'Invent Radium or I'll Pull Your Hair'

Set in the Germany of the Great War and the years after, this is the story of how young Doris Schmitz fought for independence from her Prussian mother, got an education, and fell in love with an eloquent young Austrian named Peter Drucker

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

LIKE every young child, I spent the first two or three years of my life outside time. There was no present, because every present is defined by a past and a future. Life was a number of still photographs, of events not subject to the dimensions of time. Space was real; I touched the door, the boundaries of a room, and the things that were in it -- things that stood still, and things that moved. "Quick," my mother called, "the Zeppelin." A large silvery object floated through the air, way up, higher than all the houses. The people in the street cried, "Look at the people in the sky waving to us from the Zeppelin!" "I saw the Zeppelin," I told Old Anna, who was my nursemaid.
"So you did," she said. "What did it look like to you?"

"It was a big bird," I said. "Bigger than the swans that flew away with the little girl in the fairy tale."

I saw an automobile. Automobiles had been invented years before but were still enough of a rarity to attract onlookers in villages like the one where we vacationed the summer before the First World War. "Look at the automobile!" my mother exclaimed. "It moves by itself." Actually, it didn't move at all. It sat in the middle of the town square. Two men in strange clothes ran around what looked like a cart and tried to take it apart -- or at least they tore off a lot of pieces and then put them back on. We watched them run around for a while. I wondered why it took so long for the horses to be fed and watered. Eventually a man came with some horses, and they pulled the "cart" away. I knew it all along -- you needed horses to get any cart to move.

The author at sevenThe author at seven

The Zeppelin and the automobile appeared and disappeared in my hazy world. Sometimes the clouds would lift, and through undefined openings I would slide into another universe.

I was in a large building with an immensely high ceiling. There was a peculiar musty smell. Old Anna knelt down next to me. Then she got up and went away, and when she returned she had folded her hands across her stomach. Years later they told me that Anna, who was supposed to take me for a daily "airing," always stopped for mass in the cathedral. And what I remember as a singular event is probably a composite of many such visits.

The clouds opened up once again when I saw my mother and many other people running up and down a short steep hill that led from our house into the woods. While they were running they shouted "Mobilization!" and many more people came out of their houses and joined in. They all kept running up and down that hill. I was bewildered: I had never seen grown people run.

And then we were in a large room with a table set for a meal. Many people were bustling around, pushing chairs and creating a lot of unrest. An old man with a beard came in and sat down, and then everybody else sat down too. My mother and the other people ate in silence. I kept looking at all the strangers around the table. My baby sister, in a high chair, was banging a spoon against a plate. Suddenly the old man, who was my grandfather, fixed his gaze on me and addressed me in a threatening voice: "Why are you staring at me like that with your big saucer eyes?" I didn't know what I had done to make him so angry, and I began to cry loudly. My grandfather threw his napkin down and jumped out of his seat. "I can't stand that noise -- are we going to have that every day while they are here?" My mother and her sisters quickly whisked us children away, and we never ate with the family again until we were ten years old or so, except three or four times a year, on festive occasions.

My grandfather's outburst happened on the day of our arrival at his home in Mainz for "the duration" -- after my father had been called up for the army.

Before that my parents and my baby sister and I lived in Cologne, which was my father's home town and where he was in business. After her arranged marriage, at age twenty, to a man for whom she didn't care in the least, my mother was determined to dislike everything about Cologne. And when my father, and his income, disappeared at the outbreak of the war, she closed up the household and moved with us children back to her parents' home -- supposedly for only a few months, till our "heroic boys" had beaten the French and the British and the Belgians and the Russians. Nobody could have foreseen that our visit would stretch into a four-year stay, lasting until the First World War ended with the decisive defeat of Germany.

Worse for me than the banishment to the Katzentisch (literally, "cats' table," meaning a low table in a corner where little children ate by themselves) was the traumatic ejection out of my shell, where things happened in no particular sequence. Suddenly there was time, cause, and consequence. In self-defense I constructed a timeless world inside me that I did not have to share with anybody. My family and the servants and the few other people I knew all fitted in, and so did the streetcars, the Rhine River, and the flocks of birds that flew around the church steeples. All that had a real and figurative existence inside me. What or whom I did not like was left standing outside and disconnected. The only problem was how to get the war into my inner space -- the soldiers and the horses and, above all, the huge cannons. They did belong, of course: the war was our natural environment, in which everything took place. At night I fell asleep trying to solve this problem.

"Lieb Vaterland"

THE war was everyplace, all over the world. War was part of the universe, a permanent configuration that sometimes moved from one country to another. We did not know that when the war settled in anywhere, it devastated the country and smashed everything to pieces -- trees and houses and people, everything. How could we have known? Mainz, so close to the French border, had been invaded many times by the French during the past centuries, but the shot-up buildings had been repaired, and the only remnants of the Napoleonic Wars were the many French words sprinkled throughout the local language. Germany, the aggressor, had carried the First World War into France and Belgium, shot up buildings and ferociously torn up the landscape at an unspeakable cost in lives. But for now our houses were standing, the railways were running, and children played in the streets. We sang, "Lieb Vaterland, magst ruhig sein, fest steht und treu die Wacht am Rhein." The enemy would be held at bay. Sometimes the sounds and sights of war came closer; for us children they were nonthreatening and even interesting diversions. Outside town we lay on the ground and listened to the booming cannons shooting off round after round on the Western Front.

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