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The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War's Aftermath

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Over fifty years ago, Gerda Weissmann clung to life and the end of a 350-mile death march that took her from a slave labor camp in Germany to the Czech border. On May 7, 1945, the American military stormed the area, and among the first soldiers to approach Gerda was Kurt Klein. A great love had begun. By September they were engaged. Forced to separated just weeks after liberation and hours after their engagement, Gerda and Kurt began a correspondence that lasted until their reunion and wedding in Paris a year ...

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Overview

Over fifty years ago, Gerda Weissmann clung to life and the end of a 350-mile death march that took her from a slave labor camp in Germany to the Czech border. On May 7, 1945, the American military stormed the area, and among the first soldiers to approach Gerda was Kurt Klein. A great love had begun. By September they were engaged. Forced to separated just weeks after liberation and hours after their engagement, Gerda and Kurt began a correspondence that lasted until their reunion and wedding in Paris a year later. Their poignant letters reflect upon the horrors of war and genocide, but above all, upon the rapture and salvation of true love.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This amazing testament to the steadfast love is a sunlit spot against the horrific gray years of the Holocaust...A common love of literature and decency binds Gerda and Kurt, who reveal their wonderful love story in this spellbinding series of missives." —Library Journal (starred review)

"Haunting...engrossing. The letters are suffused with romantic yearnings and touching plans for the future." --Publishers Weekly

"The Hours After is an account of survival, healing, and the triumph of the human spirit against overwhelming odds." —Anniston (Alabama) star

"This collection of beautifully written letters is unusual in its honesty and beauty, written in the face of such great sorrow and such exquisite joy." —The Jewish Transcript

"[The Kleins'] story is now filled in for the rest of the world—not in the sepia tones that one might imagine of the moments immediately following concentration camp incarceration, but in glorious, robust color." —San Diego Jewish Press Heritage

"[An] intense and moving story." —Jewish Exponent

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I pray that we will have children who will inherit the best that is in us: the legacy of our lost parents." This haunting plea was written by Gerda Weissmann Klein (All but My Life: A Memoir) in her engrossing correspondence with her then fianc , Kurt, over the course of the year before they were able to marry in June 1946. Kurt, a German Jew, fled Nazi Germany and came to the U.S. in 1937. He became an officer in the American army and, in this capacity, met Gerda in a Czech hospital right after the war ended. Gerda, a Polish Jew, was in very frail health, having endured a 350-mile death march by the Nazis and slave labor. The two, who had both lost their parents and many other family members and friends during the Holocaust, began spending time together during her recuperation and fell deeply in love. The letters they exchanged after Kurt returned to the U.S. and Gerda tried to find a way through the postwar bureaucracy to join him are suffused with romantic yearnings and touching plans for their future. Meanwhile, Gerda witnessed the serious problems that beset displaced persons after the war, which she articulated to Kurt in moving detail. For a period of several months, she worked in Munich at the Bavarian Aid Society, where she describes her clients as "a virtual chronicle of agony." In addition, many of the women with whom she had been liberated became critically ill or mired in resignation, pain and loss. After appealing to U.S., Polish, Swiss and French governmental agencies, she was eventually able to wed Kurt and immigrate to the U.S. Married for more than 50 years, they now live in Arizona. Author tour. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This amazing testament to steadfast love is a sunlit spot against the horrific gray years of the Holocaust. In the waning days of World War II, German-born Klein came as an American liberator of 120 women who were locked up in a vacant factory building, emaciated and dying. These skeletal Jewish slave laborers, originally numbering 2000, were survivors of Nazi atrocities who had been forced to march 350 miles throughout the bitter winter months of 1945. One of these survivors, Gerda Weissmann, so impressed young Klein with her indomitable spirit and faith in the goodness of man that he was drawn to her. Their prolific correspondence throughout the next year until their marriage in 1946 is the basis for this book. These wonderful letters reflect two very compassionate, schooled, and cultured students of life who turn their daily activities into prose for one another. A common love of literature and decency binds Gerda and Kurt, who reveal their wonderful love story in this spellbinding series of missives. Gerda and Kurt Klein live in Arizona, having been married over 50 years, lecturing and writing about the Holocaust. The fluency of their letters lends this work to many audiences. Recommended for public, academic, and special libraries.--Kay Dushek, Anamosa, IA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312263386
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/11/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Gerda Weissman Klein and Kurt Klein lecture frequently and have written extensively about their experiences during the Holocaust. Gerda Weissman Klien is the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary One Survivor Remembers. Kurt Klein's story was featured in the PBS series American and the Holocaust. The Kleins have been married for more than fifty years and live in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One

Field Hospital, Volary [Czechoslovakia], May 16, 1945

Dear Kurt,

You are probably surprised to hear from me now—but, to be honest, your abrupt departure today, almost in the nature of flight, gave me reason for concern.

