by Jim Kozubek
In the spring of 1938, four-year-old Klaus Kolb wakes up to a rhythmic "shrap, shrap, shrap" of Nazi Stormtroopers marching past his house in Goerlitz, the oldest city on the eastern angle of Germany. The black, white, and red flags with cross-like symbols that the soldiers carry became the first flag in his life in a vivid 800-page memoir that spans four paperback volumes.
Klaus and his childhood friend Norbert spend much of the first volume growing up plying the German forests and schools in their Lederhosen emblemized with Edelweiss flower and stag shields, roughhousing and getting into trouble, and managing to slip enrollment into Deutsches Jungvolk, or German Young People, the Cub Scouts equivalent of the Hitler Youth.
To be a child born into the era of the Third Reich is perhaps as conflicted a struggle as to grow up being persecuted by it. German phenomenologists gave us the term lebenswelt, or lifeworld, for the given, shared world of everyday experience; if Heidegger was right, a life has no explanation or ethic outside of its context. Klaus shows living under a nativist, autocratic regime, seemingly grasping for control amid a nihilistic undertow-is impossible to sidestep. He must learn quickly. Give the kid a break. He's only four. But, then again, he can already sense he is into something deep.
Klaus had an older brother, also named Klaus, who while under negligent supervision of a babysitter, had climbed to the top of a 1,000-foot water tank along the railroad tracks, where his father had worked. He fell. His mother was not yet through coping with the first Klaus's death, and after the narrator, the second Klaus, reports his sister dies in childbirth, his mother takes her own life. The only thing young Klaus has to remember of his mother is her wedding picture. Klaus's father soon remarries Irmgard, a courthouse secretary. His father takes a job as a master mechanic of air conditioning units for Wiessner Maschinenfabrik. This is a family already living on second chances.
• • •
In our moment, memoir is in vogue with the rise of multivolume efforts by Karl Ove Knausgaard, some notable contributions by Paul Auster, and others, which may represent a countertrend to the technocratic rise of big data, machines, virtualization, and a marginalization of the world of experience. There is no more physical a world than the one reported here. There have always been masters of the quotidian, such as Nicholson Baker, who also wrote extensively about the forces that shaped the rise of Nazism, and mind-shifting metaphor writers, such as Michael Chabon, whose Moonglow recollected his step-grandfather's survival through World War II. The memoirist inherently struggles with a sense of memory at risk of disappearing and an urgency to write, and at the same time, with doubts of who exactly is qualified to write a memoir. As Chabon's friend tells him in Moonglow, the only difference between you and me is that you wrote it down.
If a memoir requires something more than writing down an encounter, it's a keen sense that things could have always gone differently, a report of a world of contradictions, and a chronicle that reports on culture and interlocks with major events. Klaus's memoir-edited and co-written by veteran Florida Today newspaper reporter Linda Jump-reads as a storybook with photographs and drawings that chronicle the times. As a six-year-old boy, he receives a Zuckertuete, or sugar cone, which is a kind of giant Christmas stocking that children receive on the first day of school and includes not only candy, but school supplies. He learns that not all children get them from their parents-his first lesson in economics. But as his gifts soon run out, he learns to be industrious. He includes drawings of a three-person bicycle he built; a four-stall rabbit hutch he built during the emaciating times of war, when his family runs out of food; a picture of a wagon he and his childhood friends build to collect scrap brass. "If you don't help, then you are responsible for our solders' deaths, if they can't get cartridges from your scrap brass," the children are scolded.
For Klaus the absurdist plot throughout his life is that one authoritarian regime, the nationalist Nazi, is replaced by another, the communist Soviet, and his only channel to independence seems to emerge from the rugged survivalist ethic of his apolitical father who repeatedly evokes Nietzsche: "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." Whether Klaus will survive never seems to be a given, and just as he comes to loathe his father's unbending personality, it proves to be the ethic that saves him. In the end, he earns his freedom and proves to redeem his own father, helping him through a work conflict. The arc of their relationship is what turns a chronicle of war-torn eastern Germany into a story.
