Editors' Choice

Thank God for the War

by Lone Mørch Schneider

Roots run deeper than we sometimes think.

“A Queen cannot come from such humble beginnings,” Frieda objected, standing in the remaining rubble of her Transylvanian childhood home. We were in Zendersch, an isolated parish tucked into the rolling hills of the mountainous heart of Romania. Her highness was my mother-in-law. She’d proclaimed herself the Queen of Petaluma, a town north of San Francisco where she’d spent the past ten years renovating an old Victorian to its former splendor.

“I don’t want anybody to see this,” Frieda whimpered and held her hand in front of her face when I aimed my camera at her.

“Why not?” I asked to distract. “It belongs in the past.”

It’d been my husband, Christian’s idea to accompany his mother on this journey back to her roots. She had not been back for sixty years, not since 1944, when her family was given two hours by German soldiers to pack a few belongings and retreat. They left house, land, livestock and their old grandmother behind, believing it was temporary, and once crammed onto a train carriage presumably headed west, they didn’t know that they would be among the few to avoid both Auschwitz and a 45-year-long communist tyranny.

“Come Christian, come Hilde,” Frieda beckoned. She did not want to be alone in the picture.

Frida’s older sister, Hilde and her daughters had joined us for the last reunion of exiled Germans who fled from Zendersch during WWII. Their family belonged to German settlers who more than eight hundred years ago were invited by a Hungarian Monarch, then under the reign of the Ottoman Empire, to inhabit Transylvania and build a bulwark against the Turks from the East. The event had been planned so that the German descendants could officially hand-over their former homes to the Romanians and gypsies who readily took over when they escaped, and heal the relationship between them.

Hilde didn’t react to Frieda’s plea. She just stood there, lost, looking from Frieda, to the fallen house, to her daughter, Hildegaard, and back to the fallen house. Hildegaard put a plump, protective arm around her mother’s shoulders. Christian came to his mother’s rescue, and next to him, she made a meager attempt to strike her usual pose for my camera.

Back in Petaluma, when we suggested Frieda travel with us, she’d demurred in her still heavy accent, “Vy travel, ven I have everyzing here?” And hummed a hymn to the land both of us now called home. God bless America.

I knew what it was like to juggle a split identity, but where she’d so willingly accepted the United States as her home, and with it the American way, I was still struggling to find my footing there. To her America was a savior, a land of dreams coming true; to me it was just another country, by all means a country that had given me Christian, but I had no intention of giving up my Danish passport.

“America isn’t nearly as fascinating as your past,” I argued, having always dreamt of a less homogeneous, more dramatic background myself. In truth Romania was little more than the darker side of Europe to me, the land of Ceausescu, ill-treated orphans, gypsies and vampires, but sixty years was a long time away and I was confounded by her lack of curiosity about her cultural heritage. There were many things I didn’t understand about Frieda, but as we were standing in the mud, contemplating the ruins of her past, it dawned upon me that I had more in common with her than I cared to admit.

“Time’s up,” Christian announced and spun on his heels. “The sermon starts at eleven.”

We tiptoed through the slush towards the newly resurrected church that hovered above town on a hillside like all churches in Romania did, simultaneously guarding and keeping tabs on life in the village. I felt a light drizzle fall upon my face. Zendersch mimicked the style of the other drowsy German-style villages we’d passed through on our journey here, the houses built back-to-back to form an impenetrable wall on each side of the dirt road, a stream running down the middle to supply water. Ducks and geese owned the muddy main drag. The only obvious evidence of the late 20th century were the All-Star canvas shoes sported by a rotund farmer and the occasional car wheezing down the street. A peaceful village one would think.

Most of the church’s interior had been stripped, and it felt empty despite the many people who’d come for the event.

“Even the original pews are gone,” Hilde tartly informed. “The gypsies used them for firewood to keep warm during winter.”

As we sat through the German speeches and songs, the meaning of which I could only speculate about, I studied the several hundred people who had come for this gathering. Faces, young and old, were mostly pinkish pale, some staring blankly into space, others traurig as I imagined only Germans could be sad. A woman my age wearing a traditional German folkdance outfit – apron dress with a frilly shirt underneath – dabbed her teary eyes incessantly. Further back, a wizened woman sobbed into somebody’s shoulder. I felt a catch at the back of my throat. I thought of losing my own grandparents and grieving the passing of time. I thought of my abandonment of my homeland, my family.