    You might say, "You could mention that the next time we see each other," but the desolate atmosphere here seems to have reached a nadir. Perhaps that has triggered my feelings that you heard something that upset you. I do not wish to pry into your privacy and your memories. Yet if you feel the need to share your anxiety, you will find full understanding on my part. Somehow it is easier for me to convey these thoughts in writing rather than in the course of our conversations, which are so often interrupted.

    You assured me of your honest interest in my life and thoughts, and if that is the case then I can claim that you should share your concerns and pain with me as well. Your army friends who were visiting the other girls seemed in a more rambunctious mood as their laughter filled this ward. But I don't believe those interruptions caused the wounded expression on your face. So, my dear, brave liberator, I hope that you nevertheless had a pleasant evening, which certainly is not possible here right now. The fact is, I am happy to escape the noise around me and in that way find refuge by writing to you.

    You said that you had not read much German "literature," aside from military dispatches, since you came to Europe. So it is irresponsible of me to confront you with this lengthy missive. Enough of that, and certainlyenough about me. Just one statement: It was your understanding, your caring, that so enormously helped over the first, most difficult days. I shall be eternally grateful to you.

Always,
Gerda


Eleonorenhain, Sudetenland [about five miles from the Volary hospital],
May 20, 1945


Dear Gerda,

You can perhaps understand why this answer might turn out to be a rather clumsy one. I'm out of practice and feel as though I'm skating on thin ice.

    My emotions must have been on full display in order to have aroused your concern to that extent. That's why I'm ashamed to admit that those pensive moments you believed you noted can only be traced back to cumulative reasons. They might best be described as a reaction to the feelings you know so well.

    It is only now that the finality of my parents' fate is fully dawning on me, after all the years during which I grasped at the slightest straw of hope. And I'm saying that because I recognize the unselfish way in which you are attempting to spare me the incontrovertible facts. Does that sound too pessimistic? After all, you said yourself that we have to be honest with each other.

    It is gratifying to hear that my lame attempts to divert you from your bitter experiences were at least partially rewarded by success. Now, however, you have switched roles, and it is I who am in your great debt for your exchange of ideas that betrayed a rare insight into my life. Is it your custom at all times to give without thinking of yourself? I can well imagine the protest on your part that I have triggered. Guess I ought to set your head straight, whether you like it or not.

    I could best become reconciled with German literature by letting you take me back into it again. May I say that, thanks to your lines, along with a fantastic broadcast of Liszt's Les Préludes, this evening proved to be nearly as stimulating as if I had spent it with you in a certain ward of a field hospital with restrictive visiting hours. That feeling of having a conversation with you is constantly being reinforced, because not a minute goes by that I'm not being disturbed by a thousand trivial disruptions.

    Oh, well, I promise that from now on I'll wear only cheerful expressions on my face. And you can help achieve that by writing soon again.

Your Kurt


* * *


For a few days following the armistice, I had been prevented from returning to the field hospital in Volary by the details of processing thousands of surrendering German troops. We had been compelled to improvise prisoner-of-war enclosures of a scope that defied all our previous experience, a task that demanded all our concentration and efforts.

    Although the mood among the prisoners varied, we had had some prior inkling of the crumbling morale among the German troops. Generally they seemed relieved that they had fallen into American hands rather than having had to surrender to the Russians. I remember one German officer offering me a cup of wine, because the entire crew of the vehicle he was riding in was "celebrating" the end of the war. When I declined, having spoken German to him, he insisted that he knew me and that in earlier years we had played tennis in Vienna, a city I had never set foot in. He went on to suggest that we should team up with the German army to fight the Russians henceforth. In other words the whole war had been a game, and now it was time to be friends, switch sides, and have a go against another opponent.

    Later the irony of that situation, which was so repugnant, further hit home. I hardly needed to wonder how he would have reacted had the case been reversed and I had been one of his hapless Jewish victims. In the course of our sweep through France, Luxembourg, and Germany, those feelings had always intensified whenever I would come across SS troops, knowing a measure of their crimes even then, although the full extent was yet to be revealed. At such times it was inevitable that thoughts of retribution would cross my mind, but I soon realized that I could not stoop to their level, quite aside from what I perceived to be my military responsibilities. It was with bitterness that I realized how futile my personal feelings of vengeance would be if I were allowed to cross the bounds of humanitarian behavior—and that none of that would ever bring back my parents, or anyone else.


* * *


Volary, May 24, 1945

Dear Kurt,

I'm writing this letter although I foresee no possibility of sending it at this point. Yet I'm hoping that somehow an opportunity will present itself later. Inasmuch as the insignia of the division that replaced yours bears the color blue—the color of hope, I believe—perhaps I will manage to get this to you. In optima fidelis [trust in hope].

