MY THREE NAZIS

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Their names are Hermann Rosencranz, Karl Munch and Walter Schieber.  Karl’s last name has an umlaut over the u, which changes the pronunciation, but WordPress makes no provision for umlauted u‘s, so you’ll have to remember Munch doesn’t rhyme with lunch.

I call them Nazis because of three small red books I happen to have.  The first one was given to Hermann in Munich on June 30, 1936.  His party membership number is 3483589.

IMG_0879On the frontispiece inside, under a swastika and seal, is the name of the organization that issued the small red book: National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. [National Socialist German Workers Party.]

IMG_0880 The second small red book was given to Karl on September 4, 1934. His party membership number is 717410.  Karl was born earlier than Hermann and joined the party earlier, too.  You can see that his number is lower. Hermann’s book is dirtier and duller in color, though. He may have perspired more heavily. Or dropped it somewhere. It’s hard to believe that either of them would have been sent into the dirt and sweat of battle. Perhaps they were World War I veterans.  But they were both too old to fight in 1939.

IMG_0878The third small book is Walter’s.  His party number is 557979.  He was born 29 years after Karl, and 21 years after Hermann. The very low number he was given when his book was issued to him on June 30, 1941 may therefore have been one that had been retired after the death of its original owner and was now being put back in service with Walter.

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A brief pause for back story.  How did these three National Socialist Party membership books make their way into one of my bookcases, where they now repose quietly on top of a small paperback copy of Marlene Dietrich’s ABC  which I purchased in New York City for 50 cents in 1961?   I can tell you why I put Hermann, Karl, and Walter with Marlene. It’s because their books are the same size, and — more fancifully — because all four of them spoke the same language.  It also pleases me that the three Nazis were politically poles apart from this German-born woman who bravely entertained American troops at the front wherever and whenever Army regulations permitted.

But I can only surmise how the three red books reached America at the end of World War II.  My second husband was the youngest of three brothers — and too young for either enlistment or the draft. (Probably also too near-sighted.)  But the middle brother was drafted, and then trained as an Army weather man.  He was therefore in Europe, although not on the front lines, after D-Day.  It’s my guess he picked up the three red books, and maybe more than three, as small compact souvenirs to bring home when the war was over.

My former brother-in-law is now 91 and living abroad with his Dutch-born wife in an assisted living facility near her daughter and other family, so I can’t easily ask him if I’ve guessed right.  The first I personally knew of the three red books was when my second husband showed them to me, twenty years after the end of the war.  He had no use for them even then, and left them behind when we eventually parted after our children were grown.

That was in 1987.  I have jettisoned a lot of stuff since then. However, I still hang on to Hermann, Karl and Walter and have sometimes asked myself why.  There are probably two reasons, one less important than the other.  The lesser reason is that I never really learned German, therefore cannot read what Hitler had to say in these little red books, and want to know — before passing the books on to someone else. [Bill thinks they might be worth something, but I’m not so sure of that.  It’s all so long ago now that at least some uneducated young people have never heard of the Holocaust and others who have heard of it deny it ever really existed. So who would want to pay good money for my three Nazis?]

German was supposed to be my second foreign language for earning a doctorate in English, and I did get through the reading exam — a paragraph on the novels of Sir Walter Scott written in German. But only by spraying myself heavily with Arpege beforehand, saving up all the vocabulary I didn’t know (which was a lot), and then summoning the young proctor of the exam, who was permitted to give help with “one or two” words per exam-taker.  Overcome by fragrance, he as good as translated a third of my paragraph for me.  So I’m not really in great shape vocabulary-wise to share Hitler’s message with anyone.

But now there’s this blog, which has at least three German-speaking followers, and the occasional German “visitor” too!   Perhaps one of you — and you know who you are — would be good enough to translate, or summarize, the Fuhrer’s words for us in the comment section below. Feel free to editorialize as well, and as much as you like!

