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Jan/Feb 2019 Fiction

What I Did in the War

by Earl Fendelman

Image salvaged from public domain


I had arranged for Ulrich and Ursula to visit us in Amsterdam even before we left the United States. I didn't really know Ulrich well. You could say I didn't know him at all. He worked for American Express in Frankfurt, where they were from, and he had been transferred to the US to work on something like improving their credit card billing operation.

I never really asked about it, and he volunteered little. We seemed to share a conviction that as men we shouldn't be curious about each other. I had never felt that way before, but being with Ulrich brought it on. He was a model successful European businessman. I learned about him from his wife, who was willing to talk about him so long as he wasn't there.

He had come to the US expecting to be assigned to New York, but after he arrived and had his son enrolled in school and everybody settled in an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, he was told the company really wanted him elsewhere. Arizona, maybe. So he had embarked for the new place, wherever it was, and left his family behind. I think American Express paid for two home visits a month. Something like that. I had met him perhaps once.

But Ursula I had seen quite often and talked to. We met around play dates because our sons went to the same preschool and then kindergarten. Alvie and Bernhardt were classmates and played together. I called Bernhardt "Bernie," which Ursula accepted. I thought he was too small for a name like Bernhardt. She also let it be known, when the subject arose, that Ulrich would not like it. A smile. "He is sure that as an adult he will be called 'Bernhardt,'" she said. It was a gentle tip. But unmistakable.

There was an element of bluster about Ulrich. He was a compact, assertive sort of man, a little shorter than average, with close-cropped, greying hair and a slight stutter. At least in English. I didn't dislike him. He just made me nervous. A bit uncomfortable. I wasn't sure what it was. He seemed to have an opinion about everything. The only possible opinion. Not so much that you were wrong. Just that he was right and there was no point in debating the subject, no matter what it was.

He had been transferred back to Germany at the same time we were going to Amsterdam. At that particular moment, American Express seemed to be itchy for travel, at least for its employees. So after only a few years in the US, Ulrich and his family were packing up again. And we were going to Holland.

We made a sort of tentative plan to visit each other in Europe as soon as we could. A kind of very extended, international play date. "It has been a long time since we have been in Amsterdam," Ulrich said.

Ulrich and Ursula and Bernhardt made a low key entrance into our Amsterdam life. They had driven from Frankfurt. I had always imagined Ulrich driving a Mercedes. He talked like someone who would drive a car like that. I don't remember the make of his actual car anymore, but it was modest. Definitely not a Mercedes.

Later after they unpacked, I realized I felt relieved. And I was embarrassed by having such a stereotyped and ungenerous reaction. Why shouldn't a German businessman drive whatever car he wished? I wouldn't have minded the comfort of a fat Mercedes for a few days of touring myself.

I could see from the minute they arrived that Ulrich and Ursula felt our Amsterdam accommodations were a little below standard. We were renting from a delightfully eccentric woman, Maya. I think they found Maya a bit below standard as well. Maya ran what would have been called, a long time ago and in a different place, a rooming house. Not a boarding house, because she served no meals.

We shared a toilet, sort of like an English water closet, with the friendly young couple on the second floor. We also had a very big bedroom on that floor. And another bedroom, big enough to have one end to use as a sitting room, plus a tiny connected room with a sink and shower, on the floor above. Also a kitchen with a view on a verdant and enchanting terrace.

The terrace was available to everyone, though we were the ones who used it the most because we spent most of our time on that floor. Maya and her boyfriend had all of the ground floor. They came up to sit on the terrace now and then. We were a community.

I enjoyed that. It was not at all like our New York life. More social. It felt progressive in some way, though it was actually a throw-back to a previous time. Exactly how previous I was unsure. But not very modern.

Among the shrubs on the terrace—the hydrangea plants, the rose bushes, the tubs which sprouted tulips in the spring—there were quite a few marijuana plants, also in tubs and treated just as though they were flowers, too. Maya and her companion, a jazz musician from the United States who had been passing through but decided not to move on for a while when he met Maya, smoked pot almost every night after dinner.

I don't know if Maya actually harvested, dried, and smoked her own marijuana. I hardly think that would have been worth the effort since the weed was so abundant and cheap. I think it was all legal, but I'm not entirely sure. This was back in the day. Far enough back that Maya took some delight in teasing people from other countries about the freedom from certain constraints in The Netherlands. Ulrich didn't seem shocked when Maya took that attitude with him. He didn't seem very pleased, either.

