I lived in five houses in three cities by the time I was 12. Nevertheless, when I think of my childhood I think of Topeka and the two-story, white clapboard house with its full front porch on Lindenwood. We moved to 615 Lindenwood before I began kindergarten; and it was there, in the living room by the stairs, that I practiced the violin to my father’s moody, vigilant accompaniment on the piano. And there, in both the large blue bedroom that I shared with my sister Barbara and, later, after my Grandmother Antonia moved a few blocks away, in the pink papered room I still thought of as hers, that I listened to my mother’s stories of her own childhood in Berlin. Despite the shock my parents must each have felt as apartment dwellers from European capitals transplanted into a small Midwestern town, they had bought this very American house; it was their willingness to make such a commitment (though for my father, one threaded with ambivalence) that gave me my own first sense of roots.
Lindenwood was shaded by expansive old mulberry trees on both sides, and in summer the sidewalks were stained purple with fallen berries. For me, who learned to ride a bicycle there, the street sloped noticeably upward from Sixth Street, where my father caught the bus each morning for Menningers, the mental hospital where he worked, and where Barbara and I often waited around 5:30 on the high cement wall until his bus finally arrived. Three years my junior, she was allowed near the busy street only if she was with me. Our house, which was in the middle of the block, stood on a rise of land above the sidewalk, and it was at the sides of the first set of steps, leading to a narrow strip of lawn, that my mother planted a rock garden, an odd and apparently unique approach for Kansas that was never as pretty as she hoped, despite all her care of odd succulents and other exotic plants.
Most of the homes on our block were in good repair and the yards neatly trimmed, but since Lindenwood had been built up over 50 years by people of modest means and little wish to invent, the houses were an unmatched sample of the Midwest’s half-dozen most common styles. On our left towards Sixth, below a retaining wall, a one-story white bungalow with a sloped red roof sat sideways to the street, as if to manifest the standoffishness of the Catholic family whose children went to parochial school and who were generally kept from playing with anyone else on the block. On our right, beyond our side yard where some years Mother planted a vegetable garden, stood a large two-story farm house, whose property had once extended for at least the entire block, and whose often unmowed yard was still vast; the house itself had a neglected air, and often as I tried to peer through its lace curtains, I could glimpse little of the elusive couple who lived there with their frail, white-haired mother.
But the blight of the block from a real estate point of view was a busy laundry across the shady street; extending back from the corner of Sixth Street four or five lots, almost far enough to face our Catholic neighbors, it was forever an interesting place for us children to watch. The laundry sent out hot moist vapors, and the sidewalk was usually covered with lint, as if snow had just fallen. I could kick at this lint as I walked by, trace a path with my footprints, or scoop up lint and feel its sticky gray softness between my fingers. In the summer, when the huge window looking onto the street was open to give the black women a breeze, I sat on its ledge and watched them shout back and forth, their pommaded hair in kerchiefs and their faces glistening with sweat, as they fed the vast, hot, noisy wringers and ironing machines. Sometimes they called out to me.”What?” I asked, excited but unsettled by the chance to talk to women my parents had explained were prejudiced against, as we had been in Europe.”You on vacation?” This time I heard.”Oh yes, my school let out last week.” “Wha’d she say?” I watched them mouthing explanations to each other; but even if I repeated myself, the din of the machines formed a barrier as real as race, making it useless to carry on a real conversation.
My other pull, both disturbing and pleasurable, was the dark and congested house of gray shingle siding whose low front porch was covered with a faded green awning; like a half-sunk boat directly across from us, it was the house where Mrs. Marsh lived. My mother tried to invent alternatives to keep me home, but as with the sordid novels that some years later I would devour with intoxication even when I wished I could put them down, I often couldn’t stay away. Mrs. Marsh was an angular woman with a narrow, bony face and eyebrows tweezed to a feathery line. Her hair, which was usually pinned in tiny curls under a silk scarf, was sometimes released into a vast brown billow of waves, giving her the tense glamour of a movie star. My memory freezes Mrs. Marsh at 28, when her oldest daughter, a fat, sulky girl whose every movement annoyed her, was 14, half her age; the two made me see my own mother as old, yet the most she could have been was 35.There was also another Marsh girl, a wild thing who sometimes played with Barbara, and a little boy who disappeared for hours at a time, after which Mother would watch horrified, as Mrs. Marsh chased him across the yard, thrashing him with her husband’s belt. Mr. Marsh was a traveling salesman, whose brief visits were marked by gifts which Mrs. Marsh showed me with an indifference I found marvelous and dreadful. A scarf. An electric frying pan. She was the first on our block to have a television set—perhaps this too had been a gift—and she spent her days crocheting table clothes and doilies, and sipping cokes right out of the bottle, which she offered me, a forbidden treat in my house high above the other side of the street, while we watched one soap opera after the other in her dark living room, cut off from the rest of the world. Why she put up with me, a little girl of eight, nine or even ten, who was often unsure what the obliquely verbalized melodramas were about, I don’t know; but I felt that beneath our differences in age, we were soulmates in our isolation, at the same time as I was learning from her as well as from the TV what adulthood American-style could be like, something neither my mother and father at home, nor my parents’ little circle of refugee psychoanalysts at Menningers, could teach.
