a u t o b i o g r a p h y b e a t r i x o s t
Where is it written what one gets in life, or what one really needs? The body remembers everything, remembers what happened, too: blows, shoves, drowning, tender gestures, rhythms, screams, whispers. Stench. French kisses. The scent of the hand that pressed itself across your face to stifle a scream remains in your memory forever.
I had not meant to start my cleaning there, not wanted to open the wardrobe I had inherited after Mother’s death, to turn the great key embedded in the embossed door and peer into the dim chaos my eyes would have to adjust to; nor to draw the ribboned packet from the jumble of papers and photo albums; nor be curious; nor even put on the eyeglasses dangling around my neck. What awakened my curiosity was not a chain of events linking one thing with another, but a deeper connection wearing the face of coincidence.
I am in my house in Virginia, holding the sixty-year-old bundle, green heat pressing in from outdoors. A ceiling fan groans above me. For twenty years people have worried it could come crashing down. I take a seat, loosening the knotted rose and yellow ribbon holding the letters together, and pick up the first envelope. Scribbled across it: From the front.
I know this hand from signed documents, and from the end of letters typed with his two middle fingers, closing with the zigzag signature: Your Fritz or Your obedient servant, Fritz Ost. Precipices, nothing round.
Once my father wrote me a letter, the only one ever. I was at boarding school and had just made it through my second year of Latin. I opened the envelope and read: Beata Filia. He had written the letter in Latin, and I was to answer him in Latin, too. I knew the length of the letter was laid down in advance: one whole page. My father had never asked me for anything. It would have been unthinkable not to play along, unthinkable not to comply with his wish. A lot depended on it, though exactly what was not clear. I just had to write this letter.
Pater Carus, I began. Then, agricola cum equi appropinquat, inquiring whether the farmer is approaching with his horse. My large ornamented letters were designed to fill the page. So different from the letters I wrote to my mother from boarding school, where I could just drivel on and she would find it all “exquisite.” Including the letter I wrote when the dress, the one she had promised me, the one with cornflowers printed on rayon, was stolen or lost in the mail. It was my postwar dream dress, cut for me, not just a smaller version of something I had inherited from my sister, Anita, no, tailored solely for me from its very own piece of fabric. I dreamt of this dress and mourned its loss in my lonely dayroom bed, oh so far away from Mother.
I have to think of my mother. Everyone who came in contact with her loved and admired her. Twelve years earlier, when she was ninety, I had made the journey from New York to Munich and found her lying in her bed for hours each day, dreaming. I washed her face, her back, her arms, her legs. It did her good. I oiled the tender skin. We scarcely spoke.
My mother swam on a foggy river of memories, playing tennis with her brother, who had fallen seventy years earlier in the First World War. Holding her father’s hand, she stepped into the Royal Porcelain Works, where one could buy his china designs. If the Queen was out and about on foot, the child made a deep curtsey; her father bowed, lifting his hat: Your Royal Highness. The Jugendstil house where they lived. In its garden, the goldfish pond. The palazzo on the island of Giudecca where they wintered. The Venetian mirror.
I can still remember the steep staircase, she whispered.
On a wave she rocked back into her childhood, back into the room, back to me. I was her mother now.
Between breathing and silence, we strolled through her life. Now she could talk about everything. There were no more secrets. No barriers between mother and child.
My Fritz was a difficult man, made it hard on himself. A textbook pessimist. I would never have left him, she said in a hushed tone.
You, Mama, by contrast, were that much more cheerful.
Oh, one has to be. Yes, you get that way; otherwise, you’re done for. After the war he lost interest, my Fritz. The collapse of Germany suited him. Then he finally could have his breakdown, too. You were our straggler. The Fritz I knew . . .
Her voice lost itself in the garden of thought. A strip of lace from her slip was visible at the bodice of her blouse.
You still wear your beautiful slips, I said.
And the perfumed cotton ball in your bosom.
My Fritzl gave me the lingerie. Always salmon-colored—he loved that. This is the last of it.
For a long week her spirit fluttered from the bed to the window, until one night the glass broke: the draft made off with her soul. When I stepped into her room she was no longer there, only the cool skin, the bones, the profile on the white pillow. She lay between sheet and coverlet like a flower between the pages of a book. A legend, an earthly goddess.