    Can I assume that you have gotten used to your new place? Are the surroundings beautiful? Has your feeling of homesickness for America subsided after viewing "beautiful" Germany?

    I can't report much of great interest, because everything seems to revolve around the same pole for me. Tomorrow is a red-letter day for some twenty girls here: They will be moving into a lovely villa, where, I hear, they will have access to a freer and less restrictive life than in the hospital.

    I have not lifted a finger yet to give direction to my own life—instead, I will play for a little more time and let fate take over. After all, it smiled so kindly at me two weeks ago at the liberation.

    Somehow my thoughts are directed toward writing my life story. Honestly, that idea seems to occupy my mind more and more, and I'm unable to dismiss it. I want to go back, way back, perhaps to the time when I was racing across meadows with a huge bow in my disheveled hair and joyfully climbing trees in my garden. I see it as going back to my sunny childhood only, up to—well, I would like to eliminate six years from the book of my life. No doubt they will be adequately covered in many other volumes.

    But you know, Kurt, more and more often I believe that I might try to make the daring leap from my enchanted childhood to the sunny reality of freedom. You also gave me the privilege to share with you good as well as bad memories and thoughts. There is only one promise I must exact from you: It's one you have to keep. If I tell you something sad, it must evoke in you only understanding, never pity! Of course I can't forbid that—but I would be able to move and act more freely in your company knowing that you think of me as an equal. Please, Kurt, understand and promise.

    The last few days have been pretty sad. It is the first time I can look back in freedom to the years of horror. Memories wash over me like waves, mounting to heights of total recall and then receding. Unfortunately I have time now, lying on my bunk, not doing anything. Entirely too much time! Still too ill to be allowed to get up. I wish I could already walk. Instead, I think, remember, observe, and try to visualize the future.

    I'm not too happy with what I see around me; I feel bewildered and isolated. After the first flush of euphoria at freedom, some of the other girls don't seem to be reflective at all, or particularly grateful, but rather assertive and demanding in an unbecoming way. Somehow I feel wounded, alone, and sad to have to stay in this environment. But I have not lost the desire for the planned leap toward my future.

    If you have arrived at this point of my ramblings, I admire your patience. I hope we will meet again.

    Until then and always—my best wishes,

Gerda


* * *


Kurt, by now the most faithful visitor to the hospital, was commonly referred to as "Gerda's lieutenant." The other girls couldn't understand why he didn't provide the clothing and food I needed, which he as an American could obtain. No one really understood our relationship, nor could I explain it. He instinctively understood my needs. By not bringing me clothing, he made me feel that he did not see my pitiful need of them, that I appeared to him as a normal girl, briefly confined to a hospital. His gifts of flowers and reading material were appropriate. Thus he helped me to regain self-confidence. Mine was a top bunk, and he often stood beside it for lengthy periods of time, just talking to me. I remember once glancing at the gun on his belt. Fear or anguish must have been reflected in my eyes, because from then on he would slip it under the bunk as unobtrusively as possible. Before he left, he would retrieve it, and, if I was watching, would usually make such offhand remarks as, "That darn thing is so heavy and useless anyway."

    Kurt's visits were the highlights of my existence. One day, checking the thermometer the nurse had given me, I confirmed my suspicions that I had a high temperature. Fearful that I might not be permitted to have visitors, I shook it down before the nurse returned. In due time Kurt came but seemed ill at ease. After a while he told me that he was being transferred to a town in Bavaria, Pfarrkirchen, approximately 160 miles from Volary. He showed me photos of himself that had just been taken, and I desperately wanted one but was too shy to ask for it. After I repeatedly looked at one in particular, he realized what I wanted. An idea struck me, and I asked him to go out into the hall and write something on it. The thought of his leaving threw me into a panic. I was sure that I would never see him again. He was going off to some distant place, and after that they might send him farther yet, perhaps to Japan, now that the war in Europe was over. From there he would no doubt return to the United States and I would never see him again. All he would remember of me would be his encounter with a girl who had been desperately ill.

    I have to get up, I resolved, I just have to. I pleaded with the nurse to help me get out of bed and put on the blue-and-white cotton dress I had been given. He must think of me in a normal way, no matter what the cost.

