Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood, 1929-1939224
Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood, 1929-1939224
Edgar Feuchtwanger came from a prominent German Jewish family: the only son of a respected editor, and the nephew of best-selling writer Lion Feuchtwanger. He was a carefree five-year-old, pampered by his parents and his nanny, when Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, moved into the building across the street in Munich.
In 1933 his happy young life was shattered. Hitler had been named Chancellor. Edgar’s parents, stripped of their rights as citizens, tried to protect him from increasingly degrading realities. In class, his teacher had him draw swastikas, and his schoolmates joined the Hitler Youth.
From his window, Edgar bore witness to the turmoil surrounding the Night of the Long Knives, the Anschluss, and Kristallnacht. Jews were arrested; his father was imprisoned at Dachau. In 1939 Edgar was sent on his own to England, where he would make a new life, start a career and a family, and try to forget the nightmare of his past—a past that came rushing back when he decided, at the age of eighty-eight, to tell the story of his buried childhood and his infamous neighbor.
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|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
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About the Author
Bertil Scali is a French journalist and writer. He wrote and co-directed a TV documentary about Edgar Feuchtwanger’s childhood in Munich, and is the author of Villa Windsor.
Read an Excerpt
Today it seems to me providential that Fate should have chosen Braunau on the Inn as my birthplace. For this little town lies on the boundary between two German states which we of the younger generation at least have made it our life work to reunite by every means at our disposal.
— ADOLF HITLER, FIRST LINE OF MEIN KAMPF
I like it when she plays this piece for me. A piano minuet. She told me Mozart wrote it when he was my age. I'm five. I listen to the notes, it's very pretty. I'm on the floor, swimming on the parquet as if it were a lake. The armchairs are boats, the sofa an island and the table a castle. If Mama sees me she'll scold me and say I'll dirty my suit. I don't care. Anyway, it's itchy. Now I'm lying flat on the floor under the chair. I have my gun so I have nothing to fear if the French attack. I'll stay hidden.
I was scared again this morning when the poor came and rang the doorbell downstairs where the caretaker lives. Mama went down and I watched from the top of the stairs. They had beards, and holes in their clothes. They wanted money. They were selling shoelaces. Mama came back up and walked right past me, not even noticing me. She found a loaf of that bread I love, the white bread with a golden crust woven over the top of it like a girl's braids, and she took it downstairs. When she handed it to the poor people they smiled at her and went back out into the street.
They came again this afternoon. She was still playing the piano, the piece that gets really fast at the end, she was laughing and I was spinning on the spot, watching the room swirl around me.
The beggars were back. I was first to hear them hammering at the door. Mama stopped playing and went down to open it. One of them was really yelling. He said their house had been taken, and their savings, and they'd been thrown onto the street with their children. He said it was because of the Jews. I was scared, I wanted to cry. Mama was kind to them and one of the men said he knew her, a tall, fat man with a big white beard.
"She's a Feuchtwanger!" he boomed.
He got hold of the nasty little guy who was yelling and pulled him away. He explained that he'd been at school with Uncle Lion and had even read his books. I hid upstairs, keeping watch with my rifle. I wished I was invisible, like in the book they read to me at bedtime. The man with the beard winked and told the little guy he was a pain with his nonsense about Jews. Mama thanked him sweetly and asked Rosie to fetch some sausages. Rosie's my nanny. I rolled away like a soldier and she didn't see me when she walked past. Her white apron and black dress made a rustling sound. I was under the chair. I watched her go to the kitchen. She muttered to herself in dialect, the different language she uses when no one's listening. She said the poor were idiots; she cursed, saying we didn't have all that many sausages, and she didn't know what we'd have for dinner tonight. She came back with the sausages and gave the fat man a smile. He thanked her, blessed my mother and headed off with the gang.
Aunt Bobbie, our upstairs neighbor, came down and talked to Mama. I couldn't really hear. I think Aunt Bobbie told her my uncle would make trouble for us if he wasn't careful with his books. Uncle Lion's a writer. He makes up stories for grown-ups. Mama smiled at Aunt Bobbie and promised to let Uncle Lion know. She tried to reassure her, telling her not to worry, saying the beggars were just poor people who'd been in the war and had lost everything. I ran to the window to watch them. They were ringing the bell at the building opposite, gathering together a little group with others from up the street.
I've been watching the poor through the window since this morning. They're still there outside our building. What if they attacked? I have my rifle! When Mama spotted me earlier, she smiled, came over to me, drew the curtains and said it was time for tea. I asked her what a Jew was, and she whispered in my ear that I was too young to understand.