After her death Anita and I organized an auction between the two of us at her house. We took turns picking out objects. The little packet of letters lay on a table next to photo albums and other bric-a-brac. I cried, hazy from exhaustion, from the loss. It hit me like a slap in the face as I smelled the odors, saw everything that had nothing more to do, yet had everything to do with my mother. These objects would never again feel her touch, nor her gaze. Split between me and Anita, they would metamorphose into our possessions.
Anita, too, had cried her share. Yesterday, at the crematorium, she had still been sobbing. She was the last to arrive. Her children and her husband had already taken their seats. She had on a new fur, which impressed itself on my memory, although it had nothing really to do with mourning the death of our mother.
Anita took a picture from the wall and piled it onto her stack. That was when the ribboned packet caught my eye: coincidence, non-coincidental. I recognized the handwriting and reached for it.
Those have to be burned, said Anita sternly. Too intimate.
I’ll think it over, I replied. Perhaps I will want to read them.
I thrust the packet into my purse, took it with me to America, and forgot it for twelve years in the shadow of the wardrobe.
Now I am as old as Father was when he took his life, and I have found these letters.
A Minotaur guards the place and time whence they came: Bavaria, 1939–40. My mother was in her last month of pregnancy with me; my father had already been called up to the front.
Ninety-five days already. The physical and mental waste the military mentality forces upon a man in professional life. My good heart, my very dearest, measured against me you are so incomparably grand and brave in your steady grasp of life, while I have tormented myself like a hobgoblin throughout these days of war, and have found no redemption so far. Sometimes my sense of humor helps me through, and my ability to get along with people. But you must be grander, and be able to forgive me many a weakness, so that I can make it through all these alterations of my spiritual equilibrium and manage to bridge this period of madness. Make yourself beautiful when I come around on Tuesday. I like it so very much.
My father’s handwriting no longer strikes me as jagged and steep like the Alps. It got that way later on, perhaps, or seemed to, because I only knew him from another angle. But the man sitting next to me, writing these letters, is a stranger. Him I do not know. There are gentle meadows between the cursive mountains, rounded valleys polished by glaciers. The soft gray pencil woos the page, shadows cast by the intimate thoughts of a father I never knew, actually never thought possible.
I unfold the letters, smooth them on the table with my hand, and order them by date. At the time I was born, my parents had already been married for eighteen years, and still they wrote one another love letters. My heart is pounding. I’ve been letting the telephone ring. It’s like . . . Like what? Like the reel of my parents’ life running backward before my eyes. By the time I reach the last letter, I will have accompanied them on a long walk, as if I had been there with them back then.
In the next letter I have just been born.
I trust you will have withstood the strains endured by body and soul. I would like to wait a bit before my vacation, until the household has adjusted smoothly to the improvement in your health, so that we, too, get something for ourselves. We both should just wish and hope that little Beatrix will flourish. It would all be so lovely, if this war did not bring fresh sorrows for us and everyone else. Which makes me glad you are always so full of optimism and really never despondent.
The imperfect management of the estates put under my command weighs heavily upon me, but what should I do? What can I do? Otherwise, forced to be conscious of the inalterable, I have accustomed myself quite well to the soldier’s life in general and my area of service in particular. But you have no idea how hard this sometimes is for me. There is just one comfort: that things are just as bad for thousands of others who must also take upon themselves this situation that has been forced upon us. But it must come to an end sometime, and I do not believe in any way that there will be too long a war. And this simply from the realization that after the experience of 1914–19, mankind can no longer be as moronic as it was. So I am hoping our final decades will generally prove rather more leisurely than the difficult past. Then our children too will have a future, and we will know what we have lived and suffered for.
Keep a closer eye on Uli so he does not lose his trust in you and in me. He is at a nasty age: intensely independent, grown up too early, coarse and yet sensitive, a child and a man at the same time. He is, in short, a difficult case. You, my darling, have difficult tasks and duties before you. Meanwhile, Anita, my Butz—this willful little person must not be allowed to drift into the shadows. Plenty to accomplish and to answer for.
