We have no butter … but I ask you, would you rather have butter or guns? Preparedness makes us powerful. Butter merely makes us fat.
During her weeks in Concord Hospital with kidney disease and cardiac problems, my grandmother often complained that staff members were refusing to give her butter. It was her final stay in the renal ward. Soon there would be weeks at home struggling with dialysis and anemia, and finally a risky surgery from which she would not recover. On the day she was released from the hospital, she waited in her slip-on shoes and cardigan, breathing heavily as I packed her bags. Inside the nightstand drawer I found a mound of butter pats, all pristine in their dead-folded foil envelopes.
What, I wondered, what would she have eaten this with? There was no other food in the drawer—no crackers, no matzo, or bread. But I soon realized that butter was talismanic. In 1939, after marrying to secure her ticket out, she’d fled persecution in Nazi Germany, leaving her entire Jewish family. In Berlin butter had been rationed from 1937. In Australia, where my grandmother struggled to make a new life with a man she hardly knew, she vowed never to go without it. Now, as illness wrested control of her fate, butter might yet invoke those earlier powers of salvation.
My grandmother was too mentally sharp to have substituted nurses for Nazis. But here they were, curtailing her freedom so that she might live a bit longer. I watched her fierce independence give way to an uncharacteristic dejection, and her earlier trauma, which had smoldered for years beneath a sunny countenance, grow more intensely radiant. Though her fears and paranoias were debilitating, they also shielded her from unbearable possibilities: If her medical team were plotting against her, she was at least held in their thoughts; she was not alone, nor forgotten.
It’s 10 years now since Gerda’s death. Beneath my desk, in two archive boxes and a leather case are what remains of her life. Here are the Berlin diaries from the years with her mother Else and stepfather Friedrich; here are the letters they sent from Theresienstadt and later, their Red Cross telegrams. Here’s the certificate from her hurried marriage to George Bergman, the passport on which she traveled to Sydney and—30 years later—her divorce papers. Each document bears her Nazified name, Sara. In the old albums, slipping from their desiccating corners, photos of the many who did not survive, and those—including her outlawed love, a gentile, Herbert Stamm—who did.
Some months ago I lugged those boxes into my study, intending to write about their contents. Else’s concert piano was long gone, and her art deco jewelry had been recently stolen from my home. My grandmother had always promised me her mother’s rings; she said I reminded her of Else. It was perhaps Else’s melancholy that she saw in me, but I’ve come to connect this affinity to the time I struggled with acute despair and my grandmother alone had reached me.
After the robbery, when the policewoman arrived to fingerprint, she sniffed the honeyed air. What was I baking? It was a bronzed, spiced Honigkuchen from a Jewish cookbook—the only ritual I could muster to mark the loss. I blamed myself for losing the family heirlooms. By doing so, I thought back then, I’d consigned their stories to a deeper darkness. As she dusted my shelves for prints, the officer told me the best places to conceal valuables: ovens, and beneath the dirty laundry. But the prime hiding spot was among “your lady things.”
Now whenever I sit down to write I feel the archive boxes against my legs. I feel their contents reproaching me. And though I’ve written some of this history before, it’s the intangible, emotional material that calls for expression now. My grandmother had kept this ephemera, it seemed to me, not just as evidence of persecution and murder, but because each item invoked particular emotions. The photographs are paper graves for people with no burial place. The letters carry stories of loss, the joys of reuniting. The contract from Barron & Martin Pty. Ltd. noting the Condition of Furniture and Effects before loading marks the arrival of the grand piano on October 13, 1939. The request to depasture a cow, granted due to the present shortage of fodder on Park Road, Baulkham Hills in 1946, and the receipt for this cow from a J. Kaveney, which notes the animal’s color and name—fawn, Nancy—reprises the cherished creature that for years provided the Bergmans with milk, cream, and butter. These remnants, taking up space in my tiny study are like something hoarded for a time of future need. Each item, as Susan Stewart writes, “can open itself to reveal a secret life”; each offers “the daydream of life inside life, of significance multiplied infinitely within significance.” They too have become talismanic—touched lightly each day, a kind of insurance. When I’ve nothing left to write, if I grow lost and uncertain I’ll have this story—mine and not mine, and yet terribly unhomely.
