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A U G U S T 1 9 9 8
LTHOUGH I recall the day the war broke out, I was too young to recognize what it meant. Four years older when it ended, I was deeply affected by the visible signs of the army's defeat -- so much so that they stayed with me as the most dramatic experience in my life.
It started with footsteps in the street. One evening, when we were already in bed, we heard them -- listless, shuffling -- on the cobblestones. They kept on and on till we fell asleep; and when we woke up the next morning, people were still walking. The war was over; the Mainz bridge across the Rhine was one of the main return routes for the army that had been defeated in France and Belgium. "Like Napoleon's army retreating from Moscow," my grandfather said, and he pulled out a picture showing frozen bodies in the Russian wasteland. "And the officers fled in comfort and let the poor guys die," he added, "just like now." Indeed, the officers had commandeered cars and horses and trains and had run back home ahead of the common soldiers, the cannon fodder, who had to slog their way through the cold and rainy November in their dilapidated uniforms and worn footwear. Some years ago I read that the army came back in good order while bands played marching songs. But I don't remember hearing any music -- just the monotonous parade of those sad wretches walking along day and night. Don't they ever sleep? we asked. Perhaps in empty barns or in wet fields outside town -- no one knew. The wounded who were not able to walk lay in rough wooden carts pulled by skeletonlike horses. Their blood-stained bandages were filthy; many were without arms or legs; others had only huge bandaged lumps where their heads should have been. It was a horrible sight. How those poor men must have suffered on that wearying ride! Along the main street the Red Cross handed out coffee, wine, and soup. The soldiers took the mugs and drank as they walked on; we children had to run alongside and bring the empty mugs back. My mother, who had saved a small bottle of brandy from I don't know when, stood with us in the street and watched the rows upon rows of exhausted men pass by. "Here is somebody who can use it," she called out all of a sudden, and threw the bottle into one of the open carts. A heavily bandaged soldier caught it, held his hand up for a moment as a kind of salute, and smiled. I will never forget that.
The end of the war, of course, did not end the suffering. What did those soldiers go back to? How far would they have to walk beyond Mainz? Perhaps through the whole length and breadth of Germany. How could the nation be held to account for the wasted lives, for the wasted years of the survivors?
I don't know whether the Kaiser was chased away before or after the soldiers came home, but I do remember that my mother took me to the cathedral square when his abdication was announced. The people shouted with joy to be rid of their calamitous ruler, and even more deliriously when the hated crown prince's abdication was proclaimed immediately after. The Kaiser had by then fled ignominiously into exile in Holland, where he spent the rest of his life, so it was said, sawing wood.
The day after the last of the German troops had passed through, the victors arrived. What a splendid sight they were! We stood by the window and gazed at the Spahis, African troops who were part of the French army. They were well-nourished and handsome horsemen who manipulated their bright-red capes like matadors while riding around on beautiful black horses. I don't know what the grown-ups thought; for us it was a fantastic spectacle. We were even more impressed when some of the French soldiers actually appeared at our door. We didn't know, of course, that they came to commandeer our rooms. A man from the mayor's office explained, "I am sorry, Herr Lahnstein, but we have to requisition space in your apartment for the occupiers." There was nothing to be done -- the French were to be lodged in the best residences all over town. They took all the rooms facing onto the street and left us to arrange ourselves in back as best we could. When they first moved in, they tried to be friendly -- "Hey, kids, want some bread?" -- and held out chunks of a snow-white bread we had never seen before, let alone tasted. "We do not eat the enemy's bread," my mother said, and snatched us away.
Y father finally found a good job as a sales manager in Frankfurt, and my mother was "surprised by the stork" at the hospital. So now we had a brand-new baby brother -- and a mother who had become extraordinarily relaxed. My sister and I agreed that this drastic change was a real miracle. When we had been hospitalized for scarlet fever, a year or so earlier, we had become so fond of the sisters and their loving care that we prayed for one of the nuns to become our mother -- or, if that was not possible, for our mother to become a kindhearted nun. It seemed that our mother's visit to the hospital really had worked wonders. She said that she had not expected to have a third child, and she kept referring to the baby as "my little mistake"; nevertheless, her maternal love, which had been suppressed for so long by her insecurity (and the compensatory need to present herself as a domineering authority), emerged from wherever she had kept it hidden and enveloped not only the baby but us older children as well. We were not used to verbal expressions of affection and basked happily in the good feeling.
My grandmother was at the time in a nursing home about an hour away from Königstein. On our weekly visits to her bedside we had to walk through the woods on a trail on which ants had established a major crossroad for the colony. Thousands and thousands of them ran back and forth between a tall anthill on one side and whatever they were doing on the other. The moment one put a foot down into that busy swarm, dozens of ants started to crawl up one's shoes, socks, bare legs, and beyond. "I hate ants," I said. "I don't want to step across." "Come on," my mother said; she picked me up and set me down on the other side of the crawlers. I was so relieved, I fell on her neck. "Thank you, thank you." "That was easy, wasn't it?" she said. "I hope I can always carry you that easily over whatever difficulties will be in your future path." I shall always remember that unique testimony of tenderness. My mother did not allow herself to be so affectionate again face-to-face until she was in her seventies.
