Those Stories: A Crocodile and a Kewpie Doll
My curio cabinet holds many treasures from my parents, but two had captured my curiosity since childhood. One is a celluloid crocodile with the head of a black man in its jaw; the other, a threadbare kewpie doll. Why would these objects have made the long trip from Germany to America when so little could be brought on the journey? I didn’t know the answer until I was well into my forties and learned from my mother about the years that followed World War One.
Technically, the shooting stopped on November 11, 1918. Germany had little choice but to capitulate to the harsh terms of the Armistice. Crowds poured into Trafalgar Square in London and New York, celebrating the ceasefire despite the somber backdrop of a world depleted of more than 16 million. But Germany was still in chaos, its bellicose Kaiser exiled, political factions vying for power. Even the New York Times had to extend its headline to four lines to cover the events of one day.
For many months, Allied forces continued to blockade ships to coax a broken but proud Germany to sign a punitive peace agreement that became known as the Peace Treaty of Versailles.
From a German perspective, it seemed that the war had hardly ended but rather devolved into a state of hopelessness and perpetual civil unrest. Food shortages persisted. My mother, Elsa, remembered, with a mischievous twinkle, that she and sister Erika dug up a handful of carrots and potatoes from a farmer’s field when they were unable to find a market. Mama chided them for stealing but seemed thrilled to have something to place on the dinner table other than black bread and turnips.
Jobs, too, were scarce, and tempers flared. Just outside of the Sterns’ Frankfurt apartment, a drunken man wove his way down Seilerstraße, firing his pistol into the air, angry that he could not find work. Elsa was outside with her precious baby brother in her arms when she heard her mother screaming at them to take shelter. What a frightening moment that must have been for Mama and Mütterchen.
The Stern family carried on, buoyed by Papa’s still jovial presence and the return of such luxuries as piano lessons. When their music instructor stopped by, the children never knew what surprises might be in store.
“I’ll be prompting for Madama Butterfly tomorrow,” Frau Schmidt informed Elsa one evening. “Your Mama says you can come if you like.”
Elsa was enthralled by the costume, fanfare and passion of opera.
“I’ll bring a handkerchief!” The tears would inevitably flow during the tragic third act. And perched in the prompter box, watching Frau Schmidt mouth each word for the singers, Elsa felt more like a participant than a spectator.
“Help me choose a dress, Erika!” Elsa hurried down the floral-papered hallway excitedly to the bedroom they shared. Erika followed behind more slowly with a hint of big sisterly nonchalance.
While burrowing through her closet, the girls heard a thump, thump, thump on the ceiling. It was the familiar sound of Elsa’s first romantic interest, Theo Baer. This was a secret that had not been shared with Mama and Papa but was common knowledge throughout the neighborhood.
Without hesitation, Elsa pulled aside the lace curtains, opened the bedroom window, extended her head and peered up the fire escape to the angular young face staring down. And a handsome face it was. Theo was lean, dark-haired and very suave. But, most of all, what appealed to Elsa was his wit. He liked to laugh as much as she did. Their relationship was pure innocence with a dash of adolescent intrigue.
“I have a surprise for you, Elsa Rosa Charlotta Stern. Here it comes.”
Like a fisherman with bait, Theo gingerly lowered an object wrapped in tissue and tied with string.
Elsa looked to her sister for tacit approval as she awaited the arrival of the mysterious gift. Elsa plainly idolized Erika. She didn’t shadow every move or hang on every word, as younger siblings are wont to do. But she admired Erika for all the things she herself could never be; she envied her straight, dark hair, her athletic build and long stride. And she respected the fierce independence that led Erika to graduate from high school, determined to find a thinking person’s job. At this moment, however, Elsa needed only a smile, and Erika obliged.
Elsa unwrapped the object as soon as her fingers could safely grasp it. Inside was a six-inch painted crocodile made of celluloid. Its tail could be used as a letter opener. On its belly, Theo had etched his name. Its open jaw held a tiny black pencil with the head of a frightened black boy.
Elsa blew Theo a kiss and retreated through her window.
Erika looked at her younger sister with what Elsa felt was a touch of jealousy. Elsa's optimism and vibrancy seemed unscathed by the war. Her beauty was effortless and unpretentious, and Elsa reveled in it without flaunting it. Flirtation was her most natural state of being.
“Theo is quite taken with you, young lady.”
“I know,” Elsa responded, suddenly sullen and listless, her head slumped between her knees.
“What’s wrong, liebe?”
“I don’t feel well,” she said weakly.
“I’ll get Mama.”
