I remember sitting on the floor in my bedroom, listening to 45s after coming home from school. “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” or even “Africa,” turned up as loudly as I could without Mutti or Vati storming in, telling me to ‘turn down that awful noise’. Listening to music was how I relaxed after coming home from school and before starting on homework. Once I got home from school, the door would remain shut until dinnertime and I would leave my room only out of necessity.
I wasn’t allowed to have headphones because then I couldn’t hear my parents if they needed me to do something, like set the table or fold the laundry. Of course, not being able to hear them would have been bliss for me, but it wasn’t even in the realm of possibility for the only child of two stay-at-home older parents who seemingly never left me out of their overbearing, watchful eyes.
He’s here. Slam!
I hear the screen door slam shut. Mutti has been listening for the mailman too. These days are what I called “Aufbau Days.” On this day, Mutti runs down to the mailbox to meet the mailman before he can put the mail into the mailbox. Taking the mail from his hands, Mutti walks slowly, deliberately back up our steep, curving driveway, already scanning the front page of the Aufbau newspaper. Once back in the house, she spends the remainder of the afternoon poring over the newspaper’s back pages that contain the notices placed by Holocaust survivors still searching for lost relatives and friends or announcing the death of a family member.
I remember that the Aufbau didn’t smell the same as other newspapers. Was it because of the ink they used? The paper? Or the sadness and horrific memories that poured out of its pages, tinging its scent with salty tears?
The Aufbau figured prominently in my childhood. I remember that the German-language newspaper would arrive at the house in the mail every other week, usually on Tuesday or Thursday. Started in 1934 by the German-Jewish Club in New York City, the newspaper included information and helpful facts for Jewish refugees. Toward the end of World War II, the newspaper also printed lists of Jewish Holocaust survivors throughout Europe, as well as a few lists of victims. By the time I was born, the newspaper had added political commentary, humorous articles, and other Jewish news from around the world. Throughout all that time, the Aufbau continued to be the single place survivors went to search for lost or dead friends and relatives.
When I did venture out of my room on Aufbau days, usually to get another Coke before starting my homework, I would find Mutti at the kitchen table, a steaming hot cup of tea (with her usual three teaspoons of sugar) within arm’s reach, just beyond the top edge of the newspaper spread open on the table in front of her.
I can still remember the words in the notices: “Ich suche…” “Wir suchen…” “Traurig sagen wir dass unser geliebte Vater ist gestorben…” And, too, how each notice was boxed in heavy black ink, just like the traditional German death announcements we received in the mail from Opi’s family (Opi is the German word for grandfather. He was born Catholic, so his family still remained in Germany and Poland). While the names were all German, the cities and countries where those who had placed the notice or whose passing was announced were from all over the world, from all of the places to which Jews fled before and after the Holocaust: Buenos Aires. Shanghai. Cape Town. New York. Melbourne. Tokyo. San Francisco. London.
I remember that sometimes Mutti would sigh deeply but say nothing as she got up from the kitchen table after a few hours and several cups of sugar with her tea. I knew that meant that she didn’t recognize any names in the notices.
Sometimes, however, Mutti would exclaim, “Ach! So-und-So ist gestorben!” and I knew that name would make it onto the list for her discussion with Omi, my grandmother, in their semi-weekly phone calls. The list was on an ever-present pad under the beige kitchen rotary telephone, written in pencil. When Mutti and Omi spoke, every Wednesday at 7pm and every Sunday at noon (when the long-distance rates would go down), every item on the list would be crossed off, in pencil as well, methodically. After the call, Mutti would flip the page of the pad and start a new list for the next call. She never simply ripped off the sheet and threw it away.
Every Sunday after her call with Omi, Mutti would make me sit down with her on the sleeper sofa in the guest room (which we called Omi and Opi Room because that’s where my grandparents would stay when they came to visit) and read the Aufbau out loud to her. Mutti wanted to make sure that I could read German as well as speak it, and Aufbau provided an easily accessible way of reinforcing my reading and comprehension skills. When I was very young, I just read the comics. As I got older, I would read the Aufbau Junior, a section of the newspaper specifically geared toward children. Eventually, I graduated to the main sections of the newspaper.
After reading every paragraph out loud, I would have to translate it into English for Mutti. If I made a mistake, I would have to go back and reread the section out loud again. These sessions were not very fun for me, but they certainly helped me learn how to read and understand German. For Mutti, I think these sessions were her back-handed way of criticizing her cousins for not teaching their children the language.
I recall how sad Mutti and my grandparents, Omi and Opi, were as the Aufbau newspaper began to visibly shrink in size, the number of pages dwindling, and the publication frequency slowing from bi-weekly to monthly. The newspaper’s slow disappearance was a tangible reminder that Holocaust survivors were dying off, leaving fewer people in the world with the need for the Aufbau to exist and fewer people who could understand and relate to their horrors and grief. Looking back, I think their sadness was as much due to the realization that survivors were dying off as it was about the loss of the newspaper.
Recently, going through Mutti’s papers after her death, I found the handwritten mock-up of the notice she placed in the Aufbau when my Vati died in 1986. Finding that notice made me realize how sad I am that the Aufbau is now gone. I cried because these notices were so important to her, but I had nowhere to place an ad for HER.
I kept Mutti’s subscription active through the last issue published (sometime after I moved her to California) and after it stopped coming, she would still read the old issues. As her dementia advanced and she was speaking more and more German (and less English) with me, I knew that the Aufbau brought her some comfort.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
(Originally published June 19, 2017 Forward.com)