The most grating thing for me is this current powerlessness, all these questions of the present and the future that move us both. I feel the lack of your closeness so badly. You have always given me so much, with your great love and clever appraisals of my personality. When you are present I need no “accent.” You alone are enough! Is that not delightful for you, to have a confession like that from me in writing for once? You know, when one is alone one realizes for the first time what one has left behind. So what I wish for you is that you recover thoroughly, regain your strength, and become a pretty, slender Adelheid again.
The Minotaur keeping my parents’ secret opens the door to the labyrinth. I step inside.
A tanned, powerful hand rests on my mother’s belly, caresses the length of her thighs, touches her breast, kisses her eyelids. I gaze through the wall with the bird wallpaper I remember so well, into my parents’ bedroom.
Adi sits at the vanity with the oval porcelain Nymphenburg mirror. It still existed then, had not yet slipped off the nail and gone crashing down upon the dresser and the flacons, bursting into a thousand slivers. She weaves her hair into a long braid for the night. The sleeve of her lace nightgown glides from her shoulder.
Fritz lies in bed and reads by the light of the bedside lamp. Now he sets his book aside.
Come to beddy-bye. We have already been standing at attention here for five minutes waiting for you, he says, laughing.
Adi can see him in the mirror. She tosses the braid down her back, goes over to the bed, and lets the nightgown fall on the yellow bedside rug. A little shy, she holds her hand in front of her breast.
Fritz bends her head back. Take hold of me, he orders gently, and she does.
She closes her eyes. When the bed creaks and he grows too loud, she holds her hand protectively over his mouth, or they press down deep into the feather cushion so no one will hear through the wall.
A light in passing flits across the ceiling, across the feather bed, the cushions, the gown on the rug.
My female acquaintanceships and friendships are not so close that you need have apprehensions. Here, too, the vanity of the “man over 40” plays its part—the last hurrah before true old age. You know, it is such a joy (and so proud are we) to come off as the “victor” in so large a stable of males. You have no idea how frantically this girl-crazy bunch chases petticoats, probably out of sheer vanity. And in the final analysis, just so they can give one another a poke in the eye. You understand this sort of thing because you know the male soul through my openness, and with me it really is that way. A big dog that barks but bites very little. So set your mind at rest and permit me my little pleasures on the side, which really do you no damage. You, my good heart, you belong to me and I to you!
You are so full of love! My only ray of hope is that here I can ride my horse every day. But in spite of this I still sleep so fitfully and briefly, in contrast to life at home, where I can sleep like a bear. It’s probably the missing vis-à-vis in bed.
Oh, stop, war! But mustn’t whine. Sleep well with your flock of children, and kiss everyone. Good night, my darling, my love. A heartfelt kiss and devotion from yours,
Two photographs fall into my hand from the folds of a letter, black and white, blind with age. One is Fritz silhouetted in profile, with a cigar, a puff of smoke curling, two Aphrodites next to him, laughing past him into the camera. The friendly L. sisters, Agnes and Louise, I read on the back. My father is certain they and Adi will become friends after the war. In the second photo a young woman sits on a chair and looks into her lap, or down at her folded hands. Her blond hair is parted in the middle. There is something of the Madonna about her.
This is Anna, rather sad . . . Anna made such a heartfelt plea that I remain her good friend. She is so alone, and no one advises her when she needs counsel and care. She trusts me and would like me to be hers, even though she must know it would be a “useless” love. Is that not moving? I do not know what girls see in an old fellow like me. If you were with me, I wouldn’t give a damn about this war I can do nothing about, but that just isn’t how it is. I love you very much. Stay young and pretty and gay and glad, for your children and your biggest child.
Is the lady in the photo embarrassed? Does she dislike being photographed? Does she have ideas, hopes, that a direct gaze could betray? Is she really sad because she would like him to be hers and love is useless? Or did she try it anyway? Were they having an affair? One that makes her sad? Without a future, as Fritz quotes?