• • •
Klaus is a boy when his father moves the family down into a valley. Klaus suspects his father may have done this to make their lives harder, since the nearest city Goerlitz is now "five miles up a hill" and an overhead tram clatters by at 2 a.m. waking up his step-mother, to whom his father comments "you'll get used to [it]." One night that tram did not come, and his mother woke up. Looking out the window, there was eight feet of snow. His father was right. "The void had startled her."
Irmgard, her daughter Ilse, new baby sister Anne, and Irmgard's mother Oma, become Klaus's family. A mirror apartment on a second floor holds the Jobke family, whose only child is Norbert. "He was a sweet-looking blonde boy with blue eyes and dimples in each cheek . . . the epitome of Aryan beauty." Klaus's father encouraged rough play like wrestling so they would "grow up to be 'real boys.'" "Frau Jobke didn't like the roughhousing, probably because her son usually lost," Klaus writes.
The parents build a fenced-in sandbox in back, which Klaus and Norbert jokingly call "the animal cage." Father asked each day "did you nail Nobert?" One day, throwing rocks, Klaus hits Norbert in the head, and he "fell to the ground, bleeding profusely" while he "screamed like a pig in a butcher's hands." Klaus received an angry strapping, but Norbert never seems to win, and things get even harder for him as his mother babies him, washing the greasy patina from his Lederhosen and breaking the "unwritten rule about Lederhosen; never, ever wash them." Apparently Frau Jobke hadn't heard of that rule. Norbert gets ridiculed at school with lashings of "Lookit the sissy" in his "bright, new-looking stiff shorts."
Downstairs at the Milchgeschaeft, or milk store, the cash register rings each time the clerk sells milk in a half-gallon aluminum can. There is no chocolate since it is spared only for military officers for mood improvement, but the children get an occasional orange or lime since Hitler's army had occupied southern territories in Italy. Grocery store customers pay to use the "ironing machine."
Klaus and Norbert form a unique bond. "Still each of us boys lived as an only child. The Third Reich encouraged large families, and in fact rewarded and created idols of women with large families." Klaus recalls women with at last four children received a bronze cross, those with six a silver, women with eight children a gold cross. One woman, Frau Haberland, did have eight. For it, she was disheveled and "looked like a witch in my Hansel and Gretel book," Klaus recalls. Younger mothers were bitter and despised her for getting extra grocery vouchers, "the exact opposite effect expected by the Nazi government."
The reality of war continues to seep into their lives. Onkel Ernst learns to alter a radio crystal to listen to the BBC under a bed blanket to hear their version of the political news broadcast in German, even as listening to foreign stations and Allied broadcasts was strictly forbidden by the Nazi government. Klaus's father, a mechanic, manages to avoid the military by focusing on manufacturing textiles and machines needed in the war effort. When Aunt Erika gives Klaus a toy tank, his father makes him return it, citing his family's policy of no "war-related toys." At the same time, his family encourages self-reliance, his father teaches him blacksmithing and Onkel Ernst tests him to "tell him with my eyes closed which type of bird was singing, based on their voice."
This was the way of the old world. His father grew up "following centuries of journeymen who traveled mostly by foot from master to master through Europe to lean a variety of trades. He followed secret symbols to find master blacksmiths, master wagon makers, and other professionals in their trades who were willing to take on a journeyman. . . . Those symbols, written in chalk on the frame of the front door by the other journeymen, might indicate, for example, a taskmaster, a master who paid poorly, a place with sparse or poor food, or a poor tradesman. At one, father told me, the symbols indicated that the master's wife was troublesome."
His father wants Klaus to spend time learning the trade of a blacksmith on Sunday morning, while his mother sometime secures his escape across an old iron bridge spanning the Neisse River, to a simple church masterfully crafted oak wood doors. Norbert's parents were atheists, so he never attends, but both the boys suffer tutelage of Klaus father in the blacksmith workshop. When they bang their hands, his father chides, "Hey, you wimps, hurting and bleeding are part of the fun. Go outside and piss on your hands. It's antiseptic and warm."
