Didi As Remembered By Her Grandchildren Written by Liska Snyder 2002
On November 7, 1882, The Times of London had a small column of birth announcements. One item was as follows:
On the 6th Nov., at 76, Camberwell-grove S.E., the wife of GOTTHOLD HERXHEIMER, of a daughter.
This baby was our beloved grandmother, Ella Pauline Herxheimer, whom we always called "Didi" As this story about Didi is being written in the very beginning of the 2000's, it seems amazing that we had a such a close relationship and such vivid memories with our grandmother who actually remembered both Queen Victoria and her grandfather, born in the first years of the 1800's, nearly 200 years ago.
Didi's father, Gotthold Herxheimer, was born in 1838, and her mother, Auguste Jaffe, in 1853. Auguste was the 11th child of her parents. Her mother, Pauline, gave birth to 11 children in 12 years, and died at age 34, a few months after Auguste's birth. This event cast a shadow of sadness over Auguste's childhood, because the older children blamed her for their mother's death. Although her father was wealthy and the children never lacked material things, her emotional needs were probably great. Auguste and Gotthold were married in Germany in 1876.
Auguste and Gotthold engagement photo 1876
The next year, Didi's brother Walter was born. Some time around 1880, Gotthold and Auguste moved to London, where Didi and her sister Dora were born.
Didi’s childhood was very happy. Her parents’ marriage was warm and loving. She had, as we know from her, a very wonderful Victorian childhood. Didi and Dora were raised in a serene middle-class neighborhood in North London. From babyhood until the early school years a nanny whom they dearly loved watched over them. Usually after their afternoon naps, they were led down to their mother’s sitting room after she herself had rested. Auguste looked forward to seeing and playing with her daughters. Both girls tremendously enjoyed that intense and relaxed playtime with their mother, whom they adored.
Here are some stories she told us:
Didi was usually a very obedient little girl. However, nobody can be good all the time, and once she was being punished for something. For punishment she was sent to a storage room in the attic to be there alone for a few hours. There were big trunks, luggage, and many big hatboxes that held those fashionable wide-brimmed ladies’ hats. Well, after a while, since nobody came to free her from her “prison,” little Didi sat on every hatbox, flattening them and destroying the contents. Needless to say, Didi and Dora never again spent unsupervised time in the attic!
Once when Didi was a girl, she had been invited to a fancy children's party. Everyone had a delicious dessert and then the hostess asked if anyone wanted seconds. All the other children had been trained by their parents not to seem greedy by taking seconds but Didi had not, or forgot, and said yes. She was the only one. But of course none of the other kids could leave the table until Didi had finished, so they all sat there and stared at her, glaring with jealousy as she ate it bite by bite. Of course under the circumstances it began to taste horrible but Didi knew that she had to finish what she had requested. It became a total ordeal.
Didi told another party story. There was an obnoxious boy at the party who talked non-stop. He suddenly swallowed a pit and fearfully asked what to do. He was then told he must not talk for two hours or he might die. He said not a word. Didi still derived pleasure remembering that when she told it some 80 years later.
Here are some vignettes from her childhood that Didi shared with her grandchildren:
- Didi was told to split an egg with Dora who was allowed to divide it. But then Dora took the yolk and Didi only got the white. - Because of the voluminous long skirts women wore, Didi thought adult women had no legs but moved on roller skates. - Didi remembers that a household maid was fired for assumed theft. But years later the missing item was found behind a cabinet. Didi’s parents were horrified, because they felt that they had ruined the maid’s reputation. - School friends (a teenage couple) killed themselves because they thought the girl was pregnant. Then it was discovered that not only was she not pregnant, but that she was still a virgin. - Didi’s family had a collie named Bess. Didi often spoke about her love for this dog.
In April 1893, when Didi was ten years old, her family went to a seaside resort called St. Leonards in Hastings. Didi kept a diary on this holiday trip. It is a tiny book, measuring 2½ by 3½ inches, but the pages are filled with Didi’s exquisite handwriting. The diary gives a lovely glimpse into the world of a Victorian childhood. Here are some excerpts from the diary, in Didi’s own words (unedited).
April 4th We went for a country walk near the Highland Hotel and quite unexpectedly when we asked was it the right way we saw the hounds meet. It was a beautiful sight. Then we went to some very pretty gardens and sat down a little while in them on a small seat. After having had our dinner we went in the public gardens and played ball there for some time and then went home to write letters. In the evening we went for another walk and after that to bed.
April 5th I bought a paper called the Standard. Afterwards we went to Fairlight woods and when got there to the Lovers seat and we heard a story about it which was very funny. When we came home father & mother bought us each a ball which bounced splendidly and I walked home with father and Dora went in a bus with mother. In the afternoon we went in the Public Gardens and played with our new balls. Then we went home had our tea and read.
