The Second World War and the even more odious war within that war consumed my childhood. Under attack by both sides, I needed more than one miracle to survive. But not all of the memories are painful. At the beginning my family lived in Hamburg, Germany, an ancient and beautiful port city near the North Sea. My father, who was not a Jew, was forced into the army but was active in the underground, especially in Brussels where he and his best friend, an artist of note, elicited secrets from NAZI officials who sat for their portraits. Although rare, his home visits were luminous events during which he imparted his intense will to resist. But the genocidal war within the War became an increasingly surreal horror as my mother's father, her younger brother, her sister, her aunts and uncles and their children were arrested and killed or interned in concentration camps. Mother and I raged and wept as security police took away my grandmother, who handed me her teardrop pearl earrings just before they put her into a van that we later learned was a traveling death chamber.
Because he had been a communist until the Hitler-Stalin pact, Father knew people throughout northern Europe who had opposed Nazism. One survivor of the Gestapo's systematic efforts to uncover and exterminate all opponents was a woman named Marie Pimber who lived on a small farm outside Hamburg. Like other former comrades she might be called upon to support certain acts of resistance, but we didn't know whether she would assist Jews.
On a clear summer night when I was seven, the Allies launched `Operation Gomorrah,' using the biblical city of sin as a code word for Hamburg. Instead of its U-boat and aircraft factories, Hamburg's civilian population was the target. The attack was led by nearly 800 British Halifax and Lancaster heavy bombers. Thanks to a new radar-jamming device, they arrived virtually unopposed shortly after midnight and began dropping thousands of tons of high explosive, liquid incendiary, and phosphorous bombs into the residential heart of the old city. Some of the bombs were equipped with incredibly loud screaming devices to increase the terror. The next day an armada of American Flying Fortresses resumed the onslaught, and this pattern was repeated for ten days and nights.
Thousands of conflagrations raging out of control soon melded into one gigantic firestorm, an all-consuming flame rising almost a mile into the northern sky, lighting the coastline of Europe like a torch and turning the city's aged timbers into an enormous funeral pyre for over seventy thousand men, women, and children. But even as they experienced vindictive destruction of a magnitude and intensity unprecedented in history, the 'Aryan folk' of Hamburg could not let go of their indoctrinated hate long enough to share space in their bomb shelters with Jews. Repeatedly turned away and forced into the streets, Mother and I stumbled hand in hand through Gomorrah. At some point I lost the ability to breathe any more of the spark-filled smoke and lapsed into unconsciousness.
I awoke lying on a ledge in a dugout or cellar with an earthen ceiling only a foot or so above my head. A woman with a large, pink face wrapped in a black shawl held a lantern and glared at me with eyes as hard and shiny as chestnuts. When I began to cough, she squinted and bared large, stained, forward-slanting teeth as if she would bite me unless I stopped at once. From the darkness I heard my mother's reassuring voice:
"Don't worry, darling; we are safe, now. Frau Pimber is going to let us stay." There was a snort as the bulky woman withdrew, leaving us in the grave-like darkness. Although the dirt roof was too low for Mother to stand erect, she gave me water from a metal cup and stroked my cheeks and forehead until I stopped coughing and fell back to sleep.
The earthen dugout, I soon learned, was not our primary shelter. Most of the time we lived in a small shed secluded among oaks and pines, a short dash from the hazelnut bushes that concealed the entrance to the dugout. Covered with tarpaper, the shed had been a place for tools and winter plants, but it was outfitted with a small stove, a cot, a table, and a single electric light. We stayed in the dugout only when visitors came to the farm or when a neighbor, a minor NAZI official spent holidays or weekends at his country house. Marie Pimber would pull a switch, shutting off our electricity as a means of telling us to move into the dugout. Fortunately for us the Unterfuhrer's duties in what was left of Hamburg didn't allow him to visit his farm often.
Frau Pimber was as wide as a cow and even more threatening, at least to me. Although I didn't know why, I knew from the first that she disliked me, and I did my best to avoid getting caught in the glare of her perpetually squint eyes. When she opened her great jaws I was repelled by the guttural harshness of her voice as well as the hideous teeth. Hiding behind a bush or tree I agonized as she bullied my mother. She never let Mother forget that we would be in a KZ if she hadn't agreed to hide us. For every potato, every turnip, she exacted a price in hard labor. Her husband was a slight, elderly man who was able to fade into the background at will. Claiming his health was too poor for farm work, he stayed indoors almost all the time.
When Frau Pimber wasn't around I was profoundly thankful for our refuge from shattering explosions and the sights and screams of people on fire. Lying on the earthen shelf of the dugout and trying not to cough, my body would tense and shake as scenes from the bombings soundlessly projected themselves on the utter darkness. Over and over again I would see a fireman climb a ladder toward people frantically waiving from an upper window of a burning building, and would try to will an ending other than the collapse of the wall into flames. Squeezing my eyelids tight I would see the baked gingerbread faces of the people who had turned us away from their bunkers because we wore the Star of David on our dresses, or would feel myself surrounded by the wildly gyrating bodies of people who were crazy with pain because they had been struck by the inextinguishable fragments of spectacularly beautiful white phosphorous bombs. We had seen such doomed people during our flight when we had paused at one of Hamburg's many canals to douse our clothes and ourselves in an effort to combat the unbearable heat.
