This is not how my mother told the story. In fact, she wouldn’t have told it at all if my nephews, after Sunday breakfast, hadn’t asked to see old photographs, then wondered why the corner of their great-grandfather’s family portrait had been cut away. It was my father who said the picture-clipping most likely happened on the day when Adolf wouldn’t drown. My mother, Anna, was five at the end of World War II. We all laugh when Dad describes how she fished the family’s hollow plaster wall plate of the Führer from the pond grandma had thrown it in—inexpert iconoclasm foiled by a kindergartener’s innocence. We laugh because my grandmother laughed when, perhaps two decades later, she told my dad how she had to bust up Hitler with a hammer. We laugh because laughter forestalls terror, turning my grandmother’s frantic desperation in the hours between one army and the next into a funny anecdote. We laugh because we’ve never dared to cry.
I picture the day my mother saved Adolf Hitler as filled with springtime sun, an outpouring of unseasonable warmth upon the villages of upper Swabia. Children—even those who do own shoes—run barefoot in the lengthening grass, buoyed by a rare reprieve from endless chores: after listening with grim intensity to the drone of the Wehrmachtsbericht emanating from the radio, mothers and grandparents on Otterswang’s two-dozen farms have exchanged silent glances then sent all kids to play outside.
The big children vanish in a flash. Little Anna pouts as she squints after them; her older sister Elfriede, delighted that for once she has not been told to watch either Anna or baby Alfred in his pram, has flown off with her friends from school.
Anna swallows hard. Turning her back on the road down which the older children have disappeared, she wanders alone among stables and sheds. The dairy cows have not been turned out to pasture after the morning’s milking. Balancing on the lintel to the byre, she watches whiskered jaws perform their grinding waltz on last year’s hay. Dark eyes gaze back at her, round and patient, but Anna remembers the wet rasp of their long tongues as they explore backs of knees or crooks of elbows for salty sweat; she will not walk down the stable aisle. When the cat drops down the ladder from the hayloft, his black body curling and uncurling itself into a descending triplet of musical notes, Anna backs away, her eyes fixed on the cat’s stiff tail. She turns and runs across the barnyard, averting any chance that he might rub himself against her legs.
At the big puddle under the weeping willow she stops then squats, watching ducks take their pretend-baths, the minuet of dipping bills and heads, the pearls of water spraying rainbows as they somersault along white-feathered backs and shaking tails. When the ducks re-group into a line, Anna falls in behind as they meander through the grass under the apple trees and out beyond the orchard to the pond. At the water’s weedy edge, they launch themselves on the still surface in a low-voiced cacophony of private chatter, conversations no more comprehensible than those of the adults at home. Anna’s gaze follows them—ducklings, unlike children, are born already knowing how to swim.
As they approach the middle of the pond, a flash of white hooks Anna’s eyes. Squinting against sparkling water wrinkled by paddling feet, she catches another flash then another. Whatever is out there with them is much whiter than the ducks. Whiter than paper, Anna thinks. Whiter even than bleached laundry flapping on a line. White as the stucco angels in Saint Oswald, Otterswang’s baroque village church. Of course it isn’t possible for an angel from Saint Oswald church to be floating in the pond. But what if it really is? The clarity of calcined white shines out again, stark and ethereal against the water’s green.
The first step from sun-drenched grass into the shallows feels cool but not icy, not threateningly cold. The next two steps wash chilly wetness up above Anna’s knees; she yanks her dress up with both hands. Is the white thing worth ruining her clothes? Her arms and legs shudder with the memory of slaps raining down on them—Mrs. Klopp’s punishment for mud stains and rips in the brittle, re-used fabric of children’s skirts. For many months Anna, Elfriede, and their mother shared a room in Mrs. Klopp’s house in the nearby city of Biberach with another evacuee woman and her children, before baby Alfred’s arrival. In Biberach there was no choice: all children dove into the dirt in mid-play every time planes thundered low and fast over the neighborhood. Sometimes bullets whined and thudded anyway. Nevertheless, Mrs. Klopp regularly spanked the children before she made them stand in her kitchen sink to sponge them down.