Just like Frieda, I fled my country to forge an identity of my own, the main difference being, she was forced to leave, I wasn’t. For a long time I thought I was running towards something – adventure, independence, a calling – but a nagging feeling of guilt, and fear that I was never going to find what I was looking for, followed me like a relentless ghost. After marrying Christian I surprised myself by mourning the loss of my homeland, not because I necessarily wanted to live in Denmark, but because deep down that had always been the place from where I derived a sense belonging. I was now faced with the task of establishing new roots – like Frieda had done, when she came to America – but I didn’t know how. Looking around the room, my situation somehow didn’t compare. These people were mourning not only the loss of their homes, they were also mourning a part of their history. I still had my parents, my country, my history.

Above our immediate right, the priest held onto the podium as he pondered the purpose of our being there. Frieda and Hilde sat on the bench in front of Christian and me. Next to Frieda’s slender frame and fiery ginger locks, her sister seemed round and stocky, her short curly hair gray and features deceptively soft. Hilde had devoted her life to elder-care and spent her money on building churches in Siberia and the Philippines, almost single-handedly, I liked to believe. She preached the word of God to those around her like their father used to do, and Frieda, who had dedicated her energy to her regal image, seemed a bit intimidated by her sister’s conviction. What they did have in common was their gnarly hands with chipped fingernails, faith in real estate and failed marriages. I admired their passion and achievements, but wondered what price they’d paid for their independence and need to have it their way. Chronic homesickness was one of the side effects of my self-imposed exile, yet to me, going home had come to imply failure, failure to make it on my own. Neither of them cried.

The priest finished his long-winded address and music filled the naked space. Next to me Christian tried to sing along with the German hymns. He had been as curious about his mother’s roots as I was about her rejection of them. I knew he hoped this journey would help him reconnect with her after many years estrangement. Frieda had left him and his sister with their father when he was nine, a loss for which he’d barely forgiven her. After she moved back into her own house on the other side of San Francisco, Christian would occasionally visit with her over Wiener schnitzel at a local restaurant. Knowing how she likes to comment on his unshaved face, his lack of style, I could only imagine the situation at the table then. Once I asked her why she’d abandoned her children, but she averted my deeper question and said, “Paul was a much better father than I was a mother.”

After another long speech by one of the German organizers, we were invited to lunch at the community hall below the church. Men moved swiftly up and down the narrow aisles between jam-packed benches, efficiently serving us first ham and pea soup, then meat and potatoes doused with brown sauce. Once in a while, a distant cousin or old family friend would stop by to hug Hilde who with ten more years on her back remembered people from the past.

“No-oh. Really? Where did you get that?” Frieda applauded when Christian planted a bottle of wine in the middle of our part of the table.

Cheap champagne was one of her indulgences. When we brought her a decent bottle, she always asked about the price and protested if it was more than five dollars. For the past couple of days of traveling I’d noticed she’d been sipping from a bottle of local port in the back of our rental car.

“We could stand to lighten up,” Christian grinned.

Even Hilde didn’t object for very long when he poured cherry wine into her glass.

“Do you remember things from your childhood now that you’re here?” I asked.

The wine helped loosen the sisters’ tongues. “We would have ended up in Auschwitz had a Seventh Day Adventist priest not recognized that we weren’t Jews,” she began. “Hilde and our older brother were lost for a whole week when we came to Budapest.” She paused for dramatic effect and then told us in fragmented sentences about bombs exploding, black smoke concealing sight, and planes scarring the sky above Budapest. She sounded distant like she’d withdrawn into herself, into her memories. “We huddled together in the corner of a building and our father was praying harder than I’d ever seen him pray before, and then, everything fell around us. The worst was searching the rubble and dismembered bodies in the streets to find my father’s missing leg, his prosthesis.”

Hilde nodded. “Father didn’t want to leave his mother and the animals behind at first, so first we left without him. But when we found out how serious it was, our brother Willy went back to get him. He walked up river and waited under the bridge. They’d agreed to whistle a song as a way to get in touch and recognize each other. I have the tune in my head now.” Hilde tried to whistle but only air came out of her mouth. “We had two baby-siblings then,” she added as an after thought. “They didn’t make it.”

