'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

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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.

We stood by the window and watched a small plane circle lazily over the rooftops. Suddenly it dropped a dark object; there was a loud bang, and my mother came into the room and said we should get away from the window.

Night air raids were more interesting; our blackouts were of course quite ineffectual. The enemy could easily find a city like Mainz, at the confluence of the Rhine and Main Rivers, by reflection from the water. So whenever a French plane approached at night and dropped a bomb or two, the sirens began to blare, and we were bundled up in blankets and carried down to the cellar, where all the tenants were assembled. We were fascinated to see the tasseled nightcaps on the men's heads, and the ladies' hairpieces in unfamiliar disarray. Even more astonishing was the temporary suspension of rules of behavior: the tenants from the first floor, a retired major and his wife, actually deigned to talk to us civilians. Under normal circumstances such familiarity would have been most unusual; in the pecking order of Germany before the war a member of the officer corps was a near-deity, subject to a code of behavior that precluded communication with ordinary people.

Of course, the cellar shelter was only for the gentry, not for the servants. I suppose they were considered to be dispensable in their attic chambers, though the gentry would have been quite dismayed if the maids had been bombed out and unable to serve breakfast as usual the next morning.

I don't remember that the planes did any damage -- certainly not in comparison with the inhuman onslaught of the Second World War. At least, the adults thought that the invasion of our airspace was just an annoyance, and quite insignificant in light of our army's alleged gains on all fronts. Swept off their feet by waves of patriotism, everybody believed that victory was all but assured, and the pins on the war map in the hall were triumphantly moved outward, toward France and Belgium in the west and toward Poland and Russia in the east, wishfully marking our forward positions in enemy country. When people met in the street, they called out the names of cities or of battles: the Marne, Reims, Verdun, Lille. We did not understand what it was all about, but like all children, we were happy when our families were happy.

One day we came home from a walk and found a soldier in the living room. "Come in," he cried. "Remember me? I'm your dad." We stood by the door and looked at our mother. "Come sit on my lap," the soldier said. "No, no," my mother cried. "It's all right," the soldier said. "I have been through delousing." Dutifully we moved toward him. He showed us a photo of himself on a horse by way of explanation of what he did in the war. He was a paramedic who had to pick the horribly mutilated dead and half-dead off the barbed wire that was strung between opposing trenches. Like all soldiers on the Western Front, he lived for years like a rat, and with rats as steady companions, in the muddy trenches that ran for miles through Belgium and northern France. It rains a lot in that part of the world; for weeks on end the soldiers lived in dampness, unable even to change into dry socks, having nothing to eat except mildewy rations. Day and night they were exposed to the unceasing noise of gunfire and artillery shells close by -- hell on earth. But my father never talked of what he had seen, then or later on. And when his furlough was over, his disappearance was as inexplicable as his arrival had been.

My uncle Carl's furlough was far more colorful. One fine day he appeared out of the blue at the head of a train of hand-pulled carts, each of which was loaded with cages of chickens and geese, sheep and goats. "Carl," my grandmother cried, "what is all this?" "Liberated from the Balkans," Carl said cheerfully. He told us that he had traveled for five days in a cattle car with the entire menagerie in order to feed and water "his" animals and protect them from other "liberators." Finally arrived in Mainz, he had hired the carts at the railroad station. "You walked through the whole town with that zoo?" my grandmother asked incredulously. "Sure did," Carl said. My grandmother was appalled; people would talk. "Let them," Carl said. "At least you'll have some meat to eat."

We were thrilled with the small zoo, which was kept for the time being in a nearby cobblestone yard. We rode around on the sheep and fed the chickens and watched the animals disappear one by one. We overheard the adults saying "Don't tell the children," but we were so delighted with the portions of meat on our plates that we refrained from asking where they came from.

The Allies' blockade of Germany cut off virtually all food imports; rice and grain and meat, tea and coffee, oranges and everything else that was not grown at home, disappeared. And when the German peasants were put into uniform, domestic food production fell off sharply. Without tractors or other farm machinery, women and children could not manage the backbreaking work: ploughing was still done with oxen, grain was cut with scythes, and hay bales were lifted by hand into the barn lofts. We ate potatoes and turnips and bread that was half sawdust. Our milk was almost transparent, because it was diluted with so much water. Though I did not mind the quality, I did mind that there was so little of everything. We were not starving, but we were always hungry.

