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I was born in Holland, almost by accident. That, at least, is what I've been told. My glamorous mother and my dashing father-and they really were that way, all elegance and refinement-were living in Paris, and my mother simply had to make one last visit to old friends ("dear friends," she would have called them) before the baby came. My mother was beautiful and spirited, but she was also 43, which meant she was a bit old to be having babies, at least by the standards of those days. It was 1925. In any case, she was impatient to be done with the business of birth. She already had my brother Guenther, who was two; one more child was all she wanted or, at her age, could expect.
My father was a diplomat and was preparing for his next embassy posting, to Argentina. At 45, he too was in a rush to finish his family and to get everyone settled in this new country. New, but temporary: another posting would come along in a few years, and he would have to uproot us all again. But that was a long way off, and anyway, he and my Compiled by Wanda and Mary Rodgers, Edited by Melanie Wilson mother loved the adventure of traveling and would raise their children to love it, too.
My surprise birth, in Holland, made me a Dutch citizen, completing our family's strange international character. My mother was French, my father Austrian, and Guenther, born in British Singapore, was technically a Briton. At the time, our multi-national identity hardly seemed important-in Europe, many well-to-do-families like ours had summer and winter homes scattered across the continent and followed the seasons from one country to another. Like us, they spoke many languages, knew the customs of a dozen countries, and belonged everywhere and nowhere at once. Because of the dreadful times that were to come, this quirk of our family history would eventually come to be very consequential indeed. I will soon tell you why. Now, though, I want to think back on the glory days of my young childhood, when everything was so beautiful and exciting.
My first worldly adventure was one that I unfortunately can't remember: sailing on a sleek white ship to Argentina. It was the age before jet travel, and crossing the equator still seemed like a mysterious and dangerous undertaking-so much so that a little ceremony was held for people brave enough to do it. Papa had crossed before and had already been "baptized"; Guenther, though, was solemnly dipped into the ocean and rewarded with a handwritten certificate signed by the ship's captain. My mother and I were spared, which has always been a source of great disappointment to me. How magical to have been dunked into the waters of the southern hemisphere while still an infant! I would have worn that honor happily for the rest of my life. Nobody knew then how many adventures-some good and many terrible-were to come for me. For all of us, in fact. But the bad times were still far in the future. Here in sun-drenched Argentina, we were still able to be carefree children.
Guenther had been eager for a playmate and was reportedly vastly disappointed by my inability to speak or walk. "Couldn't I do anything?" he wanted to know. On the other hand, despite my failings, he told my mother I wasn't bad-looking at all, for a baby. He decided to wait to see what I would grow into.
I remember being three years old and riding on Papa's shoulders while he swam in the Buenos Aires Bay. What fun that was, weaving above the waves on this human tower, the sun on my face-that is, until Among Enemies: A Young Woman's Fight for Survival in Nazi Germany the fateful day when Papa, having had a long swim, got a painful cramp in his leg and promptly dropped me into the ocean. With all the calmness he could muster, he urged me to swim "little doggie style" to Mama, who was waiting on the beach. Clutching at his smarting leg with one hand, he did a little pantomime with the other, waving me on. Somehow I understood him and began my slow journey to shore, my little red head bobbing above the water. I didn't have far to go; Papa and I were soon picked up by a passing speedboat. It was a typical adventure for us-we narrowly avoided disaster and decided in the end that it had all been great fun.
Around that time, another adventure befell me. I was "kidnapped" from the garden of the Austrian embassy, where we lived and my father worked. That, at least, was my mother's immediate impression, since I was there one minute and gone the next. I wasn't kidnapped at all, of course. I had just wandered away and soon found myself in one of the ramshackle neighborhoods that surrounded the embassy, playing happily in the mud. I'd somehow lost my patent leather shoes. On the other hand, I had gained several friends, all of them as dirty as I was. I was delighted. Unfortunately, the embassy gardener, who had been sent to search for me, eventually discovered my whereabouts. He plucked me up from the gutter and put me high on the crossbar of his bicycle-an uncomfortable way to travel, since I still remember the cold steel on my bare legs. I returned home to great excitement and even a few tears on Mama's part. I couldn't understand it at all. What spoilsports adults were! As for the gardener, I never forgave him for robbing me of my new friends and all the nice hours we might have spent together.