April 8th After breakfast we went out with mother and did such a lot of errands. In the afternoon Dora and I went on the beach and first of all we were chasing the waves and Dora was trying to run away from the waves when she tumbled down and her feet got wet. After that I got mine wet and so we went home to change our stockings and shoes and mother told us not to get wet again but when we went down on the beach again we were throwing stones into the water and enjoying it very much and all at once Dora's hat flew off into the sea and a Gentleman got it out with his stick for her.
April 11th After breakfast in the morning I went to learn swimming and mother took me, as it was the first swimming lesson I had had. I only did exercises. Dora was not allowed to come out as she had had a powder and had to stop at home. In the afternoon all three of us walked to Hollington woods and picked some beautiful flowers like bluebells, violets, and other flowers. Then in going home we found we had gone quite the wrong way to Hollington and only had three minutes to go to the bus as mother said we had better go home in one and we bought some biscuits on the way which were called Lunch.
April 15th We had breakfast at eight clock that was half an hour earlier than usual and directly after that we went to the baths for me to have my swimming lesson. Mother had had such a lot of trouble with the swimming teachers that she said that would be my last chance and so I made the best of it but afterwards the woman said the next lesson I would have would be on my back and so mother asked her if she would be early again and so she said yes, then mother said I might have another lesson and I was delighted about it. After that mother did some erranding and then we went to a china shop and looked in there and we saw two clergymen laughing, the one telling a story and the other laughing and so mother went in to ask the price of them and the man said 2 gui. for the larger size and 80 shillings for the small couple. And so mother said she would come in again on Tuesday and see if she wanted it then. And so we went out and then mother told us to walk up and down whilst she went and bought a chicken from London Road and as it was so drafty there she did not want us to go with her. So whilst we were walking up and down we went to look at the shop again and see the clergymen sitting together and whilst we were sitting there or more likely looking, there came a lady and she spoke to us and said she had a picture of it and that it was called A Good Story and afterwards we looked at another part of the shop & a gentleman pointed to some little goblins there which looked very funny.
April 17th In the morning we bought lots of different kinds of presents consisting of studs, a pencil in the shape of a nail, a broach, a vase, a stick, two pin trays, a picture, two mugs and that was about all. In the afternoon we went on the beach but we soon got tired of that as there were no rocks ... And afterwards when the bus came up to the corner of the road and we gave the horses some sugar then the men said they would tell the horses our address and that they the horses would always come to us. When we had had our tea we went out for a walk with mother.
In May 1895, when Didi was twelve years old, her mother took a trip. Here are two letters Didi wrote to her: They give a brief glimpse of her everyday life as an English schoolgirl.
210 Camberwell Grove May 14, 1895
Darling Little Mother Dear,
As I have not many lessons to do today, I am delighted to find time to write to you. We were so glad to hear father say this morning that you were comfortably seated in the train when he left and hope that you have had a very good passage. Father was beautifully bright and well this morning, better than I have seen him for some time. We went to bed last night directly [after] you started and we aired our night-gowns very well but as I had a button off mine I wore my old one and will wear the other today. We were neither of us troubled with our night-friends yesterday as Emily caught two of them (I mean fleas you know). Our hair was done very nicely today and was not in the slightest tangle. This morning I saw to my shoes and we both looked very tidy for school. I knew my French splendidly today and only had one miss. The weather is beautiful today again and I fancy not quite so hot as usual. Dora has told you in her letter that we are going out for a nice long walk together with Bess [their collie dog] today. I think if we get ready now we will just have a nice time. I hope that you will have a very happy time and will have no pains whatever and especially I wish you very good luck so that you will soon be able to come home again as we all miss your darling little face so much. We had a splendid dinner today and enjoyed it very much. I have found my pocket-book again in school I am glad to say. Hoping that you are quite well and that Martha is better. I remain Your loving little daughter, Ella N.B. please give my love to all.
*********** 210 Camberwell Grove May 16, 1895
Darling Little Mother,
We were all so glad to hear such good news from you and to hear that you arrived safely. Father received a lovely long letter from Walter yesterday, so you can imagine that he was very happy. It is ever so much colder here today so we have got our dark blue dresses on. You asked father a little question in your last postcard. It was whether we are always regular, I cannot say much for myself lately, only perhaps if I drink some water before breakfast it will improve. I met Mrs. Easter-egg when we were out for our walk today and she says she is only starting for Germany tomorrow. Mrs. Holland has been here today and she wants me to remember her to you and to tell you that Harry is in business. Tissue Paper from Mrs. ‘Enry ‘Awkin called today to ask after father I think. But I did not see her. Isn’t it lovely Mother darling! Father has allowed us to invite one of our friends to spend a few hours with us whenever we like and on Friday Marjory Taylor and Ada Rommel are coming till 6 o’clock perhaps. I dusted the drawing- room yesterday and will do it again today. My house shoe had a little slit in it so father told me to take it to Helstern’s today, which I have done. My French dictation won’t get into my head today, but I’ll try and drum it in, in some way or other. Mr. Hermis came here yesterday evening, so that father
Your loving little daughter, Ella
In the first letter above, Didi mentioned her father’s health. Apparently at about this time, her father’s health had begun to decline. Sometime in the next year or so, doctors determined that London’s damp climate was making him worse. So the whole family moved to Braunschweig, Germany. Didi’s beloved English childhood came to an abrupt end. Didi was very unhappy and hated Germany. She longed for her beloved England. In 1897, when Didi was 14, her father died.
