In the days before digital cameras and iPhones, there was the little automatic camera, designed for the “real-camera”- challenged and also for tourists wanting to take hasty snaps of twelve-day trips covering lots of places. When departing by plane with such a camera (or even with a more complicated one), it was wise also to bring enough film to get you through the trip, because it might cost the earth if bought wherever you were when you ran out — or not be available at all, depending on location. You also needed a lead-lined bag in which to put the film when you went through customs, both before inserting it in the camera and afterwards, when you brought it home undeveloped to be turned into pictures back in the good old USA. After that, if you were industrious you invested in albums for storage of your photographed memories, carefully labeled. If not industrious, you showed them to a few people, hating how your hair looked under such hurried and often under-washed conditions, and then left them in the paper envelopes they’d come in, mysterious hints of your past for your descendants to find and puzzle over when you had passed on to a place where no cameras would be needed.
I was one of the “real-camera”-challenged. No time and light determinations for me, much less changing lenses when the tour leader was calling for a return to the bus. Not that I didn’t own a “real” camera. My newly adult children had thoughtfully provided one on my 59th birthday, just before I set off on what was to be my first travel experience outside the United States since I was nineteen. (I omit several day trips to Tijuana with my first [California] husband because he liked bullfights, a five-day honeymoon in Bermuda with my second [New York] husband, and a long family weekend in Montreal just before the oldest child went off to college. None of those required a passport, so they don’t really count.)
However, there was no time before the trip to become deft and knowledgeable with the “real” camera my children had bought, so I acquired one of the small automatic ones — a Canon, I think — as an interim measure. Also many boxes of film and the lead-lined bag. And when I got home, a large photograph album in which to mount my camera work, carefully dated and labeled, as the still practicing lawyer I then was might be wont to do.
I bring all this up, after first bringing that heavy album up the stairs to my office, because one of the things that soured my summer — besides having to edit a very long manuscript written ten years ago about a subject unpleasant to recollect — was reading about other people’s travels in their blogs while Bill and I weren’t traveling anywhere. (Yes, I am sometimes mean-spirited.) So I decided to console myself with a trip through that first photograph album. [There were many more to come.]
I hadn’t looked at that first album for a long time. The photos now seem pretty awful technically, and that’s probably not the fault of the camera. (Re-photographing the prints with an iPhone to upload them to WordPress probably didn’t help either.) But I’m glad I took them (bad as they are), saved them in the album and labeled them. They do exactly what they were intended to do: bring back the past now that I’m older (so much older) than before.
In 1990, I had been separated from my second husband for three years, had briefly recycled two old boyfriends (sequentially) with results no more satisfying than the first time, was living in a studio apartment in Boston by myself, and had just finished paying off all the credit card loans that put braces on my children’s teeth, sneakers on their growing feet, got me through three years of law school and bought me a Subaru. (In Massachusetts, you drive or you’re stuck.) I was nearing sixty and had a net worth of $0. But I had a good salary, no more college obligations for the children, and had begun to save a little something. It was time to go somewhere, while I was still young enough to do it. I renewed my passport of forty years before. Unfortunately, it was nearly summer, and I didn’t want ever-ever-ever to be in debt again. (Even though those were the days when you could still deduct all interest — not just mortgage interest — from your gross income before calculating what you owed Uncle Sam.) So whatever trip I took had to be cheap. And because it was so late, there wasn’t much choice. On someone’s advice, I wrote away to the University of New Hampshire (no email yet), which then ran a program of tours for older travelers. Their August trip was two weeks in Salamanca and northwestern Spain. By bus. If I were willing to room with a stranger, it would be even cheaper.
I spoke no Spanish and had minimal interest in Spanish culture. I also suspected that Spain in August would be extremely hot. But I was lonely. I needed company, and I needed to get away from the Uniform System of Citation and the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure for a while, if only a short while. That meant I was in for Salamanca. On balance, it turned out to be a pretty good trip. Besides the copious perspiration, there were some things, identified in what follows, I could have done without. But I made a friend who’s still a friend, and laughed a lot (which I needed), and revived my interest in seeing how other people lived.
Why don’t you come along for a while?
The first thing we learned on arrival: all Spanish towns, Salamanca included, are organized around a central square. Pronounced (in Spain): Platha Mayor.
The first thing I learned on arrival: I don’t like traveling in large groups of people who have to stick together for purposes of the tour schedule. The second thing: I don’t like crowds of tourists either. I want it to be just me, me, me!!! (And chosen friends, of course.)
First good thing about the trip: My luck-of-the-draw roommate. Not because she had a “real camera.” Because we got on like gangbusters, and she’s still a friend. Even reads the blog. Sometimes.