I may be five but I follow everything. I know what a Jew is! One time Papa talked to Mama about them in front of me. She asked him to change the subject because I wasn't old enough, but he said I wouldn't understand and kept talking. I played with my little cars on the floor, pretending not to listen. But I heard everything. They were talking about the Nazis, who don't like the Jews. The Jews means us, the Feuchtwanger family. I've known that for ages. I already talked about that with Rosie. We're all the same, Rosie told me when I asked her, only the Jews don't believe in the baby Jesus. But I know he was real. Rosie told me all about him. He had long hair and was very kind. Bad men hung him on a cross, put nails through his hands and feet and killed him. I wanted to know if the Jews were the villains. Rosie said they weren't, the Nazis were mixing everything up. It was the Romans who killed Jesus, and anyway, he was a Jew himself. It's a very old story, from another age, another time, long before I was born, or my parents, or their parents, or all their ancestors, before the days of cars and cities; it happened in an ancient country that no longer exists, over the mountains, the fields, the rivers and the sea. She opened the neck of her blouse and showed me a tiny golden cross on her chest. She said I could hold it. I touched it softly, she brought it to her mouth and gave it a little kiss, then she kissed my forehead and said I was her little darling, and that all children and all people were made of one flesh, that we were all children of the Lord, and Jesus said we should all love each other. She looked kind of sad, and I snuggled close to her.
So when my parents were talking about the Nazis I knew what they meant. I wanted to tell them that the Nazis were getting the Jews mixed up with the Romans. But I decided to keep pretending I was playing on the floor so I could hear what else they had to say. We were in the study, the room where Papa keeps all his books in shelves that go right up to the ceiling. He has thousands of them. He's read them all, and likes looking at them, picking one up, opening it, closing it again, fingering it.
My parents are sitting on the green velvet sofa. I like it when they're both here. Sometimes he touches her face. He gazes at her and she looks at him admiringly. She tells him he's handsome and she loves him, but his mustache tickles when he kisses her! He says that her kisses make his glasses steam up. My father is handsome and elegant. I'd like to wear clothes like his, a white shirt and a tie instead of this itchy woolen suit, and a nice jacket with wide stripes like his. He always tells me I'm too young.
Shafts of sunlight warm my legs, which stick out from my hiding place. I listen to their conversation. They're talking about Uncle Lion and Adolf Hitler. Uncle Lion thinks Hitler will be leader one day and when he is he'll kill all the Jews. I don't know who Hitler is but my lips wobble and I want to cry. I come out of hiding and sneak into my parents' arms. They don't understand why I'm sobbing. Neither do I.
I'm riding my elephant on wheels. His name's Hannibal, like the emperor who fought the Romans with elephants. He attacked the Romans by crossing the mountains in winter. When I sit on Hannibal my feet don't touch the ground. On his back, I'm big and tall. The window is open; the sounds of birds and cars come in from outside. I take Hannibal over and lean on the windowsill to look out. It's a beautiful day. Cars have their roofs down and I can see the passengers. There's Aunt Bobbie, who lives upstairs. She's with her sweetheart, Duke Luitpold of Bavaria. A duke is like a prince or a king, and Bavaria is the other name for our country: my parents say we live in Germany, but Aunt Bobbie, the duke and Rosie insist we live in Bavaria. Mama and Papa say they're German, Aunt Bobbie and the duke that they're Bavarian.
The duke's car is driven by a chauffeur. I can see his white gloves and his hat with gold braid and a shiny black peak to protect him from the sun and the wind. The car is like a carriage, lined with beige leather. The duke really does seem like a king. He's wearing a top hat, a tailcoat that makes him look like a penguin, and just one eyeglass. It's a monocle. I call him "the Magician" because he manages to balance that piece of round glass in front of his eye. Aunt Bobbie is wearing a big white hat; her rings flash in the sunlight. She sees me and waves. "Bürschi!" she cries. That's what I'm called at home, it means "little boy" in Bavarian. I wave back to her. The duke says hello too, waggling the golden handle on his long regal walking stick. Aunt Bobbie shows me a little parcel tied with red ribbon. I know it's a box of candied fruit because she gives them to me all the time. I can't wait for her to get up here and give them to me, I want it to happen right now.
A big black car draws up on the other side of the street, and they turn to look at it. A chauffeur in military uniform walks around the car and opens the passenger door. A man steps out, looks at Aunt Bobbie, then the duke, then up at me.
He has a little black mustache, just like Papa's.
Rosie makes me jump slamming the window shut. She draws the curtains, undresses me and puts me to bed for my nap. I hate nap time. I don't like the bars on my bed either.
Eyes closed, I can feel Rosie's gentle hand on my cheek. I fall asleep.
I dream that the man opposite turns into an ogre, he catches us and wants to eat us. He has big bushy hair and long pointed fingernails, like Struwwelpeter, the horrible boy in the book on my nightstand. With his hooked nails and bristly hedgehog hair, the ogre chases my family through the streets. My parents hold my hands but they run too quickly for me. I slip and fall behind, my mother comes back for me, the monster's catching up. Wicked Friedrich — the little boy who whips his maid, kills cats with stones, pulls the wings off flies and throttles turtle doves — is in my dream too, throwing chairs like cannonballs.