    Seeing me in such a desperate state, the nurse relented. I had not been able to walk at all since liberation, and each step caused me excruciating pain. With her help I made it to the door, where I met Kurt, just about to reenter. His amazement at seeing me out of bed compensated for the great effort every step required. Supported by his strong arm, I walked with him into the yard amid trees in full bloom. Suddenly one of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales came to me: "The Little Mermaid," which I had known as "Rusalka" in Polish. It was about a mermaid who was in love with a prince. Her most ardent desire was to walk with him just once. A witch sold her a brew that changed her fins into legs. The price she paid for leaving her element was steep indeed: Each step was like walking on knives. Now that fairy tale had become my reality. Kurt was my prince, the knight who had slain the monstrous dragon. But he was about to leave for his own world. And I—how had it ended for Rusalka? Had she gone back to that other world, and would that be my fate as well? But this was real, and he was here. He was the only real part of the fairy tale, the only dream that would not fade in the light of reality. Now he was leaving, and in all likelihood I would never see him again. The pain of walking was nothing compared to the pain of parting. But he must never know my true feelings; that much I must do for him. He must never know my pain.

    We said our good-byes at the door, Kurt assuring me that he would try to return as soon as he could. I could just barely manage to thank him, then crawl back to my bunk, where I took out the photo he had given me, to read his dedication: "To Gerda, at the start of a new life." What new life? There was nothing left now. There was nothing to look forward to tomorrow, and he would not come again. What then—was I to go back home? What home? That place no longer existed. I had been trying so hard over the years to hang on, to dream, to make believe, Ilse, Suse, Liesl, and I had sustained each other, bolstered each other's hopes. Now I was the only one left. Why? It would be so easy to let go, much easier than to hang on. Those were the thoughts I can remember before everything turned black.


I had no concept of time and place, no pain, only some dim awareness that I was very ill. When I opened my eyes I was looking at Kurt and also became aware that a nurse was putting ice on my lips. Kurt was real, not a figment of my fevered imagination. Taking my hand, he "scolded" me about getting sick the minute he turned his back. In a teasing way he called me a foolish little girl, using the familiar du form of address for the first time. He stayed for most of that night, telling me that I must get well, and I fell asleep with my small bony hand in his strong one. The crisis was over. Later I learned that I had been unconscious for most of a week, suffering from pneumonia and typhoid fever. Kurt had appeared at a critical moment and had disregarded the danger of my contagion.


Where Papa had once been my figure of strength and authority, I now loved to watch how politely yet forcefully Kurt dealt with the nurses in the hospital, how casually he returned the salutes of GIs, how much he teased me, as Artur had. Every time he appeared, it was as if a window opened onto a view suffused with sunshine—and when he touched my hand, an indefinable ecstasy enveloped me, depriving me of all reason. He was the only reality, a bridge of remembered happiness over a river of pain and loss, taking me toward some hitherto unknown shore. But he was bound to leave sooner or later.

    I was convinced that Kurt would visit me on his birthday, July 2. After all, he had promised that we would celebrate it together, and in turn I had assured him I would be sufficiently fit to go for a walk with him by that time. I was diligently practicing my steps, slowly regaining my balance, despite some pain along the way. No question, I was making progress, and could hardly wait for that special day. Thinking about what birthday gift I could give him, I decided to write several essays touching on some childhood and more recent memories.

    All that day I was waiting in great anticipation, groping for a logical reason that would explain his absence, but I could find none. I agonized over that, turning over all possibilities in my mind. A terrifying thought occurred to me that he might have caught my typhoid fever. Was there a way to contact someone to get information about him? Finally I realized that I would have to wait for word from or about him. What it made me fully realize, though, was that he had become everything to me and that I was deeply in love with this handsome young man—only he must never, never know.

    Kurt's twenty-fifth birthday was almost over. It was evening, and he had not come. Again my eyes went to his photo, as they had throughout the day. Reading his inscription about the start of my new life made me infinitely sad. I was certain now that it was meant to be a message of farewell. Feeling alone and abandoned, I wrote a bitter letter to my uncle in Turkey.


* * *


Volary, July 2, 1945

My dear ones—my beloved uncle,

It is in a welter of overwhelming emotions that I write these words to you. The first lines to my nearest relative! Uncle Leo, can you possibly perceive what this means to me? To be able to say, "I have survived the war!" I can't believe it. It does not ring true that all the suffering is over. Can it be so? Now my thoughts focus on you, my closest family, though you are far away in Turkey. Are you, dear aunt, and the sweet children all right?

    I cannot and will not attempt to convey even a fraction of my experiences—that would take years and reams of paper. Three years of concentration camps and a march on foot of 550 kilometers, starting with 2,000 girls, of whom fewer than 120 survived, I among them. Not even in depictions of medieval torture and horror can one find crimes such as the Nazis committed.

    I don't know how and why I survived. On May 6 we were liberated by American forces. I was at the end of my strength, physically as well as emotionally, and collapsed. Since then I have been in a makeshift hospital. I was critically ill until two weeks ago. I am feeling better now.

