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A U G U S T 1 9 9 8
AVING passed the entrance examination for the tenth grade, I was told to report to the principal of the new school for orientation early in the morning on the first day of class. A tall man, his hands stretched out in greeting, strode toward me and boomed, "May God punish England." I was taken aback; my first inclination was to ask Why? My rehearsed greeting, "Good morning, Herr Direktor," did not seem to fit the occasion either. Fortunately he enlightened me: "You are to reply, 'May God punish England' -- we all need to implore the good Lord to hear us." Thereupon he sat down and had me fill out forms.
Herr Direktor B., I heard later, was a displaced person; his home town, in one of the eastern provinces, had been ceded to Poland under the Treaty of Versailles -- or, as we were told to say, the ignominy of Versailles, which ratified the Allies' victory after the First World War. Rather than stay on as a member of a suppressed minority under the despised "Polacks," whom he considered to be a lower species, he had gone west to Frankfurt. There he kept on yearning for the restitution of pre-war Germany and for revenge against England, which he singled out as the instigator of all his troubles. Neither the teachers nor the students shared the principal's chauvinism.
After that astonishing reception I was told to prepare at once for a two-week trip. My class, like all the other classes, would take such a trip every year. Guided by teachers, we would study a specific region of Germany -- its art and architecture, its history, plant and animal life, geology, and so on. Besides the educational aspect, these low-budget excursions served another agenda: it was believed that communal living and concentrated study, away from the distractions of friends and family, would lower the perception of differences among us girls from varied backgrounds.
At my new school history, philosophy, and literature were taught not as a rehash of textbook material but as disciplines that required analytical thinking. It was taken for granted that we had read enough of Goethe and Schiller and that we were ready for unconventional literature: the revolutionary Georg Büchner, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, Henrik Ibsen, Frank Wedekind, André Gide, George Bernard Shaw, and Upton Sinclair. We were encouraged to delve into philosophy; I spent a happy year reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Those of us who were not particularly attuned to poetry were taught how to appreciate both the form and the substance of a poem: "Concentrate," the teacher would say, before reading us a modern poem -- without mnemonic rhymes -- two times in a row. After the second reading we were expected to recite, word for word, what we had listened to.
The teachers were uncommonly devoted to their profession; many gave freely of their time after school to teach a subject that was not in the official curriculum. To help us understand the intellectual climate of historical periods, one teacher whom I particularly remember made us listen to the music of those times. One series dealt with the structure of Bach's art of the fugue; another analyzed Wagner's opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs. But despite our teachers' labors, and labors of love, the Schillerschule Real Gymnasium (its official name) did not rank first among Frankfurt educational institutions: that place was reserved for the Lessing Gymnasium for boys, which was steeped in the traditional ideals of antiquity. Latin and Greek were obligatory. Had there been coeducation, my mother would surely have sent me to the Lessing Gymnasium. She much preferred its lofty ideals to the progressive -- or, as she often said, eccentric -- principles of the Schillerschule. The abstractions of the classic Greek tragedies were "safe." Modern drama raised too many problems. My mother was not able to identify with, say, Ibsen's characters. The things that agitated Hedda Gabler, or the heroines of Shaw's plays, had no relevance to her tradition-based life; very reluctantly she admitted that she did not understand the new literature, nor did she wish to understand it.
Unfortunately, science teaching in the Schillerschule was decidedly inferior. The teachers, most of them with Ph.D.s, had floundered on their way to becoming university professors, and resented having to teach science to girls.
We had dancing lessons jointly with boys from a neighboring high school. The weekly events, which took place in the gym, were led by the gym teacher: "Now the gentlemen on this side of the hall step forward toward the ladies on the other side -- slowly, no jostling, please, gentlemen! -- each inviting his opposite to dance." I went because everybody else went, but I disliked the whole thing -- the sweaty smell of adolescent boys, the monosyllables that they thought passed for conversation, and the boring long walk home in the enforced company of one's partner.
