On V-E Day (May 8 1945) I was three and a half years old. Since the Allied bombing had stopped, my mother pulled up stakes in Fürstenhagen and in the fall of that year we moved to Frankfurt/Main.
To this day I am quite comfortable in small spaces. Very likely this stems from our first years in Frankfurt, where we were crammed together with two other families in an apartment meant for one. The address, Egelsbacherstraße 2 [Map Link] lies in the suburb of Niederrad, across the river from the city center. When I visited there a few years ago, one of the old residents told me that the row of houses on the even-numbered side of the street had survived the bombing, while the ones across the street had gone down.
My mother and her mother Lydia and I lived in what had been the living room and dining room of the apartment. We partitioned the space by stretching poles across the tops of tall clothes cabinets (chiffoniers) and hanging blankets from the poles. It was crowded but it was cozy. Three families shared the kitchen and bathroom. A potbellied stove with a stovepipe running out the window provided heat when there was wood or coal. Getting a bath meant standing in a shallow cracked white enamel bowl and having my mom sponge me down with cold water.
Grandmother Lydia was home with me all day, while my mother was off at work. Lydia did household work and saw that I was dressed and fed, when there was food. She was kind but she was severely depressed. The loss of her husband, and then the bombing in Berlin, her home, had taken a toll on her mind as well as on her house. She saw Biblical visions of seven flaming swords in the sky and felt that the end of the world was near. She would talk to herself in a harsh and confused way, and sometimes she would not recognize me, and then I would find some little nook or cranny in our crowded little warren and hide from her. I could even slip out without being missed.
Outside there were ruins everywhere. In 1989 I was in Oakland during the Loma Prieta earthquake, which brought down a few buildings, leaving heaps of rubble. I felt right at home, except that there was so little of it. I read somewhere that Allied bombing destroyed 85 per cent of the structures in Frankfurt during the war. Parts of the city consisted of little more than mountains of rubble. Rubble formed the landscape like hills of oats and barley formed the background in Fürstenhagen.
Parents strictly forbade their children to play on the rubble heaps. They contained unexploded bombs. They were unstable and continued to collapse. There were dead people buried in them. No matter: kids played on the rubble, myself no exception. The rubble heaps were my park, jungle gym, play house, treasure island, amusement park, Disneyland. Soon weeds sprouted on the rubble, dandelions bloomed, cats and dogs moved in to chase the rats, and were themselves chased by people for food, all adding to the irresistible charm. In places, the only way to get from point A to point B was across the rubble, and regular trails formed, as you can see in this old news photo showing two girls carrying a Christmas tree across the ruins in Frankfurt. To be sure, work was underway to clear the debris and rebuild, but that took years.
I grew up in this setting, so it didn’t strike me as traumatic. Rubble was normal. Life went on. There’s a 1949 photo that captures the spirit; it shows kids surrounded by bombed buildings with standing smokestacks behind them, getting ready to go to the beach. This picture is not of me and it’s not of Frankfurt (it’s Essen) but you could have seen a similar scene anywhere in bombed-out Europe.
All the bridges across the Main river had been bombed. They were among the first projects in the rebuilding effort. I remember crossing the river on one of the bridges while it was under construction. Holding my mother’s hand, I stepped gingerly across rough planks. I could see the dark gray river through the gaps between the boards. My mother’s hand felt very important.
American soldiers were everywhere. We called them Amis (pronounced “Ommies”). They flitted through and around the traffic in their jeeps, bristling with rifles and pistols. They even posted speed limit signs in English in the downtown area, as in this photo from a war survivor’s website. I had little contact with them, but they were our liberators and we supported them unconditionally.
One time I saw a horrible scene. A jeep had run over a little boy. The spinning driveshaft had torn off some of his clothes. A man in a white apron, perhaps a waiter, pulled him out and was carrying his body up the street, getting blood all over his apron, like a butcher. I saw no more. The image of the man, the boy, and the bloody apron stayed with me for a long time. The incident didn’t change my feelings toward the Amis. I hugely admired the jeeps, and even much later, when I knew that we were going to move to America, I formed the ambition to have a World War II GI jeep of my own. Like other boyhood infatuations, that one faded with time.