I don't know whether I like the book Struwwelpeter. It shows Jesus giving presents to well-behaved children who eat up their soup, play with their toys and meekly hold their mother's hand. He has angel's wings and a crown. He looks like a little girl in a nightgown, kneeling in the snow. A star shines over his head. A bayonet and a military drum hover on the page among the presents. The book tells the terrible stories of naughty children. Friedrich beats his dog cruelly. Little Pauline perishes in the flames that burn her ribbons, her hair, her feet and her eyelids till all that's left of her is a small heap of ashes and her little polished shoes. Her two kittens cry and their tears make a pool of water. Children jeer at a boy who's black from head to foot, and they're punished by Nicolas, who dips them in ink. They end up flat as a sheet of paper, like shadows. A man with huge scissors cuts off Conrad's thumbs to stop him sucking them, and that story terrifies me because I suck my thumb. Meanwhile Gaspar dies because he never eats his soup, and Robert disappears into the sky, carried away by his umbrella. It's all jumbled up in my mind. They float through the air, fly around me, become misshapen, elongated, then disappear ...
I'm hot. The back of my neck's wet.
It's a bad dream.
I'm standing up in bed.
I step over the bars, climb onto the small rattan chair and look out of the window.
The street is quiet. A curtain moves in the building opposite.
Rosie and I walk to the park every day. On the way we pass Herr Hitler's house. Rosie always walks slightly faster then, and stops listening to what I'm saying.
Yesterday my hat fell off outside his building and she didn't hear when I told her. We had to go back. A guard had it in his hand. He was tall, dressed like a soldier, and he said I was very cute, that I'd be a good brave German when I grew up. Rosie didn't want to stay a minute longer, she dragged me away, walking quickly, clutching my hand too tightly. She looked annoyed; I didn't dare speak. She almost shouted when she reminded me that I mustn't talk to strangers.
Mama is always at home, whereas Papa comes back late, after my dinner. But Mama wasn't here this afternoon. She came home with Papa, just after my nap. They were carrying parcels and laughing. They told me I was their little treasure and wouldn't stop kissing me.
Today's a big day, a special day, because Uncle Lion is coming to dinner. My uncle who writes books, the ones the beggars and the lady upstairs talk about.
My father gave a loud cheer when he saw the table, and he threw his arms in the air, thanking Rosie. Mama also said she'd done a good job and I definitely think I saw her blush. Rosie pointed out that she and I had set the table together, and the excess color started to fade from her pretty face. My parents clapped, and this time I think I was the one blushing ... This morning Rosie had ironed the big tablecloth, the one she keeps in the laundry room. It's also my room: when anyone talks about me or my toys, they call it "Bürschi's room," and when there's linen to iron, fold or put away, they say "the laundry room." We share it during the day.
Rosie had placed the handsome candelabra in the middle of the table; it has lots of branches and once belonged to my grandmother, my father's mother, who died when I was little. My parents sometimes show me photos of her and tell me she adored me, and I vaguely remember a lady with a walking stick. Rosie told me that, if my parents didn't mind, I'd be allowed to light the candles. When I saw how pleased they were with the beautifully set table, I asked whether I could.
"Why not," said Papa. "You'll do it no worse than a real rabbi." And I don't know why but everyone laughed. I blushed again, of course.
The steam from the bath makes condensation on the windows and I can draw on it. Rosie doesn't like me drawing on the glass, grumbling that she'll have to clean it later, but my pictures vanish when we open the window. The bathwater's scalding, it took me some time to get in. First my toes, then my ankles and calves. I waited awhile till I was used to it. Then I could sit down. Now it's stopped burning. I'm quite happy here with my toys; I sing and play wars, the Germans against the French. My uncle Berthold was wounded in the trenches. He told me the Germans were unfairly said to have been defeated when they'd actually won more victories. Papa wasn't pleased when he heard Uncle Berthold telling me about the war. He scolded him and I felt like crying. Uncle Berthold has a beard, and I think bearded men always look sad. But I don't want my uncle to be unhappy. To cheer him up I make him win in my bath-time war.
But he's not the uncle who's coming to dinner this evening. That's Lion, the uncle who writes books, the ones the beggars and the lady upstairs talk about.
Mama tells me I don't remember him because he doesn't come to our house much. I'm dying to see him, I can't wait!
Papa joins us in my laundry-room-bedroom. He has a skullcap on his head, a small fabric hat. He has two of them in his bedroom, his and his father's, the grandfather I never met. He doesn't wear them but I know they mean a lot to him because I'm not allowed to play with them. My mother tells him he looks ridiculous. He says it will amuse Lion and, with a wink, he puts the other skullcap on me.
Mama draws the muslin across the window. It's a magic curtain that lets the light in but hides us from the outside world. So the neighbors can't look in. And she leaves the room.
Rosie calls me and I go to have my dinner in the kitchen, which is full of delicious smells as usual. She's cooked me my favorite sausages, white ones, well done. She slips them onto my plate from the pan, and I can hear them spit. She pours over the juices and adds golden potatoes.
I didn't hear the doorbell but Uncle Lion has arrived. He and Papa are standing over me talking. Their voices are almost identical. They look alike, like twins. Lion is shorter and wears big, round clown's glasses. Aunt Marta, his wife, is here too. I haven't met her before. She's beautiful; she has a hat perched on her hair, which she wears lifted up off the back of her neck; her lips are red, her teeth white and her eyes brown. She winks at me and I look away.
Excerpted from "Hitler, My Neighbor"
Copyright © 2013 Éditions Michel Lafon.
Excerpted by permission of Other Press LLC.
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