    During that time I have asked several kind people to write to you. I hope that you have gotten news about my survival from several sources—especially from Lt. Kurt Klein, who has become a good friend. I owe him a debt of gratitude, for he helped me regain my mental balance during my most difficult days. Unfortunately he was transferred to a different post after that, but I hope to hear from him again.

    Today's letter is sent through the kindness of an army chaplain. My beloved uncle, I have tried to put off the question that is burning on my mind since the first line of this writing, but can no longer do so. Although I fear the words, I am compelled to ask them: Oh, God, do you have any news from my beloved parents? I cannot think, cannot conceive that fate would be so cruel to me. Oh, please, God, please. Since the day of our parting, I have heard nothing but rumors of a tragic fate. But I hoped and prayed and believed in miracles. I still do.

    I have not heard from Artur in two years. The last news was that he was in a camp in or near Lemberg [Lvov]. Then all mail ceased, and we were cut off from the rest of the world. We heard of the horrors that took place in those parts. I worry so and tremble at thoughts of the worst, and pray. I am trying to establish contact with Bielsko, hoping to find him there.

    You remember me only as a child, but the past few years have accelerated my transition to adulthood. It was not easy, and I always tried to act in the manner that my beloved parents would have expected of me. Now that I can write freely, I must also tell you the truth. Both Papa and Mama were very ill, at home and in the ghetto. Papa had a heart attack and we had terrible, worrisome days and weeks. Everything we owned was taken from us, everything. My heart breaks at the thought that they might not have survived to experience the beauty of freedom. Why? Why?

    Now I am turning to you, Mama's beloved only brother. I need your advice for my future. I stand here, alone in a strange world. I want to go home—the dream of going home sustained me—I want to go home to people who are close to me. I yearn for a bit of warmth and calm after three years of hell in the camps. What is going to happen now? That question occupies me day and night.

    I have met some people by the name of Knäbel; they own the factory in which we were locked up the night before liberation. Herr Knäbel claims he knew some associates of Papa. He and his family have been very nice to me. His daughters, who are considerably older than I, have also been very kind.

    Some of my friends are planning to go home when they get well. I want to wait to hear where my family is, for I won't go back if they are not there. I won't go back to the ruins of my happy childhood, to the place where we were so brutally separated. My thoughts and emotions are in total turmoil; one moment I want to go back, the next I say: Never! What should I do?

    I am not afraid of hardship or work. I have learned to work hard. Twelve hours a day and many nights we worked on spinning machines and looms. Nothing will be too difficult for me, once I regain my health. I only want peace, quiet, and some kindness. My education is nil. I am twenty-one years old. I want to learn, I want to learn languages, particularly English. I want to understand art, because I always had an interest in it.

    Please forgive this chaotic tone. In this flood of thoughts and words I am trying to convey what has worried me for years and caused so much anguish. I confess my heart is heavy; I can't lie about that. I am still weak after that long, debilitating illness. I have just learned to walk again. Although everyone is very nice and helpful to me, I am alone; none of my closest friends survived. I am without means and won't take anything from strangers. There is no one close to me. I am so homesick, so lonely. I want Mama, Papa, Artur—I want to go home.


[The rest of this letter is missing. I found it among my uncle's possessions after his death.]


* * *


Although I was in the process of recuperating, my newly won freedom left me feeling isolated from what was going on around me. I could only marvel at some of the other girls' resourcefulness in taking charge of their lives, hatching plans to return to their former homes, or moving into local quarters, acting totally adult. By comparison I felt inadequate on all fronts. I seemed to have survived by marshaling my imagination and at times through denial. After my separation from my parents, I managed to wipe the three years of anguish and deprivation from my mind. When I thought of home, and that was all the time, I thought of it as it existed before the war, realizing on another level that it could not be so. Nevertheless I lulled myself into a feeling that through the miracle of liberation everything would be restored. It was a crutch that had worked for me, had seen me through those harrowing times. Now the war was over, and what would become of the dreams that had nourished me? What of the reality of the situation? Somehow I had to face at least that of which I was certain. I knew that my parents had been sent to Auschwitz, yet had pretended to myself that they were young and strong and could survive. Now, I realized that I had superimposed on their images the ones I remembered from happier times. I did not want to picture my father as he looked after his heart attack: gaunt, gray, and weak, or my mother as the emaciated, frail, worn-down, aging woman she had become by the time of our separation. In my heart and mind they still lived in the familiar childhood environment, notwithstanding the fact that I had been witness to its destruction.


