About My Father (1)

My father as baby, 1915

Growing up as a bomb baby in Germany, as I did, it was common not to have a living father.  About 2.5 million German children lost their fathers in World War II.  Source.  In my case, my father lost his life two months before I was born, so we never knew one another.

From my mother, I learned that she had met him while both were students of theology under Karl Barth in Basel.  While on a ski trip there, she lost a ski during a storm and would have perished, but Nico (as everyone called him) defied all odds to rescue her, and so she came to trust him.  (See her memoirs.)  He was good on the guitar and could play the violin.  They were both active in the underground fraction of the German Protestant Church, the Bekennende Kirche (BK).  They helped Jews hide or escape, they published newsletters — once, my mother told me, he was almost caught transporting a mimeograph machine — and they listened to BBC.  He was ordained as a pastor.  He was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo.  He was drafted and killed in the war in Russia.

Those tidbits were approximately the sum total of my knowledge of this man from whom I have half my genetic material and little else.  I assembled these few stones into a mosaic that made up the image of my father in my head.  It wasn’t much, but it was good.  Compared to many of my peers who did not know who their father was, or might have preferred not to know, or who had living fathers who abused them, I was well set up in the paternal role model department, at least in the imagination.

If I did not know more, the reason was partly that my mother did not know more.  Their whole relationship, from first acquaintance to last contact, spanned less than four years.  They lived together a total of five months.  Less than nine months elapsed between their wedding day and his death.  And then, directly after the war, in my mother’s move from the village of Fürstenhagen to the city of Frankfurt, a small truckload of items got lost forever, including the briefcase containing his letters and other memorabilia.  She had left only three photographs of him.

My mother’s memoirs, which I found among her papers after her death in 1997, gave me a much better picture of my mother, but added little of substance to my picture of my father.

There the matter might have rested indefinitely.  But one day in the summer of 2009 I got a phone call out of the blue from a woman who identified herself as a staffer at the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles.  She wanted to know if I was the “Kolja” Nicolaus who was the son of Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus and Margot Nicolaus born in September 1941.  (Indeed I am.)  A German historian in Berlin was looking for me.

Weeks later, after several false starts, I made an email connection with Hartmut Ludwig, a Dozent in the Theological Faculty of Humboldt University in Berlin.  Although he holds a Doctor of Theology degree, Ludwig refused the usual German honorifics, Doktor and Professor, and insisted on being addressed simply as Herr Ludwig.  His writing and teaching is focused on the modern history of the Protestant Church in Germany, particularly during the Nazi period.  During his digging in various archives, he had come across some letters from my father that had aroused his interest. He had pursued this thread, and had written a short chapter about my father as part of a German book, Protestant Profiles, that appeared in 2009.  (I have translated this text here in a separate post.)  In his research he found a mention of my birth, wondered if I were still alive, and whether I had any relevant material.

I sent Herr Ludwig, of course, my mother’s manuscript, together with all surviving documents in my hands, such as birth and death certificates, which might be helpful in nailing down dates.  We carried on a correspondence by email. This gave me a chance to polish up my rusty German writing skills and learn how to make Umlaute on an English-language keyboard.  In the fall of 2010, my wife, my elder son Fred, and I visited Berlin as part of a European trip, and we had a very pleasant dinner with Ludwig and his wife at the historic Hotel Albrechtshof.  It was an appropriate venue:  here the underground federal council of brethren of the BK had met during the Hitler period.

Ludwig knew a great deal more about my father than I did.  As a professional historian with a number of publications, he had access to the archives of the German Protestant Church; to the private archives of Karl Barth; to the university archives of Tübingen, where my father had studied; to the archives of the Krupp works, where my father’s father, my father, and my father’s sister had worked;  to the recently opened archives of the Gestapo in Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt; and to several others.  He was able to photocopy some of the documents for me; others I later obtained from the archives myself, thanks to his lead.  I have been repeatedly impressed by the depth and detail of the archives’ holdings, and I am grateful to the staff members of the archives for their efficiency, friendliness, and readiness to assist.

Among the documents were copies of letters my father wrote to my mother from the Eastern Front in 1941, which had been circulated privately among members of the BK and so found their way into the archives.  There was also a letter my father wrote to Pastor Busch in Essen, asking for guidance on a political question — a letter intercepted by the Gestapo.  And there was a letter my father wrote to friends in England, likewise intercepted, that landed him in a Gestapo prison.  The German archives also contained files kept on my father by Gestapo officials in Essen and in Frankfurt, together with the files of the prisons where he was kept.

I am immensely grateful to Prof. Ludwig  for his initiative, which has given me the impetus and the foundation for piecing together a new, evidence-based portrait of my father.  Naturally, as a son I look at my father through a different lens than Ludwig, the historian of an institution and a movement.  Wherever possible, I have drawn on my mother’s memoirs and I have added some links via Google to people, places, and events that touched my father’s life.

My Father

Martin Karl Nicolaus' personnel file card with Krupp

My father, Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus, was born in Kiel on May 8, 1914.  His father, Martin Karl Nicolaus, born in Essen in 1885, had gone to work for the Krupp works in Essen in 1910, in the Hollerith department.  Hollerith cards were the computer data storage medium in that epoch.  A copy of Martin Karl’s personnel file card, preserved in the Krupp Archives, is on the right.

Only a year later, Krupp transferred Martin to the Krupp works in Kiel.  This was probably the Germaniawerft, where Krupp built U-boats.  In June of 1914, shortly after the birth of my father, Martin withdrew from the Krupp workers’ pension system, probably because he was promoted to lower management.

In Kiel, Martin met Anna Kroneberg, and they married.  Their first child, Lieselotte Nicolaus, was born on August 10, 1912.

Anna Nicolaus, nee Kroneberg, 1915

Anna Kroneberg had a sister, Minna, also in Kiel, who met and married K. J. Heinrich Brüggensiecker; and they had a son, Heinrich, a year after my father was born.  (Heinrich reappears much later in my and my mother’s story.)