One Christmas, Klaus and Norbert both receive tricycles, and form a tricycle gang, albeit one with no leaders. "I think we practiced unplanned, some sort of junior democracy while we grew up in a National Socialist dictatorship under Hitler's regime." At the same time, he was only allowed to play with "approved" friends who spoke High German, and at school, the Russian Bolsheviks were depicted as growling wolves attacking children and children learned to repeat the slogans of the party. By June 1941, the school was chosen to be an active producer of raw material for silk production, for military parachutes. The students planted mulberry bushes, and school officials received thousands of silk moths, which were kept in teacher's conference room in cartons and crates on top of the huge table. Each student is responsible for one hundred moths, kept in 72 degrees Fahrenheit, while each moth makes three hundred to four hundred eggs, each the size of a pin. Twenty-five silkworms produce a pound of silk, and if a German parachute canopy weights sixteen pounds, it takes forty thousand silkworms to one parachute. The classroom takes field trips on Sundays to sing folk songs to injured military men back from war. The moment is troubling for the young children, and the first real confrontation with the realities of war.
• • •
Klaus father moves the family to the country to a tiny little village of Garsedow, northwest of Berlin, which is not even on a map. His father declares this is "a wonderful opportunity for our family" which will "toughen up the kids." His father is part of a new project to make fibrous materials for military uniforms using a new technique that creates fibers from straw. The plant works to remove of toxic gasses that are a byproduct and puts to work 106,000 war prisoners.
In the country, Klaus is exposed to farming, and unhappily witnesses the "blood-letting and cooking of all the parts of the animal"; on one occasion "a farm hand slaughtered a pig but it continued to squeal and wiggle after the axe plow." His father gets eels from the marshes at night. "They are still-wiggling eels were put into the hot fry pan, I could sense their pain." He finds maggots in soup, one afternoon, and nauseated, involuntarily vomits. His mother sees the maggots ahead of dinner but his father makes them put the food on the table. The country life will make the family stronger. "You baby them too much at home," he tells the mother.
In May 1942, Operation Millennium is conducted as a thousand-bomber raid by the Royal Air Forces, dropping 1400 metric tons of explosive in just over an hour on the city of Cologne. Young German street fighters held up 20 mm cannons which fired 800 rounds per minute, and heavy pivoting search lights guided air defense cannons shooting two-pound self-exploding rounds. Klaus father watches the firestorm outside a bunker in the open air, positioning himself atop a bridge. "It was beautiful," he says.
Early in 1945, Klaus senses the tide is turning. He meets Dorle Sonnabend, a 15-year-old girl who lives a flight above, and her sister Hanna, who introduces them to a friend who participates in the Hitler Youth. Germany needs soldiers. Klaus qualifies for Adolph Hitler Schule, to train to be an elite leader of the third Reich. "I'm afraid," he lets slip to his father, the only thing, perhaps, he could have said to seal his fate. "All right boy, then this would be the perfect place to cure your damned rabbit heart." Germany has manufactured underground, the first jet fighter, the Messerschmill Me262, but it is too little, too late. In March 1945, families hide in a fortified bunker, walloped by five-hundred pound bombs. Klaus is secretly hoping for an Allied victory.
On April 12, 1945, American tanks come rolling in. A black soldier breaks into their house. He snaps a stick of some sort in his hand. Putting it into his mouth, "his tongue was bright red, his teeth were the whitest I had ever seen. He motioned with his finger for me to come closer, to take the rest of that stick. My sisters froze to the spot as I walked toward him, past the rail gate. The man kneeled to my level, and handed me the stick. 'Danke,' (thanks), I said. I looked at the stick, but was unable to read the writing on the label around it. I broke off a small piece and slid it into my mouth, the same way the man had. 'Oh my God,' I told my sisters when I rejoined them. 'This must be chocolate."
• • •
In the summer of 1945, the children reclaim the forest. Norbert's father was missing from deployment on the western front, and was never seen again. The boys are free to wander in this post-war wasteland for what are months in this summer and explore abandoned barracks at Leschwitz Strasse, which had its barbed wire perimeter bulldozed down with tanks. "In order to survive, we sometimes had to throw our convictions overboard, and had to lie and even steal. Stealing for food was even sanctioned . . . small lies were tolerated by parents and authorities."