Taught by my mother that men were an -- alas -- inevitable evil, I misinterpreted their every word and gesture as either too forward or too stupid. Like many shy teenagers, I was convinced that I was the most unpopular person in the world; the easiest remedy was to withdraw, and withdraw I did. I went to parties anticipating that I would be a wallflower, and I probably was one more often than I want to remember.
It was rumored that the high school boys with whom we went to dances sometimes went to see low-class girls, but we were not really clear about what happened on those occasions. At age fourteen, according to the guide at Goethe's birthplace in the Grosser Hirschgraben, Goethe had seduced the barmaid Gretchen -- an act that he expiated many years later in Faust. We wondered whether our male contemporaries, in the spirit of Goethe, also seduced innocent young girls -- or what did they do?
How could we know? When a young woman returned from her honeymoon, her unmarried women friends were not allowed to associate with her for several weeks -- lest she tell them all about marital bliss.
Our ignorance was prodigious.
ARRIAGE was the destiny of every girl. "When the time comes, I'll do my best to marry you off to a man of culture," my mother said, "not to a dolt like your father. I'll pick a husband for you who is like Mr. O." -- the husband of a much-envied school friend of hers. "Every single night after dinner he reads Goethe to Anneliese and the children. She tells me he is now on Volume Seventeen." Since Goethe's collected works, including an abstruse discourse on the theory of color, filled sixty volumes or more, I thought he still had a long way to go. "And on their twenty-fifth anniversary," my mother continued, "he is going to take Anneliese on a trip to Weimar, where Goethe spent most of his life. Imagine -- they'll walk in Goethe's footsteps. But you should not have to wait that long to visit Weimar; you ought to go there for your honeymoon. I tell you what: I shall leave you and your husband alone for the first few days, and then I'll join you. I have always wanted to visit Weimar. Promise!" She took it for granted that her future son-in-law, whoever he might be, would be a man of culture, and would therefore want nothing better than to go for his -- our -- honeymoon to Weimar, that staid and unromantic small town.
Sometimes my mother's plans for my future extended beyond Frankfurt. "After your Abitur" -- the high school graduation -- "I am going to send you to Paris, to be a trainee at the Rothschilds' bank. Then you can marry a Rothschild and ... "
"How would I ever meet one?" I asked. "Do you really think that they socialize with trainees?"
"Of course, you can't attract a Rothschild -- or, for that matter, anybody -- if you keep on being such a slob," my mother said angrily, sensing that perhaps her plan wasn't all that realistic. "Your stocking seams are always crooked; you have not the slightest flair for putting your hat on at the right angle. Look at Cousin Anna -- how chic she is! That's how you ought to look if you want to marry into the Rothschild family."
"I don't want to go to Paris," I said. "It's too far away." I did not want to add that working as a file clerk in a bank -- or whatever trainees do -- was not the future I envisaged for myself. Most of all I resented that I was not asked what I, Doris Schmitz, thought of the transaction. I would not let myself be sent away like a parcel with the destination printed on the outside.
"You stupid ass," my mother retorted. "You are not being asked, you are being told to do what I decide is in your best interests. And don't forget, once you are married to a Rothschild, you can become a famous woman like Bertha von Suttner [the renowned pacifist of the pre-war years], or Sonya Kovalevski [a Russian mathematician whose biography my mother had just read], or Madame Curie. Yes, take Madame Curie for a model. Invent radium! Like her. You'll be famous!"
"Don't argue," my mother said, getting agitated. "You are going to invent radium or I'll pull your hair, you blockhead."
When I graduated from the Schillerschule, I wanted to study mathematics and physics. Ultimately I did, but twenty years later and in the United States. My mother, backed by the entire family, said, "Absolutely not! You'll never find a husband, and how will you make a living?" As a compromise she would allow me to go to the university (no member of her or my father's family had ever gone to one), provided that I study law.
I had no interest in the law, and still have none. Yet being a law student freed me from stifling German middle-class "respectability" and, above all, from the dominance of my mother.