After the end of World War I, in 1919, Krupp transferred Martin back to Essen; there he worked, apparently in the office of the Gussstahlfabrik (the cast steel plant) until the end of his life in 1942.

Albrecht was five when the Nicolaus family moved to Essen.  He did his primary and secondary school education there. His education proceeded on the college-bound track, and he completed his Abitur — the final exam that qualifies a student for entrance to university — in the spring of 1933 at the Reformrealgymnasium.

Lieselotte and Albrecht Nicolaus, Christmas 1930

Directly after his Abitur, Albrecht entered the Arbeitsdienst (labor service).  Instituted during the Weimar Republic in 1931 as a voluntary program to combat unemployment and to do public works projects, the Arbeitsdienst became compulsory with the Nazi takeover.   From April 1933 to March 1934, Albrecht did his labor service at Camp 2/44 in Stolzenberg, a place name that no longer exists, somewhere in Pomerania (northeastern Germany).  The work was very probably farm labor.  These camps had a partly economic and partly propagandistic purpose.  Apparently, some of the latter stuck to Albrecht.

In April 1934, at age 19, Albrecht enrolled as a theology student at the university in Marburg, an institution affiliated with the Protestant church.  There he joined a Wohnkameradschaft, similar to a fraternity house, affiliated with the DCSV, the German Christian Student Association, a group somewhat similar to the YMCA.

At the same time, on April 4, 1934, Albrecht joined the SA, the Sturmabteilung, the brown shirts. The photograph to the right shows Albrecht and his mother and an unidentified third person (possibly his sister Lieselotte) at a summer camp near Marburg in August, 1934, during the time that Albrecht was an SA member; perhaps this explains the haircut.  While in the SA, Albrecht earned two certificates of proficiency in sports.   He left the SA on March 1, 1935.  The DCSV, the German Christian Student Association to which Albrecht belonged at Marburg, was banned by the Nazis in 1938.

Albrecht passed his Hebrew language exam at Marburg in July 1934, and his Greek language exam in February 1935.  (He would have done his Latin earlier, in high school.)  Theology students needed to demonstrate proficiency in all three Biblical languages. In July 1935, Albrecht took and passed two exams in theological doctrine, with Profs. Maurer and Schlier at Marburg, earning a grade of B (“Gut“).   He obtained a waiver of one fourth of his fees and a scholarship of 60 Reichsmark while studying at Marburg.

Albrecht's vacation worker file card at Krupp

From July 1 to November 25, 1935, Albrecht worked at Krupp, where his father and sister also worked (she had begun there in 1929 as an accounting clerk).  He was a Ferienarbeiter (vacation worker) in the Büro für Arbeiterangelegenheiten — Office of Workers’ Affairs, probably what we would call today the “human resources” department.  He returned there a second time the following year, from July 1 to October 31, 1936.  (See file card, left; from Krupp Historical Archive)

Albrecht (right) and his father Martin in Essen, 193?

In November, 1935, Albrecht registered at the University in Tübingen in the theology school.  He immediately filed an application for a waiver of half the university fees.  In addition to evidence of satisfactory scholarship, he had to submit personal information and family financial data, which is duly preserved in the file.

The application attested that the family owned no land or other capital assets, real or otherwise.  Its only significant source of income was Martin’s salary as office employee (Büroangestellter) at Krupp, which came to 382.50 Reichsmark per month or 4,590 Reichsmark per year.  His earnings were below the threshold for the income tax and the wealth tax.  The family had no debts.  Lieselotte’s pittance went to subsidize Albrecht’s studies.  His summer job earnings covered part of his unpaid debt for fees at Marburg.  He did not belong to the Nazi student association or to any political party.  Albrecht’s mother had to undergo a serious neck operation and was being treated at the Krupp clinic.  The father’s health insurance would cover only a small part of the expected but still unknown medical bill; thus the family’s financial situation was strained.  The application was granted and Albrecht continued his studies at Tübingen.

Pastor Wilhelm Busch

The following spring, while at Tübingen, Albrecht wrote a letter to Pastor Wilhelm Busch which began his troubles with the Nazi police.

Pastor Busch was a prominent senior clergyman in Essen and was a mentor to the young Albrecht and a friend of the family.  Busch had begun as pastor of a parish of coal miners (Essen was a center of coal and steel production) and then became Youth Pastor, leader of the city’s Protestant young people.  The chief meeting place of this youth association was the Weigle Haus.  In 1933, the Hitler Youth made a practice of attacking various Catholic or Protestant youth club houses by night and taking them over.  Busch gathered about 100 of his older youth together and organized them to guard the Weigle Haus and defend it.  When the Hitler Youth crowd assembled and attacked in early 1934, Busch’s guards defended the house vigorously with hoses, sticks, and fists.  Not expecting resistance, the Hitler hoodlums, pursued by the defenders, fled to the nearest train station, where bystanders joined in beating them up.  The Weigle Haus was saved.   [Source]  The battle made Busch a hero with the city’s youth, but a marked man in the eyes of the regime.  Thus it was no surprise that Albrecht’s letter to Busch was intercepted by the Gestapo (the Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police).

The original of Albrecht’s letter, written in the pointed and slanted Gothic handwriting of the day, has been lost.  But the Gestapo made a typescript, which survives (right).  The Gestapo official’s large diagonal handwritten note in the left margin says “Send immediately: express mail to D[üssel]dorf & Tübingen.” 

 March 23, 1936

Dear Pastor:

My letter was actually supposed to be about a different matter, but in the meantime something very pressing has come up: the plebiscite.

The ballot, which I received yesterday, drove me into something of a corner and I still don’t see the way out.  But I don’t want to risk my small capital of connections with the fatherland prematurely through light- or wrong-headed moves.  Still — a new parliament?  Because by giving my approval to March 7, I make out a blank check for everything that follows, all with a little “x” — it’s a real cross to bear!  Quite a bit more could be said on this topic.

Please don’t  make too much out of the fact that a young man of “today” wants to borrow civic advice from an old soldier of “yesterday.”  But I would be grateful to you for  a clear word.

