Monday, September 23, 2019

Excerpts from “You Wanted to Know: Opa Answers his Grandchildren’s Questions about Life as a Mischling (half-Jew) in World War II Germany”

I wrote this post in 2010. My father didn't want me to publish it at that time, for the same reason he didn't want to publish the two books he'd written about his life as a half-Jew in Germany during WWII - he thought no one would be interested and he was very uncomfortable drawing any attention to himself. 

In retrospect, now that he's gone, I think there's another reason Dad refused to tell his own story (but wanted me to tell it after his death): Dad suffered from survivor's guilt. 

I am now Dad's voice and I am finally (FINALLY!) getting down to the business of writing his story. If I were to do some self-reflection on my reluctance to get started with that story for the past two years, I think I'd realize that Dad passed some of that survivor's guilt on to me, and now I feel immense pressure to tell it right, just as he would have. I need to let go of that pressure, of those unspoken rules, and just tell his story and my story, in my own words. I need to allow myself that freedom, something that I find extremely difficult because dammit, I keep hearing Dad's voice in my ears, telling me to get it right.

Going through the thousands and thousands of pages of Dad's writings is the first step. Part of that process will likely be to blog about what I find. Maybe speaking to a very small audience first will help my own apprehension about speaking to a bigger, unknown audience.

My father recently turned 82. Lately he’s been very busy focusing on something he previously didn’t want to focus on: his past.  As I was growing up in the late 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, my dad was busy doing what other American families did – working, parenting, and simply doing what had to be done each day as a father, husband, head of a household, and employee.  The past was the past back then.

Now, my father’s past is a lesson for our future.  As more and more people who lived through World War II die, it becomes more and more important that their stories be told.

In 1979, prodded in part by his children’s incessant questions and curiosity about his past as a “mischling” (or “half-Jew”) in World War II Germany, my father wrote a book called  The Longest Year in the Young Life of Peter Bauer (a pseudonym for himself, as telling the story in the third person was easier for Dad).  That book has never been published, as he wrote it simply for his children – and now there’s been a new “printing” for his grandchildren. 

This book describes my father’s life in 1944/1945 when, essentially, “all hell had broken loose” for him and his family.  His father, a Jew, had married a non-Jew  in 1919. It was my grandmother who, by her very existence, protected her husband and children from persecution by the Nazis. 

Although my grandfather’s Jewish heritage had already stripped him of his job as the Vice President of a private bank and of his position (but not his title) as Vice Consul to Portugal, his fate at that point was not that of many Jews in Germany, surely due to his Aryan wife and his minor “half-breed” children.  That story is told in my father’s first book. Here is the first page of that book, an introduction for my brothers and me.

I have asked my father whether he’d consider publishing The Longest year in the Young Life of Peter Bauer, and his answer has always been modest and self-effacing – “Oh, no one else really cares about the heart of a 16-year-old mischling…” (because the book is at least as much about my father’s developing “soul of a poet and mind of an engineer” as it is about wartime Germany), but perhaps he will consider publishing it if his children and grandchildren continue to stress the importance of his memories.

A few years ago, my 82-year-old father sent his grandchildren an e-mail saying, in essence, “OK, I’m ready to answer all those questions I didn’t answer for my children or for you previously. Ask me!”
And they did – as did I, thrilled that he was finally so willing to tell those stories that, when I was growing up, he’d only reluctantly tell when he was captive in the car on the way to Lake Tahoe or on those rare occasions when a story from his past would bubble up and he couldn’t resist telling us. Those stories, though, were usually happy and funny memories of Dad’s life before the Nazi regime – stories like the one about the Christmas when Dad and his older brother stole their little sister’s favorite doll while she was napping and when she awoke they tormented her as they pulled a slightly burnt gingerbread man out of the oven, explaining that they’d put her doll in the oven just to see what would happen…

But I digress.

So in answer to his grandchildren’s questions, Opa spent the past few weeks again at his computer (because he is exceptionally tech-savvy for an 82-year-old… gotta love it!), and when I arrived in Ashland over Christmas vacation, there was a binder with a 66-page memoir waiting for me in my room.  Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night, as I devoured every word, so grateful that Dad is finally willing – and even eager – to talk about the poignant, and often painful, memories of his youth.

Again, Dad doesn’t think that his memories warrant publishing, but he has agreed to allow me to share some excerpts here.  Last time I visited I methodically photographed almost every photo I found in his albums on the shelf in the guestroom, so I’ll include some of those here as well.  

