A World War II Orphan returns to her Jewish roots
| What a fragrance to wake up to! Thank you, Florence. That was your name, wasn't it? My mind comes and goes. I think you are from the foundation. True? Yes, in that case, my brain must be having a good day. Thank you for bringing me this. There is nothing quite as satisfying as a slice of hot bread.
Oh, so soft inside. . . Like a pillow to dream on. I can't quite sink my teeth into the crust anymore. Come to think of it, I do sink my teeth into things but I leave them there. Part of it out of forgetfulness, mind you.
The other day in the dining room several of us lost our partials in the bread pudding. Victoria had a fit when they took her plate away with her dentures in it. She didn't care for the dentures. She wanted her pudding. You should have seen it. It was so funny. . .
Now, the dining room lady has a big sign on the wall. It says, "Make sure you have your dentures with you when you come in and out of the dining area." This is what age does to people.
Yeah, bread, the staff of life. Addictive too. Yes, I'm an addict to bread and I am an addict to life. Look how many years I have on me already! As Otto says, I'm one of the youngsters here, but only because my kidneys gave way. I didn't want to stay in my son's home. Thank God for Medicare and the long term care insurance my husband had gotten for me.
My fondest memories of bread go way back to a time before the Second World War. I remember my mother telling our neighbor, Frau Mauer, that she was having a hard time bringing up die kleine (the little one, me, that is) because I had developed a fixation and got into the flour a lot. They laughed at me, a tiny floured baby. They used to call me the little schnitzel.
I remember the fresh smell of bread as it baked in the oven in our little cottage.I used to inhale that aroma in deep breaths; to me that had to be the scent of heaven. My mother kneaded that bread until her tears were mixed in the dough. At the time, I imagined it was her tears that made the bread smell so.
Once, while she was busy baking, I quietly made my way out of the house and jumped into a mud puddle, picturing in my mind that I was the bread she was kneading. It took several washings to get the mud out of my hair and my eyelashes. Yet, Mama never scolded. She only said, "Essie, you must never ever leave the house again." To obey her on this matter was difficult for me. I was too young to understand why.
Yet I managed to stay alive through my disobedience. One day when everyone was hungry and we had no flour left, I sneaked out of the house to ask Frau Mauer if she had anything to give us. While I was at the Mauer house, the soldiers came and took all my family away. I never saw them again.
From then on, Frau Mauer acted as if I was one her many children. That was easy, because I was a blonde and passed as the accepted race. In the beginning, I can't remember how Frau Mauer hid me, but I recall her telling me to call her Mama. She told me I was Esther Mauer now . Calling Frau Mauer Mama was the most difficult thing, but Frau Mauer warned me that my mother wouldn't come back for me if I told anyone otherwise. Even though I obeyed her, my mother never came back.
Frau Mauer didn't have a husband. Her eleven children had different fathers. I guess that's why she could swing it. One day, a man visited us, and he wanted to check us up for whatever reason. She said, "Esther is my latest production. Her father is a soldier fighting in the Eastern Front. I didn't have time to get her registered." That gentleman stayed the night with us in Frau Mauer's room. Later in the week, I had my papers, with my name as Esther Katharina Mauer.
One day at dusk, I looked up and saw flashes of lightning with booming thunder. The big buildings in the city were going up in flames. As I chewed on a piece of bread, I imagined that God was trying to entertain the little German children and especially the boys, because they were the ones who liked noise. I also thought, since we all sang marches and raised our arms to salute, we possibly deserved that entertainment from Heaven.
Frau Mauer baked the brown, thick bauern brot. Her bread had a nutty taste with a smell divine, but its texture was dense. You could keep chewing it forever. I liked it a lot, because it kept my stomach quiet when the bombs came down on us.
I was wandering around the rubble with Otto Mauer looking for bread when Americans found the two of us. We were the only ones left of the Mauers.
After Dresden was bombed flat, we were taken in this great ship across the ocean. After that, not only was I away from everything I had known until then, but also I had to learn a new language.
For a long time to come, I didn't get to enjoy the smell of bread while it baked in the oven. In the orphanage and in the foster homes, our bread came sliced and in packages.
In the beginning, I had a tough time adapting to the new country. On my first day in school, I saluted the teacher with my arm extended German style. This didn't go over well at all.
In the third grade, we had a teacher who liked to demonstrate everything. One day, she had us baking bread. Everyone took turns kneading the dough. I had such an awful time that day. . . I wonder if it was the beginning for my kidneys to give up on me. . . Maybe it was just nerves. . . I kept asking permission to go to the bathroom. The teacher thought I was making up excuses to leave the room, and to stop my clowning, she said no. I ended up wetting myself. I was so embarrassed as I sat without moving. When the bread was baked, the teacher gave everyone a piece. I ate half of mine and put the other half in my pocket, but I had gotten wet all the way to my waist and that piece of bread soaked the wetness also.
A kid discovered my transgression from the smell and told the teacher. I was scolded and sent home. The next day, the teacher called my foster mother to complain and say that I wet myself out of spite, on account of not getting permission to leave the room for the umpteenth time. According to her, I -the little German- had so many faults. She told my foster mother that I was obstinate, that I was a dreamer, and that my head was in the clouds. To back her impression of me, she cited my writing, especially the essay for Thanksgiving about the pilgrims. My Thanksgiving essay was a story about some aliens invading the earth and eating our horses.