One of the fun things R. and I did together in the hot un-airconditioned room we shared for twelve days was pee in our pants and do hand laundry at midnight. It was always blistering out (unless it was raining), we always drank a lot of water all day long and didn’t perspire it all away — and then we spent many an evening and every night in the room exchanging stories about men and laughing. We laughed so much and so hard people down the hall who heard the laughter, if not the stories, thought we had come on the trip together. If you know what laughing does to the aging sphincter of an overfull bladder, then you know what I’m talking about. If not, wait. (How long, I can’t say. But Kegel exercises or no, the day will come…..) It was a small room, with a tiny bathroom and a really minuscule sink. We had been cautioned to travel light and each had a limited supply of underwear. There was accordingly much late night washing (taking turns at the sink) and hanging wet panties on the shower rod. More difficult was a more occasional need: washing the under sheets of the two twin beds. Sometimes we didn’t. They usually dried of their own accord, if the hotel didn’t change them, which wasn’t often. Sssh…….
Hotels in Spain were then rated from one to five stars. There were no hotels without stars. So expectations for ours, Hotel Gran Via with its single star, were low. But Gran Via was clean (when we weren’t soiling it), and it tried. Pedro (I found his name in the photo album) — maitre d’, waiter and general factotum for all twenty-eight of us — was very nice. (No picture of Pedro uploaded. Sorry.)
Being a one-star hotel, Gran Via’s menu was heavy on starch, pork, and sweets. Within a few days, R. and I — trying to stay healthy — were craving something that had grown in the earth. All we could find in all of Salamanca, during what was labeled “free time” on the schedule, were”sandwiches vegetales.” White bread, a few wisps of blessedly green lettuce and — yes! –slices of fresh tomato! Here I am, thirty-five pounds heavier but twenty-four years younger than today, under the sign for the “sandwiches” — looking coy and trying with my fist to hide from the camera what might be called a slight double chin:
And now, dear readers, I fear this self-indulgent reminiscence has run on too long. Back next time with the rest of the trip, unless too many of you cry, “Enough!” Which you can do in the comment section below. I won’t be offended. Honest.
Although next time — if there is one — will be much more cultural, I assure you.
1. No matter how old you are, some things you don’t forget.
Last Sunday, Bill and I went to a neighborhood meeting for people interested in joining Community Without Walls. We all had to affix to our shoulders a paper tag on which we had printed our names. At the end of the meeting, we got into conversation with a man who hadn’t taken off his tag yet. The name on it ended with a “cz.”
“Polish?” Bill asked.
Yes, he was from Poland, said the man. He was fit and spry, but his face didn’t look as if he were very much younger than we are.
“Forgive me for being nosy,” I said. “But were you in Poland during World War II?”
He nodded again.
“You must have been a baby,” I went on.
“Not such baby,” said the man. “I still remember bombs. So many bombs.”
“Bombs?” Bill asked. “Did Germany bomb Poland? I thought it was very quick. Hitler marched in and Poland surrendered.”
“He must mean Russia,” I said to Bill.
The man ignored this. “Germany not bomb?” he said. “They were bombing all the time. Lost 25% of Luftwaffe over Poland. Of course Poland lost whole air force, too. Bombs, bombs everywhere. Even now,” and here he looked up at the clear blue of a Princeton summer sky, “even now, when I hear sound of propeller — whrrrr whrrrrr – I am frightened. I duck. Even now.”
He and his Polish wife are both scientists. They’ve lived and worked in the United States ever since completing their university studies. Although they do return to Europe twice a year, their preference is to rent an apartment in Paris for a month in September, and again in April. His wife is fluent in French.
“They’re lucky, “ said Bill after we got home. He was thinking Paris. “We’re luckier,” I said. “We don’t have to duck.”
2. No matter how old you are, you can still learn something new.
The man we met after the Community Without Walls meeting who came from Poland did not have clear handwriting. Or maybe I just need new glasses. I had to squint to make out the name on his paper shoulder tag. It looked like Kaganovicz.
“KagAnovich?” I asked uncertainly.
“No,” he replied. “KaganOvich.”
“I thought the accent was on the second syllable,” I said.
“Third,” said the man. “In Russian it’s on second. You’re Russian?”
“Her parents were,” said Bill helpfully.
“Ah,” said KaganOvitch. “That explains it. Russians say KagAnovitch. But in Poland, always KaganOvitch.”
While I was digesting this phonetic difference, which I hadn’t known before, he added something. “There was a KagAnovich. Lazar Moiseyevitch. Famous Old Stalinist. Murderer. Killed many people. But Russian. I’m Polish. KaganOvich.”
