I’m waiting at the airport with my husband, Ken, and our
two youngest daughters. My mother, whom I haven’t seen for fifteen
years, is arriving from Germany. In my mind, she is still the young
woman who was so important to me during my childhood. I am a little
girl again, excited and worried at the same time. Ignoring my teenage
girls’ giggles, I crane my neck to search the crowd for Mutti, as I still
call her. My heart is pounding, and I’m wondering whether she made it
safely. A young woman rushes through the gate, pulling her little boy,
and a gaggle of teenagers greet an older couple. The overhead loudspeaker
announces something unintelligible. I scan the crowds. Where is she?
Finally I see her. Her dark-blue travel suit looks freshly ironed. She
marches through the gate, wheeling a large bag, as if she knows exactly
where she is going. My heart swells with pride. She’s smaller than I
remember, but she doesn’t look her eighty-four years. Her once-black hair
is now an artificial auburn. The gray comes through at the roots, but her
eyes are still as dark and as brilliant as ever. Mutti spies me and waves, a
big smile on her face. We embrace. She doesn’t speak English, so as she
greets me and my husband, I translate for the grandchildren she has only
My husband drives us home as we talk about the family in the old
country. Mutti yawns. The trip must have taken its toll. While the kids
bring in her luggage, she lies down for a rest in Meagan’s bedroom, which
we have prepared to be hers for the length of her stay. While Mutti is
upstairs getting acquainted with her room, I’m thinking about the plans
we have made for this visit.
The next day, with the girls in school, Mutti and I sit down with our
drinks, a cup of hot chocolate for me and a cup of instant coffee for Mutti.
After a bit of prompting, Mutti begins to tell me her story.
“Before the war ended, things were terrible.” She takes a sip of her
coffee. “No one had any food; the Nazis were killing people indiscrimi-
nately; and everybody, hungry, cold, and afraid, was waiting for the end
we thought would soon come.”
My half-Jewish mother, a woman of much sorrow, despised and hated
by her own government, presented the world with new life at a time when
the Nazis were feeding her people by the millions to the furnaces.
During Mutti’s first two pregnancies, Hitler was still in power, and
Mutti didn’t dare see a doctor for fear of being recognized as Jewish. My
oldest sister was born in a circus caravan, far too early, and lived only a
Mutti became pregnant again early in 1945. She felt that if there
were a God, maybe he finally would have mercy on her. This time, surely
things would turn out all right.
In June the war ended, and Germany was again safe for people of
Jewish descent. Mutti and Vati, our father, were finally able to be mar-
ried by a representative of the new, thrown-together German government.
Just a few weeks later, Mutti gave birth to her second baby, this time in
Carmen too was premature. Her breathing was labored and painful,
and she hardly moved. The skin on her bottom was so thin, Mutti could
see the blood vessels through it.
The doctor’s eyes were red with exhaustion and discouragement when
he handed the new baby to Mutti. “I’m so sorry, Frau Francesco. There is
nothing I can do. The incubators are destroyed, and we just don’t have the
resources to keep your little girl alive.”
Mutti looked up, her face wet with tears. “Please, Herr Doktor, what
can I do?”
“Take her home. Try to feed her. If God wills, maybe she’ll survive.”
He smiled a tired, sad smile. “Your love can do more for her than what
we can do here.”
Mutti took the barely breathing baby home to their rickety, old
Amid putting up and taking down the circus, selling tickets, and
trying to entertain the war-shocked populace, Vati and Mutti took turns
feeding Carmen. She needed food every two hours, day and night. For
many months, it looked like she wouldn’t survive. Mutti pumped the
milk for her, and they fed Carmen first by eyedropper, and then when she
finally was able to suck, with a bottle.
When Carmen finally gained enough strength and started to take
solid foods, diarrhea hit. For days, she screamed with cramps and lost
almost all her bodily fluids. In desperation, Mutti took her to another
doctor in another town, where the circus was playing at the time. This
doctor was too overwhelmed with treating the wounded soldiers and
civilians pouring into the western towns from the east to worry about
one small baby. After a cursory examination, he told Mutti, “Your child is
severely dehydrated from dysentery.” “Can you help her, please?”
The doctor shook his head. “Since she can’t hold any liquids, I can’t
help her any more than you can. Try to keep her hydrated. That’s all
anyone can do for her. She might make it through.”
Mutti found a pharmacy and asked what could be done for dysentery.
The druggist sold her a small box with black carbon tablets. He warned
her to be very careful because such medicine could easily worsen the con-
dition. Faced with the danger of losing another child if she did nothing,
Mutti ground up half of one tablet, stirred it into a bit of oatmeal, and fed
it to her sick baby. Carmen survived.
Sometime in February 1947, Mutti stood, butter knife in hand, at
the table in the kitchen of her circus caravan. While spreading margarine
and strawberry jam on rye bread for little Carmen’s breakfast, she hoped
her period was just late. With unseeing eyes, she stared at Carmen, who
sat on a makeshift high chair, a block of wood covered with a pillow atop
a chair. The coal burning in the kitchen oven suffused the small room
with warmth. Carmen stuffed small bites of bread into her jam-covered
mouth. A cold, late-winter rain pounded on the thin caravan roof and ran
in rivulets down the window by the kitchen table.
Mutti stood in the kitchen and watched her baby eat. She didn’t know
if she could do this again. So far, each of her pregnancies had produced
premature babies, and Mutti was convinced she’d have another preemie if
she were expecting again. She wouldn’t have the energy to snatch another
child from death, not with having to sell tickets in the circus and care for
She wiped Carmen’s face, picked her up from the high chair, and
placed her on her hip. Automatically, she cleaned the kitchen table, all
the while thinking about her predicament. She couldn’t go through this
again. This time she’d break. But what else could she do?
Maybe her period was just late. She’d be all right. If this were a false
alarm, she’d be very careful from now on. Mutti placed Carmen into the
old playpen in the living room, sighed, and decided to tell Vati.
At noon, when Vati came in from putting up the circus tent, Mutti
told him. He comforted her and told her to wait and see. If there were
another baby, they would take care of it too. Surely this one wouldn’t be
premature, now that they had more and better food to eat. And this time
they’d surely have a boy, someone to carry on the family name and the
On September 29, 1947, I was born. I was lucky. I started life after the
war, full-term and in great health.
On one hand, Mutti was happy. On the other hand, I wasn’t the boy
they wanted. They didn’t even have a name for me, another girl. After
taking a few days to consider the problem, Vati decided to call me Sonja,
after his sister.
Eighteen months later, my sister Josefa was born. Mutti asked the
doctor if there was anything she could do so she wouldn’t get pregnant
again, but the doctor told her there wasn’t, and that she should consign
herself to God’s will and be glad he had given her these children.
Mutti, who lost her faith during the Nazi regime, cursed God, the
doctor, and her fate. Three children were too many in these hard times.
She wasn’t able to care for more and would do what she could to prevent
another pregnancy. But just eight months later, she was pregnant with her
*This prologue won first prize in the December 2005 Joyous Writing Contest.
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