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The Way Home: A German Childhood, an American Life

The Way Home: A German Childhood, an American Life

5.0 2
by Ernestine Bradley

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Growing up in Bavaria during World War II, Ernestine Bradley came to know wartime dislocations and food shortages, along with the challenges of taking care of her siblings while her mother was ill. The men of her hometown were away at war, but their absence created an exciting unexpected freedom–a freedom she sought again at 21 when she became a stewardess,


Growing up in Bavaria during World War II, Ernestine Bradley came to know wartime dislocations and food shortages, along with the challenges of taking care of her siblings while her mother was ill. The men of her hometown were away at war, but their absence created an exciting unexpected freedom–a freedom she sought again at 21 when she became a stewardess, moved to New York and went on to marry a shy basketball star who played for the New York Knicks.

Yet the paradoxes of her childhood shaped Bradley’s life. Her hard-won discipline helped her maintain a full-time career as a professor while she commuted weekly to Washington and her husband’s public life; and Germany’s literary response to the holocaust of which she had been unaware became her scholarly passion. Cancer confronted her with a personal war, ultimately demanding a vulnerability she had never allowed herself. Frank, warm, and deeply moving, The Way Home is an inspiring American story.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A memoir of self-discovery. . . . Lucid and bracing.”
The New York Times

“An unforgettable portrait of a German wartime childhood. . . . Moving seamlessly between a child’s memories and an adult’s perspective, Ernestine Bradley involves the reader at every step along the way.”
—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of No Ordinary Time

“Elegant. . . . Sets a lofty standard for introspective memoir.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

"A smart, engaging memoir." —More

“Dazzling. . . . Bradley's stirring tale of obstacles overcome, goals pursued, and sacrifices made explores how one woman forged a rewarding life on her own terms." —Booklist

