Continuation from: When the Cuckoo Calleld
by Elisabeth Teicher
We arrived in Milwaukee on July 4, 1921. To us this seemed to be a most exciting place! Papa paid for our first and only taxi ride to take us to Tante Katie’s house. All the explosions of every conceivable decibel we heard along the way puzzled us, but no one seemed to be fearful. Everyone was having a good time, especially the children, who were running back and forth. Our first 4th of July was perplexing, to say the least, but we surely looked forward to living here.
I don’t recall our actual arrival at Uncle Peter’s (Papa’s brother) small, cramped house. It was a beautiful day, punctuated with explosions of fireworks, and by suppertime, all the other relatives and friends who had been awaiting us were seated in chairs in a circle around the yard. Everyone wanted to hear about the journey, but the older folks were more interested in learning news about Hrastovac. For once my sister, Mary, had the spotlight. She was so carried away by the novelty, that after a while, she started inventing unlikely stories, thereby cutting her audience down to only the children. She remained, however, the favorite of Pas’ family, this brown-eyed little girl who had all the physical characteristics of the Ochs clan. Fortunately, there was never any jealousy between my sister and me, and we’ve never been able to decide how much our childhood separation had to do with that. After her day in the sun, Mary settled placidly back into her good girl role. No, I was not the naughty one; no child of my mother could have gotten away with such an alternative. Let’s just say I was the livelier one!
Obviously, there was no room for our family at Uncle Peter’s. We were to stay with Papa’s sister, Katrin (there are various spellings available), who had a lovely two-story home, albeit already filled with four grown sons, one grown daughter, Lena, and Katherine, a year younger than I. However, there was carpeted floor space, and we made do that summer with no trouble that I know of.
It was Lena who ran a bath for Mary and me. “You can take off all your clothes, girls,” she said kindly, “but if you are ashamed, you may keep your underwear on.” Thus were children indoctrinated at an early age as to the (supposed) shamefulness of the human body. Mary kept her undershirt on, but brazen Lizzie wanted that nice, clean water on her bare skin. Lena did not let the water run down the drain until she had called our mother to come see the schwarze Wasser (black water) caused by the soot from the three-day journey on the train. This less-than-lovely description should be completely mitigated by the assurance that both my parents had been adherents of cleanliness all their lives.
First on the agenda, with only one day to rest, was, of course, a job for Papa. He was a fresh-air fiend and refused to consider anything but outdoor work. By a happy coincidence, Henry Lotz, who had been the runner-up for my mother’s hand on her arrival to Hrastovac from Brazil, was now married to Pa’s niece, Christina, Lena’s sister. Henry was in the building trade business, and he had Papa working as a plasterer’s helper within a week.
No autobiography of childhood would be complete without a nostalgic note or two about summer days, and our first summer was a good start to our life in America. Living so close to the big family of cousins helped to set the pace. Auntie Katie (Uncle Peter’s wife) was never too busy for a good time, and Mama was a good sport, held back only the summer she was carrying Helen. Often we either had a day’s outing at the beach, which required a nickel for carfare, or we went to Washington Park, which was only a two-mile walk from home.
The beach was a real treat! Auntie was pregnant, but she jumped about in the icy water with us anyway while mama watched. At Washington Park, our streetcar nickel bought each of us a Crackerjack or an ice cream cone. Then there was the playground. Nobody had swings or slides in their yards in those days. We went home tired and happy. Just being outdoors among the green trees and the grass underfoot was heaven on earth, and we learned early in life to dream as we cloud-watched.
During the first few summers, if Auntie was too pregnant or if a new baby was too young, mama would take us by herself. Though we often begged to take a cousin or two along, sometimes she refused. Eventually we became aware that going with just the family was special in its own way.
One time at the park, there was a man behind dense bushes, signaling to us to join him. He was exposing himself. We were so stunned we couldn’t move. We didn’t have to. Mama, ever alert, was there in seconds, talking German with the word “police” often repeated, and we watched him run away!
Finding our own living quarters was second only to the job requirement. Housing was scarce, and it became the duty of us kids, with the willing help of cousins and neighbors, to take long walks looking for FOR RENT signs. Children needed some meaningful activities for those long summer days to ward off laziness, and parents welcomed any such opportunities that presented themselves.
The house had to be cheap and near enough to the Lutheran school our cousins attended, where German was still being taught. Of course, religion was always a part of the curriculum. Though most of these immigrant parents seldom attended church, it was considered to be a necessary part of a grade school education, augmenting the parents’ teaching of right from wrong.