A few years after my grandmother died I began making bread. My kids were young enough then to delight in dough and I was slowly adjusting to the new domesticity. I quickly realized that writing was impossible—my young son slept barely an hour at a time, night or day. After his difficult birth I could barely lift him and after months of feeling like I was running a low-grade fever, I was treated for pneumonia.
I may have been incapable then of composing a sentence but there remained the urge to create. I bought Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food and soon progressed from simple loaves using packet yeast, to varnished wreaths of challah. But it’s sourdough bread with its natural ferment that I’ve persisted with. Baking sourdough involves a mindfulness that commercially yeasted bread does not. Once you’ve made your raising agent—the aged starter or sponge—you must regularly feed it flour and water. This produces a biblical increase in dough and so to avoid waste it makes sense to donate your excess leaven to other bakers. You realize, joked a friend, that making sourdough has turned you into a hoarder? I was, after all, saving food that would otherwise be considered spoiled. But in distributing this extra dough, I’d unwittingly become a sharer.
While the physical labor of making bread halts time, this ritual has become associated with a history that threatens to drift from my comprehension, a story so epically barbaric that I can’t imagine my own children ever believing it.
Recently, my mother unearthed the recipe book that was passed to my grandmother before she left Germany in 1939. Inside this battered hardcover with its swirling Dutch Gilt doublure are my great grandmother Else’s penciled notes for a Keks Schok. There’s a ticket to Leon Jessel’s operetta Prinzessin Husch at the Theater des Westens in 1926, and on its reverse, Else’s method for apfel jelly. I had a hokey longing for a bread recipe passed through the generations but when I turned to Backwerk, there was no such entry. This wasn’t going to be the story of a grandmother teaching me to prove or knead. Still, I’ve come to associate making bread with my grandmother’s secreted hospital butter, with the lost generations; with what can be made from all that you have left.
It seemed possible to track my grandmother’s exile from Berlin via London and then to Sydney in 1939, through the recipes in that book. I imagined, for instance, that the page on rissoles and croquettes scissored from the British Guardian had been found during Gerda and George’s stay at London’s Jews Temporary Shelter. Three years later, in Sydney, she’d saved a feature on “Savories” from the Australian Women’s Weekly. On this page was an ad for Copha and a recipe for Chocolate Crackles—Made in 5 minutes… without cooking! Now that was the more efficient style of the woman I recall.
In Sydney, when Gerda had more time and money for cooking, she never seemed to have the inclination. I can’t recall a single good baked in her oven during my childhood, only cold cuts, veiny cheese, hard black bread. She was pragmatic about culinary matters and had a depression-era frugality: apt to use powdered potato in place of mash, or to fashion a meal from the bendable vegetables in her crisper and a rusty tin of something long expired. If she had no interest in what was fresh, she could always muster a meal from the stockpiled cans in her larder however long she’d been away.
But, as I paged through that recipe book I wondered if she, or her mother might once have aspired to being Die Hausfrau von Heute with crimped hair and penciled Dietrich brows featured on a pamphlet among the recipes. Photographed gazing starward, this Teutonic domestic goddess is heroic, Riefenstahlesque. Since I can’t read its gothic German Suetterlin script, it’s taken me a while to realize what Die Hausfrau is spruiking. It’s the gas oven purchased by my great grandparents in 1936, three years before Gerda fled Berlin, and one year after the Nuremberg laws. Her parents could still imagine enough of a future then to install a major appliance.
One morning, during my grandmother’s world traveling phase, I collected her at Sydney airport. Once home she made me a breakfast of salami, cheese, and the in-flight bread roll she’d stowed up her shirtsleeve during the flight. Maybe it was in resourcefulness only that Gerda resembled that modern Hausfrau of a rationing Germany—so rigorously assuaging future privation with her stockpiled goods; so eternally in exile, always departing and arriving with her stash of bread.
This story is partly about my hunger for ritual, which making bread can impose on a life, and the longing for the ritual’s recuperative power in a family scoured clean of them. So little remained after my grandmother’s exile, of cohesive communal or cultural practice. In my extended agnostic family we “do” Christmas and Easter. But these rites, inherited from childhood conventions—the tree and lights, the Santa bag at the end of the bed, the Magic Pudding-like leg of ham, the crackers with their jokes and tissuey hats—seem symbolically hollow. I have no connection to them but habit. The brass menorah remains in the drawer and the folds deepen in the linen tablecloths embroidered with Else’s initials. I teach myself to bake rugelach for a Hanukkah happening elsewhere. Each year, in spite of my children’s exuberant joy, I still yearn for another celebration or to ignore Christmas altogether.