Ernestine Schlant Bradley is a German-born, naturalized American citizen; a cancer survivor; a professor of comparative literature; a mother; a grandmother; and the wife of former Democratic senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley. In this gentle, reflective memoir, she traces her extraordinary life, from her childhood in a small town in Nazi Germany to her early career as an airline stewardess and her emigration to America to her romance and marriage to a living legend.
Publishers Weekly
"Memories, to me, are like illuminated islands floating in an ocean of darkness," begins Bradley's memoir. Wife of Bill Bradley, the former senator and candidate for the 2000 presidential election, Ernestine Bradley recounts her rocky childhood in Germany during and after WWII and her move to the U.S. as an adult. Bradley's recollections of her childhood and adolescence in Germany provide an insightful portrait of a family in flux during the Nazi regime, but the flow of emotion is often interrupted by unnecessary parenthetical comments and uncertainty (e.g., "This I don't remember, but it makes sense"). Bradley's parents' intense-and at times unconventional-relationship is a focal point of the author's childhood confusion and adolescent resentment, and inspires heartfelt descriptions. Her strength is apparent as she describes her flight from the confines of her family-appropriately enough as an airline flight attendant-and her subsequent challenges as a wife, mother, academic (in the field of comparative literature) and breast cancer survivor. Her descriptions of her later life are short but accurately relay the difficulties she dealt with as a woman balancing a career and a family during the 1960s and '70s. While at times stiff and defensive, Bradley's memoir is a fine portrait of a childhood spent in wartime and an adult's search for true identity. Illus. Agent, Philippa Brophy. (Mar. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Ernestine Bradley's autobiography illustrates the value to the US of immigration. Growing up in Germany during WW II gave her a different outlook; her husband says in his autobiography that his wife "was a child of the defeat." Certainly she had a childhood that no native-born American had to experience. However, the thread throughout her book is not the German experience, but the family experience, a universal story. When she writes about mid-century German history she is clear and concise, as befits a professor of literature. When she writes about her own family, the emotional ties to her mother, father and stepfather, she is not so clear. Certainly her relationship with her mother was the most important influence in her life. The war colored her childhood, even if she did not understand the ramifications of the German defeat until she began teaching at Spellman College in Atlanta, in the early 1960s, after the collapse of her first marriage. She then began to appreciate the universal evil of racism through her growing awareness of the Holocaust: when she was growing up no mention was made of Germany's role in the murder of millions of Jews. The author has had experiences on many fronts, beginning with the care of a younger brother and sister at the end of the war. Breast cancer was diagnosed and treated in the early ‘90s; she has been cancer-free since. (She continues to talk about breast cancer on the lecture circuit.) She was active and involved in her husband's unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. There is much more to Ernestine Bradley's life than immigration. We do, however, appreciate the determination and contribution of immigrants like her with similarstories to tell. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2005, Random House, Anchor, 259p. illus., Ages 15 to adult.
—Penelope Power
Library Journal
From a childhood in Nazi Germany to work as an airline stewardess to a professorship in comparative literature and marriage to a basketball-playing senator. With a four-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The spouse of the former senator from New Jersey speaks about her history and emotional life. In an autobiography characterized by such thoughts, Ernestine Bradley reveals that sometimes she thinks of herself as "a mangrove tree with roots hanging in the air," a conceit prompted principally by her childhood in postwar Germany. What with American soldiers, ersatz sausages, lice, and a truck that was fueled by wood, it seems to have been the worst of times for kleine Wuschi and her family in the Bavarian town of Passau. She had, it appears, two fathers. There was the loving biological one, who was a member of the Luftwaffe, and then there was the hairdresser, a member of the Nazi party, who was a temporary loving father of convenience for a while. It's little wonder that an operatic attitude dominates the first part of this before-and-after story. In the 1950s, when she was 21 (and had excellent language skills), Ernestine emigrated to the US and the excitement of New York, working as a Pan Am stewardess. Soon, she was living in Atlanta, the wife of a physician and the parent of a daughter. But that life didn't work out. Next, divorced and back in New York, she met the smart pro basketball player. She joined the academic world and settled in New Jersey, married to terrific Bill Bradley. He is, she assures us, the best of husbands, especially during her victorious bout with breast cancer. There are certain lacunae, to be sure, with virtually nothing relating to Senator Bill's career or his run for the Oval Office. Rather, here's Oprah-style self-awareness, presented with careful skill. It might not have helped a presidential campaign, anyway. With its bit of Teutonic flavor, this isn't thestory of a typical Jersey Girl-nor is it the most unusual or gripping of revelatory journeys.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.28(w) x 8.03(h) x 0.55(d)

Read an Excerpt

I was born in Passau, which is now on the Austrian border, in 1935. Passau is a city of three rivers—die Dreiflüsse-Stadt. It is mentioned in the Nibelungenlied, the German epic poem written around 1200, but its origins date back roughly fifteen hundred years. Here I spent the first ten years of my life. The picturesque old town, the Altstadt, with its Italianate buildings, is set on hills high above the confluence of the Danube, Inn, and Ilz rivers. It also sits on top of formidable walls, constructed over centuries to defy the periodic floods, and its heart is laced with tunnels, steep steps, and narrow alleys—a child’s dream landscape, where you could play hide-and-seek all day long. (During the war there were practically no vehicles in the streets.) Street names like Hennengasse (Hens’ Alley) and Löwengrube (Lions’ Den) suggested a magical past, and the high, narrow buildings created canyons that promised protection.

The Danube was, for us kids, the least interesting of Passau’s rivers. It had a harbor, or perhaps it was just a long, extended boat-landing, where ships coming down from Regensburg or up from Vienna docked. The dockworkers would yell at us and chase us away, but there was nothing to do there anyway, except watch the loading and unloading. In former times (so we were told), boats would come from as far away as Budapest and the Black Sea. It all sounded very mysterious: I had no idea why those boats no longer arrived. In the 1980s, my nephew, who was then a student at the University of Passau, invited me to ride out into the countryside. Not far from town, he stopped before a huge boulder overgrown with ivy. You had to push the ivy aside to see a plaque commemorating an Aussenlager; it was a subsidiary of the Mauthausen concentration camp, which itself was located about eighty miles down the Danube from Passau. This subcamp was small—it never contained more than a hundred people—but what went on there? When I asked my mother about the camp many years later, she gave me the usual answer: she did not know.

