Making memories you’d rather forget: Edith Buchsteiner Schmidt grows up in wartime Berlin

Image credit: “Massacre in Korea” by Pablo Picasso, 1951

Dementia can go like this:

In a blog entry over a year ago, I introduced you to Edith Buchsteiner Schmidt, whom I have never met, but with whom I have a complicated link of non-blood relationships, the fellowship of being a first-generation immigrant mother, and the bond of a dementia diagnosis. In my November 2017 post, I introduced Ingrid and her family and laid out the 6 degrees of separation between Edith and me via her daughter Ingrid, a Canadian who lived in South Africa during the 1970s and 80s when Peter and I were still there.

Dementia can go like this: Prologue to the story of Edith Buchsteiner Schmidt, a never-met, yet well-known, acquaintance

Edith’s dementia is much more advanced than mine. Even though her Alzheimer’s was diagnosed only at the age of 81 in 2012, in retrospect it was clear that there were earlier signs that her family had not recognized as symptoms. After her diagnosis, she and her late-life love, George Haley, moved into an apartment together so that he might take care of her. By 2015, George could no longer cope on his own, even with the help of adult day care—Edith had to be moved to a memory care center. She has been living in Phare de Paix, or Beacon of Peace, near Montreal, for the past 3 years.

Edith, as well as her husband-to-be, Helmut Schmidt, grew up in wartime Berlin. Their son, Reinhard, says that both his parents were “reluctant to discuss the ‘dark years.'” It is one of the ironies of dementia that it is not selective in its deletion of memories. While those who love Edith would wish that her somber memories would be the first to be erased, it is unfortunately the case that the older a memory is and the stronger the emotion with which it is associated, the slower it is to depart a deteriorating brain.

Edith is now 87 years old. If any of her difficult memories remain, she does not show it. In past years, she has at times been aggressive and, when in pain, has responded to being moved or changed by biting. Of course it is impossible to know whether any past memories played into her then aggressivity—she hardly shows aggression now. If she has memories of anything at all, she is unable to share them. In other ways, too, she continues to lose more and more of herself. Even though she was a life-long artist with a passion to preserve images on canvas and walls, fabric and photo paper, she made her last art 2 years ago. Her canvas was a Buddha board—that is, a surface that allows brush strokes to appear when it is dabbed with water. As the water slowly evaporates, your painting fades and a new blank background is revealed.

The Buddha board was a 2016 Christmas gift from Ingrid. “I thought that the ephemeral nature of the water sketch that disappears would be attractive to my mother,” Ingrid says, “like making a snow man or ice sculpture, as the only thing that still matters is the act of creation in the here and now. She was able to use it then, but she needed a lot of prompting. She would not take the initiative to draw on her own. She no longer uses the gift.”

* * *

As I continue to write the story of Edith’s life, I am sad that she will not have any pleasure,  knowledge, or understanding of my posting of her story. Who, then, is this story for? Last night, Grace Paley, one of my favorite writers—who happens to be dead—gave me an answer in her one of her short stories, “Debts.”


In “Debts,” the narrator/Grace Paley tells her friend Lucia about a lady who wants Paley to write about her grandfather, who was involved in the Yiddish theatre. Paley declined, explaining that her writing did not depend on the possession of facts, but on completing the mental processing required to do justice to the story’s emotional heft. “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling,” she insisted.

Upon hearing of Paley’s refusal, Lucia took the side of the lady who wanted her grandfather’s story told. She “explained to me that it was probably hard to have family archives or even only stories about outstanding grandparents or uncles when one was sixty or seventy and there was no writer in the family and the children are in the middle of their own lives. She said it was a pity to lose all this inheritance just because of one’s own mortality. I said yes, I did understand….At home I thought about our conversation. Actually, I owed nothing to the lady who’d called. It was possible that I did owe something to my family and the families of my friends. That is, to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives.”

So who is my story of Edith for? It is for you, George; and for you, Ingrid and Ted and Sonja and Sonja’s family; and for you, Reinhard and for your family. It is for you, my readers, as a preview of the life to which I’m on my way and where the past no longer matters. Most of all, it is for me myself: I am telling Edith’s story as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save my own life.

