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Once in the United States, she experienced the harshness of the Depression and despair over the fate of her family. Still, she persisted in adapting to the new culture and to becoming a writer. Here she met and married her lifelong partner, Carl Lerner, a film editor and director. Together they became deeply involved in left-wing activities, from struggling to unionize the film industry and resisting the blacklist in Hollywood to community organizing for peace, for an interracial civil rights movement, and for better schools in New York City. Lerner insists that her decades of grassroots organizing largely account for the theoretical insights she was later able to bring to the development of Women's History.
In Fireweed Lerner presents her life in the context of the major historical events of the twentieth century and the repression of dissent. Hers is a gripping story about surviving hardship and summoning the courage to live according to one's convictions.
Copyright © 2002 Gerda Lerner.
All rights reserved.
The first things I can think of are the breaks, the fissures. I've had too many—destruction, loss, then new beginnings. But every lifetime has losses. I think I have long taken mine too seriously, with a heaviness inappropriate to actuality. Mine were always experienced against a background of uncertainty about human relations, an anticipation of betrayal, abandonment and withdrawal of love, which marked my early childhood and have stayed with me most of my life. This, then, seems to be the place where to begin.
I grew up in a comfortable bourgeois household in Vienna in the 1920s. According to my grandmother's anecdote, my first life experiences were close to disastrous. At the time of my birth, the Viennese were suffering from severe food shortages in the wake of World War I. My mother was unable to nurse me. Whether this was due to her lack of good nutrition or for other reasons I do not know, but I have been told that she would not give up trying. Nursing her first baby meant a great deal to her; in her inexperience and stubbornness she refused to see that the infant was close to dehydration and starvation. According to family legend, Father's mother saved me by insisting that my mother turn me over to a wet nurse for proper nursing. Another anecdote has it that my father, just recently released from the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army, in which he had served as a medical officer, used his uniform coat to cover bottles of milk he had obtained at black-market prices from farmers in the nearby countryside, so that his baby could be fed from a bottle. It is quite likely that from the very first weeks of my life I was confused about the availability of food and love, and confused about who my nurturing mother was: mother, father, grandmother or wet nurse.
Family anecdotes and old photos confirm that the ensuing five years were pleasant, comfortable and secure. The puny infant grew into a sturdy child. She was carefully dressed, well nourished, taken for airings in the city's parks or in the sizeable back garden of the house we lived in.
I have few memories of this period. On the whole, I experienced these as the good years, when I was pampered, fondled and approved of, when I was the center of my small world. In fact, these were the years when my parents' marriage was undergoing a severe crisis, which had started shortly after my birth.
They had married for love, when he was still in the military and she was barely twenty. She came from a merchant family in Budapest, the eldest of three daughters. Her father was a crude and noisily vulgar, self-made man, who at the time my father came on the scene was in one of his wealthy periods. There had been others, when he went bankrupt and disappeared out of town, leaving his timid wife to deal with the creditors and wait until he sent for the family. They had lived in Trieste, and they now lived again in relative splendor in Budapest. When my father, the young officer, asked my mother's father for her hand in marriage, the old man inquired as to his income. My father told him he hoped to buy a pharmacy eventually, but that meanwhile he would take a job. "With what you can earn," the old man mocked him, "you should be able to pay for my daughter's silk stockings." And so he refused to give his permission to the marriage. But it was true love. She took to bed, refused to eat, until finally the old man relented. Better yet, he gave her a fine dowry, tied up in an ironclad contract to her advantage, and a nice wedding.
Ili (Ilona) and Robert began married life in Vienna, where, with the help of his wife's dowry, he purchased a pharmacy in the fashionable First District. Ili was happy; she had escaped her father and with him her confined, unsatisfying life. She had painted as a young girl, but had been discouraged by her father's contempt and mockery. She read voraciously and wanted an artistic and literary life. She had done volunteer work with poor children, and she had notions about woman's emancipation—she thought eventually she would like to work. Meanwhile she hoped to have a fashionable salon, where talented people would meet for good conversation.
My father was struggling to make a success of his business and, quite possibly, he considered her social ambitions extravagant. He fully expected that with the birth of their first baby she would settle down to domesticity and a family-focused life. After the first year of marriage he informed Ili that they would move into an apartment in his mother's house, and no protest on her part could stop him. He was extremely devoted to his mother, "the good son" of three remaining sons (one had died in a mountaineering accident that was rumored to be a suicide). My father regarded his mother as the model of the dedicated housewife and visited her every day of his life. He saw no good reason why this housing arrangement would not be advantageous and pleasant. But it was a disaster from which the marriage never recovered.