European students of those days, before Hitler, could enroll, one semester at a time, at any university in Europe and travel. And that's what I did. First I spent the better part of a year in London -- ostensibly to study law and economics at the London School of Economics. Actually I lived and worked in a settlement house on the south side of the Thames. It was located in one of London's most horrible slums, where people lived in dank, rat-infested back-to-back houses. We well-educated, well-to-do university women were supposed to "uplift the proletariat." My job was to persuade slum mothers to have their children vaccinated. I doubt that I did much good; but then, that was not the point of the exercise anyhow. The true purpose of the early settlement houses was to expose the offspring of the bourgeoisie to "real life," and in that they were successful. I had been carefully shielded from the poverty in which the great majority of people were still living. And so I certainly learned more in the settlement house than I could have learned leading the typical life of a student at the London School of Economics.
Next I spent more than half a year in Paris -- and again, little of the time at the university. I fell in love with a young, struggling painter and spent almost all my time with him and with a group of other equally young, equally struggling artists. But in the end I decided that I was not cut out to become the wife of a starving painter (even of a genius), and so I left Paris and went back to Germany.
I spent the next semester in Kiel, the university town near Germany's Danish border. And only then, to complete the requirements for my doctoral thesis, did I return to Frankfurt and life at home. I wanted to get the law over with as fast as possible. Given my lengthy sojourns abroad, a thesis in international law was the obvious choice. As I remember, it had something to do with the law of the sea.
A professor who specialized in international law allowed me to attend his weekly seminar, which was traditionally limited to more-advanced students. He conducted it at his house after dinner. Or, rather, he did not conduct; he just sat by and watched while two extremely eloquent young men took over the proceedings -- Fritz Kraemer, a German, and Peter Drucker, an Austrian. Kraemer affected the style and manners of an aristocrat of the Kaiser years. Disregarding the red, black, and gold flag of the Weimar Republic, he insisted on the colors of the Hohenzollern time. Students would stand on the bridge across the Main to watch -- and jeer at -- him when he sailed past in his little foldboat, wearing nothing but bathing trunks and a monocle, and flying the black, white, and red flag of the Kaiser's empire. In class the legal aspects of this incongruity were debated with great ponderation: did the law of the sea apply to foldboats? Spirited arguments invariably extended beyond the end of an evening; when we walked homeward, Drucker and Kraemer would keep on talking to each other as if I, between the two of them, were a nonperson. Much later they told me they were in awe of me because I never opened my mouth; they thought I disdained to participate in a conversation that I considered below my level of competence. Ah, well ...
I had also enrolled in a morning class on constitutional law that was taught by the same professor, a seasoned hypochondriac. Feeling unwell one day, he delegated Peter Drucker to take over. The latter was unprepared, of course. So, instead of a classroom lecture, he announced, we would go to the historical museum and study the symbols of our constitutional history: the crowns, scepters and orbs, and parchments declaring peace (documents declaring war are not usually publicly exhibited). We would see all the celebrated trappings that were said to have led us from the dark into the modern, enlightened days.
Unlike the standard historical depositories, Frankfurt's was housed in a magnificent complex called the Römer. From 1562 its grand hall had been where the Prince Electors dined with the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor. The ruler would go out onto a balcony to show himself to his people, who would be assembled in the square below. Römer Square, with its large fountain, was probably the most perfectly proportioned square in all of Germany. It was surrounded by richly decorated patrician houses whose old names were displayed on iron signs that hung at their entrances: House of the Big Angel, House of the Golden Griffin, House of the Wild Man ... I liked that part of the city better than any other.
