Nazis, Jews, Czechs in Sudetenland: a memoir.
"But, I thought," interrupted Alma--but she didn't get a chance to finish her sentence, for my mother went on. "This pot and the cups are kosher. Now I'll have to buy a new one."
"It looks just like a dirty stew pot, I thought ..." Alma responded, but was interrupted again. "You may believe you thought," mother said sarcastically, "but obviously thinking is beyond your capabilities. You can't even listen."
Hearing this, Alma, who had been working for us the past year, took off her apron and, red in the face with tears in her eyes, shouted, "I quit! Kosher," she growled under her breath as she went to the door, "kosher, whatever that means. This pot was a disgrace, all black inside."
My mother finished up the job Alma had left. Her hands were in the soapy dishwater. "Go, dry those dishes." I had never been permitted to do that. Up to that day, I had been declared to be too clumsy and therefore destructive. I didn't drop a thing this day.
"Why were you so angry at Alma?" I wanted to know.
"She thought that the black lining in the teapot was dirt. Stupid woman, she never heard of patina." I looked blank. "Patina is something like a coat of paint. In our teapot it is the stain the tea leaves make at the bottom and sides of it. That's what makes our tea so good. And also, since we never use this pot for anything but brewing tea, our Jewish friends can have tea in our house. It's against their religion to have tea made in a pot where there might have been soap with animal fat."
"Aha," I thought, and my six-year-old mind started to grind. "That's why Uncle Nikki never eats at our house as so many other people do. He only has tea and cookies."
I knew that in our town in Bohemia there were Jews. We had a big Jewish temple. But I had never gone inside. I felt curious about what went on in there, but my mother couldn't tell me, and my schoolmates whispered nonsense I didn't believe: they said the Jews killed little Christian children there to bake their bread at Easter. Before he married my mother, my father had studied Hebrew and even prepared himself to convert to Judaism, a plan he gave up for my mother. He could have told me all about the temple, but he was a traveling salesman, and when he was at home, I was always too happy playing with him to bother with serious questions. Today I was ready to ask, but my father was not expected until Saturday. My mother said that was in three days, and I knew I couldn't keep the thought in my head for so long a time.
I ate my lunch, the big meal of the day in Bohemia. At 2 P.M., school started again. I arrived with a throng of other pupils returning from lunch at home.
Herr Diehl, our teacher, always started class the same way. "If there is anything anybody wants to share, now's the time. After that, you must pay attention." I raised my hand. "Yes, Ruth, you have something to tell us?"
"Alma, who cleans our house, ruined our kosher teapot."
The other children looked at me questioningly as if they were asking, "So what?" Or, "What's kosher?"
Herr Diehl studied me as if he had never seen me before. "Ruth, please explain to us what you just said."
"Well, Alma is crazy. She scrubbed out the teapot. Now it's not kosher any more."
"What do you mean by kosher? I'm sure most of the children here do not know what this word means."
"My mother says our Jewish friends can drink our tea because there was never anything boiled in our pot but tea. That's all I know."
"Thank you, Ruth." With this, Herr Diehl, who was usually an excellent teacher, ignored a few raised hands and went on. "We were working on D's yesterday. Now today we'll practice how to write E's. With white chalk, a recent innovation, he wrote an E on the slate. Up, down. That's the beginning. Now, observe carefully." We all had our slates before us and scratched our E's on them. "For homework, finish both sides of your slates, writing lower case E's." The scratching went on for a while, until our fat old priest entered the classroom and started religious instruction.
We lived in the rural suburb of Komotau, a little industrial town at the foot of the Ore Mountains. There were still a few farms left, hay wagons were as common in the streets as horse drawn beer carts. Life was easy. There were lots of open spaces for us children to play in. On the west side of the creek that came down from the mountains a little church stood on a cliff. We never went there either. My mother was Catholic, like almost everyone in town, but although she was not a believer, she had never got around to having me excused from religious education, which she had intended and as the law allowed. Perhaps she was afraid of what people might say. In any case, I had to undergo all the rites of being a Catholic including First Confession, a dreadful ordeal for me. By then I had grown to be nine, and I was aware that there were at least two girls in my class who were Jewish, Hanni and Susie, both children of respected attorneys. Hanni told me she didn't have to go to confession, which I thought made her very lucky. In her religion things were different. I liked going to Hanni's house, especially around Easter when the maid served us matzo with tea.