Sincerely, your

(signed: Albrecht Nicolaus)

The event of March 7 was the German army’s march into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone under the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno.   The plebiscite, scheduled for March 29, was to approve a new Reichstag (German parliament) composed almost entirely of Nazi party members, and to give a gloss of popular ratification to Germany’s flagrant breach of these treaties.  The plebiscite was exactly as Albrecht feared, a blank check for everything that followed.

A note in the Gestapo file indicates that Albrecht’s mail was placed under Postkontrolle (mail control) after this letter was intercepted, but nothing further of interest was found, and the mail watch on Albrecht was stopped for reasons of economy three weeks later. (It was resumed, however, two years later on account of another letter, discussed below.)

The Gestapo clerk in Tübingen writes on April 16, 1936,  that  “until now the only information we have on him is that he is active as an organizer among the so-called Bekenntnis-students in Tübingen.”  (Image to the right)

There is no indication that Busch received Albrecht’s letter, or that if he did, answered it.  He certainly did not answer it in writing, or the answer would be in the Gestapo archives.[1]  Busch was imprisoned and released several times during the Nazi era.  He married my parents on Oct. 3 1940 and baptized me on Oct. 12, 1941.  Busch survived the war and became an influential figure in postwar religion and politics.

Karl Barth

In 1937, Albrecht moved to Basel, Switzerland, to study under Karl Barth.  Barth is today revered as something of a Protestant saint.  In my parents’ time, he was a highly controversial figure.  He was a professor of theology at Bonn, Germany, when Hitler came to power.  He was instrumental in the formation of the Bekennende Kirche in 1934 and was the principal author of its theological manifesto, the Barmen Declaration.  The following year, he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, was fired from the university, and forced to leave Germany.  He returned to his native Switzerland to teach at Basel, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools of theology in Europe.  He was a member of the trend of “dialectic theology,” which had remote roots in the German philosopher Hegel, and became its foremost advocate.  His thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics, which he began in 1932,  is considered a monumental classic of theology.

Barth’s most controversial teaching, in his academic work as in the Barmen Declaration, centered on the thesis that the sole source of the church’s truth was the teaching of Jesus Christ.  That may sound like a Sunday school platitude, but it was intended and received as a stab in the heart to theologians — particularly Nazi theologians — who held up church tradition, culture, history, nature, natural law, philosophy and of course political ideology and political leaders as equally or more important sources of church doctrine.  Students from Germany sympathetic to the BK came to Basel, particularly because the German theology schools had been largely purged of anti-fascists.

My mother Margot came to Basel at the same time.  In her memoirs (elsewhere on this website) she writes:

In the winter semester of 1937/38 there was a bunch of about half a dozen Germans of anti-Nazi background in Basel as students of theology, all of them eager to learn from Professor Karl Barth: Albrecht Nicolaus from Essen, Joachim Hanschkatz from Finsterwalde, Helmut Hesse from Wuppertal-Elberfeld, Maria Netter, Günther Völker, Ruth Wendlandt and myself, Margot Eickhoff, from Berlin. We all became good friends and, in the case of Albrecht Nicolaus and Margot Eickhoff, we got married two years later.

Lectures were delivered and seminars held at the old, old university building in Basel, overlooking the Rhine river from a high point. The benches and desks in the building were ancient: Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Dutch scholar, had sat there some time at the end of the 15th century! And I was sitting there now!

Karl Barth’s lecture halls were always crowded with students anxious to hear what the world-famous professor had to say. In the beginning it was very difficult to understand him because he had a very thick German-Swiss accent that was a strain on our ears. Eventually, we got used to it. The professor also wrote volume after volume, all very scholastic stuff with lots of quotes in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

Barth’s domestic life was equally interesting.  In the heart of one of the stodgiest institutions in one of the most hidebound countries in Christendom, the famous Calvinist theologian was living in a ménage à trois.

Once a week the German theology students were invited to the midday meal (the main meal of the day) at various theology professors’ houses. This was a generous way of sustaining the German students on their meager budgets. So there I was at the great master’s house, at the great master’s table. Naturally, the great master sat at the head of the table and his wife to his right. There also sat the master’s two sons, also students of theology, and the invited guests. But who was the lady who sat at the master’s left side? The lady’s name was Charlotte von Kirschbaum. The master called her Lulu. He and Lulu did most of the talking. Barth’s wife was icily polite but mostly silent. It fast dawned on the invited students what was going on here.

Officially, Lulu was Professor Karl Barth’s secretary and co-worker. For him she had studied Hebrew, Greek and Latin and wrote all his manuscripts and letters. She had a room next to the master’s study and that’s where she devoted her life to Karl.

Karl Barth’s colleagues – we found out – had repeatedly told him that his marital infidelity was untenable for a Christian theologian and they implored him to separate himself from his mistress. But Karl Barth insisted that Lulu was sent to him by God and that he would insult God if he let her go. For Karl Barth’s wife divorce was unthinkable — he was a world-famous theologian.

Margot Eickhoff (later: Nicolaus) 1932

At least one student whom Margot knew was so devastated by the contradiction between the master’s writings and his home life that he quit school and went home.  But most of the students seemed to be far more impassioned by matters of doctrine than by prurient pursuits.  Margot, who was an attractive young woman, reports on her evening at a theology students’ dance party:

One of Karl Barth’s sons invited me to a dance at a party given by a fraternity to which a lot of theology students belonged. I was pretty worried that I would be a failure at dancing — I had never been at a dance before. I felt obliged to go since it was considered a privilege to go. I was able to buy a simple and inexpensive long cotton dress, pink with little black decorative bands, and there I was with a son of the famous professor, in line being looked over by the theology professors and the music started and we were supposed to dance. But did we dance?

No, Sir. All the Swiss and some of the German theology students stood and sat around a table upon which stood a bottle of cheap red wine – and all they did was discuss – of all things – the resurrection of the dead. Will you believe me? This went on for hours and hours. The Swiss students talked and talked while their French speaking colleagues danced and danced. The son of Karl Barth who had invited me to the dance never danced a single dance with me or anybody else.

