The Post-War Time
The construction of the new roof and the clearing of the mess inside our house must have taken a long time and been difficult to accomplish during the war economy. Technically, by the time we returned, our house in Weidenau had shrunk by a third, with the third floor forming an unfinished attic-wasteland now. But that attic had become an immense playland, a retreat harboring both treasures and mementos of the War. One of the old inside walls was still standing, and charred remainders of support beams stuck into the air. The floor was covered with fine dust and with grains of mortar that had come loose from the old walls. It was painful to step onto these grains, and I made sure I had shoes on before going upstairs. There were boxes with unpacked things, an old stroller, illustrated books and magazines from the 20's. One story in those magazines was about the invention of an atomic transporter, and the first successful experiment transporting a daring man from one place to another, bit by bit. Another was about an explorer lost in the jungle who eats unknown hallucinogenic fruits and winds up being chased by dinosaurs conjured up by his own mind. Mercifully, the author let him survive. Feverish and unconscious he is found by a searching posse which brings him back to civilization. With time, the attic became the place where I could spend hours undisturbed by the rest of the family.
All other rooms in the house except the bathrooms were without recognized privacy; it was common for anyone to barge in and carry on his or her agenda without the slightest regard for the needs or state of mind of someone who happened to be inside. This always struck me as an odd way to conduct human affairs, but according to an unwritten rule in our family, those who complained about being ignored or hurt were castigated for their sensitivity, if not openly ridiculed. Thus, as in a self-fulfilling prophecy, those who took offense invited more transgressions, initially inflicted through thoughtlessness, but later by design. It was my brother’s specialty to seek out weaknesses in his siblings, to be able to strike in the most hurtful way. This, in a nutshell, is why I spent much of my time on the attic.
Immediately after we returned from Hilchenbach, my parents’ bedroom was first moved downstairs, to the room intended as dining room. The room was almost filled by the queen-sized bed. Every day after lunch, my mother took a nap, and I had to join her in that large bed. I hardly ever slept. Initially, I kept my body stiff over extended periods of time, faking sleep, allowing for the occasional changes of position I had observed to be common during real sleep. But then, in the following weeks, I couldn’t keep it up, tossing and turning with my active curious mind. Furiously, either because she had been awakened or prevented from falling asleep to start with, my mother would slap the blanket, to give a warning sign: Sleep, or else! I believe that after a few weeks of this fruitless struggle, she gave up. I was allowed to spend that hour alone, with my toys.
For years after the War, the plaster of the ceilings was prone to falling down, as a late effect of the exposure to the water guns of the firefighting crew. In the morning one of us would get up, walk into the living room or dining room, and alert the entire house with the scream “the ceiling has fallen down,” which was just as hyperbolic as the description of the bruise on someone’s head in my elementary school class as “a hole in his head.” Several square feet of wooden grid would be exposed above, and the clay-colored plaster would lie scattered over half the floor beneath in tiny pieces and heaps of dust. Once, in the final event, the mortar fell right onto my mother’s plants and flowers, in the far corner of the living room. Every time that happened, the furniture had to be moved out, the rug cleaned, the ceiling fixed; no wonder my mother let out screams of despair every time. This was Sisyphus’ work, no end in sight, the struggle was eternal. My mother had a sunny, good-hearted temperament, but could get into a fit occasionally from extreme frustration. One incident is still clear in my mind, when the knob on the top of her China coffee pot broke off. That had happened too many times before. Enraged, she took the mutilated top and smashed it onto the tiled kitchen floor. It broke into thousands of pieces, covering the entire kitchen.
After all the ceilings had been restored, over a period of several years, the floors had to be redone as well. Except in the hallway and the kitchen, where they were laid with colorful ornamental tiles, the floors were originally covered with linoleum, which had turned brittle, shedding little pieces of a rubbery substance and offering glimpses of the warp and woof within. Covering that was a layer of linoleum’s cheap post-War cousin, stragula. Stragula was thin, hard and shabby. It started wearing out and cracking almost from the moment it was laid down. One day it was decided that all floor covering should be removed, and I was assigned to the job as part of the crew. We worked on our knees with knives and chisels to scrape the various layers off, down to the very bottom, which was the white hard plaster that covered the concrete. The easy part was to yank the stragula into pieces and toss them out of the window or the balcony door. Next came the job of getting a grip on the linoleum to separate it from the felt underneath. Sometimes it fell apart into curds much like farmer’s cheese, and instead of a solid piece of plastic I held in my hand the fabric that formed the core of the material, a coarse linen-like sack cloth. Underneath, the felt was stuck to golden-brown glue.
