I was born in Passau, which is now on the Austrian border, in 1935. Passau is a city of three rivers—die Dreiflüsse-Stadt. It is mentioned in the Nibelungenlied, the German epic poem written around 1200, but its origins date back roughly fifteen hundred years. Here I spent the first ten years of my life. The picturesque old town, the Altstadt, with its Italianate buildings, is set on hills high above the confluence of the Danube, Inn, and Ilz rivers. It also sits on top of formidable walls, constructed over centuries to defy the periodic floods, and its heart is laced with tunnels, steep steps, and narrow alleys—a child’s dream landscape, where you could play hide-and-seek all day long. (During the war there were practically no vehicles in the streets.) Street names like Hennengasse (Hens’ Alley) and Löwengrube (Lions’ Den) suggested a magical past, and the high, narrow buildings created canyons that promised protection.
The Danube was, for us kids, the least interesting of Passau’s rivers. It had a harbor, or perhaps it was just a long, extended boat-landing, where ships coming down from Regensburg or up from Vienna docked. The dockworkers would yell at us and chase us away, but there was nothing to do there anyway, except watch the loading and unloading. In former times (so we were told), boats would come from as far away as Budapest and the Black Sea. It all sounded very mysterious: I had no idea why those boats no longer arrived. In the 1980s, my nephew, who was then a student at the University of Passau, invited me to ride out into the countryside. Not far from town, he stopped before a huge boulder overgrown with ivy. You had to push the ivy aside to see a plaque commemorating an Aussenlager; it was a subsidiary of the Mauthausen concentration camp, which itself was located about eighty miles down the Danube from Passau. This subcamp was small—it never contained more than a hundred people—but what went on there? When I asked my mother about the camp many years later, she gave me the usual answer: she did not know.
Not even that the area was closed off and nobody was allowed to go near it? Well, yes, that of course one knew, since one was not allowed to go there.
What do you think was going on there? One didn’t know, precisely because one was not allowed to go near the place. And nobody ever really went? Not to her knowledge. Could you venture a guess? Perhaps they built secret things. Who built them? Prisoners. What kind of prisoners? Prisoners, political prisoners, those who opposed the regime. And what about the Jews? She did not know.
The Inn River was my river, perhaps because we lived in the Innstadt, the section of town wedged between the Inn River and the Mariahilfsberg, a mountain rising behind the river. Overlooking the Innstadt, perched on top of the mountain, was a famous pilgrims’ church, Mariahilf, which gave the mountain its name. It was an attractive building, the outside walls washed in a Baroque yellow, with white accents and carved stone masonry surrounding the windows and doors. Leading up to it on one side of the mountain, opposite the roadway where in winter we went sleigh-riding, was a covered passage with perhaps three hundred wide stone steps, where pilgrims would ascend, saying prayers on each step. When there was a drought or some other calamity, long processions of farmers came from miles around to appeal to Mary, Mother of God, praying, “Maria, hilf!,” carrying banners and fingering the beads of their rosaries as they walked. I watched them from a window of our apartment as they walked by, making their way up to the church, barefoot all the way.
My “Tante Betty” (not an actual relative but a person I loved dearly) had a grandson, Gerhardi, with Down syndrome. On several occasions she prayed an entire rosary on each of the steps leading to the church at the top of the mountain and would have to spend the night on the steps, because she could not finish all her prayers in one day. Only much later, after her death, did I realize that Gerhardi had been a prime target for the euthanasia program the Nazis launched in 1939, and that her prayers had a very specific purpose. Gerhardi survived because in August 1941 Bishop Galen of Münster preached a single sermon against the euthanasia program, and the killings were stopped—at least officially. How often have I wondered what would have happened if Bishop Galen or someone of similar authority had spoken out against the deportation of the Jews, who were neighbors, German citizens. Most Germans were opposed to the euthanasia program, since it was directed against members of their own families, and the bishop knew he spoke for the majority when he condemned it. The Jews, a minority, had no such advocates. Even so, in 1943, when the gentile wives of Jewish men who had been sent to the camps staged a weeklong protest in Berlin at the Rosenstrasse—under constant threat of being shot at—they were successful: the men were released. How often would the Nazis have caved in when faced with convincing public protest?
In late spring, the Inn River would swell with snowmelt from the Alps and often carried Hochwasser (“high water”). The floodings of Passau occur regularly; there are high-water marks on the outside of many houses, and inside, damp cavernous hallways lead from ground floors to the safe upper floors. Sometimes when you walked across the Inn Bridge, you were drenched by the spray and you could feel the bridge swerve. It was exciting. Several months after one particular Hochwasser, there appeared a gravel island in the river, toward the Innstadt side and separated from the Innstadt by a deep and fast current. It was early summer. I was eight years old, and our little gang decided to jump from the bridge into the river and swim to the new island. The Inn is a swift river at all times. A little downstream, past where the Inn emptied into the Danube, a ferry went back and forth on a cable, and the river was so strong that it once tore the ferry from the cable. Rumor had it that people drowned. We jumped; we swam; we landed on the gravel island a long way downstream from the bridge. Neighbors, acquaintances, somebody must have told my mother. Obviously, she was very angry with me and took me to “Opapa,” her husband’s father, who flourished his cane and said he would thrash me with it if I ever jumped again. The threat of a beating did not scare me, and I could not understand why everybody got so upset about something that had been so much fun—but I never jumped into the Inn again.
