The House on Kronenstrasse

Her mother's last words led to a place Christiane had fled as a child—and where truth lay concealed

The rest I've pieced together using intuition and the few bare facts at my disposal. We fled Heidelberg after my father's death, when my mother was no longer able to find work to support us. I don't know what happened to the house in my memory, or to the wealth that must have gone along with it. My mother never wanted to talk about the past. At some point I stopped asking. I do know that we ended up retreating to Bad Gandersheim, in the Harz Mountains, where we stayed with a distant cousin.

I don't know how my mother secured passage to America after the war ended—only that we arrived in New York Harbor with refugee status. We had no relatives in New York or anywhere else in the United States, at least none that I ever heard of or met.

I know that my mother was grateful to be on American soil, and that this gratitude did not waver. She never complained that she was reduced in our new land to working as a maid. She took on her work with commitment and dignity. A good livelihood was cause for thanks, she said. She was proud to be on staff at the Plaza, such an old and respected hotel.

I know why I cherish the memory of playing in the fountain. I also know why it pains me still. Within that moment is a fullness of feeling I don't otherwise have in my life.

I give my mother a simple funeral. She had few friends. Eight people attend, including the priest and me—four retired fellow workers from the Plaza and two of my mother's elderly neighbors.

A week later I pack a small suitcase, take two of the many vacation weeks I have accrued, and buy a ticket to Frankfurt, with a train link to Heidelberg.

I have never been back to the country of my birth.

I do not think of myself as German, though neither do I think of myself as American.

From the train station in Heidelberg I take a taxi directly to my hotel, a small pension around the corner from the grand old Hotel Zum Ritter. I deposit my suitcase and walk for two hours or more, surprised by the magnificence of the city. I don't know what I expected, but I know it was other than what I have found. I walk along the river, past the Old Bridge, with its impressive stone arches and stern guard tower, and beyond the last of the bridges, where the river curves and the city opens out into the expansive greenery of its parks. On the way back I pause by Karl's Gate and stand for a moment, looking up at the huge arch, a visual echo of Germany's historical military passion. I take Haupstrasse past the castle and then wend my way back toward the town hall.

My mother and I spoke German to each other until I was a teenager, when, like many children of immigrants, I started refusing to speak anything but English. Now, though, in the first little transactions I make—talking to a taxi driver, and to a waiter in a café—my German comes back in fits and starts. It's like trying to get an irascible old workhorse back into action—brutish and reluctant, but in the end obliging and strong.

I consult the map I bought at the airport and locate the government building where housing records are kept. On my way there I stop at a small café and drink an espresso at the bar.

Tracking down the owner of the house is remarkably easy: one Herr Eduard Sturmer. The city registry is orderly and efficient, true to German stereotype.

I call from a public telephone on the street outside the housing office. The phone is answered by a man who sounds about my age and who informs me that Herr Sturmer, his father, died a little more than a week ago.

"I'm terribly sorry," I say, aware of my American accent and also of the uncanny coincidence. A little over two weeks ago my own mother breathed her last.

"I'm so sorry," I repeat.

"We had the funeral only yesterday. We wanted to wait for my sister to fly in from New York."

A sister in New York. I can hear the pounding of my heart in my ears.

Only now does the man on the line think to ask why I am calling. I know all too well the strange overturning of etiquette that comes with new grief. I recall how, after my mother was packed away in the slightly shabby and oddly inappropriate blue van en route to the funeral parlor, I went into the kitchen, washed the few dishes I'd left in the sink—which included a glass from which my mother had, earlier in the day, taken her last sips of water—and then turned off the lights, locked the apartment, and went back out into the world. I found myself entering the corner deli where my mother had bought liverwurst and ham for more than forty years. Around me the day was alive with people going about their Saturday-morning business. How could they all be so calm? I thought. I wanted to shout out to the deli owner, "Don't you realize what has happened? My mother has died! Nothing will ever be the same!"

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