“Lazar Moiseyevitch KagAnovich,” I repeated. “I shall have to remember that. At least long enough to look him up.”
“Just remember KaganOvitch,” said KaganOvitch.
And you see, I have!
My copy of Marlene Dietrich’s ABC book is faded and grubby-looking, and its newsprint paper has turned brownish with age. The pages are also falling out of the binding into which they were glued fifty-two years ago. Well, what do you expect? This was the “Mass Market” paperback edition, and I bought it new in 1962 for only 50 cents. But don’t belittle it because of how little it cost me. Used copies, in “good” or “acceptable” condition, are today priced from $5.00 to $39.95.
I’m not sure why I bought it. In 1962, when the book came out, Marlene Dietrich was sixty and past even her late performances in movies, which I had never much liked anyway. She always played glamorous husky-voiced European women who destroyed men. Not a good role model for a young woman who was becoming aware that her biological clock was ticking. Dietrich on the screen was definitely not a baby maker.
But by 1962, she was pretty much out of movies and performing almost exclusively in a one-woman cabaret act in large theaters throughout the world. She apparently relied on body-sculpting undergarments, nonsurgical temporary facelifts, expert makeup, wigs, and strategic stage lighting to help preserve her glamorous image as she grew older. I never saw her in this second incarnation, nor wanted to. However, she did once say in an interview that she continued with this career even when her health was failing because she needed the money.
Need is relative, I suppose; she supported her husband and his mistress until he died of cancer in 1976. They had been separated for decades, but he was the father of her only child, and she had her loyalties. She herself had by then survived cervical cancer in 1965, fallen off the stage, injuring herself badly in 1973, and broken her right leg in 1974. Her performances effectively ended in 1975 when she fell off the stage once again during an appearance in Australia and broke her thigh. By then she had become increasingly dependent on painkillers and alcohol.
After that she withdrew to her Paris apartment and refused to allow herself to be photographed, even when Maximillian Schell made a film about her (Marlene, 1984); he was permitted to record only her voice as he interviewed her, and had to rely on a collage of her old film clips for the visuals of his movie. In her early eighties by then, she sounds old, disillusioned and bitter, although still sharp. She died of renal failure in Paris at 90.
But at sixty she was not yet bitter. And her ABC is clearly hers — not the creation of some ghostwriter. The opinions in it are too idiosyncratic to have emerged from someone hired to write them for her. I may therefore have bought the book after coming upon it in a bookstore because I was then thirty years old, one year divorced after a disastrous marriage, and possibly hoping for some tips on how to manage life more productively going forward. I hope I wasn’t expecting Marlene to steer me towards the sort of second husband who would be a good father for my as yet unborn children. She would have been the wrong person for that. She was herself bisexual, wore both male and female ensembles with equal panache, and maintained short and long-term liaisons with partners of both sexes although she and her husband never divorced.
I’ve kept her ABCs though, not for the same reasons as the three Nazi membership books described in my last post. I like to sit down with Marlene every ten years or so when I come across her while looking for something else. Some of what she thinks is dated, or too sentimental for my taste. But much of it is not. So before her book completely crumbles between my hands, here are some of the “not”s. You might enjoy them, too. It’s rather like meeting a charismatic woman at a party and listening for a while to what she’s got to say.
ART. A much abused word.
BACH, JOHANN SEBASTIAN. I used to love him. I practiced his solo sonatas eight hours a day. I strained the ligament of my fourth left finger. My hand was put in a cast. The hand came out weak. I was told that, with exercise, I might regain full strength of the finger but that I might not be able ever to last through a concert. I gave up the violin. I never liked Bach after that.
BACKSEAT DRIVING. Grounds for divorce.
BELLE-MERE. The French chose this word to give to the mother-in-law. It means: beautiful mother.
BODY. A heavy body weighs down the spirit.
BOOKS. You do not love a book necessarily because it teaches you something. You love it because you find affirmation of your thoughts or sanctions of your deeds.
CAUSE AND EFFECT. A logical event that no wishful thinking can erase.
CHEAP. Nothing that is cheap looks expensive.
CHEWING GUM. A pacifier for adults.
COMPASSION. Without it you mean little.
CORNED BEEF. A most persistent childhood memory is that of feasting on corned beef sent to us by our fathers serving at the front. American soldiers would throw the cans over to the enemy when the war of trenches quieted down by nightfall and the crickets made peaceful sounds — which is how my father described it in his letter.
CREDIT SYSTEM. The American Tragedy.
DAUGHTER. Your daughter is your child for life.
DEMAND AND SUPPLY. Give what is needed. “Let them eat cake” is too easy. By the same token: If nothing is needed, give nothing.