Norbert finds a handful of bullets, a few yards of machine gun belt, and they fill their pockets with the rounds. A classmate tells them how to put the munition in a sturdy hole to pry apart the bullet from the casing and retrieve the black gun powder, which Klaus and Norbert spill into their pockets. "We created our own fireworks. . . . I placed a handful of powder in a rotting tree stump. Next, I rolled up a piece of newsprint and lit the top of it by focusing a sunbeam through my magnifying glass."
"Fire in the hole!"
The boys singe their eyebrows and front hair and return home with blackened faces, but return to the abandoned camp many times, stealing wood, copper wire and any resources. One of the boys, who pees out fires, earns the nickname "firetruck." Klaus's father takes the group camping, teaching them which mushrooms are edible and identifying their names, which he said he learned from "an old Bush woman." By morning, the boys notice that father had slept in the same tent with Frau Jobke.
It had been so cold that it was necessary to keep her warm, he said.
• • •
By October 1947, two years after the invasion, the family moves to a small village in Weinhubel. On the eve of 47th birthday, German police officers knock on the door and take his father to the police headquarters in Goerlitz. The Soviets have a collective punishment program, and begin to document father's items, now in hands of Soviet occupiers. His family is thrown out of the apartment, and move in with grandmother Oma. Since then, mother is high strung each time the doorbell sounded.
Klaus is into his teens as Hitler statues are replaced by statues of Stalin, Marx, Engels, Lenin. A Soviet flag is replaced by an East German flag. The Gestapo is replaced by the Russian Stasi and the German People's Police. Most of the institutions he once knew are now people-owned properties. In school, he is bombarded with a narrative that everything he ever knew was invented in the Soviet Union-the lightbulb, the postage stamp, steam and combustion engine, bicycles, airplanes, subs. This is simply a new authority. "Germany, above all," is now replaced by "Trust your party, your party is always right." Families are torn apart. Klaus never sees Norbert again.
Oma's brother Otto marries Frieda from Minneapolis, Minnesota; they send pictures of Frieda working at her new publishing house which recently acquired a Mergenthaler Linotype typesetting machine. They also send CARE packages which are residual from the war and can be purchased. "In truth, nobody in East Germany had a family in the Soviet Union capable of helping anybody," he observes. Surprisingly, one CARE package includes a cake in a box. When they look at the instructions it says "just add water." No one can believe it. When they pull it out of the oven, it is so impossibly delicious that Klaus declares it to be a "miracle in a box."
One day, the doorbell rings. It is a letter to his mother informing her that her husband is still alive in Bautzen, twenty-five miles east. When she goes to see him, he is "but a shadow of a man who was taken away from us, skin and bones and hollow eyes. He walked upright, but did not have even the hint of a smile." The family learns he was sentenced to twenty-five years in labor camp.
In the meantime, Klaus finishes a three-year apprenticeship in twenty months. He once managed to avoid joining the Hitler youth, but now he is tasked to enroll in Freie Deutsche Jugend, or Free German Youth, a socialist youth movement. The boys are eager to use their energy and skills from the war on anything. One shows how he trained to parachute jump, and can leap from tree, falling into a shoulder roll at the last minute. He knows he must join in order to advance to master mechanic. The youth movement is voluntary, but without it, impossible to be admitted to a university. His collective group is led by Lawd Jowl, a socialist leader, who hypocritically wears yellow crepe-soled West German shoes. Klaus wishes to abscond westward, but he has free education and must take care of his mother. "I disliked the politics of the new ruling socialist/communist ruling class . . . I blamed the system for deporting my father, and confiscating my family's private property."
Klaus must join the "circle," and he picks Yokstanzgruppe, folk dance ensemble, in which he plays the accordion in Youth World Festival, and is able to travel to West Germany for the first time. He sees a Trabant, and a Cadillac six-cylinder engine which "whispers while it works."
"None of the engines in East Germany ever whispered."
Klaus receives a scholarship for college in Meissen. He goes, fearing his father wouldn't respect his son as an intellectual. There he buys a motorcycle with roommate, takes up jazz music.
