World War II, Part One

The sun was warm but the wind was chill,

You know how it is with an April day,

When the sun is out and the wind is still,

You’re one month on in the middle of May,

But if you so much as dare to speak,

A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,

A wind comes off a frozen peak,

And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

-Two Tramps in Mud Time, Robert Frost

I was born on April 1, 1940, in Brooklyn Hospital, Brooklyn, New York. It was snowing, and the Germans were invading Norway. Snow was general all over Ireland, Joyce writes in his famous story, “The Dead,” and in enumerating the things and people, living and dead, upon whom it is falling, he effectively buries his birthplace. There are people who say they can remember being born, but I am not one of them. I use my mother’s words, not mine. Could she look out the window, or did someone tell her it was snowing? Was it falling in all five boroughs, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the New England states, across the Canadian border, in Norway? Skiers, I have heard, could make their way cross country into neutral Sweden to escape Nazi occupation. But it’s quite probable that on the first of April in New York there was no more than a snow flurry, not the kind of snow that sticks to the ground, much less enough to bury anything or anyone. News of the war in Europe, I imagine, was far more general. It was on the radio, on the lips and tongues of doctors and nurses. My father no doubt mentioned it, whatever he had heard or seen in the paper on his subway ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

Like Joyce, I was not entirely pleased, when the time came to be aware of such things, with the place of my birth. My parents were living in Manhattan which is where I would have been born but for Dr. Wallace, my mother’s obstetrician, who delivered babies at Brooklyn Hospital. For a long time, I deemed this an insufficient reason. My parents should have arranged for me to be born at the red hot center of things, not in remote, low class Brooklyn, to which I had no ties and rarely visited. I did not bury Brooklyn, I ignored it. When asked where I was born, or to fill out a form, I answered New York City.

The Germans in my mother’s narrative could not be so easily dismissed. They were on the move in Europe and, although the United States had not yet entered the war, were present at my birthday. Ich bin eine Deutsche. At least one quarter of me is. My great-grandparents on my mother’s side, Anna Deindorfer and Phillipe Frick, were pioneers in Indiana in the 1800s. My grandmother, Margaretha Rosina Frick, spoke German growing up, and German exclamations of exasperation lingered in her speech throughout her life. My father also spoke a little German learned in an isolated German-speaking community in Montana where he taught school as a very young man. To interact with German-Americans was in the ordinary way of things for both my parents. As children during World War I, they had been taught to disapprove of prejudice against those of German descent, so I suppose there is nothing strange in the fact that they hired, one after the other, between 1940 and 1944, two German nannies to take care of me while they were at work. They left me at home with the enemy! Trudy and Ida could have been spies! Of course this is nonsense. They were harmless young working women, immigrants who needed jobs. I’m sure they kept me clean and happy.

I have a photograph of Trudy pushing my baby carriage, a fabulous perambulator, though it looks to be second-hand, and Trudy is pretty fabulous too in a stylish suit and Marlene Dietrich hat. She left me a scrap of a German song which goes something like this: Hop, hop, hop, / Ferchen lof gallop, / Iber something, iber something, / Hop, hop, hop…I know the tune well, hear the words in my head and spell them as I hear them. My accent is good (hop leans toward hope), but much is missing, too much time has elapsed. A song to bounce a baby on a knee by. Every child in Germany knows it, perhaps. I hope someone out there will recognize it, correct my spelling, tell me what it means, though I think I have the gist. A song of innocence, I think, not like Trot, trot to Boston to buy a loaf of bread. / Trot, trot home again, the old horse fell dead. Yet how I loved that song when I was little, slipping, almost falling, through my father’s knees before he caught me. Safe. I was safe, with never a thought for the poor old horse.

Ida, less defined, less real than Trudy, also left some words behind her: Ida likes it. This to encourage me to eat something but, as the story goes, I refused. Ida could eat it, if she liked it so much. My parents were talkers, story tellers, mimics. In their repetitions in later years I sensed their delight in my combative spirit, in my unwillingness to follow a fuhrer. These words had a special meaning for the three of us, for us only, and now only for me, the last person in the world who remembers them, packed as they are with my parents’ voices and the built-in benches around the table in the tiny dinette where we had lamb chops, baked potatoes, and broccoli for dinner.