* * *

Edith was born to Kurt and Ida Buchsteiner in Berlin, Germany, on March 24, 1931. She was their third child. Their first, a son named Hardi—born in 1915, soon after the start of World War I—contracted polio and died when he was just a toddler. Six years later, in 1921—when the war was over—Ida and Kurt had a daughter named Gerda. Ten years later, in 1931, their last child and the subject of my story, Edith, was born.

Right, Edith’s parents, Ida and Kurt Buchsteiner, with their son Hardi (1915). Hardi would die of polio as a toddler during WWI.

The Buchsteiner family was not wealthy, but before Edith’s birth they got by better than many other Berliners. Kurt had a job. They had food. Edith had toys: she loved her family of dolls, some of which may have been bought particularly for her, and others probably passed on from her older sister. At the time Edith was born in 1931, the Buchsteiner’s financial situation was deteriorating. Germany had become a poverty-stricken country. Under the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I in 1919, Germany had to pay reparations to its former enemies for the destruction it had visited upon them in the war. By Edith’s birth, the country had been all but financially depleted. In 1929, the Wall Street stock market crash delivered a final blow. America’s economic disaster reverberated through Germany and all other capitalist countries. In its aftermath, millions of people lost jobs and lived in poverty. Harsh living conditions and food shortages made the population receptive to the words and promises of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Such were the conditions of history that determined the environment into which Edith was born.


Left, to pay for the costs of the First World War, Germany borrowed heavily from other nations. As a result, it experienced a period of hyperinflation that resulted in money losing its value. Baskets of money had to be exchanged for everyday expenses; poverty increased throughout the already poor nation. Right, using his exceptional oratorical skills, Hitler worked his way up from being a member of the German worker’s party (1919) to the leader of the Nazi Party (1921) to the Chancellor of Germany (1933).


Left, Edith’s maternal grandparents, Auguste Karolinger Friderike (geb. Zimmerman) and Karl Willy Rudolf Rolke. Middle, Edith’s father, Kurt Buchsteiner. Right, Edith and her mother, Ida.

The worldwide depression and Hitler’s concomitant rise resulted in devastating personal consequences for Edith’s family: her father, Kurt Buchsteiner, was one of the 1.5 million Germans who lost their jobs after the stock market crash. By 1934, Kurt had reached such a state of despair about his family’s constant lack of money and shortage of food that he gassed himself in the oven. According to Ingrid, he presumably thought that his wife Ida and the children would be better off with one less mouth to feed. Edith was a little girl of three when she lost her father in this dreadful way.

After Kurt’s death, Edith was the sole support of her two daughters. “My grandmother had a beautiful handwriting, ” Ingrid says, “she was a bookkeeper.

Left, Ida, known for her beautiful handwriting. She probably used Sütterlinschrif, a script created in 1911 by the Berlin graphic artist Ludwig Sütterlin (1865-1917) and taught from 1915 to 1941 in German schools. Below, an example of Sütterlin, consisting of two lines from a recipe for homemade rose-hip fruit wine (1935) that starts out, “Für 10 Liter Wasser, 4 Pfund (Pfund) Hagebutten werden durch die Fleischmaschiene gelassen und werden mit 200 Gramm…” Trans: For 10 liter water, 4 pounds of rose-hip fruit is ground [in the meat grinder], then 200 g of…


Translation of the remainder of the recipe (image not shown): …sugar and 8 liters of boiling water are poured over. After it has cooled…[add yeast and let the must stand for 48 hours. Strain off the yeast and fruit. To the remaining liquid, add 6 1/2 lb {really??} of sugar dissolved in 2 liters of water. Consume.]

Ida unfortunately carried a genetic trait that bears directly on her daughter’s story: she had dementia and died at the age of about 72; her sister, too, had dementia and died at the age of ninety. Scientists have confirmed that there is a hereditary form of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD): it is characterized by the appearance of symptoms at an unusually early age, sometimes as early as in a person’s thirties, forties, and fifties (and very rarely in the late twenties). This early form is called Familial Alzheimer’s Disease. To be diagnosed as such, symptoms must start before the age of 60. The earlier symptoms appear, the more a person’s genetic predisposition appears to dominate; that is, early AD is driven by a deterministic, powerful mutation in a single gene that gets passed on through the generations.

