Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sturm und Drang

Adolescence struck like a tornado. My parents, teachers, and most adults became my enemies. They were hypocrites and liars. My school, the Municipal Modern Language Secondary School for the Education of Women, was a prison. The teachers were harsh and punitive wardens. Most had taught during the Nazi era and although officially de-nazified, their fascist teaching methods persevered. Herr Bhode, my history teacher had lived on a large estate near Königsberg “until the Russians confiscated it.” He still advocated the doctrine of the Bund Deutscher Mädchen, Hitler’s youth organization for girls: “A German girl is a pure girl. She does not smoke or paint her face.” He aborted my first foray into make-up with blue eye shadow. “Make-up is for whores. Go to the bathroom and wash your face.”
I was thrilled when after years of pounding Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Hebbel, Herder, Fontane and legions of other dead writers into us, we finally got to read books written in our century. Herr Bhode, a staunch anti-communist, hated Brecht and called him “A traitor who moved to East Germany. Voluntarily! Imagine that.” He despised having to put Mother Courage, a play set during the Thirty Year War, on his lesson plan. The Education Department of our social-democratic state made it a mandatory part of the curriculum. Since Herr Bhode hated Brecht, I liked him right away.
“Girls, what is your interpretation of the funeral scene?” he asked. No one paid attention. It was the last period and the room was hot and stuffy. My class mates were bored. They liked romantic novels without all that bloody fighting. Two girls in front of me were reading the teen magazine Bravo under their desk. My neighbor secretly filed her nails. Some girls had their head down, others were yawning. I was the only one to raise my hand. Herr Bhode cut me down: “Tersteegen, we are not interested in your comments. You don’t have to think in my class.”
The old geezer made my blood boil. I was furious. How dare he forbid me to think? Our history book portrayed the Germans as victims of World War II who were led to disaster by a megalomaniac leader. The German loss of life, the soldier’s loss of limb, the allied bombing and the destruction of cities were described at great length. The losses of other nations and the atrocities committed in the concentration camps were relegated to a few paragraphs and fine print.
Whenever I asked adults how all of this could have happened, they shrugged their shoulders, refused an answer, or insisted that they didn’t know how terrible it had been. Frau Stanke felt that Hitler hadn’t been all that bad. “He built the Autobahn. Everyone had work again. Our Führer restored law and order in the country, and people felt proud to be German again.” I pitied the losses of the other nations, especially the Russians. Discovering Chekhov and Dostojewski made me fall in love with the Russian people.
I followed the Auschwitz trials and the testimonies of the camp survivors in the news. More than 6000 former members of the SS guarded Auschwitz from 1940 to 1945; only twenty-two faced trial. Those accused showed no trace of remorse. The loathsome concentration camp Doctor Mengele lived a privileged life in South America. I looked at pictures of emaciated bodies, rooms full of shoes and handbags. Had they really mixed ashes with fat to make soap from the remains of the Jews? How could I feel anything but shame about belonging to this nation?
We had murdered millions. What role did my father play?

I discovered rebellion and assumed a loud-mouthed belligerent defiant stance. Testy and antagonistic on principle I confronted my father about his participation in the war and his beliefs about Jews, Poles, and all the other “inferior races.”
“What did you do in the war?”
“I was a regular soldier.”
“A regular soldier? How many people did you kill? Did you enjoy doing it?”
“Watch your tone, young lady. We did what we had to do.”
“What about the guards in the camps? They did what they had to do. Would you have done it too?” I howled him down.
My father’s face turned dark red. His Adam’s apple started a little dance, as if he had trouble swallowing. I didn’t care that his blood pressure might rise to a dangerous level. Let him have a stroke right this minute. “What about the camps? Was that all right with you?” My mother ran in from the kitchen, an onion in one hand, a small knife in the other. “Leave your father alone. Don’t aggravate him. He’s not well. Your questions will bring him to an early grave. If he dies, it will be your fault.”
I stormed out of the room and marched up the stairs. I loved the screeching sound of my metal shoe tips hitting the cold hard stone. Hoped it would send goose bumps down my parents’ spine. I pushed the door to my room open and then slammed it shut with a loud wham. Turned the key and barricaded myself inside. My heart raced as if I had just finished a sprint on sport’s day. I would never calm down. Not in a million years. I wanted to hit something, kick the door in or punch a hole in the wall. Instead, I paced in a circle. My riding trophies, all seven of them lined up neatly on my book shelf, caught my eye. They had to go. Bam, bam they flew of the shelf. I loved the noise. The pictures of horses were next. They had graced my bedroom walls for as long as I remembered. A testimony to my childhood plans of owning a horse farm one day.
A horse farm! What a ridiculous idea! I started with my favorite picture. The Arabian stallion, torn to pieces, landed on the floor. The Lipizaners, Dülmen ponies, and the fine Przcwalski were next.The Araappaloosa show horse, the black Friesian with its long mane, the strong Holsteiner, and even the small Hucul from the Carpathian Mountains, they all had to go. I felt strong and powerful as I destroyed them. What would my father, the proud cavalry man think if he could see me now? He had taught me to love horses. I had followed him around on tournament day dressed in proper riding-habit, boots and riding crop, the entire outfit his gift for my ninth birthday. He had been proud to show his daughter off and asked a stranger to take a picture of us. He even let me bet on my favorite horse. None of this mattered anymore. The horses time was up. I did not stop until all hundred and twenty-five pictures were scattered on the floor. I thought about starting a bonfire, of burning down the house, but stopped myself right in time. Instead I stomped over to the chest of drawers, took the Animals album out of its sleeve, placed the 45 on the record player and lowered the needle. “We gotta get out of this place” was the best song ever written. I played it as loud as possible, at least twenty times in a row and sang along at the top of my lungs.