This was also the time when I saw my first black person, a GI. I had never seen a dark-skinned person before, not even in movies. I called out to my mom, “Look, there’s a Schornsteinfeger!” In German children’s books, chimney sweeps (Schornsteinfeger) are always drawn covered in soot from head to toe. Much later, my mother would point to a brown spot I have in my right eye and tell me that this came from an African ancestor somewhere in the family tree.
At this time, practically all food was rationed. My mother would give me a ration stamp and some coins and I would take a liter-size tin can with a lid and a handle down the street to the milk store, wait in line, hand the man at the counter my stamp and coins, and have my can filled with milk. Some days there was none, and I would go home empty. My mother might then send me with the same can to the local Bierstube to get beer instead, which was not rationed, and we would have beer soup for dinner.
My mother managed to get us on the list to receive CARE packages. The arrival of a CARE package was a big event. We opened the box very carefully so as not to hurt anything. My mother lifted out the contents one by one. A box of cornflakes! I marveled at the bright graphics on the carton. Cans of Rice-aRoni! A wrapped bar of soap – a luxury! Every item brought oohs and aahs like a Christmas gift.
The first packages were from anonymous donors. Then we were allowed to get packages from friends in the U.S., people whom my mother and father had helped get out of Germany. They understood what we needed. Among other groceries, they sent Nescafe, and they sent American cigarettes hidden inside the cornflakes box. These were treasures. For years, grownups not wired into the black market had been disgustedly drinking Ersatzkaffee (coffee substitute). Real coffee, to listen to my mother, even Nescafe, instant coffee, was like ambrosia. Cigarettes, real American cigarettes, were like gold. In those days they were worth more than money; they were money. You could trade cigarettes for food, clothing, anything. The last thing you would do with one, as a German, was smoke it.
Of greater nutritional importance were the occasional little barrels of salted herring that came from “Uncle” Heinz Brüggensiecker, who lived in the Baltic seaport town, Kiel. He was a cousin of my father’s, and in my mother’s memoirs she wrote that he had used his officer rank in the Wehrmacht to spring my father from Gestapo prison in 1939. See my mother’s memoir, “Frankfurt 1939.” Somewhere during the Frankfurt years, I spent vacation time with Heinz in Kiel, and we went out to the long sandy beaches on the Baltic at Laboe. Much later, in the 1970s, my mother and Heinz reconnected and married; but that’s another chapter.
In Frankfurt after the war, the occasional CARE packages and little barrels of salted fish were not steady sustenance. Famine was an everyday reality in the postwar years in Germany. Conscription and war mortality had stripped the farms of able-bodied labor. Bombing had wrecked the railroads that carry produce to market. Black-marketeers and speculators creamed off the meager supplies. For us, Fürstenhagen had been thin soup. Frankfurt in 1946 and 1947 was worse. I was hungry almost every day. If my mom was able to give me a slice of black bread spread with lard and sprinkled with salt, that was a feast. My legs got very skinny; my knees looked like big knobs. I was pale and had a lot of colds and seemed to be always sick with one thing or another — diphtheria, whooping cough, whatever. The robust start I had enjoyed in Fürstenhagen was faltering, and I was in trouble, as were many other children and grownups in the German cities in those days.
My mother, ever resourceful, found a place for me in a children’s aid program based in Switzerland. One morning in 1947 or ’48, my mother bundled me up in my overcoat, attached a tag to my top button with my name and destination and put me on a train in Frankfurt. I traveled solo and without incident to Basel, Switzerland, and then changed to a local train to Bern, where I was met by my Swiss foster family. What a lucky boy was I! The Ritter family owned and operated the bakery and confectionery in Wengen. Before the war, Wengen was an upscale winter resort village in the Swiss Alps, reachable only by narrow-gauge railway [Map Link]; it is no less today. My eyes almost popped out of my head as the little train mounted along the steep walls of a dark green valley and climbed into the foothills of jagged snowy peaks. The Ritter bakery was located on the main road right next to the biggest hotel in Wengen, and the shop window was filled every day with a cornucopia of fresh-baked breads, cakes, pastries, and candies of every kind.