Above, The early-onset, familial forms of Alzheimer’s are inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, which means that only one parent has to pass down a defective copy of the gene for their child to develop the disorder.

Even though Edith’s and her mother Ida’s symptoms were not noticed at a particularly early age, in Edith’s case her children recalled symptoms dating from years before her diagnosis and not recognized as such. In addition, the fact of two direct ancestors with dementia has alerted Ingrid that she may be next in the family line to show early symptoms of Alzheimer’s. She appreciates our conversation, because “it helps me understand what my mother went through and what is probably waiting for me, too, in about twenty years or so when the visible signs set in. My mother and my grandmother were the trailblazers.”

Since my mother Susan Steenekamp, too, had dementia and I myself was diagnosed with cerebral microvascular disease at age 61, I have often wondered if my disease had genetic factors as well. While the possibility cannot be ruled out, vascular disease is not high on the list of familial dementias: the role of genes in frontotemporal dementia (FTD), for example, seems to be much greater than in vascular dementia.

* * *

Edith was 8 years old when World War II started. Although this story is about her, I cannot write it without a constant reckoning with Germany’s past. For example, in order to understand Edith and her family’s situation in relation to food shortages before, during, and after the war, their situation must be seen in a broader context of the times.


Above, Rationing in the UK (left), and US (right). As the war progressed, food rationing was widely practiced in all allied countries. In the US, only a limited number of products were directly rationed, such as coffee and sugar. Ration stamps were not needed for dairy products and eggs, items strictly rationed in other World War II participants. Americans had, however, to live within a point system. Thus if you splurged on meat, you might not have the necessary points to buy needed staples.

Shortly before the outbreak of the war, the German government instituted rationing in Berlin as well as in the rest of the country, which resulted in a much restricted food supply. Despite the reduced availability of food, German civilians were very much better off than prisoners of war, not to mention the people targeted for the death camps. This was due to the German government’s exploitation of occupied countries, by which food supplies were redirected from the occupied USSR to Germany and the German military units operating in the USSR. As a result, around two million Soviet prisoners of war were starved to death over the winter of 1941/42. Millions of people in other German-occupied areas died of hunger too.


Left, Soviet prisoners of war receiving their meager rations. More than three million Soviet prisoners of war died in German custody, mostly from malnutrition and exposure. Rovno, Poland, 1941. Right, A food market in the Warsaw ghetto, a year after the area had been sealed off (1941).

In the Warsaw ghetto (1940), where German authorities forced 400,000 Polish Jews to live in an area of 1.3 square miles, with an average of 7.2 persons per room, the food ration was set at at just 181 calories a day—by the end of that year, more than 5,000 people a month succumbed to starvation and disease. While prisoners in the Auschwitz-Birkenau interment camps received more calories, the physical work they did consumed far more energy than their food intake could sustain: prisoners with less physically demanding labor assignments received approximately 1,300 calories per day, while those engaged in hard labor received approximately 1,700—in other words, starvation rations. After only weeks on such rations—on top of enduring cold, dampness, leaky roofs, vermin and rats, extremely unsanitary conditions, diarrhea, and other diseases—prisoners began to experience organic deterioration that led to the so-called “Muzulman,” or Muslim state, extreme physical exhaustion that ended in death. (How did Jews come to be referred to as “Muslims?” (Othering and BelongingRead and weep for our Dis-united States.)

Compared to the ghastly fate of prisoners of war, people in ghettos, and of course, interment camp prisoners, civilians in Berlin suffered deprivation but not large-scale starvation. The average German prewar allocation was 3000 calories. This dropped to 2078 calories in 1942/3, 1981 calories in 1943/4, 1671 calories in 1944/5, and 1412 calories in 1945/6. By comparison, at the moment the average American consumes more than 3,600 calories daily. In order to maintain one’s weight, an average woman needs to eat about 2000 calories per day and an average man needs 2500 calories.