Just before the end of the affair the other son of Karl Barth, Marcus, came and invited me to a waltz which I managed to do since he was a strong leader. His brother took me home in a taxi and said that he enjoyed my company although he had not spoken a single word to me all evening.

Albrecht became a special person for Margot in the course of a ski outing.  At that time and in that place, one could still cross from Switzerland to Germany and back without difficulties.  Margot writes:

 I wanted very much to go skiing in the mountains since a lot of students enjoyed doing it. Although I had never been on skis before, I did not think that there was I any thing to learn – it looked sooo easy – and so, one weekend a group of German students decided to spend a weekend in the nearby Black Forest, just across the border from Switzerland in Germany.

With a couple of borrowed skis I joined the group. Albrecht Nicolaus was part of our group. We decided to do the easy climb up the Feldberg, and the weather forecast promised beautiful snow. Barely halfway up the Feldberg, a snowstorm started with such wildness that I one could hardly see anything ahead. Under these conditions, the group split and it so happened that only Albrecht Nicolaus, “Nico” was near me. He encouraged me to go on and on because I became so tired that I only wanted to sit down in the snow and wait for the storm to subside. Without Nico’s encouragement I would have frozen to death sitting in the snow. […]

Suddenly my left ski loosened itself from my foot and disappeared in the white nowhere. Without a ski, my left foot got stuck knee deep in the snow. This time, I thought, I’m going to die in the snow.  But Nico did not want to leave me to die. He said that he would go back to the restaurant on top of the mountain and get (borrow) another pair of skies and come back to me. Quite frankly, I thought he could not possibly find the way back to the top of the mountain and then come back and find me in the white hell.

Where I was, I waited and waited and waited. When I had almost given up hope, there was Nico with a fresh pair of skis. He helped me to put them on and then kept to my side as we went on through the white unknown downhill, down, down.

Suddenly, there was a clearing and a small hotel was in sight. It was a youth hostel. We were safe. We got quarters for the night, separately, of course. The next morning we took the train back to Basel. When we arrived, our friends told us that they had already prayed for our dead souls.

In that night three experienced mountain guides had lost their lives in the snow storm.

This happened quite some time before Nico asked me to marry him. But from that day on I knew that I could rely on him with my life.

My father as a student, 193?

In Basel, Albrecht found not only his future wife and mother of his child, but also a new clarity and conviction.  Years later, after the war, Margot wrote to Karl Barth thanking him for his guidance.  After his time in Basel, Margot wrote, Albrecht “underwent a profound transformation in his nature.”  In Albrecht’s last letter before his death, she wrote, “my husband remembered very particularly the insights he gained through your work, which became ever more precious to him in many a trial by fire.”

Continued with About My Father (2)

  1. [1]The opinion is that of Günther van Norden, Die Jugendarbeit des Pfarrers Busch in Essen (The Youth Work of Pastor Busch in Essen), in Evangelische Kirche an Ruhr und Saar, Beiträge zur rheinischen und westfälischen Kirchengeschichte, Bielefeld 2007, p. 169

The Family Tree

My father and his father in Essen

The Nicolaus family name has some mythical roots.  My mother’s mother Lydia, her mind clouded by advancing dementia, maintained that it came from the Tsar, who on his travels had got the daughter of a German merchant pregnant, etc.   A myth I like much better is that we’re descended from the original Bishop Nicolaus of Myra in Asia Minor (today Turkey), known as the wonder worker, who secretly gave alms to the poor and became the model for our modern St. Nick.

My mother once paid a genealogy company to compile a book of Nicolauses, and this showed — as genealogy books will — that we have remote “cousins” all over the world.  Certainly the name or its cognates — Nikolaus, Nikolaos, Nickolaus, Nicklaus, Nicholas, Nicolas, Nicolai, etc. — is found all over Europe.  It is common in Germany, Italy, Greece, and Russia, both as a family name and as a given (first) name.  In Russian there is even an established diminutive, “Kolja,” meaning “little Nicolaus.”  This is the title character of a poignant movie, and it was my nickname as a little boy.  In the turbulent 1970s my mother, who learned ancient Greek in seminary, told me that Nicolaus in that language means “victory of the people.”  I like that.  And I don’t mind people thinking that we might be related to Nicolaus Copernicus, even though there is no evidence for it.

Closer to home, there is the town of Nicolaus on the Sacramento River about 30 miles north of the California state capital, Sacramento.  It has a neighbor, East Nicolaus, and a Nicolaus Road, Nicolaus Avenue, and Nicolaus cemetery.  My mother thought the founder was a rumored direct ancestor who emigrated from Germany in the 1840s and got in on the Gold Rush, but his tracks are long lost.  There is also a prominent financial firm, Stifel Nicolaus, based in Chicago, and various other “Nicolice” scattered here, there, and everywhere.  My mother knew of no family threads connecting us with any of them.

The known Nicolaus genealogy is prosaic and short.  Compiled from the memory of my mother and my cousin Renate in Bavaria, it is depicted in this chart:


The chart means that the earliest known and identified Nicolaus in our tree is my father’s father, Martin Karl Nicolaus.  He was born on June 2, 1885.  He started work in the Hollerith department of the Krupp works — do you know what Hollerith cards were?  — in 1910, and was transferred a year later to a Krupp works in Kiel, the Baltic seaport.  There his two children were born:  Lieselotte Nicolaus on Aug. 10, 1912, and my father Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus, on May 8, 1914.  In 1919, Martin Karl was transferred back to Essen, and he continued as an office worker (or office supervisor, as one file entry has it) for Krupp until his death on April 14, 1942, following a bombing raid that destroyed the block where the family lived.  We don’t know the names of Martin Karl’s parents.