Young Adulthood and Marriage
Some time in the early 1900’s Auguste moved to Dresden with her two daughters to give them an opportunity to further their talents. Didi’s sister Dora was very artistic and Didi herself showed great interest in playing the piano
During their stay in Dresden, Auguste found a wonderful piano teacher, Laura Rappoldi. Madame Rappoldi was a gifted pianist who had studied with the renowned concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt. Madame Rappoldi befriended and greatly encouraged Didi to perfect her talent. Didi adored her piano teacher, even though Madame Rappoldi was well known as a very difficult person to deal with. They corresponded for many years, and Christopher has the letters.
At some point Didi was ready to give public concerts. However, due to a freak accident, she burned her hands very badly. For years after that, she never touched the piano any more. She enjoyed attending concerts, both public and private, and was always a very knowledgeable listener. Another reason that Didi may have given up the piano is that she had a dream of becoming a piano teacher. However, one of her aunts told her that only "poor" girls became teachers, and not girls from prominent and refined families. This was apparently a great frustration for Didi.
When Dora was in her early twenties, she moved to Paris to study art. She became friends with the sculptor Rodin and the poet Rilke. (Words from Dora about Rilke) In the meantime, Didi was probably feeling a bit at loose ends. She did not want to move to Paris with Dora, and probably did not want to return to Braunschweig. So perhaps she decided that marriage was the only alternative.
In about 1907, Didi met Emil Bruell, a silk manufacturer, at a mutual friend's house in Dresden. He was visiting Germany from Lyon, France. Emil had apparently been looking for a cultured, attractive wife who would be a social asset to him. Didi certainly fulfilled his expectations. She was educated, charming, musical, and knew several languages. It was a very short courtship; they saw each other a few times, and then Emil asked her to marry him. Didi's mother was not too happy about the marriage, as Emil was not German, and perhaps she sensed that he was lacking some critical relationship skills. However, she did not stop the marriage, and they got married in August 1907.
Years later, Didi admitted that she was naive, because she never dreamed that an unhappy marriage was possible. She thought that all marriages were like those of her parents and their friends. Her parents had a very happy marriage, in which things were shared and discussed. Emil was a learned man and a businessman. But soon Didi realized that in addition to being nervous and fidgety, Emil was completely self-centered: - When Didi and Emil first discussed marriage, he asked Didi if she was willing to move into his flat, and of course, she agreed. However, when she arrived she noticed that he gave her no space for her things, including her clothes. - Two chairs stood at the sides of a fireplace. Didi assumed that one was for her to sit on. It did not work that way. Emil kept hopping from one chair to the other; in essence, Didi was not welcome in either chair.
In September 1908, Didi's only child, Nellie, was born.
By this time, it was evident that Emil did not want a wife with whom to have interesting conversations, but rather a companion for social events. He was not interested in having a relationship of any depth. Didi was taken out to an elegant restaurant every Friday night. And that was the extent of their companionship. The only time Emil really paid any attention to Nellie was on Sundays; otherwise her father usually ignored her. Nellie was always “spoiled” by her father with very expensive toys. Didi once hid one in a closet, because it was too advanced for Nellie at the time. Later, Emil discovered the “hidden” toy and decided that if Nellie was not going to be able to play with it, he would give it to someone else. He did this and Didi was very upset.
The sister of Emil, Emma Bruell, had a son named Louis, who was always called “LouLou.” Although he was Nellie’s first cousin, he was about 20 years older than she was. Loulou’s parents were divorced and his mother was a poor servant in Germany. His Uncle Emil basically raised him. Didi felt that Emil did a “lousy” job, which explains Loulou’s later activities. Loulou was also self-centered. Loulou once asked Didi to visit him. When she arrived, he was having his fingernails manicured. Didi thought that this was the height of decadence! Another time, Loulou needed a bath so badly that Didi would not get near him. When he was older, he worked in Emil’ s silk business, but Emil told him that he was not good enough to earn a wage. However, Emil gave Loulou more money than he paid his workers. Didi felt that this did not help Loulou’s outlook on life.