Our life in Amsterdam was not at all like our New York life. It was better than I had hoped. Since I had a relatively brief tenure there—overseeing a modest architectural project, a gig with rather vague hours and, as it turned out, redundant obligations—my wife had kept her job. She became a kind of international commuter. Amsterdam to New York. Amsterdam to Paris to New York. New York to Amsterdam. That much about our life was modern. It felt old fashioned, however. We were married, and we wanted to stay that way. We had made an arrangement. Most of the time it worked.

Alvie accepted his mother's coming and going with remarkable equanimity. We would take her to the Central Station to catch the train to Schiphol. A kiss. A hug. There were never any complaints or protests. When we thought Alvie could go to school in Europe for a while, we had been correct. It was only a repeat of first grade, after all.

He knew that I liked to walk about the city, and when we came out of the station, he would suggest we walk back to Maya's place. It was way too far for him. He seemed to think I needed bucking up and that walking would help. We would get on a tram when we came to the limit of his endurance. He always seemed to feel he had somehow failed because he couldn't make it all the way.

Maya was surprised at first when I told her we had friends coming for a few days from Frankfort. She didn't say much, but she made it clear she didn't like a German family in her house. This was true though everyone in that family spoke nothing but English the entire time they were there. Once or twice I heard Ulrich and Ursula having a private conversation. I was amazed they didn't revert back into German when they were alone. They seem to have decided the language of their visit was English no matter what. They gave off a slight suggestion of being on their best behavior.

Maya had also put some kind of restraints on her reactions. Her obvious reservations about Germans notwithstanding, she was extremely accommodating. She provided extra sheets and blankets for the new guests. Even an extra little cot for Bernhardt. She asked if they had everything they needed. She made it sound as though she cared.

I took Alvie upstairs to sleep with me so we could make room for the guests. I would have put the boys together if I could, but there was no way to do that. This was a rooming house after all, and it had its limitations.

There were some rough patches, all the feigned good will notwithstanding. Ulrich stiffened the first time he saw Alvie wearing the rather strange hat Maya had given him. The hat seemed to seal the feeling he already had about our landlady and our apartment. It had the leaf of a marijuana plant stitched in gold thread on its top. "A pot hat, not a pot head," Ulrich said rather grimly.

He spoke perfect English even though he had a very pronounced stutter. He was proud of his ability to make a pun. He smiled as he said it. He gave Alvie a little pat on the shoulder, which Alvie barely acknowledged. Ulrich was just another adult as far as he was concerned. Not someone to merit a lot of attention.

Maya was like most of the people I knew in Amsterdam. The idea of my entertaining a German family went over poorly with everyone. I tried to explain I was doing something for my son. We had asked him to live and go to school in a strange culture and strange language. He had been extremely accepting. Bringing in his friend from nursery school was a small enough gesture to make him feel more comfortable. None of our Dutch friends found fault with that argument. They obviously didn't agree with it, either. They mostly kept quiet on the subject. Their disapproval was in their eyes.

"We ate tulip bulbs," Ans said. She was probably the best friend we had in Amsterdam. And the least quiet. A sculptor with large rough hands. She could lift large blocks of marble, her favored material, though she herself was trim and petite. "Tulip bulbs. They taste like onions." Her father had been a farmer who sold the bulbs to dealers. In the winter of 1944 he hadn't sold any because his family was eating them. "I was very young, but I remember it. I still don't like tulips in my house," Ans said. "Imagine. A Dutchman who doesn't like tulips."

We were walking along the Singel, back from the market to buy some last minute groceries. Ans had taken Alvie and me under her wing for all the times my wife was away. She invited us to her weekly family dinners with her teenaged son Josef and her boyfriend Charles and his two daughters. The weekly dinner was a little ritual. She included us as though we were family.

There were always toys for Alvie to play with and a place for him to sleep after dinner when his eyelids started to droop. We ate late, European style. And then she would insist Charles give up his parking space to drive us home even though we lived just across the Museumplein. I could have carried Alvie. I had done it often. But Ans wouldn't have it. She was an original. I grew to love Ans. My Guardian.

Ans would call on a Saturday or on a Wednesday afternoon. The schools were closed on Wednesday afternoons, and businesses were required to give that half day to employees for family time. I would have preferred that school stay open.

Just as I was looking for ways to entertain a six year old, the phone would ring. Ans would have some excursion in mind. It was a "looovely" day, she would say. The sun was actually shining. Would we like to go to Scheveningen? To the beach? She had some errands to run on the way. If it would be convenient for us, of course. She didn't want to create a burden. Or intrude. And so on. All formula. All quite beautiful. "Looovely," she said when I accepted yet again. That was the way Ans approved of things. That stretched out word. "Looovely."

