Love Among the Ruins -a Portrait of romance & Germany in the ashes of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich.
She was born Elfriede Gisela Edelmann on Oct 20, 1928 in Hamburg Germany. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Berlin socialist trade unionist and a Bohemian hotel manager who lived on the outskirts of the Reeperbahn. She was created in love during a time when Hate was the dominate emotion in Germany. As a child, she saw the rise of Hitler and witnessed the total destruction of her country. Elfriede would become my lover, my friend and eventually my wife. She died 17 years ago but not a day goes by when I don’t think of her or talk her in my mind because love not death is immortal. As it is her birthday I have enclosed to you a chapter from my book called Love Among the Ruins published by Icon Books. The memoir is about her, our early romance and a portrait of Europe after the carnage of war. As it is her birthday, I will drink a glass of champagne to her memory and our 52 years together.
The birthday party
I stumbled through my love affair with Friede in ignorance and youthful lust. I had neither a map to chart my affair nor a lexicon to define its development. In truth, I didn’t even have a compass to show me the true direction where love might be found. My past was certainly not a reliable guide; it harboured only betrayal, hunger and familial misdeeds. As for my previous love affairs, they were few, brief, and about as satisfying as eating soggy chips in a November rain. So, it was only natural for me to believe that my developing attachment to Friede was beyond my learning experiences.
Even a birthday party was an exotic occurrence for me. Friede’s eighteenth birthday was the first coming-of-age celebration I had ever attended. For my own eighteenth birthday I prepared for induction to the RAF, where I was to be taught to kill or be killed by Germans. Now my only apprehension about Germans was whether Friede’s mother was going to find me an acceptable match for her daughter.
Friede had described her mother from so many different angles, I began to think of her as a cubist canvas of vice and virtue, coloured by sacrifice and sensuality. To Friede, her mother was impossible, glamorous, selfish and loving. In sentimental moments, Friede showed me pictures of her mother and said, ‘Wasn’t she beautiful?’ The studio portraits revealed an attractive woman, but I also noticed steel in her beauty, flashing from her eyes.
On my way to the birthday party, I fretted that her mother was going to dismiss me as unworthy because I lacked their Continental outlook. I dreaded a cold rebuff similar to my treatment by Friede’s foster mother, Frau Bornholt. She had accepted me as a sort of English delivery boy who was welcome to stand at the apartment entrance while she took my gifts from the RAF storehouse.
When I arrived, Friede was waiting for me at the front entrance to the apartment. She rushed over to greet me. I kissed her and whispered into her ear, ‘Happy birthday.’
‘Thank God you are here.’
‘Mutti and Grandfather have been fighting for the last hour because the old man keeps stealing the cigarettes you gave me. The old Nazi cuckold says he has a right to everything because we are all horrible, immoral women. What a crazy man he is. I think Oma must have died to get away from him. Let me take those flowers from you. Mutti is dying to meet you and has been practising the English expressions I taught her. I am afraid she has not had much luck in pronouncing them correctly.’
I hope it’s not ‘bugger off’, I thought.
Friede’s mother stood at the top of the landing by her opened apartment door. Maria Edelmann emitted a rehearsed warmth and welcome for my arrival; whether it was sincere or false was anyone’s guess. She took my hand, affectionately kissed me on both cheeks and spluttered out some fractured English — ‘Velcom, you to mein Haus, gut’ — and escorted me into their fashionably furnished apartment. Bucolic paintings of carefree vagabonds and laughing children adorned her hallway walls. The apartment’s hardwood floors were covered with a series of worn Caucasian tribal carpets. In the background, the other guests chattered and laughed in staccato German.
Since the dining room was now occupied by the homeless Gellersons, Maria Edelmann ushered me to the kitchen. Inside, the Gellersons and Gerda huddled around a small table whose top was cluttered with cut up smoked sausages, schnapps glasses, and a crystal ashtray. A fresh breeze blew in from open french doors leading onto a balcony. The kitchen overlooked a hilly field and, in the far distance, a railway spur.