My mother had the wonderful quality of not burdening herself with inalterable situations. Later, when I was older, she and I discussed the male clan, the male rituals, the way men tumble around in the society of men. How in male precincts there was not much analysis. More boasting, more whacking on the shoulder, no admitting weaknesses. Then there were the silent observers. In their faces the muscles played the alphabet of what transpired in the brain. Sport occasioned the most agreement: a well-aimed blow, maximal velocity, good conditioning, stamina. We would double ourselves over with laughter talking about it.
My very dearest,
Just got your letter, thanks a million. You are the most reasonable soul in this wretched world. Accept my thanks, my kind love! Did you get the money? For you to make yourself thoroughly elegant. Don’t have so many inhibitions next time! By the way, in S. I saw pretty dresses lying in the window of Häuser, the ladies’ clothiers (at the foot of the Königstrasse, on the left). Will you write me which one you wish to permit yourself? I embrace you, my dearheart, and kiss you and our three children.
My enthusiasm grows with the reading of the letters. A caring father, a husband who longs for his wife and wants to buy her a little dress, despite his sorrow and despair about the war and their separation. Because of his upbringing, which was prim and loveless, he is reserved, but then again not, not with her. And he shows himself soft, and vulnerable, and trusting, that he is vain, and like a dog that does not bite.
I remember how often I despised my father in my teenage years, when he was already ill. I wanted a different model, not the crippled pessimist cared for uncomplainingly by my mother, who paid no heed to his utterances, bitter as gall. In my mother’s heart was the Fritz of yesteryear. She had remained young, or stood still in her youthfulness, or simply refused to back down; in any case she was glad and optimistic.
But back then I could not see it that way. I reproached my mother for not defending herself against the unfeeling monster. And him I reproached for being ill, for not wanting to live anymore, for not rising up against the illness, for giving up instead. The tyrant, as I knew him—a benevolent one, to be sure, somehow good-natured, who often regretted his own ways, who got on his own nerves—all that now fell away. Mother and I had to make all the decisions. He no longer felt like it, he did not want to decide anymore. I reproached him for this, too.
What kind of father he wanted to be, or not be, I could no longer find out from him, since long before I took an interest in him and became conscious of any such thoughts, he had died, spiriting himself away.
My very dearest,
You know well how disgusting I can be when something goes that hard against my grain. Well, my mood stinks, especially when I think of you all alone in our little bed. Oh, Adile, it is dreadful. How long must we go on separated from one another, taking in our love only in little doses? Be glad you are sitting in H. Rumor has it that life in the big cities is less than delightful in every respect.
Now for some glad tidings: starting April 1st, reserve officers are to draw the pay appropriate to our rank, in my case about 450. Now if the estates just go on paying my salary (500)—and I assume they will—then please order coal for the winter, and given the auspicious financial constellation you can keep the nanny as long as you like. I will also “organize” a “Viennese” summer dress for you after Easter. The latest models are rolling in. I will push aside your leftover shopping inhibitions from 1939, because I want you young and pretty and fresh and slender (so I do not get any silly ideas!). This does not mean we have to become spendthrifts; we want to set something aside even so. I am delighted about this financial change. Did I not show a good nose for money when I refused public support? This purely private and voluntary income is no one’s business, off the books. All in all it is just a fair solution, since we reserve uncles in professional life were badly damaged; everyone complained they would not be able to make ends meet. Now all that should come to an end. But say nothing to anyone. The envy is too great. Are you happy about all this?
As a child one cannot recognize one’s parents as people, outside their role. Later one gets to know the other side of them, a side scarred by life itself. One does not wish to know them earlier, since one is too preoccupied with oneself. Unconscious of inherited character, or indifferent to it. Or one is convinced one is quite different, and shoves these parental affinities away entirely.
But now, having the privilege of finding my father’s love letters, I understand my mother, who nourished herself mainly on memories, drew strength from thoughts of her Fritz. Through this small, valuable packet we become allies. Two women who love the same man, each in her own way and in her own time.
I plan to start my vacation in H. on the 6th of April. On the evening of the 7th a sleeping car to B., in M. on the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, back in H. on the 12th, heading back into “the field” on the 13th. Though we will not get to see much of one another this time, I have reserved eight days later on, when the two of us can travel somewhere together and enjoy eight days “in inmost pleasure and joy,” without the entourage and all—just as we have dreamed so often but never managed.