Gertrüd was worried. As if the war had not wrought enough devastation for a generation, a virulent form of influenza had become a worldwide pandemic. The so-called Spanish flu spread through Europe, taking as its victims the vulnerable masses – returning soldiers, undernourished children, women worn out from work and deprivation, even the healthy. Just last week, Seilerstraße had grieved the death of a ten-month-old girl Elsa had held in her arms. Mama understood that a touch of influenza could kill her youngest daughter.
For a week, Elsa’s adolescent adventures became secondary to survival. Though the house was full of helpers, only Mama nursed Elsa, day and night, until her fever broke and her smile returned. The doctor who came to see her was reticent to offer a clean bill of health, but found her progress encouraging. “Just continue on this medication and ring me if you have any concerns.”
Wobbly and drained, Elsa was nevertheless elated to get back on her feet. On the mend, she made a trip to the apothecary shop to refill her prescription. She exchanged pleasantries – or, perhaps, flirted – with the druggist’s assistant, Joseph.
“I’m glad to see up and about again, Fraulein Stern.”
“I thought I’d never get out of that bed! It’s good to see sunlight again.”
Joseph gazed into her eyes, my mother remembered, but his intentions may have been less than romantic. When Elsa left the pharmacy, Joseph immediately called Mama, and recommended that the doctor look in on her again – just in case.
Gertrüd Stern might have dismissed this young man as uneducated or infatuated, but what mother could ignore such a warning? Mama called a well-respected doctor for a second opinion. By the time Elsa returned from her first outing, Papa had been summoned home, and the Professor Reimer was on his way.
Even late in life, my mother seemed to remember the professor warming his stethoscope and placing it on her chest, repeating Breathe in and Breathe out. The examination seemed an eternity of waiting.
The Stern family gathered to listen to the diagnosis. “There seems to be a soft spot in Elsa’s left lung. No need for alarm. We’ll monitor it, but Elsa is frail and needs rest. She could benefit greatly from several months in a sanatorium.”
The professor might have arched his eyebrows as he glanced at Willy, as if to question finances. Treatment of tuberculosis – or the suspicion of tuberculosis – could be a costly proposition. Since the mid-1800’s, most doctors advocated the “fresh air” approach, sending patients to sanatoriums across Europe. It was hoped that separation from family and friends would slow the spread of the disease, while a healthy dose of optimism, rest and, eventually, exercise would smooth the way to recovery.
Fortunately, the family’s finances were on the mend. After the war, a relative had offered Wilhelm the opportunity to sell Romano cigarettes (a brand my mother recalled but I cannot verify). On the package, supposedly, was an illustration of a ballet dancer that Papa felt was too prissy to attract customers. The cigarettes were bitter, according to my grandfather, but Germans were willing to sacrifice quality to get a smoke – any smoke - and Papa was turning a decent profit.
This cigarette case from Germany around the 1920’s sports the kind of graphic that Wilhelm thought would sell more cigarettes. What irony that the sale of cigarettes funded Elsa’s recovery from lung disease.
“We will manage,” Wilhelm said.
Many months passed before the family settled on the Nordrach Sanatorium, 1500 feet up in the Black Forest in southwestern Germany. The Professor had scribbled a phone number. “Ask for Dr. Linovski,” he had said.” “He is quite competent.”
Decades later my mom could still recall the morning that she and Papa boarded the train for der Schwarzwald – the Black Forest. Mama and little Joe waved goodbye from the platform. Wilhelm carried the bag with his daughter’s favorite and most comfortable clothes, while Elsa clutched a book for the train ride and an overcoat for the change of season. Elsa wasn’t nervous, though she wasn’t certain what to expect; it was as if she were going on holiday without the family. Her breathing was a bit labored and her legs unsteady, but her heart was full with anticipation. As the train climbed into the high, rugged terrain, her pulse beat more rapidly. She was off on an adventure.
“Do everything the doctor orders, ja?” Wilhelm instructed his spirited child.
“I will, Papa.” As he gently stroked her shining red curls, she felt the tears come to her eyes unexpectedly.
It didn’t take long for Elsa to fall into the sanatorium routine. Because she did not require 24-hour care, Elsa was allowed to stay at the lodge, where patients were given individual rooms, a strict regimen, and a modicum of freedom. During the day, patients rested in the great outdoors until they were ready for more strenuous exercise. At night, they slept with open windows, regardless of the temperature. Food was abundant.
