The war ended in May of 1945 and, in July, my mother and I went to visit my grandparents. It was hard to recognize them when we arrived. Instead of having sunken-in cheeks and skinny bodies, they looked healthy, with round, rosy cheeks and flesh on their bones.
“Oh my, what happened to you?” my mother asked, holding up her hands.
“Come in first. I will tell you all about it later,” my grandmother answered, and later I heard them whispering in the next room. They did not want me to hear.
During our visit we enjoyed potatoes fried with a lot of fat, and eggs were swimming in fat. Anything and everything we ate was cooked with a lot of fat, which was a mixture of oil and butter, called butterschmalz. Where did it come from? During the war years, butter, oil and other fats had been very rare – a quarter of a pound of butter was the ration for a week.
Every so often I was asked to go the garden and my mother and grandmother disappeared into the small living room. What were they hiding? I knew there was a trap door covered by linoleum. I had seen it open once and knew that there was a large hole in the ground – this was the original part of the house that did not have a basement.
One day I got my chance to find out – they had forgotten about me, and I walked in when the trap door was wide open and I could see many tins stacked on top of each other. Seeing me standing in the door they looked at each other helplessly. Finally my mother said, “Now listen carefully – you must promise not to tell anybody about this – it is our secret. All right?” I nodded. Lowering her voice, she continued, “This is butterschmalz.”
I nodded again, not understanding why it was such a secret and why it was hidden down in this hole. But I did not dare to ask, and my mother said no more.
One day when I went with my grandmother to the grocery store, I forgot that the butterschmalz was a secret.
Frau Trude, who owned the store and who was helping us, asked, “Frau Burkart, do you need any butterschmalz today?”
Before my grandmother could answer, I said loudly, so that everybody was sure to hear, “Oh no, we have the whole basement full of it!”
“Sch, Sch,” my grandmother said and, turning red faced to Frau Trude, “Oh, you know how six-year-olds are; they don’t know what they are saying.”
Frau Trude did not look convinced and, from then on, I was no longer taken to the grocery store. But we continued to eat everything with Butterschmalz and, like my grandparents, my mother and I got rosy, round checks.
Years later I helped my grandmother clean out some drawers and I came across a yellowed, faded piece of paper. When she saw what it was she said, “I suppose you are old enough now to know the truth of where the butterschmalz came from.” She went on to tell me the story.
Not far from the forest where my grandfather and I went to collect maikaeffer (cockchafers), there was a freight train yard. When the war ended and the army retreated they left everything behind, and there was no one in charge of anything.
One night Herr Hoffman, the neighbor, came knocking at my grandparents door and said, “Frau Burkart, do you want to come with us? At the freight yard there are trains standing full of food and clothing, and lots of other things. There is no one watching it and people have started to open the trains and take what they want.”
My grandparents did not hesitate. Taking their hand-cart to carry the loot back, they followed the Hoffmans.
By the time they came to the train yard most things had already been taken, except for the butterschmalz and cigarettes. Since it was all that was left, they loaded up their cart with as much as possible and went home.
When, a few months later, the confusion of the war ending was over and things started to be more normal, a notice - the one I had found - was published in the newspaper, plastered on street corners, and sent to each home that said:
The result was long lines of people walking to the railroad station, carrying their loot, and trying to hide their shame by holding their heads low. For a long time the talk among the people in this town was about who was or who was not a thief.
My grandparents belonged to the looters, but never admitted it or brought the butterschmalz and cigarettes back. My grandmother had adopted the attitude – Who me? No! – And ignoring the whole thing, continued to eat her butterschmalz, well hidden in the hole in the ground, until there was no more.
His name was Wilhelm. Everybody called him Willi except me; I called him Opa, the German word for grandfather. He was tall and slim with rugged features and a lot of white hair which made him look very handsome.