“Almost every desire a poor man has is a punishable offence.” Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1984-1961). Artist of image not known.


How well you survived the war food-wise was greatly dependent on your socioeconomic status before the war. Socioeconomics became important because, as soon as the rationing started, black markets developed everywhere in Germany (and other countries affected by the war). The more money or possessions you owned, the more you could participate in the black market. Given that, from 1942 onward, Berlin calories dropped to fewer than a average male or female required to maintain their weight, every adult (and often children too) experienced hunger on a daily basis and would have wanted to avail themselves of the black market. The Buchsteiner family, who had scraped by since Helmut’s death, was sometimes able to do so by trading remaining household objects for food. One day Edith noticed that her favorite doll had disappeared. Her mother confessed that she had traded it for a loaf of bread.

Notwithstanding that Ida’s trading of the doll for food was by no means malicious, from a child’s perspective it probably felt like a betrayal. For Edith, the loss of her “child” proved to have a deep impact into adulthood. In 1959, when—at the age of almost 30—she gave birth to a daughter, she reclaimed her loss by naming her baby girl “after her favorite doll that my mother traded for bread in the war. Her name was Ingrid.”


Left, Edith in Berlin on the day she started school. Her doll Ingrid posed with her. Note that both Edith and doll Ingrid hold a paper cone. It was filled with goodies. It was a custom in Germany to give a gift of a goody-filled cone at the outset of a child’s education. Middle, Ingrid regained: Edith (note her stylish Peter Pan collar and feather headgear) holding her newborn daughter (Canada, 1956). Right, Edith poses 4-year-old Ingrid standing up inside the box in which Elona, the life-size doll, came. Ingrid is modeling a new outfit that Edith had sewed for her.

Becoming a parent, particularly now that she had a daughter, gave Edith a second chance—the opportunity for a “re-do” of her childhood. Many of us, too, are lucky enough to be able to rewrite our childhood circumstances and become the parent you wish yours had been able to be: for those of us who had “good” parents the opportunity means that we can still make up for relatively small childhood slights that occur even in great parenting; for others it’s the chance to right serious circumstantial, historical, or cruel-parenting wrongs. You don’t have to become a parent to do so, although that may hasten the process. Almost anyone can have a childhood “makeover” by entering into a loving relationship that includes unconditional care, and the bountifully showering of love on a niece, a nephew, an aunt, a friend, a lover.

Edith performed her do-over to heal one of the huge losses of her childhood, the loss of her doll. By naming Ingrid after her doll, she was able to recreate in her own life a pleasure of which her wartime childhood had deprived her. Moreover, she modeled for her daughter how to confer personhood to a supposedly inanimate and unresponsive being that will only come alive through the bestowal of character and spirit upon it. Like we others attempting a do-over, Edith probably made some mistakes, but never out of malice. Wisdom is hard-earned, though it often comes when you have already made mistakes. Fortunately we can apply our wisdom when another generation rolls around: your grandchildren, students, second marriage. Despite your non-malificent mistakes, your child will forgive you and keep loving you—just as his/her children will forgive and love them in the relay ritual of the generations.

* * *

As her mother before her, Ingrid was devoted to her doll family. During my correspondence with her over the past two years, she one day wrote me this email: “This morning, I dressed my childhood dolls in clothing my mother made. As a child, I would been horrified to leave any of my dolls lying around naked and exposed with limbs in anatomically impossible positions.