* * *


When the dreaded notice came for the Jews to leave their homes, we were "allowed" to sell our belongings. My mother was close to a nervous breakdown, and Papa directed me to sell everything. The townspeople, most of whom I didn't know, descended on us like vultures. One man took a pink goblet from the liqueur set Artur and I had bought for our parents' twentieth anniversary, in April 1939. He grabbed the slender stem and let it tumble to the floor. "It's not worth much," he said. "After all, one glass is missing." With a smirk he handed me a few dirty, crumbled bills. I would never tell Papa what really had happened, I vowed to myself, swallowing tears of frustration and bitterness and then proceeding to sweep the shards from the bare floor.

    Nothing remained from the home I had once known and loved. It had not been luxurious—far from it—but in its untroubled days it had a nurturing quality about it. It was a warm place in which my mother was born and my grandparents had lived ever since their marriage in the late 1890s. The years had seen it filled with objects of special significance to the family, cherished mementos of a more carefree time. The dream of returning to it had been the crutch to my survival, underpinning my conviction that it would be mine by the very magic of freedom. Now that the walls of brutality had crumbled, I needed to face the reality I had known subconsciously but had managed to push from my mind.

    How I longed for the days when I had been die Kleine, "the little one," cared-for and protected. Only there had been a role reversal, and it was I who had learned to protect my parents. It was I who would stand in line at the store day after day, clutching our meager ration cards bearing the huge J that identified us as "enemies of the state," in the hope of getting a little bread or a tiny bit of margarine. I had taken on that task after Mama came home in tears one day, humiliated by the treatment she had received. People she had known all her life either rudely ignored her or at best had whispered a furtive hello. I picked up the net shopping bag, declaring resolutely that I needed some fresh air and from then on would assume that chore every day. It also fell to me to open the door whenever there was an ominous knock and Mama would shepherd Papa toward his hiding place in the wardrobe, initially over his vehement protests.

    If I decided to make it back home, what would I find? Who would live in our house? The garden must be in bloom, and certainly the sign prohibiting Jews from entering must have come down. Would the former neighbors still be there? Frau Prosner, she who brought the first letter from Artur, which he addressed to her, not knowing where we might be. Thinking of Frau Prosner triggered another image, that of a hot summer's day: I am out in the yard, and through the garden fence branches hang heavy with gooseberries. I go there and pick some, then see little Erwin Prosner. He runs up to me, then toward the house, his piercing shrieks assaulting my senses: "Mutti, the Jewess is devouring our berries. They are only for us Germans! Mutti, come and slap her face." Frau Prosner comes scurrying out of the house, her face flushed, and quickly yanks him back, his face contorted with hate. She walks up to me and takes my hand. "I'm so sorry," she whispers. "You must know, I don't teach him that. He learns it in kindergarten about people who wear the yellow star. I don't dare punish him; he would tell his teachers and we would be in trouble. I'm so sorry."

    What of little Erwin? I used to wheel him carefully in his baby carriage, and one time gave him one of my favorite toys. I see the green pump and how I used to fill it with water, pumping it into a tiny pail, endlessly, over and over. What would little Erwin say if he were to see me entering my garden now? Did I ever want to see him again?


It was a lovely afternoon, and I was feeling a little better. Looking up from the book I was reading, I saw a woman enter the room, hesitate, question a nurse, then approach my bunk. At first shy and diffident, she inquired, was she intruding? No? Handing me a bouquet of flowers, she ventured that they might cheer me up. She had heard what I and my companions had gone through and explained that she knew what it was to be away from home. Her home was really in Germany, she said, she too was a Flüchtling, a refugee, and knew what it meant to be away from the Heimat. You miss your homeland, especially when you are ill like that. It was hard, she allowed, and that's why she had decided that the least she could do as a German was to visit someone like me. She let on that her best school friend had been Jewish, although she didn't know what had happened to her: One day she simply disappeared. Did I have a best friend like that?

    The question she had posed would not go away after the woman left and set me to thinking of my best school friend.

    Gerta! Gerta Teppel! Knit four, purl two ... five rows, then switch. Heavy white wool ... knit four, purl two. Gerta Teppel, my best friend, from way back in first grade. We had walked to and from school every day. Gerta and Gerda, the inseparable duo. She had blond hair with bangs that stopped just above her eyebrows. Naturally I had copied her style with my dark bangs. Every morning we would greet each other with "Servus!" then fall into step and walk to school in animated conversation. Our classroom desks were designed for two, so we sat next to each other throughout the elementary grades. She was very neat and accomplished in so many things I felt inadequate about. That made me want to emulate her in every way possible, and it had gotten to the point where, after considerable effort on my part, it was indeed difficult to tell our handwriting apart. She excelled in music and voice, areas in which I drew an almost complete blank. On the other hand, I compensated for that by getting good marks in language and poetry classes, subjects that were difficult for her. Our respective grade averages were nearly always close.

    Inseparable as we were during school hours, we would rarely meet afterward. Whenever I would broach the subject, she would be noncommittal and make some vague excuse about mysterious-sounding activities that somehow kept her from seeing me. That only heightened my interest in her, and I resolved that there was nothing, but nothing, that I wouldn't do for her.