Dad didn’t list questions from his grandchildren and answer each one.  Instead he created a chronological narrative with headings.  

 (Just a quick note here: I have a copyright notice on my blog, which I normally don’t enforce all that stringently.  In the case of my father’s writings, however, I am adamant: these are HIS words and photos and he has been gracious enough to allow me to share them on my blog – reluctantly, I might add.  Please do NOT copy them for any purpose, anywhere.  Thanks!)

The Early Years
“My father had been brought up Jewish, the oldest of initially four brothers. My grandfather died when my father was 10, so it fell to him to raise his three younger brothers in a fatherless family. The second oldest died at the young age of 21. I know really nothing about him, beyond that he, too, was a bank employee when he died in 1909. I have tried for years to learn something about him, but I have been utterly unsuccessful in digging up any information on him, what he did, where he was from, etc. Nobody even has a single picture of him. Any possible documents about him were either destroyed by the Nazis (because he was Jewish), or by the bombs in Cologne, where my father was born.”

(My paternal grandfather)

My mother came from an old (not Jewish) family located in the Rhineland north of Köln (Cologne). Her father was CEO of a major steel- and machine tool producing factory in Chemnitz. I do not know who came to Chemnitz first -- my grandfather or my father. A CEO of a factory and a banker would have a lot of common interests. My mother's ancestors included the founder of a shoe factory in Wermelskirchen. His factory is now the city library and his villa, where my mother grew up, is a retirement home. The family included a number of military officers, including a WW I flyer in the mold of the "Red Baron". I have no idea about how my parents met, about their courtship, and the circumstances of their early years.”

(My paternal grandmother)

I do remember sitting on the rounded wooden cover to my mother's sewing machine, playing with a button box she kept. I remember the cook coming in to discuss with my mother the menu for the coming week. There must have been times when I sat on my mother's lap, but I know now that physical contact was generally not considered proper at the time, nor was it hygienic. Disease was all around you, and I remember my mother telling me not to wrap a banana peel around my wrist because that would give me polio. 

(My dad at about 3.)

But I do remember sitting on my father's lap, trying to get away from his cigar smoke. Often, he would have spread out the huge Schnorr "Bilderbibel" (Picture Bible) from his collection cabinet and would tell me stories from the Old Testament -- never the New; that's what he knew and remembered from his own childhood and, I would think, from studying the Torah.”

(My father’s family before the war.)

“The house where I was born was a large single-family house in Chemnitz in a “good” mixed neighborhood that had villas, schools, offices, shops. The house was at a corner, surrounded by a garden with an iron fence (which we eventually have do “donate” to make guns) on a stone wall. Also within that fenced enclosure, there was a separate garage, with a laundry room and apartment above. In the early years, the garage was used as my father's fencing arena -- one of the few sports other than Cross Country skiing and ping-pong my father ever did. The apartment above the garage was where the "Hausmeister" family lived: he took care of our house: he fired up the central furnace and partly smothered it at night, to stoke it again in the morning. He shoveled the fuel from the coal cellar and did all the handyman work around the house. He also taught us boys to play chess. On the side, he had a manual job in one of the factories. And then, there were additional people who came in on a regular basis: the wash woman once a week, the iron woman the week after, the gardener, etc. I remember laundry days in particular, when the two big built-in brick tubs would be heated with wood and coal, until the water boiled and the whole room was so steamy you couldn't see the other wall, engulfing even the drying centrifuge I got to try to crank sometimes. The clothes lines were strung out outside on poles, covering the lawn and our play area, leaving only the sand box exposed.”

(My dad’s childhood home, before…)

My Social Life
For emergencies, there was the telephone, but every call in town cost money, and any long distance call, besides being prohibitively expensive, had to be arranged by the operator, usually hours ahead of time. Besides, most of us had bicycles, and if we had a need or urge to see someone across town we’d get on the bike and ride there. The idea of an impromptu get-together just did not exist. Besides, after-school activities were much rarer than they are today. There were absolutely zero sports. We had piano lessons, and we used the bike or walked or used streetcars to get there. I don’t remember any family who had a car, so nobody could be “taken” anywhere. On weekends we often did things with our parents and siblings: take a train to go on a hiking tour, or go cross-country skiing.”

(My dad –the  middle child, literally – and his siblings.)