During that summer, we found a house that we could afford. It had the minimum amenities. It was a four-room lower flat, with four identical apartments in the same building. It had a front room, two bedrooms, kitchen, stove heat, and a basement flush toilet, but no bath. It was on the same large lot as was the cottage of our cousins of the big family, to which the taxi had brought us on the 4th of July. We’d never be lonely with Auntie Katie and her growing brood nearby!
We had a couple of weeks to find furniture for the flat. Since secondhand furniture would require ready cash, and we were starting from scratch, we had not choice but to buy everything “on time”, a new concept of which my mother, the realist, did not approve. It was the only way, however.
We started out with a kitchen stove (half gas, the other half fueled by wood, for heat–there was no furnace), beds, one dresser, and a kitchen table and chairs. An icebox could wait until next summer. Taking the advice of the aunts, by parents made one drastic mistake. Instead of an over-stuffed sofa and two chairs for the front room, they bought a hardwood round dining room table and six chairs for company dinners. Company? I was all Mama could do to keep enough food on the table for our own family!
There was a grocery store across the street operated by two maiden ladies. Everyone shopped by the day, and Auntie assured Mama that if you ran short before payday on Saturday, credit was gladly extended. A butcher shop was less than two blocks away. I remember the day we settled in…our parents’ joy was great indeed to have all the family under their own roof!
The first spell of cold weather proved that the kitchen stove would not adequately heat more than the kitchen and the back bedroom. A baseburner (the poor man’s fireplace) would have to be bought. It had an aesthetic quality as well as practicality and was well worth the cost. Between five and six feel tall, little 2 x 3-inch isinglass windows encased the top two-thirds. The lower part held the receptacle for the ashes of the hard coal (anthracite) required to fuel it. Constructed of stove black metal, with nickel-plated trim, we had to polish it regularly. It was a handsome addition to the room.
Sitting around it and watching the little blue flames dance among the glowing coals was the way we spent our winter evenings. Our parents read the Deutche Herald, the German daily newspaper, and we did our homework there, rewarded at evening’s end by an apple and a piece of butter bread, my family’s name for bread and butter. Our faces retained the warmth of the flames of the friendly baseburner long after we went to bed, and it didn’t take long for us to fall asleep. The evening’s dreams and fantasies were replaced by others to take us through the night.
SCHOOL AND OUR FIRST CHRISTMAS
Since seven years of grade school was to be the extent of my formal education, how fortunate it was that I took to learning like a duck to water. I felt in my natural element in the schoolroom, even as a child. A book waiting to be read spelled contentment, even ecstasy, for me. Since I’d never been taught to recognize my name, much less write it, I suppose the teachers of Nazareth Bethel School felt there was no choice but to start me in the first grade, although I was well over seven years old. My sister, Mary, started in the second grade since she already had two years of school living in Hrastovac with Grandma and Grandpa Kehl, while I was living in Brod with our parents, where I had not attended school.
We had the summer of playing with our bilingual cousins, who took pride in translating anything and everything for us, so language was no longer a real problem. The adaptability of children is well known. The plusses at Bethel School outnumbered the minuses, especially since all the teachers spoke German. German was taught only one more year after that, but I did learn to read and write it well enough to continue to advance myself in it into adulthood.
There were only four rooms, with two grades in each, at Nazareth Bethel School, so my sister and I were in the same room, even though I sat with the first graders and she sat with the second graders. During the course of the year, I not only paid attention to what the first graders were doing, but at times, I also listened to the discussions of the subjects that the second graders were learning. In fact, it was during one of these discussions that I remember raising my hand because I had the answer to a question, and the teacher called on me!
On the last day of school, it was the tradition for the classroom teachers to announce the promotions for the next year to all of their students. When my name was read, the teacher announced that Elizabeth Ochs was going into the third grade (unknown to me until that time); much to the consternation of the first graders who said it wasn’t fair. They wailed, “She hasn’t even been in second grade yet!” Be that as it may, my sister, Mary, and I continued in the same grade, and we graduated together.
Bethel Nazareth German Lutheran School, Milwaukee, WI 1927. Mike’s mother’s cousin, Elizabeth, Tony’s grandaunt, told him at the reunion on Saturday, 19th of July 2006, that she learned to read and write German, as well as English at the school. Mike Teicher’s mother Elizabeth is in the 2nd row from the top with her sister Mary (with glasses) to her left with both of them wearing an identical dress with flowers that was made by their mother.
