Experiencing Post War Germany


Experiencing Post War Germany


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After The War

by Tessa Dratt

After the Second World War, my father made his living as a broker in the scrap metal trade. Because of his German roots and his knowledge of a number of foreign languages, he was able to conduct interesting and useful business transactions that involved the collecting and shipping of scrap metals from one country in post-war Europe to another.

The helmets of German soldiers could be collapsed to make railway ties for Belgian trains, my father said. Bits and pieces of bombed German aircraft could be reshaped into girders to hold up a provincial French factory. The scrap from German artillery shells found in Frankfurt could be melted down, my father would explain, and used to rebuild the bells of the Vatican.

(I could tell that my father was especially proud of his work on the Vatican deal, although at that time, and the product of a sternly Jewish upbringing, I had little understanding of what the Vatican represented, nor any inkling of the sweet irony involved in this particular transaction.)

In 1954, my brother, Lee, was almost thirteen, I was ten, and our mother was that indeterminate age that mothers often are in the eyes of their children. We lived in a rambling, old apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, but spent almost as much time abroad as at home.

My mother, brother and I would join my father and travel for two and three months at a stretch. We visited one country and another, trailing after my father while he took care of business. Much of this journeying took us to Germany for extended periods of time. A fat German man by the name of Herr Schoeppel played a major role in my father's business transactions and, being as he was a pivotal supplier of German scrap metal, I came to know him rather better than I would have liked.

The Schoeppels lived outside Munich in a picturesque Bavarian house complete with quaintly hand-carved wooden furniture, a thatched roof, gracious gables, flowering gardens and a pack of six fierce-looking hunting dogs penned up in a yard out back.

Herr Schoeppel had a small, unremarkable wife who seemed to shrink from his enormous belly and boisterous manner, and a green parakeet named "Schoenheit" to whom he sang love songs by Schubert and Brahms every free afternoon between three and four.

Frau Schoeppel accompanied her husband on a small piano that stood in the corner of the sitting room. She always stared intently at the musical score when she played, never looking up or away, a human metronome, unerringly correct and mechanical.

The Schoeppels had no children, so much fuss was made over my brother and me. Actually, my mother often told me, I got the lion's share of the fuss, because my brother was a rather withdrawn, sullen boy while I was, according to my mother, a clowning performer in perpetual pursuit of attention.

Now, I've always been frightened of extremely fat people. Members of our family have tended to be on the short, small-framed side, so a man of Herr Schoeppel's proportions was severely intimidating. He stood well over six feet tall and must have weighed close to three hundred pounds most of which were concentrated in his belly and his fingers which were the size and color of uncooked bratwurst.

Herr Schoeppel was fond of squeezing my shoulder as a sign of affection, and he did so whenever he could.

I'd like to believe that he had no idea just how hard he squeezed. The day after one of our visits to his home, I pulled down my blouse to show my brother, Lee, the bruises in the shape of four fat fingers on the outside of my shoulder and a thumb print on my collarbone.

Lee told me to forget about it. I couldn't. I did my best to put a distance between myself and Herr Schoeppel's grasp.

At the end of one especially long and heavy Sunday lunch at the Schoeppel's house, the fat man stood up quite suddenly. He left the table and positioned himself beside the bird cage. Frau Schoeppel mumbled something I couldn't hear and ushered us into the into the sitting room.

His right hand on his heart, Herr Schoeppel serenaded Schoenheit while his pallid wife worked the piano keys. We had no choice but to listen. The music was very beautiful, but Herr Schoeppel sang badly.

The song was all about a trout that swam joyfully in a clear brook. A fisherman stood by with his rod. The pretty fish twisted and turned, safe to play in a stream so clear. But the fisherman was clever. He muddied the water, and in the end, caught the struggling trout on his line.

As the last bars of the music sounded, my father, seated next to me on the couch, leaned over, took my hand and whispered in my ear.

"See, darling, never forget this. These Germans, they'll sing to their parakeets, they'll fluff their birds' feathers, but just a few years ago, these same Germans shot Jews down in the streets like dogs...."

The sharp edge of my father's tone stunned me. I inspected his face to make certain that his expression matched what he'd just said. It did. His face was tight and closed up, and I could see from the funny little spasms in the skin over his jaw that he was grinding his teeth.

I curled my hand into a fist inside my father's and whispered back:

"Then why are we here, Daddy? Why do we come?"

But Herr Schoeppel had finished singing, and my father didn't have time to answer. Instead, he let go of my hand and clapped his two together, applauding.

"Sehr schoen, Herr Schoeppel, wunderschoen."

