’s joy

And white-hot day and cobalt-colored night

Will sweep across the cherished ground.

And then there will be days just like today:

The gardens heavy with the lilacs’ scent,

White clouds are drifting in a sea of blue,

The silken green expanse of growing corn,

And high above the endless song of larks.

And children will be laughing out of doors

And will break twigs from hedges by the road,

And girls will wander, arm in arm, and will,

Throughout the warm and quiet summer’s eve

Speak secretly of love with muted lips.

And then as now, the day in all its youth

Will neither know nor speak of any yesterdays.

And yet, just like today, each summer’s breeze

Will carry in its wings the secret sweetness

Of thousand past and long forgotten days.

Now, isn’t that enough reward for a couple of months at school?

That poem struck an immediate chord in me in 1946, and even six decades later, after we have spoiled so much of our environment, it is still one of the most comforting, almost cheerful poems I know, and few poems have had as much presence or given me as much peace as this one. With all its vivid images, it’s hard to get through a beautiful summer without being reminded of it over and over. With tears in my eyes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Adulting in post-war München

Dearest grandchildren,

This entry speaks pretty much for itself. Thomas has found his way to München, found his brother and sister and now, as an orphan and a displaced person, he must begin to figure out what the rest of his life will look like.

Here are his words:

Bitt’schön, wo geht der Zug auf Solln[1]?” I said to the man with the heavy black mustache. He wore a uniform and looked official. I had practiced that sentence for the last half-hour while making my way through downtown München to the train station. I knew how Bavarians felt about Prussians (meaning anybody who speaks high German or another German dialect) and I didn’t want him to think I was a stranger here.

Proper high German for going (to a place) is nach (that place), but I thought that in proper Bavarian it was auf (that place), and I was rather proud that I knew that. Like all Germans, I loved the Bavarian dialect. I thought I remembered how it sounded from peacetime vacations in Bavaria and Austria so long ago. Unlike most Germans, though, I tried to imitate it.

The mustache looked at me, a bit bewildered. I must have said that wrong. I blushed.

Nach Solln?” He said, emphatically. “18:15.” Obviously, he had seen right through me and now he tried to speak a language I would understand.

“On which track?” I wanted to know. He didn’t have to think about that one. There was only one usable platform and track. What amazed me was the amount of order which had already been reestablished here in the American Occupation Zone. The trains here actually ran on a schedule! For all I knew, the train would even leave on time. But then, things run a little more relaxed in Bavaria...

18:15. That would give me a bit of time to rest after the long trek from Hof, the town in the northeastern corner of Bavaria, at the Czech border, where I first had entered the American Zone yesterday. From there, I had hitched on a variety of trucks, staying on country roads, and avoiding the Autobahn because too many of the Autobahn bridges had been destroyed. It would take many years to fix those.

It was dark and cold on this winter night just after Christmas. I was hungry, tired, and dirty. I put one of my valuable suitcases up against a brick wall to sit on and put my feet on the other one with my backpack under my knees just in case I might fall asleep. This technique of sleeping had become a habit, helping me keep my three pieces of luggage with me at all times. The four of us had traveled far like that.

I was so ready for a bit of civilization. It had been more than a week since I’d seen civilized life, over there in the Russian Zone, at Nora’s house.

Nora. Since last April, she had been the center of my life. How hard it had been to leave her; we were practically engaged! In the days and nights before I left, we had become closer than ever. Now, knowing there would be a border between us, the parting was especially bitter, even if it was only a border inside Germany between the Western Occupation Zone and the Eastern one. As it turned out, that border cut the world in half for many years to come. When I sat there in the dark, even though strangers hurried by and huddled around me, my thoughts were far away, and slivers of poems floated through my mind:

Wie hab ich das gefühlt, was Abschied heißt,

Wie weiß ich’s noch: ein unverwundenes,

Grausames Etwas, das ein Schönverbundenes

Noch einmal zeigt, und hinhält, und zerreißt...


How I have felt what parting means!

I feel it still: a blunt and cruel something

That once more shows what had been beautifully tied

And holds it up in front of you, and tears apart....

Oh yes, the pain of leaving was real, just as Rilke had said. But it was not the only poem going through my mind. I felt vaguely uneasy about all that had happened in that last weeks between Nora and me. It had all been so new, so binding, so dangerous.