By the time Nellie was four years old, Didi decided that she was going to get a divorce, as the tension in the household was not good for Nellie. Even though she lived in Lyon for five years, Didi never really got to know Lyon and never felt at home there. In 1912, Didi and Nellie moved to Braunschweig, where Didi’s mother was living. Emil eventually remarried a quiet dull woman who was just right for him: a housewife.
After the divorce, Emil was permitted to visit Nellie frequently. Didi would either be in another room, or away during the visit. Didi and Nellie were always discriminated against, because of the divorce. Didi had no one to talk to except her mother, which was good, but Didi felt she needed someone else. Didi had one old school friend from Scotland [probably Elsie McKean Kiel] who was her friend through all those years. Didi always wanted to tell her the reasons for the divorce, but somehow the time was never right, and she never did.
The years in Braunschweig have been described in detail by Nellie in her memoirs "Sixty-Six Happy Years—My Story Told to Our Children.” [See link at the end of this biography.]
One traumatic event occurred in the early Braunschweig years. Didi’s brother Walter was a businessman who often traveled to the United States and Canada. In May 1914 something terrible happened. Walter was sailing from Canada to Europe on an ocean liner called the "Empress of Ireland." During one night on the Saint Lawrence River, the boat collided with a coal freighter. If the captain of the freighter had not been drunk, the worst might have been prevented, since his boat could have acted as a cork, stopping the gaping hole the freighter had rammed into the ocean liner. But the freighter captain pulled his boat back and this way the water rushed in and hundreds of passengers drowned, including Walter. It was a terrible blow to Didi, her mother, and Nellie. Although Nellie, who was six years old at the time, had not seen Uncle Walter too frequently, he had been full of fun, and had spoiled her with toys she had never seen before. In fact, several weeks after he drowned, she received two postcards from him.
In 1979, one James Croall wrote a book called “Fourteen Minutes: The Last Voyage of the Empress of Ireland.” On page 161, is the following story (Walter Herxheimer is mis-identified as Charles Hirxheimer):
Strange stories multiplied. None was stranger than that of Mr. Charles Hirxheimer, who despite his name was an Englishman. Shortly before sailing, it was said, Mr. Hirxheimer had attended a small farewell party at which sundry other passengers and some officers were present. When glasses were raised to a pleasant voyage, Mr. Hirxheimer, who seems to have been a regular First Class passenger, refused to join the toast. The ship, he said glumly, was going to the bottom. The sailors, traditionally sensitive where matters of luck were concerned, rebuked him sharply. His joke, in their view, was in very bad taste. It was no joke, Hirxheimer maintained stoutly. They were all going to drown. The little party ended on a sour note. The story, as such stories do, got stranger. After sailing, it was said, Mr. Hirxheimer roamed the ship, trying to give away 500 dollars on the grounds that he would soon have no use for it. He tried to throw in his small change for good measure. Although the strange tale of Mr Hirxheimer was recounted by more than one source, it can hardly be regarded as authenticated beyond reasonable doubt. One thing, however, is quite certain. There was a passenger aboard named Hirxheimer. And he drowned.
World War I
In July 1914, Didi and a friend of hers who had a little boy Nellie’s age, chose a small place on the Baltic Sea for a summer vacation. It was Grömitz, near Lübeck. Towards the end of the month, people talked excitedly about something that was called "Krieg" [war]. They started packing up and departed in a hurry and the crowded beach got emptier and emptier. Finally, Didi, too, packed their suitcases and she and Nellie caught the last boat. (Grömitz was on a peninsula). They made it barely back to Braunschweig and arrived the day World War I was proclaimed.
Soldiers were everywhere, the air was loaded with excitement, strangers fell into each other’s arms, people who had never met before kissed in the street, it was like a big party. There was singing and shouting and soldiers marched through the streets. People threw flowers from the windows and everyone told everybody else that Germany was sure to win the war and that it would be over before Christmas. Didi was British by birth and French through her marriage, an enemy alien on two counts. Every second day she had to go to the police station to report. Off and on Didi had such a terrible headache that she could not budge. Invariably, on those days, a policeman would show up, poke his head through the door to check whether she was really in bed.
Food was quite scarce during the war. Nellie remembers being hungry often, but she was sure that Didi and her grandmother really suffered hunger pains as they gave her whatever they could spare, e.g. the one egg they got per person per month. Many years later, when Nellie was in her sixties, she still remembered that one of Didi's friends once presented them with a loaf of bread. It was the most precious gift one could receive in those days.
As Didi, an enemy alien, was not permitted to leave the house after dark, she had to provide her own entertainment at home. Every Monday she organized a musical evening that was attended by quite a few friends. Elsie McKean Kiel, her former schoolmate, sang and Didi accompanied her on the piano. Nellie’s room was next to the music room and she remembers lying in bed listening to the music.