Having already seen the museum exhibits several times, I was standing by a window looking out at the picturesque scene when I heard Peter Drucker call it quits for the day. We started to descend the broad stone stairs, which had been worn by the footsteps of countless temporal and spiritual dignitaries. Drucker sidled toward me, and by the time we had walked down all the way, he had asked where I was going to have lunch. "At home, of course." "Oh." He seemed to hesitate. "I thought we could have lunch together." "We can," I said, "but I have to telephone home not to expect me." That done, he suggested a vegetarian restaurant nearby. The food was terrible, but the conversation was interesting. Drucker told me that he was the foreign editor of a large Frankfurt daily newspaper, the General Anzeiger, and that he was working toward his J.D. on the side. All the high-minded people, and the bona fide members of the Frankfurt intelligentsia, subscribed to or at least read the Frankfurter Zeitung, which was synonymous with political wisdom and Kultur; but they also subscribed to the middle-brow, and more lively, General Anzeiger -- "for the servants, you know." Of course the master and the mistress read every copy before they sent it out to the kitchen.
Asked at dinner where and with whom I had had lunch, I said that my companion worked at the General Anzeiger while completing his law studies. "What does he do at the paper?" my mother asked. "Is he a copy boy, or what?" "No, he is the foreign editor." "That's what he told you to impress you," my mother said. "Do you really believe the General Anzeiger would hire a snot-nosed twenty-three-year-old as its foreign editor?" "He really is," I replied, and showed her the day's paper. "See, here are his initials: P.F.D." My mother became enraged. "Do you mean to say that I have been taken in by a greenhorn, that I have for years swallowed the so-called opinions of a boy who is not yet dry behind his ears? That is outright deception on the part of the paper." She went to the telephone and canceled her subscription to the General Anzeiger forthwith.
After that initial lunch Peter Drucker and I went out on a few casual dates, but our interest in each other didn't develop into a serious, or even an unserious, attachment. My mother was relieved; she certainly did not want me to get involved with an Austrian -- a proverbially frivolous and irresponsible kind of person, given to playing schmaltzy tunes on the violin. "You mix them up with Gypsies," I said. "I like Austrians." "I'll never permit you to marry an Austrian," my mother said. "They have no sense for the seriousness of life." Still, Drucker had a job that gave him an entrée to important people to whom he might conceivably introduce me. In that case I would have to be better dressed. My mother took me to the most fashionable store in Frankfurt and bought me a very elegant outfit.
I did not often have a chance to wear it: in the depressing political and economic atmosphere of Germany there were few occasions for social entertainment. The Communists, under orders from Stalin, attacked the Social Democrats from the left; the Nazis, rumored to be financed also by the Soviets, attacked from the right. The middle class that used to be the mainstay of the center parties had been decimated by the disastrous inflation of the early 1920s. Ten years later it did not have the strength to resist the pressure from either side. A series of political scandals fueled the general discontent. There was large-scale unemployment, and nobody had any idea how to brake the rapid descent into chaos. Average citizens nodded their heads and acquiesced in the bourgeois slumber that the German poets had deplored a hundred years earlier. Prominent people who had previously adopted a lofty attitude toward politics now identified with the Communists or the Nazis, saying, in essence, "Let's see what the extremists can do." A great many people believed that the Nazis, if they prevailed, would not really carry out the program Hitler had outlined in Mein Kampf. Surely President Hindenburg would not allow it. The Nazis would just form a government like all others. Elli, a childhood friend from Königstein who was engaged to an SS man, assured me that nothing was going to happen; it was all election rhetoric.
This is all moot now. The Holocaust stays in our collective memory.
Nobody anticipated a Hitler coup as late as 1931. We students worried about the looming bar exam, about jobs and popularity with the opposite sex -- the usual. A good many of our contemporaries participated in the ubiquitous political rallies at which protesters and hecklers were badly beaten up. But for most of us life went on as before.
My mother sent me to Nürnberg on a mission to her sister Margret. I really cannot remember what it was about. The only memorable thing about the trip was that I returned by plane. The government, anxious to popularize planes, offered students a very low fare -- so why shouldn't I be enterprising? It was quite an adventurous undertaking, considering that civilian air travel was still in its infancy. The little biplane flew at a low altitude, where it was tossed around by the updrafts from the Spessart Mountains. On my return I was hailed as a daredevil -- I was the first in our family and our circle of acquaintances to have flown in a plane.
In the summer of 1932 I left Frankfurt for Holland to finish my doctoral thesis at the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague. By that time Peter Drucker was out of my life. We had drifted so far apart that I did not even say good-bye to him.