"Hurry up and get ready," my mother said. "We're going downtown. Milli says the Konirsch-Jud has ready-to-wear ladies' dresses. I've got to see that. Who would want to wear a ready-made dress? I wouldn't be caught dead in one."
As we stood looking at the mannequin in a beautiful red summer dress, my mother nudged me. "The wife of the Weiss-Jud is in the store. I won't be surprised if she buys that awful dress." I was not at all taken aback by my mother adding Jud to the last names of some people. The custom in Bohemia was to speak the last name first and then add the first. For instance, I was the Hanka Ruth. My friend Hanni was the Weil Hanni, and her father might be referred to as the Weil Jud. I guess I had always assumed that Jud was a kind of first name. But I knew my father never used this expression. To him the Konirsch-Jud was Herr Konirsch. I started realizing that my mother and my father had different attitudes on some things. And I also began to notice that she no longer spoke of Ernst Beck, Abe Weiss, Nicki, or any of the other Jews who came to our house as her friends. Now they had become "your father's Jewish friends."
My life was full of school friends and school activities. When most of my friends joined the German Sports Club, I became a member too. It seemed important to belong. Practically every child in my class did. I invited Hanni and Susie to come with me, but they declined.
My father was unhappy with me: "These people in the club are narrow-minded idiots; they sow hatred."
"Everyone in her class belongs," my mother said. "You want her to feel left out?"
I didn't want to leave the German Sports Club, even though we had begun to sing songs about how all the Jews had to be kicked out of our fatherland and have their legs cut off to keep them from returning. This struck me as nonsense. What would the town do without our beloved and best pediatrician, Dr. Salomon; or without Frau Doktor Pokorny and all the lawyers and engineers and the people who ran the world-famous Mannesmann and Poldihuette? My father said, "These stupid German Nationalists want to remove most of our brainpower surgically.: But my mother said, "We Germans can replace them easily. You with your Jewish and Czech friends."
Relations between the German minority and the Czech rulers had been deteriorating since Tomas Masarik, the first president of the Czech Socialist Republic, had died. Eduard Benesch, his successor, seemed to have little tact and, according to my mother, to know even less about diplomacy. He passed an edict that forced all Germans working for the government to send their children to Czech schools. The spanking new Czech school in our town was beautiful, but quite empty because there were relatively few Czech children in the area. Benesch wanted to fill it and others all over the territory with Germans who would become good Czech citizens. The German population didn't like this move, and they showed it by wearing national costumes, like lederhosen and dirndls. The Czechs hit back with new orders. So the Germans became more obstinate. Finally, people of both nationalities, who had once been friends, resented one another bitterly. What had started out as a little rift had become a chasm so deep and so wide, people on opposite sides could not hear each other's voices anymore.
The first of May was a holiday for working men. My father had always gone along in the parade of the Social Democrats. He wore a red carnation on his lapel. I loved walking along with him. But in 1938, he did not want me with him in the parade or to march with my mother and her group of German Nationalists, either. They had a fight about it, but my father insisted that I stay home. He expected outbreaks of violence between the red carnations and the oak leaves. He thought there might even be a melee--especially if the Communists and the Czech parties joined in. And as it turned out he was right. When he came home there was a bandage on his head.
Some of our Czech friends started to leave town. There were no good-byes. One day we would see them in the street; the next they were gone. And some of the Jewish population also left in a hurry. Even I knew why. Hitler was getting ready to take over our part of Czechoslovakia. He called it the Sudetenland.
Some Germans started to spit at Czech soldiers who had orders not to defend themselves. "You must really feel like a national hero," my father said to one of these Germans and paid for it with a bloody nose.