To supplement the meager rations we went foraging in the summer and fall. In vacant lots and alongside the roads out of town we picked stinging nettles and thistles that were cooked as vegetables, rose hips that were seeded and made into jam, bramble leaves that were dried and used for tea, and chicory for coffee. Unfortunately, most of these weeds were (and undoubtedly still are) richly endowed with thorns and spines, which went right through our thin gloves.

"You poor children," the aunts said. "You have never eaten a banana or an orange in your life. Before the war ... "

"Before the war" meant for us an unfathomable past. Was it then that giants lurked in the hills, Red Riding Hood went to visit her grandmother, and the animals in Aesop's fables talked to one another? For all we knew, the war had imperceptibly evolved from time immemorial and would now stay with us forever. One day my mother went around with a grim face muttering to herself, "America has come in -- that's the end for us." We children didn't believe it, of course; reality and the Grimms' fairy tales had the same tense, and "the end" meant "they lived happily ever after."

The Servants

THE outbreak of the war had overwhelmed my grandparents. They were not really old people -- both were in their late fifties -- but in those days people of that age were considered old, and they felt old and entitled to enjoy serene sunset years. Instead they were faced with the departure of their only son and half a dozen close family members into the army, general disorder, food rationing, restrictions on everyday life, and the arrival of my mother with two little children who had to be taken in.

It can't have been easy for my mother, either, to be a guest in her parents' home, though the drawbacks of the situation were probably greatly compensated for by her relief at being away from Cologne and her husband. Besides, there was none of that "two women in one kitchen" syndrome. My grandmother was an excellent and well-organized hausfrau, whereas my mother loathed any domestic activity. It suited both of them that my mother would take care of us children and my grandmother would run the household, assisted by a full complement of servants: a cook, a parlormaid, at least two under maids, a cleaning woman to "do the floors," and a laundress who came every other week. The laundress was followed the next day by an ironing girl and a seamstress for mending things. Every morning a barber appeared to shave my grandfather, and a hairdresser to arrange my grandmother's hair. When my grandmother went marketing, she was accompanied by one of the maids with a hamper to carry the food. When she traveled -- as a matter of fact, when anybody in the family traveled -- a porter and a cart were summoned to bring the luggage to the station; the travelers followed in a hired horse-drawn cab. A maid in charge of coats and other paraphernalia usually accompanied the travelers on the train.

By present-day standards domestic servants were grossly exploited; they had no eight-hour days or any of the fringe benefits now taken for granted. On the other hand, the mistress of the household considered it her duty to look after the servants' physical, and especially their moral, well-being. On Sunday afternoons the "fiancés" sat stiffly in the kitchen waiting for their betrotheds to finish their chores. My grandmother would never allow any girl to go off with a young man who was not a serious suitor. Servants did not have any sense: they were impulsive, like children, and could not be trusted. Everything in the household was locked up. In the morning the cook presented a list of what she would need that day: flour, sugar, and so on. My grandmother would fish out a key from the basket she always wore at her side, unlock whatever cabinet held the wanted articles, dole out the required amounts, and lock up again. When her first child was born, my grandmother also employed a wet nurse -- that was Old Anna, who stayed on to look after the next children and who was later replaced by a part-time governess who supervised the children's homework.

A wet nurse was usually a village girl who had gotten herself "into trouble." As soon as her baby was born, it was given away to an "angel maker" (a woman who starved to death the babies in her care), and the young mother was hired out as a wet nurse. Her employers plied her with beer and ale and lots of rich food, to make the baby fatter and fatter -- in those days a sign of enviable health. Well-to-do mothers preferred to have their babies nourished by a wet nurse: it was much more convenient than having to be on tap around the clock. Besides, breast-feeding was considered degrading, as if one were a sort of milch cow. For mothers who could not nurse their babies a surrogate was a necessity, because there was no such thing as formula to feed newborns.

It would have been unthinkable for anybody in the family to do "maids' work"; the only exception was an occasional bout of cooking, which could be considered a hobby. Anything else would have been downright immoral: what would happen to the poor if they were replaced in their servants' roles?

We never, ever, made our own beds, and until I was in high school I didn't know anybody among our acquaintances who did. A classmate, recounting some catastrophe in her family, mentioned that it had forced her mother to make the beds for a week. "Your mother made the beds?" we asked incredulously. It must have been a severe crisis.