A few words here about the workings of a Christian school in those days. Rising from our seats together at the third tap of the teacher’s desk bell, we had class prayers four times a day. Facing the front of the room with folded hands and downcast eyes, we prayed the designated prayer in unison.
The Morning Prayer was one of thanks for a safe night as well as a plea for a productive morning. The one before the lunch hour was the familiar invitation, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest” (Komm Herr Jesu, sei unser Gast, und segne was du befehlet hast). The prayer to start the afternoon was next, and then the final one to speed us on our way home in safety. Our parents monitored bedtime prayers. We were glad when we were put on our own for this, and we welcomed it as a sign that we were growing up.
Of course, these assigned prayers throughout the day were more or less rote exercises. They did serve a purpose, however, at least for me. They gave a sense of time passing, as well as a reminder of its value, and gratitude for the everyday things of life. I have never been able to waste time with a good conscience and probably never shall. Just the simple act of praying seems to me to be a token of respect. As for the sacred and divine, don’t these words alone add another, deeper dimension to life?
Bible history started every school day. The Bible stories repeated through the years at incremental levels left their mark as well. It took some years into adulthood for me to appreciate their importance in our Western culture, but all that repetition did the job. Besides, I’ve learned since, from other sources, that the Bible contains some of the best stories ever told. It’s what makes them unforgettable.
Of course we started with the Creation, complete with the illustration Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden of Eden, clad, to our horror, only in their fig leaves! The story of King David was told for its Psalms but did not omit his infidelities. The latter, however, were left out of class discussion.
The boys’ favorite story, for obvious scary reasons, was that of King David in the lions’ den. One of the lesser-known stories to the average person is the Temptation of Jesus by the Devil. I have an inherent fear of heights and shuddered when the Evil One dared Jesus to jump from the tower as a test of his divinity. Though I never, myself, doubted his divinity, I was nonetheless glad he never jumped! How we kids in Nazareth Bethel School hated that Devil with his evil, human features! The everlasting flames of hell over which he was said to rule never bothered us in the least. Even as children, we recognized the extremity of the story. We knew we could never be bad enough to deserve that!
We loved school but did welcome the religious holidays. On Good Friday most businesses closed their doors between 12 noon and 3 P.M. Of course kids from Christian schools were not allowed to play during those hours, and it seemed to rain every year on Good Friday, at least in my memory. Mary, our girl cousin, and I would play quiet games of jacks on the porch. The boys were less conscientious and sneaked down the alley with their balls and mitts for a game of catch, which grew gradually louder.
Of course, the most popular church-affiliated holiday is always Christmas! The Babe in the manger, the Shepherds and the Wise Men following the star seem to have universal appeal. At our school, the Christmas fever, as we called our excited anticipation, started with the beginning of the rehearsals for the Christmas Eve program at church. It was the only thing we wanted to talk about!
That first Christmas in America, Papa came down with the grippe early in December. Mama told us point blank there would be no money for a Christmas tree or anything else. Our moans brought only the added information that medicine and the doctor cost money. Somehow, though, we managed to recover from the blow and put on our thinking caps. We started walking home from school in the way that took us past a Christmas tree lot. With the consent of the man in charge, we started bringing home the largest of the discarded branches, and Mama put them into a large pickle crock to keep them fresh for the Christmas-y smell.
From there on, Mama caught the spirit! She baked Christmas cookies with cookie cutters from the old country, cutting holes for strings from which to hang them. We polished the smallest apples we could find until they shone like rubies. Papa’s Eight Brothers tobacco contained much foil, which we fashioned into ornaments. Children, it seems, will have Christmas against all odds!
The only bad moment for Mary and me occurred when the class, on the last day of school, was discussing what each one would have for Christmas dinner. Among the responses of turkey or ham or roast beef, our little squeak of “soup” was quickly passed over by an embarrassed teacher.
Mary and I went to the Christmas Eve Program, which was greatly flawed because Mama had no winter coat and could not accompany us. Our sharp eyes were quick to note that we were the only kids there without at least one parent along.
A lovely surprise awaited us, however. Each school child was presented by the church fathers with a brown paper bag containing an apple, an orange, and a generous amount of hard Christmas candies and nuts. An extra one was sent home for our baby brother.
For reasons we could not understand, Papa was always sad on Christmas Eve, and although he always asked us to sing for him, he always cried when we did. This Christmas he cried so hard he had to blow his nose several times.