The winter of 1917-18 was dreadful. The German soldiers lost battle after battle, there was practically no family that did not mourn a father, a brother, a husband, or an uncle. More and more wounded and crippled veterans could be seen in the streets and people looked haggard and starved. There were no more victory celebrations at school and there was absolutely nothing to eat except turnips... and those one had for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Even jam was made of turnips and for years to come, Didi could not hear the word “Steckrübe” (turnip). That winter is remembered as the “Steckrübewinter.”
The overall situation grew worse and worse, everyone was discouraged and even the children realized that there was nothing to expect but defeat. Thus it was no surprise when, on November 11th, 1918, it was officially proclaimed that the Kaiser had left the country to find refuge in Holland, and that the troops were coming back. The war was over. Life became easier in the 1920’s. Didi was able to travel again. Nellie was very involved with school.
The Nazi Years
An appointment calendar of Didi’s for the year 1933 gives an indication of what her life was like then. Many days have been left blank. For most days with notations, there is just a one or two word entry. It is obvious that Didi gave English and French lessons to people, because the same name shows up for the same day of the week for many weeks. For some of those entries, there is a brief note of what Didi wanted to teach. Other days had notations such as hair wash, dentist, health insurance, servant bath. About once a month was a note NELL!! always with two exclamation marks. Perhaps they had a special day together then. Didi also wrote in the names of expected visitors. During one week, she wrote down what they ate for dinner that week. It seems from this book that Didi’s life was content and busy.
On January 31, 1933, every headline all over the world proclaimed that the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, whom until now most people had not taken seriously, had been chosen by Hindenburg as his Reichskanzler (chancellor). Hindenburg himself was eighty years old, and, as everyone knew, a figurehead. Still, the German people or the world as realized at that very moment what consequences this would bear. Nellie met Frieder a few days later, on February 4th, and they immediately fell in love. Their story is well documented in Nellie’s memoirs.
Traute remembers a visit Didi paid to her family in the fall of 1936. They had just moved to Schreckenstein on the Elbe River in Czechoslovakia. The new home had a small but cheerful and bright guest room. Every morning when Didi joined the family for breakfast, there were insect bites on her face (spiders? gnats?). After the third day, Dora insisted on finding out what this was. Very reluctantly Didi voiced her suspicion: bedbugs! Oh shame! Only dirty people were blessed with them. The house was new and had been freshly painted, and everything had been cleaned. The exterminator confirmed the diagnosis and had an explanation. The movers used the same dirty blankets for every customer. The family was very embarrassed. Didi would much rather have tolerated her nightly “companions” than cause Dora and the family the embarrassment. Thanks to Didi’s insect knowledge, no other guests had to share the bed with biting co-inhabitants!
At this time, the Nazi presence became more and more predominant in Germany. Nellie left Braunschweig in March 1937 to visit her father in France and await the news that she should go to New York to join Frieder. After Nellie left Braunschweig, her grandmother Auguste became quite ill and it was clear that she would not live much longer. However, because of Didi’s French citizenship, Auguste received better medical care than the German Jews did. Nevertheless, Didi began to feel the pressures of the Nazi cruelty and grew increasingly concerned about her and her mother’s fate. When it was apparent that Auguste was close to death, a kind doctor gave her something that shortened life by couple of days. On May 1, 1937, Didi’s mother, Auguste, died.
Didi wrote many letters to Nellie from April 8 till May 5, 1937. (At the time, Nellie was in Lyon with her father, waiting to hear from Frieder that she should come to New York.) The letters describe the deteriorating condition and finally the death of Auguste. Whenever Didi and Nellie were separated they wrote to each other endlessly. One interesting thing about all these letters is that Didi switches back and forth seamlessly from German to English, sometimes even in the same sentence.
Some time after Auguste’s death, Didi was forced to move out of the apartment. Apparently Didi had quite a bit of money. The Nazis knew this and wanted to get their hands on it. Because Didi realized that when she left Germany, she would not be allowed to take any money with her, she moved into the most luxurious hotel in Braunschweig, and spent her money on expensive meals. Every day at the hotel, Nazi soldiers glared at her but could not do anything because of her French citizenship. If she left the hotel during day, she was often followed, but they never stopped her. The Nazis even woke her in the middle of the night demanding to see her papers, even though they full well knew who she was. This harassment by the Nazis was unnerving but Didi had the determination to stand up to them. She was extremely angry, but she did not buckle.
In 1938, Nellie and Frieder were settled in New York. They tried to convince Didi that she had to leave Germany for good and not only come as a visitor, as she intended, but had to pre-pare her immigration. Didi initially resisted this idea because she was too exhausted to tackle the move and apparently unaware of the true danger of the Nazi regime. Nellie and Frieder, of course, saw the danger much clearer from the outside. It was a frantic ‘battle’ of mail going back and forth. Eventually Didi agreed to leave because the harassment by the Nazis was getting unbearable.