Somewhere baby
Somehow I know it baby
We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
Girl, there’s a better life for me and you
Believe me baby
I know it baby
You know it too

I could not get out of this place, but I could redecorate. I started by pinning my new heroes on the wall: Che Guevara, Mao, and Bob Dylan. The man was a genius. How did he come up with the brilliant line “If dogs run free, why we don’t?” Above my bed I hung a picture of the cutest couple in the world, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful. Meanwhile my mother shouted from the first floor:
“Turn down that Negro music. I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.”
“So what. Have your breakdown already.” I muttered. My mother was a doormat, a piece of furniture. Stuck in the past. She acted as if the war had never ended. I had heard the story of the starving Rapp family a million times. “Living on cabbage for three months, a hard boiled egg divided among four people, a tablespoon of butter a real luxury.” I didn’t care one bit. I didn’t want to hear another word about German suffering. If my parents both ended up in a mental institution, I’d be happy to live with my grandmother. My mother’s parents were the only acceptable ones among my relatives. My father’s family, the first to join the Nazi party in their village, had been staunch supporters until the bitter end, but my mother’s parents never joined. The Nazis were too un-Christian for their taste. My grandfather had always made fun of the little man with the big mustache and listened to enemy radio. The family maintained friendly relationships with their Jewish neighbors. Grandma lit the fire in the synagogue every Saturday until there was no more synagogue.

Looking for role models and help with my unanswered questions, I turned to literature. In the backroom of the public library, high up on the shelf were the books deemed inappropriate for youth. Ms. Waldenburg, the petite middle-aged librarian with enormous horn rimmed glasses that hid kind blue eyes had been my friend since third grade. I harbored the fantasy that she loved me more than any other child who visited her library. There had been rumors that she had no husband and children because her fiancé had died fighting in Belgium. I was sure I was special to her and if she could she would adopt me. What a wonderful life we could have had, sitting together on the couch in the evenings, reading, taking breaks to update each other on the plots, reciting special passages out loud, all the while munching on butter cookies.
“Do your parents know that you are taking out Günter Grass and Hubert Fichte?” She asked.
“We have to read Grass for school.”
She knew that I lied. The books were full of dirty passages I wasn’t supposed to read yet. The Catholic Church had placed them on the list of forbidden books. “You might want to read this one too,” she said with a wink and placed Peter Weiss into my hands. Weiss, a writer outraged by the amnesia that had befallen my parents’ generation, was the answer to all of my prayers.

Judge: Did you see anything of the camp?
Second Witness: Nothing. I was just glad to get out of there.
Judge: Did you see the chimneys at the end of the platform or the smoke and glare?
Second Witness: Yes. I saw the smoke.
Judge: And what did you think?
Second Witness: I thought those must be the bakeries. I had heard they baked bread in there day and night. After all it was a big camp.

I started to question everything. How could there be a God? Why was he unable to prevent such barbaric cruelty? I signed myself out of religion class at school, and then doubted if it had been the right decision. Still I attended the Catholic youth group meetings in the basement of our church. We went there because we were bored and had nothing better to do. It was a chance to hang out, to meet boys and to get away from home. The young chaplain was handsome and cool. As a miner’s son he was one of us. He had invited us to watch Die Brücke. It had been shown on TV before, but my father made us turn it off and I never got to see the end.