By the time my thesis was finished, Hitler had come to power in Germany. There was no point in my going back for a useless law degree. And so, taking advantage of a long weekend, I went to London to look for a job.
T did not take me long to get an offer: Norman Bentwich, a distinguished professor of international law, was looking for a research assistant. I accepted on the spot, and within a week or two I had moved to London. The Bentwiches were exceedingly kind people who treated me like a member of their family.
One day, riding down the very long escalator into the Piccadilly Circus Underground station, I was hailed by somebody riding up on the complementary escalator on the other side of the wide hall. It was Peter Drucker. We waved at each other, and as soon as he reached the top, he turned around to ride down to meet me, while I turned around at the bottom to ride up to meet him. After we had played that game one more time, one of us -- I forget who -- used his or her head and waited for the other. We went to a restaurant and talked. Peter had given up his job at the General Anzeiger, and with it the prospects for a promising future in Germany. Now he was in London, working for an insurance company. Both of us were lucky to have found jobs in a time of high unemployment.
Drawn together by our shared experiences of the past and apprehensions about the future, Peter and I soon resumed our companionable relationship from the Frankfurt days. Word must have gotten to Vienna that Peter was dating a German girl. Horrors -- a German girl as a future daughter-in-law was as unacceptable to Mrs. Drucker as the prospect of an Austrian son-in-law was to Mrs. Schmitz. It was like suggesting a union between a Yankee and a member of an old southern family. Worse: the German girl had no money. Just as my mother was determined that I marry a Rothschild, so Peter's mother was determined that he marry the daughter of an immensely wealthy British nobleman. So Mrs. Drucker immediately dispatched a Viennese girl, a childhood friend of Peter's, to London with orders to get him away from that German girl.
Peter felt he had to show Maria around, and this did not sit well with me. I quid-pro-quoed, and by the time Maria went back home, our romance had waned. It waxed and waned over the next couple of months; neither of us thought that it would continue for long.
A few months after my arrival in London the Bentwiches went to the United States on a lecture tour and asked me to house-sit for them during their absence. Their house stood in the Vale of Health, a dell in the middle of the vast, grassy Hampstead Heath. A few nearby houses had been built by and for artists some fifty or sixty years before. In that rural enclave the residents enjoyed the advantages of country life right at the edge of urban London. But it was an isolated spot, and quite a distance from the nearest transportation facilities.
Around that time my mother arrived in London with my brother, whom she intended to enroll in a British boarding school. She took a room in a boardinghouse that was more conveniently located than the Bentwiches' house, which was at the bottom of a steep hill and accessible only by a zigzagging footpath through the grass. She worried about leaving my brother in England when she went back to Germany. I tried my best to calm her by agreeing with her on everything. One day she announced that we must invite Otto Stamm and his wife, very distant relatives, for dinner that night. "Perhaps we ought to ask an additional guest," she suggested. "Somebody who speaks German and is good at making conversation." "The only person I can think of is Peter Drucker," I said. I was not at all sure that he would want to join us -- our romance was in one of its waning stages. "What?" my mother cried in dismay. "You are still seeing that Austrian?" "Yes, and I am going to ask him right now." Peter was free and said he would be glad to come.
It had not occurred to either my mother or me that before one issues a dinner invitation, one should make sure there is food in the house. At home it was the servants' responsibility to see to that. Assuming that the Bentwich pantry had all the required provender, my mother went to her boardinghouse to rest, and I went down to the kitchen. I did not know anything about cooking, mind you. I found some potatoes and a piece of cheese; I cut them up, layered them in a dish, and put them into the oven. Never having used the oven -- any oven -- before (the Bentwiches, too, had servants), I hoped that everything would turn out all right. Within five minutes there was a shattering noise -- the dish, which was not heatproof, had cracked, and our presumptive dinner had turned into a glutinous mass that stuck to the bottom and the walls of the oven.