In her work on religion Susan Mizruchi writes that “ritual actors”—that’s me, making bread, I suppose—“are always at a loss in relation to some prior moment of greater spiritual promise and communal coherence.” This nostalgia is partly what makes inventing any secular ritual feel forced, and the result deficient. If rituals “express…a chasm—between what is sought or aspired to and the historical present,” then making bread has become one way for me to connect with a Holocaust history that was, in the post-war diaspora, suppressed and quieted. Now we’ve entered what scholar Marianne Hirsch calls post-memory—a period in which those who directly experienced the Holocaust have nearly all gone; and as one of the “hinge-generation” I’ve inherited an imperative to represent this past, to prevent this history from crystallising into myth. How do we perpetuate a living connection, Hirsch asks, when the last survivors have gone?
Bread making has become the single bridging act from my layered, “historical present,” back to a European home I cannot reach, a home that was never mine but was lost to the family, and yet has some propinquitous hold over me.
As the children of German Jews in a post-war, xenophobic Australia, my mother and her brother erased their ancestry. Their early life in Sydney’s west among the tracts of cleared bush blocks and fresh-tarred highways, was shaped by a culture afraid of any foreign food, word, or name. My mother stifled all the Jewish parts of herself, and the German, she says, which weren’t kosher in those outer suburbs, far from Sydney’s established Jewish community. This perpetual withholding of any betraying emotion persists today in my mother’s reserve. She can think of only one tradition in her childhood—eating matzo, that Biblical unleavened bread, which could be bought even in the suburbs. She liked to dip hers in coffee.
The Bergmans spoke no German outside their home. But during the war they were classified enemy aliens and their radio, especially valued for its news of home, was confiscated. My grandfather reported each week to the police. This experience of persecution, arranged marriage, and exile must have overshadowed their children’s struggles to become faultlessly Australian. One by one, the German relatives were disappearing. Cousin Kurt Holstein was beaten by the Gestapo for bringing food to Else and Friedrich who were in hiding in a Pariser Strasse apartment. And soon the telegram arrived with news of their transportation to Theresienstadt in 1943.
Even if my mother had not directly experienced racism, immigration, and loss, these events had imperceptible effects on the family’s wellbeing. There are dim stories of my grandmother taking Valium during this time. My grandfather, whose English was poor, was constantly out of work. Their marriage—undertaken as a short-term arrangement—soon grew strained by poverty and the overbearing presence of my grandfather’s mother, Hedwig. One of her five sons was deported to Auschwitz; another would commit suicide in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, leaving two young children. Their father had died young, destroyed by shellshock from the First World War. Loss and silence were part of family lore, and still accumulating.
Since both my grandparents have died I’ll never know if the absence of rituals that might have reprised or restored some obliterated meaning in their straitened lives was due to the pressures of exile or because they just weren’t that spiritually inclined. Yet, in Berlin, where Gerda had many gentile friends and considered herself assimilated, she’d attended synagogue on significant Jewish holidays. Her family hadn’t kept kosher but were “consciously Jewish” and her teenage diaries express a wish
to spend some time in a religious Jewish household … to understand … those who are devoted to the religion and the customs that they live and die for. … But … one needs to grow up in a Jewish atmosphere with understanding people carefully showing you the way. Otherwise one needs an amazing energy that I don’t have, to tear oneself away and free oneself, to become impressionable like a child.
She considered joining the growing Zionist movement in Fascist Germany. But it would be her younger cousin, Renate Grau, who’d end up in Israel. And by the time Gerda learned of the sufferings that led to this emigration, her own dreams of aliyah had extinguished.
None of Gerda’s adolescent yearning for belief was apparent during my childhood. But it was transmuted. Though she was not what you’d call spiritual, she seemed, of all my family, most attuned to the profounder questions. Her innate curiosity was undoubtedly amplified by the murder of her parents. As was the darker wordless wonder in her personal ether. If this approximated anything, it was the word why. And if the answer would not come from God, Israel, or Judaism, she’d seek her faith in other forms. During her first visit to Berlin in 1961, she’d called her former lover, Herbert, from a phone box. It was his partner, Herma, who answered. After hanging up, Gerda told me she “walked toward Berkaer Strasse quite slowly, then stood at Breite Strasse, looked into a window, brushed my hair and composed myself when a voice beside me said, ‘Frau Vogel.’ Herma had come to meet me.” By chance they lived just two blocks away.