An adventure, I told Alvie. With Ans. He always perked up at that. And off we would go. There were the errands she had mentioned, of course. I never understood what those actually entailed. They seemed more like social calls. A stop for conversation here. A little chat there. But as the visit with Ursula and Ulrick approached, they seemed a little more pointed. They usually had some connection to her dislike of Germans.

"A little detour," Ans said. "Not really out of our way. Would you mind terribly much?" We found ourselves at a wedding reception. There was a large crowd of people of whom we knew not one. Alvie held my hand even as he snatched cookies from a platter. "I just need to socialize for a minute," Ans said.

The bride and groom were dressed like everybody else. No long dress or flowers in the lapel. They seemed almost too young to be getting married. The girl was maybe twenty. Such a young marriage was very unusual by that time in Europe. It seemed that no one got married anymore. The couple on the floor below us at Maya's house were not married and showed no desire to change that. Marriage was superfluous. An unnecessary extra burden. That seemed to be the message of the time.

The atmosphere at the reception was very different. It was a casual affair. But there was something undefinable in the air. No evidence of the actual ceremony, but one of the guests was a rabbi. An older couple, probably somebody's parents, were thanking people very earnestly as though coming to a wedding reception were an act of great generosity. This was an event. The meaning not quite determined but not at all ordinary.

"The father of the groom," Ans said as we drove away. "I grew up with him. He's like my brother." She didn't say more for a number of miles. "My mother took him in just after he was born. Perhaps you know what happened here." I said I did but not a lot of detail.

"They were a Jewish family," she said. "They lived down the road from us. I barely remember them. It was summer. I remember that. Maybe 1942. His mother was pregnant and in hiding. She came to our house. To talk to my mother. The next time she came, she delivered a package wrapped in blankets. I thought it was a package. It wasn't of course. We never saw her again. My mother spoke very harshly to me. 'He's your brother,' she said. 'Can you remember that?' She made me repeat it several times. She said, 'Don't ever forget.' I didn't.

"We were very close for a while. We did everything together. He really was my brother. Not so much now."

I hesitated to intrude on this story, but I felt Ans wanted me to ask. "Did you have a falling out?"

Ans focused on her driving for more than a mile.

"I don't think you could put it just that way," she said. "He's my brother. What happens now… it doesn't change what happened all those years ago. What if my mother had adopted a baby? A brother is a brother." Another long pause. "That's what I've always thought. Sometimes things change. Just say there has been a little strain on relations." More miles through the flat Dutch countryside. Ans glanced absently at the fields and trees. There was hardly another car. "The Dutch mountains," she said, taking in the flat, disappearing horizon. "It was about religion, if you can believe that."

I said I thought the family must be Jews. I mentioned seeing the rabbi. What did Ans have to disagree with them about? When she said "Jewish" she pronounced the "J" as a "Y." The "Yewish" people. She talked about the "Yewish" people quite often. She thought they were heroic.

"His son came to me a little while ago. The groom," she said. "He asked me to help him. His father was being stubborn. He threatened not to come to his son's wedding. A wedding without the parents of the groom. Imagine that. His bride would be devastated, he said. She loved his mother and father. How could this happen?"

Ans seemed to know how such an unlikely event could happen, but she was reluctant to reveal it. Or at least reluctant to talk about it. The whole matter was clearly painful for her. It must have been exponentially more painful for the boy. "The son insisted on a rabbi," Ans said. "The bride is only half Jewish. But she wanted the ceremony done that way, too. His father refused. 'God is dead.' He actually said that.

"It's such an old argument. Most people find it boring. I think the father finds it boring, too. 'God could have done something. Why didn't He?' I'm sure you've heard it a hundred times."

I had, of course. I think I found it less boring than Ans did. But then, I was an American. I couldn't really know much about feelings like that. I looked back to check on Alvie. He had fallen asleep in his car seat. We always traveled with a car seat. Too dangerous, otherwise. My wife had insisted on it, and I had agreed. He was our only child.

"Of course the bride and groom prevailed," Ans said. "They insisted that they were, in fact, the ones getting married, so if they wanted a rabbi to be there, well, then, he should be there. They won the argument. But the aftermath was… well, you saw for yourself. Unpleasant. That's why I came to just the reception. And I brought you. I hope you will forgive me."

I said I was happy I could be useful. "There was much more," Ans said. "I won't go through it all. The groom is something of a scholar. He is at university in Leiden becoming a medical doctor. But he also reads philosophy. I think on the side. His father quoted Spinoza at him. The power of reason. Of course that made everything worse. And the groom said something about 'abominable heresies.' By this time they had all become overwrought.

