(excerpt from I Want You To Be Free, which was also published separately under the title Open Hearted)
It was bitter, the winter of 1959. An epidemic of Hong Kong flu raged through the city. The disease felled Mum, Daddy and me. We were compelled to quarantine. Who would take care of my infant brother Michael? My mother’s sister and her husband weren’t an option. My father’s siblings couldn’t be trusted with anything. Through a network of neighbours, a woman was located on Goyer Street. Her name was Katarina Trautmann. In an audacious dash for freedom, Herr and Frau Trautmann, with their two teenage daughters, escaped East Berlin in 1953.
Katie Trautmann was born in Aachen in 1912, one of four daughters. There may have been a little brother who died. In 1916 her father was killed on a battlefield in France. Their widowed mother raised Katie and her sisters. In the 1930s Katie was working as a maid in a wealthy home in Berlin. Friedrich Trautmann was a guest. That is how they met. In Berlin, Friedrich Trautmann was an engineer and during the war was recruited as an officer into the Wehrmacht. According to what he told Mum, during the war he held a position and was posted to a place where he would not have participated in atrocities, but he was aware that atrocities were being committed. After the war he was considered skillful enough to be of value to the Russians, who conscripted him and flew him to the Soviet Union where, for two years, he served a form of slave labour. In Montreal, Friedrich Trautmann earned a modest living as a mechanic.
The Trautmanns’ eldest daughter, Helga, was born in 1938. Doris was born on December 8, 1940. I always remember Doris’ birthday because it is two days after mine.
In the depths of winter, at the start of 1959, the Trautmanns sheltered and cared for my baby brother Michael. Katie Trautmann grew to love my brother like the son she never had. She rocked him and held him to her ample breasts and placed him in a carriage positioned in front of a sunlit window, as if he were a plant. When my parents recovered and were once more able to care for Michael, reluctantly, Mrs. Trautmann returned him.
Two years later an apartment across the hall from the Trautmanns became available, and we moved to 2975 Goyer St. apartment fourteen Montreal Quebec! I had to memorize this address in case I got lost.
“If you can’t find your way home, then you go and find a policeman.” Mum instructed. “The policeman is your friend. He will bring you home.”
I recall our first evening in the new apartment. I was five years old. Mum was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of the room that, for the next seven years, I shared with Michael. Mrs. Trautmann lugged a mop and a bucket. She was helping; scouring and cleaning the adjacent floors. As I watched the two women it seemed to me that I must do my part, so I fetched my toothbrush, filled a cup with water, sloshed the water onto the floor, plopped onto my hands and knees, and began scrubbing away with my toothbrush.
Mum stopped scrubbing in mid-scrub. Mrs. Trautmann’s mop stopped moving.
“Slodka.” Mum whispered. Then she translated. “Sweetheart.”
“Kinde.” Mrs. Trautmann agreed. Almost in unison, they appealed. “Don’t help.”
Mum and Mrs. Trautmann spoke German to each other and English to me. They never addressed each other by their first names. Forever formal, the two Europeans called each other “Mrs. Zajdman” and “Mrs. Trautmann.”
While Mum and Dad worked, Mrs. Trautmann greeted us at lunchtime with sometimes hot and always lovingly prepared meals. I recall coming home in winter to steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup. We had chicken noodle soup often because it was Michael’s favourite. I also recall sandwiches of linseed bread lined with thin slices of spicy German salami.
After school the door to our apartment, and to Mrs. Trautmann’s, was always open to us. Michael grew so attached to Mrs. Trautmann that he began telling people she was his grandmother. He felt guilty about doing so, but wasn’t sure why. Instinctively he knew not to repeat this to Mum. Instead, Michael confessed to me. I heard his confession, and then pronounced, “That’s not the way it works.”
“But I want a grandmother! Why can’t I have a grandmother?! All the other kids have one!”