In September 1938, things became worse and Benesch felt he had to impose martial law. Groups of people, mostly teenagers, tried to provoke the Czech soldiers. It looked like they wanted to be shot at. School started in the beginning of September, but there was very little teaching or learning going on. Restlessness had taken over. Hanni and Susie were still in school, but only a few of us spoke to them. My schoolmates called me "Judenfreundin": Jew lover.
On October 1, 1938, German troops moved in. The soldiers said they were liberators, but they acted more like they had conquered us along with the Czechs. We seemed to have become a colony to be robbed of all the material goods that Germany had been short of for such a long time This made my mother begin to rethink her position.
Soon we saw the first Jewish families being evicted from their homes. In school, we were told that they were being sent to a camp where they could live together with each other. They would feel better with their own kind. By then, I was twelve and I could reason. These people had never shown that they were ill at ease living with us before. Why should they suddenly feel that way? When trucks filled with the Jewish families left town, even some of the more decent people turned their faces away. If you didn't see it, it was not happening.
One of the instigators of the trouble between the Czechs and the Germans, the father of one of my schoolmates, marched his family up Beethovenstrasse. He looked very impressive in his brand new SS uniform. He entered the house of a prominent Jewish banker's family and in no time the whole family walked out of the house, carrying small bags. My schoolmate's family walked into the house even as the Jews were being chased out. The next day in school Evi told us all about her elegant new home, beautifully furnished and complete with heavy silverware, crystal, and fine china. Her father had told her it was a place befitting the family of an important SS officer. The story of a curse the old Jewish grandmother had put on the tall, blonde family was soon forgotten, but everyone remembered it when it became apparent that the SS family was being plagued by ill luck afterwards, and especially when the father died of what people said was syphilis.
There were other cases like this all over town. A Jewish-owned department store at the marketplace was taken over by two ne'er-do-well Nazis. Frau Stefan used to peddle cloth, buttons, lace, and twine that she carried in a big basket on her back. The Stefans moved into an elegant home and took possession of the biggest store in town. They had suddenly been elevated to the rich ruling class in town. This made even my mother ill-at-ease.
Facing the big park, the English Garden, stood the best houses. Schillerstrasse meant money. When I went to school, I had to go past the villa of a Jewish family who had a son who lived in an iron lung. He had a big mirror set up so he could see outside from his bed. I used to wave to him every day until he disappeared one night. The next morning, the villa had become the offices of the Hitler Youth.
Weil Hanni and Gruber Susie disappeared one day. So did my father's friend Ernst Beck with all his family. Herr Weiss, who had lost an eye in WWI, was permitted to stay with his family, but he lost his job and his daughter had to leave school. Dr. Pokorny whose wife, also a doctor, was Jewish, had his marriage annulled and turned his back on his wife and two children.
School began to be school again even though all my Jewish classmates and their families were gone by this time. What was new was that every week we were handed a small newspaper called Der Stuermer--The Stormer. It was devoted to teaching us how hateful Jews were. The pages were filled with drawings of horrible, lewd-looking monsters with black beards that could not hide their lascivious, swollen lips. Their huge noses and weirdly big ears did not make them look at all like the Jews that had disappeared from our lives. We were taught that these drawings showed what Jews looked like on the inside. I couldn't believe it, but by that time, a few weeks after the Germans had "liberated" us, I already knew that it was dangerous to voice opinions contrary to the government's. Most of the students read the paper avidly, for there were many stories and pictures of Jews that bordered on pornography, all couched in warnings like: "See what these Jews do, how they .... But we, the proud German people, do not do this."
Winter days in Bohemia are dark. Sunrise is late and sunset is about four P.M. I was used to going home from gym class in the dark. When the air smelled of smoke I loved it for it meant that the tile stoves were burning in every house, and it would soon be time to bring my skis out of storage. Then one afternoon in November the air smelled much more heavily of smoke, and there were noises from down the road, as if a celebration were going on. Even from quite far away we could see a fire. The flames were leaping high, and in front of it I could see jumping silhouettes. My friends and I were not sure that we should go there, for it looked dangerous. "The police will certainly be there," someone said reassuringly, and so we permitted our curiosity to take over. We ran down the hill until we came to the bonfire. It was outside the Jewish temple.