Not even that the area was closed off and nobody was allowed to go near it? Well, yes, that of course one knew, since one was not allowed to go there.

What do you think was going on there? One didn’t know, precisely because one was not allowed to go near the place. And nobody ever really went? Not to her knowledge. Could you venture a guess? Perhaps they built secret things. Who built them? Prisoners. What kind of prisoners? Prisoners, political prisoners, those who opposed the regime. And what about the Jews? She did not know.

The Inn River was my river, perhaps because we lived in the Innstadt, the section of town wedged between the Inn River and the Mariahilfsberg, a mountain rising behind the river. Overlooking the Innstadt, perched on top of the mountain, was a famous pilgrims’ church, Mariahilf, which gave the mountain its name. It was an attractive building, the outside walls washed in a Baroque yellow, with white accents and carved stone masonry surrounding the windows and doors. Leading up to it on one side of the mountain, opposite the roadway where in winter we went sleigh-riding, was a covered passage with perhaps three hundred wide stone steps, where pilgrims would ascend, saying prayers on each step. When there was a drought or some other calamity, long processions of farmers came from miles around to appeal to Mary, Mother of God, praying, “Maria, hilf!,” carrying banners and fingering the beads of their rosaries as they walked. I watched them from a window of our apartment as they walked by, making their way up to the church, barefoot all the way.

My “Tante Betty” (not an actual relative but a person I loved dearly) had a grandson, Gerhardi, with Down syndrome. On several occasions she prayed an entire rosary on each of the steps leading to the church at the top of the mountain and would have to spend the night on the steps, because she could not finish all her prayers in one day. Only much later, after her death, did I realize that Gerhardi had been a prime target for the euthanasia program the Nazis launched in 1939, and that her prayers had a very specific purpose. Gerhardi survived because in August 1941 Bishop Galen of Münster preached a single sermon against the euthanasia program, and the killings were stopped—at least officially. How often have I wondered what would have happened if Bishop Galen or someone of similar authority had spoken out against the deportation of the Jews, who were neighbors, German citizens. Most Germans were opposed to the euthanasia program, since it was directed against members of their own families, and the bishop knew he spoke for the majority when he condemned it. The Jews, a minority, had no such advocates. Even so, in 1943, when the gentile wives of Jewish men who had been sent to the camps staged a weeklong protest in Berlin at the Rosenstrasse—under constant threat of being shot at—they were successful: the men were released. How often would the Nazis have caved in when faced with convincing public protest?

In late spring, the Inn River would swell with snowmelt from the Alps and often carried Hochwasser (“high water”). The floodings of Passau occur regularly; there are high-water marks on the outside of many houses, and inside, damp cavernous hallways lead from ground floors to the safe upper floors. Sometimes when you walked across the Inn Bridge, you were drenched by the spray and you could feel the bridge swerve. It was exciting. Several months after one particular Hochwasser, there appeared a gravel island in the river, toward the Innstadt side and separated from the Innstadt by a deep and fast current. It was early summer. I was eight years old, and our little gang decided to jump from the bridge into the river and swim to the new island. The Inn is a swift river at all times. A little downstream, past where the Inn emptied into the Danube, a ferry went back and forth on a cable, and the river was so strong that it once tore the ferry from the cable. Rumor had it that people drowned. We jumped; we swam; we landed on the gravel island a long way downstream from the bridge. Neighbors, acquaintances, somebody must have told my mother. Obviously, she was very angry with me and took me to “Opapa,” her husband’s father, who flourished his cane and said he would thrash me with it if I ever jumped again. The threat of a beating did not scare me, and I could not understand why everybody got so upset about something that had been so much fun—but I never jumped into the Inn again.