Whenever she recounted such coincidences Gerda’s voice struck such a marveling timbre that you felt the events to be divinely orchestrated. She wrote as much, about a premonition of her parents’ deaths, in a letter to the famous mentalist and BBC radio star Sydney Piddington, who replied: “I would say that you had a highly developed telepathic sense which seems most active in moments of stress and danger.”
My mother’s silence about her childhood seemed to me very potent. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t speak of it, if asked, but her early life was never offered up as foundation story or homily. That early assimilationist zeal had perhaps left its legacy in how we lived then—we were making ourselves up, not of recycled materials, but from shinier, improved resources—a suitable ethos for the pioneering 1970s. A plastic Christmas tree was hauled from a cupboard each December, my parents bought a two-story blond brick, the double garage became a rumpus room and my siblings and I dreamed of conversation pits and a pebblecreted in-ground pool. The grandparents visited, but I can’t recall any photos or stories of those who had preceded them. Years later, once I learned of their existence, I wanted my German great-grandparents, magically transported, with all their rituals intact. I wanted the tablecloths and the Friday night menorah, even if they were blank and unyielding as a synthetic tree. I had no wish for religion, but for a more reverent sense of occasion, for the mystical resonance of Walter Benjamin’s aura, which had surely adhered to those ritual objects. Perhaps, with a writer’s avidity even then, what I wanted most was the stories they housed. This was, of course a classic nostalgic reconstruction, a longing in which, as Susan Stewart writes, “the present is denied and the past takes on an authenticity of being.” Ironically, Stewart notes, this can only be achieved through narrative. But certain stories had fallen deliberately silent, for they were almost unbearably tragic and utterly without redemption.
Each day of my childhood in a Sydney suburb of subdivisions, derelict weatherboards, and immaculate estates, I passed the local church, set back from busy Old Northern Road on a large paspalum-afflicted block. Sydney’s Hills District remains the city’s bible belt and now includes, among its 10 churches, the evangelicals. There’s Hillsong, flanked by the corporate glass-and-steel of the Norwest Business Park, and Empower, with its five “crucial categories” for Christ’s disciples, including “investing in God’s house.” As I turned down Church Street, past the ochre building it was named for, I could not recall ever entering such a place. My classmates spent weekends at Sunday school and youth camps. My best friend took communion and owned a glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary that seemed to gaze on me with pity from her bedroom shelf. Belief seemed enigmatic, and to me, intensely desirable.
The feeling of something trembling beyond the ordinary realm of my district with its dead-ends poshed up as cul-de-sacs, its peeling colonial weatherboards and funnel-web infested vacant blocks, is captured by Patrick White, who’d once lived in Castle Hill. Fictionalised as Sarsaparilla in White’s Riders in the Chariot (1961), the suburb throbs with racism and mysticism. White said of this work,
it was the scene in which Himmelfarb, the Jewish refugee, is subjected to a mock crucifixion by drunken workmates which outraged. … Naturally, “it couldn’t happen here”—except that it does, in all quarters, in many infinitely humiliating ways, as I, a foreigner in my own country, learned from personal experience.
It does, in all quarters, in many infinitely humiliating ways. In the same suburb, 20 years later “wog” and “reffo” still rang across my school quadrangle. The district’s many migrant families were as aspirational as everyone else but having achieved their ambitions were sometimes characterised as “a bit suss” or just less honest. The area’s rich indigenous history, absent from any curriculum or local event, seemed back then, entirely mysterious. In White’s novel, the creeping xenophobia is all the more disturbing because of the suburban drapes drawn against it. Himmelfarb, a German Jew fleeing Nazism, had come from a culture where the racism was flagrant, to one where it was tacitly accepted, but comparatively covert.