Left, two large dolls from Ingrid’s childhood, life-sized Elona and doll-sized Julie, in matching outfits made by Edith. Right, Julie and Elona, surrounded by the Barbies that joined their family after Ingrid, in turn, had became a mother. Note that Julie and Elona are wearing a different set of matching outfits. Says Ingrid, “My mother used to dress my dolls in the haute couture children’s fashions of 1960s Canada.”
“This past year,” Ingrid continues, “I have been learning about Canada’s First Nations history, culture, and current realities. One concept I have learned about is animism, giving a spirit to what settlers would consider inanimate objects. My dolls have always had spirit. I was chuffed that my mother respected that and that she indulged me by making “real” clothes for them.
 Above, Edith poses 4-year-old Ingrid standing up inside the box in which Elona, the life-size doll, came. Ingrid is modeling a new outfit that Edith had sewed for her.
In the odd reversal that dementia brings about, Edith has now become Ingrid’s “child.” Writes Ingrid, “Last week, I prepared her tax return and last month I filed a claim on her health insurance to get some of the medication costs reimbursed. I provide for her needs.” In addition to managing Edith’s paperwork from afar, Ingrid also takes care of her mother’s person when she visits her at Phare de Paix. “She allows me to dress her, take her outside. I am not sure that she recognizes me and yet I don’t believe she reacts to me as she would to a stranger. She trusts me. When I visit, we read the few letters she gets from friends and relatives in Germany, we play music, but very little seems to animate her anymore.”
Harkening back to how Edith acknowledged the “spirit” in her dolls by making “real clothes” for them, Ingrid thought of ways in which she could “give spirit” to her now largely unresponsive mother. “To give her some tactile stimulation and to distract her,” Ingrid says, “I made a hand muff with an inside lined on one side with velvet and silk on the other, with all manner of trinkets attached.”
Left, The first muff that Ingrid made for Edith. Middle, opening the muff reveals its silk-and-velvet lining. Right, Edith loves her muff.
Ingrid reports, “Edith’s German-speaking caretaker, Sarah, said it was wonderful—so I made more, all a little different.”
Above, Two of the additional hand muffs that Ingrid made for her mother, Edith. These muffs each sport a stuffed toy bird contributed by Ingrid’s brother, Reinhard, who is a very enthusiastic bird photographer. They play genuine bird calls.
Above, Front and back views of another muff that Ingrid made, a “jean shorts” confection with tactually and auditory stimulating objects in the pockets—check out that whoopee cushion!
Ingrid’s muffs are the only “play” objects that Edith still seems to recognize and want near her person.
* * *
Other than the loss of her doll, Edith carried other scars from the war into her life: like everyone in Berlin, the Buchsteiner family continually had to take shelter during the air raids. Edith, in particular, was very frightened by the noise and chaos. Ingrid recalls a trip to Germany with her mother many years later, long after Edith and her family had emigrated to Canada and a few years after her husband Helmut had died. Edith was about 70 years old. When mother and daughter went to a museum called The Story of Berlin, the air raid siren was sounded as part of the experience. Despite the 55+ years that had passed since the war, Ingrid remembers, “my poor mother was totally shaken up and in tears.”

Left, The Anhalter Bahnhof Bunker, now better known as the Berlin Story Bunker, is an air-raid shelter built during the Second World War close to one of the biggest train stations in Berlin. With more than six thousand square meters divided into five floors and more than 100 rooms, it was designed to protect 3,500 people at the time. But, in fact, history tells that about 14,000 people sometimes found protection and refuge there during Allied bombing. Right, Bombing victims laid out in an exhibition hall, autumn 1944.

Given the evident distress that the bombing caused Edith, her mother Ida took an opportunity that arose in the summer of 1943 to evacuate her daughter to Denmark through a program for children that was similar to a summer camp. A Danish family, the Fuglsangs from the town of Haderslev—very near the German border—took her in, together with another German girl, so that the girls might escape the war for a few blissful months. They lived in the servant quarters.

LeftThe Fuglsang Brewery, which was renovated in time for their 150th anniversary in the hands of the same family (2015). The architectural studio entrusted with the renovation incorporated some of the old silos, vintage vessels and conveyer belts, and other traces of the original malt house’s operations in their new design. Right, a soft drink from the Fuglsang brewery.

The Fuglsangs owned a malt factory and, in addition to being kind-hearted, seemed to have been a family of considerable financial means. The family had an uneasy alliance with Germany. Ingrid tells that one family member (perhaps the father or his brother) was later found guilty of treason by the Danish government for supplying German troops with beer, among other things. The Fugelsangs are still very prominent local business people. They continue to operate as a brewery and soft drink manufacturer on the same site. Ingrid and her partner, Ted, had a chance to visit the Fugelsang brewery in 2015 while in Denmark for a family funeral. “It was moving to see the house where Edith had for a brief time escaped the horrors of war-torn Berlin,” Ingrid says. “To establish my bona fides with the current owner, the son of Edith’s host father, I showed him a tiny album of miniature photos that the brew master’s wife had given to Edith as a keepsake.”