"She'll never amount to anything. She is so antagonistic," the teacher said.
That day, I told my foster mother that I wasn't really a German and that Frau Mauer took me in when the soldiers had taken my real mother and brothers away.
She said, "Sure, another one of your stories. Just listen to your teacher, Esther. Don't be so antagonistic."
I didn't know what antagonistic meant. So I looked it up. The dictionary said, "one who opposes," but I wasn't opposing. I was trying very hard to become the American they wanted me to be by dreaming, making up stories inside my head, imagining I owned many things and won the Miss America contest. After all, didn't Americans dream a lot? Wasn't I part of the American dream? Plus, dreaming was a lot easier than facing reality especially at that moment.
Still, I had started to find joy in little things like stray kittens. I used to give some of my hoarded bread to a tiny kitty. At the time, there were twelve kids and not much food in the house. Our foster parents gave each kid two slices of bread for each meal. No more, no less. I hoarded half of mine to feed that kitty and other strays. When I was discovered, my ration was cut in half. One day, I stole a whole loaf from the kitchen and hid it under the fall leaves. I guess when you steal in little amounts you get into trouble, but if you grab the whole thing, no one notices.
I was only discovered by my foster siblings. Two of my so-called brothers started a game of leaping in the leaf pile. The bread got flattened from being jumped on, but it was still edible. All of us had a feast that day on smooshed Wonder bread. Later though, those same kids blackmailed me by threatening to tell of my thievery.
My last foster home was the best. On Sundays, our mother in that house baked bread and made a pot roast. In addition, Otto was sent to stay in the same home with me. My name was still a Mauer since I didn't remember my real last name, and neither did Otto. My foster mother said I shouldn't torment myself and tire my pretty head over it; since I was a girl, my name would soon change anyhow. I stayed in that house until I finished high school.
After high school, I got a job at a local factory belonging to NRC Interstate Bakeries Corporation. Here I was in the bread-baking business, sharing a tiny apartment with three other women who were employed by the same company. My job was to work in the section where the dough was fed into an automatic slicing machine to be divided into loaves of equal sizes. The loaves were then deposited into bread pans. Afterwards the pans were put into the oven.
Our foreman, Steven Goldberg, was a good-looking guy with dark brown hair and hazel eyes. One day, he approached me to say that he wanted to talk to me in private. The following Saturday evening, we went out for roller skating and had burgers and pop in the drugstore. It was the end of the Korean War; the economy was good; and even the blue collar workers like us had pocket change.
After a few dates, Steve said his mother wasn't too happy about our relationship. Since she was a devout Jew, she had objected to my being an orphan of German origin and a Lutheran to boot. I said I should meet her because my facts didn't fit with what my papers showed.
In the beginning of October, I finally met Steve's mother. I pointed to the menorah and said in my childhood home we also lit the menorah. After I told her my life story, Steve's mother hugged me and said she'd talk to the rabbi for me. I went to the temple with her several times, and somebody there promised me he'd try to find my family or at least my family name from the records, but he never could.
One day, a few months later, Steve came dashing in and said he had a gift for me. He had to give it to me there and then, while we were working in the factory, since he was too excited to wait until the evening. He took out something from his pocket and put it on my finger. I shrieked when I saw an engagement ring with a tiny diamond. Then, suddenly I found myself covered with dough from head to toe. In the thrill of the moment I had forgotten to push the stop button on the machine.
During our wedding ceremony, while I was being escorted by two women according to custom, I felt I had to go to the bathroom. I whispered to one of them that I had to go. She whispered back, "Not now. You're young. Hold it." By the time I had completed my seventh turn around Steve, I was wet under my large skirt. Before Steve and I were left together in the bridal chamber, I asked one of the ladies for spare panties and something to clean myself with. She brought me some tissues and paper towels, but no panties. So I took off my panties. For the rest of the reception, underneath my wedding dress, I had no underwear. Steve was so amused by these goings on that he had to step on the chalice several times to break it. He had lost his strength because he was laughing and giggling all the time. The funniest part came when we were doing the hora. I made sure I didn't kick too high. When they raised us, the bride and the groom, on chairs during the dancing, I had to sit real tight and tuck my skirt in between my knees.
Steve and I had three children. Two daughters got college degrees and married well. Our son is a law professor in a West Coast school. Over five years ago, after Steve passed on, each one insisted I go live with him. I may be a Jewish mother, but I don't like to make trouble for anyone...especially with the disease I've got.
You have some kind of a disease, the doctors say, and they utter some Latin words. I tell you Florence, this thing that I can't pronounce is no fun. I am not ashamed of it anymore, but, I think I would have aged better if it weren't for this darn disease.
Steve's mother taught me the Jewish ways, how to cook Jewish, how to bake the Challah bread, and how to test any bread for doneness by tapping on the loaf. "You will hear a nice hollow sound," she said. Everything she taught me was laced with praise. Heaven rest her soul, she was a mother to me. She made my life come to a full circle.
Sometimes in this nursing home, the past seems irrelevant, as if it is just something you wake up from. Everything passed so quickly, like a dream. "Did all this happen to me?" I ask. Then, I smell freshly baked bread like this one you brought me and I know, because I hear the nice hollow sound as if my life were that bread.
This world spins faster than we fancy it. Don't you think?