But there is nothing to be afraid of here, only another flash of white, as the drifting object bobs in the wake of passing ducks. Another step then another; Anna pulls her hemline up to shoulder-height as frigid water circles from her belly button to her lower back. Bunching fabric in one fist and stretching it high above her head, she steps again, her toes in search of purchase in the mud. She reaches with her other hand, inches the thing towards her with her fingertips.
Wading ashore, she squeezes it tight against her chest, wraps it in her apron as she stumbles towards the farm’s tiny annex house. There is no time to examine her catch. She needs to take it home, right now, to show it to mother, because mother loves beautiful things. Often—too often—she brings home flowers from the farm down the road where she works. Anna has to bite down anger on those nights; delight in arranging lupines, larkspur, or bobbing globes of peonies makes mother forget that the farmer once again showed his appreciation for her under-paid hard work by handing her a gift of something easily expended—flowers from an over-flowing garden bed—instead of giving her some food.
When he comes to visit from far-away Essen, Grandpa Wilhelm always spends his days in Swabia wandering from one village to the next, and each night when he walks back to Otterswang, his knapsack—emptied of cigarettes, extra sheets, and small items the family can do without—bulges with potatoes, bread, and eggs. But for mother, it is flowers, only flowers. And you can’t eat them; not even the sweet-smelling peonies, not even the lupines that turn to pods like peas after their petals drop. The white thing, Anna knows, will make mother exclaim with delight. It must be better even than the whitest rose, because the rose, after a few days, will droop and die. Angels last.
The stone tiles in the entrance to the annex chill Anna’s naked soles. A shiver runs along her spine as yet again she wonders if old Mrs. Lang, their landlady in Otterswang, might be a spirit now, lurking in the dark below the stairs. The few remaining village men carried Mrs. Lang’s coffin out the front door a week ago. Grandpa Wilhelm, looking after them, took off his cap with one hand and gave Anna’s shoulder a squeeze with the other. Only when the procession had reached the road down to St. Oswald church, he said: “They don’t know how lucky they are. Essen has no wood for coffins left. I sat with your grandma Sophie for five nights before I found one for her.” Anna still wonders why lack of wood might make grandparents sit up at night, but somehow it means that Grandpa Wilhelm, even though he left just yesterday, will be coming back to Otterswang to live with them for keeps. She hopes it will be soon.
The village women have aired and scrubbed old Mrs. Lang’s rooms on the first floor of the annex; soap and ammonia still tinge the whiff of mold and old potatoes wafting up the basement stairs. The wooden steps to their own two rooms on the second floor reassure Anna’s toes with roughness as she climbs. Having no hand free, she nudges the door to the living room open with her shoulder then stands, dumb-struck, in the unexpected heat.
The little pot-bellied stove blazes orange. The room’s small windows—one above the sofa, where Grandpa Wilhelm sleeps at night, and the other by the table, where they eat when mother cooks a meal for them instead of shooing them over to the farmhouse kitchen, where the cat inevitably brushes against Anna’s naked calves as they eat with all the Langs—gape wide to dissipate the scorching air.
But mother isn’t cooking. Anna can’t see what she is doing sitting at the table, hunched over a box and several fat books. As Anna walks towards the table, something smooth and sharp-edged sticks to the bottom of her foot. She tries to scrape it off, left sole against right shin, struggling to balance while she clenches the heavy, sodden thing against her chest.
Snippets of glossy paper blink all around her mother’s chair. Anna takes another step. Rip, go mother’s hands, dislodging a photograph from the album. Snip, go the scissors, setting another clip adrift from lap to floor. Anna inches closer, drawn by the forbidden scissors’ metal glint. Too well does she remember that day in Essen, long ago and far away, when she yielded to the scissors’ siren call. One by one, the fabric flowers fell from her parents’ bed spread as she maneuvered the blades around curved petals, cutting carefully between one printed blossom and the next. Mother had interrupted that day’s thrashing with the carpet beater only to hold the scissors up to Anna’ face: “Don’t you ever, ever touch these again.”