You can see, Adilein, I am bursting with the joyful prospects near at hand. Spring seems to be the cause, or the long separation. Or the restoration of your “normal physical condition.” But enough of all these exciting allusions, or you and I will both be unable to sleep, and it will get hot in bed.
How are the children? Is Beatrix flourishing under the tutelage of Sergeant Klara, who controls and directs not only Beatrix, but all of us (when we are around). I am missing out on Uli’s report card. Tell him to stay good and gallant, always be and remain inwardly and outwardly proper. Now I wish all of you a good Easter Bunny, a good baptism without me, and gladness of heart in these serious times. Greet the whole household and our respectable neighbors, and be embraced and always beloved by your sometimes very stupid but true and hotly loving,
This letter stands out among the rest. On its envelope: deliver by messenger.
My dearest Adi,
The state of war continues, and with it departs all hopes for a bearable future. God knows “they know not what they do,” or perhaps they do, in which case their crime is all the greater. Nobody wants war, and every reasonable person asks: why, what for? Personally, I am perfectly desperate. A good thing there is still wine to drink. But I need not go on about it. You know how I regard what has taken place over the past six years. Furthermore, I have declared my withdrawal from the Party—without giving any reasons. I am curious as to whether there will be cross-examination as to Why and How, since I just joined so I could help our friend Karl K. I am glad I can now so easily use the war and my status as conscripted soldier to withdraw from this “community,” which I detest thoroughly enough. Hopefully you and the children will not feel any side effects.
Soon after the war broke out, my father could no longer reconcile his conscience to the Party’s ghastly doings. He left the Party amid the general chaos, using it to his advantage.
Uli, who had taken his own path, wanted to get away from my father’s authority. He, like all the others, had run off with the raucous gang of the Hitler Youth. It was so seductive, so magnetic, they were like rats following the Pied Piper.
Father had been shocked and furious at Uli’s enthusiasm for that “heap of swine.” Often there were quarrels; Fritz would fly into a rage, for Uli was slipping out of his grip. Father was beside himself with fear and powerlessness. He had lost his son to an ideology whose machinations he had despised for the last six years, an ideology from which he feared worse to come.
Nevertheless, Uli ascended to Flag Leader. One day he was confronted by his superiors about his father’s departure from the Party. Uli answered them quite cunningly: Fritz Ost was, above all, a dedicated militarist. Military service was going to be taking up all his time, so he would not be able to fulfill his Party duties satisfactorily. Luckily enough, and with the help of the all-around chaos, this response satisfied them, and nothing more was heard of the matter.
Long, long after the war, gathering snippets of conversation, I pieced together the reasons why Father had joined the Party in the first place. He had wanted to ensure the safety of his Jewish friends—signing an occasional document, organizing a passage to America—and so had made himself inconspicuous and helpful beneath the Party cloak. Of course, Father’s good deeds had to be veiled in secrecy. After the war, several friends and acquaintances he had helped to “magically disappear” resurfaced amid great rejoicing. I clearly remember two of them.
One was Uncle Karl Kienan, a tall, elegant man from an old banking family in Frankfurt, whose property neighbored ours. My father with his foresight had convinced Kienan to get out of Germany in ’39. Father oversaw Kienan’s agricultural affairs in his absence, advising his Aryan wife, who had stayed on through the debacle. In the early ’50s, Uncle Karl finally returned from Argentina. I got to know him then.
Another was Herr Rossbaut. During the years he was in hiding, his grand piano dozed upstairs in my parents’ bedroom beneath an exquisite silk throw with tassels spilling over the golden lettering: Bösendorfer. After the war, Herr Rossbaut returned. He visited us several times at Goldachhof and amused me with magic tricks. At the climax of each visit, he went to his grand piano. The household assembled downstairs to hear his playing wafting from above. My mother held up her hand, arching her brows in admiration. Psst, she said, intolerant of any interruption. Her head cocked slightly sideways, she whispered: a virtuoso!
The Bösendorfer left us one day. Many strong arms carried it down the steep curving staircase with the utmost care. Mr. Rossbaut accompanied it, parting from us with his assurances of eternal gratitude.