Es war noch Zeit, ich konnte gehn,

Und alles wäre ungeschehn,

Und alles wäre rein und klar,

Wie es vor jener Stunde war.

Es mußte sein. Die Stunde kam,

Die kurze, schwüle, und sie nahm

Unwandelbar, mit jähem Schnitt

Den ganzen Glanz der Jugend mit. Hermann Hesse

There was still time, I could have left,

And everything would be undone,

All would be innocent and clear

Like once, before that hour came.

It had to be. The hour came,

That short and sultry one, it came,

and severed with a sudden chop

The very luster of my youth.

The short train was backing onto the track and irrevocably, with a sudden click brought me back to the demands of the hour. I was almost at the end of my journey, and I was ready for it to be over. Since leaving Nora’s house I had lugged those suitcases onto freight cars and trucks, stood with them in lines full of refugees, and slept with them on straw sacks in the holding camp and in a tool shed of a railroad yard. Lugging them with me wherever I went. More trains, no beds, more trucks, and more sweaty walks, carrying with me all that was valuable to us three siblings. I was ready for civilization.

The small apartment above the fire house in München-Solln was quite civil — and even warm!

Solln firehaus today

(The Solln firehouse today.)

What a relief to see that Rainer, Ulli, and Renate had arrived, and had managed to settle in. It was such an enormous relief to be together again, safely. My “room” was a couch in what passed for the living room. It was all quite homey, and they even had a pet: a hedgehog, of all things. He felt quite at home under and on the furniture, even on the kitchen table!

The morning after I arrived, I immediately embarked upon the most urgent task, registering at the police station. Not only was it the law (and still is!) to check in and out with the City whenever you move from one place to another, but it was vitally important to establish myself as a legal resident of München as soon as possible. I needed a priority standing among all the people who were vying for the right to live here. In those days, becoming a legal resident of a city was harder than becoming a citizen of another country is today. München, like practically all large cities, had seen the worst of the bombings and livable lodging was desperately rare. There were simply too many people who wanted to live here - people who had lost their homes elsewhere in Germany and had relatives or friends here, like I did, thousands of KZ (Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp) prisoners who had been freed by the Allies, and millions of refugees who were expelled from formerly German lands in the East. They had all fled into a destroyed and already crowded country. And then there was the human flotsam and jetsam of war that always seeks the cities. The Municipal Housing Office, which was in charge of assigning all lodging space, all apartments, all rooms, even all large closets (it seems), was simply overwhelmed.

Anmeldung - Solln

I didn’t realize until a year later how critical it had been to establish my squatter’s rights there.

Next priority: food ration coupons. One could not survive on the rations of others for more than a day. Now, with the blessing of the Polizeiliche Meldebehörde[2] in my hands, I could apply for ration stamps. I don’t remember what I got, but I remember being amazed at how generous the rations were compared to the shortages in the Russian Zone, where I had just come from. A week’s worth of rations in the American zone consisted of two pounds of bread, half a pound of meat, half a pound of fat or oil, a quarter-pound of sugar, jam or honey, plus some pasta, some legumes or rice, and some skim milk. The rest, mainly fish, potatoes, fruit, or vegetables, were catch-as-catch-can (but usually as can’t catch!).

Over the next four years, the food situation improved, but only very gradually. Fields had been destroyed, farmers had been killed or were in captivity in Russia, and millions of cows had perished in the fighting. The entire transportation system was severely damaged or destroyed and there was very little gas, even for the number one priority: food distribution.

Even today, having lived for half a century in a country where food is plenty, it hurts me, down in the pit of my stomach, to leave food on my plate or throw away leftovers. People who have felt the pain of hunger will never waste food again, not even when they can afford all they want.

More generational trauma here! Throughout my childhood I was reminded of the emotional and physical pain Dad speaks of here. He had felt the physical pain of hunger down to the pit of his empty stomach and the emotional pain of food insecurity was with him not only during the war, but for years afterwards, as well. My mother, like all Germans, also knew the physical and emotional pain of hunger. The result was that food and hunger - not mine, but others’ – took center stage throughout my childhood.

Appetite, though – eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full – was an unknown concept to me during my childhood. We ate when we were told to, what we were told to, for as long as we were told to. The only context in which I heard the word “appetite” was in regards to spoiling it, never as something I could gauge or have any control over. I understand WHY I’ve experienced generational trauma regarding food but, in spite of a million diets, therapy, and even hypnotism, I still struggle to define my own appetite and to assert my own control over my own food.