Junior Prom, Senior Prom, dates, dress-up, taxis, -- how foreign all this was to me when I learned about it all from you! Our schools were boys only, and there were no organized or even semi-official co-ed events. You were limited to whatever acquaintances you could make via your family. One advantage: approval was often automatic, because whomever you met was automatically from the right kind of family. Outside of that, making contacts with girls was hard, very hard. Having a sister helped, having relatives helped, so it turns out that I was luckier than most.

In summer vacation of 1941, at the age of 13, I was invited, “purely by coincident,” by a friend of my mother’s who had “a good name,” even with a “von” in front of it. She had a house at the edge of a small lake north of Berlin, and a big garden with lots of raspberries and gooseberries, and lots of healthy vegetables. She also happened to have a 13-year-old daughter. We turned out to be each other’s first loves.

Early Nazi Repressions (1933 – 1942)
“I believe it was in 1939, in the Sexta class, the first class of High School (that would be fifth grade here), we had to fill in a form which showed our family -- a normal thing to do in school, except that the form was issued by “The Party” meaning by that time the only party in existence, the NSDAP (or Nazi Party). My father asked me to fill in what I could, and to ask them about the rest.

I went to my mother first, although there was hardly a question; I knew my grandparents on my mother’s side very well, and birthdates and such was easy to get from Mutti. Vati, my Dad, was different: he had me sit down, and I knew something was up. “As for my parents”, he said, “You know their names: my father was L, after whom you got your middle name. My mother was S -- remember her? You were only five when she died. For them,under religion, you have to put down ‘Mosaic’” So that was it. I figured that “Mosaic” must mean the religion of Moses, and that means Jewish. I mumbled something like “I know”, but I didn’t really, I only knew there was something. Everywhere around, I could hear that “Jews are bad, they’re the worst.” Somehow that didn’t seem to fit. Never again did my father say anything about his family, not about his parents, not about his brothers. I found out the reason much later, when I was doing research for a book that hasn’t materialized.

There were informers all over the place, and one never knew what children might say, and to whom, if they found out more details about Vati’s family, being Jewish and all that. So the easiest way was “totschweigen”, which means practicing “dead silence.”

“If there is one omission which I now regret, and forever will, it is that I did not ask more about my father’s family. I have spent months trying to dig up information after the war, both here and in Köln (Cologne) where my father was born. On the Internet, in Synagogues in Germany, in City offices, in cemeteries: nothing, absolutely nothing was to be found. As one official said in Köln: “The Nazis destroyed everything, and what they didn’t find, the bombs got.” A total iron wall for me, impenetrable. Not a single photo, nothing about where they came from, when they changed from what name, when and where they married, about their personalities, what they did professionally, when they moved to Dresden and why. Nothing.”

“It is ironic that the pressure from the Nazis made many Jews either re-discover their Jewishness, or made them more Christian in order to maintain “privileged” status. That pressure, I think, made Vati practice Christianity seriously and made his children do the same. Without that pressure I would suspect he would have lived without much practice either way.”

The Nurnberg Laws
“The Nürnberg Laws, with the euphemistic title of “The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor”, defined for the first time who was a Jew, not by religion, but by race. For the first time in history, now one could no longer evade the designation of being Jewish by converting from the Jewish religion.
No longer was a Jew defined by the religion of the mother. Four or three grandparents: you were a “full Jew”; two grandparents made you a “half Jew” (“mongrel of the first degree”, like me). or one grandparent only: a “quarter Jew” or “Mischling zweiten Grades”. There were also all kinds of other classifications, like who you had married and when, but some of these finer distinction were added later, by thorough German bureaucrats who loved pigeon holes. That laid the groundwork then for different “laws” defining how to treat what category of Jews. During their reign, the Nazis in different regions came up with about 2,000 “laws” and regulations for the single purpose of how to “legally” treat Jews. That way, everybody’s behind was covered, and many of “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” later-on did their dirty work “under cover of law.”

“In 1938, Goering, who had famously said “I am the one who decides who’s a Jew and who isn’t!” came up with a new classification: “Privileged Mixed Marriages”. My parents eventually ended up in that classification. Essentially, that meant, in practical terms:
  1. Such Jews were in practice unlikely to be deported to camps.
  2. They did not have to wear the yellow Star-of-David identifying badge;
  3. They had to identify themselves by adopting, under law, the middle name “Israel” for men, and “Sara” for women; not using that name “voluntarily” was punishable by law.
  4. They had to carry special ID cards with a large letter “J” for “Jude”; (I still have my father’s ID Card)
  5. They were subject to some, but not all of the restrictions and cruelties that befell other Jews.
There were 28,000 such Jews left in Germany at the end of the war.