Near the lodge was a hospital where those suffering more acutely would struggle for their lives. Occasionally, a lodge-dweller would be transferred to the hospital or a recovering hospital patient would be sent to the lodge for further convalescence. Hospital patients not yet bed-ridden could be seen from the lodge balcony, sitting outside in a small garden, blankets draped over their laps. Both groups shared the stigma of segregation from the healthier society of the outside world, yet there was little contact between them, as if the patients tacitly acknowledged how tenuous were the divisions, how a day or a week could change the course of a life, or snuff it out entirely.
From her room, Elsa could see the dense expanse of tall spruce trees leading up to a sky of forget-me-not blue and down into the valley to the modest village of Nordrach. It was an idyllic place for daydreaming when time allowed. The daily agenda was fixed, and patients didn’t have to concern themselves with much decision-making or such trifling worries as washing clothes or changing sheets. For six months, Elsa woke at seven, freshened up with her wash commode, and readied for breakfast at nine. Each weekday morning, she would watch the schoolteacher across the way try to peek at her as she dressed; and every day, she would pull the curtains together with a smile. This unfulfilled lechery was the source of a good giggle with friends later in the afternoon. Breakfast served in the common dining room was the first social event of the day, followed by the mainstay of sanatorium treatment – fresh air.
In the morning, Nurse Hilde would escort a group of patients on a moderately paced walk through the woods on established paths. The exercise was designed to build strength, but Elsa wasted no time in flirting with a handsome university student from Luxembourg who spoke both French and German, and gossiping with Dora, a sixteen-year old from Dresden with wavy, blonde hair.
In the afternoon, patients stretched out on chaise lounges beneath the overhang of the lodge roof, sipping “seltzer wasse” from the mineral springs. Elsa would often bring her pillow for comfort, or a wool blanket when the air was crisp. She sketched pictures of the hillside, adding copious flowers, and consumed biographies of actors and opera stars. Obsessed with the mysterious Grigori Rasputin, she devoured everything she could find about the “Black Monk of Russia.”
But most of all, Elsa talked, as is the penchant of most adolescent girls, for at least two or three hours each day.
“Do you think we will die here?” whispered Dora over lunch in the cafeteria. The sky was gloomy, my mother recalled, but she resisted such a bleak prognosis.
“Certainly not! The time is going fast, isn’t it? Three more months, and home I’ll be – before the snow!”
“Ah, I thought so, too – until July, when the doctor said I wasn’t quite ready. I have been here for nine months now, and it is beginning to feel like my life.”
Elsa hadn’t reflected on the possibility of a lengthier stay.
“Maybe we could find a dark-eyed mystic like Rasputin to cure me,” Dora quipped, “instead of that wrinkled old Dr. Linovski!”
“Or maybe you could ask the cute, blonde-haired priest for a special blessing!”
As soon as the words left Elsa’s lips, she wondered if Dora would take offense.
First, Dora stared at Elsa; then she burst out laughing. There was nothing, it seemed, more therapeutic than the company of a friend.
Despite the fact that death was so close at hand, religion was not a regular part of their institutional life. The handsome, young priest who looked like he should be wearing a pair of skis instead of a collar occasionally delivered an invocation before dinner and talked with patients in need of comfort. But most of the time, Elsa didn’t think much about the fact that she was the only Jewish person at the lodge. And, as far as she could tell, neither did anyone else.
(Years after my mother’s death in 2000, while researching these stories, I discovered that there was another pulmonary hospital in Nordrach – one funded by the Rothschilds and built exclusively for Jewish women. It would have been less costly, but it was an Orthodox Jewish institution, and, I presume, my mother’s mixed pedigree would not have passed muster.)
Deviations from the routine were seldom but dearly anticipated. One evening, when the twinkling village lights called to them, Elsa and her sanatorium friends hiked down the wooded hill on a dirt path pounded flat by rebellious predecessors. The winding trail led to a rustic tavern favored by the townspeople of Nordrach and visited secretly by those lucky enough to escape from the Schwartzwald sanatorium for a night of frolic. The crisp, healthy air was saturated with the strong smell of knockwurst and the sweet aroma of apple cider. Hard cider. Within a mile or two of the supervised environment of the sanatorium, Elsa and her friends meandered up and rolled down the hillside, laughing uncontrollably as cider spilled from the jug. Somewhere in the darkness, the student from Luxembourg left a kiss upon her lips.
During her free time in the early evening, Elsa wandered over to the hospital garden where a handful of tuberculosis patients were taking in the cool twilight air. As far as I could ascertain from my mother, there were no formal restrictions between the seriously ill patients and those at the lodge; doctors may still have been uncertain of how pulmonary TB was passed from one person to another. Still, meetings were rare. Perhaps those whose ailment had brought them to the hotel-like atmosphere of the lodge did not like to be reminded that they were but a step away from a similar fate. Perhaps there was a touch of guilt in the easy pleasure of lodge life compared to the obvious discomfort of the TB patients at the hospital. Whatever the reason, paths seldom crossed.