There was one thing that marked this Christmas as our first Christmas in America. We found that when we put our noses into the brown paper bags of the treats from church and inhaled deeply, the smell was so Christmas-y that it became, for the rest of our childhood, one of the smells of Christmas. Our very own Christmas tradition!
THE NEW BABY AND THE BEST CHRISTMAS
What a difference a year can make! It was during our second summer that we really started to feel like Americans. We made a wonderful, double discovery in our neighborhood. On 16th and North Avenue was a brick building containing, side by side, a public library and a public natatorium! Twice a week we packed a sandwich and an apple, and with friends or cousins, headed for that corner, first to have a swim and wash our hair, followed by a leisurely hunt for an armful of library books. Across the street was a large billboard with a Coca Cola ad on it. After gobbling our lunch, we followed the sun around that billboard and read the afternoon away. What bliss! It was here that I started my lifelong love affair with books.
Another reason the natatorium proved so important that second summer was because after a couple of trips to the park or the beach, Mama decided she needed a nap every afternoon. We were, of course, not told we were to have a baby brother or sister in the fall. We had to wait until the change in Mama’s figure revealed it to us.
Our parents seemed happier than they had been for a long time. Papa was working steady with a lot of overtime. We had an ice cream cone every payday, and Mama’s cooking and baking gave us many nice surprises. If only this summer would never come to an end! Yet we looked forward to going back to school.
On Saturday, the 7th of October, Tante Katie came by to talk to Mama every little while. She and Mama kept their voices low, but we knew what was going on! We weren’t surprised the next morning when Papa, his eyes deep with joy, led us to the kitchen table where a little bundle held our new baby sister. I had never seen a brand new baby and couldn’t take my eyes off that little face.
My vocabulary did not yet contain the word miracle in either language (Wundertat in German)—miracle act. Papa kept his hand on my shoulder and spoke only with his eyes. Looking back these many years later, I feel sure any maternal instinct I carried in my genes had a premature awakening that morning.
I had given no thought as to what had been going on in the house during that night. The doctor, who lived in the neighborhood, had seen Mama only one time but had spent the hours from 11 P.M. to 4:30 A.M. in our kitchen. It was a difficult birth, with Auntie assisting the doctor while Papa took turns holding Mama’s hand and going outdoors for breaths of fresh air.
Cousin Lena, who had bathed us upon our arrival in Milwaukee, came to our house after work every day for the next two weeks to make sure there was a hot meal for Papa and to wash diapers on a washboard, with Papa’s help. The baby was appropriately named after her cousin, Helena, of which we opted to use the American counterpart, Helen.
The week sped by, and we were talking about Christmas again before we knew it. It was to be the best Christmas ever, not in spite of the new baby, but because of her. Papa, long known as a baby lover, headed straight for the borrowed cradle every day after work. In spite of working outdoors eight hours a day, it was Papa who heated the baby’s bottles during the night and fed her. It was he who walked her when she cried.
With such help, Mama got her strength back well before Christmas. She not only baked several different kinds of cookies, but stolen as well. There was money for a small Christmas tree and a few new ornaments and candles for it. When Hansi begged for electric tree lights, Mama said, “No, Papa likes candles.” The tree was trimmed by noon, and Mama told Mary to clean up the mess, motioning me to come into the kitchen. “I have something else for you to do,” she told me. Then, pressing a fifty-cent piece into my hand, she said, “I want you to go over to the Webers’ and ask Mrs. Weber for fifty cents worth of whiskey for Papa.” I was stunned! I knew the Webers made whiskey in their basement and sold it to people and that this was against the law.
“But, Mama,” I whimpered. “What if I meet a policeman?”
“Ach,” said Mama. “No policeman looking for whiskey is going to stop a child!” She took a clean empty baby bottle from the sink, put a cork on it, and pushed me on my way.
“I’ll walk through the alley,” I said looking, over my shoulder. I took the alley that led to the one that would take me there. I knew Mr. Weber worked, so I’d probably have to deal with Mrs. Weber. I didn’t like her. She was a large woman who never talked to the other women at gatherings but played cards and drank beer with the men. I felt there was something fishy about her but didn’t know what.
Just before my last turn, I spotted a piece of holly paper against a fence. It was clean, without a tear on it. I wrapped up the bottle and rang the Weber’s doorbell. Ten minutes later I carried my holly-wrapped package out of there, walking boldly on sidewalks all the way home!
