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.

MEET MISS PRISS

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Miss Priss lives with me, in my metaphorical basement.  She’s exactly my age, and sort of looks like me. But instead of greeting the world with a friendly smile that might distract the eyes of others from the physical imperfections of age, she pulls down the corners of her mouth, thereby deepening the parenthetical lines around it and turning her face into a flesh-colored prune.

Fortunately, you almost never get to see Miss Priss. She keeps a very low profile.  But she is all ears.  She hears everything anyone ever says to me.  And although she contains herself in public, she suffers deeply from the increasingly severe linguistic assaults on her sensibilities we two encounter as we advance towards our one hundred years together.

It’s true that during the course of her education, Miss Priss was required to study etymology and the development of Modern English.  At that time, she even acquired some minimal knowledge of Anglo-Saxon. [She still knows, for instance, that “Hee, hee” was spelled “Hig, hig” in the eighth century.]  She could once also haltingly read Chaucer.  She is therefore well aware language evolves, despite the efforts of lexicologists to stop it dead in its tracks. Thus she further knows, and theoretically accepts, that if it didn’t evolve we would still be speaking Beowulf’s mother tongue.

But what kind of evolution?  The English Miss Priss and I learned in the middle of the twentieth century was a perfectly serviceable and universally acceptable instrument of communication as far as we’re both concerned.  [I hesitate to call it the King’s English because we were, and remain, American.  But some differences of spelling and usage aside, it came pretty close.]  What Miss Priss can’t understand is why the language she knows and loves so well can’t meander along until she’s gone before transforming itself into something else? Why does it have to evolve in such appalling ways in her lifetime?

[You see how I am cleverly putting these questions in Miss Priss’s mouth?  Not all the readers of this blog are quite as antiquated as Miss Priss, and I certainly would not wish to offend or alienate a single one of them.  She, on the other hand, does not “blog.”  Indeed, she finds the very word offensive.  “What’s wrong with ‘write an online column’?” she asks.]

Miss Priss does not entirely object to the entry into her beloved language of new words or expressions that fill some hitherto unmet need.  I have actually heard her answer a question about what she thought of a movie with the monosyllabic “Meh.”  This word is clearly an improvement on the prior alternative, “It was so-so.”  After all, the French can say, “Comme ci, comme ca.”  The Greeks can say, “Etsy ketsy.”  High time we had something comparable. Especially when it’s essentially the same unspellable grunt many of us were already emitting when asked our opinion of something bland and unmemorable, with just an “m” appended up front.

Miss Priss has also been known to say about one of her little excitements that it “blows her mind.” What’s more, I have heard her characterize someone for whom she has nothing but scorn as a “shithead.”  Actually, the first time she heard the word “shithead,” she had to ask if it meant the same thing as “asshole,” a word relatively new to her that she had already embraced. But on being assured that it did, she took to it with alacrity as being a more accurate and pictorial description of that part of the other person’s anatomy she held in such contempt.

About alterations of commonly used expressions that destroy their meaning, Miss Priss is less welcoming.  For instance, on those very occasional evenings when we sit down together to watch television commentators chew up the news, she can demand angrily of the screen, “What the hell does ‘I could care less’ mean?’  You mean you couldn’t care less, you shithead!”  Although I deplore her use of a street epithet in the home, Miss Priss is perfectly right, of course.  From the context of his previous remarks, it is clear the commentator in question was now trying to tell us he cares so little about whatever it is, that it is not possible to care less than he does because he is already at the very bottom of any ability to care. In other words, he absolutely could not, even if he tried very hard, care less than he already does.  Whereas what he has told us is that he does care some, and could care less (if he put his mind to it).

When I admonish Miss Priss for not picking her battles, she retorts that I should mind my own business.  That she will fight on till she dies. Then she tells me that as she has no “blog” of her own, if I still want to be her friend I should put in mine a list of the linguistic horrors and abominations that really make her squirm and curl up inside.  Then other people besides me will know what they are. And maybe, just maybe, one or two of them will agree with her.  Perhaps they’ll even add a few horrors and abominations of their own.  Wasn’t that how “Occupy Wall Street” began?

I know it’s wrong to give Miss Priss a platform for her nutsiness when she adamantly refuses to sit down at a computer herself, much less sign up for a WordPress account. But that “if I still want to be her friend” business got to me.  How can I kick her out of my (metaphorical) basement at this point in our joint life?

SEVEN THINGS MISS PRISS HATES: 

I.  The use of “so” as an adjective or an adverb, usually meaning “very” or “very much,” in conjunction with an entirely unexpected word or locution.  As in, “That is so now. That is so Gwendolyn.  That is so what we don’t  want. That is so too much!”  [You can say that one again, mutters Miss Priss.]