DISREGARD. With a good deal of disregard for oneself, life is a good deal easier borne.
EATING. All real men love to eat. Any man who picks at his food, breaking off little pieces with his fork, pushing one aside, picking up another, pushing bits around the plate, etc., usually has something wrong with him. And I don’t mean with his stomach.
EGGS. Scrambled: To each batch of three room-temperature eggs, add one extra yolk, salt; beat with a fork, not with an egg beater. Heat butter to golden yellow, not brown. Pour the beaten eggs into it, flame low, turn slowly with the fork. Turn out flame. Keep turning with the fork to desired consistency. Serve immediately.
EINSTEIN, ALBERT. His theory of relativity, as worded by him for laymen: “When does Zurich stop at this train?”
EMBARRASS. To embarrass anyone falls into the category of bad manners. In America, it is practiced almost like a sport.
EMERSON, RALPH W. “Do not say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” I have gooseflesh when I read this, think of this, or write this down.
FAIRY TALE. The certainty of the happy end is the magic of the tale.
FASTING. You must have an important reason to be able to fast. If you don’t, you must make an oath to yourself, an oath important enough to take the place of the important reason. Vanity is not enough of a reason. Health isn’t either, as long as you feel well. Make a time limit for the fasting. A day, for instance. It is easier to fast one day entirely than to eat a little for a week. It is very healthy to do that. Don’t think you are going to collapse on the street. Drink water and go to bed early.
FLEXIBILITY. A great asset for body and mind. In advanced age both tend to rigidity. One of the reasons why young people find it difficult to live in close contact with the old is the loss of the mind’s flexibility. Rigidity of thought, decision, opinion is by no means reserved for the old, but the danger of becoming rigid of mind increases with the years. Old people are most conscious of their stiffening bodies; they are completely unconscious of their stiffening minds.
FORGIVENESS. Once a woman has forgiven her man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.
GENDER. At the best of times, gender is difficult to determine. In language, gender is particularly confusing. Why, please, should a table be male in German, female in French, and castrated in English? French children, for instance, are male even if they are girls, in English there seems to be considerable doubt, in German they are definitely neuter. Even more startling is the fact that the French give the feminine gender to the components of the male anatomy that make him male, and the male gender to the components of the female anatomy that make her a female. In view of all this, let’s keep a stiff upper lip.
GENERAL DE GAULLE. The personification of my beliefs and code of conduct. When he made the unique speech in June 1940, he put me in his pocket for life. Whatever he did or said since I do not try to evaluate. He can do no wrong.
GERMANY. The tears I have cried over Germany have dried. I have washed my face. (See Israel.)
GLAMOUR. The which I would like to know the meaning of.
GOSSIP. Nobody will tell you gossip if you don’t listen.
GRANDMOTHER. Judging by the world press, I am the only grandmother alive in the world. Should there be any other grandmothers around, I salute them all. Ours is a great joy and a great task. Here are the rules: (1) We must tiptoe at all times. (2) Never tiptoe on anybody’s toes. (3) Be there when needed. (4) Never be more than ‘Mother’s helper.’ (5) disappear when not needed. (6) Bear without self-pity the silence in our own house. (7) Keep both ears cocked at all times for that call to action. (8) Be ready when it comes. (See Mother-in-law.)
GRIEF. Grief is a private affair.
HABIT. Often mistaken for love.
HANDS. I like intelligent hands and working hands, regardless of their shape in relation to beauty. Idle hands, stupid hands can be pretty, but there is not beauty in them. Of course, children’s hands are miracles from every point of view.
HAPPINESS. I do not think that we have a “right” to happiness. If happiness happens, say thanks.
HATE. I have known hate from 1933 till 1945. I still have traces of it and I do not waste much energy to erase them. It is hard to live with hate. But if the occasion demands it, one has to harden oneself deliberately. I do not think I could hate anyone who does harm to me personally. Something greater than myself has to be involved to cause me to hate.
HEAVEN AND EARTH. A great meal for summer evenings, a peasant favorite because it is good and cheap: apples (for heaven) and potatoes (for earth). Cook tart, sliced apples with sugar or, better, honey, or make applesauce. Boil potatoes, peeled or with the skin. Put two bowls on the table. Everyone has his own way of mixing the fruits of heaven and earth.
HOLLAND. Everything cozy.
HOUSEWORK. The best occupational therapy there is. It is also the most useful occupational therapy. It is one of the rare occupations that show immediate results, which is very satisfying, to say the least.
IDLENESS. It is a sin to do nothing. There is always something useful to be done. I have no respect for the idle rich who discharge their duty to be useful by staging charity balls.
ISRAEL. There I washed my face in the cool waters of compassion.
