SIXTY-SIX HAPPY YEARS My Story Told to Our Children
Nellie H Friedrichs 1974
Note: Explanatory remarks in [brackets - italics] were inserted by Liska Snyder in 2001
Dear Children: the first part of these recollections was written many years ago in very simple German to encourage David’s studies of this language, as he always showed special interest in stories about the family. Later on, all of you, at one time or another, have asked us to make notes of what we remembered, in particular about the years immediately before we came to this country and whatever occurred after that. Up to 1932 I based my account on what I had written for David, more or less translating what could be of common interest and somehow belonged to the “Story of My Life”. The second part, however, was written explicitly for all of you.
EARLY CHILDHOOD YEARS (1908–1918)
In August 1907 my parents got married in Dresden, Germany, where Didi had lived with her mother and her sister Dora for several years. [Nellie’s mother, Ella, was named “Didi” by her first grandchild, Walter, and that is how she is called in this memoir.] In fact, my grandmother had moved there from Braunschweig because Dresden was a city known for the arts, and Didi wanted to study music and Dora sculpture and painting. From Dresden my parents went to Lyon, France, where my father was director of a silk export firm.
I was born in Lyon on September 3, 1908 and I took my first trip to Germany at the age of 9 months. I was too small to remember it, but Didi told me that I did not sleep a wink during the entire stretch from Lyon to Frankfurt because I was too curious and wanted to look out of the window all the time. In Frankfurt I finally fell asleep and slept so fast at the hotel that Didi feared I was dead. We reached Braunschweig the following day to visit my grandmother, who had gone back there from Dresden after both her daughters were married. She had an apartment on Bodestrasse 11, across from the Stadtpark. Every afternoon a maid came to take me on a stroller walk to the park. Hilde Oelmann, two years older than I, who lived with her family in the same house, accompanied us on these walks. She became a friend for many years.
The first language I spoke was French, which, unfortunately, I forgot in later years. Didi moved with me from Lyon to Braunschweig when my parents got divorced. I was only three and a half years old and therefore remember very little about my place of birth and those first years of my life, but I shall try to recall a few things that are still in my mind and that I have been told about those first experiences in Lyon.
My room was next to the kitchen and it had the tiniest balcony where I liked to sit. From there I looked down on to the narrow side street and watched what was going on. The greatest sensation was a little girl, may be seven or eight years old, who danced on high stilts to the tunes of her father's organ. I must have admired her enormously because I still see her in her short yellow dress and I clapped my hands when she had finished and threw down some coins that Didi had wrapped into a small piece of paper.
Our apartment house was facing big, busy Avenue de Saxe, a rather long street at the end of which was a beautiful park where one could walk and row a boat on a small pond. One day, on such a boat trip, a big black swan bit my arm before my parents could prevent it.
Didi's mother often came to visit us. I loved her but once, for some reason, I must have made her angry and Didi demanded that I should go and apologize to her. Supposedly I muttered "I shall knock at the door of the wolf but if he does not open all the better."
The Henry Gutmans, close friends, lived in Lyon and had three children slightly older than I. There were many parties at their house and I vaguely remember at least one, probably not the first I went to, which, as Didi told me later, made me so nervous that it resulted in a big puddle when I entered the room. Mrs. Gutman's exclamation upon this accident "poor little thing" annoyed Didi to such an extent that she decided then and there this would not happen again, and she started to practice with me coming into a room, shaking hands and altogether how to acquire social graces.
At about the same time Didi worried about something else, namely that I talked too little for my age. The maid who took care of me, an experienced person, consoled Didi “I have never seen a young girl who does not talk.” She evidently was a wise woman.
We had young neighbors on the floor below and my greatest treat was to visit their baby. I think I begged to go there every morning.
When in later years I thought of Lyon, it seemed to me that the door to our house had been huge, almost the size of a barn door. What a surprise when I returned to my hometown as a grownup, to discover that the entrance door was very much the regular size, possibly even a little on the small side.
It must have been 1912 when Didi and I came to Braunschweig and I lived there until I left for the United States in 1937. It so happened that the apartment below my grandmother's was available on Bodestrasse 1l and Didi rented it for the two of us. The most attractive feature was that the park was across the street and it was there where I played most of the time since the courtyard behind the house was very small and was mostly used for hanging up the laundry and for beating the rugs, a typically German custom those days before vacuum cleaners were invented. I still hear the sound of that beating which, I think, was only permitted during certain hours in the morning.
Hilde Oelmann became my playmate and she was the one to teach me German. Together we sat on the stairs and she made me repeat words like: Tisch, Stuhl, Fenster, Tür, Puppe, and so on. How good a student I was, I cannot say, but one day Frau Oelmann came to Didi and told her quite angrily that she would not permit Hilde to play with me any longer. She had spoken German so nicely but was now mixing in French words and that she did not want. This period, however, must have been pretty short, because rather soon I spoke German as well as all the other children and refused to keep up my French.
From the very beginning I loved to play with dolls and I had them in all sizes and Hilde and I played with them by the hour. Another toy we liked particularly much consisted of innumerable little wooden houses, people, animals, trees, cars and carriages, street signs and lots of other items, so that we were able to set up entire villages. There must have been a lot of stimulation for imaginary play.
In May 1914 something terrible happened. The news reached us that the ship on which Uncle Walter, Didi's only brother, had been sailing from Canada to Europe, had sunk in the St. Lawrence River. The "S.S. Empress of Ireland" had collided with a coal freighter during the night. 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 he pulled her back and this way the water rushed in and hundreds of passengers drowned.
It must have been a terrible blow to my grandmother and to Didi and even I remember my own sadness. I had not seen Uncle Walter too frequently, but he had been full of fun, and had spoiled me with toys I had never seen, and I am sure I had been looking forward to his coming. In fact, two postcards addressed to me arrived weeks after he had gone down; I still have them. Didi recalled an amusing incident that happened to him on a trolley car in Braunschweig. His German was very poor. The conductor cheerfully patted him on the shoulder and said "Oh, I know you, last night I saw you at the circus, you were the clown” (Klohn, as he pronounced it).
Didi's only sister was my Aunt Dora. I adored her and not only, I think, because she gave me the most beautiful presents. The doll I got from her when I was eight years old and which I named for her, had the most elegant wardrobe any doll could have and Aunt Dora had made everything herself. I was very much tempted to take this doll along when I came here in 1937.
At the age of five I was very sick and poor Didi must have been terribly worried, especially because the doctors did not know what was wrong and finally wanted to operate, assuming it was appendicitis. I was so weak by then that Didi did not permit it and, miraculously, the day after that I started to get better. My only recollection is that I was allowed to lie upstairs in my grandmother's huge double bed, that I got terribly spoiled and that I had to relearn to walk.
In July 1914, Didi and a friend of hers who had a little boy my age, chose a small place on the Baltic Sea for a summer vacation. It was Grömitz, near Lübeck. Peter and I must have loved the beach and I remember building castles in the sand and looking for shells. Funny enough I also recall that we were taken to an open air circus. It was not much of a circus, I am sure, but it made a lasting impression, especially the clowns.
What I fully realized was the tremendous commotion towards the end of the month. People talked excitedly about something that was called "Krieg" [war] a word I had never heard before. They started packing up and departed in a hurry and the crowded beach got emptier and emptier. Finally, Didi, too, packed our suitcases and I heard her say: we have to catch the last boat which is leaving this afternoon. (Grömitz was on a peninsula). We 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 I ran along when 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. Mostly I went along and, young as I was, I soon knew which of the police officers were kind and which were mean. 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.
A family with a boy exactly my age lived in our house. We started school the same day, Easter 1915, and there is a picture where you can see the two of us with our huge Zuckertüte" (sugar bag), a custom that still exists in Germany. We were photographed together but we went to different schools, as boys and girls were strictly separated. At that time it was still possible for Didi to put me right into a school in which I could stay for my entire school life, that means until graduation. My teacher in first grade (10th class, as it was called) was a woman who had gone to school with Didi for a couple of years after she and her family had moved from London to Braunschweig, when she was twelve years old. They had gone to the same school that I now entered and even had the same principal.
I remember this first day of school very clearly. I was happy and excited and wore a new dress that Didi had made for me; it was light blue with a red leather belt and a white collar. I carried a satchel and a small leather bag that hung over my shoulder for my sandwich. My grandmother had given me this outfit.
It was a lovely morning when, hand-in-hand with Didi, I marched to school. It was a long walk for a little girl of six. First the endless Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse, past the theatre, down Steinweg and, after passing the city hall and the Dom, we came to my school where I would go from now on for thirteen years. Didi said "good bye" to me and for the first time I was alone, at least with no member of the family or any person I knew. There was intermission at 10 o'clock, time to go to the schoolyard for a short period of play and relaxation. An oak tree stood in the middle of the yard and there I saw a little girl with blond curls in a bright red dress. I thought her very pretty and went up to her asking whether she would like to play with me. She nodded "yes" and this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship; the girl was Ingeborg Matte Vollmann.
I soon got to know another girl because she was the first to answer all the questions, and she, too, is still one of my closest friends: Helga Maertens Gutzeit. She had and still has an enormous sense of humor. During religious instruction our teacher talked about Maria and Joseph and told us that Joseph said “auf Wiedersehen” to Maria before he went on a trip. Helga raised her hand to correct the teacher and remarked “Those days they still said ‘adieux’.” It had been customary in Germany to use this French expression for farewell, which was abolished at the beginning of the war.
There is so much that I remember about my first years in school that I shall not attempt a consecutive account but will relate whatever comes to my mind.
The war was good and bad for us children. We enjoyed the fact that coal was scarce or not available at all and that, for this reason, we had so called “Kohleferien" (coal vacation) because the schools could not be heated. We also liked to go to the woods with our teachers in summer and fall to pick berries and gather nuts, because food supplies were shrinking more and more, and everything that nature furnished had to be used. For the animals we collected acorns and chestnuts, and pine cones were in great demand as substitute for coal and firewood.
Quite often, I was hungry, very hungry indeed, but I am sure that Didi and my grandmother really suffered hunger pains as they gave me whatever they could spare, e.g. the one egg they got per person per month. After more than half a century I remember that one of Didi 's friends once presented us with a loaf of bread. It was the most precious gift one could receive in those days.
Not everybody had as little as we, some people were able to get supplies “hinten rum” (the back way) as it was called. They may have known how to bribe the merchants or possibly they had hoarded before things got scarce. And quite a few had connections in the country, and got eggs, flour and even butter directly from the farmers. Some families gave silver, jewelry or other valuable objects in exchange. My grandmother’s oldest sister, Tante Ida, owned a huge farm but did not send us anything. My grandmother resented this bitterly, all the more when she heard that her sister gave large amounts of food to the hospital and orphanage of the nearby town. For these generous donations, however, her name got into the paper.
I also remember that in the middle of the war I visited my distant cousin Edit S., who was my age. While playing she got hungry and took me into a larder where many long reddish things were hanging on hooks from the ceiling. She sliced a piece off one of those funny looking contraptions and ate it with obvious appetite. I later asked Didi what that might have been and she called them “Würste” (sausages). Edit's father was in the textile business and was on good standing with the farmers around Braunschweig.
It was impossible to buy any shoes or any kind of clothing. Our shoemaker had a way of lengthening old shoes, which then looked very peculiar and I hated to wear them, but there was nothing I could do about it. In summer I had wooden sandals which I liked much better, in spite of the clopping noise they made when I walked. My dresses, too, had to be made longer with scraps of different material, but that was still better than the dress made out of a faded flag that one of my friends came to school with, and another one wore a dress made out of paper.
Among our few hobbies was one that consisted in exchanging small glossy pictures that could be stuck into an album. I had traded a beautiful bunch of roses for a Scottish soldier with a bagpipe. Didi turned it over and discovered on the back side "Gott strafe England" (God punish England), and tore it to bits in front of my eyes. I must have been eight years old and have not forgotten it to this day.
One worked much harder in German schools, at least in the lower grades than it used to be the case in American schools. Also we had to go to school on Saturdays. Summer vacation was much shorter (in Braunschweig just the month of July) but around the holidays we had two weeks off and also in fall. All- day school excursions with our teachers were special events during the year. That is how I first got to know and to love the Harz Mountains.
Birthday parties were great treats. The ones Didi arranged were by far the best and my friends still talk about them. She always thought of something special: a puppet show, colorful paper costumes for every child and games with surprises. A high point for me was that I could invite my friend Inge, who lived relatively far away, to come home with me for lunch right after school, and I in turn went to her house on March 6th, her birthday.
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 Kiel McKean, her former schoolmate, sang and Didi accompanied her on the piano. My room was next to the music room and I loved to lie in bed listening to the music. Only some of the songs were so sad that I cried bitterly till Didi found out and saw to it that those were the last on the program, after I had fallen asleep.
I mentioned earlier that my grandmother lived in the apartment above ours. I adored her, she was kindness in person and her constant presence added, in the most decisive way, to the happiness of my childhood. She was a marvelous storyteller and I could listen for hours when she talked about her life. She was born in 1853 and was the thirteenth child. Her mother died six weeks after her birth, at the age of thirty-two. Her father was a very wealthy linen merchant in Hamburg. His business was on Jungfernstieg, his townhouse — a mansion— on Havestehuder Weg and the country-home was in Flottbeck. The children had everything they wished for, even a little donkey cart. I loved to hear about lazy Lotte, the donkey, who played all kinds of tricks. My grandmother described how she watched the gardener enjoying his breakfast: a big slice of black bread with a huge hunk of cheese. She envied him.
In spite of the large family my grandmother was lonesome and missed her mother. Only one of her older brothers must have given her some of the love she longed for. While he did his homework she sat under his desk looking, I think, for the warmth and security she needed. There was another story that invariably made me cry. As dessert the children generally got fruit, but by the time the platter reached her, all the good and big pears and apples were taken by the older ones. One day, however, there was a huge pear that, to her delight, came nearer and nearer. She excitedly grabbed and bit into it to find out that it was hard and not edible: it was a quince and specially left for her as a practical joke. Among the happy events were garden parties, boat rides, and skating on the Alster when it was frozen during an unusually cold winter.
When my grandmother was four years old her father remarried. She never got attached to her stepmother, who must have been a rather harsh and selfish woman and only a good mother to her own four children.
Maybe these childhood hardships made her such an ideal grandmother. Once in a while she invited me upstairs to sleep in her apartment. It was like going on a trip. And then I really went on a trip with her and I still remember the excitement. We visited her sister Tante Ida Askenasi, whom I mentioned before, the one who owned the estate near Liegnitz in Silesia.
I had a wonderful time in the country, spent hours on the farmyard, watched the milking of the cows, a hundred or more, got friendly with the dairymaids, who had to listen to Didi's letters that I read to them. I helped feed the pigs, I looked for eggs in the chicken-house, I played with the children of the farmhands jumping from the haystacks and we picked berries in the fruit garden and even earned a few pennies for the baskets we filled.
Once in a while we rode to town in a horse-drawn carriage and I noticed how everybody knew Tante Ida who, I assume, felt and acted like a queen. After a lot of shopping we ended up at a cafe and there I got a glass of raspberry juice and a piece of cake, an enormous treat. She was a hard woman and feared by most everybody, but for some unknown reason she was kind and nice to me, and I have a warm feeling when I think of her.
Among the many visitors who came to see her while we were there was a woman, a midget, who was smaller than I. Strange to say, this made a terrible impression on me. It was something like a shock to see a grownup person who was child-size. I did not dare talk about it, but for a long time I lived with the dreadful fear that I might stop growing and be like her for the rest of my life. I was eight years old.
Soon after we had returned to Braunschweig, I was standing in our courtyard with Hilde Oelmann when we heard a crashing sound and saw flames in the sky. Didi called out of the window "fast, fast get into the house” and seconds later half a plane dropped into the yard. It must have been about the same time, when I was home with a cold, when I heard the children shouting, "a plane has landed behind the park.” Didi was out and I pleaded with our maid to let me see that plane, my first chance to see one and the last, I thought. Cold or no cold we had to go and we raced through the park, and sure enough, there it was, a tiny one-man double decker, which had come down in a successful emergency landing. What an experience! I was convinced that this was the only plane I would ever see.
