Those Stories: What Might Have Been
Ordinary life was hardly ordinary for Germany’s disgruntled masses in the early 1920’s, and the government continued to be challenged with fear of revolution and economic collapse.
Elsa’s parents, Wilhelm and Gertrüd, read the daily “zeitung” with trepidation, noting quietly among the newspaper articles the assassination of a liberal Jewish publisher whose real Germanness had been questioned right before his heart was cut out and delivered by post to his widow. The police did little about such incidents. Little was expected.
Long before the rise of Hitler and the Nazi movement, anti-semitism flourished in Germany, dating back to the Black Plague. But for more than a decade before the First World War, anti-Jewish sentiment waned, and Jews were beginning to feel that they could be full members of German society. The war changed that. In 1916, Jews were accused of shirking their military responsibilities, and a Jewish census was conducted. Jews were blamed for the lost war and the ensuing chaos of the Weimar Republic, defamed as the Judenrepublik (Jew Republic). Pogroms popped up in towns across Germany, echoing their counterparts in the Middle Ages. In everyday life, as well as politics, Jews were being targeted. Resort beach towns, like Nordseebad Nordeney in the North Sea, boasted that they were Judenfrei – free of Jews.
In 1923, Adolph Hitler was imprisoned for a failed coup, but he emerged a year later, recharged and touting Mein Kampf to all who would listen – and many did.
But for nineteen-year-old Elsa, the world still seemed full of promise. Outside the Bieberbau Theatre, stretched across the marquis that hugged the building, was the title of this month’s feature - Wie Herrlich Jung Zu Sein! - How Wonderful to Be Young! Inside, enthusiastic movie-goers lined up from four until ten, awaiting their dose of romance and escapism in an otherwise confusing world. They would be greeted by the fresh face of Elsa Stern, head cashier, eagerly selling tickets five evenings a week.
In spite of the Weimar’s other challenges, its movie production was flourishing, and the industry employed tens of thousands, from stars to projectionists and cashiers like Elsa. Germany won acclaim for dark, expressionist movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu that symbolically reflected the grim post-war mood. But others were more escapist. Elsa’s first taste of America came from that big screen in the form of heartthrob Rudy Valentino, swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, and silent film star Charlie Chaplin.
The job was no accident. Papa knew Herr Weiss, the owner of the theater, as a business associate. Always in search of a new way to make money, Willy had begun to syndicate movies through Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft, Universal Films Incorporated, leasing them to local movie houses. Weiss was no doubt expecting a little discount on Willy’s movies in exchange for the job. This, Herr Stern didn’t mind. He was, however, a bit worried about Weiss’ disturbingly free hands when it came to young women. But Herr and Frau Weiss lived right behind the theater, so Papa felt that Elsa would be safe. Except for an occasional wink or pinch, he was right.
Nonetheless, Elsa had her share of adoring young men who would flatter her with chocolates and pastries when they came to the theater, often to see the same feature a second or third time for an excuse to flirt with Elsa. One smitten Italian beau sent an elaborate layered cake to the cashier’s box. Elsa refused it at first, but her co-workers urged her to accept, and they all indulged with glee. Elsa loved the attention and always treated her admirers politely. Night after night, she would talk with the ushers, exchange girlish chatter, close up the cash register and watch the silent movies. Once in a while, she would meet a fellow after work and take a long stroll before heading home. Most often, after locking up the theater, she would meet her brother, Gerhart, and his friend Otto, to drink a spot of cognac or cider, and dance.
One night, as Elsa tiptoed in after an evening of dance, she heard her sister moaning from the bedroom above. Erika had married a striking, olive-skinned accountant named Misha, and Mama and Papa graciously invited them to use the maid’s quarters above their apartment. It was ideal for newlyweds – out of the way but within reach. But the marriage was not so ideal. Misha had taken to drinking and often didn’t return to his bed till late into the morning. And now, as the final insult, he had been arrested for falsifying the books of a business, and was spending a week in jail.
Elsa climbed to Erika’s room, careful not to wake the rest of the family.