JEWS. I will not try to explain the mystic tie, stronger than blood, that binds me to them.
JOIE DE VIVRE. How few of us have it; and what a great gift for the person who has it and the people who witness it.
KETCHUP. If you have to kill the taste of what you are eating, pour it on there.
KINDNESS. Practice it; it’s easy. Just put yourself in the other person’s shoes before you talk, act, or judge.
KING-SIZE. I’m agin it.
KISSES. Don’t waste them. But don’t count them.
LETTERS. There is no excuse for not writing letters. My mother used to say: “Don’t tell me you have no time to write to someone who is waiting. There is a quiet place where no one disturbs you. You visit it every day — there you can write. You want to know what the place is? The emperor goes there on foot.”
LETTERS (of Love). Write them. Otherwise no one will know what wonderful feelings fill you. Even if the king or queen of your heart is unworthy (as you might have been told), write them — it will do you good. Keep copies.
LIAISON. A charming word signifying a union, not cemented and unromanticized by documents.
LIBRARY. The most precious of possessions.
LIFE. Life is not a holiday. Should you approach it thus, you will find holidays aplenty.
LIMITATIONS. Know your limitations.
LOYALTY. Should be one of the Commandments.
LUKEWARM. When this adjective applies to feelings, stop feeling whatever you are feeling.
MAILMAN. Let’s all walk. They say mailmen have no heart attacks.
MOP. An implement falsely credited with cleaning floors. (Except in the hands of a sailor.)
MOROCCO. Looks better in films.
MOTHER’S DAY. Although it might have been invented by the United Florists as a business venture, let’s be grateful to them in any case. It does remind neglectful sons and daughters to give a sign of life once a year.
MOTHER-IN-LAW. When you feel your wings grow, you’re good at it.
OPTIMISM. Have it. There’s always time to cry later.
ORDER. I need it. Emotionally and physically.
PARLEZ-MOI D’AMOUR. Yes, please do. The loving heart is a bad mind reader.
PHYSICAL LOVE. Any society that allows conditions to exist in which the adolescent begins to connect guilt with physical love raises a generation of defectives.
POLITENESS. Easy to learn, easy to practice.
POTATOES. I love them. I eat them.
POWER POLITICS. Boys playing: You-show-me-yours, I-show-you-mine.
QUESTIONS. If they are personal, don’t ask them.
QUIT. Don’t, if the goal is at all attainable. You won’t like yourself in the morning if you do.
QUOTATIONS. I love them because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognizedly wiser than oneself.
RICH. Most rich people are pretty dull.
RUSSIAN SALAD. (One of them.) Sliced apples, sliced tomatoes, sliced onions. Salt. Children like it without dressing. You can add oil and lemon. But no other kind of salad dressing. Serve it in large bowls. Makes a very good dinner with nothing else but cheese, bread and butter.
UGLY DUCKLING. Lucky is the ugly duckling. Keep that in mind and don’t envy the pretty duckling. The dizzy pursuit of pleasure the pretty duckling easily succumbs to, does not tempt you constantly. You have time to think, to be alone, to be lonely, to read, to make friends, to help other people. You’ll be a happy swan. Just wait and see.
UP. Look there.
UTMOST. When people say, “I’m doing my utmost,” they are underestimating themselves greatly.
VACILLATION. A woman’s beauty of heart and mind renders man’s vacillating emotions constant. Her looks attract him, they do not keep him.
WAR. If you haven’t been in it, don’t talk about it.
WASTE. I hate it with a passion.
WILL. It is almost impossible to put on paper what one would want done after one is dead.
WISDOM. “For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18.
ZABAGLIONE. Mix three yolks of eggs with three tablespoons of sugar until the mixture is creamy and whitish. Then add a bit more than half a cup of Marsala wine. Mix. In a double boiler beat the mixture with an eggbeater till it rises. Do not boil the mixture. Use a large enough pot so that it can rise almost to double the amount. If you are courageous you can forget about the double boiler and do it on a direct low flame. Serve it in wide-top glasses when it is warm.
She stained and waxed her own parquet floors. She called it one of those household occupations providing immediate results. She became an American citizen in 1939, and during the war repeatedly risked her life entertaining American troops as close to the front lines as the Army would let her go. But when the Berlin Wall came down, she left instructions in her will that she be buried in Berlin, city of her birth, near her family. After she died, her body was therefore flown there to fulfill her wish. She was interred in Friedenau Cemetery, next to the grave of her mother, and near the house where she was born.
If you want to read more ABC than I’ve served up here, you can get the whole thing on Kindle for $7.69. More recipes for peasant cooking! Several longish (and old-fashioned) essays on Beauty and on Marriage! However, I’m sticking with my crumbling old fifty cent copy. If I put a rubber band around it to keep the pages together, it’ll be good for at least another ten years. Let’s hope I will be, too….