Opapa’s son, my mother’s husband, was Baumeister Max, the proprietor—or the son of the proprietor—of the hair salon where she worked. (In Bavaria it is customary to refer to a person by his or her last name first, followed by the given name, a custom that may be a vestige of the importance attached to family identity rather than to the individual. The name of my mother’s first husband forever rings in this reverse sequence in my ears, and I will keep it that way.) Baumeister Max loved my mother, and with enormous gallantry had married her after she became pregnant with me by the man she was in love with but felt she could not marry. She often told me, with a slight bitterness in her voice, that a week after I was born she was picked up from the lying-in hospital—elegantly, by taxicab—and went right back to work at the Baumeister salon; as the owner’s wife, she felt this was expected of her. So, upon coming home from the hospital, I was immediately given into day-and-night care with Tante Betty. Tante Betty became the most important person in Passau for me. It was she who invented my nickname, Wuschi, and she tied a string to my cradle with the other end attached to her foot, so that when I cried during the night she did not have to get out of bed but simply rocked me back to sleep by pulling the string with her foot.

Tante Betty was married to “Uncle Avril,” who had a huge dark-red nose that had been frozen during World War I. I don’t know why he was only called by his last name, the French word for “April.” For me, the name has an interesting historical resonance: I assume that one of his French ancestors stayed behind in Bavaria after the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They lived in a large apartment on the second floor of one of those houses with dark and enormous ground floors constructed of huge stone slabs. Tante Betty had a net shopping bag suspended on a rope from the second-floor banister so that when she brought home groceries she did not have to carry them upstairs but pulled them up on the rope. Tante Betty and her husband rented out rooms to young boys from the country who went to the Passau Gymnasium. She would cook for them and make their beds, and during the war, when the Gymnasium students came back from their weekends in the country they would always bring food. I remember Tante Betty’s big dining-living room. (Was it really that big, or did it just seem so to the little girl I was?) Over the table hung a lamp made of dark-green fringed silk, which could be raised and lowered on a cord. Even after I was a little older and had been taken away from Tante Betty, I visited her as often as I could. In those remembered scenes, the students sit around the table, she supervises their homework, and she sews; she must have taken sewing in. I am just old enough to crouch on a chair and bend over the table to paint or draw. I am busy, like the big boys around the table, and Uncle Avril sits on the sofa and reads a paper in semi-obscurity, because the light of the lamp over the table does not reach into the corners of the room. These scenes around the table—I see them as if they were a painting, the green lamp shade, the bright light on the table with the people congregated around it, and the uncle in the shaded background. Does his newspaper catch a glimmer of the light and reflect it on his face? Is this how it was? Is this how it could have been? Is this how I wish it had been? This scene is the only memory I have of an intimate, tranquil domesticity during my early childhood.

My mother took me away from Tante Betty when I was about a year and a half, old enough to be entrusted to a young woman from the Arbeitsdienst (“Workers’ Service”), or, more precisely, the Reichsarbeitsdienst, a Nazi-invented organization requiring young people to do what we might today call community service, such as draining swamps, working on farms, or, for girls especially, working in households. My mother’s pride would never have allowed her to admit it, but I know she was jealous of Tante Betty. She often told me that, when she ran over to Tante Betty’s apartment during a break in her work routine, Tante Betty would invariably say that I was asleep and could not be disturbed. My mother at that time was nineteen years old and no match for Tante Betty. But she could and did take me away from her. From that time on, a succession of girls from the Arbeitsdienst would, every afternoon, put me in a stroller and take me to my mother at the hair salon. When my mother was free, she took me to a café around the corner for ice cream and a Torte. These scenes I know from photographs. But I also remember, unaided by photographs, that I waited for the times when my mother was too busy to attend to me, because then I could insist on being taken to see Tante Betty. I had little fits, yelling in the stroller or stomping my feet on the sidewalk, and there was no girl in the Arbeitsdienst who did not want to get rid of such a difficult child and leave me with the adult whose name I so demandingly screamed.