He was a quiet, shy man, a man of few words. We never talked much, but, without words, there was an understanding between us I never felt again with anybody. Until I was ten years old, when my father came home from the war, he was the only male in my life.
When my mother and I arrived for the summer holidays, he came with his bicycle to meet us at the railroad station. This was a great sign of affection because he did not leave his garden often and certainly not to come to Offenbach, a town five miles away where the trains stopped. When I saw him I ran towards him calling, "Opa, Opa!" His open arms caught me, and his hug promised another happy summer.
He always wore a cap. It was navy blue with a visor like the sailors wore. In the morning, while getting dressed, he would put it on before his shirt and pants, and, when he came in the house from his chores in the garden, it didn't always come off to the dismay of my grandmother.
"They will bury you in that dirty old cap one day," she would say.
"Ja, ja," he would mumble while taking it off and placing it on a hook behind the kitchen door where a lot of other clothes were hanging. Then he would look in the mirror and push his hair down. He took good care of it. When a haircut was needed he would take his bicycle and go to the village, about a mile away, to see the barber. He would also visit his sister Julchen.
Julchen owned a kiosk selling everything from sweets and cigarettes to alcohol. He would enter her small kitchen, greeting her with, "Na, how are you?"
"My varicose veins bother me again; I can hardly walk," she would say, sitting down with a thump on the chair opposite him, but when the bell rang, and a customer needed her attention, she would jump from her chair like a spring chicken and hurry to the window of the kiosk. While Opa drank his beer and between the rings of the bell calling her away every few minutes to attend to a customer, she would tell him what had happened in the little village since his last visit.
Sometimes I went with him. When Tante Julchen saw me she would say, "Ah, you brought the little one. Let me get her a treat." She’d come back from the kiosk, which was part of the house, and give me a few bonbons or biscuits. I would sit on the bumpy sofa, which stood against the back wall, away from the kitchen table, eating my sweets and trying to make myself invisible hoping they would forget about me because I wanted to hear what they were talking about.
When we came back, my grandmother would greet us with, "Lunch has been ready for over half an hour. I don't know what you two always have to chatter about." With a grin, my grandfather would remove his cap and sit down, picking up his fork, not saying a word.
"Let those women folks take care of the gossip while we take care of the garden," was his way of asking me to come with him. He would take my hand in his large bony one, and we would leave my mother and grandmother sitting at the kitchen table.
He would show me what he had planted, making sure that I would not step outside the path and crush the plants. When I tried to pick a strawberry, he always stopped me. Either it was not ripe yet or it was the wrong one. I never understood why it was the wrong one until I was much older. The rule in my grandparent's garden was that the best of their harvest was bartered with the butcher and baker. During the war that was the way to go, but it stayed a habit with them all their life.
I remember peeling apples with him. They were the bruised ones, often with worms. When I asked why we had to use these apples, and not the nice looking ones in the basket on the sideboard, he looked at me with surprise, and said, "What is wrong with these apples? We cut the bad away and the rest is good!" He said it with such conviction that I really believed these were better than the ones standing on the sideboard.
While trying to peel, I cut too deeply into an apple, and, watching me, he said, "Brigittchen, Brigittchen, you are cutting half the apple away, you must just take off the peel."
I tried harder to slice thinner. I wanted to please him and was afraid to be taken off the job. To this day, whenever I peel a fruit or vegetable, I am very careful because I can still hear his voice asking me not to be wasteful.
"This is like a hotel!" my mother whispered when we walked into Sunrise, the assisted living facility in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
A pretty young lady called Betty greeted us. When we told her that my mother might be interested in moving here, she invited us into her office. The home had only been open six months and, yes, certainly there was room for new tenants. She smiled kindly at my mother and, taking her by the arm, asked her to come and look around.
We visited the dining room where the tables where covered with pretty lace tablecloths and napkins. The library had two fireplaces with many comfortable armchairs, and the walls were lined with books. There was a game room and a TV room where four times a week "oldies" were shown.