Lieselotte Nicolaus, my father’s sister, worked for Krupp as a “Rechnerin,” something like a bookkeeping clerk, from 1929 until she quit on March 31, 1941.  Lieselotte, like my mother, married a theology student, a friend and classmate of my father’s, Helmut Wolf, and they had three children, Helmut, Gerhard, and Renate.  Helmut was killed in the war, same as my father.  Lieselotte died in 1990. Lieselotte’s daughter Renate is the cousin in Bavaria who kindly sent me a number of precious family photographs that are the only images I have of my grandparents; see below.

On my mother’s side, we know that her mother was born Lydia Streck and that she married Heinrich Wilhelm Eickhoff.  You can read about Heinrich Eickhoff in my mother’s memoirs; he was an engineer who worked on railroads and then on airplanes, and toward the end of his life became a journalist.  We know that Lydia had three sisters, Mimi, Johanna and Emma.  We don’t know anything about the parents of Lydia or the parents of Heinrich, her husband.  We don’t know what happened to Lydia’s sisters, except for a few brief recollections in my mother’s memoirs. Lydia died in a nursing home in Weilmünster on Dec. 9, 1957.

We do know that my mother had two sisters, Annelies and Lottelies.  Annelies died as a three-year old.  Lottelies was the one who married the Nazi, Wilhelm Meissner, and was never heard from again.

My father’s mother, Adolfine Auguste Anna Kroneberg (“Oma”), had a sister, Minna Kroneberg, who married K. J. Heinrich Brüggensiecker, and they had a boy, Heinrich Albrecht Brüggensiecker, whom I knew as “Uncle Heinz.”  He lived in Kiel and sent us barrels of salt herring sometimes while we lived in Frankfurt.  The genealogy chart doesn’t show it, but Uncle Heinz had a wife and they had a son, Gerd Brüggensiecker, whom I met when I visited Germany in about 1972.  After Heinz’s wife died, he reconnected with my mother, and they married in 1968.  My mother lived with Heinz in Schönkirchen, a village near Kiel, for a few happy years, until Heinz died in 1973 from complications following surgery.  Gerd studied law and at last report was working as an administrative judge somewhere in Germany, possibly in Schleswig-Holstein.

And that’s about all that we know about the Nicolaus family tree.  The sequel is up to you boys, Fred and Jack.

There are very few photographs of my mother before she began appearing with some frequency in pictures with her grandchildren.  All of these early photos, plus a few late ones, are here.  There will be more photos of her on the pages about her grandchildren.

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My mother had only three photographs of my father.  I have inserted them on the web pages of her memoirs.  I’ll insert them again here, and I’ll add the additional photographs that I received in 2010 from cousin Renate Wolf in Germany.  I’ve cropped some, pulled out faces from group shots and enlarged them, and worked on the contrast and brightness in Photoshop.  Here are all the photos I have of my father:

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Here are the Nicolaus grandparents.  All these photos are from Renate.  Renate sent me the original prints, many with handwritten captions on the back.  I scanned them, and in some cases I have cropped them, copied out and enlarged faces for detail, and boosted the contrast in Photoshop for showing on the web.  In a few cases I have copied Renate’s handwritten captions from the back of the photo to the bottom border of the photo itself.  These appear in 14-pt Arial.  In those cases, remember that Renate is the author of the embedded caption, so that “my parents” refers to Renate’s parents, not mine.  The regular captions that accompany the photo file but are not embedded in the lower border of the visible image are mine.  It is very sad that I have no photos at all of the grandparents on my mother’s side.

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These are photos of Lieselotte Nicolaus, my father’s sister:

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These are photos of Helmut Wolf, Lieselotte’s husband:

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Here are baby pix of the three little Wolves in 1942-1943:

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And here are the only photos I can lay my hands on of the Brüggensieckers:

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About the Town Where I Was Born

I was born in Essen.  My father was born in Kiel but raised in Essen.  His mother was born in Essen.  His father worked as an office supervisor for Krupp in Essen.  My mother, who was from Berlin, married my father in Essen.  My mother and I lived in Essen until sometime in mid-1943.  My mother worked for about two years in the Krupp company archives (“Historical Department”) in Essen, and I spent many of my infant days in the little garden of that building, and in the bomb shelter in its basement.

When I tell my American friends that I was born in Essen, I usually draw a blank.  Essen after the war was in the British zone of occupation and is not as well known in the U.S. as towns like Frankfurt, which were in the American zone.  I fill in the picture somewhat by saying that Essen was at the time something like a hybrid of Detroit and Gary, Indiana.  In other words, it was a coal, steel, and manufacturing town.  But it was much more.

At the time I was born there and for many decades before and after, Essen was a Krupp company town.  There was no secret about that.  If you want to read in depth, there is a survey of the Krupp history on Wikipedia, from which I pull some highlights here.  There’s a thick paperback, The Arms of Krupp 1587-1968, by William Manchester, a brilliant piece of historical writing which is the source for much of the Wikipedia article, and is not incidentally an illuminating history of the city of Essen.  Much less well known, but a rich source for the postwar period, is Bildberichte aus dem Ruhrgebiet der Nachkriegszeit, (Postwar Images from the Ruhr Region) edited by Siegrid Schneider as the catalogue of an exhibition at the Ruhr Regional Museum in Essen, 1995; ISBN 3-89355-112-3.  Here is a very brief sketch of the history of my birthplace.

The Krupp coal, steel and machinery works in Essen were the principal makers of heavy weaponry for the German armed forces in World War II.  The Panzer, the heavy artillery, the FLAK (anti-aircraft) guns, and much else, were all made in Essen.  When Benito Mussolini visited the city in 1937, a banner at the railway station welcomed him to the “Armory of the Reich.”  Source.

The Krupp dynasty began in 1587 with Arndt Krupp, who became wealthy in real estate by buying up property at distressed prices during the great plague.  The firm entered the weapons trade as an arms manufacturer during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).  In the early 1800s, the firm became a power in the nascent steel industry.  It invested heavily in the breech-loading cannon, which proved more deadly than the muzzle-loader, and became a supplier of heavy artillery to dozens of countries.

By the end of the U.S. Civil War, Krupp had become the largest company in Europe.  In the financial panic of 1873 the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, but the State of Prussia backed a massive loan that bailed it out.  Krupp was too big to fail.