"'You sound like a rabbi yourself,' the father said. He couldn't think of a sharper insult. 'That's how the rabbis treated Spinoza. Abominable heresies, indeed. Would Spinoza have been married by a rabbi?' To which the son replied something about Spinoza not having any interest in women. I think those were the last words they spoke to each other before today. It was quite terrible. It just goes on and on."

We ended up at Scheveningen. The sky had become overcast by then, and the temperature had dropped. We avoided the amusements. There was just beach and sand where we were. With a few ominous little hills in the sand like miniature dunes. Alvie ran around for a while, but then he lost interest. "Do you see that?" Ans said. She pointed at something rather vague in the distance. "The Atlantikwall. That is a bunker. In case you've never seen one. Sometimes they let tourists in. I didn't think you would want to go there especially." I assured her I didn't.

When the excursion ended, Ans invited us to come to dinner even though it wasn't the usual Thursday family night. "I'll just make a steak." In fact that was what she always made. I think it was the only thing she really knew how to cook. She would sear the meat, add salt and pepper, toss a salad together, open a bottle of wine. It was always the same meal but I always found it wonderful. Probably because I was just happy not to be cooking it myself.

Ans found a parking space right away, and the three of us went to the market without first climbing the steep Dutch staircase leading up to her apartment. It had gotten later than we had expected. She took Alvie by the hand. "I'm starving you, darling," she said. "That won't do." It was late, and the early darkness of Holland on the cusp between winter and spring had already fallen.

As we were walking back to her place with the food, Ans spotted a neighbor walking toward us and immediately stiffened and turned away. I couldn't help noticing. "What was that about?"

A pause. "We don't speak. It's a long story. You don't want to hear it."

Ans was correct. I had had enough for one day. The byways of Holland, perhaps of all Europe, were paved with anger and remorse.

Ursula and Ulrich were scheduled to stay Friday to Monday, and then Alvie and I were to pay a return visit to Frankfurt a weekend or two after that.

The visit in Amsterdam went well enough. I still found Ulrich a little overbearing, but not intolerable. And Ursula exuded warmth and friendship. She was a short, blonde woman, very trim and fit but somehow round looking. Like a skinny dumpling. That's impolite, I know, but there's a certain truth to it.

Ulrich kept reminiscing about his last trip to Holland. The spring weather back then. The flowers. He was too young to remember much, but he remembered that. He lamented that the war and its aftermath had limited such trips. For Germans, anyway. Now everything had changed, he said. And he was glad. He loved to see the world. Why should he be stopped by events that happened when he was a child?

He didn't put it exactly that way. But that's what he meant. As usual, there was an air of conviction about everything he said. The conviction carried the day, for me at least. I saw nothing wrong with people from different countries overcoming the quarrels of a previous generation.

When the long weekend was over, I told Ans about it. Alvie and I were there with all the usual family members. We ate steak and salad and drank wine. Alvie had Orangina. It was the same guests, the same menu. I don't know why I might have expected anything different, but the sameness of everything was strangely comforting. I wasn't aware of any apprehension, but there must have been some. I felt vaguely guilty.

"So the Germans are quite civilized," Charles said as Ans seared the meat to its usual ominous blackness. "No little international incidents?"

Actually there had been one, but I didn't want to bring it up. I kept it to myself for the moment. But when Charles went through the usual routine, goaded by Ans, of insisting he give up his parking space to drive us home, I was moved to talk about it.

I stashed Alvie in the back seat. "There was one thing," I confessed to Charles. Charles was a child psychiatrist. He evaluated children for autism and nervous disorders and incipient schizophrenia. At least that was the idea I had of what he did. Perhaps he was the better person to tell about my German problem.

"It was about money," I said. Charles huffed. "Isn't it always." But it wasn't what he was thinking. We had gone out for a walk on Easter Sunday. That was the weekend they had come. I thought they might want to be at home or go to church, but no.

Sunday morning we strolled through a deserted city. When we got hungry, and the boys were tiring out because they insisted on running beside each new canal, waving at the boatmen, we had some difficulty finding an open café. But at last we saw one with some lights on. The door was open although there were no customers. The waitress was obviously relieved to see us.

"It never occurred to me to have doubts about something so simple as going into a café with friends and children," I said. Charles didn't comment about the relation between expectation and reality, which he might have done. Training, I supposed. "Ulrich insisted on paying the bill. It wasn't very much.

"But he had nothing but Deutschmarks. No Guilders. Not even any American dollars. There is a geldwechsel in the lobby of the building where he works. The American Express Building in Frankfurt. The people in the café didn't know that, but I did.