While my childhood memories unfold for me on Lindenwood, another more distant locale sits inside that midwestern landscape: my mother’s early home on Nassauischestrasse number 26 in Berlin. As in a theater whose flood light leaves another area of the stage in shade, my mother’s stories left dark spots in my geography, but the scenes she created were sharpened by her nostalgia, forming a territory in my imagination as alive as my Kansas home.
“Just think!” she said, as she sat at my bedside before I went to sleep, or on those days when recurring ear aches kept me stranded under the covers. Five minutes earlier, she had been impatient and critical of me; but now her voice softened with the achy pleasure of longing, and her yellow-flecked gray eyes, which had just roamed my room in search of a disorderly shelf or a sweater left lying about, came to rest on the scene she was recalling.
Her house on Nassauischestrasse had a winter garden filled with plants and large windows on three sides. Behind glass doors, so that the sun streamed in, was a Musikzimmer with a grand piano in one corner, while in the other, next to the door to the Herrenzimmerwhere my grandfather took his smoke, stood a large cage with a parrot in it. And at the back of the house, along the long corridor to the children’s bedrooms, on contraptions suspended from the ceiling, hung the bicycles of the four Ascher boys, which could be lowered whenever they wanted to ride. Gerhard used the bike most often, for he was cultivating a little kitchen garden near Dahlem, some kilometers away. Sunday afternoons, all seven children were dressed in identical sailor suits: my mother, Irmschen, and her sisters, Gerda and M argot, with large ribbons in their hair, and Manfred, Gerhard, Heinz, and Julius with little sailor caps. After their mother had lined them up for inspection, their proud father led them and the Kindermädschen, or nursemaid, past the ginkgo trees of Nassauischestrasse, across Uhlandstrasse, and over to Kempinski’s, Berlin’s best Konditorei and restaurant on Nicolsburgerplatz. There everyone, including the nursemaid, was seated together at the largest table and, along with their Kaffee or Schokolade mit Schlagsahne, hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, they were allowed to choose a slice of cake.
Mother’s favorite cake was a Baumkuchen, or tree cake. Made on a rotisserie, it had real tree rings when you sliced into it. And it tasted so delicious! “Was it like pound cake?” I asked, staring at the backyard trees beyond my Lindenwood bedroom window, but I was also seeing a striated piece of cake set out on a white tablecloth in the wonderful Berlin restaurant.”No, not quite.” My mind’s eye switched to trace the packaged cakes on the rack at the corner grocery store across Sixth Street.”What about a jelly roll?” No, nothing available in Kansas could give me even an inkling of this marvelous cake. Though she had the storyteller’s joy in evoking my desire, she would have preferred to share the taste with me, if only to obtain my full agreement about how wonderful a Baumkuchen had been.
One afternoon she tried to make one using a recipe in my Grandmother Antonia’s Viennese cookbook. Pulling the pan from the oven as each layer dried, she carefully ladeled another thin spoonful of wet dough on top. As the oven’s warm sugary odor smelled right, Mother’s excitement mounted. But when the cake finally had three or four inches of layers, it was rock hard on the bottom; even the tree rings hadn’t come out right. Without a special rotisserie, the miracle couldn’t be transported.(Years later, when we were finally in Berlin together in 1979 under Willy Brandt’s Wiedergutmachung program, she would buy me a cellophane-wrapped Baumkuchen at the KaDeWe, the big department store on the Kurfürstendamm. Chewing slowly, I savored the gentle flavor of this cake that had so captivated me as a child, but she refused to be sentimental: perhaps her tastebuds had been ruined by so many years of sweet American deserts, but to her the cake was dry and bland, not worth the money.)