Around the turn of the century, the then head of the firm, Fritz Krupp, committed suicide after his exposure as a serial pederast.  But the firm was too big to be shaken by scandal.

Under Fritz’ successor Gustav, the Krupp firm built the first U-boats.  It acquired a firm that made barbed wire.  On the eve of the First World War, it was selling about half its armaments production in Germany and the other half to 52 other countries.  During that war, the Krupp firm initiated the use of forced labor in its factories, using conscripted Belgian civilians.  The victorious allies named Gustav Krupp a war criminal but never brought him to trial.

With the exception of  forced labor, the Krupp firm stood out for its paternalistic treatment of workers.  Workers had to sign a loyalty oath to Krupp, and needed written permission from their foreman to go to the bathroom. But the firm provided a range of social services, including parks, schools, recreation facilities, health care, and pensions.  This policy, aimed at controlling the workers and shutting out the Socialist and Communist party organizers, turned Essen into a Krupp company town and made the Krupp firm a state within a state.  During the runaway inflation, Krupp printed its own currency, the most stable in the country. Regular employees at Krupp identified as Kruppians (Kruppianer). Paternalism notwithstanding, the Krupp firm in 1928 led the way in a nationwide lockout of a quarter-million workers in order to cut their wages.

During the Weimar Republic, when Germany was forbidden to manufacture armaments, the Krupp firm engaged in widespread evasion and subterfuge.  In 1932, Gustav Krupp became an open and fanatical supporter of Hitler, purged Jews from the ranks of German business, raised large sums of money from German businessmen for the Nazi party, and engaged in a secret large-scale rearmament program.  His son Alfried, who took over the firm in 1941, was an early and undisguised Nazi enthusiast and SS member.

As the German armies advanced behind Krupp artillery and Krupp tanks, the Krupp firm seized major mines, steel works, and machinery firms in the conquered territories.  In response to the extreme wartime labor shortage, Krupp made extensive use of forced labor.  His representatives visited concentration camps to select able-bodied men for slave labor in Essen and other sites.  Jewish and Slavic workers, considered sub-human, were deliberately worked to death.   Krupp opened a factory to make fuses and gun parts near Auschwitz, with labor supplied by women from the Auschwitz concentration camp.   Rough estimates put the number of slave laborers in the various Krupp works at more than 100,000, of which about 25,000 were Jews.  The number of “free” laborers for Krupp was then about 278,000.

Manchester’s book has three illuminating chapters about the labor slaves.  My mother noted in her memoirs from Essen:

In one of the main streets, long columns of men in raggedy gray work clothes, guarded by soldiers on all sides, were marching, no, shuffling along, on to the Krupp factories to produce weapons of war for the Germans, their enemies. I knew they were all foreigners, captured by German soldiers, abducted from their countries and forced to labor here. They were war slaves.

The Allies began bombing Essen in 1940 with isolated raids, and by 1942 the raids grew to become massive.  Military strategists and historians have debated these and similar raids ever since.  Many years after it was over, my mother wrote in her memoirs that she believed the bombs were aimed at the Krupp factories and that some bombs fell on civilian areas by mistake.  This was a case of euphoric recall on her part.  During the bombing, while the events were fresh in her mind, she wrote to Helmut Gollwitzer:

Unfortunately the Krupp factory, which is truly not hard to hit, gets the least of it.  We “poor unarmed civilians” get all the more of it.[1]

This was not an accidental pattern.

The Nazis had begun intentional terror bombings of civilian centers in Spain (Guernica, 1937) and massively in Poland (Warsaw) in 1939, and again, with deliberate provocation, in Rotterdam in June 1940, and then launched a prolonged campaign of air attacks on civilian targets in Britain.  Not long thereafter, notwithstanding years of deploring the Nazi air attacks on civilians as barbaric,  the Allies themselves adopted a civilian bombing strategy.  The Allied theory behind massive bombing of German (and Japanese) population centers was laid out in a Royal Air Force staff paper published on September 23, 1941, coincidentally just a couple of days before I was born:

“The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce (i) destruction and (ii) fear of death.”  (Source)

The aim of the Allied bombing, in other words, was to create terror, as the Nazi propaganda, never shy of hypocrisy, pointed out.  The impact on industrial production was secondary, and remains disputed.  William Manchester, a critic of the bombing strategy, points out that the Krupp works took up six million square yards of factory space in Essen, an area seven times larger than the center of the city, so that it would be almost impossible to miss.  Yet by the end of the war only 30 per cent of it had been destroyed, and armaments output actually increased.  (The Arms of Krupp, p. 531-533)  But the working-class residential districts in the city were hit so heavily that, in the words of a British critic, “the blast bombs, which had caused such havoc when the buildings were intact … did little more than convulse the rubble.”  (p. 533)

Allied troops enter residential area of Essen, 1945. From Bildberichte.

An inventory taken by British occupation authorities after V-E Day estimated that of 184,000 homes in Essen before the war, 160,000 were completely destroyed or heavily damaged.  Out of 2,044 industrial structures, only 571 were completely destroyed.  (Bildberichte, p. 250)  Among the victims was my father’s father, Martin Karl Nicolaus, who was fatally wounded in a bombing raid in April 1942 that destroyed the family house at No. 1 Margaretenstrasse along with the rest of the block.

After the war, Gustav and Alfried Krupp were both indicted as war criminals.  Gustav was let go because of advanced age and ill health.  Alfried was convicted on multiple counts of crimes against humanity but sentenced only to twelve years’ imprisonment, a slap on the wrist.  After two years, the Allied High Commissioner commuted his sentence, released him, and restored much of his wealth.  He soon recaptured many of the Krupp divisions that had been spun off by trust-busting occupation authorities after the war, and became the world’s richest sole proprietor.

After Alfried’s death in 1967, the Krupp firm underwent a series of restructurings so complex that I cannot pretend to understand them.  Among the main developments was its conversion from a sole proprietorship to a joint stock company, and its merger with a major competitor, Thyssen.  Today’s ThyssenKrupp AG is a major world power in steel, heavy industrial equipment, and a range of allied industries.  It remains a major employer in Essen.