"The waitress became irate. 'This is not Germany,' she said in English. Ulrich explained about some agreement between the countries which made it possible to use the currency of one in the other. He worked for American Express, after all. He didn't say that, but his manner almost conveyed it without words. He certainly conveyed the idea that he was a very knowledgeable businessman of some sort.

"I tried to laugh the whole thing off. I had plenty of currency of any sort that might be needed. I took the money out of my pocket. 'There's no problem at all,' I said. 'A slight misunderstanding.' At first she refused to take my money, too. She sounded like someone who was about to call the police. After a time she was finally placated but never really satisfied. I think she just ran out of energy. Ulrich had touched her national pride. I don't think he meant to. Establishing the truth of his position had become the real issue for him. So he wasn't satisfied by my intervention, either, although he refrained from grumbling like the waitress."

I stopped to let Charles interpret what I had said, but he remained silent. I expected some psychiatric formula at least ("How did that make you feel?"), but he said actually nothing.

"Is that typical?" I asked.

"Well," he answered, "I don't really know, but I see they are engineering the Euro. It will arrive by and by. End of that problem at least." And by that time we had arrived back on van Miereveldstraat.

The next day Ans came to see me. Alvie was in school. She and I had a coffee. That's what she said she wanted. She had her crazy dog, Sam (she pronounced it Sahmm) with her. He was a very neurotic and usually agitated Hungarian Vizsla. So we had to sit at an outside table. Sam always spent his spare time snapping at flies and bees. Sometimes he caught one and seemed to smile.

Ans got right to the point. "You can't go there. Not to Germany." I heard her out. I had been feeling most of the things she said myself. I was just old enough to remember the war. My father had worked in a defense plant. A second job. His draft board recommended he do that because he was almost too old for the army and working at Emerson Electric Company for a year and a half would keep him out of the military.

Nobody wanted a man in his 30s carrying a rifle. Slogging along at the end of the line. The big danger at Emerson was losing a finger or an arm. Many of the men came to Emerson each day after a full day's work elsewhere. They knew they would need a job to go back to when the war was over. So they kept their first job. That meant at least 18 hours a day between work and travel. My father did that.

I remembered him coming home late at night. Early in the morning really. He would come into my room to kiss me on the head. Sometimes I woke up just enough to realize what was happening. My mother stayed awake to make food for him. And because she was worried each day would be the day he would have an accident at work.

I liked that time of my life. War meant a kiss from my father at what seemed like the middle of the night. It meant blackouts with wardens knocking on our apartment door if a sliver of light escaped through a curtain inexpertly drawn. It meant my mother coming to my school to serve the war by distributing ration coupons one day a week. She and another woman set up a table in the front hall of the school. That's what I knew about war.

Ans, however, gave me credit for knowing much more. I could see she expected something. An awareness. I didn't want to argue with her. And I didn't want to offend her. She was such a lovely friend. A lovely person. Looovely. She would say it that way. "You see what I mean," she said. I assured her I did. Slightly dishonest. Perhaps more than slightly.

Our visit to Frankfurt went very well. Our friends met us at the station. They had planned a full weekend of things to do. That was the most a parent could ask for. They had engineered everything perfectly.

Still, when we arrived at their apartment, a prewar place which had been spared, I was a little surprised to see Ulrich's collection of memorabilia from various German conflicts. There were several copies of Mein Kampf. Different editions, but all pristine. Kept securely in glass display cases. Books to show, not to read. Some photographs of Prussian soldiers from the battle of Sedan. A map of the Marne very elegantly framed. "A little hobby of mine. Many defeats, of course," Ulrich said.

He explained that he came from a family of army men going back several generations. There were pictures of grandfathers and great grandfathers. Some uncles. They went back to the time of Bismarck at least. Proud men with mustaches and helmets and beautiful uniforms. "I was lucky enough to be born too late," he said. Working for American Express was much better than marching and shooting. That was his settled conviction. "You could say I still wear a uniform," he said, laughing and pointing to his business suit hanging on a closet door.

Of course I told Ans that we had gone. She scowled in spite of herself. We were outdoors again. On the wonderful terrace. With Sam. I didn't tell her about Ulrich's collections. I saw no need. She already had fixed opinions of her own. For all I knew, she might be right. I almost told her that.

"Think about the boys," I said. "They had a wonderful time. That means something, doesn't it?" Ans had no ready reply. She scratched Sam's ears as his eyes darted, looking for flies. He was a hunter. I could see him stiffen. There was a very quiet buzz near his left ear. He snapped and got a prey. I think it was better than a fly. A bee. Although just after Easter is a little early for bees. At least in Holland.

 

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