I must have passed White’s house countless times during my childhood. But I hadn’t known then of his work or life. It was later, while reading his fiction that I recognized their people, and a feeling of foreignness, a hollow unheimlich atmosphere that occasionally evanesced through my home. This was a loss I could neither name nor identify, a quality of sadness withheld. I lined up White’s characters with local residents I’d known, whose conformity seemed to repel any deeper understanding. Mrs. McCloud with her puffed silver hair, glimpsed in slices between venetian blinds; my piano teacher Dawn Loomes, who when she wasn’t personifying her Dickensian name, sat loudly slurping lemonade as I fumbled “Für Elise” in her lounge. Miss Loomes was determinedly earthly in her fawn slacks and putty-toned Kumfs. Her caustic demeanour was reminiscent of White’s acerbic gossips Mrs. Flack and Jolley whose surveiling “insights” give Riders its chorus. Yet mystical sights could be had in her post-war, redbrick—the swathes of light through her pale nylon curtains, the shadowy suite of uninhabited rooms.
It was the lack of deeper history that disturbed me most in such places, yet I had no knowledge of my own lineage to explain my outsider feeling. We hadn’t known, as children, about the generations because we hadn’t been told we were Jewish. Maybe we’d been considered too young for the Holocaust. Or possibly it hadn’t occurred to my mother that this loaded past had much to do with our present. We were the unwitting heirs of a White Australia policy that had instructed my grandparents not to speak German on the streets or the trams, a conforming ethos that shimmered down the generations, turning the discarded past spectral and all the more insistent.
My suburb was on the up and up with its columned mansions and mock Tudor houses, and their attempts to reprise a little Europe. But there was a thick intrigue about the demonstration homes, their spotless furnishings resisting all signs of habitation; there were the auroras lifting from the neighbors’ pools at dusk; the strict lawns nubbled with hail. On summer nights I’d sometimes wake, face down in a pool of my own blood. Nosebleeds, worsened by humidity, never failed to spook me, even though I knew by heart the head tilt, the pincer-grip, time slowing as I waited for my blood to thicken and cease. I would think, while I sat, of those open homes, with their “dream bedrooms” unsullied by nightmares, emanations, bodily fluids, death. In their pristine containment they were the opposite, it seemed to me, of my grandmother’s house with its hoarder’s cupboards and knick-knacks, the family portraits with their patina of frequent handling. Where did I belong in these universes? I could not properly fathom the present, because the past had gone missing and I had no bridging acts, no rituals to reprise it.
My grandmother’s childhood home was a modest, ground floor apartment in a gentrified area of Berlin. The building is now a hotel and if I wish, I can take an online tour of its rooms with their Individueller Charme. As I stood outside the block on my first visit to the city in 2001 I felt time concertina into the present, the past, and a possible present. It was unnerving to tour the city with Gerda, whose feelings for the place swung from deep affinity to terror. But especially uncanny was seeing the houses in which she’d lived. Each was deeply etched in my imagination since I’d first encountered them in her photos. Yet, I’d only seen their interiors; and it was the people pictured in them that had truly made them home.
Here is Else, her dark hair in a wavy bob, making coffee at the new gas stove. And here, stitching fabric in the heavily furnished lounge. Beside her, Friedrich, whose work for the Jewish press will soon send him into hiding, holds a newspaper before him. The room is lit by a domed tasselled lampshade, which projects on the wall above his head a large black shadow. The cozy domesticity evoked by these portraits, and their ambience of tragic unknowing, seemed incompatible with the boxy spackled building I visited in 2001. As I stood in that dove-toned European light, all the magisterial power bestowed by my memory on this final home drained instantly away. But if our recollections don’t align with the facts, the feelings accompanying them can still testify to what’s astonishing or unique about the past. They can tell us that butter is sacred, or how unheimlich a home can feel without a mother in it.