In the last letter, my father writes:
I live with the hope that this war will be over in a few months. If I have one wish, it is only to be able to be with you and the children once again. But that still seems far off. Only this wish, this wish keeps growing. Human inadequacies can go to the devil. I am holding on to my young, glad heart, and greet and kiss you long and heartily.
The opposing troops are almost within sight. How remarkable people are: despite the visible terror such a war brings upon a country, and despite the impressions of the last war, such a misfortune for us, preparations are being made for an even greater blow than the events of the last weeks. Hopefully there will then be peace, whose fruits our children can enjoy in a long peacetime.
When you get this packet, with rationed coffee seized from the enemy, I will be many hundred kilometers away from you darlings. Do not worry, distance can never ever part us. As you well know, referring to one’s location in correspondence is forbidden, no matter how well worth knowing it would be for you.
On the back of the letter, in my mother’s hand: Fritz in Bordeaux until fall, then to Schwent on the Oder—there I could visit him one more time.
Then his regiment was sent to Africa.
Once, my parents had lived a truly magical life. In the early years of their marriage, between the wars, they lived with their friend Baron Wilhelm Farnbühler at his castle near Stuttgart. The Baron had his own wing; my parents, with Uli and Anita, had theirs. In the great hall, in a cage, there dwelt an owl, who preferred to eat living things: rabbits and mice. His lame wing folded into a crutch, he shrieked into the night and rattled the bars.
I was born there, at Hemmingen Castle. My father was in charge of the Baron’s agricultural affairs. Wilhelm and my mother made ceramics and studied botany.
In an abandoned glass house they set up a pottery studio. Adi, in a leather apron, produced useful and useless things out of clay. Wilhelm sat at the table, creating imaginary landscapes and abstractions—blue and multicolored—on tableware and vases. He was experienced in glazing, and he knew the proper temperature of the kiln.
The three of them went hunting in the surrounding woods. They drove in an open car to the neighboring castle, brought a freshly killed deer as a present.
The Baron loved his neighbor, Countess Alix, but he could not marry her. Why not? I asked my mother. Hmmm, some people are not made for it, she said. More a child could not extract. Homosexuality was barely even thinkable then.
The idyll—which one might call happiness, since everyone involved made splendid use of the situation in which they found themselves—the episode of rural simplicity, lasted only a few short years. Then came the shock. My father and Wilhelm had to prepare themselves for the war.
My mother slipped on her felt hat, buttoned up her striped wool suit, planted a calm, dutiful expression on her face, and accompanied the two men to the train station. On the way home, at the gate, she could no longer contain her tears. As if seen through much too strong a lens, what had been a clear drawing liquefied, became a watery sketch with abstract contours, its perspective reaching no farther than the trees of the park.
Very soon after the first weeks of the war came the news of Wilhelm’s death. It was over. No more botany studies in the garden. In the greenhouse, orchids spread out air roots. A mouse family nested in the cold kiln of the potter’s shed. The sack of clay burst, eaten through by bird droppings. A storm blew out a windowpane. Rain mingled with dust. The material for an entire banquet of plates froze into lava.
With the war, the dream had collapsed. My father, who did not believe in happiness, had his confirmation.
You’ll see soon enough, you with your optimism, he’d said to my mother.
Over and over, my father would tell stories of Africa. Benghazi, Tubruq, Aidabiya, Darnah. I still taste those exotic names in my mouth like bonbons. Perhaps, at first, he was thrilled to be there. Away from the familiar names, away from the artificial enemy, the love of his Adi warm in his heart, accompanied by the illusion that it would only be a matter of months now.
Numbed by the general intoxication and uproar around him, he arrived with his comrades at the harbor of Benghazi. My father was named City and Harbor Commander of Tubruq, giving him a quasi-civilian identity. Perhaps they had placed him in this responsible post to be rid of him on the one hand and to keep him busy on the other.
In photographs he stands before a tent, the shadow of his tropical helmet hiding half his face. The moustache sits smugly on the swing of his upper lip. His chin has its dimple in the middle. He wears a short-sleeved khaki shirt and khaki shorts, his hands dug into the pockets. Behind him a few figures sit on the floor in the tent’s dusky interior. He has stepped into the sun to be photographed.