    At that time I had a crush on a boy named Henek. He had two younger sisters with whom I was friendly. My idol had the bluest eyes, the darkest hair, and a small, upturned nose. He paid no attention to me whatsoever, until one day, during a table tennis game with his sister Lola, I beat her. "You play well for a girl your age," he complimented. "Want to play a game with me?" Flustered, I accepted the challenge and promptly missed every ball, dropped my paddle at one point, then stumbled and was forced to crawl under the table to retrieve the ball. I was mortified, and to make matters worse, I hit my head coming out from under the table. That provided an excuse to break into tears. Henek, realizing what was happening, gallantly dismissed the incident. "Oh, too bad you hurt your head. We must play another time."

    I took my departure through blinding tears and ran home as fast as I Could, replaying in my mind all the mistakes I had made and how I could have avoided them. I found Mama in the living room, busily knitting a ski sweater for me, made of heavy, white wool, in an intricate braid design: Knit four, purl two. Four rows, then reverse. It promised to be beautiful.

    Later that afternoon Lola arrived at my house to announce that a group of her friends were going skiing that coming Sunday. Could I come along? she wanted to know. Henek would lead us, take us to one of his favorite spots on the mountain. I could hardly believe the fortuitous turn of events. And better yet, Henek would see me in that fabulous sweater! Could I? Would I? "Mama," I begged, "could you finish that sweater by Sunday, please, please?" "I think we could give it a try," she agreed with a smile. After that the needles fairly flew: Knit four, purl two. Wait till I wear that sweater with the navy blue ski pants! And Henek will be there!

    Saturdays meant that school let out at noon. Gerta and I were walking home from school. A light snow was falling, the prayed-for powder snow. "You know, I've been thinking," Gerta said, "wouldn't it be nice to get together tomorrow? We could play Tivoli." I was thunderstruck: I had tried in vain to get her to come to the house to play that Polish variation of a pinball game. "Sure, why don't you come over right now. We can have lunch first, then spend the afternoon doing fun things." "I'm sorry, I can't make it right now, but I'll come over tomorrow afternoon. My parents will be at a wedding then, it so happens."

    For a fleeting moment it occurred to me that she might have heard about our ski plans, but then I remembered that she never went skiing because of a leg injury. The request she had tossed off presented a terrible dilemma. I was dying to go with Henek. He would be impressed with the way I skied, and when I wore that new sweater, he had to notice me, just had to. On the other hand, how selfish of me to want to be on those slopes while my best friend had to stay home alone. No, my sacrifice for her would certainly cement our friendship—or would it? I vacillated, but in the end Gerta won out.

    Sunday came, and the snow had improved overnight. Its crystal grains were glistening in the sun like a coating of sugar. Mama was delighted I had decided against going skiing. She viewed any sport with a great deal of apprehension, fear of accidents being the predominant factor. Mama possessed that rare quality of treating her children's friends as she would her own special guests. We devoured the marble cake, drank the cocoa, and thus fortified, focused on the intricacies of Tivoli for a while. To my acute disappointment Gerta left much earlier than I had anticipated. Although it had been a nice enough afternoon, I felt that it had not been wholly satisfying. Aimlessly, I went up to my room, lay on my bed in the darkness of the winter afternoon, staring moodily at the barely discernible shape of my white sweater on the dresser.

    A few years later, during the sweltering summer of 1940, well into the war and the German occupation of Poland, an errand took me to the post office, the yellow Jewish star prominently affixed to my blouse, as decreed by the occupying Nazi forces. Just then, coming down the brown sandstone steps of the building, I spied Gerta. She was wearing a blue dress with a mushroom print pattern. Looking around furtively and finding no one in sight, I kept my voice to its lowest: "Gerta!" She looked straight at me. "Gerta!" I repeated, a note of urgency and trepidation creeping into my voice. Her eyes looked straight through me, and without stopping she said, "I don't talk to Jews!"

    Now I could hear Gerta avowing to someone that her best friend had been Jewish, and she would have been telling the absolute truth.


* * *


Pfarrkirchen [Bavaria], June 27, 1945
[to field hospital, Volary, Czechoslovakia]


Dear Gerda,

It's not my intention to disappear from the face of the earth without any trace whatsoever. So I'm offering a few words of explanation, if not outright apology. Yes, the army has once again lived up to its reputation by removing me from the site of my weekly pilgrimage just as a new phase of our acquaintance was opening up. That's how it happened that we each had to take our first real walk along separate roads. Actually, that may have had a beneficial effect on your state of health. Despite that, I consider myself deprived of a breathtaking event, your first attempt at mobility just now, when I could have reaped the fruit of weeks of patience—or was it impatience? Oh, well, matters must have run their course smoothly, even without the dubious pleasure of my company. In all likelihood I would soon have gasped for breath anyway.