“Because! A grandmother is a mother who is your mother’s mother or your father’s mother, except that Mummy doesn’t have a mother and Daddy doesn’t have a mother, so you can’t have a grandmother. Anyway, we’ve got a grandmother. She’s hanging on the wall.”
“You mean the lady in the picture? But she’s not real.”
“Well, she used to be in real. In “Before The War” she used to be real.”
The term Holocaust was not yet in common usage, but I had heard of The Land of Before The War. It was a mysterious place my parents returned to when they spoke in Polish.
Michael refused to accept a photo facsimile. “But I want a real grandmother now!”
“Look.” My little brother was cute, but he could be exasperating. ”We have our parents but they don’t have theirs. So who should cry; them or you?”
“Oh! I never thought of it that way.”
Over Jewish holidays, unless Daddy was called upon to lead a Seder, we were never invited to extended family, but we always shared Christmas with the Trautmanns. Their Christmas tree was our Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve, Michael was accorded the honour of sticking the star onto the top branch of the tannenbaum.
“Allez h-up!” Mr. Trautmann would hoist Michael and lift him level to the top of the tree. Nervously Michael fumbled among the decorations, until he managed to insert the star-shaped piece of foil onto a top branch.
“Bravo!” Mr. Trautmann declared, while Mrs. Trautmann applauded. “You did this gut!” Michael would thrust out his little chest and beam with pride. Then he’d be lowered back down onto the ground.
I would profit by this Hallmark moment by sneaking a piece of chocolate from an open box on the coffee table. Invariably Mrs. Trautmann caught me at it. “Sharon! You will get fat! You want to be an actress! You must have disziplin! You cannot be fat!”
“Ach Katie!” Generally silent, Mr. Trautmann sprang to my defence. “It’s Christmas! Leave the child alone!” Like my daddy, Mr. Trautmann was on my side.
My recollections of Helga are vague. Early she married a German businessman named Herr Lothar and returned with him to Germany. Helga looked like a sun-kissed Rhine maiden, but Doris was dark, and looked like Romy Schneider. She had a brief first marriage to a man named Herr Apfel. Michael and I called him Mister Apples. Mister Apples worked in a chocolate factory. I thought Doris was wondrously lucky to be married to a man who worked in a chocolate factory! He brought us samples, and Mrs. Trautmann stressed their quality. These were no adulterated Oh Henry bars.
“Kinder, das is DEUTSCHE schokolade!”
I was sad when Doris left Mister Apples. There would be no more schokolade.
I was born slightly lame. From Germany Mrs. Trautmann imported, or perhaps it was Helga who sent over Franz Joseph Wasser. Mrs. Trautmann believed this spring water had healing properties. Nightly, either Mrs. Trautmann or Mum would massage my feet with the emperor’s elixir, and then they had me walk up and down the living room floor with pencils between my toes. I had ot do this every evening until, for me, from Germany, Mrs. Trautmann imported the first of Dr. Scholl’s arch-supported wooden sandals. In the hours after school, after I finished my homework and before my parents came home, Mrs. Trautmann taught me to knit, and later, to crochet.
In summer, we were invited to the Laurentian Hills, to a place the Trautmanns called their farm. We were welcome to stay all summer. There were no animals on this farm. It was a primitive property. There was no indoor plumbing. Walking distance, there was an outhouse. A column of wax paper dipped in honey dangled from a hook on the ceiling over the table used for dining. Flies died there. Still, like kamikaze pilots, more kept flying through the open door off the porch, heading directly for the honeycombed column. I was struck by how stupid flies must be.
The bedrooms were located on an upper floor. The room I came to think of as mine had a slanted roof. It leaned in as if wanting to speak to me. On soft summer nights, tucked under a light quilt listening to jiminy crickets singing in the tall grass outside an open window, I felt cocooned in a fairytale.
