When I was a child—and I was a child for just a little while—I addressed my mother as Mutti, the German word for mommy. In 1938 I was five years old and I could already feel my childhood slipping away. Mutti first noticed my developing maturity one day when a loud demanding knock frightened her. Mutti’s face tightened and she pursed her lips. The Victorian pallor, in which she prided herself, seemed especially white. We both looked at the door as if awaiting a miracle.
An even louder, more insistent knock caused Mutti to jump. She sprang to the door, inhaled and turned the doorknob. The push from the other side knocked her to the floor.
“I want Meinhardt Amram,” demanded the handsome man. To me, he looked like a uniformed giant. Mutti, at 5’2” made everyone look like a giant.
“Gestapo” announced the officer in his intimidating black uniform and calf-high leather boots. His visor cap displayed an eagle and a death mask – or was it a skull? On his left arm he wore a red band emblazoned with a swastika. A holstered pistol rode on his right hip.
Mutti grasped the door handle and slowly pulled herself to a standing position. “Meinhardt Amram is my husband,” she responded, trying to stand tall.
“I want him at once,” demanded the officer.
“He’s out on business,” Mutti said almost belligerently.
“Have him report to Gestapo headquarters as soon as he returns.” He clicked his heels, gave an almost imperceptible bow, raised his right arm to a 45-degree angle and with a “Heil Hitler” he was gone.
In 1938 such unwanted visits were not unusual at the homes of Jews living in Hannover, Germany. Even before Kristallnacht—Crystal Night, the night of broken glass—Jewish men disappeared. Later, the Gestapo came for the families. But in the early days they came only for the men. The officers would knock and take the Jewish men to . . . ? No one knew for sure in those early days, although there were stories. I was too young to be told all the details.
I think the kosher butcher disappeared first. Was his name Mandelbaum? A youngster remembers names like Herr Mandelbaum: Mr. Almond Tree. Ironic that this man whose apron was usually covered with blood would be the first to go. Whenever the tall uniformed men in their shiny boots and gruff tones knocked on our door, Papa wasn’t home. Youngster that I was, no one trusted me with information. He was simply “out on business”
The truth, I learned much later, was that he had “ways of knowing.” We lived on the fourth floor of a five story apartment building. He would disappear “downstairs.” I never found out how far “downstairs” he went to the apartment of righteous Christians who found a hiding place for him. I can’t shake the image of this tiny man, not much taller than five feet, fitting comfortably under a bed.
Papa returned in time for supper. As we sat around the kitchen table, Mutti discussed our adventure. Papa asked if his son had cried. “No,” said Mutti. “At least not while the swine was here.” In conversation, Jews referred to all Nazi officials as swine.
I told Papa about the black uniform and the death mask and the red arm band and the gun. Papa, who had been trained in textiles, explained that the uniform was a low quality gabardine. He seemed to know nothing about pistols despite my obvious interest.
My Papa did not report to the Gestapo. “They’ll be back,” he announced with certainty. And they were.
In 1939 the Gestapo, in fact all SS officers, who visited our apartment wore the new wartime stone gray uniforms. The gray was not nearly as terrifying as the black they had worn earlier. Papa was always “out on business” when they came.
One day we heard the insistent knock. No matter which officer came, the knock was always the same. By now we assumed that the knock was part of the SS training. My mother had learned to step away from the door so that she would not be thrown over.
This time three officers entered, all in shiny boots and all carrying drawn pistols. One officer told my mother and me to stand in a corner pointing with his gun to the preferred spot. The other two holstered their guns and started searching. I held tight to Mutti’s skirt.
“Radios. Where are your radios?”
Mutti explained that we owned only one. “It’s in the living room.”
The truth wasn’t enough. The gangsters emptied every wardrobe and every cabinet. When the search was over, our guard announced, “Jews will not listen to radios. Never! We will check.” As if it were rehearsed, the three thieves gave us a “Heil Hitler” in perfect unison, and they were gone with our radio.
At supper, Mutti told Papa that we should all go into hiding. “They will kill you. They will kill our son.” Papa, ever hopeful, gave his usual biblical assurance. “This too shall pass.” Mutti wasn’t assured. They argued past my bedtime.
Knock! Knock! Knock! Always that triple knock.
Mutti’s response never wavered. “Meinhardt Amram is my husband and he is out on business.”
“What business does he do?”
Mommy explained that he drove around suburban Hannover where he sold fabric by the yard to the housewives who made clothing for themselves and their families. Mutti’s glance fell on a closed door near the entryway. The SS officer saw the glance. Kranz,” he hollered down the stairs. “I need help.”
Another officer bounded up to our apartment on the fourth floor with pistol drawn.
“Kranz, open that door.”
My favorite room in the apartment was Papa’s storage room. Perfectly white walls with perfectly white shelves showed off bolts of fabric in every imaginable color and texture. I loved the colors from pastel pink to glowing red, from aqua to royal blue, from lemon yellow to grass green. Sometimes Papa let me stand on his ladder so that I could feel the different textures: wool and silk, cotton and linen. He explained “quality” by discussing the different weaves. I learned about dyeing techniques and why colors sometimes run. He suggested which fabric would make a fine woman’s skirt, which would make a man’s dress shirt and which should be used as a dish towel. I loved Papa’s fabric room better than going to the park, even better than eating ice cream. The colors made my heart beat faster.
Finding the cloth, the two officers talked quietly, both with their guns drawn and aimed at Mutti and me. Kranz left and was gone almost half an hour. While we waited, Mutti and I didn’t dare say a word. Each of us knew what was about to happen. Even as a five-year old, I had seen the police and civilians smash Jewish shop windows. Looting Jewish stores was by now common. Jewish shopkeepers were beaten, humiliated and then hauled away.
Kranz returned with three additional men. When the gang, all uniformed officers with leather calf-length boots, had finished hauling away the last bolt of fabric they looked at my mother, clicked their heels, gave a small bow and, in unison, shouted a “Heil Hitler.” Mutti locked the front door and we went into Papa’s storage room. The glass chandelier made the white walls even whiter. All white! No color anywhere. We both sobbed. I think that was my last cry for many years.
That night, Papa didn’t come home until well after supper. He was dirty and tired. Papa explained that the SS had traced him through his automobile license plates. They arrested him, confiscated his car and brought him to a construction site. There he worked with other Jewish slave laborers under the supervision of armed guards. He had a choice. He could live in a barracks set up near the construction site or he could go home. If he chose to go back to his apartment, he must return in the morning or he and every member of his family would be executed. Papa described how workers at the site had been shot because they fainted from the hot sun and the heavy work.
Papa now had no income and would be forced to work as a slave seven days each week. He returned home after my bedtime and he left before I awoke. I had no Papa.
I was six years old the next time the men in uniform returned with their terrifying knock. I, the man of the house, went to the door, unlocked it and sprang out of the way as it was pushed open. They had come to search, although they refused to tell me what contraband we might be hiding. This time I stood in front of my mother – not behind. I looked straight at the lead officer with my arms crossed. I guessed that was the proper posture for a grown-up. I never regained my childhood.