Such images slowly succumbed to an insistent absorption with hunger, acute and constant. Although we were in the country, the only crops were hay and wheat, which Frau Pimber sold, and there were many days when we had nothing to eat. A rare feast would be a couple of potatoes, boiled in their jackets so as not to lose a milligram of bulk. Turnips were more plentiful, and I gratefully accepted when Mother, pretending she couldn't stand them, gave me her portion. She was my savior; she had never let go of my hand as we struggled to escape the flames, even after I had collapsed. She was also my teacher, my comforter, my companion, and I loved her and desperately wanted her to be happy.
Although mother possessed seemingly unshakable composure, both of us stopped breathing one autumn morning when there was a heavy knocking on the door of our hut. We knew it wasn't Frau Pimber, since she never bothered to knock, and her husband would never have pounded with such force. After the banging was repeated, Mother opened the door to a woman who was even larger and more ungainly than Frau Pimber. She looked bewildered and her watery blue eyes seemed to bulge as she entered the hut, holding two eggs in her outstretched hand. She continued to look startled and rolls of fat beneath her chin quivered as she told us that she was Liese, Frau Pimber's neighbor and oldest friend. "Don't be afraid," she said, "I won't tell anyone. I have known since the beginning; you have nothing to fear from me."
After a pause Mother introduced herself. The contrast between the two women was overwhelming. Despite all she had been through, Mother looked as refined and beautiful as a photo in a fashion magazine. The naked light that hung above our table lengthened her lashes and dramatically shaded the high, soft line of her cheeks. Although her large, dark eyes no longer sparkled, sorrow had left a glow inside them that made mine grow moist as I looked at her. Even her damaged and repaired clothes looked smart, while our fleshy visitor resembled a random pile of rather worn laundry. Simple kindness signed the coarse woman's features, however, and gave her voice a reassuring lilt. Afterwards, we always referred to her as Tante Lieschen.
This unexpected visit and the one that followed a few days later made me want to explore the outer limits of our earthy confinement. Although I fully understood the reasons for Mother's absolute rule against leaving our tiny perimeter, when she was working for Frau Pimber I began to stray beyond the woods, looking for flowers in the grain field along the road. I was drawn inexorably toward the Nazi official's house. Peering through a bit of hedge along the fence line that separated his property from the Pimbers', I saw no signs of life. But I did see an apple tree laden with large, red-tinged fruit, which stood not far away, just behind the wire fence. My stomach tied itself into knots while I imagined myself tearing into two tart beauties at once and then taking a skirtful home to Mother. But I didn't dare. I went home ravaged by hunger and anxiety. I knew that I couldn't tell Mother I had gone so close to the Nazi's house, but at the same time I imagined that she might be so pleased to have some apples that she would forgive me for taking them
Inevitably I returned to the tree. On the third visit I crawled on all fours close enough to see that there were plenty of apples on the ground just waiting to be carried away. I also saw that one heavily laden branch drooped enough for me to reach some apples if I climbed up the fence. The longer I considered it the more confident I became. Finally I climbed, careful not to tear my dress on the barbed wire, then reached up and grabbed first one and then a second plump apple. I took a large bite, savoring the juicy flesh, and then another before looking down.
My triumph quickly turned into terror. A man wearing a felt hat and a forest green jacket was marching toward me from the house, his jaw thrust forward angrily. I began to wobble, then lost my balance completely as I tried to cover the place on my dress where the Star of David had been. Falling backward I hit the ground hard enough to knock the air from my lungs and lay gasping, certain that the furious Nazi would soon lay hands on me. After an eternity I managed to rise, retrieve the apples, and run into the woods, where I hid behind a tree until I was confident that I wasn't being pursued. I tried to eat one of the apples but couldn't. I hid them and returned to our hut, my heart pounding at the thought of facing Mother. I knew I had betrayed us, and I expected the SS to arrive at any moment with dogs and guns. When Mother asked where I had been and why I looked so pale, guilt exploded inside my chest, but I bit my lip and kept silent.
That night I dreamed that I found a baby lying in rubble, its blanket smoldering and beginning to flame. I wanted to save it, but a helmeted fireman with an axe in his hand chased me away. Everywhere I turned there was a wall, and every window was ringed with fire. Waking up I saw for an instant the sharp face of the Nazi staring at me. Eventually I went back to sleep, but for many mornings I awoke to the thought that, because of me, police with dogs would come to arrest us at any moment.