Frieder and Nellie had to agree to sponsor her. Here is a copy of a letter that Frieder wrote to the United States Consul in Hamburg, Germany, showing their support:
July 8, 1938
Dear Sir: May I take the liberty of supplementing the statements on the enclosed affidavit. Our desire to have my mother-in-law join us need no explanation.
My mother-in-law is English born but a French subject and resides in Braunschweig, Germany. We feel sure that there is no danger of her becoming a public charge. In the first place she will have an income of her own and an additional small reserve, as she will prove personally.
Moreover I am perfectly willing and capable to supplement her sources from my own income, or if an emergency case should arise to assume full responsibility for her support. We are also prepared to receive my mother-in-law as a member of our household.
My personal situation is still that of a visiting professor at a salary of $3,500.00. I feel practically sure though that after this year I shall have a permanent position. In addition I am earning money by teaching in the Summer School at Ann Arbor [Michigan]. And I could, in the long run, increase my income by literary work and as a consultant. Until March 1937 I was full professor of mathematics at the Technische Hochschule in Braunschweig. I resigned from the position, because, on account of scientific and personal reasons, I preferred to live in the United States.
As to the earning capacity of my mother-in-law, we are convinced that after a certain time of accommodation, she will be able to find gainful occupations in various fields, because she has a manysided training in languages and educational matters.
Hoping very much that you will see your way clear for granting and immigration visa to my mother-in-law, I am,
Very sincerely yours Kurt Friedrichs
The immigration visa was granted. During this time Didi hid as much money (German Mark bank notes) as possible by sewing them into the back covers of books. She also managed to pack trunks full of her mother’s wedding china, crystal, and silverware, as well as many other family objects such as papers, paintings, photographs, etc. When she was finally ready, Didi boarded a train to Paris with her French passport. The Nazis inspected the all her trunks but never found the money hidden in the book covers.
Life in New Rochelle
On October 8, 1938 she finally arrived in New York. Nellie describes her arrival.
“It was only a little over a year that I had seen Didi last, still, I might not have recognized her, she was so thin, looked so fragile and so worn. You could read off her face what she had gone through. The first weeks she seemed to live in a daze, gradually she was able to talk and she told us some of her experiences and reactions.
She had taken the night train to Paris and must have fallen asleep. Suddenly she was rudely awakened, she jumped up in terror ‘That’s it. I got caught.’ (by the Gestapo). A kindly conductor patted her on the shoulder ‘11 a.m., you have to get off the train, we are in Paris.’
And a couple of days later at the small hotel, she heard shouting in the street. She ran to the window, peeked out behind the curtain, convinced that the Gestapo was coming for her. Some boys were having a fight. No wonder she looked harassed. It took a long time till she was able to relax.”
When Didi first came to New Rochelle, she rented a room in a boarding house near Nellie and Frieder and lived modestly. She started to give German and French lessons to high school students and adults. In September 1939, World War II began.
By September 1943, Nellie and Frieder had two children. Walter was born in October 1940 and Liska in November 1942. Until then, they had rented small apartments. But now they bought a house at 157 Mt. Joy Place. They felt that this house was too large for them and were grateful that Didi was willing to move in and use the third floor apartment. But the family continued to grow. David was born in October 1944, Christopher in March 1947, and Martin in December 1950. By this time the “large” house was certainly filled up!
Although Didi always lived with us, she put down very strict rules. She wanted absolute privacy for herself and recognized how important that was also for Nellie’s family. Didi would not join us for family meals and would only come to Nellie and Frieder’s parties or when friends visited them, on rare and special occasions. These rules and other similar ones, which mostly came from Didi, accounted for the successful way three generations managed to live harmoniously under the same roof for over thirty years. In 1956, we moved to 24 Lester Place, which also had a third floor apartment where Didi lived. We all think that one of the reasons she lived so long was because she had to climb two long flights of stairs to get to her rooms!
All of us kids remember that on our birthdays Didi would join us for the family dinner. This was always a special treat. Didi’s gift to us was a large decorated cake that said “Happy Birthday” with our name on it. We looked forward to this treat year after year. It did not seem unusual to us that although Didi lived in the house, she did not take part in our day-to-day activities. But Didi was always there for us. She was always there to talk to, to reminisce with, to advise, to criticize -- and she could criticize us -- but finally always to praise us. She was always there and we loved her dearly. When we would come home from school when we lived in the Lester Place house, we invariably found Didi sitting on the radiator in the living room: a warm and cozy spot.
Didi also had the idea of what became known as “Nellie’s day off.” This always seemed to be on Thursday. We kids had the whole day with Didi. She would plan some special treat for us. All of us remember the pancake-like crepes she made for dinner on Thursday nights. That was always a very important day for us...Thursday, the day off.