And Anna hasn’t touched them, not today. She also hasn’t broken anything! Not like the day in Essen when she found the hammer and brought it down on her parents’ bedside lamps—she had been angry then, though now she cannot quite remember why. At Elfriede, maybe, who said that Anna was too small to play? Or at Mother, who had grabbed the laundry basket and run down to the clotheslines in the yard, saying that she had no time to finish reading the story they’d just started in the basement, before the sirens sounded the all-clear and they all climbed back upstairs? Whatever it had been, it wasn’t like today. Anna wasn’t angry when she saw the angel’s whiteness beaming from the pond. And now its cool solidity against her chest and arms feels reaffirming in the heat. She has saved it, has brought it home for mother. She has not broken anything.
Sweat worms its way down Anna’s neck. She meant to present it with a flourish—look at what I found for you!—but now, her voice sticks in her throat. Slowly, she takes another step, lifting the wet package onto the table, next to her mother’s books and cardboard box. The snip-snip of the scissors stops. Without looking at her mother, Anna unwraps one apron tail and then the other, pushes the thing into the table’s center, steps away. The liberated fabric’s slap against her thighs chases waves of goose bumps up across her ribs and neck. In the dim room, the angel’s alabaster sheen dulls to a sodden gypsum gray.
“Oh no,” mother’s voice comes out beside her, sounding—not of carpet beaters—but also not at all like Anna has imagined it would sound. It is all flat, without a trace of lupine-purple joy.
“It was in the pond,” Anna says, licking her dry lips. “It was drowning!”
“Drowning,” mother’s voice repeats, with no tone at all.
For a moment, it seems that old Mrs. Lang’s ghost reaches a long arm from beneath the stairs, swirling must and tangs of ammonia against their ankles. Then Anna’s eyes follow mother’s, from the table upward to an empty nail on the wall above the stove, and back down to the table top.
“Yes,” mother says, still tonelessly, “I suppose I should have known he wouldn’t drown.”
Color rushes across mother’s cheeks as she shakes her head. Chair legs scrape against the floorboards; her steps quickly fade down the stairs.
Anna looks at the angel. She now can see that it is just a face, shaped from plaster in an oval plate, not an entire figurine. Its nose and mustache seem familiar. Her eyes wander back to the nail on the wall. She suddenly remembers that none of the angels down in Saint Oswald’s Church wear mustaches. Is that why this one has been banished from the church? Is that why father, when he visits in between surgeries in the military hospital, stands in silence, his arm in its plaster shoulder cast sticking out at an odd angle, and stares sternly at this angel’s face?
The baby moans. Anna glances towards the crib. Alfred’s arm, naked and moist with sweat, rises and drops back down, once, twice. Again, as Anna’s left foot tries to dislodge the something stuck beneath it, scraping itself against her shin, her eyes travel to the empty nail: Is the angel she found really the same one that used to hang above the stove? She knows they brought the other angel, the wooden virgin Mary in the bedroom, with them each time that they have moved. At night, Anna often drifts to sleep while mother and Elfriede talk to Mary in a low drone. But Anna can’t remember either one of them speaking to the angel on this wall. Except once—that time when mother’s voice sounded like ducks scolding the cat. Has this angel always been here then, like the stove? Or did it come with their furniture on the train from Essen, very far away, from where their old apartment now stands empty without window panes?
Footsteps creak back up the stairs. Turning towards the door, Anna’s eyes find the hammer dangling from mother’s hand.
“Step back,” mother says.
Will she pound in another nail? If the angel on the table is the one that used to hang here, then maybe one nail was not enough to keep it from flying out the window and falling in the pond? Anna takes a step backwards, her eyes glued to the plaster cast.
“All the way back,” mother says. “Get on the sofa. And put your face in the pillow.”
There is no give in the voice, no room for questions. It is the voice from long ago and far away; the voice that tells Anna to hold on and run as a hand yanks her from sleep and down three flights of stairs, the voice that knows the bombs are coming down. Anna does what it says. The sofa’s leather grabs her shins as her face prickles in the pillow’s velour.