In 2001, I visited Essen as a tourist.  I was dumbfounded by the changes.  I had expected coke ovens, smokestacks, the roar of rolling mills and a suffocating blanket of soot — the traditional Essen.  There was none of that.  A few former industrial plants had been converted into cultural centers.  Trees, shrubs and flowers were everywhere.  Ruins could not be found.  The synagogue had been rebuilt.  The center of the city was a busy pedestrian mall with hundreds of chain stores and small shops.  The air was breathable.  Essen was in the process of reinventing itself as a white-collar city, a center of software development.  In 2010, Essen stepped onto the world stage as a European Cultural Center.  My visit was too short to probe behind the city’s new persona.  I came away impressed by its audacity and resilience.

  1. [1]See Postscript, letter to Gollwitzer, April 18 1942

Memories of Frankfurt (1945-1953)

Frankfurt, 1945. Photo taken by a G.I. From lonesentry.com.

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.

Girls carry Christmas tree on trail across bombing rubble in Frankfurt. News photo, ca. 1946 (guardian.uk.com)

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.

Kids in Essen 1949 getting ready to go to the beach. From Bildberichte aus dem Ruhrgebiet, S. Schneider, ed., p. 177.

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.

Bridge across the Main River, 1946

Speed limit sign in English amid ruins in downtown Frankfurt

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.

Delivering flowers in Wengen, summer of 1947 or '48; one of the Ritter boys in the background.

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.

The Ritters had this photo made, probably shortly before my return to Germany

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.

Me, probably 1951

Me in Lederhosen, probably 1952

Me, probably at Frankfurt Zoo 1952

Revisiting “The Village”

In the fall of 2010, my wife Sheila and I visited Berlin, and my son Fred joined us there.  On Fred’s initiative, he and I took a trip to Fürstenhagen, the village where I spent most of the war years.  (See my mother’s “The Village” and my  “Memories of ‘The Village‘”)  He had read about Fürstenhagen in my mother’s memoirs and was intensely curious — much more so than I — what it was like today.  I resisted at first —  my memories were not the fondest — but gave in to make him happy.  Getting there was a fast train ride on the ICE (Inter City Express) from Berlin to Göttingen, then a short hop on a regional train to the village of Offensen, and then a 3 km walk along a silky-smooth road to Fürstenhagen.  (Map Link)

Fürstenhagen has reinvented itself from a farming village to a vacation spot

Fürstenhagen, in my childhood strictly a farm village, has reinvented itself as a vacation spot, or so the sign at the entrance proclaims.  I gathered from the information kiosk that the town hosted a series of motorcycle rallies.  A variety of hiking trails and a harvest festival also beckoned visitors.

Fred and I had lunch at this excellent family-run country inn

Our first stop was at the Landsgasthaus Zur Linde (the country inn “At the Linden Tree”) for lunch.  We found seats at the side of the bar; a group of German visitors occupied all the tables.  The proprietor recommended the plate of mixed cold cuts, made in house by his brother, a butcher.  The dishes were delicious and the portions generous.  The inn also impressed with its state-of-the art Dyson hand dryer in the immaculate bathroom.

Fred and I at lunch in the inn. The water is mine, the beer is Fred’s.

After pushing back the empty plate, I had a chat with the innkeeper.  Told him I had spent the war years here with my mother in the parsonage (“Pfarrhaus”).  Did the parsonage still exist?  Yes, opposite the church, just up the road.  He got on the phone and reached Frau Kempe, a volunteer with the church, who agreed to hop on her bicycle and meet us there.

The former parsonage where I spent most of the war years

Minutes later we were at the church.  Frau Kempe appeared, gave us a friendly greeting,  and pointed us at a two-story structure in the Fachwerk (timbered) style, opposite the church.  She explained that the church had sold the property some years earlier to a private owner, but that the church rented a meeting room on the ground floor for classes and child care.  She showed us the room.  The rest of the house was inaccessible and the owners were absent.  We admired the door and some of the details, and poked around on the grounds.  The place did not trigger in me any epiphanies of recognition.

She also admitted us into the church,  a cozy structure with a solid, minimalist, Protestant feeling to it.  Frau Kempe explained that there were not enough parishioners to support a full time clergy person.  A woman minister traveled among six different churches in the region and held services in Fürstenhagen about once a month.

Frau Kempe was born after the war and had no personal knowledge of that time.   But she referred us to the local historian, Herr Alfred Görges.  We walked a few short blocks to the vicinity of Görges’ house and stopped to ask directions of a middle-aged gent who was working on his manicured front lawn.  He turned out to be Görges’ son-in-law, Hermann Müller, and told us that unfortunately Görges was in Göttingen at the moment getting dialysis treatment and would not be back until the evening.   He invited us into his house and showed us three of Görges’ books:  Wohnen in Fürstenhagen (Living in F.), Leben und Arbeiten in F. (Living and Working in F.), and Wir Waren Fast noch Kinder (We were almost just children).  I bought the first two, and accepted the third as a gift.  The “Wohnen” book is a history of the village from the 12th century forward, containing documentary and oral information about each and every house in the village.  The second book is a survey of the town’s trades and occupations, with many historical photos.  The third consists of wartime remniscences.

Pastor Feldmann, a helper, and Frau Feldmann cleaning wool, 1942 (Alfred Görges photo)

One of the books contains a  photo of Pastor Feldmann, the local Protestant minister in 1940, and his wife.  Feldmann was drafted into the German Army and was killed on the Eastern Front, like my father.  Frau Feldmann was the main tenant of the parsonage while my mother and I were guests there; my mother writes about Frau Feldmann in her memoirs.

Herr Müller connected us with the head of the local historical society, Herr Heinrich Thiele, a few houses away. Herr Thiele drove us in his car a half mile or so up the hill to the former local school house, now the local museum, and unlocked its doors for us.  The society had done an admirable job assembling tools, furnishings, photos and other artifacts from the village’s history and displaying them with helpful legends.