Later, Mary and I walked to church behind Mama, who was holding Hansi’s hand. She was wearing a new winter coat and looked very happy. We had a secret for Mama at church. Mary had the only German recitation on the program. She faced the congregation and spoke in a clear voice, “Es begab sich aber zu der zeit, das ein Gebot von Kaiser Augustus ausging das alle Welt geschetzt werde… (In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…)” the beautiful words from Luke 2:1 brought many handkerchiefs into action in the largely German congregation.
More excitement was waiting for us. It was snowing out! Large feathery flakes floated down on us as we slid on the sidewalks with Hansi, leaving long, dark streaks I can see in my mind’s eye to this day.
It didn’t take long for us kids to embrace the idea of being American, not to be confused with becoming Americans. The former meant using not only the language, but also dressing and acting the way other people did. We wanted to look like Americans as well as enjoy the same pleasures. All such things were growing more natural for us day by day. Becoming Americans, on the other hand, was for the future, for grown-ups, getting their citizenship papers. Mama talked about going to night school “as soon as we are here long enough”. I believe the requirement was two years, but Papa, very self-conscious about the language, never mentioned it.
As for us kids, we already felt like Americans to the core! Nobody at school sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or “America the Beautiful” with more zeal than the Ochs sisters! With no money to buy a large American flag to fly on holidays, we saved the little free ones we were given to carry in the 4th of July parades and scrounged any others we could get and stuck them all over the lawn.
There was one aspect of American life that appealed to us even more, or at least more often than waving the Stars and Stripes and that was the Sunday afternoon western movies. We reverently memorized the names of the 4 western stars…Hoot Gibson, Jack Doughty, and Pearl White come most readily to mind. The ten cents to get in was now multiplied by three (Hansi had started to join us), but it was a sacrifice our parents made whenever possible.
One Sunday, however, when Papa had missed a day of work because of rain, we were told early in the day, “No show this week.” Though all three of us sulked, we knew better that to put up a fight. Then, after Sunday dinner, several of our cousins called for us and were turned away by Mama. We looked at each other, and simultaneously put up a howl! Papa grabbed each one of us by the shoulder, and after a whack on the seat, pushed us into the front bedroom and closed the door. I don’t think it took our parents long to weigh the three dimes against a nap for them in the quiet house with the sleeping baby on a rainy afternoon. The next thing we knew, the door opened, a dime was pressed into each of our palms, and we were told, “Get your coats and go!” We found our cousins, with knowing smiles, waiting on the corner!
A halt in the Sunday afternoon movies came about quite naturally, when Lena’s November wedding* loomed in the near future. Mary and I would need new dresses! The white ones with the blue satin sashes had been outgrown without being completely worn out. Mama promised to take us shopping on Saturday evening where the stores were open on Lisbon Avenue, but the baby, just six weeks old, had been fussy all day, and Mama was too tired. Papa would have to take us. It was the last Saturday before the wedding…there was no other way.
Our spirits were sinking fast when we went into Finkelsteins Dry Goods Store. The proprietor was a short, chubby man who greeted us with a big smile. Some of the neighbourhood kids called him an awful name we would not dare repeat. His smile broadened when Papa told him in German we needed Kleider (dresses). “Aha,” he said, and with a kind of rake he pulled two cardboard cartons off a top shelf, catching them expertly with the other hand. The boxes each contained a white organdy dress, generously trimmed with lace. With chattering teeth we tried them on in the chilly dressing room. They fit perfectly.
“Wie viel?” Mr. F. named a price and Papa’s face fell as he shook his head. With one accord, Mary and I dropped to our knees in front of him, pleading, “Bitte, Papa. Bitte, bitte.” Papa continued to shake his head.
Suddenly Mr. F. asked, “Wie viel haben sie?” (How much do you have?), and Papa told him. “I tell you vat,” Mr. F. said. “These are summer dresses. By next summer they could be yellow.” He cut the figure in half. Papa nodded, and the deal was closed. Mary and I could barely contain our joy! As Mr. F.’s smile broadened, and before he tied the two boxes together, he stepped out from behind the counter and looked us over. Then he reached under the counter and took out two pairs of white stockings and wrapped them in the same package. He must have said the equivalent of, “It’s on the house,” because no more words except “Danke” and “gute Nacht” were exchanged.
Somehow Lena’s wedding marked the end of one part of our childhood in my mind. I was happy, but another feeling I didn’t recognize or know a name for was mixed in. It was a kind of sadness that didn’t take away from the happiness. The dance music was probably responsible…Straus Waltzes.