IMG_0881 IMG_0882 IMG_0883However, the more important reason I can’t let go of Hermann, Karl and Walter is that they were three flesh-and-blood human beings, with birthdates, and handwriting, and faces as real as if they’d been photographed yesterday. (Hermann even appears to be slightly smiling.)  And these three men, who probably had wives and children, would have looked at me, if I had been so unlucky as to be a little girl in Europe, and seen only a specimen of vermin to be exterminated as efficiently as possible.

IMG_0886 IMG_0887 Hermann died on March 1, 1943.  It’s pencilled in at the top of the page.  (I do know what “gestorben” means.)  He was 57.  If he hadn’t died during the war but lived on and on, so that I could confront him now, in the flesh instead of in his photograph, he would be 128, which is of course impossible.  I have his photograph, though.  I’m still alive, and he’s just a photograph.  I know it’s ridiculous that this gives me some satisfaction, some sense of vindication. But it does.

Karl is “gestorben” too.  It happened in November 1943.

IMG_0891 IMG_0892 He died at 65.  He would be 136 today.  I have a feeling Karl was more ruthless than Hermann.  He seems more smug in his photograph.  Of course, feelings are subjective. And photographs lie. I know that.  But I hate Karl more than Hermann.

When Bill read the first draft of this post, he stopped at that sentence, the one just before this one. ‘Hate’ is a pretty strong word,” he said. “You mean ‘dislike,’ don’t you?”

No, I don’t mean “dislike.”  It’s senseless, it’s illogical, I wasn’t there, it’s an accident I even know Hermann and Karl and Walter existed. All the same, when I look at their photos there’s real hate in my heart.  Perhaps I should think of them as victims, too. Brainwashed by rhetoric, mesmerized by a charismatic leader.  That doesn’t cut it for me. This isn’t about Germans, or Germany, or the language, or Angela Merkel (whose well cut jackets I quite admire).  It’s not about Bach or Beethoven or Brahms. I’d love to visit today’s Berlin before I die.  But Hermann and Karl and Walter looking out at me from the pages of their small red books,  those three I can’t forgive.  They are the faces of perps — perpetrators of a twentieth-century genocide I may have escaped but which tangled my growing-up years in ways too complex to tease out in the short space of a post.

Walter, the baby of the group — born in 1907 and only 32 when Hitler marched into Poland — does not have “gestorben” written in his book.

IMG_0897 IMG_0898Although photographed in civilian dress, Walter was probably mobilized when Germany went to war.  He was young enough, and also the only one of my three to have received an award: something in “Bronze” on April 1, 1940.

IMG_0899While Walter may not have been classified as “gestorben,” he must have been separated from his red book at some point after March 1943. Beginning in April of that year, there are no more stamps in the book showing he paid his monthly party dues.  And something did happen on April 29, 1943;  not knowing the language, I cannot tell you what.  Again, perhaps a German-speaking follower or reader can explain to us what this cryptic notation inscribed on the inside cover of Walter’s book may mean:

IMG_0896If he survived the war and life after war, Walter would be 107 today.  Remotely possible, although not very likely.  And in truth, what could I possibly say to such an extremely aged man in such a fantasy reality?  I may know what “gestorben” means, but I can’t speak his language. And I’m sure he never learned mine, or not enough to understand me and my feelings.  Especially as I don’t really understand me and my feelings either, when it comes to Hermann, Karl, Walter and the three red books.

Given the date of my birth, I know I was beyond fortunate to have been born where I was born, a whole ocean away from the murderous venom that was flooding Europe during the years of my childhood — the very same years when Hermann, Karl and Walter were dutifully paying their party dues. But my good fortune changes nothing.  I have been on the moving walkway at Yad Vashem, hearing the endless litany of names of little children like me, starved, gassed or slaughtered by other Hermanns, Karls and Walters — names, names, names echoing through a dark and starry universe.  It’s therefore ironic that these three Hitler loyalists should come to rest with me and my hostility as I grow old, that I should be the curator of their last effects.