During her next visit Tante Lieschen told us that, although she and Marie Pimber had been friends since childhood, they had never agreed about Communism or Nazism. Tante Lieschen had refused to believe that Hitler was an evil leader. We were the first Jews she had ever known. But since becoming our friend, she found it impossible to reconcile her go-along politics with our plight. She now realized how shameful it was to persecute Jews. But when she had told her old friend about her change of heart, Frau Pimber had become furious and had forbidden her to visit us or send us food. After that, Tante Lieschen came rarely and only at dusk. Even then she rarely escaped Frau Pimber's increasingly malicious eye.
Once, Tante Lieschen brought a pail of milk still warm from the cow, which made Mother delirious with gratitude but made me ill. The day I spent vomiting milk turned me forever against it. On my ninth birthday, Tante Lieschen appeared with the ingredients for a cake, our first in years. While it was baking we inhaled the scent and devoured each crumb a hundred times over in our imagination. When at last it was finished, however, we discovered that mother had somehow confused the contraband sugar with salt and had put the salt in the batter. The cake looked perfect, but was nauseating. When I tried to eat it anyway, mother wept as if someone had died.
Tante Lieschen also loaned us a radio. A few days later, while I stood guard outside our hut as Mother listened to the BBC, I heard and then saw Frau Pimber calling her cat, a beautiful smoky-blue Persian that had been given to her by Tante Lieschen. The cat soon came and Frau Pimber grabbed it up in her arms. But instead of caressing it, she put it into a cloth sack, causing the cat to howl eerily. While I wondered what was going on, Frau Pimber added a rock to the sack, tied it shut with the end of a length of clothesline and carried it to the well between our shed and her house. For a moment she held the writhing bag in front of her, then dropped it down the well.
I jumped up and started toward the well but, sensing danger and remembering that I mustn't abandon my post as Mother's sentinel, I quickly slumped to the ground. After what seemed an interminable period, Frau Pimber hauled up the line and lifted the dripping but unmoving sack from the well. It was then that she looked in my direction. She made an evil grimace, untied the line and dragged the sack up the hill to her house.
Later that day I saw Frau Pimber coming toward our shed. I put my head in the door and alerted Mother, then ran to the dugout. While the two women were talking, I crept up to the well and looked into its cool and silent depth. I needed to make some sense out of what I had seen, to give it another interpretation or a different outcome. But the well gave no answers.
As I rose up and turned to leave, Frau Pimber's hand flew against my face. She hit with such force that I was knocked against the stone facing of the well. Too startled to cry out, I ran away as fast as I could, feeling that if I didn't escape I would experience the same fate as the cat. I went to our shack, wanting desperately to be comforted by Mother. But Frau Pimber had just told her that the SS had arrested Father in Brussels; so we both cried and tried to comfort one another.
Several months later, on a clear spring morning, when new leaves on the birches traced lacy shadows upon the lane, Tante Lieschen suddenly appeared in front of our shack looking as merry as if she had been sampling schnapps. She took my hand in hers and announced that we were going for a walk. I didn't know what to think, since leaving the perimeter was still absolutely forbidden. Mother was out of sight, working in Frau Pimber's woodshed, so I guessed that Tante Lieschen intended to take me there. But she started pulling in the opposite direction. Deciding that she must be joking and would soon stop and turn back, I went along with her. But she didn't stop.
I knew that Tante Lieschen liked me and I was glad that she wanted my company. Instead of remembering the near disaster when I had tried to steal apples, I began to enjoy the freedom and warmth after so much cold and darkness. The loamy earth, swollen with new green growth, smelled mysterious and at the same time reassuring. Unable to contain my delight at the sight of wildflowers, I pulled the overblown, waddling woman off the road to gather some white Narcissus. It was like towing a massive balloon against the wind and I, too, felt lighter than air as she wagged her kerchiefed head from side to side and laughed.
I continued to feel light-headed after we returned to the road. Then, suddenly, walking just ahead of us, there was Frau Pimber. She seemed to have materialized from nowhere. But her broad back was to us and I thought with relief that she hadn't seen us. Without looking back she stopped, bent over, lifted her long brown skirt, pulled down pink bloomers and bared her great behind. She stayed that way without moving, her enormous, unbelievably white moon beaming in our faces.
Tante Lieschen stopped and gasped but I stared, enthralled, until she covered my eyes with her own voluminous skirts. I struggled to break free but Tante Lieschen turned me around and walked me back to our hut without allowing a backward glance.
A few weeks later, British troops overran the area and we were able to leave Frau Pimber's forever. Mother thanked her before we left, but I said nothing. Tante Lieschen laughed and blubbered when I kissed her goodbye. Mother returned the radio and spoke to her with feeling about the many kindnesses that she had bestowed, including "the lovely gift of white Narcissus."
My parents spent the next few months examining official and unofficial lists of survivors, haunting train stations when refugee trains arrived, and occasionally dashing through one or more of the occupation zones of the four victorious armies in vain attempts to find other members of the family. I went to school for the first time and was caught up in the struggle to make a place in a world still sadly imbued with the attitudes that had generated so much suffering. Frequently in trouble because I wouldn't let racial or ethnic slurs go unchallenged, I carried with me like a secret talisman the vision of Frau Pimber's full moon.
Copyright Marione Ingram 2000