• • •
On June 17, 1953, Klaus and his bandmates are returning from a concert, when they are stopped by the Volkspolizei, or German People's Police, and held up. The rowdy boys disobey their orders and begin marching in lockstep. They don't get too far. A Russian UAZ 469-type military jeep stops them ahead. One of the boys, Christian, mouths off, and due to this he is banned from school. Klaus later learns a worker's strike named the People's Uprising began the morning before, a strike blamed on western films and agencies, but triggered by rising quotas. Three hundred masons at a building on Stalin Allee in Berlin put down their trowels and marched. Soon the uprising had swelled to forty thousand protesters there, and it grew to more than one million protestors in over seven hundred localities. This is the sort of crime and uprising which led to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Twenty thousand Soviet soldiers and eight thousand German police quelled the uprising. Klaus and his friends, under the stars in the country, had no idea what they had been caught up in. "My friends and I had unwittingly joined the cause, in a small way." By now, enervated, by the Nazi and now the Soviets, they sing a song.
Our thoughts are still free; No one man can guess them
They slip and flee past, like light nightly shadows
No one man can know them. No hunter an shoot them
Therefore it is so true: Our thoughts are still free.
He is now entering his rebellious teens. Meize, his girlfriend, is in the picture, as he takes up music as a semi-serious occupation. He is fascinated by arts, rather than the blue-collar ethic of his father. He buys a Leica camera-indeed, the first professional style camera-and takes it with him to photograph the 15th-century Albechtsburg castle. A bridge guard confiscates his camera, bashes it open and steals the film and destroys it, disrupting the intricate mechanics.
By September 1954, he is a working on a college radio broadcast, and leaves a secret code over the air to the dates his band should meet and join up to play swing numbers from Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Louie Armstrong. Among their favorite tunes soaked up from an AFN broadcast from West Berlin is a swing time version of "American Patrol," by Glenn Miller. The boys spend time barnstorming the countryside and playing Western jazz music in an East German underground music scene. Klaus works as a camp counselor as part of his socialist duties, and pulls off a magnetic performance one night as an armchair hypnotist, which wins him the affection of a 40-year-old counselor named Marianne. He is startled when, waking up in the middle of the night, she is in his room, "her small perky breasts bobbing up and down, faintly lit by the moon."
Then there is a surprise. His father returns, after seven years, and "looked better than I remember," but Klaus knows his father will be tremendously disappointed by his dropping out of school, his obsession with music and his bent into an "intellectual." His father asks to go for a walk. The walking gets faster. His father explains that he joined the Ministry of Heavy Industry, a Stasi work camp, and was home with an eight-day pass. He is chief reviewer of German briquette factory. "How did he advance from a political prisoner to a government position?" Klaus wonders.
"I will tell you some day, but not today, not yet," his father says.
His father now has a spy identification name, and was himself informer, an also was being monitored by the Volkspolizei, the German People's Police. He says they must leave East Germany.
Klaus and his father surreptitiously flee to West German, and despite some tense moments at a train station crossing the border, are able to make their break.
• • •
Father's brusque personality doesn't work well in the professional world of Western Germany. His company Stuttgart-Kaltental wins a major contact with Christian Dierig AG in Augsburg, a maker of weaving machines. His father takes the company owner's son under tutelage to expose him to their "revolutionary air conditioning technology," but he is abusive to the young man, at one point scolding him, "Don't you have anything but fodder in your brain, fellow?" The owner's son decides to pursue college and gives up interest in the plant. The owner chastens Klaus's father. "I recommend that you not be so harsh on your son Klaus either. Don't break his interest and enthusiasm for the job. He has a great potential with our company, and could become a great field engineer."
But the men are doing well in East Germany, and move to a new flat in Stuttgart, deciding it's finally time to send for their family through a letter in code to elude the Stasi. "The males of a certain breed of birds have been building nests in the Swabian countryside. Ornithologists are waiting for the females to arrive anytime now." But not all the women come. Oma stays, noting "An old tree should not be transplanted." Ilse stays, now engaged. Mother and Anne travel to East Germany, where they find Klaus and his father living in a 1950s-style modern apartment with an "obligatory kidney shaped coffee table." Mother notes "this place is worse than where we were in East Germany."