I began this piece thinking such artifacts might be of general interest. Having written it, I suspect I was wrong. The feelings these three red books incite in me draw so heavily on the past and on my ethnicity (if you can call it that) that they may be incommunicable. If so, it seems only sensible to put Hermann, Karl and Walter back in the bookcase and leave them be.

You can’t win ’em all.  As Hitler (and perhaps Walter) finally learned.

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POSTSCRIPT

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Before he began the abruptly truncated memoir I’ve transcribed in the last six posts, my father made a rough outline of what he meant to cover:

  • Forward
  • Childhood
  • Ukraine 1905
  • Germany
  • Baku
  • School, Barsuk
  • Music lessons
  • Gymnasium
  • Moving to apartment [from living quarters behind store]
  • War years
  • Crisis at school
  • Teen age
  • Revolution 1917
  • Awakening as a musician
  • Red Revolution 1917
  • Dangerous times
  • Departure from Baku to Volga (7 of us)
  • Civil war
  • Terrible months
  • On the road to Siberia
  • Tomsk, school and peaceful life again
  • New friends, and new activities
  • Summer, and first winter in Siberia
  • Spring, Fall and last winter in Siberia
  • Defeat of Kolchak and White armies
  • Return to Baku

Since he managed to address only the first five of these topics before giving up, looking at the entire list shows me how little I ever knew of what he intended to narrate, and now will never know.  He did leave a note to his typescript explaining Barsuk was a tutor who came to the house to prepare him for the examinations that would determine whether he could enter a Gymnasium. Although he knew addition, multiplication and division, he would apparently have failed subtraction without extra help.

However, while he was a convivial storyteller in company, I heard nothing at any time of his crisis at school, his awakening as a musician, his experiences of teenage angst, or his take on the 1917 Revolution and the concomitant dangers it presented for a Jewish family living in Baku. I knew the family had left the city for a time during the war, but thought they had gone to Kharkov and then come back to Baku when the danger was past. I see from the list I was wrong. (Perhaps it was my mother who spent some of the war years in Kharkov with her sister.  When I first heard these city names, I was too young to know where they were, and may have mixed everything up.)

I also see from his topic list that by the time the family evacuated to the Volga during the 1917 Revolution, Bertha was already married and a mother, since he says seven people departed, not six. Which makes sense when I think about it. Bertha was ten years older than my father, and her daughter Yulia was born in 1916. But where was Foma, her young husband? Fighting on the side of the Whites?

I heard nothing of the “terrible months,” the trip to Siberia, or the nearly two-year stay in Tomsk.  I just looked up Tomsk to get some sense of its distance from European Russia. It’s far. It was known as the cultural center of Siberia and was equally famous for its wooden architecture, much of which has been preserved. There’s a French language website where you can see early twentieth-century photographs of what it must have looked like when my teen-age father arrived, and a contemporary photograph of a modern Tomsk street in summer which made me want to get on a plane and fly to Siberia right away, at my age — to see what it might have been like to be there at his age.

Discovering these tantalizing hints of what I never knew about my father also makes me sad.  Perhaps there are some families where parents do tell their children about their own lives in a meaningful way. That was not true in my nuclear family of three. Or perhaps part of growing up involves freeing ourselves of our parents so completely we tell ourselves nothing about how they lived their lives can possibly have any bearing on how we’re going to live ours, and it’s only when we’re older that we begin to wish we had asked more questions while there was still timeI

It’s true I did overhear a few of the stories my father told to other people.  But he told them only because they were good stories. Among them were two of the “adventures”  he promised in his Forward but neglected to include in his list:  (1) how he contrived to obtain exit visas from the Soviet Union in 1922, a time when that was almost impossible; and (2) how he gamed the process for getting permits to immigrate to the United States from Constantinople before the 1922 British embargo of the Black Sea shut down all inbound and outbound travel.  You can read about the first of these adventures here.  I put the second one in the mouth of Anna’s father in the “Luck” section of At Roscoe, which is here.  And if you’re interested in what happened to Bertha’s little daughter Yulia, one or two years old during the family’s exodus from Baku to Siberia during the 1917 Revolution, you’ll find all I know of her here.

