The lone air raid siren had long since stopped its childish wailing. Standing near the road, a hundred feet from the crumpled farmhouse that used to be home, a little girl stood watching the ambulance, a mix of shock and curiosity showing through the dirt on her tear streaked face. Her normally tidy blond braids were coming loose, but that couldn’t be helped, since the emergency sparking all around her commanded every adult’s attention. She shifted her weight rhythmically from side to side, glancing often at a pair of woolen long underwear crumpled on the ground, a crimson stain slowly leaching into the thin layer of snow. When the ambulance finally pulled away from the bombing site, no urgency in the crunch of its wheels on icy gravel, the girl felt someone take her hand.
“Where are they taking Mama?” she asked Anna, a farmer’s daughter and the only nanny she had ever known. The heat from the fire still smoldering in the ruined house behind them soothed the hunger and worry that nipped at her stomach like a stray dog.
“They’re taking her to the hospital, liebchen,” Anna murmured, the benevolent lie forming on her tongue to keep pain at bay–at least for a little while. “Her leg was broken when the wall collapsed.” The child’s body relaxed, relief beating back the chaos that always accompanies a bomb that directly hits it target–in this case, a farmhouse snuggled in the woods near a pristine country lake.
This is my mother’s story. I have stolen it, weaving together facts gathered over a lifetime with figments of my imagination to create a dark and frightening fairy tale. Only this story has no happy ending. My mother was only seven years old when a single Allied plane dropped its bombs on the Bavarian farm where she lived at the end of World War II. The mission was to kill her rocket scientist father, but he was working in Berlin, and the stone walls fell on her mother instead. As a result of that planned, precise hit five children were left motherless, starving and shell shocked by the devastating cost of war.
Our trip to Germany was not meant to be a fact-finding mission. Or a visit with the long dead. But the past has a funny way of reaching out to grab the present and yank it back. On our first day in Germany, a cold summer rain requiring an indoor excursion, we visited the Deutsches Museum in Munich—the German equivalent of Chicago’s Museum of Science And Industry. 18thcentury sailing ships and World War I submarines were bisected to show the coffin like bunks where the sailors slept, and a simulated lightning strike mimicked the thunder rumbling outside. Then Ethan spotted something much more remarkable in the
aeronautics hall–a silver, winged missile with a blue bottom that mimicked the sky. The rocket was a V-1, nicknamed the Buzz Bomb during World War II because of the unique sound it made when hurtling toward its target. The Germans fired thousands of these early cruise missiles at England, and thousand of people died, mostly civilians, because flying bombs in those days were not very accurate. The designer of this brilliant, deadly machine was the German rocket scientist Robert Lusser–my grandfather.
When I was growing up in California, a photo of my grandfather was pinned to the wall of our house. In it, he stands at a blackboard, his mouth almost smiling, with some complicated mathematical equation written in neat chalk numbers behind him. Balding and sharp-eyed behind stylish 1950’s glasses, I remember thinking he looked scholarly and proud. My mother was never able to muster much warmth when she spoke about him, saying only that he was a true genius and a distant father.
On a warm summer evening, we sat with Uncle Volker and my cousin Theresa on the patio of her old farmhouse in the Bavarian countryside, eating homegrown potatoes and grilled whole fish from the nearby Starnberg Lake. Volker knew my grandfather well during the war—his brother married my mother’s sister, forever interlocking our families. Yes, Volker confirmed, Robert Lusser was a genius. And yes, he could be an arrogant asshole.
“One night at dinner there was only one sausage,” Volker remembered, taking us back to wartime Germany, near the end, when food was desperately scarce. His voice was scornful and I put my fork down. “And there were all these hungry children around the table.” Appetite fled in anticipation of the outrage to come. “But Robert said ‘I need this sausage for my brain! Because my brain is important and it needs to work well.’” I flashed back to my mom’s stories of eating barley soup with bugs in it—if she picked them out, she was made to eat them one by one. “And then,” Volker continued, smiling and sarcastic, “he ate the sausage.”
Concentration Camp Dachau sits outside the eponymous town near Munich, with its neat, sloping streets and suburban feel. I didn’t want to visit, but to be so close and not take the time to see one of the most enduring symbols of Nazi Germany felt like a cop out.
The entrance to the prison where over thirty thousand people died takes you through a gate of wrought iron, inset with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) in stern, straight block letters. I walked through the small opening thinking of a news story from 2009, when a similar sign was stolen from Auschwitz in Poland. Who would do such a thing? I wondered, and then laughed. Hahahaha. To ask that question in a place that witnessed so much horror was a twisted joke.
But that day at Dachau, the ghosts were quiet, or at least they didn’t speak to me. Maybe it had been too long, or maybe they didn’t know me well enough. Walking across a yard speckled with tourists, I felt as lonely as if I were on the moon—the landscape of Dachau almost as desolate. The infamous shower rooms–never used at this camp as death traps–were empty, the light barging in through the small, heavily barred windows as inappropriate as a shout would have been in the shuffling silence. The ovens in the crematorium, squat and industrial, were nausea producing reminders of the mass failure of human kind—of the monsters that live in some men.