I hovered outside my grandmother’s former front door—she a foreigner in her own country—waiting to see who’d moved in after her parents. I had a brief fantasy then of reversing everything back into place—the Persian rugs and bookshelf, the club chairs and monogrammed linen, the china, crystal and flatware, the brass menorah with its broken cup. I pictured the intricately carved grand piano, an instrument that had become on its journey to Sydney a kind of suitcase, carrying the rings my great grandmother had threaded along the strings. I pictured the ivories moving as if ruled by undetectable pneumatics. I reinstalled each object in its rightful place, but when it came to Else and Friedrich I could not reprise them. I had no earthly memory to call on, no grave to disinter. I thought of how it was before they departed, how it must have felt to leave everything but the one case they were permitted to take, and then, of course, I wondered: Who’d inherited all their remaining possessions? The chairs and table, the gas oven with its charry dust of dinners past. Who’d moved in to their house, which had turned, by abandonment, into a reverse demonstration home, a house not for future dreaming but having already been dreamt, a house that was surely cleansed of its history or how could its new inhabitants sleep soundly? It seems right that it is now a hotel, where no one can fully settle, or belong. I recalled the photos of Berlin homes split open by Allied bombing at the war’s end, all their intimacies exposed to the street, houses that had already been violated to make the city Judenrein. We stood and stood by the front door as the sound of a daughter’s knocking rang through the empty apartment.
Gerda Bergman was a compact, nuggetty woman, still full of vim in her seventies. She had an open, animated face and a year-round tourist’s tan that turned slightly liverish in winter. She was stubborn and amiable and teutonically forthright. Before she grew too ill to travel, she’d queue at Sydney airport, a spry pensioner, check in her Rossignol skis, then, deadpan, ask the flight attendant for a wheelchair so she could be first on and off the plane.
In those first years in Australia she worked as a printer and developer at Cremer Photography. Then, as traveling salespeople, she and my grandfather sold underwear door-to-door, sleeping at night in their blue Chrysler. Later, on Sydney’s north coast, they ran their own photography business, but their camera was soon confiscated by Armed Services. These improvised professions, linked by two kinds of exposure and a certain intimacy with their clients, were perhaps how they established some deeper connection to community. A family who’d noticed the Bergmans’ roadside sleeping arrangements took them in for a time and fed them. There’s a slight touch of Patrick White about this family—the Mercers—whose choko chutney recipe remains among my grandmother’s things—and the name of their suburb, The Entrance. During this period Gerda applied for permits to bring out her German family, and each one was declined.
It was late last year when I first made sourdough. After reading the daunting four-page method, I mixed my starter, the naturally fermented yeast used in this type of bread. Day one of the three-week fermentation is called, by my cookbook, Genesis—it is after all a creation story. The bread develops from the alchemy of the elemental—flour, water, oxygen, air. The first loaf begets countless future loaves because a small amount of its batter is reserved for future use. In this method, and in the way the dough becomes warm and pliable as flesh beneath your hands, sourdough evokes the birth of other things, even people.
In the Genesis of the Old Testament and Torah, as the creation of world, man, and animals unfolds over 2,000 years, one phrase recurs: “these are the generations.” Like family history, Genesis is assembled from myth, legend, philosophy, poetry; its facts are leavened with anecdote, hearsay, and lore, then shaped into one encompassing narrative. Bread of course has its own Biblical association with regeneration, and with how it’s said to assuage not just physical, but spiritual hunger. And for Jews matzo, the flat bread eaten at Passover, symbolizes the flight into exile, which left no time for leavening.
In 1939 at Berlin’s Zoo Station, my grandmother farewells her mother, neither knowing this is their final goodbye. With her new husband George, she catches a train to Denmark, then sails to England. Among the passengers on their ship are survivors from Sachsenhausen concentration camp; unmistakable with their shaved heads and shrunken clothes, which smell of the Lysol they’ve been boiled in. Though my grandmother speaks with them, she will mention this only briefly, preferring to dwell on the meal that awaited at London’s Jews’ Temporary Shelter. Gerda is newly married and 22 and is, she writes in her photo journal of this time, “homesick and hungry.” She cannot imagine her parents will end up like those survivors of Sachsenhausen, or that they will not survive at all.
In the Jews’ Shelter at Aldgate my grandparents are offered tea. They are offered butter—a wonder!—which they lave, inch-thick, on white bread. I picture Gerda devouring that bread, perhaps while reading the spread from The Guardian on rissoles and croquettes. But on closer inspection I see this clipping is dated the year before. It must have been posted to my grandmother before she’d even left Berlin, and perhaps wasn’t sent for its recipes, but for the heartfelt column overleaf about the threat of war. The writer, “Andrea,” unable to “tear herself from the wireless,” listens to a broadcast on the 1938 Four Powers meeting at the Fuehrerhaus. These are such troubled days she can find calm only in “the Abbey.” Finally Chamberlain, “a simple man with an umbrella and a wing collar instead of a riding whip and a swastika,” returns from the Munich meeting with his pact in his pocket. War is averted, for now.