(Photo to be edited)
Top row: Man with mustache is Harry Lotz. Next to him is Christina Lotz. Behind her is Jacob Ochs, Lena’s brother. The next man with mustache is Peter Ochs and his wife Katharine Ochs is beside him. Beside is another Peter Ochs and wife Marie Ochs. Behind her is John Ochs and in front of Marie is Elias Ochs.
The row below: First three men not identified. The lady in front of Peter Ochs is Liz Tante (Mrs. Jahnke.) Most likely the man besides her is her husband.
Next row below: The three ladies sitting not identified. Behind the grooms right shoulder is Elizabeth Matschek. Serfi Matschek is behind bride and groom. Behind the bride’s left shoulder is Katharine Ochs. Sitting besides the bride is Francis Yesko, the grooms sister. The lady besides Francis is not identified and next to her is Mary Ochs. Standing behind her is Katharine Ochs’ brother.
Children in the front: Peter Ochs, next two not identified; on the right side of the flower arrangement is Katharine Ochs (later Alber), Mary Ochs and Henry Lotz.
Everybody brought their children, even babes in arms like our Helen. Papa had the first dance with Mama then folded his overcoat on the chair next to hers, placed the baby on it, covered her with a blanket, and left for the bar. Mama’s last words to him were, “Pass auf!” (take care), and he did! He went to the bar and sang German songs with the men; I saw tears on his cheeks. Mary and I danced with each other, or with the cousin of our choice, who was always the cousin of mutual temperament…still the same as the day of our arrival, Mary with Katherine, me with Katie.
Children are often intrigued by the love stories of older people. I was consumed with curiosity about the future of Lena’s marriage to Tony, a divorced Catholic with one child. Lena had had no other boy friends in Milwaukee. I had eavesdropped in on the details of the story of a man she left behind in Hrastovac. Lena’s family had gone to Conway, PA for a couple of years before coming to Milwaukee, and Lena had worked in the steel mills there. I heard her tell an older friend that the young man she left behind had written to her in care of the mill. A kindly foreman acted as intermediary, a necessary move to keep it from her mother, whose disapproval she feared. She left the letters in their secret hiding place when she moved away. They were a favorite part of my romanticizing during my “thinking time” after Mary fell asleep in our bed at night.
I don’t know what time the wedding broke up, but very few of our relatives had cars, and we knew we had to catch the midnight streetcar, as only Owl (hourly) cars remained after that. We stood huddled in the exit of the hall, deciding who would go with whom, with Mama ready to dole out the carfare. It was Papa who decided.
“Hansi is asleep on his feet,” he said. “You take him home on the street car, Mama. The girls and I will walk home, and I will carry the baby.” It was a mild night, and only about two miles to walk—after dancing all evening!
Mary and I were glad of the extra time together to talk. We talked in English, but not to keep Papa from understanding; it was by now our chosen speech. Papa never interrupted. He was deep in thoughts of his own. I wonder what they were?
* A picture at Lena’s wedding with Lena, her husband, and many of the relatives, including Papa and Mama is hanging in the cottage in Rhinelander. Papa is on the far right, and Ma is in front of him. Both are wearing corsages.
Before I start the dozenth chapter with my graduation from grade school, I want to pay tribute to the teacher who had the greatest influence on my character and overall life performance. Heavy words, those. That’s not to discredit my parents who nurtured me before I could do it for myself, fed and clothed me to the best of their ability, and put up with me 24 hours a day until George Teicher took over.
Mr. Maas was my 5th and 6th grade teacher, and even today I believe he was everything a teacher should be, in spite of his personal problems, which, even as a child, I was aware of. He was about six feet tall, bald as a billiard ball, with just a fringe of orange hair at the back to show he had red hair at one time. He wore the same shiny navy blue suit to school all the years I knew him. If it wasn’t really the same one, it was one just as bad. The enigma about him was that he had the reputation of being the strictest, most popular and best loved teacher at Nazareth Bethel School.
Although his room at school was the neatest in the building, his three children were anything but neat, and the holes in Mr. Maas’ socks, which we all noticed when he walked to the blackboard, were a matter of history. That was, said some kids, because he had to do all the housework at home as well as everything else. So that was Mr. Mass’ background. It wasn’t until the time he disciplined me that I saw the whole picture.
When I entered third grade, I found that the teacher, Mr. B. (who was old—in fact, he retired the following year) was easy on the class, although he did do one really significant thing for me. For the hour between morning recess and noon, he gave the class an assignment. We were all to write a story, “About anything you want—just make it up!” Evidently having noticed my flying pencil, he asked me to read mine to the class about ten minutes before lunch.