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.
On 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.]
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.
The 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.
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!
However, 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.
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.
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.
Although 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.
While 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:
If 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.
[In addition to twenty-two pages of memoir, my father also left behind notes about what had become of his parents, sisters and brother after his departure on the “Marmara” from what he always continued to call “Russia.” His information was derived entirely from letters; there were no international phone calls. It is therefore sparse. But if you want something about how it was for them all after 1922, when the memoir ends — here it is, to the extent that we can now ever know it. The end of their stories.]
FROM MICHAEL RAGINSKY
- Father, at age 64. Diabetes. Died in a coma in a hospital. Got very ill on April 16, 1936. By then had bad eyesight and poor hearing.
- Mother, at age 77 or 78. Was ill and bedridden. Died in bed at either Bertha’s or Bronia’s home on May 26th, 1949.
- Monia, was in bad shape but still alive in 1946. Do not know when he died.
- Mulia, Bronia’s first husband. Died at age 55, on December 14th, 1945. Bronia was then 51.
- Foma, Bertha’s first and only husband and Yulia’s father. Died in early 1973.
- Bertha, at age 82, after two months of illness at home, on July 22nd, 1974 . (Had diabetes and hypertension.) Funeral was July 23rd, 1974.
- Bronia, at age 81, after severe heart attack on July 17, 1975 and suffering for three days, during which she did not eat or drink. Died at 12:30 p.m on July 20th, 1975. Funeral was July 22nd, 1975, at 5 p.m.
Other events and dates from Russian letters:
- Bertha and Yulia [mother and daughter] lived in the same room on Ulitza Basina 35, 3rd floor (formerly Balachanskaya) since the time Monia and I left Baku in 1922, and then with Foma [Bertha’s husband] — until they got separate apartment in 1962. Forty years in misery and horror with enemy neighbors. Foma and Bertha married in 1915, when Bertha was 21 and Foma 25 or 26. They divorced after twenty-two years of marriage in 1937. Foma had left for a younger woman. (After Father died.) Yulia was then 21.
- Bronia and Mulia [wife and husband] got an apartment in a new building in 1935, with bath, phone, gas, etc. — a luxury at the time. Lived at same address till Bronia died, and now Yulia is living there with Volodia [her husband]. Baku-370010, Az.S.S .R. Ultiza Solntzeva 24; block 12. Apt. 116.
- In 1940, on June 1st, Yulia married Volodia [Vladimir] Kalinin. Yulia was then 24 and Volodia was 26; after marriage, they went to live with Bertha [Yulia’s mother] in her room on Ulitza Basina 35; all three lived there till 1962, when all moved to a separate apartment.
- Bertha never re-married because, Mother wrote me, she was very choosy. Or, who knows why?
- Bronia, after Mulia’s death, desperately wanted to leave Russia and begged to come to live with Myra and me [in America]…which was impossible to do at that time. Besides, in 1946 at age of 52, without English, what could she do in America with her outdated dentistry? [Bronia had become a dentist.] She thought she could move mountains…. Not being able to go to America, she married, in November 1946, an old patient of hers: Piotr Michailovich Kasitski, engineer, age 50. Bronia was then 51 or 52. She had known him already for 15 or 17 years. He had a job in Moscow, and they lived there for a while: Tovarisheskii Pereulokl 26, kwartira 7. But in less than a year, Bronia was dissatisfied with her marriage and she returned to Baku, where she continued to ask for help to emigrate to America. At age of 53 or 54, since nothing came of coming to America, she apparently divorced her husband and in 1952 married for third time a man by name Semion. I forgot his last name. This marriage also was not what Bronia wanted. I do not know whose fault it was. But it lasted for 11 years. In 1963 Semion died, of cancer of stomach, in hospital, in terrible pain. Funeral September 23rd, 1963. On April 1st, 1968, Bronia went out on pension at age of 73. She only lived on pension seven years. Went on pension too late, considering her heart condition and hypertension. Never wanted to quit working. Died at home from massive heart attack.
- Now, from all of our Russian family, the only ones left are myself and Yulia…..
[Continued from previous post: “….My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman). I say this as if it were all fact, but much of it is inference. As you will see.”]