Chaplain Paul fumbled with the projector while I surveyed the room. My friend Astrid who had a reputation for being fast played with her hair and shot seductive glances in Reinhold’s direction. I had known Christel, the youngest in the group, since kindergarten. We had played doctor together in her parents’ garage. Cornelia was a straight A student and we all despised her for that. I had a crush on Andreas. With his handsome features, sultry voice, gorgeous brown eyes and dark hair, he was every girls dream. He looked just like a movie star. I helped myself to pretzels and Coca Cola. The coke was warm, but tasted fantastic simply because it was forbidden at home.
Chaplain Paul turned off the light (our favorite part) and said with a somber voice: “This is the first German anti-war film, based on a novel and the true experiences of the writer. It shows what happens when children are educated in the wrong ideas, when they become victims of ideology. You have to watch it so you won’t repeat the sins of your fathers.”
Andreas and Reinhold yawned. They hated educational movies; they hated it when Chaplain Paul used big words. “What’s ideology anyhow?” Andreas asked.
The film took place in a small German town similar to ours populated with children, women, and old people. It was shocking and sad. During the final days of the war seven teenage boys were drafted into the Volkssturm, a small ad-hoc unit pulled together for local defense. They trained for one day, learned to use their weapons, and were sent to the front. Their teacher, afraid for their lives, intervened on their behalf. The boys, not much older than us, had to secure an unimportant bridge, meant to be blown up anyway and defend it against enemy seizure. At first we were proud of how brave they acted. Andreas poked Reinhold in the ribs to show his approval. When their commander, mistaken for a deserter, got executed Christel and Astrid started to cry. On their own now, fiercely patriotic, and elated to be called to duty, the boys continued to fight even as the German troops retreated. American tanks arrived and tried to cross the bridge. We were worried and concerned for the boys. I stopped chomping on the pretzels so no sound would distract us from the action on screen. The American soldiers looked young and handsome. One of them was chewing gum. I liked his uniform. He made fun of the young fighters, called them kindergarteners. Why didn’t the boys surrender? I held my breath. To continue to fight would be a suicidal mission.
Only one of the boys survived. The death of his friends and the death of the German and American soldiers were all in vain. We had tears in our eyes when the epilogue appeared on the screen. ”This took place on April 27, 1945. An insignificant event, it was not mentioned in any military report.”
No one spoke. Nobody went to the bathroom. No one was in the mood for board games.

At home I confronted my father: “Why didn’t you let us watch Die Brücke to the end?”
“You’re not old enough.”
“Not old enough,” I fumed. “I’m old enough to learn about the war.”
“You won’t watch crap like that in my house. Not as long as you live under my roof and I’m putting food on the table.”
“What kind of reasoning is that? Just because you feed me, I don’t have to buy into your lies.”
“Watch your mouth or you’re gonna get it.”
“So what do you want to do? Hit me? Does that make you feel good? Alright then, if it makes you feel superior and strong, go ahead and hit me.”
Shaking on the inside, I managed to act cocky on the outside. I turned my face to my father. He raised his hand and held it up in the air for a few tormenting seconds. We stared each other down. Then his arm collapsed as if it belonged to a rag doll. He couldn’t do it. I had won. I was fifteen years old and more powerful than my own father.
From now on I let him have it. “Why do we have to switch channels whenever a Jewish historian or scientist appeares? “What’s the point of tearing up all the Marxist and Maoist pamphlets I bring home?” He didn’t answer. I stormed out of the room and heard him lament: “I’ve raised a Bolshevik? My God, I’ve raised a Bolshevik!”

My father didn’t have a monopoly on hate. I could stew in hate too. I hated my life. I hated him. I hated his politics and his despair. I hated my mother and her wimpy ways. I hated school, Germany, and the character traits of most Germans. Their desire to regulate every aspect of life. Hated bus drivers, post office clerks, and anyone wearing a uniform who savored their power and found perverse pleasure in treating me as an inferior. I hated old ladies who scolded me when I tried to cross the street on a red light: “My God, these young people today. No respect for rules!” The entire country was plastered with Verboten signs. Playing in the yard verboten! Verboten to touch the flowers! Spitting verboten! Walking on the grass forbidden! Was life itself verboten?

Luckily I found kindred spirits. The TV brought images of San Francisco’s rebellious youth, flowers in their hair, into our living room. College students in Berkeley, Paris and Berlin protested the Vietnam War. They all told their parents off: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” In Germany, longhaired beatniks, despised by adults, participated in many Easter peace marches. The more the adults hated them, the more I longed to be one of them. Marijuana made a lot of young people happy. I was determined to score some.
In Berlin a group of young left-wing college students, seven men and three women started an experiment in radical communal living. The members of Kommune 1 had given up individual possessions to practice for life after the revolution. It was just a matter of time before exclusive love relationships were a thing of the past. The women in the group were beautiful like models, the guys funny looking. Rainer Langhans had a flamboyant mop of curls on top of his head. Fritz Teufel had a full mustache and beard. Everyone wore round wire rimmed glasses. I begged my mother to let me change my frames immediately.
The guys of Kommune 1 were great comedians. I was always hoping to see another of their pranks on the evening news. When US vice president Hubert Humphrey came to visit Germany, several members were accused of planning a bomb attack and were arrested by the secret service. They got off. The police couldn’t prove a thing. Teufel said: ”We had planned to bomb him with eggs and pudding.” My father was outraged: “They all belong in jail. Get rid of them; send them to East Germany.”
Dieter Kunzelmann, the leader and most outrageous member had me crack up every time he made a public statement. The latest was his best: “I don’t work and I don’t study. Why should I care about the Vietnam War when I have trouble reaching orgasm?”

What was an orgasm anyway? How could I find a man like Dieter to teach me all about it?

( published in sic, 2006 and read in KGB Bar NYC, 2007)