We were a multi-lingual family, as you might suppose. Mama spoke mostly French, Papa the language of whatever country we happened to be living in. Guenther and I jabbered in Spanish, French, Austrian German, and Russian. To outsiders, it might have sounded as if Guenther and I were speaking many languages at once, but in fact, due to all the time we spent alone, in relative isolation from "native" children, we developed a hybrid language of our own-one that only we could understand. Later on, this specialized language would come in very handy indeed. For now, it reinforced our sense that we had created a world unique unto us.
Guenther was a big boy, strong but gentle, with our mother's French Compiled by Wanda and Mary Rodgers, Edited by Melanie Wilson charm, her refined looks, and glorious, ringing laughter. I was much more like Papa-a bit arrogant, with a quick mind and the ability to grasp new ideas and situations very quickly.
It was in Argentina that Guenther and I decided to learn to read. For unknown reasons-perhaps because it was big and heavy and filled with glossy color illustrations-we selected the Bible as our primer. I had a little blackboard in my playroom, and we spent whole mornings copying out letters from the big book with chalk and sounding out the words we made. Anyone would think it impossible for two young children to learn to read this way, but Guenther and I did. Soon we managed to understand this book, first words and then whole sentences.
Or, more properly, we deciphered the words, if not the meaning behind them. One day, I asked Papa how Jesus managed to feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Raising an eyebrow, he inquired about the source of this story. Church-going hadn't played much of a role in my early life. Where then had I learned this story? Had somebody, one of the servants perhaps, been speaking to us? Guenther hauled the heavy Bible over to Papa, and together we found the verses in question. The Bible, my father noticed, was in Spanish. He gazed at us and shook his head. The time had come to educate us; that much was clear. Papa recruited his secretary, an intellectual Russian man who knew every language in Europe, to give us lessons, and soon we could read in three languages, not just one.
The Christmas before I turned four, we traveled to France. I had been taking ballet lessons since I was two, and my mother insisted on introducing me to L'Opéra de Paris-not as a spectator but as a dancer. It was at some charity event, if I recall correctly-the kind managed by stylish society ladies like Mama, who in exchange for a generous donation could manage to squeeze their own little daughters onstage, wedged in among the real dancers. I played the undemanding role of a snowflake and recall only that I was surrounded by long legs, sparkly sequins, and much applause, which I probably took to be directed at me.
Everything was glorious until the velvet curtain began to fall. I panicked for an instant and sought my mother's face in the crowd. She smiled and waved from a seat near the front. She mouthed something, but I couldn't understand her words. Just as I scurried closer, the heavy curtain fell down across me. One of the dancers rushed to pull me back. Among Enemies: A Young Woman's Fight for Survival in Nazi Germany It seems I didn't entirely want to go. The result was a photograph taken by a local newspaper photographer: my bottom with all of its ruffles was poking out from beneath the crumpled velvet. It appeared in the newspaper the next day, to everyone's amusement. Mama duly clipped it out and taped it into one of her many scrapbooks. The books traveled with us from country to country until finally they were lost in the war.
During that same visit, Papa took me to La Scala, the great opera house in Milan, Italy, where Aida was being performed. Guenther and I had been surrounded by classical music since we were babies, and living in an embassy had taught us how to behave with very serious adults. We played when it was playtime; otherwise, we were expected to sit quietly and show proper appreciation for whatever was happening around us. In this case, it wasn't hard because we loved opera, or at least the stories on which operas were based. Our parents told them to us as fairytales. The stories were earthy and exciting, full of wily peasants, beautiful unattainable ladies, love potions, witches, and the danger that innocent children like us always wandered into.
Papa tried to convince me that I was old enough to sit through a real opera now. As always, he appealed to my small-child conviction that I was the center of the universe. Someone on stage-no doubt some pretty lady in a lavish costume-would sing a story just for me, he promised. Wouldn't that be wonderful? I agreed that it would be wonderful, so off we went. And although he had to get special permission to bring a child so young, I sat through the entire production, enjoying it until the end when the pretty woman at the center of the story dies. I rustled in my seat and asked Papa if we could go. He whispered that Aida wasn't really dead; she would emerge when the show was all over and take a bow. Still, I didn't like this part one bit. To me, it seemed just like "Little Red Riding Hood," only sadder. I only liked fairy tales where nothing bad ever happened. Papa had tricked me into going, promising me a fairy story but giving me a tragedy, and the memory would stay with me a long time.