I’d been as paralyzed as any of the kids by this assignment, but once I started to write a story I called “A Walk in the Woods”, I was in another world. When Mr. B. said, “That’s all,” he added, “Let’s hear Elizabeth’s story first. Come to the front of the room, please,” he said to me. I had described everything I’d seen in those fictitious woods, and I had just met a bear, when Mr. B. called a halt. I know I’d had the attention of the kids, and now it remained for Mr. B. to—to what? The few moments until he spoke seemed a lifetime to me. “That was very nice, Elizabeth,” he said, “but the next time don’t use so many ‘and thens’. Use a period, and go on to a new sentence.” Good advice to this day. I’m a glutton for long, convoluted sentences, but now back to Mr. Maas.
It was early in the school year that his strictness started to get to me. So my desk wasn’t as neat as my sister’s! So I passed a note once in a while or surreptitiously kept my gum instead of throwing it into the waste paper basket on my way into the room! I will say that he seemed to ignore his students’ transgressions the first couple of times, giving them a dirty look instead, but the second time he caught me passing a note while chewing gum at the same time, he let me have it, ending with the words, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, Elizabeth?” I looked straight into his eyes and said, “No, I’m not!”
He said no more, but a look of deep disappointment that hit me right in my solar plexus jumped into his eyes. I felt numb the remainder of the day, waiting only for my thinking time in bed. I held it in until Mary’s even breathing was unmistakable. Then I wept until there were no tears left in me. Over and over I said the words, “I hurt that good man! I hurt good Mr. Maas,” all the while thinking about his shiny suit, the holes in his socks, his queer wife who got all the solos in the choir because he’s the director, though she had the voice of a lady crow!
So that was the end of my one and only rebellion at school. Mr. Maas, as the church organist, provided all the music required, including singing for funerals. If you were in the fifth or sixth grade, and if, as was often the case, the relatives of the deceased requested a song by the children, we were it. We especially loved it when a German song was requested. The innocent voices of children sung in the mother tongue always brought forth a special torrent by the family. Little savages that we were, we still longed to please. The favored song was the lovely “Abide With Me”. Ah!!
Strict Mr. Maas had more than one way of proving his humanity at school, and one of the best was allowing his classes to be compensated for their singing at a funeral by giving them the rest of the day off…I’m sure it didn’t hurt him, either! One of these partial holidays happened on a dark, rainy day in early spring. One the way home, as we tried to decide what to do with this unsolicited gift of time, cousin Katie suggested that we stop at her house to hear the new polka records on their victrola. Mary bit her lower lip, her way of expressing a guilty conscience, but “Ach,” Katie and I said, as we waved her down. So we all went to Katie’s house and danced our hearts out, which wasn’t easy to do with only the three of us. So it was Auntie, with child, as she usually was, who came to the rescue and joined us…it was a house of “anything goes”, which I often envied.
When kids sometimes expressed envy of another in the words, “I wish I were you,” I thought they must be crazy! I wouldn’t have traded places with anyone in the world! Whether or not anyone else would have traded places with me never entered my mind. They probably wouldn’t have stood in line! Now, how did I get here? This chapter was to be about Mr. Maas. He taught me self-respect, self-discipline, and a love for order. He had a rare integrity that influenced my life. God bless you, Mr. Maas, wherever you are! Most likely in heaven, at His right hand!
We lived in our humble flat on 24th and Vine for four years, moving from there to an upper flat on 18th and Galena, then a middle-class neighborhood. For the first time it was a step up, a bath and toilet on the same floor!
We lived in the second house from the corner and next door on the corner was a meeting place for a Salvation Army group. We found their habit (clothes) and their tambourines and hymn singing most uplifting. Even Papa pronounced them good people (gute Leute), as we knew many of the hymns, we often went out and joined them.
It was at this house that Papa finally persuaded Mama to have her hair bobbed. She looked young, like a girl, and Papa couldn’t seem to keep his hands off the bare nape of her neck, but we kids missed seeing her beautiful long, brown hair tumble down her shoulders as she got ready for bed at night.
Of course we didn’t change schools. We would have crossed the city to remain in our beloved Nazareth Bethel, and the years were passing all too quickly. After the gentle Mr. B. and the unmatchable Mr. Maas (my opinion to this day), the ambiguous Mr. G. who taught the 7th and 8th grades and was the principal as well, was a distinct letdown.