Left, In 2015, Ingrid visited the house in Denmark to which Edith was evacuated in the summer of 1944. She met one of the current owners,Sigurd Fuglsang, whose father hosted Edith. They are looking at an album of miniature photos that the brew master’s wife had given to Edith as a keepsake.
Edith’s summer in Denmark—the adolescent girl’s first time away from home—had an enormous and lifelong affirmative effect on her: it fed her voracious curiosity and spurred a desire for more travel. In addition to modeling a better life to which she could aspire after the war, her host family “took an interest in her.” Possibly in recognition of her facility in sewing and other crafts, her host father gave her a dress length of silk he had brought back from a visit to what was then known as “the Orient.” Sometime after the end of the war, Edith made herself a stunning dress out of the fabric. The dress might have been a project that flowed post-war enrollment in a Fashion Design program (1949, but that is not known for sure.

Above, Edith in a fashionable dress she made out of the silk fabric her Danish host father had given her.
After Edith’s return to Berlin, Ida arranged for studio portraits to be taken of her two daughters (1949), despite the ongoing war.


Above: Studio portraits of Edith, 13, (left) and her sister Gerda, 23, (right) that were taken in 1944; Gerda became engaged in 1939, at the start of the war, and married the next year, 1940, despite the war. She and her husband Heinz had three children, and the two eldest, Jürgen and Helga, were each caregivers to Gerda later on after Heinz had died, perhaps a decade before Gerda. Helga still sends letters, parcels, and greeting cards to Edith from Germany.

When the war ended in May 1945, German civilians did not experience much respite in regard to food and other shortages—the material conditions in Berlin and the rest of Germany became even worse. While planning for the occupation of Germany, the Allies were faced with the issue of whether food allocations for the country should be set at either the minimum needed to avoid disease and political disorder, or levels sufficient to fully meet the population’s needs. A principle of ensuring that Germans had no better access to food than the worst-affected Allied country was adopted, but not applied in practice. The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force initially set the ration scale for Germans at 2,600 calories per day, the same as levels in Belgium and France. The planners expected that a large portion of these calories would be produced by the Germans themselves.


Left, The hunger-winter of 1947, when thousands protested against the disastrous food situation (March 31, 1947). Right, The Tiergarten black market in Berlin.

It soon became evident that the Allied planners had underestimated the extent of the damage to German infrastructure, and overestimated the ability of Germans to grow their own food. Slave laborers who had been forced to work on German farms had returned to their homes, leaving hardly anyone capable of working the soil. The food scarcity was worsened by a period of poor weather. The output of German farms was sufficient to provide city residents with only 1,000 calories of nutrition per day. Since the Allies were unable to up the ration scales, they reduced their target from 2600 to between 1,000 and 1,250 calories per day.  Similar conditions prevailed over much of Europe. Thanks to the development of a black market, though, many German civilians (and better-off civilians in other decimated countries) were able to supplement these rations. Displaced persons, including Holocaust survivors, were allocated more generous rations.


LeftA German women washes clothes amid the rubble of her destroyed city, May 1945. Rightcollecting firewood near the Tiergarten. In the background: the Reichstag (City Hall). 1946.

Edith was 16 when the war ended. ( Photo: November 1945).

Despite the ongoing hardships at the end of the war, Germans embraced the return of ordinary pleasures such as enjoying the outdoors. During the summertime, summer camps were established for teenagers. Edith, who was 16 at the end of the war, attended such a camp where the young people learned to set up camp and then, in Ingrid’s words, “sang songs and tried  to regain some of their youth, forget the past.” It was at such a camp that, in 1947, Edith met her first big love and soulmate, her husband-to-be, Helmut Schmidt.


Above, In both photos, Ingrid is the curly-haired girl at the very left. In the second photo, Helmut is the bare-chested guy next to her (1947).