One summer, too, shortly after the end of the First World War, Mother’s fun-loving Papa had the family servants set up a vast tent in the country outside Berlin, so that the seven children and their friends could experience a night outdoors like any explorer. And in Häringsdorf, on the Baltic Sea, where the family went each summer, Papa made a little arrangement with the owner of the candy store on the boardwalk. What Gerda and Irmschen were told was that this was a very special shop: since the owner was a musical man: if they wanted some chocolate, all they had to do was whistle as they walked in.”Show me, mother,” I demanded, suddenly sitting up in bed, though I had often heard the story. And she put her two fingers between her lips and blew helplessly. Then, laughing, she admitted, “Oh, I can’t whistle anymore. But with all that chocolate, I was very good then!”
Yes, food had been rationed when she was a little girl, but somehow it had been part of her charmed life, for what she recalled was Papa bringing home a banana to slice off a small section for each child, or giving them each a taste of his soft boiled egg at breakfast. And if their ration cards were used up at the end of the week—well, then he gathered the entire family and the Kindermädchen to go to dinner at Kempinski’s.
I could tell that Grandpa Heinrich had doted on his family, and perhaps especially on his youngest daughter, my mother. Also that my mother’s Papa had been utterly different from my own moody and highly critical father, though Mother cloaked them both in rapture, without apparent distinction. In contrast to my father, who found can openers bewildering, my Berlin grandfather was a great lover of contraptions. Trained as an engineer, he owned an apartment house in the lovely residential district of Wilmersdorf, as well as a factory building in working-class Moabit which he had inherited from his older brother. There, during World War I, he had shown his patriotism and ingenuity by manufacturing steel clampons that enabled military horses to travel on winter ice. At the war’s end, he turned to another new idea, becoming the first German manufacturer of electric vacuum sweepers. He called his sweeper der Rechte Weg, the Right Way, by which he must have hoped to convince Berlin housewives to give up the brooms and mops of their fore-mothers. And he was apparently a successful marketer of his new product, for the family prospered throughout the economically turbulent 1920’s, until the Nazi years. But for my mother, Heinrich Ascher’s grasp of der Rechte Weg extended beyond electric sweepers or even a good knack for business, for her papa had understood that der Rechte Weg in all things was the way of humor and generosity.
Perhaps his children had tasted their bit of egg at the edge of his teaspoon, and he was now straightening his cravat or putting on his hat before the large mirror, catching their shining eyes in the glass. “What will you do at the factory today?” Irmschen or Gerda, barely a year older, wanted to know. The little girls were wearing their starched dresses, and large bows at the tops of their heads held their long hair away from their excited faces. While the Kindermädchenwagged a cautioning finger at their interrupting his concentration, Papa turned and threw them a gallant kiss.”Ah,” he explained. “Exactly the same as you. I’ll play with my dolls.”
My mother during our Topeka years is a robust, athletic woman with a cheerful, forthright expression and thick brown waves combed back from her clear forehead. Free of the glasses she will later wear, her yellowish gray eyes can be warm or restless, or excited by some prank she is about to play, and her long straight nose and resolute chin give her a classic profile. Sometimes her blunt condemnations of my Midwestern child’s world make my knees weak, and her determination to complete her always long list of chores can leave me feeling abandoned. Sometimes, too, her insistent light-heartedness irritates me, as does her boundless enthusiasm for projects by which she hopes to please someone, ameliorate a neighbor’s misery, or solve a social problem.”Until everyone is safe from prejudice, we aren’t safe,” she says, her eyes suddenly burning as she prepares to leave for a meeting of the NAACP.But when she is sewing or mending our socks, or even about to tell a story, she becomes pensive, which is my favorite way to see her, for then she comes to rest as her eyes are cast downward and there is a pleasant peace in her strong face. Though she measures only two inches over five feet in the low heels she wears, and complains of being short, to me she seems large, even statuesque, built of some pliant yet terribly durable material.
One day I realized that she wore no wedding ring, as other mothers did, on her sturdy but well-shaped fingers.”Why not, Mom?” I hated it when she was different from the American mothers in our neighborhood or at school. She looked down at her hand, surprised either that it was bare or that married women were supposed to wear rings. Then she smiled, and began her story about the dimestore ring which she and my father had quickly bought in England, after the judge had refused to marry even penniless refugees without a gold band; but their cheap imitation had turned blue on her finger a few weeks later, she supposed she had tossed it out. Anyway, didn’t having children make it clear she was married? “I guess whoever is confused can ask,” she shrugged, unwilling to countenance the subterfuge and innuendo I was learning at Mrs. Marsh’s across the street.