People were rushing into the building while others rushed out with big silver candelabras. Those carrying valuable things quickly disappeared into the night, but others came out with books and furniture and threw them into the wildly leaping flames. Every throw was accompanied by cries of jubilation from the bystanders. I did not join them in the shouting, but I did want to go inside and satisfy my old curiosity.
People were pushing and shoving. Bodies rubbed one another in a kind of orgy. More and more books and benches were thrown onto the fire. The heat was hellish. Now these people were an amorphous mass with a common purpose. I'm sure I was about to become one of them but a strong hand yanked me hard by the collar of my coat and pulled me out. It was my father. "Come along," he whispered in my ear. "This is catching."
He took me into the city park and we walked among the ancient trees. There was a light coating of snow. We talked about tolerance, about how he believed that all people are brothers, and that religion, race, and nationality are not what makes a man. First of all, he told me, I should try to be a human being. What was happening around us was evil, and if it came to fruition, there would be endless horror. I was old enough to understand, but I felt dissatisfied when he could not tell me how to fight against it. "Right now," he said, "we have to scheme just to stay alive."
We walked home through back streets and so did not witness what the people did to the few Jews who still lived in town. The following morning, the paper bragged about "the people's healthy instinct fighting the organized Jewry in a spontaneous upheaval against them." The man who lived upstairs in our house, a brave SA man, bragged that he had been one of the planners of this "spontaneous expression."
A few weeks later, Hitler's Blitzkrieg rolled into Poland, and newsreels told us how successfully our valiant troops were able to "flush out the Polish Jews from their homes." And how brave Polish nationalists "stood by to help us in this noble quest." Some of us tried to avert our faces when we saw these huddled figures being pulled from their hiding places. We tried not to look when they were beaten and kicked. We told ourselves that all that would happen to them was that they would get to live in a camp with "their own kind," happily playing Wagner or Beethoven. And then we forgot the scenes entirely while we watched two hours of entertainment, laced with propaganda.
I had to be careful about what I said to my friends. Anyone could send me or at least my parents to prison. My father listened secretly to the BBC, where he heard about labor camps where Jews were treated cruelly. The word Konzentrationlager was used. I had to be careful not to repeat what he told me. The Gestapo became more and more visible. There were no Jews anymore, but there were still people dragged from their beds and taken away. Later they seemed always to have died of pneumonia while they were being innocently detained. One day when my father came home from a trip to Prague, he was crying. His best friend, a man who had often eaten in our house, had been arrested and shot, for telling an anti-Nazi joke. My mother stood by horrified. She could not believe, she said, that such a thing was possible. Now we were all three afraid.
One evening in the Spring of 1942, I opened the door, and there stood a man in an SS uniform. My knees buckled. They were coming for us. "Well, aren't you going to let me in?" he asked. I knew that voice and sighed with relief. It was Adi, one of my father's old friends. When my parents saw the black uniform, they blanched just as I had done, and they didn't breathe until he said, "Gustav, it's me, Adi. Don't you recognize me?" My father managed a smile and tried to be as hospitable as he could with somebody wearing that hated uniform. Adi took off his jacket and cap and sat at our table. My mother and I went to the kitchen to get him something to eat.--When we returned to the living room, the two men were talking quietly. "Ruth, please, leave us alone," my father said. "We need to have some conversation." I hated being kicked out. Four or five hours later, Adi left. My father sat shaking his head. "It can't be true, it mustn't be true,"--he muttered.
"What?" I asked.
"You must never tell anyone what I tell you now. It is horrible. But Adi tells me it is true. He is a guard at a concentration camp. He brings sick and starving men to work in a stone quarry. When any one of them breaks down, he has orders to shoot them. He can't get himself to do that, but he is sure the camp leaders are on to him and that if he stays, he might end up as one of the inmates. He plans to escape to Switzerland." And then he told me about the beatings of the inmates, about their being used by doctors for dangerous experiments. Silently I prayed that none of our friends had to go through this ordeal. But what about the others? When they told me in school the next day to be proud of my German heritage. I had trouble holding back the tears.