Now it was time for more normal-life challenges, such as getting busy to build a future!

That required much thinking and discussion about professions and earnings potential, about personal talents and challenges, about visions and prospects. As the times dictated, those discussions were rather pragmatic and centered more on what was available and realistic, rather than on personal dreams. One had to focus on practicalities: where could I find work for a decent wage that would provide me with enough income to find a place to live and would entitle me to higher worker food rations?

Rainer had been very lucky to get a job with the American Military Government — why not try that? After all, working there got him a hot meal at lunch, and possibly access to cigarettes which were the hottest black-market item. Not only hot — they were the only hard currency: a single Lucky Strike cigarette was worth 5 Reichsmark and the “whisper exchange rate” may have been “four Ami cigarettes for one pound of bread.” Often, food or ration coupons couldn't be bought on the black market for any amount of money at all, only for cigarettes, but you had to be sure not to be caught “playing the black market” – which existed all around you. While walking down a street, you might hear a whisper. “Shoes? Fat coupons? Silk stockings?” If that item was something you wanted and could buy or trade, you followed the voice to the nearest house entrance or dark spot, and started bargaining. Just about anything could be found on the black market. Once, Rainer bought a bundle of plates of pure copper on a whim!

The black market was largely run by displaced persons, DP’s, in UN lingo, who were occupying a special place in society at the time. They were largely people freed from Nazi camps, and many of them spoke Yiddish, dialects, or languages we didn’t understand. They were considered “broken” -- dismal, miserable, homeless, and poor --yet with special access to goods and treated by authorities with tolerance. They lived mostly in the Bogenhausen District, an area of private villas that had largely survived the bombing. But the black market was not a place; it moved wherever there were crowded sidewalks or unobserved hiding places. And its currency was always cigarettes.

Rainer helped me fill out the application form for the Military Government and introduced me to a strange new world. It turned out that world didn’t want me. It was a very short interview, and it didn’t feel right. Aside from an unfinished high school education, I had absolutely nothing to offer. I didn’t know enough American English even for a dumb office job, and I didn't look like a good warehouse worker either. I couldn’t understand the American GI when he wanted to know how old I was. He kindly but firmly told me to come back with better English. At the time I was quite sure I wouldn’t.

So, what next? Schools were only beginning to open, though nothing was really operational yet. I spent a few days finding that out and ended up quite discouraged. I even tried to do a little studying on my own, but of course that didn’t get very far. At that time, Rainer still wanted to become an engineer. Under his influence, the idea of becoming an engineer made sense to me. It certainly was the kind of profession that Germany would need, and it had a certain glamour value, partly because it would be a respectably masculine and modern thing to do, partly because it was what Rainer wanted to do.

Rainer had worked at one time for a small company called Bauer Kompressoren, where air compressors were built in a small shop not much bigger than a garage. They were in operation now again, - or tried to be. Maybe I could learn something useful there and at the same time get worker’s rations. Besides, they were in Obersendling, only a half-hour walk from Solln.

Bauer Kompressoren map        

Bauer Kompressoren hired me, and there I learned two things that I never forgot - arc welding and lighting cigarettes without matches. Arc welding has come in handy over the years. The cigarette lighting was of immediate value, as matches were hard to come by. I discovered that it was easy to jam a steel rod into a grinding wheel so hard that it took only a few seconds to glow bright red. Voilà— an instant cigarette lighter. Barbaric! (But macho.)

My guardian, Konsul Rothe, who was my father's old bank partner, was neither impressed with macho nor very pleased with where I was headed. In fact, being steeped in staunchly German values of the pre-war period, he was quite unnerved, and strongly urged a more energetic search for an appropriate institution of higher learning, leading to “the really only acceptable title” - a PhD (which he never got).

It worked. I quit Bauer.

A few years ago, on a visit to München, I drove through Obersendling againand I noticed the name “BAUER KOMPRESSOREN” in large letters atop a multi-story modern factory building. The letters alone were about twice the size of the shop I remember from 1946!

Bauer building and employees

(The Bauer Kompressoren factory in Solln today. It is one of 16 Bauer locations worldwide!)

[1] “Please, where does the train leave for Solln?”

[2] Police Registration Authority