If bread is the Biblical food of “exile, work, and struggle,” as Ina Lipkowitz writes in her cultural history of food, if there’s a link between the Hebrew for bread, lechem, and war, milchamah, then how can I resist turning that charitable meal in London apocryphal? What else can bread and butter eaten in a shelter symbolize but the oncoming struggle of diaspora life, and, soon after, war? Much later, my grandmother would save her butter—in a hospital drawer with her “lady things”—even when she could not eat it.
My grandparents’ story contains no consoling Abbey, no synagogue. But it does invoke the kind of questions associated with church, cathedral, or temple. Where should the secular direct their existential searching? What will remain of these generations when they’ve passed, as the last survivors are rapidly passing, into history and myth? What’s to become of their emotional and domestic (or minor) histories: their habits and tendencies, the personal items, which at first seem inconsequential, quotidian and uncovetable? The teenage diary, which charts the rise of anti-Semitism and contains a yellowing fragment of handkerchief—a father’s, a lover’s, or mother’s. The 1939 pocketbook which records in its front pages the geburtstags of Hitler and other top ranking Nazis and later, in the month of Marz, my grandmother’s scribbled notes on shipboard life as she sailed to Sydney on the Nestor Blue Funnel Line:
swimming pool opened
Among the many Jewish names on that ship’s passenger list are Nassau and Infant, the Lichtensteins and Lowensteins, Salomon and Selowsky, Zeissl and Zinner, all bound for Sydney, Hobart, Fremantle, Brisbane, Melbourne.
In Traumascapes, her memoir of returning to the Ukraine of her birth, Maria Tumarkin describes her grandmother’s habit of gathering breadcrumbs on the tip of a finger, a tendency leftover from the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s. “My grandmother’s handling of each crumb individually, the way bread called out to her, the pointillistic quality of the attention she lavished on it, was precisely how she carried the history and memory of her survival.”
The pointillism, the lavishing, the ritualistic gathering. Tumarkin’s imagery brought my own grandmother vividly to mind. In exploring the ways trauma is transmitted by gesture and custom throughout the generations, Tumarkin cites Carol Kidron’s research on other “bread-related survivor practices.” For one family of survivors, Kidron writes, bread became “the most holy object in the house.” The communal act of eating bread “forever incarnates the sensuous memory of life-threatening hunger and miraculous survival” and so survivors “perpetually consume the Holocaust past and are consumed by it.” While my grandmother was not technically “a survivor,” her history lent certain foods, and acts a ritualistic power. Twice removed from the Holocaust and unscathed by it, I nevertheless feel a duty not to forget that is greater than my considerable self-consciousness about ritual.
My grandmother made copious notes about her life on scraps of lined paper. She’d often be compelled to write after watching a documentary or news report, which she did more often in her immobile years. On one of these notes I found Goering’s infamous slogan, Guns before butter. It was underlined. And, in her account of those hungry years in Berlin, she wrote, “day old bread–or stomach ache.”
If Goering had orchestrated the exclusion of Jews from the German economy, from schools, organizations, parks, and forests, Aryanizing their homes and business and instigating an “internal emigration” he’d also succeeded in transmitting this ethos halfway across the world. My grandparents’ Sydney had become, in its own way, Aryanized; there was no Bechstein to reprise the lyrical sounds of home and, apart from the German spoken only indoors, they’d whittled their cultural practices down to coffee-soaked matzo. They’d chosen not to live among Sydney’s Jews, and by distancing themselves, lost a possibly comforting, cultural familiarity. But perhaps this isolation also helped them to forget. At the time, in Smith’s Weekly and the Bulletin, Jews were stereotyped as “clannish”: massing in sweatshops, working long hours for nothing, and undermining Australian living standards.
In Berlin my grandfather had sold silk fabrics in the famous Hermann Tietz department store until it was Aryanized to Hettie Company. By then my grandmother, who was forbidden to study, could no longer cross Berlin, swim with friends at Halensee, or sneak off with Herbert to a Grunewald glade. She’d always been athletic but was by then forbidden to attend Waldlauf training. She surrendered her fencing gear, because Jews were not permitted to own weapons.