I try to imagine the woman my mother would have become if she hadn’t been forced to leave Germany. An energetic, middle-class German woman, Jewish by heritage, in a Germany still filled with Jews. I know that as a Berlin teenager, she saw herself as urbane, part of the modern set. She enjoyed the art and cultural freedom of the Weimar years: the theater of Brecht, the Bauhaus’s functional design. Like many Germans (including Nazis), she was a nature lover, a hiker, and a gymnast; after school, she went to the Sportsklub in the Berliner Stadium, where she swam and practiced running, broad jumps, disc and spear throwing.(I would see that stadium for the first time as a young adult in Leni Riefenstah’s film, Olympiade, about the 1936 Olympics. Among the scenes left out of the film were the many Juden uneruwünscht—Jews not wanted—signs that had sprung up along the streets of Berlin and were temporarily taken down for the international visitors.) Like many Germans (though not the Nazis), she also looked forward to reason’s victory over all forms of irrationality and superstition, among which she placed religion and prejudice.
Here, in America, her stance was to be rational and unsentimental: to scorn the traditional and anyone who held onto old ways. Unlike my father, whose attention was caught by the dark undertows and minor keys, Mother was most comfortable with flat surfaces and the bold cheerfulness of primary colors. Even my father’s profession of psychoanalysis turned uncomplicated in her rendition.”Spill it out!” she liked to advise, as if mental healing were as simple as pouring sour milk out of a glass. Though her English was faulty, she called German “Hitler’s language” and tried not to speak it.(Years later, when I was an adult and she visited me in New York, I thought to please her by taking her to the German Jewish community in Washington Heights; but she was revolted to discover that in America Jews still walked the streets speaking German to each other, as if they had never left home.) “You have to look forward, you can’t look back,” were the words she used like a mantra, recited with equanimity or determination, or, more rarely, of wistfulness.
Where in the living rooms of other families on Lindenwood one sank into the scratchy velvet of deep chairs and couches, Mother had softened rattan and wood garden furniture with hand-made cushions in brown and green, the colors she attributed to nature. Rather than dark wood china cabinets filled with dishes, figurines and personal keepsakes, we had bookcases of pine planks held up by glass bricks. And our light and sparsely furnished living room was decorated with several modern paintings, most conspicuous of which was an enormous cubist-style portrait of an elongated and sorrowful Negro with large white eyes and blue and mahogany skin. If my father identified with the man’s lonely sorrow, for my mother the painting affirmed for anyone who came into our house her new alliance with those who suffered from bigotry in her adopted land.
Still, I remember three mementoes of Europe in our house. There was the sterling silverware, part of the large, ornate, monogrammed fleischig set my mother’s parents had somehow hidden from the Nazis, who came to collect silver for the Third Reich. The silver was now divided among the three sisters: Margot had eight settings in Chicago, Gerda was using her silverware in London, and we had our setting for eight. Mother would tell me to be careful of the sterling knives, whose handles came loose if one left them soaking in the hot dishwater; but we used the heavy set everyday, even when we ate out in the backyard. There were also the leather-bound books of German literary classics, as well as a complete 12-volume set of Freud, all in a tan leather, which my father carried from move to move. And there were the small Caucasian rugs my Grandmother Antonia had brought out of Vienna. Though I loved the carpets for their density of pattern in rich melancholy shades, and the aura they gave of an Old World intricacy (another aspect of my taste which Mother saw as perversely old-fashioned), she viewed them with the generalized impatience she felt toward her Viennese mother-in-law; she complained that they interfered with her vacuuming, and she eagerly gave them to my Grandmother Antonia to take along when she finally moved out.
I see my father’s mother as a straight-backed woman, a good deal taller than my mother: her breasts lie flattened by her thick gray wool dress; her eyes are sharp behind her glasses, and her teeth are crooked and yellowing. From Vienna, she has brought a black Persian lamb winter coat, as well as a brown fox tail that she keeps deep in her closet, hidden from my mother’s judgmental eyes. Though Grandmother Antonia does not have my parents’ certainty about either morality or taste, she is not someone a child can cuddle or hug.