At places where the linoleum had come off, the trick was to insert the knife between felt and plaster and slide it forward at an angle so slight that it wouldn’t run into the plaster and instead followed the gold-colored vein formed by the glue. There were places I loved where the glue was brittle and the felt came off in pieces the size of a dinner plate. Peeling off the chunks felt as though I was taking scabs off my own skin. In other places the layer of glue had turned extremely thin and solid, and when I approached these patches, the knife would suddenly lift above the felt, or run into the plaster, leaving behind an ugly mark. In the end, after days of scraping, these patches of felt were the only thing left of the old floor covering. It must have been my brother who came up with the idea of splashing water onto these spots. After some soaking, we were able to dissolve the remaining felt into tiny rolls of lint.
After our hard work was done, new linoleum was laid. In the living and dining room, the floor was done in hardwood, as Parkett. Parkett was one of the symbols of the well-to-do — all hardwood was relatively expensive in Germany as it had to be imported. We got a good deal on a mosaic hardwood floor made of oak, which was stained in a warm golden color and then sealed.
But this takes us well into the fifties already. The times were hard immediately after the end of the War, in 1945, with money being worthless and the economy essentially reduced to a barter system. The most precious barter in the region were products of the iron-manufacturing industry: for instance, zinc-plated buckets, highly valued by farmers. Through my father’s friend, Fritz Öhler, and our relatives on the Schleifenbaum side, Ernst and Fritz, who owned the controlling interest in some of the local companies (among these Vorländer and Cie., the family business), we would get a supply of these buckets and other scarce sheet-metal products. These could be traded for farmer’s products that were hard to come by: butter, ham, bread, and eggs. Those trips into the country for the purpose of bartering for food were known as Hamstern —after the name of that animal that spends its time gathering and storing food. Many a time my mother would take the train, loaded with merchandise, and struggle with other Hamsterers for a few square feet of the platform to stand on. She would have gone south to Hessia, where the farmers were relatively well to do. Another promising place was the Rhineland, to the West.
My mother would come back after a few days, exhausted but beaming with pride about her success: a rucksack full of the kind of food we normally only dreamt of. Among the dream items was butter, which my mother called “Gute Butter”— True Butter, as if the re-appearance of this miraculous stuff called for a celebration every time the word was uttered. True Butter was so valuable that my mother mixed it with margarine — that way, its presence could be stretched for weeks, although its taste was diluted to such an extent that the effect was in the end mainly conceptual. The mixing of freshly arrived True Butter with margarine took the form of a ritual: the largest China bowl was put on the kitchen table, the chunks of yellow butter and pale margarine were unwrapped and thrown into the bowl, someone had to hold the bowl because of the high viscosity of the ingredients and their general reluctance to enter this unnatural marriage, and my mother and my brother would alternate in the heavy stirring until a mass of whitish yellow emerged.
One day, according to family chronicle, my mother came back from Hamstern with some red fruit juice running out of the suitcase; it looked as though she was carrying body parts around. Another time, when she returned late with her load, she found the house locked; everyone had gone to sleep. Tired though she was, she didn’t dare wake anyone up by ringing the bell, so she broke into the basement window beneath the outside staircase and slept on a heap of coal, presumably because it was softer than the cement floor.
The chaotic system and the shortages lasted until the Währungsreform, the currency exchange, in 1948, when the entire currency system was revised and the new Deutschmark was minted. The old Marks were traded against the new in the ratio 5:1, initially as crisp bills in denominations down to 10 Pfennige— the German equivalent to pennies; later the first coins appeared. I remember the day someone walked into my school with a 50-Pfennig coin, on which a woman is seen crouching down on the floor planting a tree. The image was supposed to convey the idea of a fresh start after the Katastrophe, the name that caught on as a term to refer to the collapse of Germany at the end of the War. (As a writer observed a few years later, when the first self-critical analyses appeared in news magazines such as Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, this neutral term was probably so popular because it circumvented any reference to culpability. Instead, it invoked the action of gods or demonic forces in Hellenic times and placed the whole population into the role of the Chorus bemoaning an incomprehensible fate).
Aged eight then, I was also puzzled about the image of the woman with the tree, because it didn’t seem to me there was any lack of trees. We had a great number of apple trees in our back yard, and, on the side of the house facing the Engsbach hill, a red beech tree of overwhelming size and splendor. Similar large trees were all around our neighborhood. There were beautiful chestnut trees in my school yard. No, what was missing were buildings, many of which had been destroyed in the last two years of the War. The image on the coin that I might have expected was that of a mason clad in overalls, with a triangular spatula in one hand, a brick in the other. And as a motto encircling the man might have been “Ramma damma” — a Bavarian slogan at the time, in high German “Räumen tun wir,” which in turn translates into “clear is what we do,” referring to the rubble. The One-Deutschmark coin I believe had the head of Theodor Heuss on one side, first President of the newly created Bundesrepublik.
