by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)
Late summer of 1945. The war was finally over.
It was a strange time, an unreal time. True, Germany had been defeated. There would be no more casualties among the sons of friends. But the revelations had begun in the spring and what we read in the papers and saw in the newsreels surpassed the worst nightmares we could have had.
That summer I sat in a train traveling from Kentucky to Oswego, New York, headed for an encounter which took place because Mimi spotted a photograph in a newspaper.
Amazingly determined to make their new life in Louisville a total success, my middle-aged parents worked very hard at jobs they would have never dreamed of doing in their earlier European existence before 1939. Now that the war had ended they came home from work every evening and faced the letterbox with fear. They dreaded finding the telegram or the official letter from Europe confirming the unbearable.
My father especially, feared that mail: three brothers, one sister, their spouses and their children were unaccounted for.
One Sunday afternoon that fall Mimi, who saved stacks of newspapers and magazines during the week to read on her day off, sat surrounded by papers in her favorite armchair in our living room, her feet up. In the dining room my father was trying to teach me how to play chess. Suddenly my mother jumped up, scattering the reading materials all over the floor.
“Max,” she screamed. “It’s Max. Leo, Ellen, come look.”
Her voice was higher than usual, all color had left her face. She stood in the doorway and pointed to a front page photograph in the Aufbau, the German refugee weekly.
Together the three of us bent over the dining table and passed the paper from one to the other in silence as we studied the picture intently. We squinted at the photograph time and time again, wishing it into the shape of Max Nussbaum, my father’s older brother.
After searching frantically in a kitchen drawer, I located the magnifying glass among matches and clothes-pins. With the enlargement Uncle Max became real. A balding, chubby man, he leaned over the railing of an incoming ship, one of the eagerly waving passengers entering New York harbor. A caption explained that thanks to an act of Congress an entire camp load of prisoners liberated in Italy was to be relocated at a site in Oswego, New York.
“My God, I’m almost sure it is Max. Is it possible?” said my father. The cigarette in his hand trembled. “We must go to him.”
I had not heard him mention the name of his siblings since the day we arrived in Louisville. Perhaps he hid his anguish in silence. But now, after learning that his favorite brother might still be alive, my father seemed near panic. He had to make certain it was Max.
The next morning a long distance call to the newspaper editor in New York confirmed the name of Max Nussbaum on the passenger list.
Wartime travel restrictions were still in effect. Military personnel had priority and Pullman reservations were not available. None of that mattered: coach was all my parents could afford.
For a day and a night the three of us took turns sitting on any seat we could, standing in the aisle or guarding our suitcases at the rear of the compartment. It was a long emotion-filled trip. What thoughts must have gone through father’s head as we moved through vast stretches of farmland and stopped at dozens of anonymous railroad stations. Did he feel anticipation, joy, a sense of loss over the others?
Seven years had gone by since I had last seen Uncle Max but I remembered the occasion.
“I’ll never emigrate,” he said that spring evening in Berlin in 1938, leaning back comfortably into the brocaded purple sofa of my parents’ apartment, his face well-barbered and pink. “Why should I?”
He was deep in conversation with my father, unaware that the little girl playing with her doll nearby overheard him. Above their heavy pouches Uncle Max’s brown eyes twinkled in perennial optimism.
As he watched his brother strike a match to light his pipe, my father’s expression was far more serious. The match’s swift glare reflected the heavy gold of the watch chain hanging over the belly of Uncle Max’s dark suit.
“I simply don’t believe it…this talk of secret arrests,” he said.
“You are a fool, Max,” my father’s voice was harsh. “You must make plans to emigrate before it is too late. And for heaven’s sake, be careful about being seen out with Else.” Else was Uncle Max’s Christian girlfriend.
Max blew out the match carefully, then deposited the charred wood in the ashtray.
“What would they want with me?” he asked, “I’m so unimportant.” A small wreath of pipe smoke encircled his round face before disappearing behind his balding head. He smiled at my mother who had just finished playing Chopin and rose from the piano bench heading for the kitchen to prepare some coffee.
I was very young and Uncle Max appeared old to me because he had already lost most of his hair. But I liked him very much. He always brought me presents and told me stories. I looked forward to Sunday mornings when my father and Uncle Max visited the Cafe Kranzler and I was allowed to come along. I could order anything I wanted there but I always chose the same: a meat-filled pastry, the specialty of the house.
The café kept a rack of sophisticated magazines for the pleasure of its guests. I always pretended to look at the magazine pictures, but it was Uncle Max’s stories I tried to hear. The stories he told my father were more exciting and spicier than the ones he told me.