In order to be “privileged, one had to conform to essentially two requirements:
  1. The Jewish partner of a mixed marriage had to be non-Jewish by religion;
  2. Children from that marriage had to be brought up non-Jewish, meaning essentially Christian.
Those two conditions determined every day in the lives of my parents and us “Mischling” children. Due to #1, above, the non-Jewish partner, in our case my mother, became the hostage, who was singly, by reason of her very existence, responsible for the safety of the spouse, the children, and the family. The condition #2 required that there could be no doubt that we children were Christians, not Jews.”

(My grandmother with my dad, middle, and his older brother)

Christian Upbringing
“I do not know whether his parents were practicing or secular Jews, neither do I know whether his brothers also converted and if so, when, but I do know that his brother Hans, who died in 1909 at age 21, is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Dresden, with a Hebrew inscription on his grave stone. Nor do I know why Vati converted. His conversion, whether done for practical reasons as an aspiring banker, or out of conviction, turned out to be a good thing, though, because when the Nazis came to power a generation later, his marriage became automatically “privileged”. As long as I remember, my father was most concerned to make sure that everybody knew that we children were Christian, and that there could be no suspicion that he maintained ties to the Jewish Community.”

Ignorance and Silence
That was also the reason why Vati never, never talked about his family or about anything that had to do with his Jewish background. Oh, he would say that as a child he only had a single tie (unlike us!), and, unlike us, he never dripped any gravy on it. He had sayings that he remembered from his childhood, but never a word about his parents. Not asking about it is probably my greatest regret I have today. But one must remember that it would have been unacceptably rude for us children to even subtly mention subjects that we knew or even sensed to be taboo or somehow too sensitive. Jewishness was one taboo, sex was another. “Don’t speak until spoken to” was the rule. We never dared asked questions. We never broke through the silence which, I’m sure, was with good intentions in order to shield us from the dangers and ugliness of the world.

But, when in doubt, you do the safest thing. Because there were informers everywhere who may hear us, or who may hear about us, the safest thing to do was silence. My parents must have expected, that we would likely brag to our friends that we had Jewish relatives. Kids will say anything that makes them interesting in the eyes of others. My parents knew that.”

Kristallnacht, 1938
“Our house happened to be right across from the Synagogue. My mother was out of town somewhere, and we children had dinner with our father when we heard commotion and noises outside. We saw flames coming from the Synagogue. Vati immediately told us to close all roller shutters on each window in the house, and to turn off all lights, to make the house look deserted. There was no discussion as to why, we just did as we were told.

The most important information came the morning after from my school friend Zschorn in the last class of Grade school. Zschorn told me that he knew something I didn’t: "I know, my brother is in the SA, he was one of the ones who set it on fire!" (Kids will brag to anybody to make themselves interesting, remember?!) When I told that to Vati later, he held me by both arms and said slowly and most earnestly: "Don't you ever repeat that to anybody!!" I didn't, but I wondered, and I did not understand. I believed Zschorn because I could see that the fire engines only sprayed the house next to the Synagogue, not the fire itself. My mother came back that day. Her story was: “probably an electric short circuit.”

For weeks, whatever parts of the synagogue had not been destroyed by the flames was blasted and carried away. It was my first hint of things to come.”

The Wannsee Conference
“The “final solution” was decided, or rather: approved, by vote, by a convivial, evil, polite gathering of high officials, led by Heydrich. The purpose was to demand -- without written record -- the cooperation of all government branches that millions of Jews would be “transported” to the East (meaning Poland and places like Auschwitz.). There was some mostly subdued discussion, but the purpose was clear: the war is not going well; cooperate or else. It was all done very gentlemanly.

One thing that affected me personally came out of the discussion: they needed manpower so badly that they could hardly afford to include “Half Jews” with the “”Full Jews” -- much better to use them for slave labor than to transport them with the others They were unable to solve that part of the “Jewish question”, finally leaving it to be dealt with “after the war”. Meanwhile, they could use us to do some “productive work”. They were still programmed to call it “after the victory.” Whatever they called it, it was probably a decision that is one reason why I am alive today.”