Hans Haars lived in the house next door. He was a nasty fellow, a few years older than I. His chief entertainment was to play mean tricks on neighborhood children. Didi kept warning me to stay away from him. One morning I was taking my doll for a walk, when, out of a clear sky, a rock came flying and hit me, as I first thought into the eye, blood came squirting out and I must have screamed. Didi rushed me to the nearest doctor. Miraculously the rock had not touched the eye, but had gotten terribly close to it. Right from the doctor's office Didi intended to go to the boy's father (a high-ranking judge) to tell him what his son had done. She found Hans sitting on the front steps crying desperately "please, please don't tell my father, he will kill me. I beg you not to go and I promise that I shall never again do anything like it." Didi mellowed and agreed to giving him a chance. From that day on I had a protector. Hans helped me wherever he could and he stood by when I needed him.
Another incident that occurred in the street was less dramatic and entirely different. I was playing with my friends when a truck loaded with cabbages drove past our house. Just at that moment, quite a few of them started rolling off the vehicle, unnoticed by the driver. We ran to collect some and I proudly presented Didi with a huge head of cabbage. To my disappointment she did not appreciate this gift as much as I had expected and explained to me that this, in a way, was stealing. I still think it wasn’t.
When I was eight years old, I had the strangest birthday wish. My hairdo was about like now but I had started to attach long yellow ribbons to my head pretending they were pigtails. I envied my friends who had some. My solution was to put on top of my birthday list “please, let my hair grow.” Didi cooperated and after a couple of years my hair had grown so long that I could sit on it.
At about the same time Inge, Helga, Marie Kathrin, and I decided to form a club (Kränzchen, in German), that was later joined by Hilde Hornemann and Sophie Luise. We called it “Kränzchen Lustig” and it existed until we left school. I am still friends with all of the members. The club met once a week in turn at one of our homes and while we played outdoor and party games during the first years, it later developed into serious reading and discussion sessions. Also at times we worked together, making all kinds of small items that we sold at a bazaar, to our parents and their friends, and from the money we bought Christmas presents for poor children.
In 1919 one of us thought of composing a letter to the Kaiser and we sent it to him on his birthday, January 27th. To our delight we received an answer and first wanted to cut the letter into four equal parts but then decided to draw lots. I was the lucky winner and got the letter (unfortunately I don’t have it any more) and Marie Kathrin the envelope.
I was six years old when my grandmother and Didi took me to the theatre for the first time, and from then on, every year, I saw the Christmas play, a charming musical specially arranged for children, generally a fairy tale with lots of singing and dancing. Gerda Gmelin was later on quite frequently a child star in these performances since her father was one of the leading actors. [Gerda later became a close friend of Nellie.] Anyway, looking forward to this event was almost as exciting as the play itself. There was so much that went along with it, such as dressing up for the theatre, sitting on those red plush seats, watching the huge curtain slowly rise, and munching the candies that my grandmother offered during intermission. An extra bonus was that at the very end, one of the actors, dressed as Santa Claus, had an apple, nuts, or a cookie for each child.
At Easter, when I was old enough to travel alone, I was put on the train to spend the vacation with our relatives, the Löwensteins, in Leipzig. Their youngest daughter, Käte was my age and although she had a sister (Gurit Kadman) and a brother, she was like a single child because they were ten and twelve years older than she. For Käte and me it was the greatest treat to share a room and talk in bed and pretend we were sisters.
The Löwensteins were very wealthy; they had an elegant city home and a lovely estate in the country where I loved to go. They owned two cars, quite an exception those days, and Käte had everything a child could wish for. Still, she was very much the poor rich girl, and I always sensed that and felt somehow sorry for her. She died very young, a year or two after she had emigrated to Palestine in 1934.
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.”
To top it all, it was a very cold winter, with lots of snow and ice, and since there was no coal, the people froze. They did not even have warm things to wear. I owned a pair of galoshes, most valuable those days. On my way to school I had to tramp through deep snow and discovered, to my horror, when I arrived, that I had lost one of my precious galoshes. I cried bitterly, so bitterly that my teacher took pity and permitted me to walk back to try to find it Step by step I looked and searched and finally, half way down Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse — I still remember the spot — I saw something black sticking out of the snow. I cried with joy, nothing could have made me happier at that moment.
The overall situation grew worse and worse, everyone was discouraged and even we 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.
A day or two later, before we had time to think about and recover from this shock, its real meaning was forced upon us. Shortly after we had gotten to school, we suddenly heard shouting and banging in the street and soon even shooting. After a few minutes Herr Direktor, our principal entered the classroom and looking very serious, told us that the revolution had broken out and that no child would be permitted to leave school without a grownup. I waited till Didi came to take me home. By then, the main streets were already blocked off, there were barricades and police lines and we saw crowds of wild people fighting and racing around. There were soldiers and sailors, policemen and women, many of them carrying red flags and waving their arms with threatening gestures. I was terribly scared. Via enormous detours we finally reached home after hours. We were lucky to be unharmed as by now there was shooting in almost every street. The Duke of Braunschweig and his entire family had to flee from the city completely unprepared. The youngest child, their only daughter, was a tiny baby. She later became the Queen of Greece.
It took days, or maybe weeks, till schools reopened. By the time we did return to school a very peaceful "army” had moved in — “The American Society of Friends” (the Quakers) and from one day to the next, in between school hours, every child was served a steaming bowl of Quaker Oats and a large cup of deliciously sweet cocoa. After years of starvation this was sheer delight. Similar joy I experienced with a small piece of chocolate, a square inch or two, that one of Didi's friends who worked in a food store, gave me as a surprise. I think I nibbled on it for a whole week. Due to the war I had completely forgotten how chocolate had looked and tasted.
TEENAGE YEARS (1918–1928)
The German people got used to the idea that the monarchy had been replaced by a republic and life might have slowly settled back to normal, had it not been for the inflation. During the next four years it grew faster and faster, assuming fantastic proportions. It turned into tragedy for millions of people with certain grotesque aspects, most of them horrible some, however, even comical.
Men came running home from work during lunch hour to hand wages to their wives, so that they could immediately go shopping, since prices would have doubled by night. At one point a roll cost as much as the school fee for three months. The American dollar that our friend Mrs. Solmitz had sent me for my birthday, amounted to such an enormous sum of German marks that Didi allowed me to invite my whole class, forty girls, to a party at our friend's garden with mountains of cake, lemonade and surprises. And so much money was left over that I could get a new wardrobe and all the presents I had wished for.
In 1923, at the height of the inflation, Didi and I traveled with my grandmother to Pansdorf to celebrate my grandmother's seventieth birthday at Tante Ida's. Our first class tickets from Braunschweig to Liegnitz (a distance of at least 500 miles) cost as much as the taxi fare to the station. When one mark had reached the astronomical figure of 1 trillion in November 1923, the devaluation was performed overnight and the mark was reduced to its original value.
During the war Didi had not been allowed to travel, so my joy was great when she told me in 1919 or 1920 that during July, we would go to a farmhouse in the Lüneburger Heide. There was a nice woman who gave room and board to summer guests. I was delighted to see quite a few children when we arrived and cheerfully skipped out the next morning to play with them. To my sad amazement I heard the biggest girl call to the others "we don't want to play with her" pointing at me, and all of them ran away. I did not quite understand and don't recall whether Didi explained to me, or whether I realized myself that this was the first, and also the only, time where I experienced. open anti-Semitism as a child.
Shortly after my eleventh birthday Traute was born on September 14th, 1919 [daughter of Didi’s sister Dora]. I was so glad to have a little cousin and could not wait to see her. It took two years till I was considered old enough to take the long and rather complicated trip to the Black Forest all by myself to visit Aunt Dora and her family. I was enchanted with Traute, she was the sweetest little thing, still quite nervous about walking alone and eagerly grabbing a finger to hold onto. She was like a living doll and such a good child, only a terribly poor eater. Dora made the same mistake I made many years later, forcing food into her and accompanied every bite with “eat, Traute, eat.”
One evening Uncle Rudolf took me to the theatre. It was the first time in my life that I saw a regular play, not a Christmas performance. I felt terribly grown up, especially when I waved “good bye” to Baby Traute. It was a comedy with the title “Nelly und ihre Millionen” [“Nelly and her Millions”]. This in itself was a sensation and I almost felt the play was written for me. I enjoyed it immensely, much more than poor Rudolf who confessed quite a few years later that he felt terrible because the jokes were more than vulgar and the entire performance not very suitable for a child of thirteen. I did not understand a thing and had the time of my life.
Every child, I suppose, thinks of what he or she would like to be. For some strange reason my first idea was to become a gardener, maybe influenced by an older friend whom I liked very much. But very soon I switched to working with children. I myself was rather young I started organizing games for neighborhood kids, and at the age of ten I had my first student. Her name was Heidi; she was six and needed, of all things, help in arithmetic. I don't think that I got paid for these "lessons." They were, however, the beginning of a long career of teaching, that will, I think, continue through my life. Even at school it was recognized that I loved to teach and it speaks for my teachers that off and on they gave me a chance to do so. My fellow students did not enjoy it because I was much too strict. My favorite subjects were English and German, not mathematics, I assure you. During my last school years I did a lot of tutoring in English and it was English that got me through the Abitur. I was so poor in math that there was a serious danger that I would not pass this tough final exam. One of my classmates was an outstanding mathematician but she was very weak in English and during the entire last year we took turns instructing each other with successful results for both of us. It came as a surprise to my math teacher who had given up on me years before. All those years I had shared the "honor" of being the worst in his subject with Sophie Luise, whose father was the nephew of the renowned mathematician Richard Dedekind. When Herr B. returned our tests he threw mine on my desk but Sophie's he carried over to her seat and I still hear him say very sadly “Fraulein Dedekind, it breaks my heart to put a failing mark under the name Dedekind.” I thanked my stars that I was not “burdened” with this name.
Before I continue telling you more about some of my teachers, I should describe the German school system, which differs considerably from the one in the U.S., although it has changed quite a bit since 1928 the year I graduated.
I mentioned before that schools for boys and. girls were strictly separated, but the main difference was and still is, that students had their own classroom and stayed in it for the entire school year, even for two years if they did not make the next grade. The teachers were the ones to move from classroom to classroom.
We students formed a unit which, of course, changed to a degree in the course of years; still, this explains how it was possible that I was in the same class with five of my friends from the day I entered school until I graduated thirteen years later.
The program was rigid. It was not up to us to choose a subject — we had to study what our particular school offered. Larger cities generally had several institutions of higher education, and there the schools differed insofar that some stressed the sciences and others modern or ancient languages.
My favorite teacher and the one who had the greatest influence on me was Fräulein Westphal, whom our children got to know when we visited her at her old age home in Wolfenbüttel near Braunschweig. We had her for our last six years in English. She also was our classroom teacher, that is to say, she was responsible for us in a way that can only be compared, to a certain extent, with the advisors that are guiding the students in our country. She was most competent in her subject as she had lived and taught in England for quite a few years. She was strict but fair and was respected by students and teachers alike.
The exact opposite was Professor Lenz, an old man who had been Didi’s teacher for a year or two. His fields of instruction were physics and chemistry, both of which I did not enjoy, but that was not my only reason for dreading him, as most of us did. He was mean, in fact, so mean that there was a rumor that during the first world war, where he was an officer, his soldiers had attempted to shoot him from the back. I think many of us wished they had succeeded. Quite a few years later I heard that he watched his older son crash in a plane at a demonstration flight.
We all loved. Dr. Crassus. His real name was Sievers, but even many parents did not know that and came to school asking for him by his nickname. This name had been given to him by his students before the war when he was round and chubby. He taught Latin but that was only a side issue; what he really taught us was love of nature. He was, I think, the first conservationist I knew, although that term was not used in those days. Nothing was easier than getting him to discuss his favorite subject “the outdoors,” and very often the school bell rang and he realized with horror that he had not even started on whatever we were expected to do in Latin that morning.
He was a great hiker and he was the one to come up with the idea that we should have a place in the Harz Mountains, where we could stay overnight and on weekends. We were fourteen years old and just in our class he found a group of interested students, and we became the nucleus of the “Altenau Landschulheim” that exists until this very day. First we only rented something like a loft above a cowshed or a pig sty. This we furnished with the equivalent of orange crates, homemade benches and tables. We stuffed large potato bags with straw as mattresses for the bunks we had also constructed ourselves. We washed in the brook that ran through a meadow in the rear.
Our original “Wandergruppe” of about ten girls grew rather fast and soon our room got too small and the suggestion of buying a house in Altenau got a lot of support from all sides. The money for the down payment was raised with the help of two huge bazaars. Our entire school, consisting of over a thousand students, participated and it was very similar to the campership fairs, only on a much larger scale [the campership fairs, organized by Nellie in the 1960’s, raised money to send poor children to summer camp]. Didi, for my sake, I think, had agreed to being a committee member and you can imagine how effective she was.
One more teacher I have to mention because I adored her. We had her in seventh grade; her name was Fräulein Voss, she was small and roundish and not pretty at all, but she radiated warmth and kindness and somehow made us work, even if it were only to make her happy that we tried to do our best. We were looking forward to another year with her, when, after our vacation, at the beginning of the new term we were told that she had died. We were heartbroken, all of us. For me it was the first really conscious encounter with death, the loss of a person I had loved.
There were no PTA meetings, in fact, parents were only called to school when something was drastically wrong with their children. One occasion though existed where parents and teachers could meet in a joyful atmosphere: the school festival that took place once a year and was a big affair with lots of entertainment, refreshments and dancing.
An innovation started when I was in eighth grade, how and why it came about, I don't know, but the so-called “Vertrauensschüler” (literally “confidence student”) was introduced. It was a student, who by a regular voting system was elected by the class and then had to be confirmed by the teachers. The function was to be a kind of link between students and teachers. The person elected had to speak up in case of injustice, had to attempt to even out misunderstandings, and was expected to solve, if possible, problems of various nature. To my complete surprise — maybe not such a surprise in retrospect — I was chosen, and from then on every year until graduation. What speaks for the class is, that I was the only Jewess, and what speaks for the teachers, is that I was, with the exception of languages, a mediocre and partly even very poor student.
I was lazy when it came to schoolwork, inexcusable but true. I tried to get away with as little as possible because there were too many other things I was eager to do, most of them with friends, as I always wanted companionship. Only one of my hobbies required solitude — I was a bookworm. I loved to read and for every birthday and each Christmas I wished for books: adventure stories, Indian and fairy tales, biographies and travellogs were my favorites. Had anyone told me at that time, that some day I would see for myself almost all the magical and mysterious places I read about, I would have taken it for a joke.
Like many avid readers I identified with the characters in my books. I cried over "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and Helen Keller's "Story of my Life" made a lasting impression. Didi gave me many beautiful books, but she also had hard and. fast rules about what I was to read and what not. Teenage books were taboo and it never occurred to me to read them secretly. I found, however, another way to get around this ruling. Liselotte S., who was my school walking companion those years, devoured them by the dozen and on our way to school she told me what she had read the night before, and I reciprocated on the way home by telling her stories that I had made up.
I would like to tell you about my close friend Annette. Meyersfeld. She went to one of the private schools, but I met her at religious instruction that we had to take every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon. I hated these enforced interruptions of two otherwise free afternoons and the only "Lichtblick" [ray of hope] was meeting Annette. She was a beautiful, spirited girl from a very elegant and wealthy home and there, in the course of years, I spent many wonderful hours. The Meyersfelds gave fantastic parties and we went on delightful outings by car, where their chauffeur took us to any desired place. When we grew older Annette formed something like a reading club with two of her boyfriends. One of them was already then one of the best read men I ever met and he introduced us to Thomas Mann and read whole chapters of the "Magic Mountain" to us. It was exciting to meet him again many years later in Frankfurt when he had become one of the great judges in Germany. I was very fond of Annette’s parents who were especially nice to me. Her father was third or fourth generation of an established and respected banking firm. He was extremely interested in art, and would have loved to be a painter himself. He became one of Ulfert's first sponsors [Ulfert Wilke, an artist, was a life-long friend of Nellie]. Mrs. Meyersfeld was a Parisian and the entire house was furnished in her exquisite French taste. Annette's grandfather had at the turn of the century given the charming Eulenspiegel Fountain to the city of Braunschweig, the pride and joy of the whole town. A plaque memoralized the name of the donor; this small plaque on one side of the fountain was removed during the Nazi years and then an almost incredible thing happened. During one October night in 1943 all of Braunschweig' s inner city, the ancient picturesque part, was destroyed by fierce bombing. The following morning not a single building was left but among the smoldering ruins sat Till Eulenspiegel with his wide grin, completely untouched. [Till Eulenspiegel, the subject of many amusing folk tales, was a well known scoundrel who lived in Braunschweig in the fourteenth century.]