“Erika? What’s wrong?”
The moans turned to sobs, but no one answered, so Elsa turned the doorknob and let herself in. Erika lay sprawled, half-naked, in obvious pain. Her hair was wet with sweat, the inside of her thighs spattered with blood.
“What on earth…?” The sound of her little sister’s frightened voice must have forced Erika to get control of her own emotions. She slowly caught her breath as Elsa stroked her brow, waiting for an answer.
“I did it. With a knitting needle. I just pushed it up there like my friend told me and...” Her voice trailed off. “I couldn’t have a baby now. I’m too young, and Misha is so …”
Misha was due to be released from jail the next day. Elsa guessed he didn’t even know that Erika had been pregnant. No one had.
“You might have really hurt yourself. Are you sure you’re all right? Shall I call for the doctor?”
“No! You mustn’t tell a soul, least of all Mama and Papa.” There was more than shame at work. A pregnant woman in 1920’s Germany who caused herself to abort was subject to a penitentiary sentence of up to 5 years. (By 1932, after years of economic and political turmoil, there were 44 abortions to every 100 live births. In 1933, over 30,000 German women were registered in criminal police files as having served some detention for an illegal abortion.)
“Let me wash you off.” Elsa brought back a basin of warm water and then a cup of hot tea with lemon. This was, perhaps, the only moment of her life that she could remember mothering her big sister.
Erika closed her eyes and fell into a fitful sleep as Elsa kneeled by her side.
It was not so long ago, Elsa remembered, that Erika and Misha seemed like such a handsome pair, so full of dreams. Love was such a fragile thing. Or maybe it wasn’t love at all. Who can tell if love is fleeting or steadfast, an illusion perpetrated by desire or a genuine connection of body and soul? How could Elsa know if she was ready to love if someone like Erika, so sensible and smart, was so easily deceived?
The next morning, Mama looked into Elsa’s eyes as if she knew all, but never a word transpired between them. In two months' time, Erika and Misha had their own apartment and she was working as a secretary in a fashionable lingerie establishment. Her world was pieced together again, at least through the eyes of an outsider. Elsa didn’t lose respect for Erika that night, but she did learn to see her as a dimensional human being. Even a woman as strong as Erika is vulnerable. Perhaps even a girl as frail as Elsa would have a time to show her strength.
For the moment, Elsa was content that many a gentleman had struck her fancy, but none had grabbed her heart. That, and the movies, were all that seemed to matter.
The dance hall was smoky but brightly lit, dotted with tables, energized by music, and bursting with youth.
“I spit on the American soldier,” said Otto with mock patriotism, “but I do love their music!”
Elsa and her brother Gerhart laughed. It was one of the ironies of post-war Germany. While the Weimar Republic remained a place of political agitation and economic uncertainty, it was also a place of cultural ferment, creativity, and, according some historians, nightlife so fueled by sex and booze that it can easily be labeled decadent. The young were drawn to the energy of modern music and dance spilling in waves from across the Atlantic. The band was a schizophrenic marvel, bouncing between the Viennese waltz, the popular foxtrot and an occasional detour into American jazz, complete with drums, a cowbell, and the flagrantly provocative shimmy.
Elsa sat at the small round table with her brother, Gerhart, and his handsome friends, cradling a glass of brandy in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and searching the room with her eyes. Unexpectedly, a towering, muscular blonde extended his hand to Gerhart.
“Herr Stern! We meet again!”
“In town for more amusements, Herr Andersen?”
“No place like Deutschland for the most beautiful Fräulein,” he mused as he tipped his head and turned to Elsa. No doubt a blush rose to her freckled cheeks.
“May I have this dance?” he asked, his hand outstretched. Elsa glanced at Gerhart who gave his tepid approval.