Mom and Pop Ritter had three children a little older than I, two boys and a girl. They were a friendly lot. They took pity on me, seeing my deteriorated condition, and made sure that my pockets were stuffed with rolls and other good things to eat. The dinner table at the Ritter home was beyond my imagination. There was rich hot soup, and steaming rolls, and three kinds of good bread, and roasted chicken, or goose, or pork, or sausages, hearty vegetables, and buttered potatoes, and when that was done, out came a big platter heaped with the day’s unsold pastries from the store. I had never seen such a table outside the children’s tale of the Schlaraffenland, a fantasy land where rivers run with milk and honey and roast chicken comes flying into your mouth.
It did not take long, you can imagine, before my legs filled out again, color returned to my face, and my various sicknesses evaporated. The Ritter kids soon had me building igloos in their yard with them. We had endless snowball fights –that’s where I learned to make snowballs fast with my bare hands, a helpful skill in later years. They put me on skis, put a basket on my back, and I made the rounds with them delivering fresh bread and rolls in the morning. In summer we also delivered flowers. The Ritters believed in treating boys and girls equally, and they taught me how to sew and knit. They’re also responsible for the dainty collar I’m wearing in the photo, below.
We took excursions as a family to the Matterhorn and to the Jungfrau. Between the food and the exercise and the Alpine air, and the cocoon of caring and camaraderie in which I was enveloped, I underwent a metamorphosis from sickly German refugee child to vigorous Swiss baker boy in a matter of a few months. I even became proficient in “Switzerdütsch,” the Swiss country dialect of German in which the Swiss can communicate without having the Germans understand a word.
For years after I returned to Germany the Ritters sent me a Christmas package of Swiss chocolate with a greeting card. In 2010, when my wife Sheila and I were planning our trip to Europe, I searched the Internet to try to find the Ritters again, but there was a different baker at a different location in Wengen now, and none of the many Ritters in Switzerland appeared to have any connection with baking, so I gave it up.
When I returned to my mother in Frankfurt, after having spent perhaps six or eight months in Switzerland, our living situation had changed dramatically. My mother had managed somehow to get an apartment, a newly repaired unit in a partly bombed-out building across the river, in Frankfurt proper, at Feststraße 18. [Map Link] Unfortunately Grandmother Lydia was no longer with us; her illness had worsened to the point where my mother had no choice but to put her in a nursing home. I remember visiting her there several times, but she was mentally absent.
The new apartment was a palace compared to where we had been living in Niederrad. To be sure, it was a fifth-floor walkup, with the angled roof lines of an attic, but it was all ours. I had my own bedroom — what a luxury! There was a real kitchen! A bathroom with a tub! All our own! There was even a spare room, which my mother rented out to a medical student, Wolfgang S. The heat came from pot-bellied coal-burning stoves, and it was my job to go to the cellar with a bucket and bring up more briquets of coal. Taking down the garbage was also my chore. But my legs were strong now and I did not mind.
The food situation in Germany had also improved. I remember the first day on which my mother sent me with my little tin can to get milk without a ration ticket. The milk supply had recovered to the point where rationing was abandoned. I made the trip feeling lightheaded and warm, as if the sun were shining, even though it was a rainy day. From then on, my mother would sometimes make Apfelpfannkuchen — apple pancakes, sprinkled with sugar, to my great delight. Another big delicacy was fresh liver. My mother would slice it thin, dip the slices in beaten raw egg, then in flour, and then thirty seconds on a side in a hot buttered frying pan. Awesomely good! One day, my mother and I, and Wolfgang S., who had been promoted to Uncle S., walked downtown to a fancy cafe that served ice cream. The restaurant featured tropical plants, exotic birds in cages, and live musicians. It was a much more pleasant ambiance than everyday reality, and it was vastly popular.