The fat man lumbered away from the parakeet and the piano and parked himself in the armchair nearest to me. His belly performed a fascinating trick in which it folded over and over on itself just like the pleats in the skirt my mother had bought me that spring to wear to synagogue for the Passover holidays.

I knew better than to stare, but the multiple, neatly piled folds of flesh under the fabric of his shirt drew my eyes like a magnet, and I studied Herr Schoeppel's mid-section from under heavy lids.

"What did you think about this, Liebchen?" Herr Schoeppel asked me.

"Do you like it, our German music?" he went on.

Herr Schoeppel leaned forward in his chair, his sausage fingers resting on his knees, ominously close to mine. I couldn't help but notice that his white-blond head, covered with a lot of down-like hair, seemed surprisingly small sitting on top of his thick neck and all those bellies.

I drew back and burrowed into the cushions of the couch. I said that I liked the music very much, which was no lie, because I truly did. But, I thought, I would have preferred to hear a song with a happier ending, and better yet, to be the one to do the singing.

"Ach, ja," sighed Herr Schoeppel, leaning back on his chair, "We have a great and enduring culture, we Germans."

The fat man clapped his hands together. He had a wonderful idea, he said. He would take us out to the country, to his hunting lodge. The very next weekend. A day in the country, what a splendid idea, nicht wahr? An experience for the children, a chance to walk through some of Germany's most glorious countryside, a chance to wander on the so-called Romantic Road, die Romantische Strasse. This road stretched for close to two hundred miles through Central Bavaria, Herr Schoeppel explained, and was dotted with houses that dated back over two thousand years.

Lee and I exchanged despairing glances. We rarely agreed on anything in those days, but it was clear we were both sick to death of the Schoeppels, their countryside and its two thousand-year-old stones. We were at an age when to see one set of old stones was to have seen them all.

And I had another worry. Would the six hunting dogs come along on the trip to the Romantic Road, I asked?

"Ja, naturlich," Herr Schoeppel answered and gave my shoulder an enthusiastic squeeze. One could hardly go to a hunting lodge without one's hunting dogs, now, could one?

My shoulder stung. I could already feel the precise places where the finger marks would appear against my skin the next morning when I got out of bed.

What would Herr Schoeppel hunt for, I asked, ignoring the look of annoyance on my mother's face, the look aimed directly at me indicating that, as always, I asked too many questions.

"Oh, we shall see, Liebchen, we shall see. Whatever presents itself, most likely. That's usually the case. Yes, that's usually the way it goes. And then afterwards...afterwards," and here Herr Schoeppel's watery blue eyes became round and focused, "Afterwards, we'll eat what we shoot. Imagine! Won't that be fun, Liebchen?"

The vision of dead deer or birds, or worse yet, rabbits hanging by their feet, made me want to throw up, but I swallowed hard and, this time, said nothing.

Frau Schoeppel appeared out of her vagueness, bearing a plate of butter cookies and cinnamon buns.

As she passed the platter around to her company, I noticed for the first time that her eyes were a warm, light brown, the shape and color of roasted walnuts. Her hair was a similar color, and somehow, as she passed the food from one to another, she seemed relaxed and content. She gave me a shy smile and pointed to a heart-shaped cookie saying it was her specialty and that I should be sure to try it.

Frau Schoeppel moved easily now around her sitting room. It occurred to me that perhaps she disliked playing the piano for company as much as I did, and that she might be a person worth getting to know. She probably had squeeze marks on her shoulders too.

The afternoon dragged on. The day in the country had been planned for the following Sunday. Frau Schoeppel covered Schoenheit's cage with a large blue felt cloth to simulate darkness and put him to sleep. The room became hushed as my father and Herr Schoeppel lowered their voices and withdrew to a corner to discuss business. My mother and Frau Schoeppel sat close together and murmured whatever it is grown women murmur when they're tired of one another and waiting for their men to be done with their affairs.

At this point, Lee and I felt free to go out to explore the yard behind the house, although at the sight and smell of us, the hunting dogs bared their teeth and set up an instant and incessant yowling which brought Herr Schoeppel and my father out back and gratefully hastened our family's departure.


Despite our fervent prayers for torrential rains that might wipe out any thought of a day in the country, the following Sunday dawned hopelessly bright. Lee and I found ourselves neatly stashed into the back of Herr Schoeppel's enormous Mercedes limousine.

My mother had been excused from the outing because of one of her migraine headaches. Frau Schoeppel couldn't come either because, according to her husband, she was obliged to attend to a myriad of church and civic duties.