He loved sun. He liked the heat that jumps at your throat, pressing the wind out of you. One needed only dress reasonably, preferably just like the Arabs—in a caftan.
In these photos he still looks happy, smiles. There must have been wine, for he often wrote how glad he was at least to be able to rinse down the misery.
Africa spoke to him. He took an interest in the city, indulged his natural love for people, strolling through bazaars, giving in to the enchantment of colorful carpets, keeping in mind the exotic effect they would have on the wooden floors of cold Bavaria. He brought back oil lamps, metal jugs, ashtrays, water pipes, side tables that mingled with the baroque and Jugendstil in our rooms. My war booty, he rejoiced.
When he stepped into a shop, the owner would call for strong hot coffee with lots of sugar. My father would sit in the middle of the situation, attentive. No word, no gesture escaped him. There was a pow-wow, demonstrating the best wares, examining materials, rubbing wool between one’s fingers, enjoying the quality of the design, listening to stories. For Fritz, the situation must have been exotic, like his later horse dealings with the gypsy Buchs. The protestations, the extravagance, the mimicry, the gamesmanship, the cunning close of the deal. And of course the fun of taking one another for a ride, at least trying to, or simply sitting together, smoking, nodding.
Fritz was very gregarious and had a fine instinct for making himself liked. He was easygoing, and it was easy to forget his uniform. And Fritz was a paterfamilias whom the shopkeeper had to convince, who had to fall in love. He must not return from the hunt without prey. Unwritten laws, unwritten rites. This was about the head of a household, the master, the patriarch of the clan, furnishing his rooms without input from his wife. He had to be served in a fitting manner. The largest possible purchase had to be concluded.
Fritz took great pleasure in bargaining, forgetting the hated war. In these hours he was happy, sipping his coffee, so strong and sugary that the teaspoon stood upright in it.
Later he told stories about it all, with ever-changing elaborations, drawing in new characters, living out his impulses as his mood dictated. Only he had been there—and he was a superb liar.
My father stood on his balcony. Africa, you untamable bird. On the coats of the camels, on palm leaves, the dew gathered. The cold of night saluted the dawn of heat. A red sunball labored across the hills beyond the city of Tubruq. A pink cloth fell across the desert. In the oases the dogs shook themselves dry and stretched out their paws. The yard below swarmed with swallows. The muezzin climbed the tower. Someone came running from the harbor, bringing the general cacophony with him.
Fritz remembered the dream of the previous night quite clearly. He ran through it again and again.
In their bedroom at Hemmingen, Adi has been startled from the marrow of her sleep. Sirens force their way across the city to the park, the ponds, through the gaps in the blinds. In his powerlessness he clearly hears the noise, the howling. He sees Adi reaching for her coat spread across the foot of the bed, her feet searching for the boots that stand ready on the carpet.
She runs into Anita’s room. Wake up, child, we have to get to the cellar. Quick, pull on your coat. She bends over and laces up her daughter’s little boots. Uli is already standing in the doorway. Adi takes Beatrix gently from her cradle and wraps her in a blanket. Beatrix gives a start at the howling of the sirens and cries all the way down the stairs, down through the door to the cellar, farther into the arched, dungeon-like shelter.
Strangers and neighbors have already found their way there. Benches and chairs, a folding cot. Whispering. Uli sets the suitcase with their valuables next to him. He runs up the stairs once more. I’ll just step outside quickly, Mama, to see what there is to see in the sky. Adi shakes her head, powerless against “the man of the house.”
Boundless, deafening noise. The ground trembles. Up above, the low-flying planes drone toward their goal. Whistling, the crackle of fire. A bomb falls quite nearby. Vrooooooom. Trees break free of their roots, smash into one another. Basement windows shatter. Screaming. Air pressure forces the people flat to the stone floor. Uli storms back down the basement stairs, out of breath, eyes bulging, laughing like a maniac. Adi rocks Beatrix back and forth as she drinks at her breast. My Adi, always so composed. Anita, swaddled in a blanket, lies on the cot and cries. Flashes of flak fire run along the cellar walls.