Quite a few years earlier the Meyersfeld family was hit personally by a very different kind of disaster. In the aftermath of the 1929 American depression many German banks collapsed. The Meyersfeld bank was one of the “victims” and from one day to the next the family lost almost everything they had owned with the exception of the building that had housed the bank. Mrs. Meyersfeld, who had never lifted a finger in her life, decided to turn this building into a cafe and in an amazingly short time "The Meyersfeld Cafe" opened its doors and became, until the Nazis took over, the favorite meeting place for the Braunschweig public
I should tell you here that on May 1st, 1933 Mrs. Meyersfeld forbade the raising of the Swastika flag on her property. Her own manager promptly denounced her and the same day she was taken to prison. I shall never forget how Annette and I entered the huge prison gate the next morning to deliver a small suitcase with her mother's most urgent necessities at the front desk.
Within a few weeks Mrs. Meyersfeld was released and this thanks to Annette' s high up connections. In 1928 she had gone to Berlin for a couple of years and had become very friendly with a group of young officers — one of them even proposed to her. His name was Körner and he and Göring and some others belonged to this group. Before Annette returned to Braunschweig, Körner told her that if ever she needed his help, she should not hesitate to turn to him. He kept his promise.
During my teenage years, like most of my friends, I used every cent of my allowance to go to the theatre. We took the cheapest possible seats or standing room, high up on the so called “Olymp” but we had unforgettably wonderful experiences. We saw the classics, many of the modern plays and we heard almost every opera. Once in a while there were magnificent guest performances, among others by Lili Darvas, the marvelous Hungarian actress who died in New York a few months ago (1974).
One of the greatest dancers of all times, Anna Pavlova, also came to Braunschweig. Whover has seen her dance her world-renowned "Dying Swan" will remember that forever. She had brought her whole company with her and after her solo performance, there was a ballet with a charming young dancer Alice Vronskaya as prima ballerina. In the midst of some intricate steps she slipped and fell, and since her partner ran to lift her up, the audience only then realized that something had happened, when she was carried off the stage and the curtain fell. A few seconds later it was announced that she had broken her shoulder. The performance continued but the mood was gone. As I found out the following day, she had been taken to a small hospital very close to our house.
She had to stay there for quite a few weeks and I visited her regularly until she was well enough to rejoin the company in Rome. Our way of conversing had been very funny, she talked French and I English.
But it was not only in Braunschweig where I saw and enjoyed the theatre. Edith Cohn [an old family friend] invited me to Berlin a few times and there I attended one of the first performances of the “Threepenny Opera.” The high point, however, was when my grandmother took me there after some specially hard-working school weeks as she felt that I was ready for a break. It must have been February 1927. They were showing a play by Hamsun "Vom Teufel Geholt" with an all-star cast and somehow she managed to get tickets. There was one scene where a famous older actor was bragging to a lovely very young actress that the deadly poisonous snake, which he carried in his hip pocket, would never harm him. While he was talking he suddenly felt the snake coming out and ignoring it, kept carrying on the conversation. It was the one moment in my life where, completely forgetting I was only in the theatre, I almost screamed a warning. The young actress was Grete Mosheim. I never dreamt at that instant that many years later we would become close friends.
In 1925 one of Didi's friends gave me a little red diary that her husband, the owner of a factory, presented to his customers. I was so delighted with it that I wanted to use it for something very special. Didi suggested that every day I should write a sentence or two about my activities and about experiences of special interest. That was the beginning of a lifelong habit.
Exactly that year became important for all kinds of reasons. I knew by then that I wanted to go into some kind of teaching. Didi, who always planned and guided my life in an ingenious and intuitive way, decided that some voice training would be helpful. A friend recommended a well-known actress who reluctantly consented to giving me five very expensive lessons. I got the money for them as a birthday present.
From the very start it was clear that I was getting more out of these lessons than voice exercises. Irma Scarla was not only a great actress, she was a highly educated woman, a marvelous teacher, and a wonderful human being. Whether my enthusiasm pleased her or what it was, I don't know, but the fact is that she forgot about the "five " and kept on giving me lessons. Didi, generous as she was, let me continue. Gradually, the hours got longer and longer, we started taking walks together. Scarla came for visits to our house and this friendship, too, lasted until her death a couple of years ago. I learned a great deal about poetry and literature, we talked about politics, philosophy and world affairs, but most of all she taught me about life. I had grown up in a very sheltered, maybe an overprotected atmosphere, and there was a lot I did not know. In later years, after her retirement, I visited her quite often in Munich, her hometown to which she had returned. We also traveled together and the greatest experience was a two-week knapsack hike through the Dolomites.
For a particular reason I have to go back to the beginning of my lessons. I may have had one or two when Scarla told me that I should attend a performance of Ibsen's "Wild Duck" where she was going to play the mother. This, however, was not why she told me to go, but a young actress had just come to the Braunschweig theatre and she would be her daughter, Hedwig, and I absolutely had to see her. The whole performance was superb and the daughter so touchingly beautiful in her part that many people cried. The role of the father, by the way, was played by Helmuth Gmelin, Gerda's father.
The day after this theatrical event Didi and I were invited at her friend's (the one who had given me the diary). The friend had mentioned that we would meet a young acquaintance, their doctor’s daughter, from her hometown. Imagine my surprise when that "young acquaintance" turned out to be "Hedwig" from the night before. It was Lotte [Andor]. When Didi found out that she felt rather lonesome, she asked her for lunch or supper and soon Lotte came quite frequently. Again a lifelong friendship developed out of this chance encounter.
In September 1925 I had started my lessons with Irma Scarla, in October I had met Lotte, and in November our friend Mrs. Solmitz (Edith Cohn's mother) told us that her brother and his wife were coming from Los Angeles to stay with her in Braunschweig for a couple of months. They had hardly arrived when she brought them for a visit. One reason may have been that there were not many English-speaking friends. So far, I had never met real Americans, not that I expected Indians, but somehow I had rather lopsided ideas. In any case, I was fascinated. Mr. Sanders was an elderly friendly man, not too interesting, I suppose, but obviously a successful businessman. Mrs. Sanders was at least twenty years younger than he and, to my idea, very pretty, quite made up and most elegant. She did not know a word of German except "liverwurst", which amused me. I was delighted to practice my English on someone who evidently appreciated that she could converse with me. I stopped at their hotel (THE hotel in Braunschweig across from the theatre) on my way home from school, and sometimes spent two hours with her, just chatting. She had no children, was bored to death, enjoyed to a degree what her husband was able to do for her, but beyond that she looked for entertainment and possibly adventure.
The adventure came in form of the young cellist who played in the hotel lobby every afternoon and evening. He did not speak a word of English, but somehow they had taken to each other and soon I had to function as a go-between. It was the first time and also the only time, if I come to think of it, that I had to play exactly this role. Anyhow I knew she was flirting with the cellist behind her husband's back and I had to take scribbled notes to him and translate them and return love letters that he wrote to her in German. Whether anything happened beyond that, I don't know, and I don't think so, but I suddenly felt very grown up, assuming that I was the only one she confided in and that at times she cried on my shoulder, in the true sense of the word.
By Christmas she and I had become close friends and for New Year's Eve Mr. and Mrs. Sanders invited not only Mrs. Solmitz and her son Walter, but Didi, my grandmother and me to join them at the hotel. It was a New Year's Eve party with all trimmings: a terrific dinner, entertainment, music and dancing. In the course of the evening Walter went to greet a schoolfriend whom he had discovered at another table. He brought him over to us and once more this was to be the beginning of a friendship that would last forever. This time it was Ulfert Wilke.
After Easter 1927, our last school year began. Before we plunged into preparing for the end spurt, the entire class, together with a few teachers, took a three-day trip to Weimar. We had, so-to-say, grown up with Goethe, Schiller and all the other great poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and this was the place where most of them had spent longer or shorter periods of their life. It was like stepping on sacred ground and wonderfully exciting to see their homes, have a chance to read manuscripts of their poems or plays that we knew by heart, and to walk streets and parks that seemed familiar through their writings. In the evening we went to the theatre and had a special sensation insofar that, in the midst of Goethe's "Faust,” lightning struck and the electricity went out and the rest of the performance had to be played with candlelight.
The next night Emmi Sonnemann, the future Frau Göring, was the leading lady. I don't recall whether I was particularly impressed, but Lotte, who had been in Weimar before she came to Braunschweig, told us that she was not too much of an actress, mainly because she cried over her own parts instead of the audience. She was, however, a warm-hearted and concerned colleague and this fits the rumors that spread when she was wife No. 2 in the government, namely that due to her pleading and intervention some tragedies were averted.
Back from Weimar there was no more excuse and we had to start preparing for the Abitur, the dreaded final exam. I worried harder than I had ever worried before, trying desperately to make up for thirteen years of laziness and to fill gaps that should not have been there. I trembled, I hated the idea of not passing, but it looked pretty grim. The fact is, that the Abitur is, or at least was, a very tough exam and I remember that my Uncle Alfred Sternthal, who had been a model student, told me at the age of seventy, that he still woke up at night scared to death that he had to pass the Abitur.
Immediately after Christmas we had our four written tests, each taking three hours: German and EngIish were easy as far as I was concerned; mathematics, due to Eva's help I could manage; Latin was dreadful. It was a text by Cicero that we had to translate and that I mixed up completely. And then on February 23rd, 1928 we had our oral exam. This was the final hour and "life and death" depended on that. I don't recall how I pulled through, I only know how all seventeen of us sat in our classroom waiting — endlessly — as it seemed for the last judgment. Finally the door opened and in came the youngest teacher, our mathematics teacher Mr. Brackebusch. He grinned from ear to ear, there was no need to say a word, we knew that all of us had passed. We danced and sang and shouted and fell into each others’ arms.
The feeling of relief, freedom and happiness was so immense that I almost wish everybody had a moment like that, at least once in life. I raced home to tell Didi and my grandmother. I think I flew.
YOUNG ADULT YEARS (1928–1933)
That same spring most of my friends started the University, but I had decided to postpone my studies one term because I had a marvelous invitation. Didi's friend Elsie McKean Kiel—probably to reciprocate for a lot of kindness she had received from Didi—had arranged that I should visit her sister who lived in a suburb of Dundee in Scotland. What a chance.
This meant my first travel abroad, not counting my long forgotten early childhood experiences. Just to prepare for this trip was lots of fun and included quite a bit of shopping. On April lst 1928 I departed. After crossing the Channel I took the "Flying Scotsman" from London to Dundee. A charming young woman sat in my compartment and we soon started to talk. It turned out that she was visiting her family in northern England between engagements. She and her husband were tightrope dancers, performing in different circuses all over the continent, and she told me that they would have to work another ten years to save for the little farm they were hoping to buy in England, where they wanted to live for the rest of their lives. I sometimes had to think of her and wonder whether their dream materialized. When our train stopped in Edinburgh I noticed that people ran to the windows to look out. There was a short stocky man with a huge mane of white hair strutting down the platform. It was Lloyd George.
Quite late that evening I reached Dundee; a kind-looking slender gray-haired woman was waiting for me—it was Kathie McKean. I had never met her before but immediately felt that I would like her very much. The next two months with her were another unforgettable experience. I grew very fond of her and I loved Scotland so much that for years I wanted Frieder to see it too, and finally in 1969 we went there together and it seemed even more beautiful than I remembered. Kathie, unfortunately, was not there anymore, but Elsie and her family lived in the same old house overlooking the Tay, and I am glad that not only we but some of our children have also been there and know the place where I had such a happy time. I had no idea then that this first stay abroad, with all its new and exciting happenings, was only the beginning of a string of extensive travels and of longer or shorter stays all over the world.
Kathie took me to St. Andrews, the gray city on the sea, with the bright green golf links, the ruins of an old cathedral and the dungeon where members of Scotch royalty were tortured to death. We strolled along the Historical Mile in Edinburgh, we hiked through spring forests, the ground covered with bluebells and daffodils, and we climbed over the red cliffs along the sea on the way to Aberdeen, where the smugglers hid in the caves and killed whoever attempted to interfere with their “business.” At night, when we saw the lights of Dundee across the river, we sat at the fireplace reading or chatting. Sometimes neighbors dropped in or we visited Kathie's cousins down the road. It was all strange and new and I felt very much removed from everything I had known so far.
I had been with Kathie for quite a few weeks, when she was called to Aberdeen to help a friend who had to move. Since she did not want to take me along or leave me alone in the house, she sent me to Glasgow to stay at a cousin's. It was one of those families where one person more or less does not make any difference. The Grahams lived in a ramshackle house and of their seven children only the oldest had left by then to marry a minister in France. Mr. Graham was a music teacher and his income must have been minimal, still that did not seem to bother them at all. They were the gayest and most easygoing people I had ever met. I had not yet taken off my coat when I was asked “Could I prepare John Louis for a Latin test?” When I met John Louis, as a friendly elderly man in August 1973 in Johannesburg, he did not remember my tutoring efforts but was polite enough to say that he was sure they had helped him.
I shared a bed with eighteen-year old Fran, and I had to turn the pages of Mr. Graham's music when he played the piano with his students. The greatest treat they could offer me was meeting their friends the Martins. Out of this came a pen-pal friendship with their daughter Marion, now Mrs. Kenneth Carr, that lasted close to fifty years, and the Carrs were with us in New Rochelle at one of our recent family reunions.
After ten cheerful days in Glasgow, I returned to Kathie for another month and then met my friend Annette in London and saw for the first time this magnificent city, Didi's birthplace, that she had described to me ever so often. Annette and I traveled back to Braunschweig after we had visited my grandmother's cousin, Pauline Oppé, for a few days. She had a beautiful country place not far from London.
Filled with all the new impressions of this glorious trip, I was now good and ready to start my studies. The Technische Hochschule (T.H.) in Braunschweig had recently expanded and had added an extensive elementary school teachers’ program, which offered exactly the courses I was interested in: psychology, theory of education, philosophy and sociology. The student body was mixed, consisting of a group of rather sophisticated intelligent young people, some of whom we might call radicals these days, and pretty tame boys and girls from the surrounding countryside. Our professors were "mixed” too, qualitywise. Theodor Geiger, the sociologist, was outstanding; Herwig the psychologist, was an excellent teacher; Jensen, who had introduced the first progressive school in Germany, was marvelous in his demonstration classes but a poor lecturer; and Moog, the philosopher, was a competent man in his field but such a pathetic human being that it was almost painful to listen to him. He stammered so terribly that the students, at times, showed their impatience which, in turn, upset the poor man to such a degree that he lost his temper and got furious. We later heard that his wife gave him beatings when he came home — she looked like it — and finally he could not take it anymore and drowned himself in the Oker River that runs through Braunschweig.
We were also expected to take one elective subject and I chose German literature, while quite a few of my fellow students selected mathematics. How could they??? I heard them talk about a very young, extremely strict but brilliant professor. I did not even bother to ask his name
I enjoyed my student years and got a great deal out of them and received my diploma in 1932. Again Didi had thought of something new and wonderful that I should do after I had finished my studies, and for that reason I did not immediately accept the assistantship that Professor Geiger had offered me after I had passed my exams.
For the summer of 1932 Didi had arranged for me to go to Paris to study and perfect my French at the Alliance Française. I am ashamed to say that I needed it. I arrived in Paris early July and for the first time in life was completely on my own. There were no relatives or friends to help me. I felt extremely independent and loved it and certainly was old enough for such a venture. I registered at the Alliance and the woman in charge, looking me over, said with a grin "Oh, you are the French girl who does not speak French" a rather embarrassing remark, but I was in such a good mood that even this did not upset me. I probably was the only French person to study that language at an institution that was geared to foreigners.