    I hope that I'll be able to convince myself personally of your total recovery in the very near future. Unfortunately I didn't remain in your area and presumably will not get a long-lasting assignment in these parts. Be assured that my occasional visits may be expected.

    Meanwhile, please do pour out your heart and let me know how I can be of help. No answer yet to the letter I sent your uncle in Turkey, but it will come!

Kurt


P.S. As proof of my extraordinary mountaineering feats, permit me to enclose a flower (Alpenrose), which I plucked at an altitude of 2,500 m.


* * *


I have always been attracted to mountain scenery, and that love had its origin in an experience I had when I was thirteen. The summer of 1933 still allowed us some vestiges of a normal life because the anti-Jewish measures were then only in their incipient stages. For me those months held some pivotal events, starting with my bar mitzvah—in that place and time a low-key rite of passage—when, according to Jewish law, I attained the status of manhood. That milestone was a combination of solemn religious significance, along with a certain amount of fun with friends and family.

    Among the largely simple gifts I received, one stood out. It was an invitation to visit with my relatives in Munich, "Uncle" Richard and "Aunt" Klärle, as I called them, although, to be exact, Richard Mayer was a cousin of Mother's who had found his wife in my hometown. The Mayers had always held a certain fascination for me, part of which no doubt stemmed from the fact that Uncle Richard was a regional representative for one of the well-known brands of chocolate, Waldbaur, which made us the beneficiaries of generous samplings from his inventory. It was tremendously exciting for me to think that this would at last afford me the chance to break out beyond the confines of my environment, the realization of much that my dreams had centered on. At the same time I would be touring the scenic beauty of Bavaria, far beyond anything that had ever been open to me. Those were in fact some of the sights that had always lain so tantalizingly inaccessible in that other world I could only read about or see in books or movies.

    The Mayers exuded a sophistication to which I aspired. Auto travel with Richard, in the course of which he would make the rounds of his clientele—and on weekends with Aunt Klärle—taking in spectacular mountain scenery and actually climbing some of those formidable peaks, represented the ultimate thrill to me. Along the way there would be advice on what books to read, what plays to see, or what classical music to listen to; pretty heady stuff for a small-town boy. It opened up vistas, spectacular and real, along with those of the mind. The experience was to trigger a lifelong love of high mountains, and an appreciation as well of the heights that could be reached by exploring classical music, to which Uncle Richard introduced me.

    That summer I matured in many ways, and began to grasp some of the political realities that confronted us as Jews, which Uncle Richard would explain in an attempt to help me better understand them. At the end of that period I returned home, no longer the youngster inclined toward playful pursuits Mother had cautioned her cousin and his wife about before my visit. It was indeed a farewell to childhood that nourished me for much of my life.

    A decade would elapse before I would see my relatives again, by which time there had been a change of scene. The locale: Cheltenham, England, in 1943, where the Mayers had found refuge just in the nick of time before the outbreak of war. I was stationed nearby, amid the gentle, rolling hills of the Cotswolds, in an army camp that held some of the ever-swelling ranks of American troops in the British Isles. As it happened, Klärle worked at the USO club, her name now being Clara. We mused over the events of the immediate past and the prevailing uncertainties as to the progress of the war. Richard's predictions during the summer of 1933 had turned out to be all too accurate. Despite the fact that he had foreseen the situation as it in fact developed, frighteningly close to his conjecture, concerns about his mother, who was too old and ill to emigrate, had nearly made them miss the last exit from Germany. Nevertheless they had made their escape, although it meant that, once hostilities between England and Germany began—and despite the fact that they had just fled the Nazi horror—they were initially subjected to all the restrictions imposed on Britain's "enemy aliens." Richard would relate the bitter irony of being interned on the Isle of Man with German nationals caught by the outbreak of war in England. Most of them were outspoken anti-Semites who received better treatment than did the Jews in the camp.


* * *


Volary, July 6, 1945

Dear Kurt,

Thanks for your letter, which finally confirmed that all is well with you. In all honesty, I was very concerned and could not imagine what had happened. I diligently practices my walking, and by Sunday my hopes were totally dashed, for I had anticipated celebrating your birthday with you. But please accept my belated congratulations and wishes for all that is good and happy and for the fulfillment of all your hopes.

    I gather that you spent the day happily in the breathtaking surroundings of Alps. It fills me with envy—only your lovely rose brings forgiveness. As I held it it opened up new vistas, and I felt that I too shared the magic of nature's beauty.

    Not only am I walking now, but I am able to run. So I take long walks

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