The English version movie shown in Dachau’s theatre is comprised of old photographs and film shot in the days after liberation. For twenty-two minutes, nobody whispered or shifted in their seats, the narrator’s flat voice stopping for long moments while the film silently rolled, showing faces devoid of hope and bodies devoid of life. There were the damning stars sewn onto ragged clothes, and ribs bones arched like evil smiles over white, distended bellies. Anyone who has ever joked about Jews, or Poles, or Gypsys—or any group victimized by the Nazis–should see this film and perhaps they would not do it again. My own Jewish husband and my two half Jewish kids were visiting the nearby Flight Museum and when I walked out into the beautiful, bright day—I longed to hold them close.
My own German roots connect to Dachau—or at least brush up against it—due to my grandfather’s work. Camp prisoners were used to assemble bombs, aircraft, and the innovative flying missile—the V-1. Robert Lusser was not a politically active Nazi but he surely knew of the deplorable conditions in the factories, and the horrific mistreatment of workers. But he, like many German scientists, scholars, artists and merchants, turned his cheek to the inhumanity of Hitler’s Third Reich in order to continue to work. What else could he have done, being the sole support of a wife and five children? What would I have done? This question is impossible to answer from the safe seat in front of my computer and I will not second guess him. I know only that my genius grandfather was on the wrong side of history.
Three months had passed since the olive green ambulance drove away from the little girl’s bombed out farmhouse carrying the crushed body of her mother. Every day for three months, she had asked when her mother was coming back, even though her budding intuition whispered the truth. Then one day, her voice perhaps a bit more plaintive than normal, Anna put on her coat, though the late spring day was warm, and took the little girl by the hand. Together, they walked three kilometers to the yellow church in town, its spire poking a hole in a patch of blue sky. Anna opened the wrought iron gate of church cemetery and led the girl to a thick, heavy stone cross.
“Gück mal,” she said, simply. Look here. The lie had gone on long enough, and she did not have the words to fix it.
The girl said nothing. The name carved cleanly into the cross, Hildegard Lusser, had no connection to the soft-voiced woman who could dive so cleanly into a mountain lake that she left only a small, shimmering ring and who braided her daughters’ hair with firm, soft hands. But she was now certain that her mother was never coming back. Rhythmically she began to rock from one foot to the other, her small hand clinging to Anna’s large one as if, untethered, she might float away like a balloon.
The farmer’s daughter and the child of a rocket scientist stood like that in the graveyard for a long time, until the church bells began their loud, sonorous clanging. That sound, lovely and familiar, seemed to jar something loose inside the girl and with a great, choking sob, she turned away, as if she did not want her mother to see her cry.
We arrived unannounced at the farmhouse where my grandmother died. A German shorthaired pointer, two cats and three miniature horses were the only ones on hand to greet us. Rebuilt long ago, bright pink and red geraniums hung from every balcony and the front door had been left wide open. The grave tender at the cemetery where my grandmother was buried had given us directions to the Stoetternhof, as it’s called,but I was not certain this was the right place.
“Hallo!” I called through the door. When I got no answer, I walked around to the barn, where a dozen milk cows and a funny looking pig stared at me with bored indifference. And then I heard the sound of a tractor rumbling up the lane and ran out to greet it. The driver was wearing a Bavarian hat with several tattered feathers stuck in the brim and his big belly was the central feature around which a strong, workingman’s body revolved. As I approached, he produced a tin of snuff from his jacket pocket and snorted a large pinch.
“Guten Tag,” I said, extending my hand. I felt nervous and tongue-tied, afraid my German would desert me, afraid he would think I was weird. “My name is Suzanne, and my grandmother…” I choked on the word and stopped. “My grandmother was…” Come on! You didn’t even know her! Don’t start bawling now! But tears do not always obey commands and my mouth twisted shut. The German farmer looked at me, then took his handkerchief out and wiped the snuff from his upper lip, patient and perhaps a little curious about the skinny American woman blubbering in his yard.
“Ja?” he asked, “Deine grossmutter?” I took a breath and wiped my eyes.
“My grandmother… was… killed here.” There. It was out. And it sounded anticlimactic even to me. But the big man broke into a huge grin, his red cheeks flushing a lovely red as if I were a long lost friend.
“Lusser!” he exclaimed. “Hildegard Lusser!” Next came a torrent of Bavarian accented German I did not fully understand while he pumped my hand up and down, smiling, always smiling, while I tried to stop the tears. “Come!” Louis finally said, motioning toward the house. “We will talk.”
Louis was born in the Stoetternhof more than two decades after the war ended. He showed me the forest where, as a child, he found a partially buried, unexploded bomb. More recently, said Louis, when digging the foundation for a new guesthouse, he had unearthed bomb fragments with his tractor. But time had erased any trace of my grandmother and the violent way she died from the Stoetternhof. Under the care of jolly, ebullient Louis, his kind, dark haired wife, and their three energetic boys, the farm was again a place of life.
When the sun began heading toward the purple tops of the Bavarian Alps, we waved goodbye and bumped down the gravel road, turning east toward Austria. I felt giddy with relief. I had retraced the steps of my mother’s greatest sadness—and yet I was not sad. Perhaps this is because I finally understood that my grandmother’s death had led to the gift of my own life—and my sisters, cousins, nieces, and the lives of my own sweet, beloved boys. Because, in the end, this is not only my mother’s story, but mine too. Three years after that little girl stood before a newly dug grave, she boarded a ocean liner headed for America with her rocket scientist father, new step-mother, and four siblings. They settled in California. And that’s how I, Suzanne Teresa Rico, came to be.