Archival Spaces 302
Summer of ‘62
Uploaded 19 August 2022
Heinz Erhardt was an extremely popular comedian in 1950s cinema of the German Federal Republic. I have been watching some of his films on YouTube because I’m writing about William Thiele’s penultimate feature film, The Last Pedestrian (1960) for a Thiele book I’m editing with Andreas-Benjamin Seyfert. In Die Post geht ab (1962), which translates as “the bus is leaving,” the actor is only seen in a supporting role. The film is really a wall-to-wall “Schlagerfilm” (German popular music genre), concerning a young jazz band, and various hangers-on who travel to Italy in a broken-down old bus. The film is completely forgettable, so my mind began to wander, its music, stuffy atmosphere, and nylon ready-wear fashions transporting me back to Germany in 1962. It was in the summer of ’62 that I took my first trip back to Germany and Europe with my parents, keeping a diary of my experiences as an eleven-year-old. The beginning of my writing career.
We had emigrated to the United States as displaced persons in 1951, and this was my parents’ first trip “home” to see relatives and old friends. Almost exclusively my mom’s, since Prague and Communist Czechoslovakia was not yet possible. For myself, my twin, Michael, and my younger brother, Peter, it was an adventure in cultures we had only heard about. On 31 May 1962, we left Union Station in Chicago with our mother on a night train to Montreal, embarking on the S.S. Ryndam of the Holland-America Line. Eleven days later, we arrived in Rotterdam, the highlight of the voyage being a massive storm off Newfoundland and the sighting of icebergs in the north Atlantic. Taking a city tour of the Dutch city, while waiting for our train to Cologne, I noted in my diary that the city was totally modern, “because it was destroyed during the war,” but probably didn’t understand that it had been the Nazi German Luftwaffe that had leveled the medieval city in four days in May 1940.
We arrived in Münstereifel (now Bad Münstereifel) in the early evening of the same day, having taken a single-track steam locomotive train to the end of the line for the journey’s last leg. My mother’s family had fled to this medieval town in the Eifel Mountains after losing their home and dry-goods store in Cologne to Allied bombs in 1944. I and my twin were born there, two months premature, brought on by the death of my maternal grandfather. My grandmother and a couple of great aunts still lived there. Walking from the train station to my grandma’s house, we passed Aunt Lisbeth, who greeted my mother with a matter of course, as if it hadn’t been 10 1\2 years since she last saw her. She and Aunt Sofie were both in their seventies, deeply Catholic, going to church every morning. The heavy incense at mass, in the first row at the insistence of “die Tanten.”
Over the next three weeks, until my dad arrived, the town became a giant playground for us, exploring the ruins of the castle above the town, climbing on the medieval wall that circumvented it, walking up to the “Felsennest” high above Münstereifel, the ruins of Adolf Hitler’s headquarters during the bombing of Rotterdam, hiking through the woods to a nearby water reservoir to go swimming with the five children of my mom’s former employer, the doctor who had delivered us. We attended the local German elementary school for two weeks, so “we could compare the differences between the German and American schools,” but also relieve my mom of childcare duties for her vacation. Surprisingly, even though the other children spoke a heavy Eiffel dialect, we soon picked it up, thanks to the fact that my mother, in particular, had only spoken German to us all the years of our childhood in America. The highlight of our time in Münstereifel for my 11-year-old self was a trip to the nearby Nürburgring for the 1962 trials of the Formula 1 German Grand Prix.
After my dad arrived, we began our European tour, literally on “5 Dollars a Day,” traveling in an ancient grey Opel station wagon dad had bought with the proviso he could return after the trip. After stops in Cologne, Heidelberg, and Munich to visit friends and relatives, and a stop in the medieval town of Rothenburg a.d. Tauber, we spent several days in Salzburg, where we swam in the Wolfgangsee, took a funicular up the mountain, and saw various castles. The next stop was a village in the shadow of Groβsglockner, Austria’s highest peak, where we stayed in a Gasthaus that had no running water and hiked in the surrounding mountains.
Heading south to Venice, we almost died in a car crash when my dad underestimated the power of our little car – not like driving an American car – while passing a truck on a mountain road in a rain storm. We stayed in Mestre outside Venice, where hotels were significantly cheaper, and were treated to the spectacle of a huge Catholic procession. In the morning we drove to Venice, which was not yet overrun with tourists, a three-course lunch cost slightly more than a dollar. We kids loved the Italian Lira bills, which were the size of a handkerchief. I was impressed with the vaparetto, the Venetian boat-bus, and the iron giant banging a bell at the top of St. Mark’s Square, but the endless churches and canals tried my patience.
Subsequent stops included Verona, Lago Maggiore, the Simplon Pass, Geneva, Lucerne, and the Black Forest. In Geneva, we visited an old friend of my dad’s from Prague, and Michael’s godfather, who was serving on the Unite Nations world court and gave us a tour. In Lucerne, I loved the long, covered bridge, because “on each support was a written history of Switzerland.” In St. Gallen, we stopped to see the boarding school my dad had attended in the 1930s for a year.
After further visits to Darmstadt to see our cousins, we returned to Münstereifel on 22 July, my dad flying back to the States immediately, while we stayed with our grandmother for three more weeks, before embarking on the tiny S.S. Waterman for New York, a ship filled to the gills with students, professors, and Indonesian-Dutch refugees immigrating to America. During the eleven days on board, we hung out with much older kids and it was probably the first time I decided I wanted to be a professor.
Reading over my diary sixty years later, I realize I was already very interested in history, but also was too young to understand its consequences, such as the fields of rubble still visible in Cologne and Munich. Even today, I feel incredibly privileged that my parents, who were still scraping by economically, afforded us this trip to broaden our horizons. Little did I know, in my innocence, that the trip was also a trial run for my parent’s reemigration to Germany two years later. I didn’t know it yet, but I was no longer simply an American kid, but rather a somewhat schizophrenic German-American, living, thinking, dreaming in two languages, at home in Germany and America, never completely happy in either.