For all their labors the servants earned a pittance, but at least they were fed when the alternative was to starve at home in a village. The young women worked hard, but life in the city was less cruel than in the villages. In the city the fuel, coal or wood, had to be carried upstairs from the cellar to stoke the kitchen stove and the tile ovens in every room (there was no central heating),and every day the ashes had to be carried downstairs. But at least all the hauling was done inside, protected from the weather. In the village water was fetched from a spring or a fountain, sometimes a long distance away. In the city it came from an indoor tap.

There were other advantages. Instead of remaining isolated villagers, the peasant girls who went into domestic service became a part, albeit a minor one, of urban society. They were nodes in a far-flung information network through which all news and gossip flowed. Servants knew everything about everybody. It was impossible to hide anything from them. They did not have to listen or look through keyholes. They absorbed, almost by osmosis, everything that went on behind closed doors. My grandmother switched to French -- "Tais-toi, les domestiques!" -- when somebody inadvertently mentioned a subject the family did not want to have spread around, and everybody shut up till the serving maid had left the room. It did not make the slightest difference. Within five minutes the entire kitchen staff knew.

For servants, gossip was like money in the bank, a tradable commodity, which at the very least earned an employer's good will. If a family was made aware of a rumor, or of the likely consequences of one member's imprudence, it might be possible to contain the damage before the matter became a scandal. Servants had good reason to protect "their" family: any threat to the family's well-being, reputation, or general stability was also a threat to their own future.

Many years later, when I was at the university but still living at home, the parlormaid became keenly interested in the company I kept; she assumed that in all likelihood my future husband would come from that group. Whenever fellow students, girls or boys, came to our house, she inspected the labels inside the coats they hung on a rack in the hall. Then she reported to my mother, who relayed Johanna's reasoned opinion that "Miss Doris ought not to associate with those Herrn und Fräulein Studenten. They are a grubby lot. Their coats come from really cheap stores -- no good." "Johanna is absolutely right," my mother would say. "You will ruin all prospects for a proper marriage if you run around with those dowdy people."

A Teutonic Upbringing

MY mother's model for bringing up children was the regime of the Prussian Army. Indeed, she often told us that her secret dream had been to become an elementary school teacher in East Prussia, the very center of a culture that demanded blind obedience and strict discipline. "Why didn't you?" we wanted to know. "Because it would have ruined grandfather's credit," she said. If a well-to-do businessman allowed a daughter to take a paid job, it could only mean that he was near bankruptcy and could not support her. "And I didn't want to get married so young, either," she continued. "But I had to." Her sister Lisbeth, who was next in the birth order, was a beauty. But Lisbeth, for whom the family expected to find a rich husband, could get married only after my mother had been married off. Otherwise people would have talked: "What's wrong with the Lahnsteins? If they can't find a husband for Clara, it can only mean that she is suffering from a physical or mental ailment. Of course, those things run in the family, and in all likelihood Lisbeth has the same disease ... " Nobody asked whether my mother liked Fritz Schmitz, the man her parents told her to marry. She had not even met him before he came to her parents' apartment and gave her an engagement ring.

Frustrated but still bound by the contemporary mores, my mother simply transferred her vision of herself as an East Prussian schoolteacher to the Mainz environment. She worked on our education as if we were young army recruits. We were trained to carry out unquestioningly whatever she ordered us to do. We were not allowed to have, let alone express, an opinion on anything, to make even the slightest decision about what to wear, or even to speak up. When an aged great-aunt asked something like "What's the name of your favorite doll?" my mother threw us a threatening look that meant we were not to answer but to let her speak for us. When somebody offered us a cookie, my mother declined: "No, thanks, the children are not hungry." I was starving, but I would never have dared to speak up and say so.

It was a stultifying life -- no spontaneity, no chance to stretch our horizons, no encouragement to explore, only a constant insistence on fitting in, being inconspicuous, and, above all, doing our mother proud. We were to be the neatest, quietest, and best-behaved children in all of Mainz. Like many people of her generation, my mother admired the Victorian ambiance, or at least its idealization: we were supposed to look and behave like those imagined well-bred English children. My hair was rolled up in stiff paper curlers every night (I still remember how hard it was to find a sleeping position that did not give me a headache) and combed out into long curls in the morning. Even in summer we wore long-sleeved and high-necked dresses; when other children played in a sandbox, we had to sit on the sideboards lest sand get on our white batiste dresses.

