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January 30, 1933: A Memoir

ISSUE:  Winter 1983

I remember January 30, 1933. In Germany the next-to-last day of the first month is invariably unpleasant. If the sun should shine, in defiance of all metereological odds, it would illuminate a world lashed by crackling cold. If the clouds which rule the central European heavens from September to May claim this day as their own, as they generally do, then sleet or slushy brown snow covers the pavement. Children amble to school, and their elders walk purposefully to work, through a world suffused in a spectrum ranging from black to gray.

The best holidays of the year are over, and before every German schoolchild there stretches an expanse of dreary, homework-laden days before the academic term ends at Easter. It is the time when youngsters pray for an attack of influenza, or measles, in fact any affliction that promises to lighten life with an unscheduled holiday.

When I woke that morning, I felt the deep depression engendered by the approach of another day of educational misery: my geometry homework was only half done, the assigned passage in Ernest Lavisse’s Histoire de France (simplified and expurgated beyond recognition) imperfectly understood. I was to face a scene with the German master for defiantly writing, once again, a composition in Latin rather than in German script. French irregular verbs were the only burden which the dismal morning found me ready to carry with a degree of authoritative ease. The day promised to be like any other day in school life, a day hardly worth living.

But wait! I swallowed and my head jerked upward, jolted by a sudden pain. Could it be? Eagerly I swallowed again. No doubt about it, my throat hurt. I repeated the process several times. I wanted to be sure that this was no dream. Evidence mounted: I had a sore throat. Lying back, I closed my eyes and prayed that the symptoms would not go away.

I remembered at once that the morning of a school day never found me well. I always had to wrestle with a powerful urge to go back to sleep. I always suffered from a matutinal heaviness of limb, coupled with slight dizziness. These were symptoms of chronic disaffection, the protests of a disconsolate soul. But the sore throat signaled a distempered body, and while the world of authority around me, my parents and my teachers, cared not about my psychic sufferings, it kept a 24-hour watch on my physical health. Every sport I enjoyed was proscribed as a source of potential injury. As soon as the daily rounds of school and chores had been completed and I seemed ready to claim a life of my own, other rules and curfews intervened. When I began the initiation into the mysteries of the English language in my fourth year of Gymnasium, “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” was the first Anglo-Saxon maxim my classmates and I were forced to recite in unison. Duty without end promised a long, useful life, a gram of pleasure portended decay.

Now the time had come to turn the obstructive wisdom of my elders to my own advantage. Indifferent to sufferings of my spirit, they would rise to the challenge of bodily disease.

I bolted out of bed to carry the day’s first medical bulletin to my mother. By now it must have become clear that I was not looking for sympathy. The world in which I grew up gave none. It was divided by a two-party system which pitted the eternal majority of school and home against the child. Both harnessed me into a six-day curriculum of joyless obligations from which Sunday, punctuated by familial excursions on foot and indiscreet parental inquiries into scholastic progress, offered little relief. There was no escape, except vacation and illness, the latter afforded only after thorough tests by thermometer, careful examination of relevant sectors of the anatomy, and, in case of doubt, an earnest consultation with a third, part-time member of this grand coalition of adults, the family physician. These tests made up a daunting obstacle course, separating the claim of illness from its official recognition, but the defeats of life had not extinguished my will to tackle it once more.

“Open your mouth,” my mother commanded. She peered intently down my throat. “Your throat is red,” she announced. “I shall take your temperature.” Under the covers I squeezed my thumbs between the second and third fingers of each hand, the German equivalent of keeping my fingers crossed. The first test had been passed.

German home medicine in those days decreed that body temperature be measured not by the easy introduction of the thermometer under the tongue, but by a far more degrading maneuver. Instead of sitting or lying on his back, the victim, in my case a pubescent boy of twelve, lay on his stomach waiting to learn whether submission to this indignity would turn out to be justified by the results.