First of all, he lacked the quality of having a personal interest in his pupils as individuals, as well as in their schoolwork. Also, he could be manipulated, and something was there in my upbringing that found it shameful to take advantage. What made me equally uncomfortable was the fact that he had favorites, and that I was one of them. I didn’t know the word integrity until many years later, nor what a sainted quality it was in a teacher.
In early February of 1928, during my second year in Mr. G.’s room, after months of being allowed to read my best English papers to the class, I decided I’d like to write a play about George Washington for his birthday program in the auditorium. Mr. G. gave his unconditional consent. That is, he didn’t read the play and left all the details of casting, etc., to me.
The theme of the play was a surprise birthday party for George, and the opening scene showed all the guests sitting on the stage, waiting for George to appear. As director of the play, I sat facing them. “Well, folks,” I said in a fake voice I hardly recognized as my own, “will everyone please assume an impatient attitude?” Dead silence. I continued in some desperation. “Siegfried, please glance impatiently at your wrist watch.” Siegfried, having the only wristwatch in the class, was happy to oblige. I rapped a ruler smartly against my chair. “Now, let’s get started.” Dead silence again. I rapped the side of my chair smartly with my ruler again. Woodenly, the cast started reading their lines. I told myself they’d improve with practice, and fortunately offered no criticism.
I kept to myself for the rest of the day, and after school visited the girls’ lav. Sitting in the last stall, I heard Loretta, Johanna, and my sister, Mary, come in. Before I could make my presence known, Loretta’s voice, heavy with contempt, reached me. “Well, I don’t care. Elizabeth makes me sick,” she said. Then, in a remarkable imitation of my own voice, she added, “Her and her big words!” I waited in vain for my sister to come to my defense. “Yeah,” added Johanna. “Her and her big words.”
I stayed behind my door, blowing my nose and wiping my eyes. ” ‘Assume’ has only two syllables,” I told myself over and over. Suddenly I noticed how quiet the playground had become. What if the janitor locked me in for the night? I dashed cold water on my face and left, walking in alleys all the way home.
In bed that night I waited for Mary to fall asleep. I needed my thinking time as never before. I had some serious thinking to do. First of all, I had to admit that what had hurt more than anything was the fact that my sister had not come to my defense. Why not? The truth hit me like a thunderbolt. Loretta had been speaking the truth! As simple as that! I fell asleep almost at once.
With an overnight recovery, a much-chastened director sat back in her director’s chair. “O.K., kids,” I started peakedly. “Everybody try to act impatient while you’re waiting for George.” Into the surprised silence, Siegfried asked, “Should I look at my wrist watch again?” The play was a huge success, drawing parents and former students. Mr. Maas gave me the usual OK sign that was his trademark, which I preferred to think was personal!
Graduation loomed almost as an anticlimax. After talking it over with my girl friends, I decided to get permission from Mr. G. to write the class prophecy in the form of a dialogue between two friends meeting many years later. Mr. G. looked at me–I mean, right at me; it seemed for the first time. “Of course, Elizabeth, you are the one to write it.” After a short pause, he added, “If you can think of something, why don’t you write the big dialogue (class play) too?”
I was in seventh heaven, never so happy as when I was writing. Mr. G. followed up his invitation to write the play by bringing me four of his college annuals, “For any jokes you can use” (my introduction to the college annual).
I wrote the big dialogue, utilizing the best and most appropriate of the jokes. I called it Thou shall Not Steal. I guess it was a spoof on the fifth commandment. I don’t remember the story, but it was complete with a courtroom scene with six-foot George Kopitzke as the judge. Sustained laughter and applause told me everything I wanted to know, and Mr. G. hadn’t even checked the play or come to a rehearsal! My sister, Mary, had the only German recitation; her soft and endearing manner brought her generous applause as well. I hoped my parents were proud of us.
My father was in the audience, his first time at a school function, and sat at the very back of the hall. I learned from my mother that my father had never seen a stage performance of any kind in his life, not even a movie! He greeted me afterward with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Liebchen! Liebchen!” he said. “What were you doing up there, making such a monkey of yourself?” I felt a stab in my heart. I never realized until years later that since he was so far from the stage and because the words were in English, he probably had understood little of what was going on, but he did enjoy it! My father never became fluent in English, although he understood much of what was said. When he and I carried on a conversation with one another, he spoke German, and I spoke either English or German… mostly German.
“Ach, Pa,” I said in my best offhand way. “Du verstehstl es nicht” (You don’t understand). Almost eighty years later, I don’t understand either. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we here for? Life. What a mystery. What a terrifying mystery!
Continuation: On the Love and Politics