We had been so used to living in a fatherless household that we did not know what to expect should our father assume the role of a breadwinning head of the family. But that was not going to happen in the immediate future. Königstein was in the occupied zone, and Frankfurt, where his job was, was not. Both the French and the Germans made it as difficult as possible to cross from one zone to the other. There was endless harassment at the checkpoints -- permits issued yesterday were declared invalid today. Sometimes the border was closed altogether for an indeterminate period. In his new job my father could not risk being stuck in the occupied zone, so he had to live in Frankfurt in a rented room. Some Sundays we got together at a stretch of the border that ran along a ditch in the woods. He, arriving from Frankfurt, sat down on one side of the ditch; we, coming from Königstein, sat on the other. We passed food back and forth, careful to keep a distance between us when the mounted border patrol came along. They searched through our picnic baskets, inspected our papers, and advised us to "break it up"; the next troop, they warned, might not take as benevolent an attitude toward our illicit meeting.
This was one of the more harmless political adventures during the years when the fabric of the German postwar government was fraying all over.
HE Peace of Versailles, which signified Germany's defeat, created an enormous amount of frustration and anger throughout the nation. A large number of rabble-rousers attempted to overthrow the Weimar government, the successor to the Kaiser's Reich. We children realized that Germany was in desperate straits when the unstable political conditions created rampant inflation. The mark continually lost value. In July of 1920 one dollar was worth forty marks. Two years later it was worth ten times as much. By July of 1923 the exchange rate had become 353,000 marks to the dollar, and from then on the depreciation ran wild. The mint could hardly keep up, printing bills of larger and larger denominations that were worthless the day after they were put into circulation. Million-mark bills were pieces of white paper printed on one side only. A week after they had been issued, we were using them as scribble paper in school -- it was cheaper than buying note pads at the stationery store. My mother went to Frankfurt the morning of the day when my father's pay was due, so that she could run quickly to a store and convert it into goods: socks, flour, soap -- whatever was available; a few hours later the pay would have lost three quarters of its morning value. During that overheated inflation German money stopped being a means of exchange: prices were quoted in dollars. A farmer who delivered a year's supply of potatoes for our root cellar demanded a fortune -- one whole dollar for the wagonload. If we did not have foreign currency, vendors of goods and services asked for tangibles. A piano lesson might be worth a quarter pound of butter. But the farmers whose cows produced the butter did not want piano lessons -- they wanted the pianos, even though they did not know how to play them. Steinway grand pianos were the biggest status symbols. Some country people were said to have not just one but two Steinways, back to back, in their poor cottages. Meanwhile, everything the middle class had owned went down the drain. Uncle Albert was in despair; he flailed helplessly against the monster that was devouring his retirement funds. "When the mark sinks to two billions against the dollar, it will be taps for Germany," he proclaimed. Events proved him right. When the mark finally stabilized, he had lost everything he owned and had to go back to work at age sixty-five. Nearly everybody we knew was traumatized as well as impoverished by the catastrophic inflation.
The inflation, in turn, engendered more bitterness and unrest, especially in the Rhineland, where the French, for their own political reasons, supported a rowdy group of "separatists" -- so named because they agitated for a buffer zone between France and Germany, to be carved out from what was unquestionably German territory. Not unreasonably, the German majority opposed the idea, but having no guns to defend themselves, they were at a disadvantage. One morning we children were alone in the house with Kaethchen, the maid, my mother having gone to Frankfurt the previous day and stayed overnight. The telephone rang; the father of one of our school friends informed Kaethchen that the separatists had occupied Königstein during the night. There would be no school that day, and she must keep us inside the house. Sure enough, almost immediately after Kaethchen hung up, the shooting started. The sounds of breaking glass and of objects being thrown down from roofs made us scurry for safety under the heavy dining table. There we felt quite safe; in fact, we shivered pleasurably to witness so exciting an event. I don't remember how long the separatists hung around -- perhaps a couple of days. When it was over, we went to look at the damage. Among other things, the vandals had smashed the entire fine china service of the Grand Duchess of Luxemburg, which was stored in the city hall when she was not in residence in her Königstein summer house.
VENTUALLY the border between the occupied and unoccupied zones was suspended, and my father came to live with us in Königstein. But his physical presence went almost unnoticed. He grumbled day in and day out about the hardship of his job or about the actually very moderate amount of money our mother spent. He taught us bicycle riding, but he never got on a bike to ride along. He never went swimming, let alone ice skating or motorcycling, like my uncles. He never read to us. The Lahnsteins looked down on him and compared him unfavorably with their other sons-in-law. He knew that my mother was not interested in him -- she made no bones about it. "If I didn't have to drag him around with me, I would ... " Not being wanted, he withdrew. He got up early in the morning, made himself a pot of tea, walked the mile and a half to the railway station, and went to his office in Frankfurt. After hours he repaired to a tavern, where he sat, always at the same table, in the grunting companionship of business associates till it was time to go home. He ate supper with us, sighed, and plopped down in an easy chair, where he sat silent and half asleep till bedtime. He and my mother fought incessantly about everything and nothing; after a particularly acrimonious fight he would disappear for weeks. Only under duress would he go with us to a play or a family festivity. What he wanted was to be left alone to work on his stamp collection or to write up inventories for his business. He was somebody to be pitied, not a father one would look up to.