Together they danced the foxtrot, the waltz and the foxtrot again, moving close to the orchestra to admire the musicians. They were a striking couple, the kind you saw in the movies – Elsa in a blue crepe-de-chine dress, just slightly décolleté, tucked at the waist and falling in soft pleats, her dainty feet stepping flawlessly in ankle-strap heels, and Elon Andersen in his broad-lapelled gray suit, matching Elsa’s grace with uncommon ease. She had never danced with a man so nimble. When Elon swung her round with dizzying ease and lingered as he held her securely in a deep, back-curving dip, Elsa’s heart filled with desire before they ever had a conversation.
Words between them were both halting and amusing. Elsa’s knowledge of Swedish was non-existent, but Elon’s German was passable, having learned the basics in school and put them to use during holidays in Frankfurt and Hamburg. Peppered with hand motions, he talked of downhill skiing, of the Northern Lights, of Sweden’s long summer days, of relatives who had emigrated to America before the Great War. She spoke of her family and the movies. He taught her a Swedish tongue-twister that left her laughing. The end of the evening left them both eagerly anticipating the next Saturday at the dance hall. After just a few weeks, Elon was adopted by Gerhart and his discerning group of friends. Elon and Elsa wandered through the parks of Frankfurt, dined at elegant cafes, and fell in love.
Long-distance love is a tender, terrifying thing, even for the stout-hearted. Elon’s return to his home near Stockholm was a painful parting that was replayed after each weekend rendezvous. After a year of courtship, when letters and tears no longer sufficed, Elon and Elsa planned a tryst in Berlin, made proper by a visit to Elsa’s Aunt Malle. There, a walk in the Tier Garden at twilight brought dreams of the future and a proposal of marriage.
Neither the sobering politics unfolding across Europe nor their differing religions ever invaded the conversation. It was a simple time of long looks and laughter. Elsa loved Elon as twenty-year-olds often love, not in the way you love a man with whom you’ve spent fifty years of your life, or even in the way you love a man who has climbed inside your soul. It was, instead, an innocent and powerful passion with an assumed conclusion of marriage and children. So when Elon asked for her hand, Elsa instantly said Ja.
It was a turn in her life she had not anticipated nor one she would have chosen. Elsa enjoyed the adventure of travel, but she adored her home. Nevertheless, as the fiancée of Elon Andersen, she kissed her Mama and Papa goodbye, hugged her sister, brothers, and friends, sailed on to Stockholm, and drove a hundred kilometres to the small city of Eskilstuna to meet her future in-laws.
“Välkommen!” read the signs, and, indeed, Elsa did feel welcome. She was warmly embraced by the Andersens, a well-educated and cultured Evangelical Lutheran family with pale blue eyes and long Swedish roots. Sweden had remained neutral during the war, so her German pedigree was not an issue. Despite the growth of fascism and anti-Semitism, even in 1920’s Sweden, Elsa’s Jewish background was neither questioned nor degraded.
The Andersens’ home was immaculate and restrained, decorated with elegance but free of the knick-knacks and family memories strewn around the Stern household in casual clutter. Elsa unpacked her suitcase and sighed with relief that she had brought her most stylish clothes.
The couple’s first week together in Sweden was like a honeymoon – a warm, lazy ramble in the countryside, a stroll through old town on the east side of the Eskilstunaän River, hands clasped in easy love, a bike tour along the fingered shoreline of Stockhölm’s Lake Mälaren. The long summer days seemed to melt into midnight, tall church steeples and centuries-old chimneys blackening to silhouette against an orange sky. Like tourists, they visited the Rademacher Forges, which produced knives, scissors and weapons for hundreds of years. They marveled at the Sigurd Rock Carving, a vestige of the Vikings from whom Elon’s people had descended. Elon was eager to share the places of his childhood, of his homeland. On the personal itinerary were the factory in which his father managed the production of cutlery, the Högskola, the university where he had recently completed his engineering studies, and the tool company where he was now employed and struggling to get ahead in difficult economic times. Between destinations, Elsa and Elon stopped at coffee houses and breweries and celebrated their time together.
“Are you happy?” he asked.
Elsa didn’t hesitate in her reply. “I can’t imagine being happier.”