II. The “adjective-ing” of other parts of speech.  Usually preceded by the aforementioned “so.”  As in, “That is so New York.  That is so now. That is so you.”  [I myself used this youth-speak as a kind of joke to end a post recently; someone who I know for a fact is old enough to collect Social Security took the bait and replied, in correlative language, that the Beatles were not  “yesterday” but “NOW.”  Which only goes to show “yesterday” and “now” are both firmly ensconced in their new usage and Miss Priss is wasting her time if she hopes my blogging can help dislodge them.]

III.  The liberal sprinkling of “like” in the interstices of every sentence.  As in, “He was, like, talking to me, like, very fast, and I was, like, not hearing him because I was, like, nervous about my history exam?”  Persons who speak this way often end every sentence with a question mark even when it’s not a question. Don’t tell Miss Priss they’re just young and will outgrow it.  That’s the baby fat excuse.  The young who spoke this way a while ago have now grown up, taking their speech habits into adulthood and graduate school. Miss Priss and I hear them on the train platform at Princeton every time we go to New York. Miss Priss shudders. I try not to listen. What can you do?  That last is a real question.

IV.  The use of “go” and “goes” as a synonym for any other verb, in either present or past tense, indicating speech.  As in, “I go, ‘Are you asking me out, or what?’ And he goes, ‘Do you want me to?’ Then my friend goes, ‘Are you two ever getting it on, or what?” So then we both go, “Butt out, will you?'”  Yes, Miss Priss knows this is out-of-the-mouth-of-babes “speech,” undoubtedly reflecting faulty education in the school and in the home.  Except you’d be surprised where else it crops up. As noted above, the speech-disadvantaged grow up, taking their disadvantages proudly into the adult world.

V.  The use of “no problem” as a synonym for “You’re welcome.”  As in (a): You give the waiter money to pay for your meal.  He brings back the change.  You say, “Thank you.” He assures you, “No problem.”  Well of course it was no problem.  It was his job.  It would have been a big problem if he hadn’t brought back the change.  Or (b): You ask the guy blocking your driveway with his delivery van to please move it. You even say “Thank you” as he stubs out his cigarette on your lawn to climb into the driver’s seat.  You hear, “No problem.”  It better not be a problem, buddy, because the motor vehicle regulations say no trucks can park across the ends of driveways. And what ever did happen to, “You’re welcome?”

VI.  Routine use of meaningless memorized phrases in commercial contexts.  Miss Priss especially loves it when we check out of the supermarket just before it closes, tired and cross because we’ve had a long busy day and couldn’t get there until late — only to hear the clerk wave us out the door into the black night with “Have A Good Day!”  Miss Priss once broke her vow of silence in such situations to inquire acidly (through me), “When?”  But the clerk didn’t get it.  She had already turned to the next tired and cross shopper with her second piece of programmed speech, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” What would she have done if the customer had said no? Abandoned her register to search the aisles?

VII.  The use of the word “share” as a synonym for “tell.”  When Miss Priss and I were young, the word “share” had two meanings.  The first meaning was when you gave a piece of something you had, like cake or ownership of a house, to someone else.  You shared your cake, or house ownership, with that other person. As a result, you had less of it, but the other person also had some of it.  The second meaning involved a secret, or something very confidential.  If you confided your secret, or confidential information, to another person, you had shared it with him.  But only the two of you knew it, and both understood that it remained secret, or confidential. Now, however, everyone shares all of everything with everyone.  NOBODY HAS LESS. AND NOTHING IS SECRET.  (Unless you take the precaution of marking it “private.”) WordPress urges us to “share” every blog post we like.  What WordPress means is for us to tell everyone how good it is, if that’s what we think, by sending it to them.  Was anything wrong with just “telling?”  Miss P. and I were getting along fine with it before “share” came along with its bullhorn.

Miss Priss wants me to continue with her stations of the cross by listing some cliches worn so thin by overuse that whatever their merit in the first place they have now become a yawn.  “24/7” (meaning “all the time”) and “At the end of the day” (meaning “as a result” or “finally”) come immediately to mind, but believe me, she can think of many more to “share” if I let her.

However, I am sure you must have had quite enough of Miss Priss by now. So I’m sending her back to her basement.  But not before you promise her you will try very hard never again to use an expression carried over from texting, like a flea in your luggage, when writing anything she may see.  No more LOLs, ROFLs, OMGs if you can possibly help it.  Otherwise she might die of a broken heart.  And I would miss her.

Every one who’s getting old needs a Miss Priss of their own, and she is mine. I try to run a blog she would approve of.  So please do promise.  Cross your heart and hope to you-know-what.  If you’re as old as we are, you’ll know what that means.