Having thus impaled me, my mother hurried off to get my father’s breakfast and supervise my younger brother’s daily mobilization. She returned after half an hour and disclosed the thermometer reading: “You have a temperature. Cover up well and stay in bed. I shall call Dr. Wetzler.” I pulled up my pajama trousers and slipped under the covers. Life had its moments, after all. January 30 would pass without geometry, without joining Caesar on his forays into Gaul. (Lavisse’s summary was at least a kindlier guide than his Latin source, whose reading the modern language curriculum of my school spared me.) It would be a day of peace, spent alone, interrupted only by surreptitious reading of my latest favorite, a German translation of that congenial classic Tom Sawyer, the recent gift of an understanding friend of the family.

The morning passed gently in dozing, daydreaming, and reading. Whenever steps echoed outside my room, I deftly slipped Tom Sawyer under the mattress. The doctor appeared in time to confirm my mother’s diagnosis and to prescribe that I stay in bed until the temperature was gone. On the other hand, he agreed that she should call the home of my friend Fritz, asking that he bring me the day’s assignments, confirming that I was certainly not too ill to keep up with schoolwork.

At one-thirty Fritz duly appeared with a depressing list of new tasks. After my mother had left the room, not before warning him to keep his distance from my bed to avoid contamination, he leaned over with understandable unconcern and whispered excitedly:

“Do you know what I heard?”


“Hitler has just become chancellor.”

We always whispered. It was a convention of our age group, inured to live in constant opposition. Secretiveness was our way. We whispered to each other in class, when talking was naturally prohibited. We whispered in the schoolyard when exchanging a limited, unchanging repertory of anal and sexual jokes, or swapping derogatory remarks about teachers, parents, or other members of the adult world. Our existence was a furtive, resistant, sneaky microcosm of trivial secrets, our own only as long as it remained hidden from our elders.

“Is it true?” I asked.

“It went around school, and I saw storm troopers everywhere on my way home. Reif, the milkman, was in uniform today. You know, he wouldn’t wear that get-up on his route unless it was safe.”

Fritz was excited. Throughout the past year he had not passed a brownshirt on the street without sidling up to him, raising his hand, and whispering, “Heil Hitler.” Sometimes his low-voiced greeting had been noticed and returned, sometimes merely acknowledged with a condescending smile (the Nazis proclaimed their commitment to youth, but treated children no better than did other adults), sometimes disregarded. His father, with whom I seldom heard him exchange a friendly word and whom we avoided even more doggedly than we were wont to avoid fathers in general, was a Jewish lawyer whose sister had married a colonel in Germany’s purportedly 100,000-man army. Fritz envied his cousins for having a father in uniform. He bragged about his uncle, and in our class he was the resident authority on Germany’s glorious future in arms. We accepted his claim to being privy to all kinds of exciting martial secrets which his uncle, “who knew what was going on,” supposedly passed on to him.

By the time my exultant friend left, the personal triumph with which the day had begun had soured. I, too, had an uncle who in my own mind stood apart from the hostile adult phalanx. He was no colonel, but a Jewish businessman who lived in an elegant house in a western suburb of Berlin. His establishment included a cook and two maids: family dinners were sumptuous and far tastier than ordinary German middle-class fare, and he never asked me how I was doing in school. I wondered whether he had heard the news and what he thought of it.

For the rest of the afternoon I left Tom Sawyer under the mattress and brooded. About what had happened, about Fritz, about myself, about my family. There was nothing unnatural or precocious about this. In my house, politics was a commonplace subject of conversation. Like many proverbially “nonpolitical” Germans, my parents subscribed to several newspapers and talked about what they read. In a typical middle-class home adults and children possessed a working knowledge of the shifting panorama of current affairs, including the major questions before parliament and the frequent rise and fall of ministerial coalitions, without recognizing an obligation to join the process.

I therefore understood enough of what had happened to reflect uneasily on what it might mean. I tried to translate apprehension into personal terms. What effect would the new government have on me and on my friend? Here was Fritz with his harsh and querulous Jewish father with the martial connections. Here was I with a Jewish mother and a gentile father who barely kept us afloat on the shallow waters of petty bourgeois gentility. The members of Fritz’ family would be pulling even harder in opposite directions. What would happen to us? Would my mother’s ancestry put her, and us, outside the pale? It was a reasonable question, for no one knew at this point what action to expect from Hitler, the strident, anti-Semitic head of government. My father was a Social-Democrat, not very active recently but of an intractable, intolerant, and choleric nature, an outsider by inclination. How was he taking the latest news? How would he face it?