Her permanented steel-colored hair was a daily problem for her to comb.”Ach! es tut mir weh” she cried, as she pulled her tortoise shell comb in short, rapid strokes. I stood next to her, watching the two of us reflected in the full-length mirror that hung over her closet door. Her sensitive scalp was only the start, for her aching, arthritic arms were so stiff she could barely hold them up to slip on a blouse. In Vienna, the Friseurin had come to her house every Friday to wash her hair. But here in Topeka, she crossed Sixth Street to the beauty parlor behind the filling station. Sometimes Barbara and I sat on either side of her as her head disappeared inside the heavy metal beehive, and together we browsed through the comics and love magazines that Mother called “Dreck!” and wouldn’t allow in the house.
When my grandmother’s hair was finally dry enough to comb out, it stood as stiff as tiny metal pipes that showed how pink her head had become from the heat. But by the next day the wave was already losing its shape; and her hair lay matted and lifeless, her scalp pale and flaking, by the end of the week.
Grandmother Antonia’s only friend was a man named Mr. Ekstein, with whom she played Gin Rummy or Tarock, a Middle-European game. Mr. Ekstein was the father of another Viennese refugee, a colleague of my father’s at Menningers; like my grandmother, he too had been belatedly helped to escape by his son, with whose family he lived as an uneasy boarder. But my father’s father had been a successful businessman and owner of properties until Hitler’s An- schluss, while old Mr. Ekstein was a poorly paid accountant. And while my mother hated class prejudice, she didn’t like signs of poor breeding, which is what she saw in nearly everything Mr. Ekstein did. A stocky man with a large solid belly that forced him to lean back in his chair, Mr. Ekstein had the thickest fingers I’d ever seen, and on his pinky, which flashed darkly tanned and as broad as a thumb as he worked his cigar, he wore a gold ring with a big stone.
“Ja, was noch?”—”Siehst?” Mr. Ekstein and my grandmother spoke loudly in their Austrian dialects, as they slapped their cards on the folding table Mother had brought out.”Das ist eine Zehn.” Mr. Ekstein’s cigar moved from the side of his mouth to the edge of the glass ashtray where he tapped out little ash patties, and back again to his mouth.”Ja, aber ich habe einen Konig.” The whole porch took on its rancid smell; and mother, who usually refused to be concerned about what the neighbors thought, grew irritated that uneducated Austrian dialect and cheap cigar smells were wafting from our porch. Yet at least it wasn’t cold outside, for then Mr. Ekstein played cards in Grandmother’s room, and his cigar smoke filled the house.
“You want the cigar ring?” Mr. Ekstein asked me, when I sat on the porch rail to watch them.”I think this brand is a little prettier than last time, no?” I loved the paper rings he brought and was ashamed to tell him that the one he’d given me last week had torn. Carefully, I slipped the new circle of black paper, with its red print and gold trim, on my finger, then held out my hand for my grandmother to see.”Ach, wunderschön!” she said, quickly nodding, before she returned to concentrate on her cards. She didn’t trust Mr. Ekstein and was afraid that he was about to pull some trick on her.”Was haben Sie nun getan?”—What did you just do? She often made him repeat his move. When he won, she got huffy and complained about her arthritis; later, when he was gone, she grumbled that he had cheated.
One day, Mr. Ekstein sang me a song, which I kept expecting to understand, since it sounded almost like German. Laughing, Grandmother Antonia joined in here and there, her voice high and thin. Inside, I asked Mother what Mr. Ekstein was singing.”I don’t have any idea,” Mother said, with renewed irritability.”It sounded almost like German,” I said.”Not to me. It was Yiddish.” “But Grandma knew it,” I said. Mother clicked her tongue. “It’s not a language my family would ever speak.”
Although my mother adored her fun-loving father and modeled her own ebullience on him, it was her mother who had given her the pride of Jewish aristocracy, and her unwavering certainty about what was correct in all matters of comportment and taste, even here in a strange land. My mother’s mother, Gertrude, was a daughter of Samuel Oppenheimer, the owner of the great Hannover Bank. Although her father was dead by the time she married, the Bankhauswas being well run by her older brother, Otto, and she had brought a substantial dowry to her marriage with Heinrich Ascher.
In the photographs of her early married years, whether she is wearing a Victorian dress with a lace collar or a striped bathing jersey, Gertrude stands erect, her thick waist-length hair brushed into a large soft knot, and long earrings dangle with precious stones on either side of her square unsmiling face. Even when surrounded by her growing family, her expression is stern rather than proud.(For the birth of each of her seven children, Heinrich bought her a new piece of fine jewelry.) And I know from my mother that it was she who carried the heavy ring of keys which locked every door and cabinet from the maids who cleaned their Nassauischestrasse house, and she who tried to place restraints on her husband’s open-handed joviality.
