In many ways it would turn out to be a mistake, emigrating from Germany in 1958, when I was seven, my parents 29 and 36. These things are never obvious except in hindsight. And so I write this, some fifty years later, sometimes still wondering what the future would have held had we remained at home—in our village of Hechendorf am Pilsensee, a town of only a thousand inhabitants, tucked neatly between lake and forest in Bavaria, not far from Munich.
Perhaps what was to come is best described by a photo taken the day we boarded an aging ocean liner in the port of Bremerhaven: The day is saturated in grays, my mother and father, my aunt and uncle’s gloomy faces appearing as if they’d been sentenced to life imprisonment and the ship was taking us to Elba or some other island prison, not the United States. But then we were probably like many immigrants, about to embark on a life-altering voyage, praying for the best, unable to foresee the choppy times that lay ahead.
Unlike my cousin Gunther and me, our parents had already experienced the ravages of World War II, both as youthful soldiers and innocent girls. My mother lived in fear of the Russian soldiers, my aunt was driven from her home in Sudetenland, one suitcase in hand; and my father and uncle were drafted into the German army and sent to the Russian front. Food was no longer a commodity, but a luxury. All four endured immeasurable hardship and loss, and they learned just how precious and terrible, heart-rending, and cruel life could be.
For Gunther and me, boarding that same ship was an exotic adventure, a dream come true. Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for him, but certainly I was always up for a trip, as if traveling coursed through my veins the same as oxygen. In that spirit, he and I roamed the ship’s many decks, breathing in the salty, moist, turbulent Atlantic air, impatiently awaiting our arrival in America. Of course we were too young to understand the loss that our parents understood, what it truly meant to leave behind family, home, and country, to willingly abandon the familiarity and traditions that comprised our lives.
In contrast to Gunther’s and my explorations, his mother and mine grew seasick, their faces changing from one shade of green to the other; and with the exception of an incident that occurred on the last day, perhaps the adults—better than we—had some inkling of what was to come.
I stand on deck looking out, our ship plowing through miles of metallic gray ocean. Supposedly today we will reach land, and I search for signs of it. That’s when I see the wall. A barrier so massive that crashing into it is unavoidable. Panicked, I search for my father so he can warn the captain. Doesn’t the captain see the wall? Isn’t the crew watching?
When I find my father and point out the immense barrier, all he does is turn one of his knowing, endearing smiles on me. “That’s America,” he says. “You can’t see it yet, but those are tall buildings, the skyscrapers of New York. Soon you’ll see it’s not a wall, but a city.” And I trust what he says, because unlike my mother, my father is mostly right.
My earliest memory: I am two, we’re still living in a village along the Danube in Yugoslavia, and I’m running around the walls of our home, chasing and shouting at a girl who took my empty tin of shoe polish. I’m convinced it’s the height of injustice, and I’m going to get her. She’s screaming, running away from me. That’s all.
Next memory: A year later, we’re fleeing Tito’s Yugoslavia, briefly living in a refugee camp along the snowy border between Austria and Germany. Although the camp is nothing but an abandoned military base, and we are crowded into wooden barracks lined with cots, St. Nicholas pays us a visit. In his long gray coat and fur-lined hat, and with a stern countenance, he surveys our faces deciding whether to mete out candy or coal. The moment is fraught; the air icy and chill. For the next few years, St. Nicholas becomes an annual fixture in my life, arriving punctually every December 6 in our snow-laden Bavarian town.
Finally, we landed in New York and passed through the ordeal of customs, replete with lines of anxious people, agents asking questions and inspecting luggage and boxes containing a few keepsakes; in our case, two pieces of furniture: a recently purchased radio-record player, and more importantly, my father’s sewing machine, the source of his livelihood.
But our destination wasn’t New York City; it was St. Louis, the home of my grandfather—my uncle and mother’s father—and his second wife (die Stiefmutter as she was referred to), and my grandfather’s brother and his small family. It had been at my grandfather’s urging that we set out on this journey, from which, due to lack of funds, there could be no return.
Early evening we arrived at Grand Central Station to a circus-like atmosphere. It seems Halloween was in the making. Children dressed as cowboys and witches, princesses and monsters, cats, lions, ghouls, and fairies, ran rampant, shouting and pressing bags at adults, then laughing and sprinting away. Strangely, I don’t remember much about that first encounter with children of America. It was the sight of that wall that I’ve never forgotten.
Finally we boarded an all-night train, arriving the next morning in St. Louis’s far less “grand” train station. My grandfather’s brother, Uncle Henry (formally Heinrich), picked us up in a sleek black Chrysler. I’d never ridden in a car. That I remember. That and his slightly arrogant smirk. He is the “rich” uncle and speaks with an appealing lisp, a little like Humphrey Bogart.
Memories of life with my mother come in snapshots. In our family album, two photos in particular stand out.One: I’m about five and we’re on an outing at Lake Ammersee, sitting at an outdoor cafè. My cousin is wearing his mother’s sunglasses. I’m pouting because my mother won’t let me wear her sunglasses.
Two: I’m six, standing beside my mother on the first day of school. She is holding a two-foot, cone-like thing called a Zuckertüte, which is filled with candy, and which all German children receive on entering first grade. Because she won’t let me hold it for the photo I refuse to smile; instead, I stare at my feet and wear a stubborn frown. It’s my Zuckertüte, why won’t she let me have it?
Although my grandfather had written long letters convincing us that nothing was so easy and safe as life in America, and that he’d found jobs for the men and houses for our families, much in these letters turned out to be gross exaggerations, if not outright lies. For starters, there were no jobs. No houses.
Though it’s too long to go into here, it should be noted that my grandfather, two daughters and second wife in tow, had arrived in the U.S. only two years before us, in 1956, the year Russia invaded Hungary. At sixty and without one word of English, he left Salzburg. The reason behind his abrupt departure was an affair his wife, die Stiefmutter, uncovered. According to family lore, afterward she badgered him until he finally agreed to put the width of an ocean between himself and Frau Schultz. In the U.S., perhaps lonely and wanting his other children’s company, he began his trans-Atlantic correspondence.
Perhaps it seems odd that my grandfather’s affair should be at the root of our emigration. But I imagine it happens often, some seemingly small and inconsequential event insinuates itself into people’s lives and prompts them to do something that forever alters the course of their destinies.
Another snapshot: Though we are the “poor relatives,” I don’t feel poor. I have clothes, shelter, and food: food which often I can’t eat. My mother says I’m a picky eater. My father plays an airplane and “choo choo” game to coax me into eating. Still, after a few tiny bites that he flies through the air to my mouth, I find it hard to swallow. I have a weird sensibility when it comes to food. Some things I really like: plain yogurt, cake batter, fried fish. I like to dunk bread into raw eggs. I also like sardines, pickled pigs’ feet, and blood sausage.
For a time all of us crowded into my grandfather’s slightly shabby two-story house in Maplewood, a slipshod neighborhood some miles from downtown. The arrangement was especially difficult for my Uncle Richard, who could barely bring himself to speak to die Stiefmutter for all her mistreatment of him and my mother.
A brief history: Their own mother died of diabetes in 1933 when my uncle was nine and my mother four. Two years later my grandfather remarried, mostly because he had to. He’d fallen destitute buying insulin to save his wife’s life and needed someone to care for his children. This new wife, whose marriage prospects had been few, pulled him out of debt, but from the start it was clear she would have preferred a marriage without the baggage of children. And so she became the stuff of fairytales, much like the stepmother in Hansel and Gretel, hounding the children and wishing they’d disappear.
The stories of her, which had preceded our arrival, fascinated me. I watched her with curious detachment, hoping to see her cruelty in action. Once, according to my mother, she marched the children into the attic and threatened to hang herself if they didn’t behave. Now her histrionics tamed, she huffed and puffed up and down the stairs, in and out of the kitchen—a dragon lady without much flame. A woman forever put-upon. And if appearance has any relation to a person’s heart, well then, hers spoke legions.
Our situation was often bemoaned by our parents, who couldn’t believe they hadn’t sent someone ahead to scout out the truth of my grandfather’s claims. It’s clear they should have. My grandfather was a gregarious, “happy-go-lucky” man, but was also notoriously selfish. And they knew that.
My uncle often told the story of how his father, two years after the marriage, without warning, told him he was headed to Austria that day to find work. Although jobs were in short supply, it has long been conjectured that this wasn’t the only reason he traveled so far. Die Stiefmutter took advantage of his departure by immediately forcing my uncle out of the house. He was another mouth to feed, she said, and it was time for him to pay his own way by taking an apprenticeship in another town. When he left, my mother was alone to suffer her torment.
So begins our life in America, like that of so many immigrants, the men searching for work, the women assisting with domestic chores, and my cousin and I heading off to school in a run-down, red-brick building across the street from our grandfather’s house. At school, some weeks later, the bad thing happens.
Three things I remember about those first days in school.
One: Mid-morning, maybe on day one or two, I’m sitting at the back of a large, high-ceilinged classroom with the urgent need to pee. I lack the words to ask permission. My cousin and I are in “total immersion” before there was total immersion. When my situation grows dire, I slip out a door at the back of the room hoping the teacher doesn’t notice.
Two: I am asked to write German words on the chalkboard, like Katze or Baum, and then draw simple pictures to depict their meaning. The children say and write the words’ English counterparts. There’s considerable enthusiasm around these exchanges and this makes me happy.
Three: Cafeteria food. There’s not much to like, but what I really don’t like are peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches. I can’t stand them. The teacher sits with us at the table. When I eat only the jelly half, she tells me I have to eat the peanut butter half too. I try, but it smells bad and sticks to the roof of my mouth. I hate this teacher. I tell my mother about her, but she says I have to be nice and eat the peanut butter. This isn’t the bad thing.
Eventually, my father and uncle found work, earning meager wages at lesser jobs than the ones they’d had back home. We moved out of my grandfather’s house into apartments, ours a small one bedroom above a sleazy tavern, across the street from a busy bus stop. The sound of traffic seeped through the thin-paned windows at all hours of the day. And so did the occasional cursing and ruckus caused by the drunks leaving the bar.
One night, when my parents went to school to learn English, someone pounded on the door. I was readingHeidi in bed. I hid under the covers until my parents came home, then tearfully told them what happened.
How my mother appears to others: Small, friendly, energetic, chatty, maybe a little overly-talkative, filling in the silences too quickly, jumping from one topic to the next. She makes food people love; she bakes delicious cookies and cakes. She lets me eat cake batter. My aunt also knows she is anxious, nervous, and neurotic; but no one imagines that she screams like a cop trying to break a prisoner, that she uses silence like a weapon. That being around her is like playing with fire.
A recurring nightmare: There’s an interval of peaceful floating in the dark emptiness of space. Then in mid-flight my soaring ends; I know what’s coming. I’m a defendant on trial waiting to be judged. The verdict is always the same. Then my body is shaken and shuddered into a million pieces, broken shards flying into space. I awaken terrified, feeling so light that I know I’ll float away unless I cling to the nearest doorknob. I call out to my father. He cradles me in his arms and speaks in a low soothing voice.
The day of the bad thing. My cousin and I arrive at school to find that no one will speak to us. In fact, they act as though we don’t exist. Over the past month, we’d become fairly proficient in English, and many of the children invited us to play ball, jump rope, and swing. One friend was especially nice, pushing me higher and higher, teaching me jump-rope songs. In Bavaria, we didn’t have swings; we didn’t play jump rope or hopscotch. I love these new games and have even sung embarrassing jump rope songs.
At lunch, I stand beside Gunther, who’s leaning against the crumbling brick wall. Why won’t they play with us? I ask. My cousin, because he’s a year and a half older, often knows things I don’t. He shrugs and says nothing. He’s sad too. Then one of the kids who spoke to us yesterday but ignores us today runs past and slings a word over his shoulder. The way it exits his mouth, the way he sniggers when he says it, and even from the sound of it, we know it’s a bad word, but don’t know its meaning.
He shouts the word again. This time several others join in. Jeering and shouting.
My mother, who spends much of her day crying, then scrubbing the floors with her tears, tells me to be nice and the children will be nice, but it keeps happening. Because I learned its meaning, each time I heart it, I fell slapped, kicked, sick to my stomach. I feel guilty as if I’d killed every Jewish prisoner with my own hands. It turns out the wall our parents sensed, the one I saw, was real.
Die Stiefmutter left her mark on my mother. She provided crucial training. At the drop of a hat my mother flies into a rage. Once, when I was five, I didn’t put on my slippers when she told me to. She screamed and I ran. When she caught me, she beat me until my lip bled and my father stepped in. She yells words that are razor sharp. Obscene even. I have trouble remembering the words. And more difficulty eating.
In Germany, my father had established a successful business sewing ski pants for a retailer in Munich. He was also learning to design clothes. Before we left Hechendorf, the mayor begged my father not to go, promising him a larger work space for his thriving business. In America, in addition to working for a German tailor who paid him little and worked him hard—the usual exploitation of poor immigrants—my father accepted alterations, which he did each night at home after dinner and on weekends. One of my father’s Jewish customers told him that his black mustache made him look like Hitler. My father shaved it off.
Despite my Teutonic looks—blue eyes, fair hair, light skin—with a name like mine it’s hard to hide my heritage. Often I wished I could flush my German-ness down the sink. I was a Nazi. The word coupled with my name was indictment enough. Heil Hitler, Heil Herta, sieg heil. It didn’t matter that the closest I came to World War II were the movies I saw in St. Louis. The horror of the concentration camps, the goose-stepping soldiers, the insane rhetoric of Hitler, the unspeakable things that were done. I stopped speaking German, was embarrassed by my parents’ accents. Actors made a mockery of the German language, and still do, speaking in horrible guttural tones that hold little likeness to the arias of German operas, to Goethe’s beautiful prose, Herman Hesse’s novels.
I want to scrub myself clean, sweep away the past, but I can’t.
The years pass. We move into a nice residential neighborhood. My aunt and uncle have another boy. Seven months later, when I am nearly 11, my mother also has a boy. At last I have a brother. I love him as though he was my own baby; I take care of him and play with him.
Another image. I’m 14. An x-ray of my back, the film grainy. The image reveals a deformed spine twisted and torqued. My father discovered my scoliosis while sewing a skirt for me. In the course of measuring it he noticed that one side of the skirt was shorter than the other. He measured several times to make sure.
I examine the x-ray. It reminds me of a gnarled tree distorted by the constant buffeting of wind. My right hip sticks out at a funny angle. Over time, the curvature will most likely get worse. On seeing my reflection in the mirror, I see that the outside matches my inside.
More years pass. I do things that I regret. Self-inflicting unnecessary pain.
It isn’t until my early forties that I finally recognize the loss of my home and country. I mourn; I cry for no reason. Things grow better. Wounds heal. Scars grow faint. I marry and have children; my mother and I establish a healthier relationship; I belong to a community of people. I have a home.
This year, 2008, fifty years after our arrival, I again find myself contemplating the immigrant experience. I still can’t help recalling the difficult days of my youth, the challenging and sad times of our two families. And sometimes I still break into tears, wondering how things might have turned out had we stayed “home.”
Each decade, a new set of immigrants flock to America’s shores, and I worry about them, knowing the obstacles they’ll face, the walls they must climb. I wonder how they feel as they search for safe harbor, for freedom and a better life, a life that at least for a time, or perhaps forever, eludes them. Instead we taunt them and call them names.
I wonder how they must feel as we debate their futures, their right to remain here—cleaning our homes, building our houses, raking our yards, driving our taxis, picking our crops, taking the shitty jobs we don’t want—and then we begrudge them their very existence. And what must they think when we imprison and deport them.
I often wish there was no wall separating us. I wish there was no wall around our hearts like the one along our southern border. If nothing else, I wish the walls weren’t so treacherous, so high, so hard to climb. And of course I wish the wall hadn’t existed when we arrived.
The last image: An America without walls. A world without walls.
© Herta B. Feely