The creek down the middle of the main street has been tamed and prettied up

On our way back to the inn, where we stopped for a final cup of coffee and cake, I took note that the creek still ran down the middle of the main street; but it had been tamed, channeled, cleaned of weeds, and prettied up with potted plants.  No more nettles.

I was impressed with Fürstenhagen, and grateful to Fred for dragging me on the trip.  Since the war, we were told, nearly all the independent farm holdings that once were the mainstay of the community had been consolidated into the hands of two or three large landholders, and most of the residents now commuted to work in nearby towns.  It was now a bedroom community, but it managed to reinvent itself as a vacation spot; it boasted an excellent country inn; and it had not completely lost its moorings but held fast to the images and artifacts of its history.  The village is fortunate to have a diligent and capable local historian like Alfred Görges in its midst.  The people we met were unfailingly nice and helpful to us.  If I had met the boy who pushed me into the nettles or the girl who threw the rock in my face, and if we had recognized one another, I’m sure they would have sincerely apologized.


Here’s an album of photos from our visit on Sept. 19, 2010:


Memories of “The Village” (1943 – 1945)

The parsonage in Fürstenhagen, 1940 (From Alfred Görges' book)

My mother writes in her memoirs that a piece of a bomb came through the roof in Essen one summer day in 1943 and took off a corner of the kitchen table.  She decided it was time to get out of Dodge.  With the help of her church connections she found a room in a parsonage (a parish house) in the small village of Fürstenhagen, in lower Saxony, about 30 miles from Göttingen.  At the time, it was an hour’s walk to the nearest train station.  There was nothing there worth bombing.  It was safe, at least from the air.

From the ground, maybe not so much.  The town had a creek running down the center of the main street, and this had rocky patches where stinging nettles grew boy-high.  One day one of the local boys, considerably bigger than I, pushed me into the nettles.  Another time, one of the local girls threw a sharp rock at arm’s length directly into my face.  It hit me just above the right eye and made a bloody mess.  The eye was OK but I still have a faint trace of the scar in my eyebrow.  Most of the local folks were Nazis and it was known that my mother was not, so I guess her kid was fair game.

Me and unknown friend in Fürstenhagen (1943?)

A country childhood in Fürstenhagen (?1943?)

A country childhood in Fürstenhagen (1943?)

Me in Fürstenhagen showing how big I've grown

My mother wrote "1944" under this photo

My mother was able to save some photos from the Fürstenhagen years.  They seem positively idyllic.  There I am with a sweet little country lass (maybe the same one that threw the stone later) and stretching my hands to the sky to show how big I’ve grown; studying dandelion seed heads, and giving a studio smile.

I do have agreeable memories of Fürstenhagen.  My mother and I would go out into the countryside with a big wooden wagon and gather firewood, pick mushrooms and edible greens, and scavenge for dropped apples and pears.  The apples were treasures.  To this day I eat the whole apple including seeds, all but the stem.  We went over the potato fields after the harvest and hunted for spuds that had been missed.   Apart from the unfriendly encounters and the chronic shortage of food, it was a country childhood.  I saw a lot of green, breathed fresh air, got exercise.  I saw a lot of farm life.  I saw chickens running around with their heads hacked off — they really do!  I saw pigs being butchered on ladders, and covered my ears at their piercing shrieks when the knife went in.  I hunted in the underbrush for mislaid eggs.  I stepped in cow-, pig-, goose-, chicken-, sheep-, and horse-shit.  I was in the fields where people scythed grain, bundled the stalks and stacked them  teepee fashion to dry.  I hid in the teepees and rolled in haystacks, chased chickens and geese, got chased by dogs, and tasted milk squirted at me from cows’ udders.

It was definitely not a sterile-bubble childhood.  I’ve read that exposure to a diversity of dirt in childhood builds strong immune systems.  I guess that my early village upbringing deserves some of the credit for my generally robust health (knock on wood) as a grown-up.  No matter what its shortcomings, Fürstenhagen was a lot better place to spend the war years than the German cities — as I was soon to find out.

My First Memory

Marktkirche Essen, 1945

My first memory is of going into a bomb shelter.  It was down some dirty stairs, there were a lot of people, there was a dog (a shepherd), it was noisy.  I mainly remember the atmosphere: dark, cavernous, dusty, loud; and the dog, who seemed very big.  This memory is probably a composite of many such trips; according to my mother’s memoirs, air raids were an almost daily occurrence.

This could have been in Essen, where I was born, or in Berlin, where my mother went to visit her mother.  My mother told me that during one air raid in Berlin, she ran down the middle of the street holding me in her arms, with houses burning and collapsing on both sides of the street.  I have no memory of fires or of bomb impacts.  I did have a fear reaction as a boy to the droning sound of big propeller airplanes overhead.

My mother told me that I was baptized in the Marktkirche (Market Church) in Essen, see photo above; it was already damaged by Allied bombing.  Later in the war, Allied bombing completely destroyed the church.  In this instance, the bombers did the city a favor.  During the 1930s, church authorities had put the church up for sale due to declining enrollment, and the city government wanted to tear it down.

Efforts to rebuild the church began in 1950, but it took more than half a century to raise the money.  The Marktkirche reopened its doors in 2006.  See the church’s website.  When I visited Essen in 2009, the Marktkirche was an architectural ornament in the city’s renovated pedestrians-only downtown.

Essen was a Krupp company town.  My father’s father worked in the Krupp offices in Essen.  Shortly after my father was killed (in July 1941) my mother was assigned to work in the Krupp Co. Historical Department (Archives), located in a residential building squeezed between the Krupp factories.  As my mother recounts in her memoirs, she was able to take me with her to work there, and I spent many of my earliest days in the little garden behind the building.  The other women who worked there helped take care of me.  Some photographs of that situation have survived.

Baptized in the Market Church, coddled in the Krupp Archives … what a beginning!

Here are the baby pictures that my mother was able to save.