Nazi Bedtime Stories

The next estate dissolution in which we took part involved the sale of a rather large piece of land in the middle of Munich. A rich textile-industry dynasty family had a villa there with a spacious guest house, and basement garage for classic autos (with a car elevator), and the entire property had been sold. The owner’s mother came from Prussian nobility. Many of the thousand-plus books were from assorted family collections, brought together and stored out of sight and forgotten. One could get a vague sense of family life from one child’s horse book collection, or the 1930s German law publications pointing to a lawyer in the family, right next to a shelf with German resistance memoirs. The art books were in the living room, the romance novels upstairs.

It was in this large, scattered accumulation that I first held in my hand an actual Nazi children’s book.

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Fünf Wiegen und noch eine” (Five Cradles and One More) is an odd little work. Author Henrik Herse was an SS-Obersturmführer and “Fünf Wiegen” contains perhaps autobiographical musings, although it’s hard to say (the narrator is a somewhat impoverished writer with five children and a sixth on the way. The author was a senior officer in the SS, and I don’t know how many kids he actually had). I called it an odd little work but it  was probably typical of many war-time children’s books, no matter the era or location. What it seeks to do is to “familiarize children within the SS Family of their roots and culture”* through children’s rhymes, prose and symbols of Nordic and Germanic origin. [All quoted passages translated by the blog author.]

The goal — it would be impudent to think one knows it. Much more important than what lies in the distance is the way there. We must bring it to its conclusion in a way that does not shame us.

(IOW: it’s not important for you to know where this Reich is heading but you’d better be on board.)

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There are sweet stories of family life in a big house in the country, interspersed with nursery rhymes. Stories of simple meals laid out on the big oaken table, of birthday rituals, of hunger and poverty born with pride, of Christmas trees. The narrator speaks of living a quiet and taciturn life, of the next child being accepted into “our circle”, into which “we don’t let everyone”. I began to wonder what kind of effect stories like this had on the children waiting restlessly in bomb shelters all over Germany. They would begin to dream of being a part of this happy family in the country, of being the “next child”. It would have planted a seed in their impressionable minds, of some rare and holy place where only the best and bravest little Nazis could go. Or was it an exclusive book, only for the children of the elite SS?

At times it reads like a journal or a personal blog. Halfway through the tone gets a bit darker and more urgent. Words like “enemy” and “battle” start appearing in the prose. And always, the idea of Keeping the Faith. His thoughts go here:

It is not so easy to live this life of ours on to its end. It is not always a song which one wants to sing. There are cares upon cares, and they are greedy and want to eat you through and through.
And some men have thrown it all away, and have fled as cowards. To their deaths, or to another side.
That is the most wretched form of desertion, and death should first come to them.
Is love then eternal? many ask. Is that happiness?
Yes!! But only if you are strong enough to win and keep it! The greatest victories are in the battles for our lives.

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None too obscure and none too small,
none to die senselessly and alone,
because the holy torch I was given
I will pass on as the flame of eternal life.

What can I say? Some people have reality TV shows, some people have religious movements. It has the same ring as some early Christian writings. Probably not a coincidence.

What is difficult, is to have courage. To have so much courage that the blows don’t matter in the least. To hold your head up against the blows! The head and ribs can withstand much, when the heart inside beats in resistance.

Those poor victimized fascists.

The poems are now no longer about babies and Mother, but of iron-man strength, of battle, of swords, of blood and of German soil and imminent beatings!  And then, suddenly, we’re back to cradles again, and stories of his children’s births.

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The NSDAP was definitely onto something when they began starting them young. Research suggests that our 14-yr-old brains are “imprinted” with the music and literature which will stay important to us throughout our lives. While the nursery rhymes in “Fünf Wiegen” are for small children, the prose passages are not. These, rather, would have been noticed by them, but understood by 12-14 year olds. What a set up. All those kids, just dying to be chosen for the special circle of fellowship and purpose. It’s almost like a “Lord of the Rings” primer from the side of the Orcs, or Hogwarts fanfic about Slytherin children (which is indeed a thing as well).

One last, important thing: this book is nothing special, there are cheap copies to be had over the Internet. It may have been everyone’s grandmother’s favorite book as a child, the one she sensibly kept hidden from her grandchildren but liked too much to throw out. These are the books that come to light after someone dies.

*I lifted that phrase from here because it is perfect. I couldn’t have said it better.

A Love Story Told In Books

There may be eight million stories in the naked city; there are at least that many in the antiquarian business, especially if your business involves buying up collections from private estate sales. Through the transactions, through remarks, through the books themselves we get to know their former owners, the books telling us their life stories in an almost intimate way. We try to be respectful. Sometimes I refer to these people as our “angels”, in the way an American orchestra’s concert program refers to the highest donors as angels — they are giving us something of themselves and it demands respect.

A recent purchase belonged to a couple of scientists. Their upstairs neighbors were managing the sale of everything in the apartment, including a few thousand books. The high-end dealers had already been through, the auction house rep and the local science institute as well, and there were still a few thousand books in the apartment, much to the neighbor’s dismay.
We looked them over and decided that, except for a few hundred unsellable copies, we would take them. We don’t have a truck, so the transport involved a few trips with the car over the course of perhaps 3 weeks.
Through these trips we got to know the upstairs neighbor and he shared some information about the deceased owners. The man (we’ll call him H.) was born into a German Jewish family in the 1920s. During the early Hitler years the family resettles in Prague, and some time later our man H., then just out of high school, leaves his family behind and flees for Palestine. Reaching the coast of Haifa, he is put on a docked French warship. That ship is bombed, he survives, but is then for some reason classified along with the other survivors as a “foreign enemy”, and put briefly in the Atlit detainee camp in Israel.
After the war, H. studies and worked as a biologist. He meets a woman (A.), another brilliant scientist, a bit younger and (this is where it gets a little murky) by the early 1970s she’s left her husband and son to come with H. to, of all places, Germany, where they both begin work at a very prestigious research institute. H.’s family has all perished in the Holocaust. But A. learns German (we found the language course on records), and they settle into a middle-class life in a Bavarian village, happily studying their insects and reading books and occasionally winning prizes in scientific research for the next 40 years.

As the neighbor remarked, it seems that all they ever needed was each other. They were all they had, having left everyone else behind.

It is hard for me to imagine what life would be like for a couple of Jewish intellectuals in the Bavarian countryside. To be fair, there are plenty of scientists, artists, and other high-minded folks in their particular geographical area, it wasn’t exactly the hinterlands. I think they lived for their work.

They converted late in life and were baptized into the Catholic church. Why? Their many books tell no stories here. Sure, there was a bible or two, tomes about the Holy Land, ancient religions, and even a small crucifix (a gift, maybe). But not a single book about Jesus or Christian salvation.

My personal theory is that they did it so they could stay together, their urns resting side by side in the village churchyard.