“Wow.” I looked at Christian. Loss, it seemed, had both tied together and blown apart their family.

Christian lifted an eyebrow at me, almost apologetically. “I didn’t know that.”

I wondered if physical distance reinforces the emotional bond between people.

After the war, the sisters had muddled through seven years in Austria before a priest of the Seventh Day Adventist church helped them immigrate to Michigan. By then, Frieda was a young teen, who helped her mother clean opulent Detroit houses full of crystal and scrub the hair wax from the sinks at a black ladies’ beauty parlor. “That’s when I decided I wanted to live like the people I worked for,” Frieda had told me during one of the many times I’d asked about her past. At eighteen, she refused to marry the church guy her father wanted to set her up with and ran off to California to pursue her dream and become the Queen of Petaluma.

Despite my father’s decree, I’d run off to Copenhagen at sixteen, and I could just see Frieda’s obstinate need to prove her self, but unlike her deeply motivated desire to remove herself from poverty, my dreams were about something as elusive as freedom, as finding out who I was. She amassed; I stripped away. By traveling and living in other countries, by going places, inner and outer, that scared me, by a hope to grow and live my own truth. Ironically, the perpetual role as expatriate had also allowed me to hide, although I wasn’t sure from what.

After lunch, we pushed our feet back down the muddied road. A dance performance was to take place at the newly fenced-in and cemented-over town square, right across from what was once Frieda’s home. Tall and pale Germans gathered at the square along with the darker, weatherworn Romanians and gypsies. Inside the fence dancers in traditional outfits clustered next to the band and one of the organizers tried to cover the speakers and microphones with plastic bags.

“Let’s go back to the spa-a-a,” Frieda suggested, referring to our hotel. “I’m ready for the hot water.”

“We’ve come all this way for this event and you already want to leave?” I locked my arm with hers and walked across the road to the pile of bricks of her childhood home. I wouldn’t let her off the hook so easily. There was so much to understand.

Hilde peeked through the neighboring gate to decipher if the overgrown bricks indeed were their former home. “Is this really it?” She asked rhetorically.

We were all wondering what the house once looked like and why this house, and not the adjacent ones, had been left to perish.

“Where is the storefront?” Hilde asked. They’d been a busy family, running both the local store, keeping animals and growing produce behind the house. The other night, Frieda talked about her parents. Her father had been a pretend-preacher and her mother, who always worked, had run the family tightly, expecting Frieda and Hilde to work like the boys. One time Frieda was sent to town, she forgot what she was meant to get and instead purchased candy for the money. By the time she returned home she’d eaten all of it. Furious, her mother tied her to a tree and beat her with a stick. There was little room to be a child.

Hilde pointed at a woman who was leaning out of the window of the house next door. “That’s uncle Michael’s house. Why is she doing that, like it is her house?”

Hildegaard gently turned her mother away from that house.

Hilde’s expression softened. “Yes. This is our home.” Her voice was meek and eyes wet when she looked at Frieda. “This is what’s left of our childhood.”

“Schja, schja, schja,” Frieda said in her Saxon-German dialect to shush her.

The two sisters hugged tightly, their faces furrowed and eyes closed. Christian moved closer, preparing to catch his mother. We exchanged glances. I searched his face to see if he also felt tightness in his chest.

“I have some old pictures of the house at home,” Hildegaard consoled.

Frieda stepped back and shook her head. “It’s just as bad as I expected.” She looked to the side, her arms folded defensively in front of her torso, giving the impression that she was ready to leave Zendersch once and for all. When we didn’t respond, she added, “Back then all the houses kept nice gardens and grew grapes. Grapes for the vine.” She pouted and wrung her hands restlessly as she always did when she noticed disrepair.

In her Petaluma house her daily dramas evolved around the upkeep of her garden. Though she was finally living like those she’d been working for as a young girl, nothing was ever perfect in her universe. She kept coming up with things to improve, complain or worry about. Not even the many willing admirers who came to her doorstep could fit her fantasy.

Then she laughed. “Thank god for the war. Thank god we didn’t have to live like this.”

“We’re lucky,” Hilde cautioned. “We came from this and now we live like millionaires.”

To be sure, thrifty millionaires who steered clear of fancy stores in their hunt for a bargain and put tags on their furniture to be sure their children would sell it at its worth. Ever since Christian could remember, Frieda had stolen flowers at the cemetery. “Vy let them go to vaste?” She shrugged if off.