The men chatted freely assuming I did not understand. Hiding under the expression of boredom I listened intently, fascinated by the delicious details of my uncle’s amours. None of my girlfriends could boast of an uncle married to a genuine countess, even if that marriage lasted only three days. Unfortunately no one in the family ever mentioned Uncle Max’s marriage and I could never ask, for that would unmask me as a spy. But the image remained with me for years: my jolly, pipe-smoking Uncle Max sitting on a throne like some oriental pasha while his countess, clad in white fur, nestled at his feet. One of my more delightful fantasies, never substantiated by anyone.
The visits to the Café Kranzler ended all too soon when Jews were no longer welcome in public restaurants. But listening to Uncle Max continued to be refreshing during the rumor-ridden days of that pre-war spring. Most of the people who came to our apartment uttered dire predictions about the future. Uncle Max alone radiated confidence. Only he asked, “Why leave all this behind for the unknown?” pointing in the direction of the Bluethner grand piano and the porcelain-filled vitrines of which Mimi was so proud. That was enough for me. Within seconds he had me forget “quotas, affidavits, passports, and passage,” all the strange new words around which daily conversation now turned.
I even forgot the fears that came with darkness when the world outside our second floor balcony became a cauldron of shadows and evil. Our guests arrived during late evening hours: friends who were afraid to sleep in their own homes because of the secret arrests Uncle Max smiled off. They accepted gratefully the hospitality of Mimi’s extra mattresses spread on the living room floor, the use of her sofas, or even the hard floors.
“Kindchen, what would you like me to bring you next time?” Uncle Max never called me by my name and I thought he might not know it. But his words were always comforting. Strange, on the night of his last visit to us the darkness outside our balcony did not even bother me. I watched him knock out his pipe and bid us goodbye and wished all our visitors were as positive as he.
Early the next morning he was arrested. In the pre-dawn hours two Gestapo agents knocked on his door. The neighbors on either side were asleep and heard nothing.
Someone who knew him saw Uncle Max later that morning en route to the local police precinct and quickly called Else. She took a taxi to the Central Police headquarters on the Alexanderplatz and watched as prisoners from all over Berlin were unloaded into the grim old building. After the big gates were shut she walked to the nearest telephone booth. She wept as she reported to my parents that the shipment she had awaited had gone astray, which was her coded way of letting us know the Gestapo had arrested Uncle Max.
Oswego came up with the sun. From the railroad station it appeared a small and sleepy town.
We carried our bags across the street to the hotel which could not possibly have seen grander days. Now it had become the center of heavy traffic. When we lined up at the front desk we discovered other relatives who had come to visit camp inmates.
“Reservations?” In the early morning light the room clerk looked gaunt and gray like a Dickens character. He appeared angry when my father told him yes, we did have a reservation. He leafed through a big book and shuffled through some cards before he parted with one of his rooms.
The room was on an upper floor and overlooked an air shaft. No elevator.
We washed up in a hurry. Then, searching for a fast breakfast, we crossed the square in front of the hotel and looked for a coffee shop. Wooden benches surrounded the war memorial in the town square. A few early morning occupants stared at us with suspicion as we walked past. Even the pigeons avoided our path.
After breakfast we started out for the camp. My father remembered his brother’s sweet tooth and had us stop at a candy store for a welcoming gift.
“Good morning, I want the biggest box of dark chocolates you have,” he said to the saleswoman. His voice quivered with excitement.
The woman behind the counter eyed us with distaste through her rimless glasses. She did not seem anxious to sell her candy. She stood motionless while her glance traveled over each one of us.
“Strange sales technique,” Mimi mumbled under her breath. She worked as a saleslady in a store at home.
Quietly my father repeated his request. He was red in the face. I could tell he was holding in his temper. Only the desire to bring a present to his brother kept him in the store.
A taxi took us to the old army barracks in the suburbs which had been converted to house the refugees. A guard at the fenced-in gate issued us passes. A bright sheet of sunlight touched even the gray paint of the barracks with hope, promising a golden autumn. It was a going to be a good morning.
We had written to Uncle Max and told him to expect us. Now we sat in a waiting room until he could come to us.
When he walked through the door, cold, unlit pipe in hand, there was no more doubt. All four of us burst into tears. But they were happy tears. Afterwards my father and Uncle Max stood for a long time with their arms around each other. Neither man said a word, but every few seconds my father shook his head ever so gently. Perhaps he was trying to convince himself that he was not imagining the scene. Were there words for this kind of occasion? We couldn’t find them.