It was easy for my parents to take us everywhere with them, from country to country, to parties and fancy restaurants and even the occasional castle. Guenther and I were unusually content in each other's company, and our personalities-me enthusiastic and bold, him devoted and gentle-complemented one another so well that we became entirely wrapped up in each other and the games we played. We lived very comfortable lives-more so than we knew-yet no one would have said we were spoiled. All upper-class children in those days were taught excellent manners, the first rule of which was to sit quietly in adult company without demanding attention for oneself. We were expected to entertain ourselves, and we did.
Not that I didn't occasionally behave badly. One night, at a large party at the home of an ambassador friend of Papa's, we young children had been fed early and put to bed upstairs, as was the custom. But I couldn't sleep. Instead, curious about what was happening downstairs, I tiptoed out the door and down the hall, where the dance music grew louder. The stairs were deserted, so I crept down them and ducked into the kitchen. There, on the table, was a huge, glittering punch bowl. Standing on a chair, I could just reach into it. Though I was young, I had seen many punch bowls in my life and had observed that they all had one thing in common: the bright luscious slices of fruit, the best part, were always at the bottom. Peering hard through the crystal, I could see maraschino cherries, oranges, pineapple chunks. I also knew from experience that even when the liquid was gone, the fruit would remain in the bottom of the bowl, uneaten. Well, if the adults didn't want it, I certainly did.
I surveyed the kitchen for an appropriate instrument and settled on a large barbeque fork hanging on the wall. I got it, along with a clean saucer, and scrambled back up to the table. I fished out as much of the lovely fruit as I could fit onto the saucer and climbed down again. After another quick look around for a good hiding space, I crawled underneath the table. In no time, I was gorging myself, stuffing slice after slice into my mouth and licking the juice from my fingers. What I didn't know, and wouldn't have understood anyway, was that this tasty fruit had been soaking in brandy for two days. It was meant to flavor the punch, not to be eaten, and certainly not by a child.
A very long time later, hours I was told, I was discovered, completely drunk and deathly sick. To his credit, Guenther suffered along with me until I recuperated, bringing his toy soldiers to my bed and weaving stories about them while I drowsed in and out of a terrible, nauseated sleep. In keeping with his more cautious temperament, Guenther Among Enemies: A Young Woman's Fight for Survival in Nazi Germany learned from my mistake-not for him, such misadventures. As for me, the very smell of brandy makes me shudder to this day.
Curiosity overcame me at another party a few months later, when I again slipped out of bed to observe the goings-on. There was music and the tinkling of glasses and laughter, and women in beautiful dresses. At least I thought there would be, if only I could get a look. I peeped through a crack in the French doors, bracing myself on the door frame. Just then, a butler came through the door with a full tray. Not seeing me, he left the door slightly ajar. My right pinky slipped into the crack. When the door swung closed, my finger was crushed. I wanted to scream in pain, but knew that if I did, I would be in terrible trouble for sneaking around at that hour in forbidden parts of the house. I bit my lip and waited until the butler returned and pushed the door open again. My finger bled profusely, and later I found out it had been broken. I never told my parents the truth about my injury, insisting instead that I had fallen during a game of tag. I had learned my lesson about my parents' parties and decided to behave myself in the future. And just at their parties, I did. As for the rest of the time, trouble still waited for me around every corner.
Vienna was Papa's ancestral home, and Papa's father, whom I was told to address as Grosspapa, was said to be a big man there. Little did I know how large, literally: Grosspapa was over seven feet tall, a lean, straight, upright man with long white hair bobbed at his shoulders, a white mustache, pink skin, large brown eyes, and a booming voice. He was abrupt and demanding, and sometimes could be intimidating. At 95, he was still famous in medical circles.
When I was presented to him, he looked me up and down. Then, having looked, he promptly ignored me. Having been surrounded all my life with adults who paid me at least polite attention, I was sure there'd been some mistake. I was so perplexed by Grosspapa's lack of interest in me that, looking back, I realize that I hardly remember my grandmother at all. Whether she was there or not, I don't know. It was my grandfather I fixated on. I expected him to care about me, at least a little, and I was determined to make him do it.
Excerpted from AMONG ENEMIES A YOUNG WOMAN'S FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL IN NAZI GERMANY by Wanda Rodgers Mary Rodgers Copyright © 2010 by Compiled by Wanda and Mary Rodgers . Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 8, 2010
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