On the shore of a nearby lake, wearing nothing but a sunhat and an undershirt, Michael would squat, scoop sand into a pail, and then he’d toss it out again. With floating devices strapped to our waists and Michael clinging to my hand, we’d be guided into the shallows of the lake where we’d splash and cool off. In nearby woods, in August, we’d pick berries that Mrs. Trautmann baked into late-summer pies. I noted that my little brother’s eyes were the same colour and shade as the berries, so I came to call him Blueberry Eyes.
With Michael and I ensconced on this oasis, my parents were free to take a break, even if they couldn’t afford a full-blown vacation. They scheduled a three-day getaway, but couldn’t see it through. After forty-eight hours alone together my mother wailed, “Oh Abram! I miss the kids!”
“O.K.” Daddy conceded. “Let’s go.” They got into the family Chevrolet, whose doors against the back seats were sealed so that Michael and I could never fall out, and took off for the Trautmanns’ farm.
“Oh. Hi Mummy.” Michael and I were perched on a hill within yelling distance of Mrs. Trautmann’s country kitchen, companionably sculpting mud pies. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh!” Mum threw herself on me. Ruefully, Daddy shook his head. “Oooo Mummy!” I protested and wriggled out of her embrace. “You’re going to make yourself all muddy!”
“Kinder!” From down the hill, Mrs. Trautmann trilled. “Kom! We have lunch!” Michael and I dropped our inedible pies and got up, mud dripping from our fingertips and, in Michael’s case, smeared across his cheeks and chin.
“You better wash your face before Mrs. Trautmann sees you.” I warned him.
“I have to go inside to wash my face and Mrs. Trautmann will see me but it doesn’t matter!” Michael responded logically, secure in Mrs. Trautmann’s unconditional love. We headed down the hill, trailing mud, while our parents trailed behind us. Mum was sniffling. Daddy had his arm around her. “What’s the matter with you, Mummy?”
“Nothing!” Mum blasted. I’m just so happy to see you, that’s all!”
The offspring of Holocaust survivors tend to fault their parents for supposedly viewing them as replacements; surrogates for children cherished and lost. As an officer in the Wehrmacht, Mr. Trautmann didn’t see his younger daughter Doris for the first four and a half years of her life. When he returned from the front, he was a stranger to her. As a child, I sensed that Mr. Trautmann identified me with Doris. During my formative years, Mr. Trautmann seemed to see me as a second chance. For a former Wehrmacht officer, it was fitting that redemption came in the form of a daughter of Holocaust survivors.
Bewildered though he was, my little brother perceived something significant. This middle-aged German couple served as surrogates for the grandparents their war stole from us. Unstintingly they shared their homes, their holidays, and their hearts. Together Mrs. Trautmann and I watched and loved Lucy. While massaging my feet with Franz Joseph Wasser, Mrs. Trautmann would regale me with the tale of Doris Day, whose original name was Doris Kappelhoff and who, as a teenager, with therapy and exercise, overcame a serious leg injury and went on to sing and dance in the movies. Excitedly, she also told me about a hot new German film star who was taking Hollywood by storm. Because this actor had a name that could be played with, I called him Max The Million! (Though he was born in Vienna and raised in Zurich, for Katie Trautmann, Maximilian Schell was German.)
While Katie Trautmann prepared my meals, monitored my intake of chocolates, and focused on strengthening my feet, my Jewish survivor aunts played cards, went to their hairdressers, and bad-mouthed my mother for placing her children in the care of a woman they referred to “a Nazi bitch.”
Decades later, shortly after both our birthdays, in front of a downtown Christmas display window I ran into Doris. She had married again. Her second husband was a Jewish divorcee with five children. Mrs. Trautmann was now step-grandmother to five Jewish children.
In front of a Christmas display window Doris stunned me by saying, “It must’ve been hard on your mother, having my mother take care of you.” Sincerely, with all my heart, I was able to tell her, “No. It wasn’t. Mum was grateful that we didn’t have to become latch key kids. We couldn’t depend on extended family. Because of your mother, we had someone to whom we could come home.”