‘Sit, sit,’ her mother instructed me in the voice of an accomplished hostess. For the moment, I felt well looked after, although it seemed Maria Edelmann was treating me more like livestock that must be cuddled before being sent to the butcher’s block.
‘Mutti, don’t fret over him. He is not made of glass,’ Friede said with some irritation.
‘It’s all right,’ I said, trying to defuse the tension.
‘How was your day?’ she asked.
I was about to respond when her mother interrupted to thank me for the supplies I had sent to prepare the birthday meal.
‘It was nothing,’ I responded. ‘Frau Edelmann, it is always a pleasure to help you and your daughter.’
‘Please call me Maria,’ she said, with the precision of a coquette.
‘Mutti,’ Friede chortled at her mother. ‘What about the stew?’
Her mother apologised and went over to the wood stove, while the Gellersons and Gerda approvingly sniffed the aroma coming from the cooking pot.
Friede took my arm and said, ‘Let’s go onto the balcony and have a cigarette.’
Outside, Friede said with a laugh, ‘I thought I’d never be rid of her.’ She whispered, ‘We have been fighting all day like the dog and the cat.’
‘The dinner, of course,’ she said. ‘My mother is such a perfectionist when it comes to making a meal. I think that is how she trapped Uncle Henry. Of course, while Mutti prepared dinner Opa was a giant bore. He complained that nobody cared and said terrible things to Mutti. My mother retaliated by telling him she’d turn him out on his ear if he didn’t smarten up.’ Friede paused and then asked: ‘Do you have a cigarette? I am dying for one. My mother doesn’t like me smoking. She says it is just too modern for her. I don’t know why it bothers her so much, considering Uncle Henry’s business was in tobacco. It certainly kept her in fantastic dresses for years.’
‘Friedl,’ her mother called out from the kitchen, ‘I have ears, so mind what you say out there.’ This made everyone else in the kitchen laugh.
Friede sighed over her mother’s comments and then asked, ‘What do you think about girls smoking?’
‘I like it,’ I said. ‘It makes them look like movie stars.’
‘Me too,’ she said, blowing blue smoke over the balcony and across into the open field. At that moment, she looked both distant and alluring, like a movie star on a billboard poster. Friede was wearing a yellow summer dress that was too thin for the cool weather outside and she began to shiver.
I offered her my tunic, but she refused and explained: ‘It’s old, I know. I bought it a long time ago, in the war. I really need new clothes, but there is so much else we need before fashion. I’d better see what Mutti is doing. Don’t go anywhere,’ she said playfully and stubbed her cigarette out.
‘Even if the balcony catches on fire, I will remain until your return,’ I replied in a lustful and longing voice, and whistled as she turned around to leave.
Friede laughed: ‘See, my legs are now almost as good as Greta Garbo’s because the medicine you gave me really worked. Look how those horrible wounds have turned into just blemishes. It’s a pity my legs were not like that in the summer.’
Friede left me alone for five minutes or so and then popped her head out from the small kitchen and asked, ‘Harry, can you be a dear and fetch Opa? I imagine he is in the wood cellar, sulking. Give him one of your cigarettes; that will put him in the right mood.’
I said, ‘What about opening the present I got you?’
‘It will have to wait until after you get Opa. I want him to see me open my gifts. Maybe then, he will understand what my true friends think of me. It might even change his opinion about the Edelmann women,’ she said with a laugh.
Maria Edelmann interrupted and said, ‘Only when hell freezes over will that old man have a kind word for you or me.’
The warm smell of dinner trailed behind me as I left the apartment and walked down to the basement. In the cellar, there was a supply of neatly stacked wood, along with a collection of hutches holding rabbits for eating.
The cellar had a tiny window that allowed small particles of light to filter down into the dusky basement. I called out for Opa. There was no response. I crept around a wood pile, still calling his name. There was no reply except a thumping noise coming from the rabbit cages.