I found a neat and very clean room near the Alliance at three old spinsters' — funny enough with the name Bruel. They were kind old souls, terribly inquisitive and a little too particular. Whenever I came home, they ran after me with a mop to wipe up the marks of my footsteps till finally I took off my shoes at the front door (Japanese style).
My fellow students came from all over the world and after a short time we formed a group of about five or six and had a marvelous time together. We studied quite hard but there were enough free hours to go to theatres and cafes, to just walk the streets of Paris, to go dancing and to visit museums. Our common language was French and we were soon able to have long discussions on all subjects. One boy was German, blond and blue eyed and very intelligent. He was the only one who never talked about himself and who was strangely secretive about his purpose of studying with such enormous intensity. It never occurred to us to be careful in what we said, especially when we had political arguments, but months later I suddenly knew, and I am sure I was right, that he was a Nazi and that he had probably been sent by the party. I lost sight of him but I kept in touch with an English boy who even came to visit us in Braunschweig, and I corresponded with a girl from Norway for many years.
In October 1932 I returned home. Again it had been an experience that I had enjoyed immensely, but now I was eager to start my assistantship. Geiger had found a little office for me at the Technische Hochschule and there I sat every day for many hours doing my work. The project, which Geiger eventually wanted to use for a book, was very interesting. It required a huge amount of basic material that I was to collect and prepare, and part of this, as he proposed, I should use for a dissertation.
His idea was to investigate the distribution of talent all over Germany through the centuries. My tools for this study were the twenty-six big volumes of the "Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliographie." It meant reading, reading, reading and making notes on specially prepared file cards. The "Bibliographie” contained every name of men and women who had stood out in one way or the other in science, art, literature, history or politics. It went back as far as the year 800. There was just a single sentence about some of the people while others filled pages and pages. My task was to extract their profession, their father's profession, where and when they were born and whatever special feature or features had given them the distinction to be mentioned in this encyclopedia. This part of my work alone took over a year and by the time I had finished it, I had filled 19,000 file cards with information. Something that had nothing to do with my work, I have to mention here because it may amuse you and it is somehow connected. I walked to my office at about nine a.m., either alone or with some friends, but I never noticed that on many of the mornings the same young man passed by on the Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse.
To go back to the first months of this period of working at the T.H., Christmas came and I mentioned to Geiger that, during the vacation, I would visit my friend Irma Scarla in Munchen. "What a strange coincidence,” he said, "my parents live there and I plan to see them. Shall we travel together?” We did and it turned into a very exciting trip as only then and there did I realize that Geiger did not merely like me as a working companion. His interest went far beyond that — he actually wanted to marry me. It came as a shock! I was twenty-four and he was forty. I admired him tremendously as a scholar and as my teacher; I was fascinated by his personality, but I did not love him. It saddened me to hurt his feelings but he respected my honesty and I appreciated his understanding. We did not travel back together; I, however, continued to work for him.
It was only a few weeks after this momentous experience, when, 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, I do not think that the German people or the world as such realized at that very moment what consequences this would bear.
Life continued as usual, as if nothing special had happened, and I personally did not give it much thought. I was happily excited because the Herms family had invited me to join them at the “Braunschweige BühnenenBall.” The so-called BraBuBa was a great big ball — the social event of' the year — the theatre dance that took place every February. I had heard a lot about it without ever attending it. I was Iooking forward to it like a child, counting the days. To top it all, my grandmother had given me a new dress for this event, which, according to my wishes, was black and long and very beautiful.
The night before the ball I dreamt that I got sick and could not go. I was grateful to wake up to the realization that it had only been a bad dream. The day was Saturday, February 4th. I shall never forget this date — it became the most important one in my life. The day seemed endless, finally night came and I stood in front of the mirror, not quite believing that this elegant creature was really I.
The doorbell rang and there was Eva Herms to fetch me. Together with her and her parents I drove to the Hofjäger, the largest hall in town where the BraBuBa took place. More than two thousand people attended. We got a good table and with some other friends we had a perfect view of the stage. All the performances were superb as the singers, actors and dancers had volunteered their services for this special evening. Shortly before midnight Helmuth Gmelin, Gerda's father, came on stage to announce the last number and that after this the dancing would start. He wished everybody a good time.
The music set in and one couple after the other began to dance. I sat there watching with Eva and was happy to see familiar faces from time to time, one of them was Ulfert's. Suddenly, a slim young man in tuxedo (he still wears the same one) approached us with short fast steps. I had never seen him before and when he bowed I looked at Eva, being convinced that this was a friend of hers who asked her to dance. She, however, gave me a slight push and a second later it became clear that the bow was meant for me. I stood up in a daze and we danced and danced and danced. We talked and laughed and kept on dancing, only to interrupt for a glass of champagne that he offered me. I was in a state of radiant happiness. I told him that I was working at the T. H. and noticed that he somehow seemed familiar with it. I asked “Are you also a student?” As an answer I got a wide grin. "Are you married?" I continued "No, do I look as if I were?" We went on dancing, the hours were flying till all of a sudden I remembered that I had come with friends. I apologetically explained that I at least had to return to our table and tell them what had happened to me. "I'll be back in a few minutes.” He looked at me with a strange and slightly dubious expression, as if he did not quite trust me. There was great excitement at my table." Nellie, we saw you dance all the time, you danced with Professor Friedrichs." "Oh, no, I danced with a young man, a student." “That exactly is Professor Friedrichs, he is the youngest professor at the Technische Hochschule.” Now the secret was out and suddenly I understood the peculiar grin. I went back and now he told me that for a long time he had observed me on the Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse and that he had hoped for an opportunity to talk to me. In fact, he had come to the BraBuBa with the dim notion he might meet me there, and sure enough I did pass him (evidently on my way back to the table) without even giving him one glance, which almost puzzled him. He turned around instantly and that was when he came up to ask me for a dance. All this he told me and quite a bit more and on we danced and did not even notice that it was 5 a.m., the end of the ball.
"Auf Wiedersehen, auf Wiedersehen" I called, “I work at the T.H., the small room next to lecture hall 3.” “That is exactly above my office, we shall meet soon, very soon.”
Back home Didi was still awake, waiting for me. I talked and talked and kept talking, I could not stop. Didi knew what had happened to me and so did I. The first twenty-four years of my life had come to an end. A new life with a different person had begun.
ROMANCE AND DRAMA DURING THE TURBULENT NAZI YEARS (1933–1937)
I had come home that Sunday morning of February 5th, 1933 at 5:00 a.m. Whether I slept at all I don't remember, I only know that I spent that entire day in a state of greatest trepidation, fearing, that in the excitement, I had failed to describe sufficiently where to look for me at the Technische Hochschule, that the man I had met that glorious night would not find me, and that I would never see him again.
My fears were unfounded. Earlier than usual I had gone to my little office that Monday morning. I tried to work but I don't think that I achieved too much when I heard a knock at the door and the slim, slightly awkward young man entered the room in a purplish suit. From then on, we met, I believe, almost every day. We took walks in the park, arranged to go to the newly opened Meyersfeld Cafe, where we spent an evening with my old friends Ulfert and Annette. One night he invited me for dinner to one of the elegant restaurants in town, for me a rare event. The more we talked the more we seemed to understand each other. The dinner stretched out for hours and it got later and later. Then we finally felt it was time to go home, my escort fumbled nervously in his pockets, grew redder and redder to finally admit that he had left his wallet at home. I, having been invited and not yet knowing my absent- minded professor well enough, did not have a cent. There was no alternative but my waiting at the restaurant, so to say as warrant that he would return, which he did after about an hour. It did not bother me a bit.
I, in turn, invited him for lunch to our house, to introduce him to Didi and my grandmother. And shortly after that he asked me to a special party that was given by the architects of the T.H. and there one of the faculty women mistook him for a waiter when, in his tuxedo, he came rushing to me with two glasses of champagne. We had a good laugh. Finally, exactly two weeks after we had met for the first time, we went on a one day skiing excursion to the Harz Mountains. I was not much of a skier and watched him with admiration when he swooped down a steep trail in front of me. I tried to follow and landed in his open arms and when about twenty-five years later we were obliged for some reason to give an engagement date, this was the day we chose: February 18th, l933.
A few more weeks of bliss and then Frieder (as I had called him from the very start, because I felt the name Kurt did not fit my image of him) left for a previously arranged ski vacation with the Courants. By then Hitler had been Reichskanzler for a whole month, but I don't recall that this was talked about. Frieder, who was one of the few people who had read "Mein Kampf" from cover to cover, may have been more apprehensive than most of us; still, even for him it came as a shock when he heard what was happening in Germany during that month of March 1933 while he was in Switzerland. It is old history by now that the Reichstag burnt down and that the so far more or less subdued anti-Semitism burst into the open. Jewish store windows were smashed, their shops were looted and destroyed, synagogues set afire, Jews were attacked in the streets and banners with anti-Jewish slogans showed up everywhere. Even then many Jews closed their eyes to the seriousness of these happenings, just assuring themselves that this was a temporary outburst and would pass in a few weeks. Uncle Courant was one of them. [The five Friedrichs children always called Frieder’s closest colleague and friend “Uncle Courant” and that is how he is called in the rest of this memoir.] Frieder was extremely pessimistic and felt that his closest Jewish friend, Hans Lewy was the only one to draw the right conclusion by leaving Germany right then and there.
I got almost sick waiting for his return from his ski vacation. The only signs I had received from him was a book that was mailed to me directly from a bookstore and where I could only guess that he was the sender and one unsigned post card with six words “Blauer Himmel, Blauer Schnee, Blaue Flecken” [blue sky, blue snow, blue flakes].
At that time I had not yet learned that he was no letter writer. Still, at the end of the month he finally did return and I shall never forget the moment when he opened the door to my little office. Strange to say, only a short while later the door opened once more and in came Didi. She had never before visited me there but somehow had been worried that day and came to look whether I was all right. She left soon, I think.
The following weeks, I am sure, we must have talked a great deal about the events around us, and, although we were still taking our walks, went to the theatre and to concerts, and took our first long trip to the Isle of Sylt that summer, we began to realize that a life together would not be possible for us in Germany of those days.
Frieder was full professor and as such a government employee. I had passed my exam as a grade-school teacher but it was clear that I could not expect to be hired at a regular school. Also my Professor Geiger for whom and with whom I had worked had left very early. He was not Jewish but his political opposition to the Nazi regime was so well known that his life had been threatened and he had fled his homeland to accept a long-standing offer to teach at the University of' Aarhuus. Had it not been for Frieder, I might have followed him to Denmark to write my thesis; thus I only finished collecting the material for the work I had started under Geiger's guidance and sent it to him.
By now it became evident to more and more Jewish families that the situation was growing worse from day to day. They prepared to leave and since many of them expected to go to English speaking countries this was my chance to function as a teacher. I gave lessons from morning till night, I taught thirty-five to forty hours a week and it was the best thing that could happen to me to be so busy. In between Frieder and I kept meeting somewhere and somehow. Once a well-meaning friend took me aside to point out that our relationship was known and could get dangerous for both of us. It was a personal warning not yet an enforced law, still it was frightening.
In spite of this we went on a skiing trip to the Dolomites in March 1934 and enjoyed it immensely. We hiked through the Lüneburger Heide the following summer and took one more trip to the Alps in the spring of 1935. Between all this traveling together Frieder invited me to his parents' home in Ilmenau to introduce me to his father and his mother. I shall never forget their warm reception. It must have been very evident to them how serious their son was about this Jewish girl, and it would have been more than understandable if under the prevailing circumstances, they would not only have refused to see me but would have made it clear that this was a tragedy as far as they were concerned. And most of all they could have pointed, out what a threat this was to the future of their son of whom they were so justifiably proud. Instead they welcomed me in the kindest way and I am forever grateful that I had the chance of meeting them. I have deeply admired and learned from their uniquely superior attitude and it has influenced my own thinking enormously.
Frieder’s mother was still a strikingly beautiful woman with a penetrating way of looking at you—I would almost like to say, through you. I felt strangely at ease with her because I sensed that she accepted me. And Frieder’s father, with his shock of white hair, his bright blue eyes and his strong features, was a formidable figure, and, although he must have been difficult in certain ways with his own family, he could not have been nicer and more, charming to me. I remember several walks in the lovely surroundings of the Ilmenau house, where he told me about his historical interests, the work he did and, the books he read.
Mostly for his parents' sake, but also to protect his sister and his brother, Frieder realized that he had to proceed softly with whatever step he was going to take, so as not to involve and expose his family. On the other hand, it was by now irrevocably clear that our fate was to stay together, but how and where?
The strange thing is that with all those horrendous and gruesome events around us, I cannot remember, with the ex-ception of a few fleeting moments, ever to have been dejected, hopeless or fearful. Somewhere within I felt completely secure and miraculously happy.
The Courants had moved to New York in 1934 and Frieder decided to visit them in 1935 during his long summer vacation to discuss his own situation with Uncle Courant and to find out what chances he might have in the United States. He had already ruled out Denmark or any other European country as being too close to the infernal Nazi danger spot.
He sailed in July and I went with him to Bremen where, by sheer coincidence, Frieder’s sister, Asta happened to be, and there we met for the first time. Whether it was instinct or some kind of foreboding, but I did not want to stay in Germany while he was gone for such a long time, and therefore arranged to visit my relatives in London who had invited me on several occasions.
This turned out to be a greater blessing than we could have anticipated, because during our absence from Germany, the Nazis came out with new and terribly stringent laws, the so-called “Nürenberg Laws.” Among many other frightening decisions, they stated that any contact between Aryans and Non- Aryans was considered a crime of highest degree and could lead to con-centration camp, or even worse, to death penalty. Had we not both been out of the country, we could not have corresponded freely since it was known that all mail into and out of Germany was severely censored. Thus, however, we were able to write to each other and discuss in out letters what future steps we were to take. Meeting in Braunschweig was completely out from now on. Frieder extended his stay in the United States to further explore every job possibility, and to prepare his permanent return in 1936. To be able to tell me whatever he had achieved and to talk over how we should keep up secret contacts while still in Braunschweig, we arranged to meet in Paris for a couple of days after he had landed in France. My cousin Loulou knew of a small suitable hotel where we met in October. In spite of the horrible reasons that prompted this meeting, those were three glorious days.
We left Paris on different trains and returned to Braunschweig. For the outside world we did not see each other any-more, but we did get together in the middle of the night at the darkest spots in the park across from our house. That even this could have been observed and might have ended in disaster, did not occur to us. We were not that young, still young enough to risk it, but in retrospect I shudder.
Exactly as in 1935, Frieder was going to apply for the permission to visit the United States once more during the summer of 1936. He then wanted to stay, instead of coming back. I was to follow as soon as possible. This was our carefully thought-out plan. As a government employee and being of military age, he needed a permit for any trip abroad. The answer to his request was prompt and furious and was signed by one of the highest ranking Nazi officials in the Ministry of Education. It went something like:
“It is incredible that you, a government employee, have the im-pudence to ask for the permit since it is well known that on your last trip to the U.S. you were in close contact with the Jews Courant, Einstein, Weyl (who, by the way, was not Jewish) and quite a long list of other names. We demand immediately a copy of your refusal to the invitation that Professor Courant extended to you.”
This was a terrible blow and for once we were near despair. We felt trapped. What we had to do now could not be planned and discussed in short midnight meetings at the park. So we decided to accept one of the most generous invitations that my schoolfriend Hilde Horneman had offered me quite some time before, namely, that if ever we needed a “hiding place” their house would be open to us. This, by the way, and other proofs of overwhelming friendship may explain better than anything else why, shortly after the war was over, we were not only willing but anxious to return to Germany to see these and other friends.
We took separate trains, as we had done before, and met at the Hornemanns’ house in a suburb of Dresden. We were received with open arms, not like fugitives who were imposing on the hospitality, and not once during our two- or three-day stay, did we feel that our hosts were nervous about our presence. They had every reason to be. This might have meant prison or even some worse punishment for them, and I do not think that I would now have the courage to accept such an invitation. Still, I do not know how we could have solved our problems without this help at that very moment.
We had all the peace and quiet to discuss in detail how to proceed from now on, and it was then and there that we planned our “escape.” The first step was that I took the train across the border into Czechoslovakia where Didi’s sister Dora was living with her family. I was extremely fortunate insofar that I could travel freely, since I had never given up my French citizenship and still had a French passport, while German Jews by then had lost their citizenship together with their passports.
