Today I don't have anything to write about, so I thought I would fulfill a promise I made to myself, and write about my own personal Trümmerfrau, Helene Lohe.
She was a fiercely bossy German woman in her sixties, with cropped, fine straight white hair and square pink cheeks (the woman left resembles her), who came into my life years ago in Munich, when I needed a babysitter while I was off at the Goethe Institut at an intensive German class (this featured sitcom-worthy culture clashes among the 20+ nationalities, including Libyan, Israeli, Peruvian, Japanese, Togolese, Texan, English, and a Stone-Age macho German teacher).
Helene Lohe had worked for the family of a millionaire in Mersin, Turkey, for fifteen years and made it clear that she had come down in the world to work for me. "When I said I liked a dress in a store window, they immediately bought it for me!" She showed me photos of herself on their yacht, on the balcony of their palatial house overlooking the sea. But their children grew up and went to boarding school and she was sent off with a royal farewell. Now I became her mission in life. She took it upon herself to teach me German. "I will stay for two hours after you come home from your class, and we will talk. In this way, you will learn German. I will not charge for this." I suspected her of being lonely, but since I really learned a lot of German by chatting with her five days a week, I didn't mind.
"In Turkey, the children called me 'Madame Hélène,'" she hinted. I could not face calling anyone 'Madame Hélène' so I compromised and called her Frau Helen. I see in retrospect that she must have hated it.
Frau Helen knew no Americans and did not speak English. We both had a lot of prejudices. When I first moved to Munich, I had a jolt each time I turned on the television and heard everyone speaking a language I had heard only from Nazis on TV. It felt as if I were surrounded by Nazis.
Frau Helen regaled me with long stories of her youth. "I was from a good family," she said, "born near Berlin. My grandmother was a grand old lady who ran the family with an iron hand. When I was about fifteen, I was sent to a boarding school for höhere Töchter ["higher daughters," or upper-middle-class girls-- this term was already old-fashioned in the 1930s] to learn to cook. I rebelled and stamped my foot and refused to go. I was always very stubborn. My grandmother sent for me. I was terrified of her! I still remember the awe that I felt as I walked toward her through the long, long room. There was a shining parquet floor and a chandelier and an oriental carpet. She was sitting on a high velvet chair like a throne.
"'What is this I hear about your refusing to learn to cook?' she said.
"'Grandmother,' I said, 'I don't see why I need to learn to cook. After all, I will always have Personal [servants].' 'That may or may not be true,' said Grandmother. 'But even if you have Personal, you must still show them what you want and make it clear that you understand the work. Otherwise they will not respect you.'"
"Well, did you have Personal?" I asked.
"I did," Frau Helen said. "I was married at 18. It was 1938 and I married an officer of the Navy, a much older man. He had retired from the Navy and worked in the Navy administration building in Berlin. I had a beautiful seven-room apartment in Berlin, and my husband already had Personal-- everything was beautifully arranged. All I had to do was say what I wanted for dinner each day.
"And then came the war, the stupid war, bombs every day, and alles kaputt. The Navy Administration building was bombed. My husband was killed. My beautiful seven-room Wohnung was destroyed. I became a refugee. Like everyone else.
"The people of Berlin did not like Hitler. They never did. He was a Southerner, an Austrian. In fact he never came to Berlin, he knew people were angry with him. He spent the whole war in the forest in Prussia, or in Bavaria. There was a jingle we used to whisper:
"'Heil Hitler' ist der deutsche Grüss
dass alle Deutsche sagen müss';
aber eines Tages kommt der Krach,
dann sagen wir wieder, 'Juten Tach!'"*
"Once I was taking a train ride and I sat in the first-class compartment-- I could still afford that at the beginning. Opposite me was sitting an older man with a thick coat. I was a pretty girl then, I was very young, and I began to complain to him about the war. I said how stupid it was, persecuting the Jews-- there were no more good doctors! How stupid the war was-- how the Nazis were destroying everything that made Germany worth living in. The city in ruins, bombing attacks every night, there was not enough to eat! My husband, my beautiful seven-room Wohnung, alles kaputt! He let me go on for a long time, patiently listening, with a half-smile on his face. Finally he said, 'Fräulein, hush. I must tell you that I am SS General von K. I cannot let you continue. It would not be fair to you.' And he bowed to me and left the compartment. I was shaking with fear! I thought I would be put in a concentration camp! But he did nothing. Afterwards I was glad he heard what I said.
"At the end of the war the Russians came. They were beasts. Animals. Not like humans. The Americans, the British were civilized when they came into Germany. The Russians were savages. The French soldiers were very cruel too."
I felt like saying, Maybe that's because the Germans didn't occupy America or Britain. But I didn't. I was feeling my way in my early days in Germany, when I wrongly suspected everyone of Nazi sympathies.
"My family was all dead. My husband was dead. All the men were dead or prisoners in Siberia, except the amputees and the young boys. And Germany was in ruins. I became a Trümmerfrau [rubble-woman] and I worked like that for ten years.
"In the middle of the 1950s, I got a chance to go to New York. I went on a ship-- everyone still traveled by ship in those days. I got to New York and I was so surprised-- all the women were wearing nylon stockings! They were only for rich people in Germany. In America, everybody seemed rich.
"I had a chance to get a job in America, but I was in love, so stupidly I went back to Germany. There went my America! There went my nylons! And the man disappeared too. It was the 1960s before I could afford nylons. By then I was in my forties, so I never married again. That is what the war did to me."
She patted my baby on the head and said, "This is my grandchild!"
At Christmastime, I tried and tried to think of something that Frau Helen would like. Nowadays, I would have just given her cash, a bottle of wine, and a nice Christmas card. But I was new to Personal and I foolishly bought her a mirror. A nice old mirror, but still.
Frau Helen disappeared. I never saw her again.
At the beginning I was relieved. She was so extremely bossy. She wouldn't let me go anywhere in the afternoon because we had our "lessons." She told stories about the war as if the Holocaust did not exist. ("Everyone talks about the Jews suffering. No one talks about the suffering of the Germans.") She insisted on putting a hat on the baby no matter how hot the day was. She was sharp-tongued. And she never let me get a word in edgewise, which, to those who know me, is quite a feat. She was difficult, I was glad she was gone. I found a young babysitter, who is still a friend to this day.
But years later, I feel regret. I really did learn German by talking with Frau Helen, and I got a glimpse into the psyche of her generation. Her time with us could have been a happy interlude in her mostly lonely life, but I didn't know how to treat her.
I tried to find her for years. Even now I try sometimes with the internet. I suppose she must have died years ago. She would be 87 now. I wish I had been kinder.
*"Heil Hitler" is the "German greeting"
that all Germans have to say;
but one day the crash will come
and we'll say again "Good day!" [in Berlin accent]