I was almost seven the summer we took a train to see Grandmother Gertrude, Widowed in Mexico shortly after my birth, she was by then living near her oldest sons, Manfred and Gerhard, who were rebuilding their lives in Detroit. She had become a small woman, no longer stout, with the beginning of a bend in her back, and all that was left of her lush long hair was a thin gray knot at the top of her head. On her bed in her little apartment on Grand Boulevard, she carefully displayed for me her pairs of elbow-length lad gloves in white, beige, brown, gray, and black; her large silk scarves; her jewelry case lined in moss green velvet; and the hair brush and matching manicure set, with their tortoise shell handles. This was her remaining proof of the grand lady she had been. All this, she had carried by train in late 1940 across Russia to Vladivostok; by boat to Japan and then Hawaii, and on, through the Panama Canal, to Vera Cruz, on Mexico’s east coast. She and Grandpa Heinrich had then taken a train to Mexico City, which is where he had soon caught typhoid and died.
Though my mother was haughty with my father’s mother, she was clearly a little afraid of her own mother. Suddenly there was an extra lightness and urgency to her step, and something of the little girl, as she said, “Mutti, setz dich,” “Mummy, sit down,” deferentially opening the special folding chair she’d brought along to Belle Isle, so that my Berlin grandmother wouldn’t have to sit on a hard picnic bench. Which makes me wonder how often my Grandpa Heinrich, who needed so much to satisfy and delight, must have tried to soften his wife’s stern and condescending face. I know that after she lost a diamond earring on the beach one summer in Haringsdorf, Heinrich secretly had a duplicate made, but waited until the next summer as they sat on their deck chairs to stir up the sand and—ah! look! Did she smile then?
My mother would be unhappy to see herself described as an uneasy mix of her mother and father. Like Grandpa Heinrich, she still loves the sense of bounty in bringing joy to others.”It’s better to give than to receive,” could well be her motto. Even today, she looks for occasions to take a casserole to a neighbor or care for a sick family friend. But her instincts to reach out are limited to those times when she can extend a helping hand.
Other women rarely called Mother just to chat when I was a child, and I don’t recall her going out for coflee or lunch with a friend the entire time I was growing up. Nor did she and another woman ever laugh uproariously over their lives, as I and my friends do so often today. Mother would have said that she had no time to socialize, that her responsibilities kept her too busy. She would have said also that as a happily married woman she felt no need for anyone but Paul, her Austrian husband.
Having turned her back on Germany, Mother was reinventing her life in the Midwest, and at the center of her adventure was my father. But unlike the TV dramas that enthralled me, her romance brooked neither betrayals nor misunderstandings. Instead, she saw to it that the flow of her days was shaped by my father’s schedule and desires and intellectual tastes. Ten years his junior and much less educated than he, she looked up to him for his knowledge and wisdom, and she accepted his corrections and even his derision as just reminders of her secondary rank. He was her Great Love, her father, teacher, older brother, mentor and guide; and their marriage in its romantic beginnings in the English refugee camp and then in Hawaii, where they were finally reunited, as well as in its daily workings as she played nurturer to his provider, adoring audience to his artistry and intellect, was the Ideal marriage.
Yet the truth is, my father must have been as treacherous an ally for her as he was for me. Easily distant, wounded, morose, and irritable, his kindness and affection and playful humor came in unpredictable spurts. And he could suddenly turn impatient, no longer willing to be entertained by the conversation that had amused him merely five minutes earlier. Which is why I suspect his disdain and his pricklish spirits of having cast him into the realm of mythology. For she, who had grown up so loved by her father and older brothers and sisters in Berlin, insisted that she had never imagined so beautiful and complete a love as that which she now had with her husband Paul, my father.
Certainly, Mother had inherited her own mother’s sense of being above the crowd, someone who didn’t “lower” herself to the taste and intellect of others; and in America she saw most differences as compromising.”The caliber here is so low,” she said, echoing my father’s view of both the standards and the quality of the people who adhered to them. Yet like my father, Mother was also pulled by the ideals of equality and democracy, and she felt the need to defend her refusal to join in.”Cute?” she would ask, shocked at such a concept. And she was incredulous that anyone would call their spouse “honey,” as if such penetrating sweetness was what one sought in a mate.”This, is a country of conformism,” she said derisively. Though each person I met at school or on my street looked unique to me, I suddenly saw everyone as similarly shaped as colored glass marbles; only my mother and her exceptional husband, my father, had the courage to stand out. Or perhaps what she was expressing was a discomfort in not being able to join in. For in Germany, she had been proud of being the land of Jew who was indistinguishable from everyone else—the kind who might keep Kosher at home, but made no special demands in restaurants.