Opapa’s son, my mother’s husband, was Baumeister Max, the proprietor—or the son of the proprietor—of the hair salon where she worked. (In Bavaria it is customary to refer to a person by his or her last name first, followed by the given name, a custom that may be a vestige of the importance attached to family identity rather than to the individual. The name of my mother’s first husband forever rings in this reverse sequence in my ears, and I will keep it that way.) Baumeister Max loved my mother, and with enormous gallantry had married her after she became pregnant with me by the man she was in love with but felt she could not marry. She often told me, with a slight bitterness in her voice, that a week after I was born she was picked up from the lying-in hospital—elegantly, by taxicab—and went right back to work at the Baumeister salon; as the owner’s wife, she felt this was expected of her. So, upon coming home from the hospital, I was immediately given into day-and-night care with Tante Betty. Tante Betty became the most important person in Passau for me. It was she who invented my nickname, Wuschi, and she tied a string to my cradle with the other end attached to her foot, so that when I cried during the night she did not have to get out of bed but simply rocked me back to sleep by pulling the string with her foot.
Tante Betty was married to “Uncle Avril,” who had a huge dark-red nose that had been frozen during World War I. I don’t know why he was only called by his last name, the French word for “April.” For me, the name has an interesting historical resonance: I assume that one of his French ancestors stayed behind in Bavaria after the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They lived in a large apartment on the second floor of one of those houses with dark and enormous ground floors constructed of huge stone slabs. Tante Betty had a net shopping bag suspended on a rope from the second-floor banister so that when she brought home groceries she did not have to carry them upstairs but pulled them up on the rope. Tante Betty and her husband rented out rooms to young boys from the country who went to the Passau Gymnasium. She would cook for them and make their beds, and during the war, when the Gymnasium students came back from their weekends in the country they would always bring food. I remember Tante Betty’s big dining-living room. (Was it really that big, or did it just seem so to the little girl I was?) Over the table hung a lamp made of dark-green fringed silk, which could be raised and lowered on a cord. Even after I was a little older and had been taken away from Tante Betty, I visited her as often as I could. In those remembered scenes, the students sit around the table, she supervises their homework, and she sews; she must have taken sewing in. I am just old enough to crouch on a chair and bend over the table to paint or draw. I am busy, like the big boys around the table, and Uncle Avril sits on the sofa and reads a paper in semi-obscurity, because the light of the lamp over the table does not reach into the corners of the room. These scenes around the table—I see them as if they were a painting, the green lamp shade, the bright light on the table with the people congregated around it, and the uncle in the shaded background. Does his newspaper catch a glimmer of the light and reflect it on his face? Is this how it was? Is this how it could have been? Is this how I wish it had been? This scene is the only memory I have of an intimate, tranquil domesticity during my early childhood.
My mother took me away from Tante Betty when I was about a year and a half, old enough to be entrusted to a young woman from the Arbeitsdienst (“Workers’ Service”), or, more precisely, the Reichsarbeitsdienst, a Nazi-invented organization requiring young people to do what we might today call community service, such as draining swamps, working on farms, or, for girls especially, working in households. My mother’s pride would never have allowed her to admit it, but I know she was jealous of Tante Betty. She often told me that, when she ran over to Tante Betty’s apartment during a break in her work routine, Tante Betty would invariably say that I was asleep and could not be disturbed. My mother at that time was nineteen years old and no match for Tante Betty. But she could and did take me away from her. From that time on, a succession of girls from the Arbeitsdienst would, every afternoon, put me in a stroller and take me to my mother at the hair salon. When my mother was free, she took me to a café around the corner for ice cream and a Torte. These scenes I know from photographs. But I also remember, unaided by photographs, that I waited for the times when my mother was too busy to attend to me, because then I could insist on being taken to see Tante Betty. I had little fits, yelling in the stroller or stomping my feet on the sidewalk, and there was no girl in the Arbeitsdienst who did not want to get rid of such a difficult child and leave me with the adult whose name I so demandingly screamed.
Once the war started, the girls from the Arbeitsdienst petered out. I started going to nursery school, which was close to where Opapa and Omama Baumeister lived. Here Lina, their longtime housekeeper and cook, took me under her wing, and I felt empowered enough to be not very nice to my mother. The earliest sign of rebellion I remember dates back to my high chair days in the Baumeister apartment. Lunch in Germany is a much heavier affair than in this country, and so it was in the Baumeister family. On this particular occasion Lina had fixed me Griesbrei, a soft and sweet kind of porridge made of matzoh meal and served with raspberry syrup. It’s a favorite of children, and I assume Lina thought I didn’t have enough teeth yet to chew on something harder. I decided I didn’t want the Griesbrei, so Lina fixed me scrambled eggs. I didn’t want those, either. (My mother, years later, as we reminisced about Passau, would insist that I looked at her as I asserted myself with another “No!” This I don’t remember, but it makes sense.) Lina then heated and cut up some soft little sausages (Weisswurst) for me, with kind words of encouragement, since she did not want me to go hungry, but she did not understand that there was a major power struggle going on. I rejected the sausages, too. At that point, my mother tried to pull me out of the high chair to spank me, but Opapa intervened: under no circumstances should she touch that sweet, lovely child! Was I in triumph? I must have been, for the scene is still so vivid in my mind that I see the kitchen in full color with all its furniture, a glass door into the dark hallway, and on the other side of the hallway the door to the living room, where I sat a few years later on the windowsill to watch the beginning of the campaign against Poland.
Opapa spoiled me in accordance with his tastes. He was a great lover of horses—the Rottal, not far from Passau, was great horse country—and when I was four years old, he bought me a pony. There are photographs of me sitting on the pony, and I remember the stable where Opapa would take me to feed it. It must have been a good pony, because it never frightened me when I combed it with a rough brush, but I don’t remember its name. I had the pony into the early months of the war; when all the horses were confiscated, my pony replaced a horse in a circus.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Way Home by Ernestine Bradley. Copyright © 2005 by Ernestine Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.