Didi loved to read to us. Every Christmas season, the local newpaper published a serialized “Christmas Story.” And every night Didi read us that day’s chapter. Each year we looked so much forward to this. She also read us the Mary Poppins stories, and the whole set of Doctor Doolittle.
When Liska was nine years old in 1951, she was still sharing a room with Walter, David, and Christopher in the Mount Joy Place house. But then it was time for one-year-old Martin to move out of Nellie and Frieder’s bedroom into the big bedroom, so Liska moved up to the third floor with Didi. Didi had two rooms and a bathroom. One room was Didi’s bedroom and the other was a kind of sitting room where she gave lessons. Liska slept on a daybed in the sitting room. She was given a small chest and a bookshelf, which were in Didi’s hallway. Liska has such fond memories of those days. One thing Liska hated when she became an adolescent was her totally straight hair. This was in the days when every girl had curly hair. So when she was about 12 years old, every night Didi would roll Liska’s hair up in curlers for her, so she would have curly hair in the morning.
Through the years, the family went on many trips and Didi was always there to welcome us home. And when we one by one finally left home, Didi was always there again when we came home to visit. When we were away there were always the wonderful letters from Didi, filled with clippings and gossip and all kinds of other news from home--the letters from home were something we looked forward to.
Didi frequently took her own trips. In about 1957, she went back to Europe again for the first time. She visited friends in Maine and Virginia. In 1967, Dick and Liska moved to faraway Alaska. When they first got there, Dick was often gone on long field trips. Didi realized that Liska was lonely, and so in October, she flew up there for a visit. She fell in love with Alaska and came back three more times, the last time at the age of 91.
Liska has a wonderful story about one of these trips. In August 1969, she was expecting David, Didi’s first great-grandchild. Nellie was accompanying Frieder on a trip in East Germany and could not be with Liska, so Didi flew up to Alaska again to help with the baby. Liska went out to the airport to pick her up a few days before the baby was due. Back then, the airport did not have a jetway, and Liska waited right at the gate down on the airfield. A group of well-decorated military men from the local Army post were also waiting for someone. The plane arrived, all the passengers got off, and then there was a pause. All the military men stiffened up and got prepared to salute General Big Shot or whomever they were waiting for. But Liska knew what was happening -- Didi was slowly making her way down the aisle of the plane to the door. She was taking her time. And sure enough, instead of the General, little Didi appeared at the head of the stairs, and slowly made her way down. All the chests of the military men deflated, and they had to patiently wait till Didi was down and reunited with me, until their General made his entrance! Didi loved visiting Alaska in the summers when the nights were light. She always slept with the shade up because she loved the light streaming into the room all night long.
Although all of us adored Didi, she certainly had some negative personality traits that we remember. She could be very strict and judgmental. Martin remembers her ripping up a school assignment of his and making him do it over again. He also remembers that she threw out his cactus because it pricked her! We all remember incidents when Didi got very very angry with us for something. But we always knew that she loved us. David says that as a person Didi felt things terribly intensely and experienced much of life in extremes. When Didi was sad she was very sad. And when she was mad she was very mad. And when she was unreasonable she could be very unreasonable. This was all a part of her. Didi suffered from severe migraine headaches and also had periods of deep depressions. Nellie tried hard to hide the depression episodes from us children, and apparently she succeeded. We were not aware of these difficult times until we were adults.
But on the other hand, when Didi was happy she was immensely happy. She had a warm, wonderful smile. And when she was kind and generous she was the kindest, most generous person in the world. And she was extremely understanding and very wise. These are the things about Didi that all of us remember with great love.
After we all left home, Didi still lived in the big house on Lester Place. When Nellie and Frieder were away on a trip, Bridie came to stay with Didi. Bridie came into our lives in the late 1940’s to help clean the house. For about forty years she came faithfully twice a week. She was a warm loving person and we all became so very attached to her. Very often, Didi and Bridie would have a cup of tea together. In Didi’s later years, Bridie was an invaluable companion to her.
The following letter to Liska was written when Didi was 92 years old. It is a marvelous example of how sharp and alert her mind was at that age, and how full her life was. When she wrote the letter, Dick and Liska had lived in Anchorage for eight years. David was 5½ years old and Gary was 3. Didi had visited them in Anchorage in 1967, 1969, 1973, and 1974. She was apparently planning another visit, but that never happened. When this letter was written, Nellie and Frieder were on a trip. It was written two days before Christopher and Rhoda’s first child, Ellen, was born in Vancouver.