She was clearly right that she had immigrated to a land with a degraded “mass culture”—the word was not hers, but that of the great sociologists of the 1950’s, also Jews living in exile in the U.S. But her confidence about what was high quality, attractive, good manners, necessary decorum, and even what was appropriate to eat, suggested that she too had come from a strict and narrow range of acceptability, of conformism within her elite social class. And although that world of assimilated bourgeois Jews was now terribly far away and largely destroyed, her proud sense of individuality was in part the result of living on very different soil.
Perhaps all snobs purchase their superiority at the expense of their own comfort and security. For my mother, her curtailed education as a result of the Nazis was a constant source of humiliation, depriving her of the confidence to meet the people she deemed worth getting to know.”They won’t find me interesting,” she said of my father’s friends, as if she had no other worthwhile qualities. She was a housewife who thought that caring for a husband and children was a proper and sufficient role for her, yet she was easily contemptuous of other women who stayed at home, without making what she thought of as a larger contribution. She might have read on her own, becoming self-educated, but the barrier of a new language seemed too formidable. Belatedly, when I was in the fifth grade, she took a high school equivalency exam and slowly, one subject at a time, like a frightened animal began to gnaw her way through the courses requisite to a B.A.degree at local college, Yet she remained self-deprecating about her learning: with American teachers demanding none of the intellectual exertions of the great European universities, she still found the assignments difficult. She sat hunched at the makeshift desk she’d installed under her bedroom window, a woman built for physical activity and the busy comforts of friendships, and anyone passing the half-closed door saw her discomfort and lonely distraction.
I have before me a photograph taken in front of number 26 Nassauischestrasse. The white stucco apartment building is merely background, but one can see the wide windows on the second floor that brought light through the winter garden into the music room. The occasion for the photo is the new white Nash convertible parked out in front, which her older brothers had just brought back from America. My mother stands smiling on the curb behind the car: in a print sleeveless dress with a round white collar, she looks breezy and trim as her elbow rests on its open top. Julius sits behind the wheel, decked out in a driving ascot and a jaunty beret, and blond Gerhard is in the back seat. My mother’s father is in the seat next to the curb, near my mother. A round balding man with a white goatee, he seems to have shrunk compared to his youthful sons, and though he smiles at the camera, there is some nervousness or fear in his eyes. Perhaps the look can be partly explained by the year, which is spring 1933: with the Nazis having gained a bare majority in the Parliament, Hitler had just been appointed Chancellor.
The truth is, I construct the next period from bits and shards, for my mother never liked to talk about her last years in Germany. Where every childhood story had been a romance with her cast as the beloved princess, when she spoke of the Hitlerzeit, her voice became wistful, pensive, and filled with hurt. Like a child who has been well-behaved and can’t understand why she has been punished, her swirl of unexpressed emotions got caught on the injustice of her fate.
Actually, she didn’t want to remember this time, and she chose her memories like someone picking the few edible grapes from a rotting sprig. I know that month by month her life became increasingly curtailed, harassed, even dangerous. The Third Reich had rapidly Nazified the curriculum; whether the course was history or biology, Germans were the master race and Jews responsible for every evil. Some of her gentile friends had become ardent Nazis, and though Jewish students weren’t yet officially banned from public school, it was just too hard to go. To learn something and occupy herself, she studied sewing (a skill that in Topeka she would turn to good use by making most of our clothes). She could still take a walk, she told herself, even if she wasn’t allowed to sit on a park bench—and yet, what was the joy in passing the signs that read “Jews Not Wanted,” or her friends and neighbors who were afraid to say hello? As for her father’s vacuum factory, Hitler had begun his regime with a boycott of all Jewish businesses. Then, in 1935, the Nuremburg Laws forbade Germans to buy from Jews. Since Jews were being laid off daily, and some were beginning to emigrate, Heinrich Ascher’s business was shrinking dangerously. A year later, my grandfather moved the remainder of his once large family to a simple apartment he was installing behind the factory in Moabit. But life grew still more grim. Even shopping for groceries could be harrowing, as the shopkeepers found themselves suddenly out of carrots or meat when a Jew walked into the store. Moreover, since the Gestapo was no longer subject to judicial review, they could do what they wished: heckle Jews, demand identity papers, send anyone who seemed a “trouble-maker” off to the many new concentration camps. Then, shortly before Himmler took charge of the police, they rented the bottom floor of Grandpa Heinrich’s Moabit building to use as an additional headquarter. Now, the family had to pass the police even before they reached the street.