An anecdote my mother used to tell me illustrates the earliest manifestations of her conflict with her mother-in-law. It seems that my mother was an avid fan of Henrik Ibsen's work. After my birth and while she was still lodged in a private sanitorium for a week of post-delivery care, as was the custom of the day for women of her class, she announced to my father that she wished to call the baby Hedda, in honor of Hedda Gabler, an Ibsen character. He objected that such a foreign-sounding name was wrong for a Viennese girl and would cause her lifelong embarrassment. My mother agreed to compromise on Hedwig. But the next day he came back to the sanitorium and told her the baby could not be named Hedwig. Mama objects to it, he explained, because she has a cousin by that name who is a thoroughly unpleasant person, and she does not wish to be reminded of her.
"You mean to tell me I cannot name my first child without your mother's interference," Ili exclaimed.
"Approval," he said, trying to calm her down, "not interference. Surely there is no need to create conflict in the family."
They argued for quite a while; then my mother lost patience. "If I can't name my own child, then let chance name her. I'm going to open this magazine, and the first name I see, that will be it."
She opened the magazine on a dancer named Gerda, so that became my name. With Hedwig as my middle name, a middle name I intensely disliked, never used and dropped as soon as I was able to do so.
My mother's persistence can be seen in the fact that my sister, born five and a half years later, was named Nora, after the Ibsen character, without any apparent objections.
Five years into the marriage, Grandmama had more important battles to fight than those over the naming of daughters. She had by then decided that my mother was not a fit wife to her son, moreover, she considered her an unfit mother. From "rescuing the baby from starvation" on, everything Grandmama did was for the sake of seeing that her son's children had a "proper" upbringing, which she was certain my mother could not and would not provide.
Grandmama's standards were set by a childhood defined by economic need and strict discipline. Born in Breslau, a city in present-day Slovakia that was then a part of the German Reich, she was the eldest daughter of twelve children, ten boys and two girls. The family struggled for lower middle-class status, and the eldest daughter was charged with much of the incessant labor of cooking, baking, sewing and mending for the large brood. She also must have acquired the habit of command over her flock of younger siblings. Early marriage brought her to Vienna, where she soon was in charge of a household of four sons, an adopted daughter and her husband's apprentices, much in the manner of a medieval merchant's wife. My father's father was a wine merchant; his extensive cellar and storerooms began in the basement of his house and were tunneled under the garden. His office thus was a part of the house, and one can only surmise that Grandmama meddled into his affairs with the same determination with which she kept track of her sons' wives and children. Grandfather died before I was born and was reverently held up as a model husband by Grandmama through a ritualized inventory of anecdotes, which I early suspected she had invented.
Had Grandmama been fair to her beautiful young daughter-in-law, she would have noticed that she, too, had been raised by a German-born mother whose cultural background was much like her own. Mother's mother came from Reichenberg, now also in Slovakia, and was proficient in all the domestic arts, as befitted a proper Jewish German girl. But Grandmother Goldie, whom we always simply called "Goldie," omitting the familial title, was a shy, gentle soul who sought only to please those around her. Like Grandmama, she was constantly occupied with "handiwork" and produced knitted and crocheted objects, together with fine-stitch embroidery, sufficient to furnish more households than her three daughters could supply. But my mother had early rejected her own mother's model of domesticity, and instead had chosen to do "serious" work—painting, writing, book-binding, home-decorating—always, of course, as an unpaid amateur. What was puzzling was that Grandmama was perfectly willing to accept the fact that her other daughters-in-law were not full-time housewives and mothers—one was an opera singer, another a pharmacist—and both were welcome family members and regular visitors in Grandmama's home. Only my mother was the outcast, the enemy. I suspect that Grandmama's quarrel with my mother was based less on objective issues than simply on the clash of two strong personalities. Since the naming incident, my mother had refused to give the older woman deference, and that may have been the sin that could never be forgiven.
As I remember her, Grandmama was a matriarch whose splendid intelligence and energy were entirely devoted to tyrannizing the household and any family members within her reach. She fully expected to win every battle she entered. In her own way, so did my mother. Thus, the war between these two women dragged on for twenty or more years; neither of them could win it or let go of it.
We moved into my grandmother's house when I was a baby and stayed there until we left Vienna. It was the only place of my childhood, a three-story apartment house on a quiet residential street on which each house had a large back garden with old trees. The two ground-floor apartments were rented out. My grandmother lived on the first floor, and we lived on the second. A superintendent lived with his family in a tiny apartment in the basement. Our apartment, like grandmother's, was ample and beautiful, with a living room—we called it a salon—large enough to have four windows fronting the street. There was a large formal dining room, three bedrooms, a study and two half-enclosed porches. One of these served as a breakfast-sitting room; the other was attached to the kitchen. These porches faced each other at right angles to the apartment at either end. Since my grandmother's sitting porch, on which she spent most of her day, was underneath our kitchen porch, she could watch most of what went on in our apartment. All of our visitors had to pass her door in order to reach ours, and she made it her business to be closely observant of every detail of our lives. This was the world of my early childhood, bounded by rooms, balconies and garden, circumscribed by concepts of childrearing derived from German middle-class culture and devastated by continual conflict.