By this time, work crews with steam shovels, cranes and trucks were everywhere, clearing the rubble and rebuilding. One day they cleared the rubble heap next to our new apartment on the Feststraße, and I had to find somewhere else to play. When I revisited the scene in 2009, the apartment building at No. 18 was still there, quite as I remembered it. I resisted the temptation to ring the top floor doorbell, introduce myself, and ask to revisit the apartment. The neighborhood now is lined with trees; there are young parents pushing baby carriages; and there is a square a half block away where people sit, read, chat, sip coffee, and listen to street performers.
I did have one other food-related problem, which I’ll relate because it’s so rarely seen today in “developed” countries. From somewhere I caught a tapeworm. You can read about tapeworm infection in Wikipedia here. To get rid of this nasty parasite, which can grow to be 50 feet long, the doctors put me in a bed and gave me a dose of poison, more than enough to kill the worm and not quite enough to kill me. After I regained consciousness and was on the mend, the nursing staff announced an exciting event: the first grapefruit since before the war had come in from the Mediterranean. The sweet young boy recovering from tapeworm was given the first portion. Unfortunately, when the strong citric acid in the fruit hit the recently exfoliated lining of my stomach, I went into violent spasms of retching. For decades thereafter I avoided grapefruit.
By this time my mother was working as secretary to Eugen Kogon [see Wikipedia article], editor of the Frankfurter Hefte, in a pleasant office in a mansion on the Schaumainkai, the south bank of the Main river. Kogon was a survivor of six years in Buchenwald, and wrote a book about it, translated as The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them. The book became a bestseller in several languages and was used as a basis for prosecution in the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Kogon’s Frankfurter Hefte (Frankfurt Notebooks) was a platform for advocacy of European unity; he is acknowledged today as one of the fathers of the European Union.
The office had a relaxed atmosphere and I was sometimes allowed to come there with my mom and play on the lawn. It was walled off from the street and was quite safe. I remember Kogon only vaguely as a pleasant fatherly presence behind a large polished desk in an airy office that looked out over a yard with a big tree — a tree that I climbed and got stuck in and had to call for help to get me down again. The Frankfurter Hefte people would drive into the countryside on occasional outings — Kogon had an automobile, a rarity for a German in those days — and I would be along with my mom, half lost in daydreams and half listening to the grownups talk. After a few years, my mother left the journal and worked for Kogon on the Europa-Union.
My mother worked long hours. By this time I was in kindergarten and then in school. I had a key to the apartment on a string around my neck, as did many of the kids I knew. After school, I walked home, free to do whatever pleased me until my mother came home.
Not having a father was a very common condition among the kids then. There is a photo of my kindergarten graduating class in Frankfurt, with the parents; there I am a bit to the left of the middle, with my mother behind me. She is the prettiest one there! There is not a single father in the picture. Perhaps they were at work? I did not take a poll, but I would guess that more than half of these children had no living fathers, and their mothers were widows.
When I tell my American friends that my father was killed before I was even born, they sometimes react with pity, believing that this tragedy set me apart somehow and caused me adjustment problems. It was only later, when I was in the States, that fatherlessness set me apart and required adjustment; in Germany at the time, it was routine and accepted without question. The kids who had able-bodied fathers at home were more liable to bear the stigma of having to give explanations. Having one’s mother alive and living at home made us very lucky by comparison to the many thousands of children who had no parents and no homes at all.
The Frankfurt apartment was a warm and cozy home. The living room was filled with my parents’ books, many of them from their theology studies. Scooting across the rug I would bump my nose into the collected works of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, and others. As theology students, my parents read Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and the shelves held works in those languages. (I have a certificate my mother earned for successfully passing her Hebrew language exam in 1934; the stamp of official approval on it bears the swastika.) I can’t brag that I opened many of these theology tomes, but their physical presence engraved in my mind the pleasant image of shelves filled with the collected works of influential thinkers, a model I emulated decades later, but with different thinkers.