I don't remember whether we had a gramophone. The only music in our lives came from occasional military bands or itinerant organ-grinders. The latter's arrival lured everybody to the windows or, if possible, down into the streets or courtyards where the musicians performed. An organ-grinder always traveled with a small monkey that was trained to circulate in the audience and beg for donations. In his paws he carried a little hat in which he collected the coins that people threw down on the pavement. There were also movies, but, as my mother said disparagingly when her younger sisters went once in a while, they were "entertainment for the proles," not worth an educated person's time. In any event, I don't think there were movies for children.

We didn't have much physical exercise either -- the kind that stretches one's muscles and develops coordination. Girls were not supposed to exercise, but since there was so little food, exercise would have been discouraged anyhow, because physical effort stimulates appetite. On the few occasions when we were taken swimming in the Rhine, we came home ravenous, so these excursions were discontinued. In retrospect it was probably a good thing; even then the Rhine was heavily polluted, though it had not yet become the sewer it is today. Nevertheless, at the riverbank there were swimming installations -- basically floats with cutout center sections that constituted the "pools." We went into the water upriver and drifted along with the strong current to the other end. There we got out, walked back, and let ourselves be carried downstream again, over and over. There was no children's wading basin; with cork rings tied around our middles we just went in upstream like everybody else and drifted downstream. I suppose men were able to swim against the current, but we never saw them do so, because there were separate swimming times for men and women. Ten years or so later a few hours were set aside for "family swimming," but it was a racy young woman who would venture to appear. Certainly no married woman would, with or without her children.

With its emphasis on learning, the family exposed us early and eagerly to great literature. We were introduced to the poetry and plays of Schiller and Goethe almost as soon as we came out of diapers. I can't have been more than five or six years old when I was drilled to recite like an automaton the entire Easter Parade passage from Goethe's Faust on the occasion of my grandfather's birthday.

My mother was devoted to Heinrich von Kleist, a fine writer of the early nineteenth century who is now all but forgotten. One of his stories, "Michael Kohlhaas," appealed to her especially, because it was about a man who ruined himself in the process of fighting "the system" -- an endeavor that, I think, my mother wished she had the courage to pursue. I found the subject incomprehensible but didn't dare to say so -- after all, it was a "classic." One whole summer long, for bedtime stories we were read the exploits of the Red Baron, Von Richthofen, one of Germany's most daring air aces: "Then I was on Frenchie's tail, and with a burst of my trusty machine gun ... " I can't for the life of me understand why our mother thought that was appropriate bedtime reading.

Were we scared of the violent dogfights, or of the brutal joy of the killer when he hit a target? I can't say. The stories were about singular, bewildering events that I could not connect with anything I knew or felt.

We enjoyed the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales, although the surrealistic adventures of the personae puzzled us occasionally. How did it happen that the Big Bad Wolf did not take bites out of Red Riding Hood and the Grandmother before he swallowed them? According to the story, both emerged hale and hearty from their unpleasant confinement in the wolf's belly and immediately fell to consuming cake and wine. Too bad that child psychologists have "cleansed" the stories in the Grimms' magic kingdom of what they see as shocking cruelties. We were eminently satisfied that the bad people had it coming to them. As soon as we knew how to read, we were given the (unabridged) Odyssey and the Iliad, along with the Nibelung saga, probably for the purpose of keeping us occupied for months with those interminable books. We were supposed to be absorbed by the adventures of the various characters; instead I found the tales fundamentally depressing. Neither Zeus nor Wotan and his assorted offspring had any moral or ethical standards; as gods they ought to have known better.

But gruesome as the myths and epics were, they did not scare us; we took them to be part of our European heritage. We grieved for the slain Siegfried and for Prometheus, who was so horribly punished for bringing fire to the human race: Zeus had him shackled to a rock and sent an eagle every day to hack away at his liver, which would mysteriously grow back overnight, so that the eagle could start over the next day on his demolition job. But grieving is not the same as trembling with fear. I do not recall that I was ever frightened even of ghosts or ogres; nor was I afraid of the dark, as so many children are. Actually I sympathized and more or less identified with the fellow in one of the Grimms' tales who left home and traveled the land to learn what fear was.

The only fear that haunted us was of my mother's rage when we did something to displease her. There was no worse terror.

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.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; "Invent Radium or I'll Pull Your Hair"; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 73 - 91.

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.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; "Invent Radium or I'll Pull Your Hair"; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 73 - 91.