IN THE "GOOD YEARS" before I was five, I was unconscious of the raging domestic battles and accepted as perfectly natural my daily ceremonious visit to Grandmama. She usually received visitors while seated at the head of a heavy, dark walnut table in her living room, which was situated underneath our salon. She sewed by hand, white on white, with incredibly fine stitches hardly visible to the naked eye, and prided herself on being able to patch sheets so that one could not notice the patches. No matter how humble and domestic grandmother's occupations, she always dressed like a lady and wore gold and diamond rings on her bony, heavy-veined hands. She seemed to the child like a queen sitting on a throne, and one approached her with a mixture of fear and awe. The child was expected to curtsy upon entering the room, kiss Grandmama's cheek, receive a pat on the shoulder or the head and answer each of the questions rapidly put to her. "Sit down," Grandmama would start, "don't fidget. What did you do this morning? What did you eat for lunch? Was your mother home for lunch? Have you been an obedient child? Did you have your daily walk?" And so on.
Mercifully, Tante Emma would interrupt this interrogation and remind Grandmama that the child probably wanted some cookies and milk. Grandmama was a fine cook and took great pride in her hospitality. "A cookie and milk" was more likely to be a full meal during which Tante Emma would usually find something pleasant to talk about. Diminutive and very kind, Tante Emma, grandmother's adopted daughter, devoted her life to being the old lady's constant companion. One learned later that she was a spinster, which explained her traditional role in the family as unpaid retainer, devoted servant/acolyte and long-suffering recipient of the old lady's frustrations and bad temper. But the child thought of her as the good fairy in the fairy tales, plump, jolly and always up to something nice. She was a person of great goodness who treated a child as a child and never made any demands in return, and so she became one of the few reliable anchors of my childhood. It was because of her that the ceremonious and inquisitorial visits with Grandmama were made tolerable, even pleasant. Grandmama's apartment, with its dark furniture and heavy velvet drapes, its perennial smell of mothballs and food, its aura of old age, stuffiness and censure, stood in contrast with the bright, modern apartment that represented Mother's domain. Sooner or later I would have to choose between these two worlds
My earliest memories are of being bad. My governess and I shared a small room in which, each evening, a black iron coal stove gave off a friendly light as a background for my nightly sponge bath in a basin of warm water. By morning, the stove was black and cold, and the room was nearly as cold as the outdoors, for my father was convinced that our good health depended on sleeping with open windows, summer or winter. At the time of my first memory, I was nude, waiting for my Fräulein, who was filling the washbasin in the kitchen. While she was out of the room I did something I knew was forbidden: I opened the bottom drawer of the big wardrobe, which held Fräulein's clothing. There was nothing remarkable in it, and I tried quickly to close it, as I heard her footsteps in the hall. The drawer stuck and I could not budge it. In confusion and fear I backed up against the wall near the stove, too upset even to realize I was touching the hot stove and getting burned. "That's your punishment for being bad," Fräulein said, smearing Vaseline on the red marks on my buttocks, which now hurt fiercely. Yes, I deserved it and it served me right, I felt as I cried in pain and shame.
There were, in my world, many rules and regulations, and the child learned them unquestioningly; still, she learned badness together with obedience. The rules were arbitrary and often senseless, and one followed them simply because adults had the power and the will to punish. From the incident with the drawer I learned that badness is immediately followed by punishment; that hot coal stoves burn when you touch them; and that, if you are going to be bad, you'd better be sure not to get caught.
Other badness was more complex and more damaging. My little room connected with a door to the room that was then my parents' bedroom. Sometimes at night I was awakened by my parents' voices, arguing. I could not understand what was said, but it frightened me and I called out. Then one of them would come to my room and comfort me in a low, even-toned voice and assure me that I had been frightened by nothing more serious than a dream. But there were other times when I heard their voices when I did not cry out, but instead tiptoed to the door and pressed my ear against it. Sometimes I could understand what they were saying. Once I heard myself referred to—the child. My mother's voice: "I'll never give up the child."
My father's: "Mama can take care of her." (I knew this meant Grandmama.)
Excerpted from FIREWEED by Gerda Lerner. Copyright © 2002 by Gerda Lerner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|A Note on Usage||xiii|
|II.||Becoming an American|
|III.||Becoming an American Radical|
|IV.||In the Eye of the Storm|