‘Opa, I have an American cigarette for you,’ I called, thinking that I could bribe him to come out from his hiding space. Again there was no answer. I thought we must have missed each other and the old bugger was already at the table slurping his soup.
‘You are giving me a lot of trouble, Grandfather.’ I put a cigarette to my lips and struck my Zippo lighter. Its flame illuminated a silhouette that was obscured by some boxes over to the right of me. I drew closer to investigate and soon realised the shadow was Opa and he was dead. The old man had committed suicide. His body was hanging from an old rope wrapped around a wooden beam running across the ceiling. A stain ran down his trouser legs. He had pissed himself when he had kicked the box over and begun to die from strangulation.
His lifeless body reminded me of the executed deserters I had seen while we drove into Germany just before the end of the war. He must have killed himself right after he stormed out of his stepdaughter’s apartment. ‘Well,’ I said to the corpse, ‘that will show them, hey, Opa.’
I righted the box and stood upon it to cut him down with my pocket knife, which was normally used to quarter apples. Now it sliced through the strands of rope inches above his skinny blue neck. When I was half-way through cutting the noose, the weight of his body snapped the last strands from the beam. The old man’s corpse crashed to the dirt floor like a bushel of vegetables.
‘Crikey,’ I said in apology for Opa’s undignified drop to earth. I pulled his crumpled body as straight as possible and regretted there was no blanket or tarpaulin handy to cover him.
Nothing that made him human remained. Everything was gone, even the hectoring; the jaded and jilted moaning had vanished from his old face. He just looked dead. His eyes were vacant and stared towards nothingness. I closed them shut and folded his hands over his chest. I stood beside his body and told him, ‘Well, you were a right bastard, but now you can harm no one. So, wherever you are going, have a safe journey.’
When I got back to the apartment, everyone was seated around the kitchen table. They were waiting for me to return with Opa to begin the birthday dinner. Drinking from their wine glasses, they conversed in a lively and carefree fashion.
‘What took you so long?’ Friede asked. ‘Where is Opa?’
Everyone’s eyes were on me and I stammered for a bit. Finally, I blurted out, ‘I’m sorry, Opa is dead.’
Friede asked in disbelief: ‘Dead?’
Her mother took a sip of wine and laconically remarked: ‘Tot.’
Her tone suggested to me that Maria didn’t question his lack of existence, but wondered why it took so long. Everyone else was silent and embarrassed and looked as if a fart had been ejected into the atmosphere. I placed an opened cigarette pack on the table and watched hand after hand reach for the Player’s.
Friede’s mother spoke in a restrained tone. ‘So the old so-and-so finally topped himself. Well, well, you would think it was my birthday. This is the first time that man has given me anything to be thankful for. Quite a gift he left us, hey, Friede.’
I was confused and somewhat offended by their reaction to the old man’s departure.
‘Gift?’ I asked.
‘Yes, he finally showed some good sense,’ she said, toying with her glass of wine. ‘It would have been rude and selfish of him to eat first and then kill himself. At the moment, death is more abundant than food in Hamburg. Still, he could have shown me the kindness of doing himself in at my sister’s house. She at least was his natural daughter, while I was just the bastard child.’
‘Mutti!’ Friede screamed.
‘Hush, Friede. Well, I suppose it is bad manners to speak ill of the dead.’ Maria Edelmann sighed quietly and took a sip from her wine.
‘Perhaps,’ Friede suggested, ‘Harry could go to the police and tell them about Opa. If he reports it, there will be no scandal because he is a Tommy.’
‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘I will fetch a policeman. I won’t be long.’
‘I will keep your dinner warm,’ Friede said, but as I left the apartment, I heard her mother doling out the stew by the spoonful to the other guests.
The police station was a quick stroll down the road. When I arrived, a duty sergeant in his twenties was sitting behind a desk, typing with one finger. In his immaculate police uniform, the copper looked as Prussian as Bismarck. After several seconds, the policeman noticed me. Even though he outranked me, the German stood to attention and saluted. I returned the salute and explained Opa’s death. The policeman took out a notebook and asked for my name and the address where the incident occurred.