My mother brought home manila file folders from the Frankfurter Hefte office. I would spend hours cutting out profiles of houses and figures of people and moving them around on the table, and imagining stories about them, much like you can do now in the Sims computer game. When I was a little bigger, I got an Erector set — actually, the German version, made by Märklin — and spent hours building things. Much later, when I had kids, I bought the mechanical kit of Lego pieces, Lego Technic, with all the gears and motors, and the kids and I spent many fun hours with that. For me, it was a bit of reliving a pleasant, absorbing childhood memory.
Every time I see a Christmas tree I am reminded, and tell my kids, that in Germany we always put real candles on the tree. Lighting the tree was an exciting business — the candles came on one by one, and my mother told the story of when she was a little girl in Berlin: the tree had caught fire and her father seized it by the trunk and threw the whole burning tree out of the window. ”Christmas tree” also had a heavier meaning for my mother and her generation: the sky during a bombing raid, with flares dropped by the bombers and bursting anti-aircraft shells.
Christmas was a little different in Germany. It started on December 1, when you would get an Adventskalendar (advent calendar). It had a little window for each day, with a picture inside. The deluxe advent calendars had little chocolates or candies behind each window. Very quickly came December 6, St. Nikolaus’ Day. That was special for me because of my family name. We were Nicolaus with a “c” instead of a “k” but it’s pronounced the same, and in Germany many times it’s spelled with the “c.”
On the night of St. Nikolaus’ Day, you left your biggest boot outside the door. St. Nikolaus supposedly came during the night and gave you oranges and chocolates if you had been good, or sticks and bits of coal if you had not. Then on Christmas eve we would stay up late and my mother would walk with me to the midnight service in a big church. When we returned home, she would light the candles on the tree. If I remember it right, we would exchange presents at that time. It was understood that these presents came from each other. St. Nick only traveled on Dec. 6, and he only carried chocolates, oranges, sticks, and bits of coal — not the department store inventory that his American translation hauls through the skies.
I have remarkably little memory of school. The educational system at this time was in disarray. School buildings needed to be repaired or rebuilt. A whole generation of teachers was decimated by the war, or brainwashed by the Nazis. Textbooks had to be rewritten to purge them of Nazi propaganda. The Amis had consultants working to reshape the system along American lines, but it was slow going. So, school was not very exciting, and I suspect I spent most of my hours there daydreaming. My report cards, some of which my mother saved, show that I did well enough and was not a behavior problem, but the experience didn’t engage me deeply enough to lay down lasting memories.
I was a timid child. I remember one recess period, where some agency had come to the schoolyard with a couple of dozen toy cars, the kind you could pedal and steer, to teach kids the rules of driving. I waited for a teacher to organize us to take turns in the cars. Meanwhile my classmates just raced ahead and jumped into the cars, first come first served. Since I had no car, I was made to play a traffic cop. This was humiliating, and I resolved thereafter not to be so stupid.
In the summer and fall of 1952, just before we emigrated, I was sent to a boarding school in Kelkheim-Hornau, a suburb of Frankfurt. All I remember from that experience is another small humiliation. We were playing organized soccer in the schoolyard, with a teacher supervising. I was a defender. I was standing there with my hands folded over my chest, bored, daydreaming. The ball hit me in the hands, and I was penalized for fouling (“handball”). Today, having been to referee school, I know that this was not a handball — there has to be intent, and there was none. But the schoolyard penalty fit the case, because I had committed the unwritten foul of being bored with the game. It was more fun playing soccer on the street using tin cans or rolled-up jackets for a ball, and making up the rules as we went along.
