Opa wrote a book of memoirs called “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom” in 1997 before Alzheimer’s drained too much of his memory. All italicized quotes in this blog post are from this memoir. I have read this book a few times over the years; it is short and easy to read through. Every time I read it, a new detail pops out that I hadn’t noticed or appreciated before. Opa’s recollection of his childhood in war-torn Germany is surprisingly candid and sweet. It lacks bitterness. It is, admittedly, a rose-colored memory of life set against a dark backdrop, but Opa’s life turned out pretty rosy in spite of his obstacles. I admire his optimism. He tells the truth as well as he knows it, based on his limited memory and his hindsight knowledge of the future. It is interesting to look at his memoirs, not just as facts, but also as clues to what details remained important enough to remember, to put on paper. What memories did he hand-pick for this short book of his life? Who are the most revered characters of his life?
Opa was the second child, born in 1920 to August and Ella in Berlin, Germany just after the end of World War 1. His older sister Brigitte, who was called Patti (pronounced Putty) was just two years older. The family lived in the heart of a broken and humiliated Germany, the losers of the Great War to end all wars. Despite the war, Opa’s childhood memories are familiar stories of school, ear infections, and yucky girls.
Recess, by the way, was far from the way it is in American schools. It was very regimented; we had to walk- not run- along a well-marked circular path; we could talk, but not yell; and there was a teacher in the center of the circle with a whistle, which he used occasionally to keep order. Another circle, with a similar arrangement, was a distance away, for the girls. We ignored them, called them “Gummipuppen” (rubber dolls).
Opa remembers his childhood in funny details, like the circles he walked in recess, which sounds more like a restrictive PE course than our American version of the recess free-for-all. He mentions little details in passing, like that his teacher often used the switch but never on him, and he later learned his mother had instructed the teacher not to use corporal punishment. This endears me to his mother Ella and her quiet strength- deciding how she wanted to raise her children and that she would be in charge of disciplining them in her own way.
Ella is a very special character in the life story of Opa, one who provided many of the letters that I have yet to read, so I imagine we’ll get to know her very well. Opa remembers Ella’s grief after losing her mother. Opa’s gentleness in remembering shows his love of his mother who plunged into the depth of depression offered by such a great loss. I don’t think I ever noticed this part of the story before. Now that I have had my own struggles with depression and have seen both of my parents care for and lose their mothers, I recognize this as more than a bump on a timeline.
Opa’s admiration for his father is clear, and I do believe he must have been very much like his father. His father August was smart, an excellent writer, with a finger always on the pulse of world news. His position as a newspaper editor was perfectly suited to his gifts. He understood the global impact of what might have seemed like local news. Opa remembered the night that Hitler was elected Reich Chancellor, his father sat him down and explained to him what it meant. In short: another world war. Any time I read about August, I feel like he and I would have been kindred spirits, enjoying a philosophical conversation over coffee, or maybe gin. Sometimes I wish we could time travel and meet our ancestors, or even mingle with our parents and grandparents at a different age.
In about 1925, my maternal grandmother, who lived with us, died after a long illness, and my mother became very depressed. Maybe partly because of that, possibly for other reasons, my father fell in love with a second cousin of my mother’s, named Emma, and asked my mother for a divorce. My mother was completely surprised and crushed, but did not object to the divorce.(My sister and I are convinced that our mother loved our father until the day she died, but she never seemed bitter.)
Opa speaks of his parents’ divorce, a scandalous affair of that time, with so much grace and kindness. Opa gives grace to his father who falls in love with a distant relative and leaves Ella. His love for his father overshadows any bitterness or anger he may have had towards him at this time. It is kind of amazing that Ella seemed to always love August and not show bitterness. Either she was the best actress ever or she genuinely loved the man and through some self-imposed fault, felt he was better without her. Or perhaps Opa was even more oblivious than he lets on. His parents didn’t tell him they were divorced until he learned the truth on his own later. You can tell there is a naive-ness about how Opa discovers his parents’ fallen marriage.
One day, when I was about twelve years old, my father took me with him to a local garage to have his car worked on. I saw the work order, which stated “Mr. and Mrs. August F. Doeppner” and an address unknown to me. I copied the address and went there on my bike; it was an apartment building, not very far from where we lived, and I saw for myself that one of the apartments listed the same names, Mr. and Mrs. August F. Doeppner. This was a major shock, even more upsetting than when I learned the real truth later.
I can’t believe they kept it from him! How do you explain that otherwise? “Son, your father will no longer come home every night but rather on the weekends and he will sleep in a separate room.” I imagine Opa’s sister was much more aware of the situation. I wonder what her perception of this time was? Rather, we get the perception of a young boy who remembers that his parents loved him and he loved them. The simplicity is beautiful.
Opa’s sweet recollections extend to many parts of his childhood, but something he never emphasized, or at least that I never clued into, was that his father was pretty well-off. Or at least he didn’t suffer much. I never really thought about Opa’s beginnings in an extravagant way. I’m not sure how that affects my view of what I thought the story was. I guess I assumed he had humble beginnings in America, and that assumption is still correct. Thanks to his parents’ divorce and Hitler’s power, by the time Opa made it to America, he was very humble indeed. Opa remembered his childhood apartment in great detail, perhaps because it was his original home, packed with comfort and peace, unmarked by trouble. I was struck by the vastness of the place. Eight rooms, fit with maid’s quarters, balconies, and large furniture. August must have done very well in the newspaper business as they had such space and even a car, unusual in post-war Germany. Opa’s family vacationed in a nice resort in Kolberg, a beach on the Baltic shores, before the swastikas and fighting ruined it. It seemed everything about Opa’s early childhood was dreamlike and slowly eroded to nearly nothing by the time he fled to America. I wonder what part of Opa’s personality allowed him to go through the process of losing everything that was steady without losing his light. He was always a positive person.
I remember one of the last conversations that I had with Opa very clearly. We were sitting on a bench looking at the greens of the assisted living facility he lived in. It was a gorgeous day and a beautiful view. Opa spoke of the beauty and had a simple joy in it. He was happy. It was mere months from his death; he was struggling with Alzheimers. I remember when we first learned that Opa likely had Alzheimers. We all worried that he would fall into the typical German stubbornness and grow bitter and frustrated. Instead, he became like a sweet child, taking in the simplest pleasures and enjoying them. He fought the disease as best he knew how, by surrendering himself to the National Institute of Health for research so that someone might benefit. He maintained friendships, surrendered the control of finances, and made plans to be the best patient he could be.
When I read about his childhood, I think that he became his childhood self again. As a child, he had the ability to lose the vast apartment, the maids, the steady home with both his parents, his country, his immediate family... all to face life in the United States with optimism, hope, and energy. In his last years he faced the loss of his deep intellect, control of his own life and brain and body... all to come out in the sun to appreciate the sound of the trees blowing in the wind and the birds singing. The more I learn about Opa and his family, the more I appreciate and understand the man he was, the Grandfather I remember.