In September 1942, I was transferred with six of my classmates to an all girls school in a neighboring town. Three girls there turned out to be anti-Nazi. It was not obvious, they had to be as afraid to talk as I was, but somehow, I came to be a member of their little group. We could not start an open rebellion, but Grete, Erika, Rotraud, and I decided we would not come to school in our uniforms on state holidays. We told the teachers we had outgrown them, and we were proud to think of the double meaning in the words. Grete, who had a truly beautiful voice, assumed command of the music classes, easily cowing the weak old man who was the teacher. She taught all of us to sing selections from Carmen. Everybody sang, even good Nazis, unaware that Bizet was Jewish. When the teacher insisted on native songs, Grete decided it had to be "Lorelei," a song Hitler had declared had been written by somebody anonymous. Very few knew it had been written by another Jew. Of course our little rebellions went unnoticed, but we didn't know how to stage anything more dramatic. Probably we wouldn't have dared. Nevertheless we kept on being slightly obstinate. Not too much, or they would have kicked us out of school and ruined our futures. We were young and still focusing on our own survival.
The killing went on. We knew good people were dying. Christmas 1944, the joke going around was "be practical, give a coffin." We laughed, hollow laughs. Our house had been bombed, but was still habitable. Boarded-up windows were not unusual in our neighborhood. We heard the bombardment of Dresden from over the mountain and saw the fire light the northeastern sky red. German refugees hurried down our street, carrying their belongings on their backs. They stopped only for seconds to have a cup of water. No time. Needed to run. Didn't know where, but they were driven westward as if by pure instinct. The Russians were in the east. We would probably have joined, but my father had been drafted into the army, and we didn't know how we would ever meet him again if we left home. The trek of people up our street did not end. It went on day and night.
One April, as I sat reading a book, my mother rushed into the kitchen, emptied the contents of the breadbox into her apron, and ran out the front door. Food of any kind was scarce, and I worried selfishly where she was carrying our bread. I ran after her. By the time I caught up, she was standing at the curb holding bread out to people who passed by. They were very much worse off than the refugees from Dresden, and they were being herded in the other direction, southeast rather than west. There were SS men everywhere. These people, I suddenly realized, these people, these horrible starved skeletons in battered rags were ... I couldn't finish my thought. I couldn't think at all. My mother held out the bread to these skeletons. The road was filled with them as far as I could see. One measly apron full of bread, I thought Jesus might have been able to feed them all from one apron of bread.
My mother tried to feed one, but an SS man aimed his pistol at her. "Stop that." She didn't want to. I heard him cock the pistol and saw him pull her from the curb. I suppose I was only a young girl thinking dramatically, but I remember clearly asking myself why staying alive was so important? Why didn't I just join the death march? Why couldn't I declare that I was one of these pitiful people, a fellow human being? I stood and I cried, ashamed both of myself and my people. I hated myself and all the others. Meanwhile, these poor skeletons were passing by, stumbling along until one fell and the same SS man who had threatened my mother shot him in the head. The others had to walk around the corpse. And then I heard still another shot.
Where were all of us people living in this neighborhood? Locked up in their houses and maybe peering through a torn lace curtain or through a chink in the boards nailed over their windows? Maybe they were thinking, "We are still better off."
"Go into your house," shouted another SS man at my mother and me. Shamefully we did.
RUTH EIGNER was born in Czechoslovakia. After Hitler invaded in 1938, she spent two years at slave labor, after which she fled to Germany where she eventually went to university at Nuremburg. Ruth moved to America in 1957 and became a math teacher. She now lives in San Diego and is working on her third book. She is a member of the Children of the Holocaust.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
|Previous Article:||Kaddish for the Warsaw Jewish cemetery.|
|Next Article:||Both the dove and the serpent: Hadassah's work in 1920s Palestine (1).|