When Elsa first saw Anna, she was seated in a white, wooden chair, wrapped in white muslin. Her hair was long, dark and braided, her gaze wandering, as if desperate to connect with somebody. Anna was seventeen, and it looked to Elsa that she would die of loneliness long before she would succumb to TB. When Anna caught Elsa’s lingering glance, she waved. Elsa waved back, then continued her stroll. The following evening, when Anna was again in the garden, Elsa turned into the scrupulously landscaped hospital grounds, and, standing at an awkward distance, introduced herself to Anna.
“Grab a chair,” Anna said eagerly.
There was an embarrassing silence as Elsa seated herself and wondered why she had come. Suddenly, she blurted out the first thing that came to her mind.
“Are you very sick?”
Anna was gracious. “Not as sick as some. I don’t feel so bad. Only sometimes… The nights can be long.”
“You have wonderful hair,” complimented Anna.
“Oh, it’s too curly. I can never get it to grow long, like yours.”
“Hermann did like my hair. Sometimes, I would let him comb it. He said it was very soothing.”
“My boyfriend. At least, he was.”
“Does he write to you?”
“Oh, yes. At the beginning he even sent little presents. Books to read. A funny-looking doll that amused him. He said he hoped it would make me smile for a while.” For a brief moment Anna seemed lost in the past, but quickly rebounded. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Not really. Back in Hamburg, there’s a boy who teases me – and I tease him back. But I feel more grown up now. Like I’m ready for something more. Does that sound terribly silly?” Elsa realized that she had easily slipped into talking with Anna the way she used to talk with her older sister, Erika.
“Not at all. Life is all about being ready, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know if I’m ever ready for anything. I wasn’t ready for the war, or the food rations, or for this. I just try to take it as it comes.”
“Same thing,” said Anna.
For three consecutive days, Elsa and Anna exchanged girlish gossip in ten or twenty-minute chats, until Anna began to withdraw from fatigue. On the fourth day, and on the fifth, Anna did not come. Elsa continued her nightly stroll, telling no one about her friend and her fears. On the tenth day, Elsa found Anna seated in a wheelchair with a nurse in attendance. The nurse motioned to Elsa to keep her distance.
“I’m glad you came tonight,” Anna said weakly. Her voice had grown raspy, her breathing more labored than before. “I brought you something. The nurse disinfected it with hydrogen peroxide, and wrapped it in a clean cloth.”
The nurse took a small package from her satchel and handed it gingerly to Elsa.
“It was a gift from Hermann,” Anna continued. “I’d like you to have it.”
Elsa unfolded the wrapper with care. She understood its contents were precious. Inside was a small, porcelain Kewpie doll, a toddler with ruddy cheeks, a mischievous grin and arms raised in a victory stance as if these were his first steps. He was clothed in a shiny black silk jumpsuit.
Elsa examined the doll tenderly. “Danke,” she whispered.
“Will you take care of it for me?” Anna looked longingly into her friend’s eyes.
Elsa nodded. She wanted to hug Anna, to hold her, but she was frightened. Instead, she placed her fingers on her lips and extended a kiss in Anna’s direction. Through her tears, she watched Anna and her nurse disappear into the hospital.
Elsa never knew exactly when Anna died but she never saw her again. She looked out at the garden for several days, but it was a sentimental gesture rather than a real hope. The kewpie doll occupied a safe place on her dresser, a reminder of Anna’s tragedy and her own good fortune. During Elsa’s stay at the sanatorium, she had gained weight and grown stronger. Her family visited several times and enjoyed their outings, their hearts lightened by the sight of Elsa’s optimistic prognosis. At the end of six months, Dr. Linovski declared Elsa a woman of good health.
“I would caution only that you should not yet have any children. That might be more than your body could withstand.”
Elsa must have grinned. Getting married and bearing children was the last thing on her mind. After months in captivity, however luxurious and verdant, she was ready to take in the delights of ordinary life. She collected her personal items, the kewpie doll among them, and gleefully headed back to city life.
Who knows what went through Elsa’s mind many years later as she fled from the Nazis? Forced to abandon her apartment, she left hurriedly with a small valise packed with clothing, a single book, and a handful of memorabilia. Among the treasures brought to America were the plastic crocodile that young Theo lowered to the girl he fancied, and the kewpie doll she protected from harm, honoring a promise to a girl who never had a chance to find love again.