I recently found in those archive boxes, among the folders of German correspondence, my grandmother’s penciled list of Things Not Allowed Under Hitler. It begins, “sit on benches.”
Although their names were on a list to immigrate to America, Gerda’s parents could not get out, nor could aunts Hete and Herta and cousins Marion, Renate, Kurt and Elschen, nor Harry, my grandfather’s brother. Else and Friedrich abandoned their apartment to gather with the last Jews of Berlin at the Grosse Hamburger Strasse deportation center, which stood by a small, dappled Jewish cemetery—one of the last places Jewish children were allowed. By these grounds where the young played over the dead, and would soon no longer be young, Else and Friedrich waited.
Else’s sisters had gathered there before them, with 16-year-old Renate. After Auschwitz, where her parents were gassed in 1944, Renate would change her name. After Auschwitz, where Dr. Mengele selected her for medical experimentation, Renate immigrated to Israel. But she was said to be too fragile to see her family and they would never visit. When I imagine Renate, for I have no photographs of her, I see an infinite, answerless darkness. Reni, as her loved ones called her married twice and became, in Israel, Rachel Silbermann. I can find little more about Reni, who died in 1999 and is buried in the Yarkon cemetery. She seems, of all the family, doubly lost by her suffering and isolation. I have her altered name, some dates and fragments of family talk. Reni, from Renatus, meaning born again.
Like Renate, my great-grandparents were first sent to Theresienstadt, or what the SS called Reichsalterheim, a euphemism that even the Red Cross used on their telegrams, Old People’s Home. When her sister Else joined her at the Bahnhof Strasse barracks in Theresienstadt, Aunt Hete was “overjoyed.” When my grandmother visited Germany for the first time in 1961, Hete recounted that last year the sisters spent together. Most indelible is her description of stealing potato peel from the camp kitchen for Else, who had heart disease and was by then malnourished.
Theresienstadt was of course no old people’s home, but a ghetto and labor camp. This kind of universe. A model town. Peelings in place of bread. Like W.G. Sebald’s orphaned Austerlitz, I’ve wanted to scour The Gift of the Fuhrer, a propaganda film inspired by the “success” of the Red Cross visit and shot six weeks before my great grandparents were deported to Auschwitz. I might catch one last sight of Friedrich or Hete, or even Else playing piano in a fake concert to a fake audience, just as Austerlitz thought he saw his mother’s face in that footage: a final image transmitted through light and air, a geist, a chimera as Sebald narrates the story, and possibly not even her.
In 1945, my 5-year-old mother watched her mother collapse in the kitchen at Baulkham Hills. On the telegram, the date of Else and Friedrich’s transport from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. “Please let us know,” requests the Red Cross, “if you wish to continue searching.” Soon after, news trickled in of the relatives who’d survived. Among them, Hete’s children, Kurt, and Elschen who was said to have had a stillborn child of rape during the occupation. Both would commit suicide many years later.
Challah, traditionally served on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, comes from the Hebrew word for portion because Jews, notes Claudia Roden, were instructed by the Bible to offer the priests one twenty-fourth of their dough every Sabbath. Many observant Jews still burn a pinch of challah dough while making a blessing. This pinching off of the raw challah, which recalls the sourdough preserved for future loaves (also known as “mother-dough”), reminds me of my grandmother’s navel story.
Before one of her many operations Gerda’s specialist asked, did she want to keep her navel? By then she had little vanity. She’d never forgiven my grandfather after discovering the post office box through which he’d intercepted her mail, including letters from Herbert. She’d lived alone ever since, though she’d once placed a personal ad using an Aryanized nom de plume Geraldine. She had her family, and photographs. The most loved were those of her mother: in the shadowy apartment courtyard with a bird on her hand, on a Berlin street in a fur-collared coat that now hangs in my wardrobe. Else and Friedrich had no grave but a vast field. On her visit to Auschwitz my grandmother gathered some rocks and dirt at the site of the crematoria—“sure to be recent,” she wrote in her diary—“but, just the same.” What does this mean? Perhaps that this dirt, standing in for a grave, might still bear some authentic trace of her parents. Collected at the very site of their deaths, these stones and dust, witness to what no living observer can see. In Sydney, my grandmother asked her surgeon to please leave her navel intact. It was, she told me, the last thing that connected her to her mother.
This essay was originally published in Island magazine, Issue 145 (May 2016).
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