Dismissal from Gymnasium (High School) and Private Lessons
“In the spring of 1943, I had just finished “Unterterz” (literally the lower one of two levels three of the Gymnasium curriculum), at age 14. My report card for that year was nothing to crow about, but the worst part was that it said that I “was leaving the school” effective March 31, 1943. That was because the Nazis had issued a directive that “half Jews” were no longer allowed any kind of higher education, including high school.”

“For what happened next, a few fortunate circumstances had to come together, completely unknown and unknowable to me: everybody, not only I, had to accept the very fact that this outrageous attempt to exclude a whole segment of the population from the intellectual development of the nation was for real. My parents had to decide on how to handle this change in realities in a way that would have the least detrimental affect. Once they had decided that private lessons in the key areas of my previous education would be best, they had to find teachers who (1) would be available and affordable, (2) would give me a better and more unbiased education than I could have gotten in school, and (3) would be allowed by the Party to give private lessons to Jewish-related people.

All of this came together, and fortunately my father was allowed to include my tuition fees as “family support,” and thus could use for me those parts of his funds he was still allowed to spend.”

1944 Days Remembered
Most people would accept life as it was because they didn’t know any different. Everybody was in the same boat: hungry and cold and with little hope for the future. One didn’t know about the thing called democracy, let alone that it even exited anywhere for real. There no comparison whatsoever, one even accepted propaganda, because it was not a dirty word, but an official government activity. Life became harder in small steps, food and everything else became more and more scarce, not all at once, but gradually from day to day. Air raids with death, people made homeless by losing their places where they lived, losing every scrap of what they owned, except what they wore on their back, all that was coming closer and closer, and more frequent. In areas where there had been no air raids (yet), houses were filled to capacity with newly homeless people from other cities, mainly from the north and west of Germany, and from Berlin. We, too, had friends and family people in our house, most only temporary. Living just became harder by the day, and one had to live hand-to-mouth by whatever means happened to open up at the time.” 

The year started with my mother becoming very seriously ill. For months, she had been complaining about “strange tastes” in her mouth, and numbness in her face. In spite of all kinds of tests, none of a variety of doctors could diagnose the cause. (Today they could!) She herself thought, as is clear from her letters, that it was all due to menopause, greatly aggravated by the tremendous pressures and worries about every-day life. Of course, it would have been much too risky to mention anything political in any letters -- they were routinely opened and read by Party censors. But she knew: if she would die, the fate of her husband and her family would be unpredictable at best. She, and her life alone, made their marriage “privileged.”

February Transport to Theresienstadt
“The following is probably the most ironic tale I know: on February 15, that is three weeks before the catastrophic air raid on Chemnitz, and two months before liberation, at a time of complete chaos and during the complete crumbling of society, the Nazis still organized a final transport of 57 remaining Jews from Chemnitz to the Concentration Camp in Theresinstadt. They were all from Mixed Marriages -- “privileged” and not -- and non-Jews who, for one reason or another, had the “standing” of Jews, (so-called “Geltungsjuden) -- but my father was not one of them. To this very day, I have not been able to find out why he, and presumably others, was not included. The only logical explanation I had came from Beate Mayer who wrote a book “ˆJüdische Mischlinge”; she said that “privileged Jews” who had minor children (Ulli and I) were rarely transported to camp, even at the very end. That possibility has not been confirrned yet.

Theresienstadt was liberated not long after by the Red Army, and the prisoners were set free. All of the 57 people, every one of then, survived, and nobody was sent to a camp other than the much less brutal Theresienstadt. If my father had been on that transport he would have survived the air raid on March 5.  (Carol’s note: instead, my grandfather Carl, was at home, here… My father found his body.)

(My dad’s childhood home, after…)

“After surviving a decade or more of Nazi oppressions, he died in the Allied air raid because he was NOT part of the greatest oppression of his life -- transport to a concentration camp.”

And now (after Dad “approves” this post), we are going to watch Conspiracy, a movie about the Wannsee Conference of 1942, which decided the fate of so most Jews in World War II Germany.  Dad is now focusing on his past with a fervor to recall such important events in history and to pass them on to his children and grandchildren.  Why?  Because “NEVER AGAIN” simply must have meaning forever, and if the full stories aren’t told by those who lived them, those words might lose some of their meaning as the years pass.  That simply cannot happen, and my father has decided to spend his later years making sure of it.

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