PLACE OF BIRTH. I say my mother was born in (or near) Vilna because that’s what she said, on more than one occasion. And because my father never contradicted her. The business about being born in Baku set forth on her “Declaration of Alien About to Depart for the United States” [see previous post] must have been a lie of convenience. It was a dodgy time in which to live. She was traveling with my father and his brother out of a country recently occupied by the Red Army, and the Communist Party had come to power. Baku was their place of residence at the time they left and therefore their point of embarkation for Constantinople. They had permits for travel from Baku to Constantinople, but no documentation of travel to Baku from points of birth and/or earlier residence, which would have been essential had they identified a birthplace and/or prior residence other than Baku. Notably, my mother was not alone in her “misstatement.” Both my father and uncle also declared on all their emigration papers that they were born in Baku — although in fact they had been born in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk), in the Ukraine.
I therefore believe Vilna. Whenever she would mention it, in response to my questions, she also always added that Vilna was “now” part of Poland — a transfer of sovereignty which had occurred in 1920, and which she would not have been particularly aware of had she been born elsewhere. I may have first heard this from her prior to 1939 or 1940, while Vilna actually was still part of Poland. But if so, I must have been quite young, because I was only eight or nine when the Soviets took Vilna back from Poland. But after she came to America in 1922, my mother lost interest in events across the ocean. She was here, Vilna was there, and whatever was currently going on there didn’t matter any more. Although Vilna was captured and occupied by the Germans during World War II, and then after the war became Vilnius, part of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania, her birthplace remained “Vilna, now part of Poland” for the rest of her life.
When I was a little girl myself and curious about my mother’s own childhood in Vilna, she told me her father had a “yeast refinery.” I think she meant a processing or manufacturing facility for yeast. Her English, though reasonably fluent, was not entirely precise. I also recall her mentioning her father had money and that she and her parents lived on an estate which had at one time belonged to a landowner with serfs. (If true, this ownership of serfs would have been prior to the 1860’s, when serfdom was abolished.) She seemed proud of this heritage, although she never made clear whether her father owned or leased the estate, and the subsequent history of the Vainschtains leaves this point murky. She added that the descendants of the serfs, most of whom had stayed on the land after being freed, worked in the “refinery.”
My mother was ten when she left Vilna, so I don’t know how trustworthy is her story. But there must have been something to it. She once recalled she had had a nurse. A nanny or governess? That does suggest money. I am sure, though, that her point in telling me about the estate and the descendants of serfs was to make clear that she did not come from a ghetto. (Having money would also have helped in this respect.)
There was indeed a ghetto in the town of Vilna. (You can see old photos of it on the Web.) However, my mother explained quite clearly on several occasions — which means it was important to her — that about ten percent of Russian Jews were permitted to live among the general population. These were the doctors, lawyers, and others who contributed something of value to the Russian economy. Evidently, she wanted me to know that her father, my grandfather, was one of the valued ten percent. Once I asked how those descendants of serfs felt about working for a Jew. She assured me that her father was very good to them. “They earned a decent living, why should they complain?”
Setting aside hypothetical problems of labor relations, about which she could not have known much one way or the other, but assuming a kernel of truth in the “estate” and the “refinery” (whether or not my grandfather owned the former), I therefore infer that my mother’s parents lived – and lived well — in the neighborhood of Vilna, but not in the town itself.
MY MATERNAL GRANDPARENTS’ NAMES. At no time did my mother explicitly tell me her father’s name. She never mentioned her mother’s name at all. Could it be because the names were so “Jewish?” Despite the protections of money and the yeast refinery and the nurse, she had to have learned early on that “Jewish” was not a good thing to be. Even while she was still in or near Vilna, there had been that ghetto in town, about which she surely must have heard. She must also have overheard whispered parental discussions about the pogroms that swept through Russia in 1905 and 1906, when she was a baby. Her mother’s brother – whom she may not have remembered but would have heard of – had even left for good in 1908, to make a more secure life in America. However, she did tell me, several times, there were separate schools for Jewish girls and for Russian girls, and only a few places for Jewish girls in those schools for Russian girls, hotly sought after and hard to obtain.
“How did anyone know you were Jewish if you didn’t tell?” I asked when still a little girl myself, innocent of the implications of names.
“It was on your papers,” she said.
Papers? What papers? “Everyone had to have papers,” she said.
[An aside: In her late forties, answering a question about her maiden name on a department store employment application in New York City, she translated “Weinstein” — which is what “Vainschtain” had become on Ellis Island — into what she thought was the Russian equivalent: she put down “Vinogradova” in the appropriate blank. She was actually proud of this deception, and told me about it when I came home from college during Thanksgiving. For the record, she was wrong; “vino” may have meant “wine,” but in Russian “grad” means “city.” However, she would have shrugged if I’d pointed this out to her. She had managed not to put down a “Jewish” maiden name — a name she thought might have prevented her from getting the job.]