Ida and Trudy. Trudy and Ida. Surnames and citizenship unknown. Who were they really? What did they do all day? It was a small apartment. Surely German efficiency would have made short work of housekeeping. They were glued to the radio, that’s what, as was everyone else in America in 1940. Woody Allen shows this convincingly in Radio Days .Pretty soon I refused to say the alphabet, not beyond ABC. After that, I said New York. Sometimes you get a lemon, a friend remarked about some stubbornness in his own daughter, but I’m sure my parents thought the same of me. Would this kid ever get it? What was wrong with her? But it was Trudy and Ida, it was the war, it was WABC, New York. Hearing organ music in church, I asked, Is there any news on? I was on alert, I was tuned in.

Except that I wasn’t. Of the war years I remember almost nothing. What follows is a blank, a negative, the other side of the record. The first movie I saw made me cry, not the movie I think, but a newsreel must have frightened me. When he was turned down by the Army because of near-sightedness, my father became an Air Raid Warden, but I cannot remember pulling down the shades or any gear associated with this office.

My mother’s younger brother, William Eston Van Dyke, Yeoman 1st Class, was on a dangerous ammunition ship close to Pearl Harbor, but I connect no anxiety with him, only the song that begins Bellbottom trousers, coat of Navy blue, nor can I think of anyone of our acquaintance who lost a son, brother, father, or uncle. We lived in an apartment with two spacious wings, six to eight apartments on each of eight or nine floors. My parents had many friends and colleagues. There must have been someone. Yet, in my mind, it all boils down to the dotted swiss dress I wore to the movies, to the Chinese man-doll, with a braid down his back, my uncle Bill brought me after the war. His china face was an exotic mystery, his several silken robes a delight to put on and take off. We shopped at the A&P and must have used ration books, but I don’t remember them. The A&P had wooden floors, coffee grinders, butchers with bloody aprons. The tongue lolling huge and hideous behind the glass case had somehow impossibly been lodged once inside a real cow’s mouth. At home, my mother and I tossed a package of margarine back and forth until the orange dot of color spread throughout to make it look like butter. We had a Victory Garden the size of a handkerchief, roped off with string, its seed packages displayed on Popsicle sticks. I may have eaten the radishes we grew, but I see that plot of ground best from our kitchen window three floors up.

For me, the war, like our Victory Garden, was far away. I was protected by my youth and by my parents. Blond hair and blue eyes protected me. I was not a member of a persecuted tribe. And in this state, compounded of innocence and ignorance, I persisted through elementary and high school, into college and beyond. I don’t know when or why Trudy left my parents’ employ, but Ida was fired. Because she listened to the radio too much, made suspicious phone calls, was really a spy after all? Or was this just a conversational gambit, teasing speculation, family joke? Don’t move, I commanded my dolls, a delicious absurdity, but when viewed as something Ida said to me, these words had a sinister, Teutonic ring which was finally too much even for my open-minded parents.

In search of cheaper rent and more green space for children, we moved at some point to Jackson Heights, Queens. Another undesirable address. To think that my bachelor father once lived on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, as his flat red book of French verbs tells me he did, is galling to me. When we visited old friends there, rising to the top floor in a cage-like elevator, the quaintness of the Village called to me. But my mother was pregnant. She’d already given up smoking when I was born; now it was her job, her career as it turned out, as a case supervisor, with a hotline to Mayor LaGuardia, for the New York Department of Welfare, and household help, all the romance of her early married life. In recounting all this later, she seemed to speak without regret. Times were hard; things were scarce. My sled was a ski-sled, so-called, and on this inferior piece of wartime manufacture I flew downhill in the much-prized vacant lot at the end of our block, in Queens, on runners made of wood instead of metal.