It may interest you that if it had not been for the advice of my motherly friend Irma Scarla, I would have been in exactly the same situation. After all, I had been raised and educated in Germany, I had forgotten my French and had to relearn it. Beyond all this, I felt German at heart and considered Germany my home-land much more than France. Therefore, I had always made up my mind to apply for German citizenship as soon as I became of age. I must have mentioned this to Scarla and I remember how she said rather warningly: “Nellie, if I were you I would hold on to my French citizenship.” Her tone was so convincing, that, without putting questions, I somehow felt that it seemed better not to rush into it but wait a while. This must have been about 1929, quite a few years before Hitler came into power. Many years after the war I found out that Irma Scarla’ s only brother, whom she adored, apparently had belonged to a very intimate top Nazi group, because he chose to commit suicide in February 1945. I can only imagine that he had inside information which he had passed on to his sister since he very well knew about her close friend-ship with me. I in retrospect felt somehow indebted to him as it facilitated a lot for me.
To come back to my mission, I crossed the border into Czechoslovakia without any difficulty and without being searched. If I had been they would not have found anything because I had memorized the letter I was to write to Uncle Courant and also his address in New Rochelle. Once at Aunt Dora’s I lost very little time getting to a desk as fast as possible and then wrote an endless letter explaining to Uncle Courant how Frieder had been forced to refuse the invitation. He now saw no other way except of leaving Germany at an opportune moment, which might be sooner or later, hopefully within a year. I also wrote in my letter that Frieder would not correspond with him (Courant), would not be able to announce his arrival but one day would just land in New York and let him know. Although I had never met Uncle Courant I knew that he was sufficiently informed about our situation to understand who the person was that had written this letter.
There was no airmail in those years and anything from Czechoslovakia would normally have gone through Germany to one of the seaports. That was much too dangerous for this letter, so I sent it via Switzerland to Lyon and asked my father to forward it to Uncle Courant. As we could not get an answer, we bad to wait almost a year until we knew that it had worked out.
I returned to Braunschweig as soon as I had finished my “job.” It was fall by now but still quite some time till Frieder had his relatively long spring vacation, the vacation he wanted to use for his getaway plan. Once again luck was with us.
Asta had decided to teach languages at a school in France and was living in Paris. Frieder wrote her that he would like to visit her in early spring, maybe as early as the end of February. It suited her well and with this letter he applied for a permit to travel abroad to see his sister. This permission was stamped into his passport — he got it without trouble. Next he had to get a visitor’s visa for the United States from the U.S. consul in Hamburg, otherwise he could never have landed in New York. There were hurdles. First of all the consul demanded proof that Frieder had paid his rent for the next three months, but much more severe was that he requested a written statement from the Technische Hochschule that Frieder was fully employed for the entire academic year. To obtain a receipt from his landlady was easy enough. She must have sensed that something was going on and did not ask questions. The worst obstacle was to get the required statement from the Technische Hochschule. We met, as usual, in the dark of the night and tried to figure out how he should extract it in the most inconspicuous manner. We trembled, or at least I did. The following morning Frieder had to go to a certain clerk, whom he had known for years, and who was in charge of these and similar matters. The clerk wore his swastika to show his party membership but was one of these typically good-natured German fellows who really meant quite well but had to join to keep his job. He knew about us and may have suspected that Frieder needed this paper for more than just visiting his sister in France. He probably should have asked, but did not do so; he just put his signature where it belonged and that was that. After close to forty years we think of him gratefully.
Frieder’s worries were not over. He also needed permission from the military authorities to leave the country. The officer in charge was at first quite reluctant, but when Frieder mentioned that he was a professor, his reaction was “well, then there is no problem.” Had he checked back with the T.H. he might have become suspicious, thank goodness, he did not.
The two certifications satisfied the consul and Frieder got his visitor’s visa for the U.S. stamped into his passport only a page away from the military permit. Thus equipped, he could travel, but we had one dreadful fear: was his name already on one of those horrible lists at the border and would they stop him there? That would mean the end. Still, there was nothing we could do but hope and pray. In his suitcase Frieder took his most urgent belongings, nothing else.
We said “good bye” to each other on February 19th, 1937 not knowing when and where and whether we would meet again. The only thing we arranged was that Frieder, who first went to visit his parents for a few days, should send me a postcard as soon as he had safely crossed the border into France. Then I was to leave immediately so that nothing could happen to me in case by that time, for some reason or other, they had found out that Frieder had left with the intention not to return.
I don’t recall how I survived those days of waiting, sometimes it is good that memories are blurred. Then, finally, the post-card arrived and the relief must have been overwhelming. It was signed “Dorothy,” as we had picked out — I completely forgot what gave us the idea to choose this name. All I knew was that he planned to stay with Asta for a short while and after that take the next possible boat to New York.
I left the day the postcard had arrived, it was March 10th and this was the day I saw my grandmother for the last time. I loved her, we both knew that this was a farewell forever. She could have made it very hard for me, she did not, she felt that I was on my way to happiness and that was all she wanted from life. She was a wonderful woman.
I did not go directly to France, I made a detour to stop in Ilmenau for two days. It was my great wish to see Frieder’s parents once more and again they welcomed me wholeheartedly, this time as a daughter even though it was not explicitly expressed, but the feelings said more than words. Frieder had told me that he would neither discuss his plans with his parents nor tell them his final travel goals, and they did not ask me. It was not brought up and I appreciated that they spared me with questions that, I knew, Frieder would not have wanted me to answer. His reason was purely to safeguard them, as far as he was able to, so that if questioned after his departure, they could honestly say they did not know a thing, in fact, swear to this if necessary. Miraculously they have never been asked and, at least, in this respect we don’t have to reproach ourselves. It would have been horrible if something had happened to them on account of us and yet, once we were gone, there would not have been any chance to prevent it or do a thing about it.
From Ilmenau I did not go to Lyon but met Didi once more in Frankfurt for two unforgettable days,. We laughed and talked, we went sightseeing and and had a marvelous time. And when it finally came to taking leave, neither she nor I had the faintest idea what the future had in store for us — in fact, she less than I, there was no clinging, no sobbing, she was the bravest, most courageous woman I knew. Her standing up the way she did, just like the attitude of Frieder’s parents, contributed decisively to my image of how to cope with life. When her train went north and mine south, we were not sure whether we’d ever meet again.
I reached Lyon on March 17th for an indefinite period. I was to stay there until Frieder would see his way clear enough to let me follow him to the United States. It was, I think the saddest stage of my life. I hardly knew my father whom I had only seen sporadically at infrequent short meetings. I had never met his wife, a good-natured, friendly, but primitive woman.
Until now, there had been no time to think, actions had to be taken, decisions had to be made, events had raced each other. Only now the full impact of my farewell from Didi and from my grandmother overcame me and the fact that I had left without a single goodbye to any of my friends, which would have been too dangerous for them. I was lonesome. Still, in retrospect, I am grateful for these two months — that was all it lasted — because it gave me the one and only chance to get to know my father to a certain degree.
At the age of fifteen my father had accepted the invitation of some cousins to join them as a clerk in their developing silk business in Lyon. Up to that time he had never been out of Germany but fell in love with France from the very start. He embraced the French culture with all his heart and in the course of years grew, so to say, more French than the French. He worked his way up to director of the branch in Lyon (the headquarters was in New York) and was, I am sure, a very competent businessman.
His great love, however, was history and he spent every moment of his free time to study it and acquired a formidable knowledge of French history. This is what enriched my otherwise dull existence in Lyon. For hours and hours he gave me the most fascinating lectures and the way he presented the material made it clear what an outstanding professor he might have become if his life had gone in this direction. It was almost touching to see how very much he enjoyed having me as a listener, but at the same time I fully realized that he did not even attempt to include his wife in these sessions. In fact, I soon noticed that she was nothing but a glorified housekeeper. He was kind to her, spoiled her with material goods to a certain extent, but he did not want his wife to be a companion, and this, of course, made it clear to me that a woman like Didi must have been desperately unhappy, and that it was a blessing that she recognized this early enough to walk out before her spirit was broken. I don’t think that my father, who was already very much set in his ways — being fifteen years older than she — would have changed his attitude towards women for her sake. With his now grown-up daughter, strange to say, it was different. For some unknown reason he was proud of me, even tried to show me off in a modest way, treated me with great respect and was, at the same time, somehow puzzled about me.
Something that was absolutely beyond him was my relationship to Frieder. He, of course, knew that I was only in Lyon to wait for Frieder' s word to come over and that Frieder had left Germany and his position as a professor to be able to marry me in another country. He knew it but he could not quite grasp it. I still see the look of incredibility, almost bewilderment, in his eyes when he once said "this man must love you very much."
His wife, as I observed before, was a simple, fairly good-looking woman who accepted her role rather graciously. Maybe her life was better than she could have hoped for, but she was not happy. She was kind to me insofar that she went shopping with me as my father had given me quite a nice amount of money to buy a new set of clothing for the new country. I should still mention that, next to history, he had another hobby, he was a bibliophile. His collection of beautifully bound and very precious books was known all over France. The sad and most mysterious thing is that there is no trace or indication of what happened to this invaluable collection. My father had died in 1943, in the midst of the war, and when we later, through Loulou tried to find out, my father's widow claimed, as Loulou informed us, that he himself had thrown the books into the Rhone River, a version I refuse to believe.
Since I was born in France, being a French citizen and with my father having the New York business connection, it was very easy for me to get the United States immigration visa. Besides the French quota was never filled in contrast to most other countries. What took years in many cases, just took a few weeks in mine and on May 4th I was notified that I could pick up my papers at the American Consulate in Lyon. The same day I received a letter from Didi telling me that my beloved grandmother had died on May 1st. In spite of my foreboding when I had said goodbye to her, and in spite of the fact that already then she had been transparently frail, the news of her death stunned me, and I know that I sat for many, many hours in the park not wanting to see or talk to anybody.
Much later Didi told me how, on the day of her death, the Nazis were holding their May Day parade with marches and blaring music and swastika flags hanging from every balcony. One of those flags was dangling in front of ours. Good Frau Oelmann, the old friend and neighbor, must have realized how terrible this was for Didi and just pulled down the flag. An act of courage that might have cost her life.
Shortly after I had received my visa I got a letter from Frieder, ever so much sooner than I had dared to hope. He wrote that his chances were fairly good that he would get a position at New York University next September, and that I should come over as fast as possible. I was dazed, could hardly believe what seemed too good to be true. From one instant to the next my world had changed, even gloomy Lyon suddenly looked bright and beautiful in the glory of sunshine and the bright green of May. My father booked my passage on the next possible boat that was sailing for New York, and Didi wrote that she was now able to leave home for a longer period and would meet me for a full week in Paris before my departure. All of a sudden everything fell into place.
Our reunion was superb, a completely unexpected gift from heaven, and no city in the world could have been more suitable than Paris to enjoy every precious moment of this togetherness. We had been able to arrange that Didi’s train left a few minutes before I boarded mine for Le Havre. From there I sailed on June 4th, 1937 on the S.S. “Champlain” of the French Line. The crossing was perfect, by now I was in a state of indescribable happiness and anticipation and details of this trip are not important. I only want to mention the topic of the day, or more correct of the week, which was discussed back and forth all during the voyage, namely that the Prince of Wales had married the woman for whom he had renounced his throne.
I still feel the excitement when, on June 11th around noontime, word spread on deck that New York was visible in the far distance. Even straining my eyes to the utmost, I could barely detect the faintest grayish white silhouette against a bright blue sky. But then rapidly it grew clearer and clearer and suddenly the gigantic buildings of the downtown area were practically on top of us, a spectacle of grandiose dimensions.
MARRIAGE AND FIRST YEARS IN NEW YORK (1937–1940)
I was still in the first-class drawing room where the new immigrants had to assemble, when I saw Frieder coming through the door. I think it was the one and only time in my life where I was close to fainting. On the pier Horton Hirsch and his wife Edith were waiting for us. He had given my affidavit. It was strange that of all people he was the one to greet me in my new homeland, as his father had been one of the cousins who, about fifty years before, had given my father the chance to start his life in a foreign country. It was kind that they had come, but even kinder that they left soon and we were alone, at last. The next two days were like walking in a dream, so overwhelming a dream that again and again I had to ask myself whether this was fantasy or reality.
Frieder had taken a room for me at the Great Northern Hotel on 57th Street and even now, after almost forty years, I have a feeling of attachment whenever I pass it. By the time I had unpacked a few needed items and had changed into my thinnest summer dress, it was dark. We started walking the streets of New York. It was one of those hot humid nights, typical for this city, but completely new to me, new like everything else. I had been to a few of the great capitals of the world like London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin, but this was different, oh, so different. Slowly the realization that we were free overcame me. Hand in hand we walked for many hours in this crowded fully alive city, millions around us, and not a soul we knew. It was like being in a vacuum. The glitter, the smell, the colorful constantly changing scenery, the noise, the humidity all this melted into a surrealistic picture of unforgettable force. The days that followed must have been similar, details of what we did are blurred and of no importance, but the impact of the emotions is still with me.
And then Frieder took me to New Rochelle. Neither of us knew or suspected at that moment that this city would become our permanent home for our entire American life. Sickles Avenue was in those days a pleasant street of modest rooming houses. Frieder had already stayed at one of them for a few weeks and had rented a room for me in one of the neighborhood houses. It was the tiniest and coziest room under the roof and cost $3.00 a week. My landlady was a kindhearted woman and allowed Frieder to visit me in my room under the condition that we left the door ajar, to safeguard the reputation of her house. Frieder's landlady was an older and rather grouchy person and only permitted us to sit together on the front porch. And this, even after Frieder had introduced me as his fiancee.
Funny enough the first people we met in New Rochelle were the Johns [Fritz John later was also an NYU mathematician. He and his wife Charlotte became lifelong friends of Nellie and Frieder]. We ran into them accidentally. They had come from Kentucky to visit the Courants. Later Charlotte told me that Courant questioned her back and forth after she had mentioned meeting us. By the time Frieder was willing — for reasons of his own — to take me to the Courants, poor Courant must have died with curiosity. How he felt about me, I could not figure out. It took me years to interpret his behavior correctly and to understand the meaning of his mumbled comments. His wife, Nina was in the midst of some music session, glimpsed at me with a somewhat absent- minded look, nodded slightly and continued to play.
Into our peaceful existence New Rochelle burst the incredible and most exciting news that Frieder's position at New York University had really been confirmed, and that he was to start teaching in September as a "visiting professor" with —at that time for us— the huge salary of $3000 a year. We were overjoyed. I do not recall whether we found out then, or only later, that Uncle Courant in his ingenuity and ability to convince people, had persuaded a New York banker to make a donation of $3000 to NYU, earmarked as salary for this newly arrived mathematician K.O. Friedrichs. Had it not been for this, Frieder's chances would have been very slim, because in 1937 the country still suffered severely from the aftermath of the depression, and private universities had practically no money, especially not for scientists.
One of our first actions was to return $500 to Hans Lewy, who had generously advanced this sum when Frieder had arrived in the U.S. with ten marks, the only money he was legally allowed to take out of Germany.
My father had given me $1000 and we were now able to figure out our budget. For $150 we bought a car as we knew that, sooner or later we would have to go to Canada and people had told us that this was the best and. the cheapest way to travel. My landlady had a good friend who was eager to let us have his well-kept car for the bargain price mentioned above. It was a 1928 Packard, in top condition as far as looks were concerned, and about the size that would have fitted our needs when we had five children. It did run, but what the previous owner had kept a secret was that it required about as much oil as it swallowed up gas, which was seven miles per gallon. Still we held on to it for about a year.
We were very proud and felt very American owning a car and Frieder suggested a first ride. He had taken driving lessons back in Germany quite some time ago. I did not yet drive myself but knew enough about it to realize that Frieder was far from being an expert. However, we obviously survived.
In the meantime the National Council of Jewish Women, without charge, worked on and prepared Frieder's immigration papers. Around August 1st they notified him that his papers were ready and could be picked up on August 10th at the American Consulate in Montreal. We managed rather fast to acquire our marriage license, as we had decided for quite a while that this trip should also become our honeymoon. To facilitate certain formalities the Council had advised Frieder not to get married until he had immigrated.