Seated across from our father and the fat man, who was decked out for the occasion in leather shorts, a peasant shirt with billowing sleeves and a green felt Tyrolian cap with a yellow feather sticking out of the side, I was confronted by the enormity of Herr Schoeppel's thighs, the size of twin tree trunks and as pale as his fingers and the blond down on his head.

"So, Liebchen," Herr Schoeppel said, "Are you excited?"

I mumbled something in response and fixed my attention on the jade green hills, the sputtering streams and crumbling old cottages that rolled past us one after another outside the window.

"Where are the dogs?" I finally found the courage to ask.

"They were sent on ahead," said Herr Schoeppel. "They will be happy to see you again," he added.

My stomach did a little dance and turned over on its side. Lee poked me with his elbow and made a low growling noise in the back of his throat. I slipped a hand behind him on the seat, grabbed a small wad of flesh just above Lee's waist and gave it a sharp twist. He didn't make a sound, but I checked his eyes out of the corner of mine and noted with satisfaction that they were smarting.

Some two hours passed during which I was bathed in boredom laced with nervousness. Finally, the Mercedes slowed, turned off the main road and wove its way through dense, dark forest paths until it pulled up and stopped in front of a long, simple wooden structure that looked to me like an enormous rectangular coffin. With an amazing coordination and dexterity for a man of his size, Herr Schoeppel threw open the Mercedes door, bounded out of the car and called out "Hans, Karl, Lisle, Utti, wir sind angekommen!"

Doors opened all over the wooden house, and the staff of the hunting lodge hurried outside. The dogs could be heard howling and carrying on from somewhere in the distance.

Hans and Karl were tall, blond and youngish, no more than sixteen or seventeen I guessed. They looked like brothers. They smiled at Lee and me and gave us each a little wave. Lisle, an old kerchiefed woman whose pink face was the color of poached salmon, stepped outside in stiff-looking black boots. She held a dish rag in one hand and a head of red cabbage in the other.

She set the cabbage down on a window ledge and wiped her hands on the dish rag. She wore a wilted-looking apron that must once have been white over a long flowered skirt. Her face was so blank that I couldn't understand anything about her. That frightened me.

Then the man called Utti came forward with a lopsided walk and pumped Herr Scoeppel's hand. He smiled, revealing a frightening assortment of teeth, some gold, some silver, some blackened or broken. He spoke to Herr Schoeppel with great enthusiasm and a lot of gesturing with red, rough hands.


One by one, my father, Lee and I were introduced to the staff. The tall brothers seemed pleased to meet us. Lisle and Utti, however, looked through the three of us as if we were made of glass.

Our father was not a man generally ignored, rushing noisily around Europe as he did putting deals and people together. But as he stood there, in front of the hunting lodge, next to the ponderous Herr Schoeppel, he looked unusually small and just a bit silly in his city slacks with their neat crease and his trim, white shirt. I moved closer to him and took his hand. It was as much for him as for me.

Lee wandered off to one side and kicked a rock around in circles with the tip of his high-top sneaker. Lee tended to stay on the fringe of situations, on the outside looking in. I always needed to be in the thick of things, as if the only true security lay in the movement and texture and resonance of events and people.

But neither Lee nor I were at ease as we were ushered into the lodge by the expressionless Lisle, followed closely by Utti and his metallic teeth. I looked around for the Hans/Karl brothers, but they had evidently joined Herr Schoeppel and my father on a tour of the grounds.

"Sit there," said Lisle.

She pointed to two small wooden chairs at the foot of a huge slab of oak that occupied the center of the dark main room. The table was covered with different types of rifles, some long, some short, some in between. Beside the rifles, lay cases of sleek, shiny bullets. It's true that I was young, but I'd seen enough Westerns to know a bullet when I saw one.

Also neatly lined up along the top of the oak slab were horns made out of antlers, brass whistles, black leather whips and strangely shaped woven baskets of various sizes.

"Don't touch anything," Lisle said.

It was then I realized that Lisle didn't blink. Her eyes were round and empty and open all the time.

Dish rag in hand, she picked up a rifle, the heaviest of all, and began to dust it, end to end. Lee and I looked at each other. I could see he was every bit as scared as I was. We sat, stiff and still in our designated seats.

Utti took a chair at the opposite end of the table. He crossed his legs, pulled off his left boot and put it up on another one of the wooden chairs. He motioned to Lisle with a subtle turn of his head.

She set the rifle back on the table, took a seat opposite him, pulled off his thick, woolen sock and began to massage the foot.

Utti's foot was riveting. Four out of five toes were missing, with only the baby toe left and it stuck up from the stump like an angry exclamation point.

"What are you staring at?" Utti asked.

His German was an even rougher language than the one I heard at home.