Her stinginess drove me crazy. So often she’d cheer to the “the good life,” but she wouldn’t allow herself a bouquet of fresh flowers from the store.

It struck me as ironic that she, who’d done everything in her power to distance herself from her modest past, had created another time warp for her existence in America, not a one-room village house, of course, but a 18th century “fortress” in which she, like the German settlers in Transylvania, ensconced herself with a stuffed pantry and gilded opulence, a place over which she felt in complete control.

Prior to our arrival in Zendersch, we’d visited Peles Castle in Sinai in southern Romania, a German Renaissance castle from the late 19th century. Frieda had finished the tour of 40 of the 160 rooms, each displaying an interior style more elaborate, more exquisite than the next, with an almost exhausted proclamation: “I’ve seen it all. Now I can go home.”

“Don’t you see the correlation between this and your house?” I suggested, thinking of the stained glass, lush carpets and gold-leafed furniture she’d crammed it with.

“No, no, it’s different,” she brushed me off, not wanting to draw any parallels.

But parallels intrigued me. As far back as historical records would take us, the territory of today’s Romania had been invaded, divided and assembled anew by various warriors, tribes, kings and emperors: Roman, Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, Magyars, Cumans, Tartars and Turks had all had their slice of the cake at various times. We could see it the architecture as we traveled from region to region and town to town. On several occasions Turks and Tatars had penetrated the walls that the cautious German settlers had erected and we’d joked about the origins of Frieda and Christian’s bushy eyebrows and high cheekbones. Although I’d fantasized about the vampire connection, I liked even better to think that it was fierce Tartar blood that ran in her, and therefore, my husband’s veins, that he’d inherited his nomadic nature and sense of rhythm from the gypsies, his indulgence in good food and wine and siestas from the Latins and that it was the Carpathian mountains that gave birth to his love of nature.

When I mentioned this connection to Christian, he adjusted his eyebrows with his fingers and titled his chin slightly to one side. “Really?” But Frieda shook her head. She was German first, American second, but not Romanian, certainly not one of those barbaric warriors of the East.

To define oneself negatively, against something or someone, seemed one of our shared human traits. I’d left Denmark to create a life that was anything BUT what I knew from home and distance myself to the Jante Law – a set of down-to-earth rules of conformity that, whether we liked it or not, permeated Scandinavian culture and enabled us to keep a tight social leash on one another. The settle-for-what-you-can-get mentality had little appeal. I wanted to get away from my leveled, suppressed and slightly bitter countrymen, who often only let out the truth under severe amounts of alcohol, and discover that I was indeed special. Not unlike Frieda.

A swift, unusual guitar rhythm brought me back to Zendersch. Finally, the dance commenced. Six couples of young, handsome gypsies assembled next to one another in the center of the square, the girls in skirts and little tank tops with colorful scarves tied tightly around their hips, the guys in black pants and white shirts, the neck slightly open and sleeves folded halfway up their forearms. Their features seemed more defined that those of the Romanian people, their cheekbones higher, their faces narrower, but perhaps I was fooling myself to believe that I could tell the difference. The guitarist’s voice was seductively grating, the dancers footwork fast as the guitar beat. Each couple took turns improvising in the center, the guys jumping and clapping their thighs each in his own style as if showing off to the girl, the girl in turn offering coquettish glances and nonchalant hip moves.

After their show, a Romanian troupe took over the dance floor. They were more formally dressed, the tempo of their music slower and movements more restrained and timorous than what we’d just seen. When it was the German dancers turn, Hilde pushed a boy away from the fence so that she could better see. She gripped the railing firmly with one hand to steady herself against it.

“Why are they here?” She nodded towards the people that lined the fence and turned towards her daughter for an explanation. “This is meant for us.”

I scanned the crowd to take a good look at “them.” Old women, their faces wrapped in colorful scarves and glassy eyes almost hidden in folded skin, stood next to one another, their hands folded against the fence. Behind them stood another layer of graying men with bad teeth and various hats. They were old enough to have lived through communist work camps, resilient enough to go on living. The younger people stood around with kids on their arms, their clothes reflecting the hodgepodge style of those who make do with what they can get and their faces puzzled as if they were wondering what it all had to do with them.