What do I make of the twenty-two typed pages that do exist?

(1) I am endlessly grateful to my grandfather, who I never knew, for his enterprise and courage. If he had not managed to bribe his family’s way out of pogrom-plagued Ukraine and into Germany in 1905, my father might well have been slaughtered at the age of three and I would never have been born.  [If my mother had had a girl child by another husband, would she have been me? I leave that philosophical question for another day, but my hunch is “no.”]  I also applaud my grandfather for bringing the family back to Russia instead of remaining in Germany, despite his admiration for all things German.  Any child my father might have fathered had he grown up in Berlin — whether “me” or not — would likely have gone into the ovens at Buchenwald or Auschwitz, or else died in a camp like Anne Frank, before ever reaching adulthood.

(2) Less self-referentially, I am struck by the degree to which the lives of my grandparents and their children were shaped by the anti-semitism of the world in which they lived.  Except for one of my father’s aunts, all adult and nearly adult members of the family changed their Hebrew names to Russian ones, evidently to deflect prejudice and enhance their chances of survival. The little boys were too young, but later they changed their names, too — my father first, and then my uncle.  My grandfather shaved off the traditional beard that characterized the adult male Jew, wore a “German”-style mustache, and paid mere lip service to religion, and then only on the high holidays (although my grandmother continued to light candles on Friday nights in the privacy of the home).

Money which might have gone for other things was spent on bribes for fake documents and fake passports. More money went for education. The children had to attend private school, for which there were fees, unless they could qualify — if necessary with paid extra tutoring — for the 10% of places available to Jewish children in the official government Gymnasiums.  The family had to flee pogroms, leaving almost all furniture behind. I was struck by my father’s little-boy recollection of nearly bare apartments and of sleeping on sheets on a bare floor until necessary furniture could be very slowly acquired again.  Even when the family became comfortable once more, my father and his brother — five or six years apart in age — continued to sleep together on a sofa in the living room, after company had left, and do their homework together on the same dining table in the gallery. Only after two years in Baku, was there enough money to build a real kitchen in the living quarters.

Much of the family’s money also went towards my grandfather’s efforts to bring all of his extended family out of Ukraine to  Baku, which was apparently relatively safer for Jews and the reason they moved out of a real apartment into quarters partitioned out of the space behind a store — lowering their living standard, as my father put it.  I say “relatively” safer in light of what he had already learned from a little playmate named Volodia before he was old enough for school:  that if someone were to kill him, there would be no punishment for the murderer because my father was a Jew.  Indeed, another playmate — Solomon, who was Jewish too — was killed by other children in the neighborhood:  for fun they threw him into a deep well, where he drowned.  My father observes no one was ever punished, so that what Volodia had said about getting off scot-free after killing a Jewish child was correct.

(3) Finally, although he may not have been aware of the extent to which it colored his writing, my father was clearly envious and resentful of his older brother Monia, the favored first son.  I have not until now written anything, in this blog or elsewhere, about my paternal uncle — even omitting his existence from accounts of my mother and father, because his story is too complicated to explain in passing.  In fact, I never knew my father had a brother until my twenties, when he showed up in some old photographs and I asked who he was.  That is also when I learned this uncle came to America at the same time as my father and mother, perhaps only at the urging of his parents, who may have felt he would have a better life outside of the Soviet Union.  One of these days I may write about what happened to him once he was here. But it’s difficult. Suffice it for now that he eventually became a burden to my father, resented and then (with guilt) abandoned. I have never decided for myself what should have been done, or what I would have done in similar circumstances.  But my father’s account of their early relationship, and the ambivalence he inadvertently expresses explains a lot…..

[I’m not quite done, although nearly.  There’s a rather sad Second Postscript for next time, if you can still bear with me.  What good is a story without its end?]