Uncle Max was no longer chubby. I did not remember him being so short. Of course, I had grown in the meantime. Now, at seventeen my perspective had changed. In his drab army fatigues with the pert black beret hiding his totally bald head my uncle looked like a jolly padre serving as an armed forces chaplain.
He indicated he wanted to show us around. With a courtly gesture he opened the door to Mimi and me. We went to his room first.
The barrack cubicle sparkled in the light falling through the barred window. Books leaned against each other on a shelf over his bunk. There were photographs of his parents, of his brothers as children. A multicolored woven blanket repeated the reds and blues of the book covers. A battered shofar hung on one wall. I remembered that shofar from my grandparents’ home.
We sat on his bunk while he spoke to us. It was incredible that this gentle, kind man had survived several notorious concentration camps. How had he survived Dachau?
“I walked south,” he answered smiling, “toward Italy.”
We did not believe him. My parents looked at each other, then back at him. He nodded his head.
“I escaped, yes. You know I always felt that I was too unimportant for the Nazis to go to a lot of trouble over me. And I remembered that you thought me a fool. Believe me, I thought of that often. I had enough time to think. Disguised as a peasant, with a burlap bag slung over my shoulder, I walked straight through Germany. I avoided borders. I crossed into Italy from Austria. I no longer remember how many weeks it took me. I traveled at night and slept in caves during the day. I was fortunate: most people were kind. It was the closing months of the war. Even farmers had little to eat. They believed me a beggar – it wasn’t hard – and gave me food. Sometimes it was a piece of dark bread, a few potatoes, sometimes even a piece of sausage.”
“By the time I arrived in the Abruzzi Mountains in Italy, I was in big trouble. From all that walking my shoes had fallen into shreds. I spoke no Italian, so I pretended to be a deaf-mute. Had I opened my mouth it would have been the end of me. So I used my hands to communicate. Occasionally that landed me a little food for my bag.”
“Shall I tell you something? I was almost relieved when the carabiniere picked me up. My feet were so frozen and bloody they barely carried me. And I was tired of hiding. I wanted to be in the sunshine so badly, I no longer wanted to live in caves. I was prepared to die I was so weary. To let them shoot me on the spot.” He dropped his arms in a gesture of surrender.
“But they didn’t shoot you, Uncle Max.”
“I was close to it. I was a mighty suspicious character, a German-speaking beggar in the middle of Italy, German-occupied Italy yet. I didn’t understand the Italian interrogation. And so I landed in the jaws of Il Duce and yet another camp…” Suddenly he stopped, ready to terminate the recital of his troubles. Instead he invited us to meet some of his friends.
A celebration surprised us in the mess hall. Planked tables had been pushed out of the way. In their place chairs were set up in rows. In the front row my parents and I sat with Uncle Max and listened to an older camp inmate welcome us in German. He ended with a Shehechyanu, grateful that the assembled group had been saved and for the reunion like ours that day.
Someone played a Schubert sonata on the tinny upright in the hall. Strains of “The Linden Tree” followed. I noticed several people mouthing its words: “Am Brunnen vor dem Tore, da steht ein Lindenbaum…” and saw the tears in their eyes over the song familiar to them since childhood, reminding them of homes long lost.
At one end of the mess hall refreshments were set out. As we juggled paper plates filled with cake along with army-style coffee mugs, Uncle Max’s friends came to greet us, one after another.
Suddenly an old woman laid her hand on my arm.
“Excuse me, young lady,” she said, “but do you know that your uncle is a hero?” Her dress hung loosely, her face told its own tales of past dangers and flight. “Of course, he will never tell you this, but many of us were kept alive because of Max’s optimism. Not a day went by but someone in our camp was ready to give up hope.”
“We were all so discouraged…no food, no warm clothes, so little chance of finding our families again. But this man,” and she pointed a bony finger at Max, “this man hobbled around on his sore feet and spoke to those who just sat, ready to die. ‘Just wait,’ he said to them, ‘hang on just a little longer. One of these days we will be freed…another week, another month. It won’t be long.’ He wouldn’t let any of us give up.”
I turned to Uncle Max puffing on his freshly-stuffed pipe, pretending he hadn’t heard. A shadow of the twinkle I remembered was in his eyes as he put his arm around my shoulders.
“I just promised your father I would visit you in Louisville after they discharge us here. Tell me, Kindchen, what would you like me to bring you?”
Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.