Edith and Helmut were married on March 24, 1951. Their son Reinhard was born on June 8, 1951. Ingrid reports that “it was always a joke in the family that Reinhard was ‘premature.'” In this regard, Ingrid thinks Edith was quite naïve when she met Helmut. Edith suggested as much when, during the trip to Berlin when an air raid siren brought to tears, they also went to a park where she pointed out a statue of a naked man. Until she met Helmut, she told her daughter, that statue was her only model of manhood.


Left, Edith and Helmut on their wedding day (1951). Right, Rhino, Helmut, and Edith in Berlin a few years before they emigrated to Canada (approx 1953).

Edith and Helmut were enchanted by their little boy, Reinhard (Rhino). They raised him (and later Ingrid) with great joy, which included a great sense of humorthis despite the fact that they still bore deep anger and hurt about the war. According to  Rhino, “both parents were reluctant to discuss the ‘dark years.’” His own memories of being a young boy in Berlin—they lived there from his birth until he was 5 years old—are few and scattered. He does remember that his mother gave him a bath “in a big pot/tub in the kitchen” in which he stood up. Once he performed “having a hissy-tantrum fit, kicking & screaming on the sidewalk, with a bunch of women—“clucking hens”—gathering around expressing their outrage that my parents would leave me alone like that.” His father, fact, was not far away. “Helmut was part of the crowd enjoying the spectacle, but he eventually picked me up in his arms amid onlooker moans of ‘poor little boy.'” He remembers, too, that his parents were very pleased that he tried to help around the apartment. “One day I watered the plants. Helmut was not pleased about the excess water dripping down onto an engineering homework assignment that he had to hand in quite soon.”

Above, A Berlin fish market, now known as Fisch-Schmidt, that operated during WW II. It is not known whether this was the market where Edith worked.

“Edith used to work at an open air fish market not far from home,” Rhino remembers, “and frequently brought unsold specimens home for supper.” Long after the war, Ingrid adds, their mother “never shied away from buying a whole fresh fish. She was very good at making fish fillets.”

Obtaining his engineering credentials enabled Helmut, in 1956, to seek a better future for his family in Canada. For a number of years after the war ended, Canadian maintained almost insurmountable restrictions on German immigration. By 1950, though, the restrictions were removed in order to relieve the shortage of craftsmen and engineers. As a result of these changes, over 400,000 people emigrated to Canada from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland between 1950 and 1970. Helmut was one of them, making the trip in 1956. After finding ways to make a living, he gave the word for Edith and 5-year-old Rhino to join him in Montreal. Mother and son set out on the long journey. They had a berth in the prow of a ship heading for Halifax.

Above, A cut-through diagram of the kind of passenger liner on which Edith and her son traveled from Germany to Canada in 1956. Although the image is not clear, it serves the purpose fo showing (on the right) the location of the cabins under the bow of the ship. It was in such a cabin that Edith suffered from sea-sickness for the entire journey.

As a fellow immigrant, I want to imagine Edith and Rhino, hair blowing in the wind, on the prow of the ship in an anachronistic tableau of Titanic’s most famous scene: arms outstretched to the future, flying, singing a song that

…will pierce the dark

fathoms: “Behold the miracle:

what was once lost

now leaps before us.”

The truth, however is far more prosaic. For Edith, indeed, the passage was sheer misery: she was violently seasick all the way across the Atlantic. For a curious 5-year-old left to his own devices, though, the journey was sheer bliss: he explored the whole ship on his own. Despite knowing only a few words of French and English, he made friends with everybody on board. “They thought I was so cute,” he remembers.

It is Rhino who gives us the joyous scene on which every immigration story should end: There he is, standing Jack-like at the bow of the ship as the wind blows through his hair, pumping his fists into the air and shouting, “I’m the king of the world! Woo hoo hoo!”

Life’s Biggest Challenges, bronze sculpture by Max Hojer Jacobsen (2017)


The poem excerpt that starts with “will pierce the dark” is from Rajiv Mohabir’s “Why Whales Are  Back in New York City.”