"Sorry," I mumbled.

"If you're so curious, come here and have a closer look."

Utti raised both his red hands and motioned for me to come to him.

I said no thank you, I was fine where I was, but he insisted.

Lisle still held the foot in her lap, her unblinking face neither cruel nor kind, happy nor sad. But she seemed tired. Her hands fell to either side of her body, and she slid down ever-so-slightly in her chair.

Slowly, I moved around the table and came up next to Utti.

Utti grabbed onto the back of my hair and pulled my head forward and down.

"This is what your Jew bastard countrymen did to me!"

He spat the words out into my face with hot breath.

I forced my eyes to stay open. I made myself look at the mutilated foot where the flesh had mended itself unevenly leaving raw red criss-crossed scars in the places where the four toes should have been.

"Touch it," Utti commanded.

"I...I don't want to," I said and pulled back as if I'd been slapped, knocking one of the boxes of bullets off the table in the process. The bullets rolled and bounced and scattered all over the wood floor. The clatter echoed through the room.

"Now see what you've done!" barked Utti. "Come back here! Come back here and touch my foot, you little piece of Jewish filth!"

I looked around for Lee, for his help, for his protection, but he was frozen in his chair, studying the floor boards.

"Let her be, Utti," Lisle said suddenly in a harsh whisper that was more like a hiss.

"I said, let the child alone," she repeated. "This time, Utti, you go too far."

Utti's head dropped to his chest. He was quiet. Then I understood that Lisle was Utti's mother. Mothers have ways to silence their children.

A loud racket started up outside the lodge. The dogs barked, mens' voices sounded, and laughter, and I heard Herr Schoeppel's voice shouting out orders for the hunt.

I ran for the door of the lodge and shot through it as if fired from one of the rifles. I flew into my father's arms. Tears blew off my face in every direction. My body shook with the accumulation of fear, of the guns and bullets, of Utti's horrid teeth and poisonous tongue, of Lisle's unblinking eyes, of the toeless foot.

Herr Schoeppel hurried over.

"Was ist den passiert? Liebchen, what's wrong? Why do you cry?"

I couldn't look at him, at his fatness, at his stupid hat, at his downy head. I couldn't look at any of them. I could barely speak. My father kneeled in the grass and held me.

"They hate us, here, Daddy," I cried in English, not caring who heard or understood. "They hate us!"

"We have to leave. We have to leave right now. Please, Daddy! Please, or they'll hunt us instead of animals!"

My father stroked my back and kissed my hair as I sobbed in his ear and told him what had gone on. The words spilled out so fast, I was babbling.

Lee had come out of the lodge. He stood near us, white and silent, nodding now and again as if to punctuate the strangled narrative I was choking on.

"Oh my darling, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," my father said over and over.

"So sorry, so sorry," he repeated like a mantra.

"We'll go...we'll go," he said as he rubbed my back. "Never again, darling. Never again. Never again, my darling child..."

I began to quiet down a little. From the corner of my eye, I could see Herr Schoeppel in a huddle with Lisle in the doorway of the lodge. Utti was nowhere in sight.

The Hans/Karl brothers came over. They looked upset and awkward, young and frightened. They asked my father if they could speak with him a moment. They wanted to explain about their father, Utti. About the war. How he hadn't been the same since the war. The war had changed him. He wasn't a bad man, really. Just sort of broken. Whatever had happened, the boys were sure their father hadn't meant any harm. No harm, the brothers said. The war had taken their mother and Utti's toes. It was the war, they kept repeating. The war.

Having assured himself that my hysteria had subsided, my father sprung into action. He was all movement, noise and decision. He instructed Lee not to leave my side and went over to Herr Schoeppel.

The two men entered into an animated discussion. No voices were raised, no angry looks exchanged, although I could see from the way my father held his back and shoulders, at attention like a soldier, that he was doing whatever it was a father needed to do to take his children out of harm's way.

Herr Schoeppel and my father shook hands, and both men came over to us. The driver would take us back to town in the Mercedes and deposit us at our hotel. Herr Schoeppel would stay on at the lodge and enjoy the hunt without us. He would miss our company, he said. He was sad to see us go.

Herr Schoeppel reached out to put his fat hand on my shoulder, but must have thought better of it. He let his hand fall back to his side. Instead, he gave me a weak smile and shook his head slowly from side to side as if he were considering a problem to which there was no solution.

Lee and I ran to the car and climbed inside, our father close on our heels. The Mercedes pulled out of the driveway in reverse, then made a half turn that brought us back out to the Romantic Road which would lead us, if not home, then to a safer place.



from the July 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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