"How considerate!" I remarked.
"Yes," Betty answered, "at this age they like “Casablanca” better than “Rambo 3.” It brings back good times for them; they can relate."
Then we visited the rooms. They had big windows overlooking the garden. My mother had said for some time that she would feel better in New Jersey, since she was no longer happy in Manhattan. Now here we were in New Jersey. With the April sun streaming through the open windows, she sat on the bed, taking in her surroundings.
"Do you think I really could live in such a pretty place as this?" she asked with tears in her eyes. "And do they really clean the rooms and change the linen for me? And I don't have to do any cooking?"
The last few months in her apartment, struggling with the various home helpers she did not want, and not being able to do anything herself, had left her feeling helpless and tired. During her life she had moved many times. She had always enjoyed new surroundings, new places, new challenges, and it was no different this time. At 87 she was ready for a new adventure. One more time, her ability to joyfully jump into a new experience without asking too many questions was serving her well.
Driving to New Jersey, I had been guilt ridden. I had promised never to put her in a home, and here we were. While walking through the place I felt better with every step. The beautiful surroundings, the cheerful atmosphere plus her positive reaction subdued the little voice inside me which was asking again and again, "How you can do this? Remember you promised?"
My mother went home and started packing. Then she asked if she could see it once again without taking her suitcases, and we went again. This time she met some of the men and women living there and told them happily that she would come soon.
Soon she arrived with everyone in the family carrying a picture, or a chair, or the television, or her clothing – everything she cherished was being brought in. It was a Saturday, and we had time to help her arrange things to her liking and under her supervision.
"No, not that high, a little lower." "I don't think that table fits there; try it next to the window." "You didn't forget to bring the potted plants, did you?"
So the day passed and, by the evening, she was installed. We stayed for dinner and afterwards she was ready for us to leave. "You must be tired; you’d better go home now," was her way of saying enough is enough, thank you very much.
She adjusted well and became the life of the party. "Your mother is so funny!" some lady would tell me when I came to visit, or the nurse would say, "We never stop laughing when your mother is around."
Her new surroundings had brought her back to life, and, in some way, all the help and assistance she received made her independent again, and she was not lonely anymore, something I did not know how to help her with when she was still living in her apartment.
I remember the nights when we had dinner together, I dreaded the moment when I had to say, "I have to go now." Her answering, "You never have enough time for me" did not help. She would walk me to the elevator and, when I saw her standing in the hallway, looking lost and forlorn, waving good by, I felt helpless. I did not know what to do. I knew she would probably not speak to or see anybody until I came again.
Now, living at Sunrise, she ate regularly, she took her medication on time, she had entertainment, she had interaction with others, and she was not lonely. She no longer had to be upset that the home help was late or that the only contact with the world was going to the supermarket or dry cleaner.
Of course, my visits or visits by my son Marc with his wife and children were highlights in her life. During those visits we heard the occasional complaint, "I am not part of your life anymore," or "I don't know what is going on in your life," even when we reported to her what we did.
Over the two years I came to visit I got to know many of the people there. Some were only in their sixties, and some even had their cars parked outside, so they could go and come as they pleased.
"How do you like it here?" I asked Pete, who had arrived a month ago.
"I am very happy here; I can do as I please. Just imagine, I would live with the kids. Watching TV, I would have to watch what they like. I would have to eat when they ate, I would have to be grateful that I could live with them, and, worst of all, I would be in the way.”
Here he was not in the way. He was a happy camper, having his “New York Times” delivered every morning and watching any ball game he wanted when he wanted to.
My mother died two years later, after a hip operation, and while I was collecting her belongings and reflecting on those last years of her life, I suddenly felt that, before leaving me, she had given me one last gift – she was telling me, "When the day comes that you do not want to be a burden to Marc, or you don't want to be alone, just follow in my footsteps."
Copyright © 2009 by Briigitte Nioche