On August 8th we started north, our first long trip by car. At the speed we traveled and since there were no thruways, it took us two full days to reach Montreal. I used all of the 10th for sightseeing, while Frieder spent the day at the Consulate. Then we met at the hotel in the evening, and he radiantly waved his immigration papers. It was too late to leave but the next morning we got up at dawn to reach the border as early as possible. We crossed into New York State at Rouses Point, a sleepy little town, and asked one of the border guards for a Justice of the Peace. He seemed a little puzzled about this question but volunteered the information that if we had any kind of business, we had to be prepared for a long wait, since the Justice of the Peace happened to be a very busy dentist and it might take hours until he had time for us. That was a terrible blow. Four-and-a-half years we had waited for this moment and now, so close to it, we should sit in a dentist's office waiting till this good man got around to marrying us. We looked at each other in dismay and decided to drive on to find another Justice of the Peace with less of a schedule.
We drove from village to village, either no Justice of the Peace at all, or out of town just this morning. Even I stopped talking, somehow this seemed cruel. Finally, at about noontime we reached Plattsburgh, a larger place and our spirits lifted. Yes, there was a Justice of the Peace but his farm was so far out of town that we should better call to be sure to find him home. I extracted the telephone number and, thank goodness, a man's voice answered the ring. Indeed, he was Mr. Cosgrove, Justice of the Peace, and quite willing to marry us. My heart jumped, but then came the hitch. "I have to get my hay into the barn before the rain starts, it will take a couple of hours. You can come at about four o'clock". "A couple of hours", as far as we were concerned was an eternity, but we did not dare continue our search. Here at least was a promise.
I do not know whether we just sat and looked at each other, but I do remember that by two o'clock we drove out to the farm and stopped the car, when we saw it some distance away and waited for the time to pass. After a while I heard the even sound of breathing and saw Frieder' s head slowly dropping downward, he had fallen asleep. There I sat, now waiting all by myself staring at my watch. At ten to four I gave Frieder a gentle push, "Time to wake up, we are going to get married." It took him a moment or two to grasp what I had said. Then he started the car and slowly he drove up to the front door of Mr. Cosgrove's homestead.
A big bulky man with a kind face, still in the process of rolling down his shirtsleeves, came out to greet us. "Are you the folks who called to get married?" We confirmed that we were. Then, to our amazement, he searchingly looked into our huge car. "Where are the witnesses?" Our faces fell, we did not know witnesses were needed, we had our license, but witnesses, no. He must have seen our expression of' utter despair, because the next thing was that, with a booming voice, he called his wife and his maid and instructed them to act as witnesses. I felt like embracing him.
We marched into the living room and after fumbling in a desk drawer, he came up with a white sheet, evidently the text of the ceremony. I had the impression that he had not read it for a long time as he had quite some trouble deciphering it and mumbled the sentences so that we could hardly understand them until the word "ring" was clearly pronounced. He looked at us questioningly? “No, we did not have rings.” Too bad because this had been the ring ceremony, he now needed another text. Some more mumbling, he made us repeat a couple of words and then the only sentence we really understood “AND NOW YOU MAY KISS YOUR WIFE.”
A few more minutes and Mrs. Cosgrove, who had carefully filled out the form, handed me our marriage certificate and off we went:
A radiant Mr. and Mrs. Friedrichs It was August 11th, 1937
For two incredibly wonderful weeks we drove and hiked through New England before we returned to New Rochelle. We had rented before our departure, two rooms in a so-called Residence Club at 197 Centre Avenue. It was a glorified rooming house with the special feature that the tenants shared the kitchen on the ground floor. Didi had sent me to cooking class after school, I’m sorry to say without results. Lotte Andor knew about my dilemma, so as a wedding gift she presented me with a handwritten cookbook which contained meticulously described recipes that helped me over the first months of my marital status and kept Frieder alive. Words spread among the co-tenants that I never threw out any leftovers — this probably stemmed from my wartime childhood recollections of starvation — in any case, they gave me what they could not finish, including bacon grease, till I ran out of containers and had to stop collecting. But it shows how kind people were and we really enjoyed our first living quarters as a married couple.
A few days before Frieder's duties began at New York University, he received an important looking letter. It was the answer to his letter of resignation [from the Technische Hochschule], the “Entlassungsurkunde” (document of dismissal), signed by no one less than Hitler himself.
On October 1st Frieder taught his first class at NYU Heights. He also had to give a couple of lectures downtown. Uncle Courant was head of the Mathematics Department with a tiny room as his office in the old Judson Building on Washington Square, which, at that time, served as a girls’ dormitory. Here he met with his co-workers: Donald Flanders, who had been at NYU, even before Uncle Courant had arrived, Frieder, and Jim Stoker, who too, had joined the faculty this fall.
On January 8th, 1938 Uncle Courant celebrated his fiftieth birthday, the first of a string of special birthdays that we celebrated with him. Many people came and I was delighted to discover the three- and four-year old Artin children, who had just arrived from Germany with Natasha and their father. We escaped the crowds to an upstairs room and entertained each other with a globe. They knew every place under the sun. I learned a lot that afternoon.
A few weeks later the Courants asked us to take care of their children and guard the house while they went on a skiing vacation to Lake Placid. Funny enough the only thing I remember is, that as soon as twelve-year-old Hans came home from school, he put the Toscanini version of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony on the record player, climbed on a chair and played conductor. Since then, whenever I hear the Seventh, it is connected with him.
It must have been shortly after this that Frieder was invited to teach summer school at Ann Arbor, Michigan. We were quite excited and eagerly looking forward to another new experience. At the same time we had an urgent correspondence with Didi, trying to convince her 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. Not that she loved Germany so much, on the contrary, she had never felt at home there, but at this point she was too exhausted to tackle the move and, strange to say, unaware of the immediate danger, at least to a certain degree. We, of course, saw that much clearer from the outside. It was a frantic ‘battle’, mail going back and forth, and had it not been that she was dragged into a gruesome interrogation [by the Nazis], she might not have realized how grave the situation was. Frieder was almost more upset than I when we left for Ann Arbor and her case was not yet resolved. Eventually, however, we were able to send the final documents from Michigan, and only then we could really enjoy our summer there.
For the first time we found ourselves one hundred percent American surroundings. We loved the warmth, the helpful-ness and hospitality of the people and we still exchange Christmas cards with some of the friends we made there. We enjoyed picnics, parties and excursions and we both worked rather hard. I took various courses at the university, mostly advanced French, while Frieder taught. It was a fruit-ful period.
Ann Arbor at that time was a relatively small, typical university town, ideal for many reasons, and something of a dream for Frieder. When later they offered him a position, it was one of the hardest for him to decline, but he was already too committed to Uncle Courant, to their work together, and to what they hoped to build up.
Immediately after our return, we rented our first apartment, 435 Webster Avenue. It was way too expensive for us, costing $72 per month, but we liked it so much that we decided to save in other ways. We moved in with a bed and a red dinette set, and we were amazed to find out how easily we could manage with these rather few pieces of furniture. Our next purchase was a couch because our first visitor had announced his arrival. It was Ulfert Wilke. Two days before he came from Germany, the worst hurricane so far in American history caught us and the entire northeast coast completely by surprise. We had a very urgent letter to mail that day and when the rain stopped coming down in barrels, we took the car to drive to the post office. We chose the usual way that led through an underpass. Our car stalled and we discovered to our horror that we were deeply emerged in water. It poured in rapidly, Frieder jumped out and, believe it or not, carried me in his arms to safety. Some hours later, our service station people donned their bathing trunks to pull our car out.
On September 23rd Ulfert arrived and the following two weeks he helped us furnish our apartment as by now we knew that Didi would join us soon. In between we took him sightseeing and we made a memorable trip with him to Chappaqua. Uncle Courant had just acquired a car and sug-gested to visit the Flanders’ to try out the new vehicle. We were delighted and spent a marvelous time with them. There was music, tea and homemade bread, and interesting conversation. Ulfert discovered in that old dilapidated house some ancient rocking chairs that fascinated him. He started to sketch them and, although he did not realize it then, these sketches which he continued to change, be-came the basis of a new artistic development towards the abstract.
The three blond and blue-eyed Flanders children waved good bye, when we finally left quite late in the evening. I heard Ulfert say: such beautiful children, I would love to have some day. (He got them.) On the dark bumpy driveway the new car hit something that shook us out of our seats. We drove on at considerable speed, along the deserted Taconic Parkway. Ulfert was intrigued by lights on the dashboard, and Uncle Courant, proud owner of the car, wanted to demonstrate how they changed at various speeds. Sudden-ly the car stopped dead, no persuasion helped. We waited endlessly till finally somebody took one of us to a far away service station. There was not a drop of oil left in the car when the service man lifted the hood. The bump had knocked off a bolt. The Dodge people later changed their design.
On October 7th Didi was to arrive. I hardly slept the night before and got Frieder out of bed by 5 a.m. to be sure to get to the pier in due time. We did get there early enough but were told that the boat was only going to land the following morning. It had never occurred to us to check beforehand, “Dear me, we shall have to stand here for twenty-four hours,” I thought, when Frieder pulled my arm gently and pointed out that we would return the next day. What a brilliant idea!
Back we were at the pier and saw the “Ile de France’” docking at 8 a.m. and very soon I discovered a small frail figure leaning against the railing. I waved and waved, jumped and shouted, no response for the longest time. Later Didi told me that a fellow traveler drew her attention to me saying, “It looks as if all that excite-ment is meant for you.”
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 harrassed. It took a long time till she was able to relax.
In the meantime Ulfert was still there. Since Didi’s arrival we had rented a room for him across the street. Twice already he had extended his return ticket, he just did not feel like going back to Nazi Germany. Then, between the lines, his mother and his sister Lottchen—who lived in his studio in Berlin—let him know that the Gestapo had inquired why he was not returning This made up his mind, he was not going back. By now he had met quite a few influential people in the art world and with their and our help he started to prepare his immigration.
I was incredibly grateful that Didi was with us, we enjoyed Ulfert, we made more and more friends, we attended faculty parties and went to plays and concerts. Frieder was happy at N.Y.U., life seemed so good, but I did not feel well. I got out of breath climbing the stairs to our third floor apartment, I had no appetite, I lost weight and felt weak and dizzy. Dr. Freundlich diagnosed a rather serious case of thyroid trouble and ordered a special diet and rest, rest and more rest. It was the first, and so far only time in my grown-up life that I was ill. I was relieved when I knew what was wrong and somehow I en- joyed this period of enforced calm. Frieder had surprised me with a small radio and just then “Gone with the Wind” had come out as the number one bestseller and with this and lots of other good books, I could not have wished for better entertainment.
The constant strain of the last six years had caught up with me and had demanded its toll, but with Didi’s care, Frieder’s concern and the doctor’s proper advice, I was re-stored to good health within a couple of months. Dr.Freundlich’s final recommendation was a quiet vacation with change of air.
We chose to go to New Hampshire and driving around, we found a lovely farm at the foot of beautiful Mt. Chocorua, which was run by a young couple. It was exactly what we wanted and would have been perfect if I had not discovered another first in my life. I was envious of Mrs. Porter who was expecting a baby. Still, we stayed there for quite a long time, became friendly with the Porters, enjoyed our long walks and the complete peace around us, and did not even bother to find out what was happening in the world. Apparently too little so, because one late afternoon, when we came back to the farm, our hosts called us into the kitchen where they were listening to the radio and we were stunned to learn that the Nazis had invaded Poland, that Great Britain had kept her promise of loyalty and that the second world war had begun. It was the 3rd of September, 1939. The following morning we packed up and returned to New Rochelle.
Late that fall, Frieder and Jim Stoker started a research project which kept them working for many months. They used Frieder’s study since Jim, having two children, did not have one. It was a revelation and an inspiration to see these two men working, completely absorbed, not even looking up when I came in to put a cup of coffee next to them. It was the most ideal combination as Frieder was the more pure and Jim the applied mathematician. He had worked as a mining engineer before he had received his Ph.D. in Zurich. They worked for hours and hours, sat at Frieder’s large desk with a small cal-culating machine in front of them and filled sheet after sheet with their calculations. Years later Frieder told me that exactly this would have taken seconds if fed into an electric computer. Their endurance, however, paid off. The results of this project played a major role in putting, so to say, the names of Frieder and Jim on the mathematical map. No need to say how happy it made Uncle Courant that his two young colleagues, who had been hired on the basis of his recom-mendation, had more than fulfilled his keenest expectations.
The approximate ending of this intensive teamwork coincided with the beginning of one of the greatest events of my life. We were going to have a child.
THE CHILDREN ARRIVE (1940–1950)
After hard labor, Walter was born on Monday, October 21st, 1940 at 6:30 p.m. I always felt he paved the way for his sister and his three brothers.
That same Monday, Frieder received in the morning mail a congratulatory note from Mr. S. on the birth of his twins. This unfortunate older mathematician had pestered Frieder quite frequently and had now asked Uncle Courant to arrange an appointment for him. Uncle Courant, to spare Frieder and deducing from the way I looked, had told him ‘you can’t bother Friedrichs right now, he just got twins’. — This, incidentally, also explains the twin photograph for which Uncle Courant and Hans had worked a whole night to transpose Walter’s head onto the second shoulder.
With Walter’s arrival our life had changed drastically and most wonderfully. Only for Frieder the change was not as drastic as some of his colleagues assumed. One of them asked him a couple of days after we had brought Walter home ‘Well, how do you manage without a study?’ This had never entered our mind, but from that remark we gathered that it was a matter of course that a young father gave up his room to the new baby. In Frieder’s case that would have meant work stoppage. The way he is, he would not have been able to function if his place of mental concentration had been a corner of our bedroom, or a closet, as was the one of our friend Flanders. He needed all his books around him, but most of all the possibility of closing a door as assurance of complete solitude.
Very early in our married life I had learned that there were not to be unnecessary interruptions, and all of our children grasped at a young age that the privacy of Frieder’s room was almost sacred and could only be broken in case of emergency. The same went for telephone calls and our friends, including Uncle Courant, who forever grumbled about it, had to accept that messages would be passed on and that Frieder would call back at his convenience.
In this, as in many other traits, Frieder and Uncle Courant were extreme opposites, not merely that Uncle Courant could only work with his door ajar to hear at the same time what was going on in the house. Invariably, he also was the first to answer the telephone, even if it was meant for Nina. But my feeling is that just these contrasts contributed to the deeply founded lifelong friendship and mutual admiration between him and Frieder.
My days in the meantime were filled with Walter from morning till night, filled with the radiant joy and the usual trepidations of any new mother. I had played and worked with children all my life, but I had never handled a young baby and had therefore taken a mother’s class at the YMCA to learn exactly this. Beside some theoretical instruction, our object of practice was a rubber doll. I had to learn the hard way that there was a vast difference between giving a bath to a doll or a wriggling, slippery baby that screamed and grew red as a tomato the instant you made a wrong move. Walter also had a stubborn way of stiffening his tiny arms when I tried to squeeze them into a sleeve. I found out, however, that he was not as fragile as I had thought and generally won the battle.
All during these first weeks of Walter’s life we got letters from Frieder’s parents that expressed their great happiness about the birth of their grandson and the de-light over the pictures we had sent, but there were also hints in the letters that Frieder’s mother was not well at all. We were worried. Then, on March 4th 1941, we had a letter from Asta telling us that both parents had died within four days, on February 3rd and 7th. This was a completely unexpected dreadful shock, our only, and really only con-solation at that moment was that they had lived to know about Walter.
In the summer of 1941 we took our son on his first long trip. Frieder had been invited to teach summer school at Brown University in Providence. We rented a small house and Walter’ s playpen stood in the front yard and, by the hour, he experimented with wooden rings that he slipped over a peg. I almost burst with pride when a neighbor com-mented that she had never seen such an intelligent baby. The fact is that none of the other children achieved this aptitude at that tender age.