‘You don’t happen to have a spare cigarette on you?’ he asked. I handed him a near-empty pack. ‘Keep it, I have plenty more.’
‘I don’t see this as a problem,’ said the policeman. ‘It sounds like a pure and simple suicide.’
‘Good,’ I replied, ‘the family has gone through enough as it is.’
‘Yes,’ he remarked, uninterested. ‘Suicide is not an uncommon occurrence in Germany today. A lot of old people do away with themselves because they are a burden and they can’t live with the defeat of Germany. Go back to your dinner. I will send a constable to the apartment to confirm the death. It is just a formality. I will telephone the morgue to expect the body. As a small piece of advice, it will probably be easier if you arrange for a truck to collect the suicide victim. There is no telling when I could get a vehicle to gather the body. It might be quite some time.’
‘How long is this going to take?’
‘It could be a couple of days before I could get someone to fetch the body and by then the neighbours will complain of the stench coming from a decomposing body.’
The policeman let me use his telephone and I called the motor pool at the airfield. I arranged for a truck to take the body to the morgue. It cost me a week’s wages, but it ended any threat of scandal or inconvenience over the hanging to either Friede or her mother.
When I returned to the apartment, the Gellersons had already decamped to their room. Friede and her mother were in an argument over the corpse in the basement, while Gerda cleaned up the dishes. I explained what I had done and Friede jumped from the table and hugged me affectionately.
‘I don’t know what we would have done without you,’ she told me.
Maria remained seated, sipping her wine, as she complained: ‘Even those who I disliked have deserted me. I have no one left to help me.’
‘Oh Mutti,’ Friede groaned. ‘Stop your melodramatics.’
‘What is she on about?’ I asked.
‘Nothing,’ Friede said. ‘It is the German affliction, Sturm und Drang.’
‘Nothing,’ Maria said. ‘I have no one to rely upon since your Uncle Henry died.’
‘Mutti, stop calling him Uncle Henry; he was your boyfriend. I am not a little girl any more. I know all about Henry. You were his kept woman.’
‘Don’t talk that way to me, child, not tonight, not ever. Maybe you will understand me better when you are grown up and not such a foolish teenager.’
I heard the RAF truck pull up outside. I asked Friede and her mother if they would like to go down to the morgue and say goodbye to the old man.
‘No, I see no purpose in that,’ said Maria. ‘But I am now going downstairs to check his pockets. If he left any pfennigs, they are ours, not some orderly’s.’
She thanked me for coming over for dinner and disappeared from the room. Friede looked at me apologetically. ‘Now do you see why I don’t want any drama in our relationship? I promise next time we will have a proper meal, but I think you should go now.’
‘What about opening my gift?’ I asked.
She kissed me on the lips and said afterwards, ‘I am sorry, Harry. With all these theatrics going on, I don’t feel like opening any presents. I promise I will open it soon with you.’
When I walked out of the door, she called out to me. ‘Harry, I can’t thank you enough for your help. I think maybe you are the one person who may come to understand me.’
Outside, the RAF driver had Opa’s body draped over his shoulder like it was an overcoat.
‘Do you need a hand?’ I inquired.
‘Nah, this bloke is as light as a baby,’ he said, dropping him into the back of the truck like broken goods going off to the tip.
Maria Edelmann came outside and kissed me farewell. She acted as if suicide and body disposal was a normal occurrence at a German birthday party.
When I got into the truck, the driver looked at me and said, ‘Sometimes, it’s probably best to stay at the NAAFI with feet on stool, near the fire.’
The truck started up with a bang and we pulled out towards the morgue several blocks away. When we drove away, I looked in the side-view mirror and caught sight of Friede standing with her mother and Gerda. They waved goodbye to me and good riddance to Opa, who was rolling around in the back of the lorry like an unsecured empty drum.