For the following six months, she kissed her fiancé on the cheek as he headed for work. With Elon’s mother at her elbow, Elsa embroidered pillows, dusted furniture, crocheted hats, and listened to fine music. She busied herself with activity, in part, because talk was sparse. Unlike Elon, his mother had never learned German; Elsa memorized that tongue twister that Elon had taught her, and remembered it decades later, but her Swedish was unusable. At times, the quiet made her feel like running away; then she would remember her promise.
Despite the language barrier, Elon’s mother was impressed with Elsa’s handiwork and helpfulness. She was, however, uncomfortable with Elsa’s modern ways. At a family dinner party, Mrs. Andersen gently but publicly reprimanded her future daughter-in-law for accepting a cocktail. She shook her head disapprovingly, took Elsa’s drink from her hand, then instructed a server to give her a seltzer.
"Payday evening — vote yes!"
The sentiment of this poster of a drunk husband in front of his weeping wife and children is reminiscent of Prohibition propaganda in the U.S. The 1922 referendum in Sweden was voted down, but 59% of women voted “Yes.” Mrs. Andersen was probably among them.
“You are not my mother,” Elsa whispered angrily but quietly, with her head bowed. Elon did not interfere. Often he was glad that his mother spoke no German and his father just a little.
It was a small thing that gnawed at Elsa’s fortitude: the invariable disappointment of Elon’s return from work each weekday. Time after time, she anticipated a romantic reunion – a passionate kiss stolen in an unseen corner of the house, an occasional rose purchased from a street vendor on the way home. But again and again, she was greeted by an attentive but tired partner who, after a brew at home and a sit-down with the newspaper, would lapse into Swedish, wooed into a discussion with his father about the quality of steel or growing unemployment. On the weekends, when Elon felt invigorated, he longed for a canoe ride or a ski trip, but Elsa, long the frail and protected daughter, wasn't adept in the world of sports, and was often left on the sidelines. Alone at a coffeehouse or dance hall, the fires would rekindle, then diminish again in the smothering heaviness of ordinary life.
As colder temperatures settled on the city and winter nights grew long and longer, an aching darkness descended onto Elsa as well. Over time, her desire to be with her own family in her own home grew overwhelming. It was not that there was anything wrong in Eskilstuna. It just felt empty. Wearing Elon’s gold engagement band, she returned to the comfort of 16 Seiler Strasse to quell her homesickness; she had every intention of keeping her nuptial promise.
Weeks turned to months. Letters were read with less fervor, and written with less frequency; disappointment was mitigated by the gazes of attractive young men. Before the year had ended, Elsa admitted her infidelity of heart in one final letter. Elon was angry, though it is hard to believe he could have been surprised. He did not cross the Baltic Sea to win back her love, but simply demanded that Elsa return his ring. My mother briefly considered his request, removed the gold band from her finger, and placed it in her jewelry box among other souvenirs of her life. Decades later, when I was in my thirties, I would occasionally wear that ring to hold up a scarf around my neck, not knowing the story behind it.
The ring that mattered, given by the man Elsa would love forever, the man who would become my father, was still more than ten years away. After my father’s death, my mother would often twirl the golden band on her bony, freckled finger. The gold had grown thin from wear, evaporating bit by bit with each passing year. Today it rests on my arthritic hand. I often find myself turning it absentmindedly, as if the touch reinforces my memories and the love that has passed from generation to generation.
Still, I wonder: what would my life have been if Elsa had married Elon? My half-Jewish mother would have slid through World War II almost unnoticed in neutral Sweden. I would likely have been raised a Lutheran, grown up celebrating summer solstice and Saint Lucia Day, eating crispbread and crayfish. I might have landed a job at a Pan-Nordic television station, shaking my blonde-haired, blue-eyed head at the craziness of American politics from five thousand miles away. Instead, I am a seventy-year-old Jewish kid from Queens, transplanted to the progressive west coast city of Portland, shaking my brown-haired, dark-eyed head at the craziness of American politics from 2500 miles away. Sånt är livet. Such is life.