In the story about the 8th May the Americans came off quite badly. That’s why I thought I would write something much nicer about the American Occupation Forces.
My mother’s brother Heinrich, dubbed Heini, had got engaged at Christmas 1939 to Lotte. She was a very good roller and ice skater, skating judge and charter member of the MERC (Mannheimer Eis- und Rollsportclub), which is now mostly known for its ice-hockey team. Elfriede, my mother, skated there and her father, “Papa Lenz” was also a charter member and stop watch man. Heini dropped in now and then (he was a rower), and so the engagement came about.
During the war Heini was radio man aboard a Ju 52. On 20th May 1940 his plan crashed just after take off. He was only wounded but he saw his comrades die without being able to help them. A thing like this leaves inevitable traces, and he got depression ( but in 1942 the couple were married after all). Later Heini was with Rommel in Afrika, flying troops out there and bringing the wounded back home in good old “Auntie Ju”, as the Germans called these famous transport planes. On 14th February 1945 he was home on leave for one day, and daughter Hannelotte appeared punctually nine months later. She was born in the maternity ward of the “Hedwigsklinik” in Mannheim City. The family lived out of town, in Neuostheim. They had made it to the maternity on foot, but they couldn’t walk all the way back. Not with a tiny baby, and after a forceps delivery. Heini was at his wits’ end when help came from a quite unexpected quarter.
Heini did photographs for the Americans and had become friendly with a German-American soldier. When he told him about his difficulties, the man simply fetched Charlie. He was the head cook in the nearby barracks, and had the kitchen jeep at is disposal. There was one problem though: It was strictly forbidden to transport civilians in military vehicles, there were heavy sanctions. Charlie didn’t care, he took the risk “for the poor little baby”. He drove Heini to the clinic, where he stormed into the building calling at the top of his voice: ”Where is my baby, I want my baby!” This created quite a stir for Charlie was black! Heini had much explaining to do, but finally, under the eyes of a half curious, half scandalised public, Lotte and her daughter were packed into the jeep, Heini sat on the loading area, and they were driven home.
Since that day Charlie often came after his duty to Heini and Lotte’s, or to “Papa and Mama Lenz” as he called them. He was the best of fellows but he didn’t really make friends with the other soldiers, for he had, at least for many people of that time, two faults. First, he wasn’t really black but a black and red mix, for his mother was a native American. A very cultivated woman, a High-School teacher, but she had married a black! In one of Karl-Mays books, or in another one about the Far West, I read that “Whites looked down upon Red Indians, who looked down upon the Black, but both despised the mixed race”. That’s how it went with Charlie. His second “fault”: he was gay, which did nothing to ease things for him.
One night he brought Ebi with him who worked in the barracks’ kitchen. He was a prisoner of war from Thuringia. The Americans would have set him free if he had had an address in the Allied Zone, for they didn’t release anybody into the Russian sector. As Heini and Lotte had opened a little photo shop, Ebi became their “apprentice”.
Charlie still was kind of family in the early Fifties, I (Colette, born in 1948) remember him well. My cousin Hanno ( o.k.,that’s a first name for boys in Northern Germany, but my family hadn’t read the “Buddenbrooks” yet!), she was his darling. Her pet name was “Schatzibum” which was much too complicated for Charlie’s tongue. He called her “Putzibam”, and did so all his life, even in his letters.
He often came to have supper with us. My parents and I lived in my grandfather’s flat, together with his own father in law (called Vatterle). Then, the whole family, Heini, Lotte and Ebi included, would crowd around the big rectangular table next to the tiled stove. This stove was a vast affair, built into the wall between bedroom and living room, with buttercup-yellow tiles, and an equally tiled bench where three to four people could sit. There I had my place between Vatterle and my mother. At the head of the table, next to Vatterle, sat Ander, sorry: Papa Lenz, my grandfather.(Why he was called “Ander” is, of course, another story!). At the other end sat my father, the rest of the family squeezed in where they could, but when;Charlie came, my father would give up his place to him.
Charlie loved his food, especially liverwurst, but he went absolutely crazy about brown bread with peanut butter and sardines in oil, which he would garnish with – strawberry jam! Possibly a substitute for ketchup, anyway, my family still felt squeamish years later, when Charlie’s food preferences were mentioned. Mother liked peanut butter too, even with jam, preferably red currant jelly, but at least she didn’t have it with sardines in oil!
Talking of Mum reminds me of what she told me once about Charlie’s platonic love for her. He wrote her beautiful letters in English, and poems, too, which she only half understood but found very touching. Mum’s life-long friend Martl whom I have already introduced in another story, remembers him as the man with the best manners she has ever seen.
Then Charlie had to go back to the States, where he worked as a cook in different places and eventually became butler to the ex-governor of Delaware. When his employer died Charlie got an office job with the school canteen services of Dover. In the evenings he used to help the governor’s widow who was quite an old lady by then, until she died too. He had a little house with a garden, and earned enough to fly to Europe every three or four years to see Ebi and the family in Mannheim. He would sometimes send presents for all of us, my goodness! The earrings for Mum! Enormous bright blue “sapphires” surrounded by “pearls”, in a setting worthy of Marie-Antoinette, as glamorous and kitsch as Hollywood in the Fifties. But I must say, they looked very nice on me when, aged nine, I was dressed up as an 18th century lady during carnival.
I saw Charles for the last time when I was fifteen. Once again he had come for a visit, and Uncle Heini’s threw a party in the hall of the big flat where two families still lived together since the war. He had built a bar counter, we put garlands up and prepared innumerable dishes with cold meats, lavishly decorated with radishes, gherkins and red peppers. My uncle was thrilled. “We had these peppers in Hungary during the war, used to eat them with everything, just a bite and”…and! I had never, and never have, heard anyone roar like that! Uncle Heini was what the French call a Norman wardrobe, with the chest that goes with it and nice powerful lungs. He must have emptied the water tap in the bathroom afterwards, because he stayed there for quite a while and came out completely exhausted: just as exhausted as the rest of us were from laughing…