Sunday May 18, 1975
Before giving you juicy gossip I must refer to your letter and ask a few questions. I do hope you are having some kind of spring now and know what the sun looks like. Can you leave the rest of the fence-painting for me? It’s really sad that Anchorage is such a mess through the pipeline. What a blessing that you were there before all this started. Yes, I am seriously thinking of a visit in Alaska when Mummy and Dad are back, provided I get the O.K. from the doctor. I have called Christopher and Rhoda frequently of late. They are in good spirits but the baby is already one week overdue. Delighted to hear that David and Gary are fine. That reminds me of my questions. Is David still interested in models? What are Gary’s hobbies now? And are there other children you would like me to bring something? Do you or Dick have any special wish, something you cannot get in Anchorage? Walter and David were in Turtle Trickle yesterday with Haji and his boys. Fortunately the sun was shining as the first thing Haji and his boys did was to fall into the pond with their “Sunday best.” The raft was not strong enough to hold all three of them. Weather here has been glorious, the dogwood in our garden in full bloom. I experience a “cupboard love” since the neighborhood children have discovered my supply of M&M’s. Bridie is a brick, is there whenever I need her, even at night, if I have a nervous spell. I am planning to visit in N.Y. this Thursday and on Friday Elly Solmitz comes for a long weekend. Walter stays very frequently for supper and breakfast. David stays in touch by phone, is very happy with Jeanne. Now and then they sleep here. To Bridie’s dismay, only one bed is used then. Hannah Brandt was here overnight last week and Asta is preparing for a “retirement” home where she will go this fall. I had our neighbor Mrs. Corcoran for tea recently. She is very pleasant. Lots of burglaries in New Rochelle and incredible traffic. Your brothers are fine and busy. Walter a successful businessman. His newest venture is to use one of their theatres (they are among the houses Walter manages) for Karate. He will advertise in Japanese papers. Just now an interruption. Jill Gay called and is coming over. I shall have her on the open porch as the weather is fine and Walter fast asleep in the living room. It was a nice visit. Jill helped in the kitchen and when Walter woke up he had a delicious meal. And just now I had a lovely call from Eva Lehnsen. Monday A busy day. The handyman is here, quite a lot to do around the house. I wish I could send you a package of our lovely spring. I have a regular boarder of late, a big black cat, who stays on one of the porch armchairs and only leaves for meals. This year I shall hardly be able to surprise Mummy when she comes back. We had soot all over the house through a brick that had blocked the chimney. The walls will need much cleaning. In fact, they are so bad that the Insurance Co. has sent a check. Hope all is well with you,
“Didi was the first member of the large Friedrichs Family whom I met. The occasion was a visit to Lester Place the summer David and I started dating. Nellie and Frieder were in Europe for six months or so and David, always devoted to Didi, visited her as often as possible. Didi was a bit frail at that point in time, but always a very vigorous story-teller. As time passed and she became more incapacitated and eventually nearly bedridden, I became her companion of sorts for a while.
In the fall of 1976, Nellie was back home but wanted to travel with Frieder and I was living in the house, attending NYU. (David and I had officially relocated to Pennsylvania as it was shortly after we were married, but I had to finish up school). Anyway, I often sat with Didi and we, in true English style, always had "tea.” Didi never failed to comment on her love of the English bone china teacup that she always drank from. This particular cup had been given to her by Bridie and she relished every sip of tea from the beautiful cup, yellow with purple violets patterned on it. Well, one day as I was washing up after tea, horror of horrors, I broke the handle right off the cup! I was beside myself! I couldn't believe how clumsy I was and most of all could not bear having to tell Didi that I had broken her precious teacup. I did the best I could to glue the handle back on but I knew I would have to "fess-up." So with great trepidation I presented the mended cup for our next tea and confessed what had happened. Didi remained calm and accepted the news with barely any notice. She simply commented that she was glad I had told her. She didn't appear angry or sad, nor did she attempt to make me feel better about it. She just accepted it for what it was, a now-broken cup. Eventually the broken cup was placed on a shelf, as the handle could not be trusted. Today, I have that cup and like to remember our many chats together over tea, and I also think it's a good teacup to help one keep perspective at times.”
In October 1977, just before Didi turned 95, Nellie and Frieder were on another trip. Liska came from Alaska and spent two weeks with Didi. Every day they sat and talked and shared times together. This was a very special time for Liska, because she was pretty sure that this was her last visit with Didi. It was a time she treasures deeply to this day.
Didi lived long enough to see all of her grandchildren married. She also knew of the births of five of her eventual twelve great- grandchildren: David, Gary, Ellen, Natasha, and Jonathan, who was born just three weeks before her death. On April 28, 1978, Didi died in New Rochelle Hospital after a short stay. A few days later, some family members gathered for a small memorial service [LINK TO SERVICE] at 24 Lester Place. Her grandson David wrote an incredibly touching and beautiful speech, which summarizes everything we all felt about our beloved Didi. She was cremated and her ashes are buried in a lovely tranquil grove in the woods of Turtle Trickle. She will remain in our hearts and minds forever.