“No,” Hildegaard said, “this event is for everyone.”

Hilde held her gaze for a moment, before she turned towards the dance floor. The three troupes were now whirling around, pairing in mixed couples and giggling as they stepped on one another’s feet.

Behind us Frieda traipsed back and forth as if she had to pee.

A few days earlier, on our way to see an ancient church, we’d encountered a gang of gypsy kids with runny noses. With hand to mouth they’d signaled hunger, while they chanted, “Gum, gum, gum.” Frieda held on to her candy bag, wailing that one bag wasn’t nearly enough. She cried in the backseat as we escaped. I thought she was overreacting and lectured. “Giving candy is only reinforcing their behavior. It’s an easy and arrogant way of paying off one’s guilt for being more privileged.”

“But, but …” she said and fell silent. I dropped the topic. I’d never seen her so emotional before. This was a woman who didn’t even cry over the reunion of her countrymen.

We returned via the same grubby village. This time, Christian stopped the car and got out. He was trying to crack open our watermelon on a fence pole, but the kids lost interest and surrounded the car. Before Frieda and I knew it, hands, arms, torsos pushed through the rolled-down windows. Frieda yelped as a boy snagged her candy bag. We fled in urgency.

“I remember when American soldiers came with chocolate and white bread,” Frieda said after a while. “It was the first time I’d tasted both. It was so magical that I saved a piece for my mom.”

Warmth rose to my cheeks. I didn’t know how to respond. In my eagerness to call on her bigotry, I’d overlooked her compassion and failed to acknowledge the way her past informed her perspective, just like my academic studies of rural development colored mine.

At Zendersch village square an older woman said something to Hilde. Soon the two women held onto each other’s arms as they conversed, and only reluctantly they let go.

“She asked me if we could ever forgive them for taking our property and chasing those away who tried to come back,” Hilde reported, her face gleaming at her daughter who I had come to see as the mothering one. “I said yes. What a relief.”

Teary-eyed Frieda put her arm around Hilde. “Can’t we go now?”

Hilde was too upset to respond. “This is healing.” Her eyes leaked. “I feel so sorry for them. The woman said they were afraid that the gypsies would push them out the way they’d pushed us out.”

It seemed so raw, so complicated, so unfinished, this relationship between the Germans, Romanians and gypsies. Crude and complex, like Frieda. Even though she’d closed this chapter of her life a long time ago, clearly it was not over. Amidst her grief, I also recognized in her the warmth of the Zendersch people, her parents’ will to survive and from where her sense of beauty was cultivated. We can push our roots away or ignore them, but they remain an essential part of who we are. That was also true for me. Alongside the new values and ways of doing things I’d gathered from my travels, I was also carrying my grandmother’s love of walking the land, my grandfather’s calm, my mother’s sensual brushstrokes and my father’s sense of justice. I was living on the bridge.

The German group ended the performance with a song they’d written for the occasion. They sang it in Romanian because it was meant for them. Hilde got the gist of it: “They say they will never come back to claim the place, but ask that those who are here take good care of it, of their inheritance and the graves of their relatives.”

The sky had cleared when we drove out of the village. A mile down the road Christian stopped the car and we got out to take a last look at Frieda’s childhood home. Frieda rushed to the wildflowers that bordered the dirt road.

“I love wild daisies,” she said under her breath.

I photographed her as she picked a few of the white flowers, their stems as tall as I imagined a six-year-old girl to be.


Born in Denmark, Lone Mørch Schneider worked in international aid, personal coaching and film production before she settled on photography and writing as her main vehicle of expression and exploration. Her writing has appeared in magazines such as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Magazine, Magical Blend (USA), Samvirke and Nova (Denmark), Nyt Aspekt (Denmark) and the anthology Mothers-in-Law Do Everything Wrong. Awards include the Mary Tannenbaum Literary Award for non-fiction (San Francisco Foundation 2002) and an honorary mention at the 71st Writers' Digest Writing Competition (2002). Currently, she’s finishing a memoir about an ill-fated pilgrimage to the sacred Mount Kailash of Tibet. Lone's studio (www.lolosboudoir.com) can be found in Sausalito, California, where she resides with her husband and little Chihuahua. This story won the Silver Award for Family Travel in the First Annual Solas Awards.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


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