At any rate, after the Währungsreform – currency reform – things took a turn for the better, and unheard-of luxury items such as coffee and chocolate made their first sporadic re-appearances. Probably one of the most painful side effects of the War for my parents had been the absence of coffee. Instead, they had been forced to drink a brew with the mocking name Muckefug, which was made from ground roasted acorns and had to be drunk with eyes closed. Later, when real coffee became available again, my mother ordered it by mail from the Hanseatic city Bremen. The beans were ground by hand in a coffee mill, a square-shaped wooden box with a cast-iron crank on top. Sometimes she would give me the job of grinding a package, and I would sit on a kitchen chair, cram the box between my legs, and turn the crank. The mill turned unevenly; each bean offering resistance caused the box to follow the crank, pressing the edges of the box into the skin of my legs.
Some of the outside walls on the third floor had been hastily redone, with cheap rough bricks, unlike the smooth Klinkers the rest of the house was built with. There were places where the mortar was so crude that I was able to insert a screwdriver between the bricks and drill my way through with a few turns, all the way to the outside. I used these cracks as peeping holes to watch people on the sidewalk, blinking my eyes to avoid the draft of air blowing through. Later, as an adolescent, and into my college years, I had a recurring dream in which I saw one of the walls of our house bulge. The house always seemed ready to crumble. To see how bad the problem was I would go outside, onto the graveled path, to a vantage point from where I could view the wall at a glancing angle. What I saw in my dream was frightening and dangerous: at the level of the third floor, the wall protruded outwards by more than a foot. It seemed to come in and out, like a frozen wave. As I would wake, I would push the image aside, though for the rest of the day I found myself treading the floor in the rooms upstairs with more lightness. Once, coming back from college for a visit, I went straight to the spot that I used in my dream to check out the exact geometry. To my relief, the wall was completely plane and even.
The toilet downstairs was a perpetual project for our plumber. It reeked from sewage that seeped through hairline cracks so fine they were invisible. When it got too bad my mother would complain about it once a week, then daily, then twice a day till it reached the point where the plumber absolutely had to be called in to fix it. Die Handwerker – the contractors, said my mother with disdain, these scandalous unreliable uncultivated people who know how to suck us dry. The plumber would finally come and make a big mess. My mother moaned at the lack of consideration by people who ostensibly lived without a gong in the hallway and a verandah to sip coffee on and a stairway with a long running rug held in place by brass rods. A week later the bill would arrive, all professional and type-written on a fancy letterhead that started, Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. Frank – Respectable Dr. Frank – dürften wir Sie höflichstens bitten – may we ask you in the politest manner, untenstehende Summe auf mein Konto zu überweisen – to transfer the sum listed below onto my account. Höflichstens, indeed, my ass!
The shortage of food after the War forced people to be inventive. The huge red beech tree that stood on the part of our property facing the hill was felled one day, to make room for sugar beet. For a few years we harvested sugar beet and cleaned it and chopped it into pieces and boiled the mush into a thick brew. It’s not quite clear to me to what stage of refinement we brought this product, and whether we ever got any sugar out of it. All I can remember was a huge boiling container and the sweet smell that lingered in the house for days. The largest part of the land was in the back of the house, where we used to plant beans, peas, Swiss chard, spinach, celery, and carrots. In those years after the War, we also tried an entirely different crop: tobacco. The plants stood tall, much taller than I, and had leaves that were big as elephant’s ears and soft as velvet. Toward the end of the season, they sprouted red flowers so exotic they seemed to belong in the jungle, not in the backyard of a suburban house in Weidenau. In the fall the large leaves were left to dry in our huge attic, on a clothesline. Soon they turned brown and so brittle they disintegrated on touch. I’m still trying to figure out what the tobacco was used for. It was true my father smoked, but by the time I became critical of his habit, he had reduced his daily ration to two cigarettes on the advice of his doctor. He cleverly doubled the number, by cutting his cigarettes in half with a razor blade. And it seemed that even at the time he smoked entire cigarettes, two rows of six-foot tall tobacco plants would have produced enough supply to last well into the next century.
Growing up, we are still consumers of history, not yet its agents. Protected by a modicum of normalcy in my home, I saw disorder all around me without being able to comprehend how we ever got there. I didn’t even know what questions to ask and to whom. That was about to change as I reached a critical age. In principle, and going by semantics, the post-war time, Nachkriegszeit as it was called, is limitless and is still going on since each moment in history divides “vor” from “nach,” “pre” from “post,” and a war is no exception. But somehow, as the rubble disappeared and the strange official process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung began (coming to terms with the past, but literally “mastering the past,” as if it were a substance that could be re-shaped at will), people erected in their minds a new border: the end of any serious contemplation of what had just happened, and the beginning of a new era without a past. And thus began the nineteen-fifties, the time I spent in the middle and high school part of the Gymnasium with its ever-waffling history teachers and textbooks.