The hammer’s smash is followed by the baby’s wail then, each time the baby pauses to catch his breath, the dull clink-a-clink of plaster shards and paper scraps, the swish of broom straw over unwaxed boards. Anna’s face turns from the pillow’s scent of grandpa Wilhelm’s soap and sweat towards the sofa’s back for air. Her fingers pry itchy curls from her damp forehead then scrabble at the stubborn cardboard triangle still stuck to her left foot. Peeling it off, she curls herself around it, her back a shield against her mother’s eyes. Cradling the snippet inside her hand, she tilts it into the sun slanting through the tiny window. It is part of a photograph, showing just the shoulder of a man, severed by the scissors’ snip. Above the dismembered shoulder is another picture, framed and hung upon the wall. The man in the framed picture wears his hair parted severely on the right. Just like the angel. And there, under the familiar nose, is the angel’s small mustache.
Behind Anna’s curving spine, the wailing baby draws a breath. Shards and paper skitter from the dustpan’s metal; the stove door jolts her body with its clang.
I’ve asked my mother if she cried when my grandmother smashed the plaster plate. She says she didn’t because her mother’s distress seemed so much bigger than her own. I’ve asked what she thinks my grandmother was so upset about. She says she didn’t know, but later thought it must have been because her mother realized how easily her daughter could have drowned. I’ve never pressed mom to imagine other possibilities, reasons why on this day her mother’s initial shock did not dissolve into relief, a hug accompanied by tears.
A five-year-old’s memories are fragments, a kaleidoscope of moments, not a logical sequence of events in which the Wehrmachtsbericht predicts when French troops will arrive in the villages surrounding Biberach and frightened women rush to destroy evidence that might incriminate the family. The details of this story—the landladies, the older sister who wouldn’t play, the stove, the sofa, the wooden stairs, the lupines, the scissors and the bedspread, the bashed-in bedside lamps—all appeared in snippets over decades of tea time anecdotes. By everyone’s accounts, my great-grandfather Wilhelm really did refuse to go to the basement for five nights and sat by the body of his wife as she lay on the sofa in their living room and bombs fell all around. But my mother, who refused to look at any films or books that touched upon the war, never connected finding Hitler in the pond to the storm her own mother saw brewing on that sunny day’s horizon. Instead of talking about soldiers, she tells me of the dream in which she drives over the black cat: her youngest grandson gets out of the car, picks up the cat, and lays it on the seat between them. She wakes herself screaming as its fur touches her skin.
The scientist in me pored over census data, weather records, maps, the movements of French troops through upper Swabia. But early childhood is coded not in words and dates but in sound and taste and touch, a clenching in the belly, a quiver in the knees. And so I found the curve of five-year-old Anna’ spine, the turning away from her mother as she curled around the picture on the leather sofa, not in her telling, but in the way she hung up the phone a hundred times, whenever my grandmother began to speak about the war: “Mother, I don’t have time for that right now.”
A generation of wartime children slammed down the phone’s receiver, refused to look anywhere except ahead. A generation of parents, having brought down the world in smoking rubble around everybody’s ankles, smashed the busts and burned the pictures, hid Mein Kampf behind the linens in the closet, and never knew how to explain. Only in Oz do munchkins dance and sing after the house has crushed the wicked witch. In Germany, the clang of the oven door left only silence to reverberate in children’s ears.
The farm pond, which my mother sought with then-inexplicable urgency when we re-visited Otterswang on a last trip with my grandmother decades ago, no longer exists: one of the Lang’s children told us it had been filled in soon after the war. If anything was discovered on the muddy bottom after it was drained, he failed to mention what it was.
And so, like a kindergartner clutching a necklace of sparkly beads, here I am, seventy years after my mother pulled Adolf Hitler from the pond, proffering this storyline I’ve threaded from the way in which she—the mom who picked up spiders by a leg to carry them outside, the mom who asked if she might pet the iguana at the reptile zoo—recoiled in horror when my sister and I brought her the homeless cat, and from the way in which the water always was too cold whenever we asked her to swim. “Look, mom!” I hear the kindergartener saying as her pudgy fist dangles sticky plastic trinkets, a half-dissolving string of pink and purple cows and ducks and cats, “look what I’ve made for you!”
Catharina Coenen is a plant biologist and first-generation German immigrant to Northwestern Pennsylvania, where she teaches biology at Allegheny College. Her creative nonfiction pieces are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere.