A Model Childhood
When Ingeborg Day, who lives in New York, had finished the manuscript of this book, she showed it to a Jewish friend. The point of the book is the statement—startling, and in the circumstances courageous—that she has “a thing about Jews.” She has discovered in herself, deeply buried and for many years unnoticed, a visceral revulsion. The discovery appalls her, and it puzzles her too. She was born in Austria, but she was only four when the Nazi regime collapsed, and her parents never uttered a word about its doctrines afterward. All the same, the gut feeling has turned out to be there, like a hereditary disorder of the blood which makes itself felt only in early middle age. Ingeborg Day wants to find out how this happened, and why.
It was not a popular project. The Jewish friend said uneasily that he didn’t like the parts of the book about anti-Semitism. That was “a strong word…you are not an anti-Semite.” It might all be a matter of language, he suggested hopefully. They argued. Ingeborg Day asked what you called somebody prejudiced against Jews if you did not call him an anti-Semite. Finally the friend lost his cool and shouted, “But Ingeborg, don’t you understand, an anti-Semite is a terrible person!”
This was hardly helpful. People with all kinds of other predilections might be encouraged to come out. But this was beyond pedophilia, more awful even than being born an Elephant Man. Anyway, a person who could write even a halfway attractive book about being anti-Semitic couldn’t really be an anti-Semite. Ingeborg’s father, many years before, had made an even more useless contribution.
“What was the war about?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Did you gas any Jews?”
“If you care to leave my house, forever, right now, you need only repeat what you just said.”
The point about that conversation is its un-Austrian nature. Or, to be exact, its un-Austrian questions. A properly brought-up Austrian child of Ingeborg’s generation would have sensed that you do not ask these things directly. But Ingeborg’s upbringing had been a little different. At sixteen, she had been sent to the United States as an exchange student. There she had lived with a surrogate Mom and Dad, enjoyed having her very own room with a chenille bedcover, shared a pink bathroom with only one other person, gorged on oranges and Lorna Doone cookies—and watched TV. And on television were the war movies. It was 1957, but Ingeborg simply had not known what the Third Reich had done, or how the outside world regarded those—like her father—who had been members of the Nazi Party. She borrowed a history book, hoping to find something to reassure her that the old movies about soldiers in jackboots exterminating the old and helpless were just old movies. The textbook, however, told her more and worse things than the television screen.
Some readers will already be rebelling at the idea that an Austrian teenager twelve years after the war could never have heard about the Final Solution. They must accept that, especially in a provincial town like Graz where Ingeborg was born, this was entirely possible. Cognitive dissonance should have been invented in Austria; the national consciousness simply shed the whole period between the Anschluss and the arrival of the Red Army with the instinctive dexterity of a lizard shedding a tail caught in a predator’s jaws. Verterans might discuss memories of the Eastern Front among themselves, but in the family circle references to the Nazi period usually shrank to the level of a glance exchanged between parents over some radio news item, a suggestion that children should mind their own business which seldom needed repeating. Ingeborg’s school books had a little sticker on the title page which children were not supposed to pick at. Underneath was a little printed cross with crooked legs. To questions, the teacher replied: “They were stamps of another government, we now have a new government, we will now learn the names of the rivers and streams of East Styria.”
Ingeborg loved her father and mother deeply. But in America she had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, together with all those Lorna Doone cookies, and she could not re-enter Eden. Horrified at the gap which was opening between them, she begged her parents to tell her that they had had nothing to do with Nazi crimes, that her father’s membership in the Party and then the SS had been some formality or misunderstanding, even to tell her that the American books and movies were wrong and that there had been another side—“our side”—to the past which could be defended. Her father said only, “It’s too late.” There was no way back to him.
She returned to America and married there, a marriage which gave her two children before it broke up. For a time the pain and the mystery seemed to recede. Then, divorced, she moved to New York and took a job in publishing. Many of her colleagues in the office were Jewish. She was happy with them, perhaps a little reticent about her own background. When they argued about whether they were getting too many manuscripts about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, she stayed quiet. That was normal tact. Her father had been a Nazi; she didn’t want to get into a pointless hassle. But then something else began to emerge inside her.
They came to her to check a spelling. A reader who spoke Yiddish had passed “schwartze” for “black”; was that correct German? She said it wasn’t and took out the “t.” The questioner went off satisfied. But then “Yiddish, something hisses inside me, seething, ferocious. How I detest it, pidgin German, a sickening bastardization of my beautiful-beautiful-language-my-home -my-language-my-beautiful-beautiful—and catch myself, terrified.”
And this was the beginning of one of the most pathetic and curious rebellions of the unconscious I have ever read in a memoir. The victim was terrified, bewildered. It should be repeated: she had been only four years old when the Nazi period ended, and in her conscious recollection not one single mention of Jews, let alone of anti-Semitism, had ever been made by her family in her hearing. Where, then, was this all coming from? She began feverishly to read all the literature about the Third Reich that she could find. She tried to reconstruct, with diagrams, the course of her father’s career in the Austrian police. But then she came across a news picture in The New York Times, showing a group of Hasidic Jews gathered in a New York street. Some wore hats, some yarmulkes. Only one seemed to have sidelocks. But suddenly “there is an emotion in me that cannot be synchronized with any one detail, or with a congregate of these details. It is a quick, short rush, a smell, that taste in your mouth that first warns you that you are going to be sick. It passes before I can become fully conscious or ashamed of it….”
To Ingeborg it must have seemed as if she were living through some particularly vulgar horror movie of demonic possession. She read Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice, which left her even more baffled. Allport argues that racial or group prejudice begins with an early “attitude” which is then bolstered up and ratified by a structure of general beliefs. But she had no beliefs about Jews. All she had was an attitude, which according to Allport should not have survived on its own. She went through all the stereotypes of anti-Semitic generalization: clannish, pushy, noisy, money-hungry, and so on. None of them covered the Jewish people she knew.
She does not set in sequence the most haunting of all her experiences, but it seems to have taken place somewhere in this compulsive book-reading stage. She is studying a passage about the Reichstag. The Nazi deputies leap to their feet and burst into the “Horst Wessel Song.” The book adds two sample lines of the song, in English. What an absurd song, she thinks. And then, as she reflects, she breaks into a sweat because inside her head she begins to hear the German words…and the melody. She knows it all, “words devoid of meaning, a familiar succession of vowels and softly smudged Austrian consonants, ‘SA marschiert…’ intensely, powerfully moving…” It’s all there. But who could have sung it to her? When? Was it her mother, as she peeled potatoes? “Who lulled me to sleep with songs about marching storm troopers, before the age of four?”
She does not find an answer. But she seeks it in the story of her own parents, parts of which—both were by then dead—she was able to reassemble. And there is no really horrific secret there. Her father, growing up in the Depression, found refuge in the army and there joined a clandestine Nazi group (this was before the Nazi conquest of Austria). He remained in it after he transferred to the police; the SS membership was indeed a formality, but his commitment to National Socialism was evidently total. No crime was alleged against him, but he was compulsorily retired from the police in 1945.
This father, silent and authoritarian, who seems still to dominate his daughter’s imagination, never stooped to deny his old beliefs. He never said that he had “nothing to do with it,” or pleaded mitigating circumstances. He simply went silent, worked relentlessly, built his family a house of their own, and died. The courage and pride are plain enough; this was a hard man. But Ingeborg Day, born Seiler, begins to show her real emotional difficulties when she comments: “His arrogance cows and thrills me.”
She is torn by conflicting feelings. On the one hand, she wants to regain her parents by establishing that they were innocent of responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich. “My parents are dead and I need to think highly of them.” More than that, if they were connected with the Final Solution, they would be strangers to her. “The point is, Six Million is unimaginable. If my parents were connected—at all, any which way—with the amassing of this number, then they are unimaginable too.”
But in contrast to this melodramatic statement, Ingeborg Day also provides a historical account, intelligent but almost sullenly defensive, of the mentality of a small Austrian between the wars. Both her parents, when they were young, had known poverty, inflation, and chaos on a scale which their contemporaries in America can hardly imagine, any more than Americans could understand the nihilism which arises when—as she says—hard work produces no results and virtue gets no rewards. Her father became a soldier to get enough to eat. Her mother, as a young girl, had to leave her village and survive in Vienna, and how she survived was the most tightly closed of all family books. Both, almost certainly, thought the Jews and Reds were jointly responsible for destroying their moral and economic and political universe. Most people like them did and would have been surprised, even before the coming of Hitler, to find others who thought differently.
All this is true enough. It will help a reader to understand why so many Austrians became Nazis. But it does not help to explain why and how the toxin of anti-Semitism was transmitted to Ingeborg Day. She herself is, not unnaturally, inconsistent. At one moment, she writes as if hatred of the Jews must have entered her ears in infancy, through radio, through her parents’ talk and songs, then to lie latent. At other times, and more persuasively, she senses that these feelings may actually originate in herself—and at a much later stage in her life. Here the “Horst Wessel Song” business has to be sharply set apart from the anti-Semitic urges. The song, shattering as its reappearance was, almost certainly represents a simple buried memory. Somebody did sing it to her, and Ingeborg did retain it. The reaction to Jews, in contrast, may well have nothing to do with memory at all. “It was simple,” she writes at one point. “If I detested anti-Semitism with my brain and my soul, I had to distance myself from my parents to a degree unbearable for me. So I detested anti-Semitism with my brain alone.”
Here she is on a promising track. And one can explore it further. Certainly, the almost hysterical anti-Semitic pangs have something to do with her inability to accept her father’s personality, as much as his politics (“I detested and adored my father while he was alive, and I still do. I feared, admired, envied and loved him, and I still do…”). But in a sense “the Jews”—as an abstract, and nothing is more abstract than the words “six million”—did terrible things to that sixteen-year-old Austrian girl. They cut her off from her parents, perhaps even sending them to burn in Hell. And they also—these malevolent ghosts—cut her off from America, the lovely world which seemed her own discovery but which, it turned out, she could never rightfully inherit. No doubt Eve caught herself hating angels, feeling sick when people mentioned fiery swords. Ingeborg Day has told the story of a Fall in which she lost two gardens at once.
The novelist Christa Wolf also lost an Eden. But part of losing it was to discover that it had not been a place of innocence at all. She was sixteen when the war ended and seventeen when a patient teacher, in the new Soviet zone of Germany, brought her to admit that she had been living for twelve years in an evil dictatorship. Christa Wolf, like eight million other Germans, also lost her home in the literal, physical sense. She was born and brought up in Landsberg, east of the river Oder, in the territories from which the German population fled or were expelled as they were incorporated in the new Polish frontiers. Today there is no Landsberg, but a city called Gorzów Wielkopolski, which has already accumulated thirty-five years of its own, Polish history. (While I read this book, in Warsaw, the papers reported strikes in Gorzów as the workers there struggled for their own free trade unions.)
A few years ago, with her husband, her brother, and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Christa Wolf ventured back. For many West German residents who still call themselves “expellees” this return to a lost home is a bitter experience. Christa Wolf, who lives in the other German state, has accepted the loss. The alien language in the streets, the new, incomprehensible names, the Poles living in the house her father built only emphasized how remote and strange were the times of the Third Reich in which she grew up.
A Model Childhood is a complex book of reminiscence and reflection. Like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, it is an interleaving of several journals and styles, constantly giving way to one another. There is the story of “Nelly” and her simple, robust family. There is the chronicle of what was officially going on in Landsberg in those years, gathered from the old newspapers of the time. There is the journal of the author’s return to Gorzów, wandering through half-familiar scenes among living Poles and departed German ghosts. And there is her record of how this history strikes her own family, especially her lively, uninhibited daughter Lenka who tries—and on the whole fails—to understand how her mother and uncle could have accepted the Nazi period, how they could have seen the evidence that the regime was monstrously unjust and crazy without reaching the conclusions that now seem so obvious.
Nelly was a loyal little Nazi. She drilled with the Hitler Youth, sang the songs, developed a crush on her ardently Nazi schoolmistress. And yet there were limits to what she could stomach. When the Ukrainian slave workers in the fields were given their own thin gruel, it never occurred to Nelly, working alongside, to share her own better food with them. But when she read about the SS program for breeding children from healthy Aryan studs, something in her was able to recoil. It was the same with her family. They were loyal, but there were limits. When her father was home on leave from the Polish front, his comrades rang to say that they had been hanging Polish hostages—“too bad you weren’t there!” He hung up, suddenly pale. A silent, long glance between husband and wife. Nelly heard him say, “That sort of thing is not for me.” Her mother occasionally lost control: “The hell with your Führer!” Once she was visited by two men in trenchcoats; had she really told a customer in her shop that the war was lost? An aunt smuggled linen to a woman slave worker when she gave birth to a forbidden baby.
Most Germans had such inner limits. The regime knew about them and knew that they constituted no serious threat. More important was the instinct not to be curious, not to ask questions, to lock out of consciousness certain scraps of evidence. Nelly/Christa’s family were typical. No Jewish or communist relations. No foreign links, and almost no foreign languages. No interest in decadent art. Nobody ever twiddled the radio dials to hear a forbidden foreign station. An uncle took over a Jew’s chocolate factory. So what? They all shrugged and lent a hand with this addition to the family business.
Hypnotism? For German writers, this has become a well-worn allegory since Thomas Mann used it. Christa Wolf does not need to tell the reader why she describes, at length, the day that a clever amateur hypnotist came to amaze and entertain the household. Hands became glued to tables. Minds were read. Unspoken lusts (for a slice of cream cake) were fulfilled, and people sang songs they did not know they knew. Cousin Astrid marched, stamped, and drilled on the dining table, then raised a broomstick and fired it at her family.
The world disintegrated before the spell did. The most fascinating sections of this book concern Nelly’s experience of the Zusammenbruch—the Collapse. The family fled before the Russians, joining the enormous tide of refugees wandering across a landscape in which there was no longer any order or authority, only hunger, cold, thieving, bullets from the air, the marauding human skeletons released from concentration camps. Nelly’s family were separated and found each other again, stopped only to be washed away once more, until they were finally deposited by the tide in a little town somewhere in Mecklenburg. Although she still lives in East Germany, Christa Wolf steadfastly records how the household, long after Germany’s surrender, lived for many months in a state of fortification against bands of raiding Russians seeking women and loot.
Nelly’s father came home from Russian captivity, reduced to a wordless, starving dwarf whom at first his own wife did not recognize. And Nelly, very slowly, began to emerge from the protective snail-shell of Nazi faith which she had built around herself. She began to understand. Months before, in the flight, her mother had offered soup to a gaunt man still in concentration camp uniform. He was, he explained by the campfire, a communist.
“But that wasn’t reason enough to put you in a concentration camp!” exclaimed Nelly’s mother.
“Nelly was surprised to see that the man’s face was able to change expression. Although he was no longer able to show anger, or perplexity, or mere astonishment. Deeper shadings of fatigue were all that remained accessible to him. He said, as though to himself, without reproach, without special emphasis: Where on earth have you all been living?” A generation later, the listening child has tried to answer him.