Didi had kindly offered us a week’s vacation. So I met her in Stamford, dumped Walter into her arms and took the next train back to Providence to go hiking with Frieder in New Hampshire. As it turned out, Walter did not let Didi feed him for close to twenty-four hours, just turned his head and closed his mouth tight. Finally he broke down and accepted a bottle, probably not willing to starve to death, but he must have been terribly offended, to say the least. A blessing that, as far as I know, a psychologist did not have to untangle this first trauma on a couch.
On December 7th, 1941, the news of Pearl Harbor shook the world. I remember the crushing feeling of disaster, com-bined with a wee spark of hope that this might mean a faster ending to the horrors in Europe. For the moment, however, it also brought the dreadful realization that there would be no more communication with Asta and Karl Wolfgang [Frieder’s siblings]. And, strange as it may seem, there was a certain feeling of relief that Frieder’s parents were not living any more. We all went through stages of fear, confusion and excitement.
One of our first close friends to be drafted was Ulfert, who had immigrated via Cuba quite a while ago and had a position as director at a small museum in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Frieder was protected by his age and by his scientific work. As a German citizen he was regarded “enemy alien”, which sounded worse than it was. The restrictions, really very minor, meant that he was not to possess binoculars, a short wave radio or a camera. Even the latter did not hurt since Uncle Courant volunteered immediately to keep taking pictures of Walter, which, by the way, he did religiously.
Altogether there were no noticeable anti-German feelings, in spite of the common hatred of the Nazis. This must have been in sharp contrast to World War I where friends told us that everything German, including German music, was banned from one day to the next. One peculiar incident happened a few months after we had entered the war. An FBI investigator rang the doorbell and politely asked the permission to search our drawers and closets. After having taken great trouble not to cause any disorder he wanted to know where Frieder kept his most important docu-ments. I had to call Frieder at work to find out from him where he hid the key to his steel box. Right on top was a paper clearly marked “confidential.” The agent raised his brows and muttered that Frieder was not to have any paper of this type. Then glancing at the introduction, he read that Dr. P. thanked Frieder profusely for all the guidance and advice he had received from him, and that he would not have been able to complete this thesis without his help. The poor man was at a loss, he had not yet encountered such a case and he finally asked whether he could take the paper along to show it to his superior. After some weeks Frieder was called in for a hearing and after some questioning the man in charge made a telephone call and returned to Frieder asking him, if he had learned anything from the paper he had not known before. Frieder assured him he had not. “Then, I think, the attorney general will not prosecute you. Do you want your copy back?” Frieder’s response: if it facilitated matters he could keep it. That was the end and nothing more happened.
Frieder and I had vivid recollections of the World War I and it often annoyed us that people complained about the shortages and the hardships they had to endure. Sure enough, there were certain restrictions, but nothing in comparison to what we remembered. Gas was scarce, so that people like us could hardly use their cars and only use them in cases of emergency. Sugar, butter and certain items of clothing — shoes above all — were rationed, but no one ever had to go hungry or walk barefoot.
It must hare been late winter when Ulfert came to say goodbye. He was through with his basic training and was leaving for California to be shipped, as he expected to the Pacific theatre of war. It was a sad farewell. The next thing we heard, to our utter joy and amazement, was that he would stay in the country. It turned out that in his spare time, he had painted murals on the walls of the officers’ clubs and had done this also at his last camp in California. Since film star Betty Grable was there to entertain the troops, he painted her dancing with the general in command. The following morning the general called Ulfert to his office, showed him a photograph of his wife, whom he expected for a visit, and asked whether Betty’s face could be changed to that of the “Mrs.”? Ulfert obliged and shortly after that he was called in again. “I think we can use you in a better way, we shall send you around the country to the various veterans’ hospitals, to work with and to help the wounded soldiers.” This was the beginning of three years of rehabilitation work which Ulfert did so superbly that he got into “Life” magazine and a newsreel for what he did. To cheer up the poor fellows in casts, he started to paint on those casts whatever they wanted: pinup girls, landscapes, cows and other pet animals. As Frieder commented: it was more American than anything a born American might have thought of. And many years later, when I visited one of Ulfert’s exhibitions in New York, the owner told me that quite a few men had come in and wished to see his paintings, because he had helped them with his therapy when, shell-shocked, they had been sent to a special hospital in Florida.
In the early spring of 1942 we were overjoyed when we knew that Walter was going to have a brother or a sister. This also meant that we had to look for another place to live as ours was too small. On Glenorchy Boad we found the ideal apartment, the upper floor of a two-family house with use of the garden. Within our own little family everything was perfect while the war news was devastating. Hitler was victorious on all fronts. We trembled for all our friends and relatives in Europe and dreaded to think of those in Germany. There was no news at all.
Into all the turmoil that was thundering through the world, Liska was born on Friday, November 20th, 1942 at 8 a.m. She was in such a hurry that Dr. Spitzel did not even have time to scrub his hands. Her tiny head was beautifully shaped, she had a shock of black hair and looked like the sweetest Japanese doll. She grew fast and was so anxious to watch Walter that she tried to pull herself up much too early for her age. I was just explaining to Frieder that we had to put her into a larger crib, when we saw her holding on to the upper rim of her small one, and, although it was like slow motion, we did not get there fast enough to grab her and out she fell right in front of our eyes. Miraculously nothing much had happened to her. We, I think, had got more of a scare than she.
Liska must have been about eight months old when our landlady Mrs. Barry, came to tell us that we would have to move, as they themselves wanted to get back into the apartment that they had originally occupied. She was nice in so far that she gave us three months time to look for a suitable place, but we were upset and not prepared at all. Rather unhappily we started apartment hunting and were dismayed about the prices, and most of all, we did not like any of them after Glenorchy Road. It seemed cheaper and better to rent a house and reluctantly I agreed. Frieder having grown up in one was not afraid of it. We returned to the house that had looked appropriate to find out that it had been rented in the meantime, that the new occupants were to move in the following day, and if we were at all interested, we could only buy it.. This was the fastest decision ever and hundred percent Frieder’s. I was really frightened. It was also one of the best decisions, because only a few months later prices started to rise and never stopped. We were just able to make the down payment of $1500 and the remaining $6500 could be arranged as a mortgage.
At the end of September 1943 we moved into 157 Mt. Joy Place. Walter, who had the greatest time when we moved, remembered even as an adult that on one of the car trips back and forth, I carried our French living room clock on my lap. He was not yet three years old. On the actual moving day Didi helped by taking care of Liska and she later described how Liska practiced walking in the completely empty room, holding on to the wall with her little hand. She walked around and around the entire morning.
To begin with, the Mt. Joy Place house was too large for us and we were grateful that Didi was willing to move in and use the third floor apartment. Until now, except for the first six months, she had lived in a rented room and also had started giving quite a few lessons [French and German]. This arrangement turned into the most wonderful blessing. First of all she was the one who put down very strict rules. She wanted absolute privacy for herself and recognized how important that was also for us. She would not join us for family meals and would only come to our parties, or when friends visited us on rare and special occasions. Those and quite a few other rulings that developed in the course of years and that mostly came from her — I am convinced — account for the way we have managed to live under the same roof for over thirty years. But, apart from this, she helped us more than can be expressed in words. She had the idea of what became known as “Mother’s day off”. (I wish, by the way, that every young mother had this “day off”). She babysat for us whenever we needed her, she helped me take care of the children and of my household duties and all this and a lot more was made so much easier by the fact that she was right there.
Living at Mt. Joy Place did not only provide Walter with his own backyard, it had, so to say, a built-in adjoining playground adventure loaded for an enterprising little boy like our oldest son, which we called “the dump”. This large vacant lot stretched almost the entire length of White Oak Street behind the properties on our street. It may be a blessing, I feel now, that we did not realize how much time Walter spent there, because it must have had its dangers, for him. However, it was a gold mine with all its “treasures” and possibilities. It must have been the dump where he discovered a discarded tricycle that he proudly pushed home one day as a “gift” for Liska. It was a gift of much greater value than he could imagine, because it was in the middle of the war and at that time absolutely impossible to buy any metal toy of that size. Only very little fixing was needed and this tricycle was in full use for years to come, going down the line of succession.
Walter’s companion in the dump was Mike Mahoney, his best friend and constant playmate. That they “repaired” our Plymouth and managed to get holes into the roof, was only one of their varied achievements. One day I saw them re-turning from the dump, carefully carrying a rather large white object. Radiantly Walter brought it into the kitchen, he had found a “cooking pot” for me — it was a bedpan. Talking of Mike I have to mention one more incident that comes to my mind. After a visit at the Mahoneys’ Walter came home quite depressed. He had watched Mike’s father put in a broken window, what a wonderful father who could do things like that. His father really could not compete. It was shortly after Frieder’s “Shock Wave” book had been published. I took Walter to Frieder’s study, showed him the book and let him handle it. True, Frieder could not replace broken windows but he could “make” books. It restored his confidence.
As you see, I am not attempting to tell you chronologically about our life on Mt. Joy Place of which all the children, even Martin, have clear recollections. I am just relating major and minor incidents the way I think of them and where they seem to fit in. The thirteen years we lived in that house were very, very happy and decisive growing years for the five children, and for us the period in which David, Christopher and Martin were born.
David was our last war baby. He chose a very special date for his birthday, arriving at 6:05 a.m. on Tuesday, October 31st, 1944 — Halloween. He was a chubby little thing with a cheerful round face “like a Halloween cookie” I thought, when I saw him first. The way he started, he con-tinued, full of mischief and fun. I always expected him to end up as a circus clown. At times he could get himself into a rage and then had such an urge to hit that I squeezed a fly swatter into his little fist, led him to our couch and let him beat up the cushions until he had enough. It helped him and me. He had an enormous sense of humor that could turn into “enfant terrible”. For some reason or other one of Didi’s students intrigued him, a friendly old gentleman. Whenever he started walking up the stairs to Didi’s apartment, David managed to stick his head out of the kitchen door calling after him “pokey Mr. B.....”
Christopher was the only one in the whole family who selected spring as a suitable time. He was born on Wednes-day March 19th, 1947 at 11:13 p.m. He was not alone ar-riving that day. Just at the moment when Frieder was getting ready to take me to the hospital, our washing machine was delivered. I had ordered it the day the war was over. How I had managed for seven years without it, is now beyond me.
Christopher was a beautiful baby, but also the laziest. He was completely happy lying in his crib looking into space. He did not budge, just tilted his head a little to the side and stayed in that position so much that I forcefully had to turn him around after I had discovered that his head had slightly flattened. He sat up at the latest possible date and, only after a lot of coaxing, decided to walk at the ripe old age of eighteen months. When he was two years old a neighbor gave him a dog-shaped rocking chair, in it he sat by the hour on the front lawn. I did not even have to tie him on.
He was three years old when we knew, to our own surprise, that number five was on the way, “our heavenly addition” as I liked to call him. This time the entire big family was looking forward to the event with tremendous joy and full of anticipation. The only apprehensive one was Liska, it had to be a girl. Frieder who was amazingly good predicting what we might get, warned her that it could be another boy: “God would not do that to me”. When she was informed that Martin had been born on Wednesday, December 27th, 1950 at 10:26 p.m., she cried. Her tears had vanished, however, by the time I brought him home and she developed into the kindest and most eagerly helpful big sister.
He, too, was a lovely baby, in fact, so beautiful that friends just stood in front of his crib admiring him. He seemed to thrive on the noise and commotion around him. How much he actually needed that, I shall mention later. Since we had known from the start that this would be a Christmas baby, we had decided long in advance that this child’s birthday would be celebrated at the halfway mark. Prompting this decision was our observation that Klaus Brandt [a distant cousin of Frieder’s] now in his sixties, still complained about the fact that his birthday was so close to Christmas, that, as a boy, he often heard his parents say ”Klaus will get this present for Christmas and this one for his birthday.” Our child was not to feel that cheated. Also, we really needed some mid-summer festivity, as there was none at all.
THE BUSY BUSY YEARS (1951–1962)
In 1951, rumors cropped up that the dump was sold to a housing corporation. Our disappointment may have differed from Walter’s, but knew that this would mean facing a row of apartment buildings instead of trees. Indeed, digging soon started.
Martin must have been almost two years old, when David — more or less in charge of him — was with him in the backyard. Suddenly I heard David screaming — Martin had vanished. I raced through the garden to the rickety wire fence that separated our property from the dump and discovered, after frantic searching, our youngest son at least twenty feet down in a foundation hole that, at spots, was filled, with water. How I managed to retrieve him, I can't recall. He was messed up and frightened, but not at all harmed. It was one of those guardian angel miracles. It also was the dramatic end of the dump.
Mixed in with the rapid growth of our family, were a great many events. Frieder and I had joined the Courants and other friends several times on ski trips to Lake Placid. During the war, Frieder, as an enemy alien, had to fill out a short questionnaire to be permitted to travel farther than fifty miles from his home town. It was a mere formality. In January 1944, I happened to be with him when he picked up the required form at the post office. The clerk handed me one too. “I don’t need it, I am French.” “But you’re married to a German citizen.” I tried to enlighten him about the Nürnberg laws. He had never heard of them, but somehow our “case” interested him and he said that he would like to report it to Washington just to find out whether he or we were right. When we returned from Lake Placid, I found a letter requesting that I should appear for citizenship on February 1st. It came as a surprise, because we had assumed that for the duration of the war, the procedures for naturalization that generally took five years, had been stopped. Stranger still was a notification that I received from Washington on January 31st. It explained that they based their regulations on International instead of on Nürnberg law. Accordingly for them I had become a German subject the moment I had married my husband. It was grotesque insofar that the Americans had given me the German citizenship exactly at a time when the Nazis had taken it away from all the Jews in Germany. I could I could enjoy this status consciously for just one day.
One year later the war drew to an end. Only Walter may have a slight recollection of the enormous excitement of V.E. Day and the feeling of indescribable relief that came with the realization that Hitler had fallen and with him everything he had symbolized and stood for. All of it was wiped out forever. There was overwhelming happiness, coupled with great sorrow, for too much had been destroyed that could never be restored. The greatest nightmare of all times was over, but the price the entire world had paid was horrendous.
Slowly the channels of communication reopened. The first news about Frieder’s immediate family we received during the early summer of 1945 through a young American officer who had been a prisoner of war in a camp in Sagan (Silesia) where Wolfgang had been the interpreter. We were so grateful to learn that Asta, Wolfgang and Eva were alive, and from him we also heard that we had a little niece, Irene, about David's age. More messages started coming and the more we got the more miraculous it seemed that relatives and friends had survived the holocaust.
From then on to the end of 1949 it became my main occupation, next to my family and household duties, to shop for, to pack and to send off parcels to Europe. My quota was about fifteen a month — it was a huge but also a most gratifying task. I was thankful that Frieder’s income was such that we were able to afford it. It meant though that there was no money left for unnecessary expenses, and only after we had mailed the last package, we treated ourselves to the record player we had wanted to buy for a long time.
The 1940’s were the decade of building up our family. The most wonderful "job" I could have wished for, a childhood dream going back to my doll-playing days, had grown into reality. Years later, on one of our trips to Germany, a school friend reminded me smilingly "You always wanted twelve, you got ‘only' five."
Already before David was born, Frieder had established something that became a tradition, our “family day". And just as rigorously as he expected his wife and his children to respect his work privacy, he stuck to keeping Sunday afternoon completely free for his family. Depending on the weather and season, it was used for picnics, hikes, visits to the zoo or to museums, occasionally to friends, when this was considered sufficiently entertaining for our offspring, and on many George Washington Holidays we went to the circus in White Plains. These Sunday afternoons were not the only time Frieder set aside for the children. Whenever he came early enough from New York, he had a story reading session or some equivalent for any one of the children who was available. Walter was not yet three when he loved to sit on Frieder's lap looking at books with him. Liska soon came running, too. "Boepen also". It took us quite some time till we figured out that this was her pronunciation of "Baby", the name Walter used for her.
In 1948 Frieder traveled to Europe to attend a Mechanics Congress in London. He also made a side trip to Germany and visited his brother Wolfgang’s family who then lived in Bielefeld. They were squeezed into the tiniest one and a half rooms. By now they were four, but told Frieder that Michael, a frail and sickly baby, might not have pulled through, had it not been for the banana powder from our packages. Frieder met Asta in Göttingen and, for my sake, he went to Braunschweig. He managed to round up my friends, ten or twelve of them, who assembled at Ingeborg Vollmann’s, the only one who had a room large enough for such a gathering. He must have given them such a vivid account of our life in the States that they still talk about it.