I found out that evening when he came home from the office. As soon as he heard that I was ill, he came to my room, followed by my mother and brother. He opened his mouth as if to speak, hesitated, looked about, and then abruptly barked at my brother: “Close the door.” I shrank back in my pillow. Ordinarily that phrase served as prelude to a tongue-lashing or a whipping for something I had or had not done that day. Doors were closed to muffle stormy passages. Surely he was not going to give me hell for missing a day of school?

After my brother had carried out his order my father burst out: “So that old asshole the Field Marshal has gone and done it!”

Never in my life had I heard my father use such language. Never in the lives of any of my friends had any father used such language, at least not in the hearing of his children. My world was transformed! I sat up, barely restraining myself from jumping out of bed. What excitement to hear my father describe a person of authority in terms with which we expressed our alienation from the adult world around us.

Only he was not whispering. He had flung the word loudly into the room, to characterize the 86-year-old president of the republic, Paul von Hindenburg, respectfully designated by the press of all political shades (except the Communists) as “aged,” which was correct, and “venerable,” which in some quarters was secretly qualified as a matter of opinion. So far as I was concerned my father was the first to call him an asshole. Astonishingly, my mother who, according to my view of the world, did not even know the word my father had used, uttered neither protest nor reproof.

“You voted for that senile bastard last year,” my father turned on her. “I told you this would happen. I told you. My God!” He sat down on the chair by my writing desk and pounded it with his right fist. The long discussions at the dinner table during the previous year’s presidential elections came back to me. Faced by two serious choices, Hindenburg or Hitler, my mother like most citizens supporting the fragile republic, had cast ballots for the old soldier of the vanished empire. My father, veteran though he was, voted for the Communist candidate, as much, I am inclined to think today, in defiance of my mother’s imperturbably rational arguments against such a step as out of conviction. Now he thought that he had been vindicated, for it seemed that a vote for the winner had also turned into a mandate for his closest rival.

While my father raged and my mother remained inscrutably silent, I looked at my brother. He winked. His round cheeks were even redder than usual. He shared my excitement of discovery. At that moment we both loved our father as never before. What a man! Asshole indeed. That’s what they all were, principals, teachers, school janitors, and neighbors who confiscated our soccer balls after they had landed in their flower beds.

Assholes ruled the world, but my father had drawn the line now. He was no longer part of that coalition of oppressors.

I looked at him in speechless admiration. He glanced at me and then at the floor, suddenly embarrassed. “Well, how are you feeling?”

“Better,” I said firmly and to my own surprise. It was a diagnosis one ordinarily left to adults.

“Good. Then let us go down to dinner.”

“Don’t you think he should have his meal in bed,” my mother interposed, speaking for the first time now that the conversation had shifted to her jurisdiction.

Before I could protest, my father declared firmly: “No, tonight we all eat together.” He rose and led the procession out of my room. This time he left the door open.

From that evening on, closing doors and windows before speaking became an undeclared general order in our household. What we had to say to each other at the end of a day was henceforth shielded from alien ears. Maids, repairmen, and passers-by represented the ubiquitous enemy, not merely oppressive, but threatening and brutal, bent not on controling but on destroying. The struggle against the tyranny of authority and custom had been turned into a struggle for survival. Inside the family bastion, however, the barrier between generations had been lowered. After January 30, 1933, we children and our parents moved closer together as the distance between ourselves and the outside world increased rapidly.

We could not know this as we ate our dinner that glum, historic evening, just as we could not know what a divide the day would forever constitute in our lives. Nor had my father’s reaction brought us to such a prophetic understanding. But when he asked my brother to close the door he had responded to an inner voice, to a sensible warning. He had begun to prepare for our survival before he knew that it was threatened.


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