One day in Topeka, as Mother and I were walking along our peaceful residential street, the air suddenly seemed electric. Had she really said it? I wasn’t sure. They were living behind der Rechte Wegfactory now, and since Gerda had left to join her brothers in Spain, Mother was the last of the seven Ascher children left in the house. Papa, Grandpa Heinrich, was dragged out of bed in the night and taken downstairs. In the morning, he returned barely able to stand. “What did the Nazis do to him downstairs, Mom?” I asked a few minutes later. She shook her head.”What kind of torture?” Again, she shook her head, and I began to distract myself with some children playing in their yard. Finally, her voice seemed to moan like the wind, as I saw with sharp and ghastly clarity, the abused member of a grandfather I could never meet.”They did something terrible— with electrodes. Just for fun.”
On Thursday, Sept. 8, 1937, the day Mother turned 21, Grandpa Heinrich handed her a visa and a ticket to London. There were no presents, no cake, no guests; instead, she spent the day packing the single suitcase with which she would leave Germany. An Orthodox cousin who lived in London with her six children was giving my mother a visa as a domestic. Heinrich Ascher, at the age of 61, would still try to hang on in Berlin: he was not yet ready to leave all he had built over the course of a hard-working life. Mother left at dawn the next morning. Like all citizens of the Third Reich, she was allowed to take only ten marks out of the country, and she held these marks in a little bag tied under her blouse as the boat pulled away from Bremerhaven and her last sight of Germany for 42 years. A few hours later, she arrived in England; it was now Friday afternoon. To reach her Orthodox cousin’s house before the Sabbath, mother rushed across London by cab, spending her bag of ten marks in its entirety.
It is 1979, and I am in Berlin with Mother, courtesy of Willy Brandt’s Wiedergutmachungs Program. This reparations program, which literally means “to make good again,” offers a week in Berlin to Jews who were forced out of Germany, lived in hiding, or survived the concentration camps of the Third Reich. While my eye and ear are alert to suggestions of anti-Semitism—why, for instance, didn’t the Pension keep our reservation, when Mother exposed herself to the proprietor by writing why she was coming back after so many years?—Mother focuses on the Berlin of her enchanted childhood, the Berlin of Baumkuchen and Kempinski’s Restaurant and the many other charmed moments where she learned der Rechte Weg.
One rainy morning, we squeeze into a mini-bus with other Berlin Jews now living in Los Angeles and Haifa to tour the western sector of a city that was undivided when it was theirs. Perhaps it is the rain and my awareness of Berlin’s troubled history, but our tour seems to feature particularly desolate spots: the Plotzensee Penitentiary, where several thousand people were guillotined during the Third Reich, and where German military leaders hid in the last months of the War while plotting (unsuccessfully) to overthrow Hitler; the staircase to the top of the first of two thick, 12-foot-high walls beyond which lies East Berlin.
On a cold rainy Sunday afternoon toward the end of our visit, we chance upon a flea market in the square across from the Charlottenberg Palace. The open market spills with old velvet curtains, silver tea pots and candelabras from the turn of the century, damask table clothes, and stray plates from expensive sets of China—”like we used to have,” Mother says from time to time. She and I move quietly among the stalls, touching a strip of lace, inspecting a crystal vase. It might be a flea market in the U. S. , except that everything is heavy, dark, and ornate. Mother has discovered a silver egg cup like the one from which her father during the rationing gave his children tastes of soft boiled egg. She wants to take it back to my sister, but she can’t get herself to buy it. She seems more and more distressed. “I’ll buy it,” I volunteer, opening my purse.
Tight-lipped and suddenly pale, she shakes her head, and a few minutes later, I steer her out of the market. When we have rounded the corner, as if finally finding the words for closure, she says quietly, “It’s not nice to buy a gift in a flea market.” And I can only wonder as we resume our walk at how her sunny good will must have snagged on the prospect of buying back what had once been her family’s.