By the beginning of the ’50s, Uncle S. had been our boarder for many months, and one summer vacation I was sent to live with his parents in a small town in the Black Forest, I don’t remember its name at the moment. Their stone townhouse had a pump in the kitchen for water, and an outhouse in the rear for a toilet. From time to time, a truck came (what we would call a honeydipper) and suctioned out the cesspool under the toilet. This was a valuable farm commodity and was taken out to the fields as fertilizer. Horses supplied the power for most of the farm vehicles there; motorized equipment was the exception.
I fell in with some neighborhood kids, and we roamed the town and the nearby countryside looking for adventure. Sometimes when we passed a fresh deposit of steaming horse-apples on the road, we would pounce on this ammunition and pelt each other, as in a snowball fight, to huge shrieks of laughter. (This might explain the tapeworm.) On quieter days I would drop in on the town’s watchmaker, a friendly old gent who let me look over his shoulder, peer through his magnifying glass, and ask questions. At one point he gave me a decommissioned alarm clock mechanism, and I hooked it up to a mouse trap, such that when the trap sprang, the alarm would go off. It worked!
Uncle S.’ s elderly parents were quiet, churchgoing, and treated me kindly, but there was an incident. One night, the old man crawled into my bed and rubbed his penis against mine. The contact confused and disturbed me. I froze and pulled away. He left. It all lasted only a few moments. We said nothing about it in the morning. We did not look at each other. It was not repeated. Some days thereafter, I had to be rushed to the hospital with an inflamed appendix, and underwent surgery to remove it, and went home to Mother; and that medical drama eclipsed the nighttime incident, and it was buried.
I had enjoyed many happy summer days in that little town, hiking in the woods, dipping in the creeks and ponds, watching the watchmaker, admiring the swallows building their mud nests under the eaves, and generally leading a free and roaming boyhood life. But I didn’t go back the following year.
My father had a sister, Lieselotte, who had married and had three children, Helmut, Gerhard, and Renate. Lieselotte’s husband, Helmut Wolf, was a fellow theology student of my father’s, and also became a pastor, and suffered the same fate in the war. She lived in a parish house in the town of Blomberg, which had an extensive lawn and huge trees — or so they seemed to my eyes. I have very faint memories of probably playing with these cousins in that setting one summer.
However, my mother and Lieselotte were not close and when we moved to the United States, I never heard about this branch of the family. I was quite surprised and puzzled just a couple of years ago to find out, through the historian Hartmut Ludwig at the Humboldt University in Berlin, that I had a cousin, Renate, alive and well and living in a small town in Bavaria. Renate and I have now connected, and she has sent me a treasure trove of family photos that I will mount on a separate web page here.
My mother had a sister of her own, who married a Nazi; see my mother’s memoirs for that story. My mother told me an anecdote about this that she did not include in her manuscript. At some point, the two sisters were staying somewhere — possibly the parsonage in Blomberg — where the sanitary facilities consisted of an outhouse, common enough. My mother took a copy of Mein Kampf and nailed it inside the outhouse for toilet paper. The sister was furious, and this deepened a family schism that never healed.
The two sisters never saw each other while my mother and I were in Germany, as far as I know, and they had no contact thereafter. In my mother’s papers I found a letter she wrote just a year before she died to the church authorities in Germany, inquiring about the whereabouts of this sister. The response was that there was no record of her. I have made no attempt to trace her. The Nazi period divided German families deeply and forever, like the American Civil War did here.
As my mother wrote in her memoirs, she had to wait seven years for a visa to emigrate to the United States. She had talked about it from time to time, but it all seemed very abstract and remote until one day my mother announced that the visa had come through and we were leaving. My mother had studied English in school. She bought a big steamer trunk — three children my size could have fit into it — and began shedding furniture and other possessions. My mother’s fine Rosenthal china set came with us in the trunk (it arrived smashed to bits). Tearful and sentimental goodbyes were said. On a cold winter day in late January, we took a train to Hamburg and boarded the SS United States.
Here are the last three photographs that my mother preserved from my German childhood.