On the balcony Fritz wiped the sweat from his brow. Between his shoulders ran a sticky little brook. He gulped into his dry windpipe. Beneath him, in the courtyard, jasmine bloomed; a little breeze carried the scent up to him. An orange fell with a thud onto the tile floor. A camel dozed in the archway; behind it the street ran off into jacaranda blue, a woman balancing an urn on her head. White doves hovered in every direction. I have to get dressed, he thought, have to shave, have to tell my boy to have the car ready at eleven sharp. Have to get down to the harbor, have to . . . A spider lowered itself from the banister to the sill. He watched it for a long time, motionless.
Fritz sat in his office, the bottle of red wine next to him, taking swig after swig, looking at the world map on the wall and shaking his head. Ants were running a sugar caravan across the desktop. By evening he had scared off the dream, swallowed it down. Eventually night fell, and sleepless sleep. Here it was again: fear, impotence, a panicked jolt, howling of sirens, clattering, blood seeping through uniforms, saturating epaulettes, medals, SS emblems. The German flag devoured by flames. Dead eyes. Mouths distorted with fear. A child without legs. Adi’s forehead bleeding. Little Beatrix, crying in the snow. A tree sinking into a crater. Nothing left of the house but bricks and dust clouds. Uli marches with the cannon fodder, laughing in lockstep, his boyish thighs straining his trouser seams. Red heaven above riderless horses.
My father had nightmares—every night. During the day he dutifully did his dutiful duty, procured wine, visited his friends in the bazaar, drank coffee with them. As an enemy he didn’t amount to much: that, everyone noticed. But the sleepless nights of a pessimist have profound consequences. In the end, he must have been quite mad.
Over his many months in Africa, my father became friends with Field Marshal Rommel. Then something happened. The year was 1943. They must have been alone, standing before the big map of the countries, my father crazy with homesickness and longing for his Adi. He and Rommel were studying the conquests and what remained to be conquered. Whereupon my father supposedly said to Rommel: If you look at the map, Herr Field Marshal, you must admit that the war is lost.
Rommel slowly turned to him, the story goes, looked him in the eye for some time, and said in his Swabian dialect: You know, my dear Ost, at this point I am really supposed to have you shot. My father surely met his gaze and shook his head. Perhaps Rommel laid a hand on his shoulder, then turned away and left the room without saying another word, leaving my father behind like a red warning light. Then the unexpected happened, as if the one man had read and silently accepted the thoughts of the other. Fritz Ost was simply sent home by the fastest route, without any further attention. Nervous breakdown.
In the middle of the war, in 1943, my family moved from Hemmingen Castle to Goldachhof, the estate of my childhood.
Among my earliest memories are my father’s daily routines. In the morning, as his second task—the first being wake-up call—he went into the den to the grandfather clock, opened the glass door, drew his watch from the red slit of his vest with his left hand, pried open the gold lid, checked, compared it with the dial above—Ja, richtig—then his right hand pulled the cone-shaped weight up by its chain. Sometimes he gave the minute hand a push forward, when he had a premonition that his wife would be unpunctual. Then, he would lecture.
Since the beginning of the last century, since rail travel began, time has been standardized everywhere. That goes for you, too, my love.
I stand in the room, smell the familiar things, hear the ticking of the clock. The impatient clop of horses’ hooves outside. My father pulls the peaked checkered cap over his head and puts on his overcoat. His stockinged legs peer out from underneath; he is wearing leder-hosen. My mother hurries through the tiled corridor, tak tak tak tak, sticks her head quickly through the kitchen door, and calls out an extra order for Olga, our cook.
I need to go back there. The urgency is getting stronger, catching hold of me. I dream a dream.
I am in the house of my childhood. It is raining. So hard that it presses my umbrella down on my head. I run to the garden. The little stream is a raging river. A dog swims toward me. He looks like a rat. I must, must get across the current, but I cannot see the riverbank.
Father’s House, A Childhood in Wartime
by Beatrix Ost
First published in 2004 by Verlaggsruppe Weltbild GmbH
Translated from the German by Jonathan McVity with the Author
©Beatrix Ost, 2007
This excerpt published with the kind permission of Books & Co. / Helen Marx Books