Or perhaps the actual names of my grandparents just never came up. My mother never reminisced, without being asked, about an early life in which she had experienced much unhappiness. But if I had asked, she would have answered. Why didn’t I? I never asked about my grandparents on my father’s side either. They were over there, aging and dying behind an Iron Curtain, and by the time I started to think about them – too late, too late – they were dead, and even my father, the more voluble of the two, had ceased to speak about his youth and lost parents.
What my mother did tell me (when asked) was her patronymic. I wanted a middle name. Everyone else in school had one; why not me? Well, actually I did, she said. They just hadn’t put it on my birth certificate. That’s when she explained that in Russia all middle names were formed from the father’s first name. If you were a boy, you added “-vitch” to it, if a girl, “-ovna.” My father’s name was Michael – Mikhail in Russian. So my middle name was Mikhailovna. Accent on the “k-h-a-i-l.” Pronounced to rhyme with “heil.” (As in “Heil Hitler.”) I was Nina Mikhailovna.
I didn’t care for it, not one bit. And what was her middle name? Maybe I would like that one better and could borrow it. “Vladimirovna,” she told me. Accent on the “d-i-m.” Pronounced “deem.” That was even harder to pronounce. And just as hard to spell. So she made me a list of girl’s names starting with “M” – Miranda, Marianne, Mabel, Melinda, and so forth. I chose Melissa, although I abandoned it several months later because it didn’t seem right to pick your own middle name in the kitchen.
But from then on I knew my grandfather’s first name. Vladimir. And of course his last name was the same as that maiden name set forth on all her papers of transit — Vainschtain, Vainschtain, Vainschtain — and also on the Fabre steamship line manifest of passengers traveling to America in November 1922. (The name she would later try to hide.) What I don’t know – and never will – is his patronymic, although she must have known it and could have told me, if I asked. Nor do I know when he was born, or where, or to whom, or how he came into his yeast “refinery.” He is simply Vladimir Vainschtain, who lived outside the ghetto on an estate and had money.
About my mother’s mother – my grandmother — I heard a little more while I was growing up, but not much. She was my grandfather’s second wife. I always used to assume he was a widower when he married her, although my mother never specifically said so. Now that I think about it, I was probably right. I don’t know how difficult it was to divorce in Czarist Russia, but I suspect it wasn’t easy. Moreover, there was no animosity between the children of my grandfather’s first marriage and my grandmother, which suggests that their own mother had passed on before their father married again.
My mother once told me that this was also a second marriage for my grandmother. She only mentioned it once, when I was asking if her mother was Jewish, too. Not always, said my mother. A somewhat unusual answer. It seems Berta Isaakovna had converted to Russian Orthodoxy in order to marry her first husband, who was gentile. So for a while she wasn’t Jewish any more. But then she became Jewish again in order to marry Vladimir Vainschtain!
Nothing more was ever said about this gentile first husband who demanded a conversion from his bride near the end of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Did he die? Did they divorce? Was the marriage annulled because of some defect in the conversion? (Is that last supposition my own romantic speculation about the unknown?) Since my mother never mentioned half-brothers or half-sisters through her mother, any such marriage must have been without issue, and probably relatively short. My grandmother was still young enough at the time she became Mrs. Vainschtain to bear two children, five years apart. [An aside: My father left in his desk when he died in 1986 a list of birthdays and dates of death known to him; he estimated that Berta Isaakovna, my mother’s mother, was about sixty-six when she died in 1942. That would put her date of birth in 1876. If this is correct, she was twenty-eight when my mother was born.]
Two conversions within, say, six or seven years? Or, more likely, a conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, later deemed null and void? (Once a Jew, always a Jew?) Or could my mother have made the whole thing up, in order to claim some wisp of connection with non-Jewishness? Romantic though her dreams may have been, I find it hard to believe she would actually lie to me. Omit or elide past unpleasantnesses? Yes, that she would do. But spin out fantasy as actual fact to a listening little daughter? No, that was not my mother.
If her story was true, then I had a grandmother who was both assimilated and pragmatic. Yet my mother never mentioned the name of the resilient heroine of this gossamer tale of two marriages. I discovered my grandmother’s first name and patronymic – Berta Isaakovna — in translations made for me in the mid-1990’s of letters to my father from his family written many years previously, in which they mention several visits my mother’s mother paid to them. And I have extrapolated her maiden name from her brother’s signed statement that he would take responsibility for his niece, my mother, upon her entry into the United States; he signed himself David Shulman.
At any rate, and irrespective of their putative prior marital histories, Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Shulman (whatever her first married name may have been) were married early in the twentieth century. And on or about July 16, 1904, somewhere in or near Vilna, they became parents of a baby girl.
They named her Meera. [To be continued….]