He was full of superstitions. Two things that scared him beyond reason were thunderstorms and the white slave trade, though not concurrently. At the first sign of a thunderstorm he made us move away from windows and forbade us to touch anything made of metal. He himself sat cowering till the storm had passed.
Though I was told several years later that my father's fear of the white slave trade was justified, in Königstein in the 1920s we simply did not believe there was such a thing. He kept telling us that an international conspiracy lured young girls into houses of joy. "You don't know what's going on out in the world," he said when we ridiculed his idea. "I hear true stories; I know." "You would know," my mother scoffed. "You are the one who frequents houses of joy; admit it." What was wrong with houses of joy? Why didn't he want us to be joyful too? We didn't know that "house of joy" was a euphemism for a brothel, but we didn't know what a brothel was either. He kept on, telling a "true" story: how a young girl attending a theater performance with a companion had been spirited away when the latter went to the restroom during intermission. People in the next row later recalled that a man had come up and invited the girl to join him for refreshments in the lobby. When her friend returned, the girl had vanished, and nobody ever saw her again. "She's probably in a brothel in Constantinople," my father concluded, "and that's where you will end up if you don't watch out."
Years later, when I was at the university, he fumed when I told him about vacation jobs I planned to apply for. "You are not going to Finland as a tutor -- that's where the white slave trade has its headquarters." "You are not going to take a temporary job as secretary in Switzerland -- with all those borders it is so easy to whisk an innocent girl into Italy or France or Austria." "You are not going to Iceland to help with the haying ... " Probably he envisioned a white slave trader lurking among the geysers. My mother could have supported me in my plans by simply disregarding his objections to anything that was not totally conventional. But somehow she was afraid that she would be held responsible -- by my father and everybody else -- if I came to grief.
HE local school in Königstein went only to the eighth grade. Most of my classmates entered the working world right after graduation. At age fourteen or so childhood was over and adulthood began. The transition was immediate and sharp. Some of my friends were sent to boarding schools; others, like me, were enrolled as day students at the local convent school. My mother was apparently determined to keep me under her wing as long as possible, even at the cost of mediocre schooling. The sisters meant well, and they were in general far more interested in us girls than the teachers at our old school had been. I admired their singleness of heart, their unquestioning devotion, and their efforts to teach us what they thought we ought to know.
The ninth grade was the uppermost grade in that school, and the parents of the boarding students expected their daughters to acquire in that year the polish that would serve them well in their future lives as wives of solid, prosperous husbands. An inordinate amount of time was spent on perfecting this image: sewing, and embroidering doilies to be put on top of yet more doilies for the overstuffed furniture they envisaged in their future homes. After Christmas vacation one of the students brought back a hanging, to be worked in needlepoint, that had a design of little cherubs floating around with garlands in their chubby hands. The piece vanished after class; when it reappeared, the sewing-class sister had redesigned it so that the little cherubs were now in robes. "You would not want to have unclad figures in your house," she told the startled girl. Physical education and health were taken seriously. One sister took us on long walks; when some girls complained, she told them that one day they would remember her with gratitude, because she had helped them to develop healthy bodies, "so that you don't become sickly women and a burden to your husbands." Two sisters even took us to a swimming pool and made us get into the ice-cold water. The pool was below a tall rocky hill. The local louts used to climb to the top and ogle the girls during ladies' hours. To forestall such impropriety, one sister ascended the hill and sat on top with a large club in her hand to keep voyeurs away, while the other sister watched over us from the side of the pool. Not that any Peeping Toms could have seen much -- our bathing suits had sleeves to the elbows and knickers to the knees. The boarding students told us that in the convent they were not even allowed to look at their own bodies. For the Saturday-night bath the tub was covered with a large white cloth with a small opening at one end. The bather was to slip through that opening into the water and wash her limbs underneath the cover.
At last the year in the convent school came to an end, and a decision had to be made about where my further education was to take place. I was not asked what I wanted. I was to go to the Schillerschule, a girls' school in Frankfurt; I was to board with Aunt Flora and Uncle Albert, and come home on weekends.
I anticipated that the new school would be just another educational institution, though on a higher intellectual level than the ones I had attended till then. My mother believed that she would keep on being the dominant influence in my development -- after all, I would be so close to home; Frankfurt was only twenty miles away. Both of us were wrong: the new school was not only far more stimulating than I had imagined; it encouraged, even demanded, independence on the part of the students from the standards of bourgeois conventionality. Inevitably I began to break away from my mother's dominance and to question the values she and her circle espoused.
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Doris Drucker has a background in technology and is a registered U.S. patent agent. She is the founder and chief executive officer of the company RSQ.LLC., which manufactures and markets voice-volume monitors.
The photographs reproduced in this article are from the collection of Doris Drucker.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; "Invent Radium or I'll Pull Your Hair"; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 73 - 91.