In 1949 Frieder was asked to lecture at various universities in California. What a wonderful chance to see our country. We decided to take all the children, although Christopher was only two and a half. We tried to prepare them to a certain, extent and probably emphasized that there would be different sleeping accommodations almost every night, and that they would have to learn to eat whatever would be offered. Whether it was this warning or something else that prompted David to decide not to join us, I don't know. In any case he announced that he wanted to stay home with Didi and kept repeating it with such determination, that we took it seriously. Didi very kindly agreed to go along with this change of arrangements, especially since it then seemed natural to leave Christopher with her too. This enabled us to plan much more of a sightseeing trip.
With Walter and Liska we left by car at the end of June. For this endless journey Didi thought of something, that since then has been copied innumerable times: she gave Walter and Liska each a little handbag, stuffed with carefully wrapped small surprises, one of which was to be opened every traveling day. It worked like magic — I don't remember a single instance where we had to deal with grouchy or complaining children.
We had lots of adventures. Once our fairly old car broke down in Durango, Colorado and came conveniently to a complete standstill in front of a service station. The verdict was two days of repair. But what luck! Just that week a circus was stationed in town and the four of us attended the evening performance. It was, I think, the poorest little circus I ever saw. The tightrope dancer just made it, the lions looked as if they needed an extra ration of food and the clowns were sadder than most of them. Still, it was a great experience for all of us.
Our car stalled again — this time in the middle of nowhere. Frieder, in despair, tried whatever he could think of, but no use. Finally Walter crawled under the car. What he discovered slipped my memory, but the advice he gave worked (he was eight years old) and we went on. In Yosemite Park we encountered our first live bears — outside the zoo — and we saw the giant sequoias, the largest trees in the world. Hans Lewy took us all over San Francisco, not permitting us to drive our own car as we were not used to the steep hills — they were steep, we had to admit. These are only random bits of our adventures, all of them would fill pages.
On the way back we made a detour via Macinaw Island. Liska was so enchanted with this romantic little spot, where cars were banned, that she announced this was the place where she would want to live and brought it up again and again in later years. I wonder whether Alaska fulfilled some of this dream?
When we came home after ten weeks, David ran into our arms and was overjoyed with the cowboy boots we had for him. Christopher, however, looked at me with an impish reproachful look and said right into my face “Mummy is gone.” It was my punishment for having deserted him, he had no use for me anymore.
If the forties were the years of building up our family, the fifties were the years of our family travels, and also, of course, for the children these years were, together with the sixties, their years of learning and building up their education. In 1952 four of them went to Mayflower School and at PTA meetings, Frieder and I had to race from classroom to classroom to make the round of the teachers. When Martin entered Kindergarten in 1955, it was the first time in fifteen years that there were a few hours of peace and quiet in the house.
I do not remember exactly how I used this leisure time, probably I extended my breakfast hour with Didi. This, by the way, had become another custom, which is still practiced today. Didi, who from the beginning did not join us for meals, had her breakfast with me. It started when Frieder, whose best working hours are in the morning, had realized that breakfast with children running around, interrupted his train of thought to such a degree, that it meant too much loss of creative time. The breakfast tray in his study became an establishment. It led, at one point, to a house guest’s remark (seeing me with the tray) “It is strange that Frieder likes breakfast in bed.”
During the summer of 1950 we felt that by now the four children were old enough for a vacation away from home and, for the first time, we rented our cottage “Lakeview” at Holiday Acres in Whitefield, N.H. We had written to various Chambers of Commerce and from all the material we received, this appealed to us most and was within our price range. How lovely it was and how perfectly it suited our needs, we only found out when we got to the place. How much, in the course of years, we all enjoyed our summers there.
In between those gloriously ideal holidays at Whitefield, we went on many extensive trips. For our first trip to Europe we set out on the S.S.. Veendam on Friday June 15th 1952. Martin was one-and-a-half years old and definitely too young for this undertaking. Again Didi volunteered to stay home with him. He was an alert child, surrounded, loved and spoiled by the entire family. I remember that we debated whether he should see us leave and decided against it. Actually we sneaked out of the house before he woke up. I now know that this was a grave mistake, and in this case we can really thank our stars that it did not lead to serious consequences and permanent damage. Didi later described to us how that poor little fellow ran from room to room looking for us, how he crawled under beds and into closets, and how, for weeks he, who had slept like a log, jumped up in bed every time he heard Didi's steps, evidently out of fear that she, too, might disappear.
Unaware of Martin's distress we, in the meanwhile, had the time of our life. The sea voyage was an enormous adventure, like everything else that was to follow. We landed in Rotterdam and were enchanted with Amsterdam where, the first morning, we awoke to the tunes of an organ grinder. We saw the innumerable canals with their many boats, the thousands of bicycles in the streets, the narrow houses with their steep roofs. At our small hotel we climbed stairs that went almost straight up, and at the museum we saw Rembrandt's "Nightwatch", the only picture we let the children look at, to be sure not to overload them with museums. All was new, strange and exciting.
After prosperous Holland, Germany was a shock. Nothing, I think, brought the horrors of war closer to us than seeing with our own eyes the gruesome destruction that was conspicuously apparent in almost every city we visited. For me it was a deeply emotional experience to see my friends and to return to the land that I had left fifteen years earlier under very different circumstances, as an outcast.
We stayed in Germany fairly long and then went on to other countries. Especially to Walter and. Liska, who had crossed our entire continent, it was astonishing that we reached borders after relatively short distances, that we had to show passports before we were allowed to proceed and then immediately heard people speak another language. Homecoming was almost better than leaving. Martin, after a few days of strangeness, embraced all of us wholeheartedly and readjusted incredibly fast to noise and commotion.
Life returned to normal, but for all of us, this trip was such a great and memorable event, that it is not surprising that it was only the first of a string of equally and even more exciting travels. All of these, I assume, the children remember better than I do, and they will, I hope some day tell their children about them, similar to my writing this account.
Over the years, next to teaching, Frieder got more and more involved with the Mathematics Institute, which Uncle Courant had started building up in about 1943 with Frieder’s and Jim Stoker’s support. The Institute grew steadily, so much so, that for years it was a continuous battle to find sufficient “living” space for the constantly growing number of mathematicians who worked under Uncle Courant’s leadership. The Institute moved from an apartment in the former Bible House to an old hat factory and a variety of places, until, finally, Warren Weaver Hall was erected. This was made possible through a two- million dollar donation by the Sloane Foundation and augmented by others. On March 29th, 1965, the by now world renowned Courant Institute with a staff of approximately five hundred, moved into this building... its own. It was a crowning moment for Uncle Courant and everybody who had helped him achieve this goal.
Our family had stopped growing in numbers, but our children grew in size and our Mt. Joy Place house got too small. We burst out of the seams, as a friend remarked. Liska had no room of her own. Didi had kindly arranged for her to sleep upstairs [in Didi’s “living room”] and the four boys still shared on medium-sized room. All this could not continue forever. We loved our home and were, for obvious reasons, sentimentally attached to it, but Frieder and I started house hunting. We must have looked at hundreds of houses all over New Rochelle, but something was wrong with each of them. At long last one of the agents suggested a house in the Beechmont neighborhood. I did not even want to look at it. I knew this neighborhood very well because we had enjoyed taking walks there for many years. In fact, one of Walter’s special delights had been the child-size house on Forest Place, which was a replica of the main house, and he had always wanted to look inside this playhouse. Strange to say, I had never dared ask the owner to let him do so, and now we were to look at a house around the corner from it.
To my knowledge only rich and, as I assumed snobbish, people lived in that neighborhood and those were the last I wanted as neighbors. We just did not fit into Beechmont. Still, I went and did not like what I saw. The house had a confusing number of rooms, the walls were dark, the drapes were heavy, the shades were drawn, it was a gloomy place. In spite of my more than unfavorable impression, Frieder insisted on looking at it a second time, and again it was his vision and foresight to see beyond the gloom, that this house was right. The price certainly was, it had been slashed down to $24,000, even in those days very low, because the previous owner had just died, his widow was old, sick and almost blind, and her son, who lived in North Carolina, wanted to take her there and get rid of the house as fast as possible.
We made an offer and moved into 24 Lester Place on May 11th, 1956. Everything else is common knowledge, except, maybe, that Walter was the only member of our family, who had ever met the former owners of our house. As a newspaper boy he had delivered the Standard Star to 24 Lester Place. And strange, too, was that quite a few years ago a middle-aged man walked into our yard, introduced himself as Mr. So and So, and told us that as a boy he had lived here during World War I. He looked at the structural changes with amazement, and could not get over the size of the trees, many of them planted by his father.
In our new house we had all the space we needed. Walter even improved the situation after a couple of years by ingeniously dividing tile boys’ “dormitory” into individual rooms thus giving everyone the privacy he now required and desired.
We made use of the space we had in many different ways. We gave large parties, mostly for friends and visiting members of the Mathematics Institute, and the children proved to be skillful waiters. We had picnics and Easter egg hunts in our backyard, and the Campership Fair became an institution for ten consecutive years. I wonder whether David realizes that the original idea came from him?
In 1959 Walter graduated from New Rochelle High School, being the first in a long succession of graduations, each one of them, for a variety of reasons, filling us with pride and joy. Of the "minor" graduations Martin's from Mayflower School in 1962 stood out insofar as by then we had been Mayflower parents for seventeen uninterrupted years. Frieder gave a beautiful speech to Martin’s graduating class.
In 1959 our entire family traveled together for the last time. That spring, to my surprise I had received a payment of $1000 from the German government as restitution money for not having been able to pursue my studies to the desired end. As New York University, for the first time, offered a charter flight to Europe, we decided from one day to the next, to use this "windfall money" for a family trip. Once in Europe we rented a VW mini bus and traveled from country to country with Walter as our main driver. It turned into an unforgettable trip. This time even Martin was old enough to enjoy it. He had been a good sport in 1955, when we had taken him along, but was too young to get anything out of that visit to Europe.
By 1962 Walter was working, Liska took summer courses at the University of Colorado and David had just finished high school, when we left with him, Christopher and Martin for a six-month stay in Europe. That is to say, David only joined us for a short period and part of that time he traveled alone by bike and met us in Sweden where we attended the International Mathematics Congress in Stockholm. Later he returned to the States to start college and we put Christopher and Martin into a small private school in the Allgau. For Martin, I am afraid it was a tough experience with only one good feature, that the ski slopes were right in front of the house. Christopher, however, profited a lot, he became fluent in German and this, I am sure, contributed to his decision to choose a topic in German history for his dissertation.
Our 1962 trip was the last one we undertook with some of the children. After that we got together for joyous family reunions, but when the children traveled, they did so somehow, though, in our tradition. They covered enormous distances by car, by air, by boat, by train, by truck and by foot.
From now on the children very often were the ones to influence our plans. Were it not for Liska, we would never have come to Alaska. Walter gave us valuable hints for our trip around the world. We owe it to Martin that we stayed in Nairobi for a week when returning from South Africa. To Nördlingen we made a special excursion to see this medieval town with its archives where Christopher had lived and worked for close to a year. And we might not have gone to Mallorca, where I wrote part of this account, if we had not remembered that David once told us how beautiful it was.
WORDS FROM NELLIE TO HER FIVE CHILDREN
After these last reflections one could assume that your and our lives consisted only of traveling. You, however, know as well as we that these trips are merely occasional high points in between long periods of labor and concentration. It is one of our greatest sources of happiness that all of you have proved that you were able to work hard and with ensuing success. Slowly and surely you have climbed the steps to independence and maturity. Looking back we marvel how you attained them. Only during the first formative years, our attempts to guide you, may have had an influence, a modest one; from then on you were on your own and it is with wondrous surprise, overwhelming joy and deepest gratitude that we see what you, and now also your husband and your wives, have achieved and are still in the process of achieving.
Written in Munich and Mallorca during the winter 1974-75
The rest of this memoir was compiled by Liska in 2001. It is an attempt to summarize Nellie’s life and the lives of the family from the mid-1960’s until Nellie’s death in November 1994.
************** Beginning in 1952, Nellie repeatedly visited Germany to resume the relationship with her long-time schoolmates and other friends in the destroyed city of Braunschweig. She always worked actively for Jewish-German reconciliation, and consequently became a well-known popular speaker to school and community groups in Braunschweig. It was for this reason that she received the Civic Medal of Braunschweig on December 8, 1989 in the historic old city hall. The archivist stated, “She without a doubt embodies an important element of the Jewish-German cultural tradition, which was so fanatically oppressed by the National Socialist dictatorship. In the history of our city, Nellie Friedrichs will always be recalled in eternal remembrance as a dedicated pioneer of Jewish-German reconciliation.”
In 1980 Nellie wrote a memoir called “Erinnerungen Aus Meinem Leben in Braunschweig, 1912-1937” (Memories of my Life in Braunschweig, 1912-1937). The publication was done in connection with the exhibition “Brunsvicensia Judaica: In Memory of the Jewish Citizens of the City of Braunschweig,” which was sponsored jointly the city archive and the city library. Within a few years the first edition was completely out of stock due to worldwide interest in the book, so a second, slightly revised edition was published in the spring of 1988.
Surrounded by members of her family, Nellie died after a short illness on November 7, 1994 at the age of 86. On what would have been her 90th birthday, September 3, 1998, another ceremony was held in her honor at the historic city hall in Braunschweig. A third edition of her memoir, with some new material and several new photographs, was published. After the ceremony, several family members and friends traveled to the nearby new neighborhood of Broitzem and spent an hour walking up and down the newly developed “Nellie-Friedrichs-Strasse,” a street of charming houses, flower-filled gardens, and playgrounds. What a beautiful and fitting eternal memorial.
Frieder spent his entire American career at New York University and was named “Distinguished Professor,” a title that is rarely awarded. In addition to being co-founder of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, he eventually also became the director. He received innumerable honors and prizes all over the world. Frieder was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and other academies. He received several honorary doctors’ degrees and in November 1977 received the National Medal of Science from President Carter in a White House ceremony. Frieder died in New Rochelle on January 1, 1983.
Didi lived peacefully with Nellie and Frieder until her death in April 1978, at the age of 95. In her later years, she traveled to Europe and around the U.S. to visit old friends. Didi even visited Liska in Alaska several times when she was in her nineties.
Walter married an Israeli woman, Sarka Stolero in 1976. They had two children: Daniel born in 1978 and Rachel in 1980. Sadly, Sarka died unexpectedly in 2000. Walter, who lives in New Rochelle, is in real estate. He manages and is part owner of a Wall Street office building in New York City and also has other real estate businesses.
Liska married Dick Snyder in 1965. They first lived in Boulder, Colorado but moved to Anchorage, Alaska in 1967, and have lived there ever since. David was born in 1969 and Gary in 1972. Liska started working part time for the U.S. Geological Survey in the late 1970’s and eventually became their full-time editor of scientific reports. Dick spent his entire career with the USGS and eventually became their water-quality advisor in Alaska.
David married Jeanne Windle in 1976. Their children are Jessica, born in 1979 and Bryan, in 1985. David is a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He has published several books on criminology and law and many articles. Jeanne directs the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program at Penn State U.-Worthington in Scranton. Quite a few years ago, David discovered an English edition of some of Theodor Geiger’s work and presented it to Nellie.
Christopher married Rhoda Lange in 1970. They moved to Vancouver, B.C., Canada, in the early 1970’s. Ellen was born in 1975, Jonathan in 1978, and Jeremy in 1985. Christopher teaches history as a professor at the University of British Columbia. He specializes in early modern German history and has written several books. Part of his research was done in the archives in Braunschweig. Rhoda also teaches history at a college in Vancouver.
Martin married Randye Marshall in 1983. He has three children: Natasha, born in 1978 (from a first marriage with Annette Sanches), Kyle in 1985 and Tamara in 1989. Martin works in information technology for Hoffmann La-Roche Pharmaceuticals, after having spent almost 20 years with Chase Manhattan Bank. He is the only one of the five children who inherited at least a little of his father’s mathematical mind. He and Randye still live in the family home at 24 Lester Place in New Rochelle.