At that moment Peter arrived. "Help me, help me," I cried. "My mother and our guests are due in ten minutes. What am I going to do?" Alas, it was Sunday night; every store in all of England was closed. Every restaurant was closed as well. We had to improvise. In the pantry we found another potato and a can of sardines that I had overlooked. We arranged it all equally on five plates, and that was our so-called dinner. I mumbled excuses, my mother glowered, the Stamms were terribly embarrassed; only Peter kept his good humor.
The Stamms left as soon as they could. My mother also decided to depart, postponing her reprimands for my unspeakable negligence until the next day, when we would be alone. By that time I was a wreck and unable to respond. Peter offered to escort my mother up the dark path toward her boardinghouse. While she put on her coat, he whispered to me that he would return; he could not bear to think of me staying all night by myself in that lonely house, devastated as I was.
He did come back. He put his arms around me and tried to cheer me while I sobbed and sobbed. Suddenly we heard a loud noise outside, as if a stone were rolling down the hillside. This was followed by loud banging at the door. It was my mother. "Open up," she cried. "I know he's with you." "Wait, I have to find the key," I shouted back, while motioning to Peter that he'd have to hide. It would be a catastrophe if she found him there. But where could he go? She would search every room, look under every bed. "The coal cellar," I whispered. "It's the only place she's not likely to go. I'll lock you in and hide the key." So poor Peter, my gallant swain, spent the better part of the night crouching in a cold dark hole while my mother, as I had anticipated, turned the house upside down trying to find him. It probably sounds like a hilarious scenario -- like a bedroom farce by Feydeau. For me, it was anything but funny.
"I followed him all the way back; I saw him go in," my mother insisted. "From the top of the hill I saw the square of light when you opened the door for him. I knew he'd go back to see you. He's up to no good. And because of you I fell down. I could not stop myself; I rolled down all the way from the top of the hill. My good suit is ruined. You are going to pay for it. Where is he?" This went on and on until after midnight, when she declared that she would not allow me to stay in the Bentwiches' house that night. Instead I was to be with her at her boardinghouse. I was so beaten down that I could no longer protest. Under the pretext that I had to lock up downstairs, I opened the door to the coal cellar and let Peter out through the back door.
My mother's room had only one bed; I slept on the floor. Or, rather, I did not sleep -- her castigations continued throughout the night. She was going to disown me. My reply that I did not care, because I was self-supporting, only provoked a new set of lamentations: what a misfortune that one's children nowadays earned enough to disregard their parents' threats of disinheritance. Finally she gave me the ultimate condition for her letting up: I must swear, cross my heart, never ever to see Drucker again. If that's what it took to end the harangue, I would swear. It would be a mere formality; oaths extorted under pressure are void.
Next morning, on my way to work, I telephoned Peter and asked him please, please, to meet me during the lunch hour. I was desperately afraid that the night in the coal cellar had turned him away from me forever. It hadn't. He came to meet me at the Red Lion, near the British Museum. He looked remarkably cheerful and dapper, considering his recent tribulation. For my part, I had not yet got off the emotional roller coaster of the past sixteen hours. When he came in the door, I was so relieved to see him that I broke down and cried. One of the waitresses, a motherly woman, came to the table. "Sir," she said sternly to Peter, "look what you have done to this nice young lady. Can't you see how unhappy she is?" And then, turning to me, "Now, don't cry, dearie. I know a good abortionist in Rotherham. You just take the tube -- you have to change at Charing Cross -- and then ... " Her well-meant advice struck me as so funny that I had to laugh. "Thank you, thank you, but the last thing I need is an abortionist," I told the good woman. She was nonplussed: then what was I crying about?
Yes, what was I crying about? Peter and I were together again, and that's what really mattered.
When my mother left for Germany, a week later, I saw her off at Victoria Station. As I waited for the train to pull out, she leaned from the window of her compartment and reminded me of my promise never again to see Peter Drucker, that happy-go-lucky Austrian. As the train started to move, the object of her scorn stepped from behind a pillar, where he had been hiding, and we fell into each other's arms.
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.