By the third volume in the memoir, Klaus is now in his twenties, but the writing begins to read like a travel log. There are Instagram-style pictures of food, beer, and cars-many, many cars-as he travels to through Europe, Iran, Pakistan. It is exactly what to expect from writing from someone who is incredulous that they are free from the confines of Eastern Germany. By now, I know way too much about installing and maintaining commercial dryers and air conditioning systems, which is the trade that continually sends Klaus on remote assignment around the world. But the redeeming plot feature is that for the first time in his life, Klaus is finally close to freedom, but still is tasked with busting through the lock of the last authoritarian in his life: his father.
Klaus takes to learning the business of installation and maintenance of textile dryers. While in France, one night he slips out with some friends and has Pernod, making it to work the next day, not to give father pleasure of saying "I told you so." Work is tough. Once he is hit on the head by a twenty-five-pound chunk of concrete, to which his father says "just work if off." And Klaus can never do right by him:
The next day Father discovered a flaw in the work my crew and I had done. I was in the process of correcting a mistake my crew had made. He decided to call up my entire group of helpers to reprimand me in front of them. He did it long and loud. I was ashamed, appalled and disgusted. . . . I started crying, as my anger against him welled suddenly. Why in the hell do I have to go to this job? Why does he make me hate him? What's the fastest way to get back to Germany? Now that he doesn't have my little sister Anne around to pick on, that makes him terrorize his son? Why is he so narcissistic? Did all those years in prison remove all compassion and feeling? In that moment, I lost all interest in working with my father. His harsh criticism of me in front of coworkers was too much for me. The walk along the railroad track back to the hotel was solemn. We did not talk.
Klaus takes a hiatus. He travels to a war monument in the Epinal American Cemetery in Vosges, France, the resting place of five thousand U.S. soldiers. "The beauty and solemn silence of the resting field, overlooking a bend of the Moselle River a hundred feet below, overcame and touched me. I thought, if I had been born a couple or three years earlier than 1934, I might have been one of the young men who fought in World War II. Perhaps my body would be in a similar graveyard on the German side of the river. I slowly walked back to the railroad, overtaken by a deep sadness." Outside of authoritarian rule, Klaus perhaps for the first time confronts a deep void.
• • •
In February 1957, the plant manager gives Klaus approval to work on his own. He is finally able to buy his first car, a Volkswagen Beetle. He heads out on maintenance assignments to Holland, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Iran, and Pakistan. Klaus takes a ride on Comet D106, one of the first jet airplanes, and builds his travel log. We get pictures and stories of snake charmers and lessons of how Iranian carpets are made, and taken down to pools to wash and prepare them for sale. He takes pictures of Dutch wooden shoes in Holland, an Alphorn performance high in the Swiss Alps. He takes a hike, and for the first time, encounters an Edelweiss flower on top of Swiss Alps. This is his world.
But his father needs him in the end. He fails to grasp the culture of Pakistan, and the textile workers revolt on him, preventing him from completing his installation project. Klaus, who has experience in Pakistan, returns with his father to Lahore and mends fences on his behalf to salvage his career. Meize, his former girlfriend, tracks him down. She also needs him. He admits he and Meize are "infatuated with each other," but he tells her he is unable to make a commitment. This is where attachment theory might come into application. But he has to keep traveling, has to keep moving.
He meets a young girl who lives downstairs, Silvia, who is apparently fine with him traveling the world and rarely being at home. (One has to wonder what the women in his life really think). When he gets married to Silvia, his sister Ilse doesn't attend, he recounts, for fear of Stasi. He dedicates the book to Ilse and Anne, "although their recollection of specific situations in our early lives at times tend to differ a bit from what I remember."
Klaus is obsessed with cars, but even they cannot enable him to exceed the limitations he still seems to be trying to break away from. He buys a Ford Taunus 12 M, a sports car, and while traveling racing down the Autobahn in the drizzling rain with Silvia's mom, he somersaults the car. He experiences a blackout. Both survive, miraculously unscathed. He promptly returns to work, walking forty-five minutes to work each day, and scolding himself for the mistakes he made driving. You've got to hand it to the guy, he takes his hits-no excuses. But by now, even Europe seems too small, and as the fourth and final volume of the memoir begins, he is heading to America.