During a space of time in 1944, pregnancy and illness made my family turn inward. A month or so before my sister Elizabeth was born on March 28, my father came down with a serious case of pneumonia and, because of a shortage of hospital beds, he was treated at home. I remember visiting nurses, dark rooms, prohibitions, a new doll I named Elizabeth who came to a bad end in a city sewer. I think my father would have died without Etta Parr, a childhood friend of my mother’s from Oklahoma, then a Navy nurse stationed nearby. Sulfur drugs (Penicillin had been invented, but was not yet widely available) cause excessive sweating, but Etta knew how to change the sheets for a man too weak to sit up while she did it. Part New York cop, part ministering angel in her dark blue uniform with white stripes and gold buttons, blond hair puffing out around her cap, Etta took charge. She brought us butter and sugar and nylon stockings from the PX. I got the chicken pox, a form of revenge for having been sent to stay for a week with friends on Long Island, for being kept from my mother for hours at a time. My father got them too. And then it was over, the war on our private battleground, apartment 3M, which stood for Melville, Marguerite, and Marian, as I believed. Convalescing, my father and I moved into the living room, the sunniest room. My hair, which had grown long, was brushed out, felt thin. He sat in the wing chair, his beard sprouting around the remaining pock marks dotted with calamine lotion, but neither of us retained a scar. When she got big enough, we made room for my sister in her own middle, the four of us together in my parents’ double bed on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

When Ernst and I met in Los Angeles in 1964, we considered ourselves an unlikely pair. Ernst was born, probably at home, on September 30, 1936, a second son to his Orthodox Jewish parents, Margaret and Joseph Lipschutz. The town was Deutchkreutz, the country uncertain. He seems to have come from a kind of no-man’s land, a remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a mythical place to be colored in on a map as part of a history lesson. His naturalization papers record Austria, but his mother said it was Hungary. Perhaps some division in the town, which still exists though free of Jews, makes sense of this. I sometimes think of going there to see for myself the muddy market town I imagine from my Internet searches on one side, city sidewalks on the other. Though his father was quickly released after being arrested in 1938,on a trumped-up charge of stealing made by a household maid, the family, with the new addition of a baby girl, fled to America, leaving mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, languages, worldly possessions, even names behind. Mispronounced, mistranslated, transformed, abandoned, denied. High-sounding Sigmund, Ernst, and Renata were un-American, or had they become ugly, German, names?

What were the chances that Ernst and I would marry in Los Angeles, on October 16, 1967? We reveled in our differences, in the upheaving of family, nationality, tradition, culture, and religion our union required. In haste and in confusion, in sorrow and terror, his family boarded the Hansa. On what day of the month, in what continental or English port I do not know, but for us that was a lucky day. We looked for signs, thinking of the world, as Baudelaire does in his poem, Correspondances, as a forest of symbols through which we dimly perceive the profound unity of Nature. As Ernst’s family fled the Nazis, our relative positions shifted; we moved from unnumbered possibilities into a zone of probability in which the likelihood of our marriage could flourish. Our mothers’ and my grandmother’s names were variants of the English Margaret. To us, a meeting point. As was Brooklyn! For Ernst was on Mott Street, in Williamsburg, on the day I was born. Ernst was safe. For his sake, I have resurrected Brooklyn, which is chic these days, so I can say without shame that I was born there. Nor am I ashamed of being partly German, though among Jews, especially if asked a direct question about them, I prefer to bring forth my Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and Dutch forebears. Bavarians are the softer Germans, I tell myself, and who would give up a link, however tenuous, to Beethoven or Bach?

War and winter bared their teeth on April 1, 1940, but did not seize me. Spring soon followed, and World War II came to its eventual end. I wish I could remember the ticker tape parade, the dancing and kissing, the embracing of strangers on the streets of New York, but they are lost to me. I will pass on instead the excellent advice Dr. Wallace, long since forgiven for his defection from the center of the world, gave to my mother as she was leaving Brooklyn Hospital with me in her arms: “Don’t let her make a goop out of you, Maggie!”

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means

-Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas


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