Once the war started, the girls from the Arbeitsdienst petered out. I started going to nursery school, which was close to where Opapa and Omama Baumeister lived. Here Lina, their longtime housekeeper and cook, took me under her wing, and I felt empowered enough to be not very nice to my mother. The earliest sign of rebellion I remember dates back to my high chair days in the Baumeister apartment. Lunch in Germany is a much heavier affair than in this country, and so it was in the Baumeister family. On this particular occasion Lina had fixed me Griesbrei, a soft and sweet kind of porridge made of matzoh meal and served with raspberry syrup. It’s a favorite of children, and I assume Lina thought I didn’t have enough teeth yet to chew on something harder. I decided I didn’t want the Griesbrei, so Lina fixed me scrambled eggs. I didn’t want those, either. (My mother, years later, as we reminisced about Passau, would insist that I looked at her as I asserted myself with another “No!” This I don’t remember, but it makes sense.) Lina then heated and cut up some soft little sausages (Weisswurst) for me, with kind words of encouragement, since she did not want me to go hungry, but she did not understand that there was a major power struggle going on. I rejected the sausages, too. At that point, my mother tried to pull me out of the high chair to spank me, but Opapa intervened: under no circumstances should she touch that sweet, lovely child! Was I in triumph? I must have been, for the scene is still so vivid in my mind that I see the kitchen in full color with all its furniture, a glass door into the dark hallway, and on the other side of the hallway the door to the living room, where I sat a few years later on the windowsill to watch the beginning of the campaign against Poland.

Opapa spoiled me in accordance with his tastes. He was a great lover of horses—the Rottal, not far from Passau, was great horse country—and when I was four years old, he bought me a pony. There are photographs of me sitting on the pony, and I remember the stable where Opapa would take me to feed it. It must have been a good pony, because it never frightened me when I combed it with a rough brush, but I don’t remember its name. I had the pony into the early months of the war; when all the horses were confiscated, my pony replaced a horse in a circus.

Meet the Author

Ernestine Bradley, a naturalized American citizen, is a professor of comparative literature, an author, a mother, a grandmother, a breast cancer survivor and the wife of former Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley. She currently teaches at New School University in New York City and lives in New Jersey.

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The Way Home: A German Childhood, an American Life 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An exceptional book. It was like living my life all over again. I could not put it down. Does this title also come in german? I would like to send a copy to my sister in law. in Germany.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There are some books that have such a sense of immediacy and urgency about them that when you start to read them, you just cannot put them down. They pull you in, they make you forget about eating and sleeping, they gently ask you to surrender. And if you do so, you embark on a great journey through someone else¿s world that suddenly becomes your world. The Way Home by Ernestine Schlant Bradley is one of those books. Weaving together in a seamless tapestry the stuff that great novels and great lives are made of¿betrayal, separation, loss, defeat, triumph--Bradley uses memory as a vehicle to initially transport her readers to the small town of Passau, Germany, where she grew up during the Nazi period and after World War II; she then flies us on her fictional magic carpet to the United States where she arrives in the fifties to escape the strictures of family and country and to begin a new life as stewardess, university student, mother, professor, wife of Senator Bill Bradley, breast cancer survivor, and perpetual commuter between her Washington home, where she spent the weekends with her daughter and senator husband, and Montclair State University, where she taught courses in German literature and culture and Comparative Literature. The many rich and complicated experiences that Ernestine Bradley lived in these different geographical and psychological worlds are the ostensible subject of The Way Home. But her memoir is much more complex than this simple description: as she uncovers and reveals countless layers of silence and truth, as she merges her personal history with a piece of both Germany history and American history, and as she views defeat as an opportunity rather than a loss, she offers us an inspiring tale that somehow speaks to all of us. Those who have longed for independence and who have struggled to separate from family will find a piece of themselves in this book as will those who have confronted confusing and distorted family histories. Those who came to this country to begin a new life will find a piece of themselves in this book as will those who learned to scrutinize their national past once they left the homeland. Those who have fallen in love and found safety and affirmation of the self in a nurturing relationship will find a piece of themselves in this book as will those who have negotiated the tremendous pulls of motherhood and career and career and marriage. Those who are cancer survivors will find a piece of themselves in this book as will those who experienced through illness a way of letting go. Finally, all of us for whom little moments of the past evoke big emotions will find countless echoes of our own lives in this memoir that is Ernestine Bradley¿s account of a life fully lived.