The daughter of a Nazi soldier recalls the spark and fizzle of her tenth New Year’s Eve.
It was New Year’s Eve 1964. Our living room, decorated with paper streamers, was buzzing with anticipation. Mother had lit votive candles on the windowsill as a tribute to our brothers and sisters in the Ostzone. Separated from us by a wall, barbed wire, and mine fields, the East Germans were not as free or as fortunate as we West Germans were. We were never to forget their plight. The aroma of Berliner Ballen, special New Year’s Eve doughnuts, permeated the house. Perfectly round, filled with marmalade, fried in fat, and sprinkled with powdered sugar, they were my favorite pastry. On New Year’s Eve, each Berliner had a small object inside. A pig predicted a lucky year; a ring, a wedding; a coin, wealth. If you got the one filled with mustard, your year ahead would be full of bad luck.
Mother removed the pink rollers from her hair, sealed the curls with hairspray, and admired her helmet head in the mirror. She changed into her Sunday dress. Father stayed in his stretched-out blue track suit, the empty pant leg rolled up and fastened to his trousers with a safety pin. His wooden leg leaned in the corner of the living room. We gathered around our kidney-shaped coffee table. I looked at the pickled herring, liverwurst, and Gouda cheese canapés decorated with gherkins and pretzel sticks, but decided to wait for the Berliner Ballen. The more I stared at the minute hand on the grandfather clock, the slower it moved. My brother and I were bouncing on the sofa. We couldn’t wait for midnight to run outside into the freezing cold and watch the sky ablaze with fireworks.
I was hoping that our family would experience Freude, joy, a feeling I mostly knew from books and songs like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which we had learned in music class. Tickling sensations in my toes made me want to jump up and do my version of a rain dance. But I froze when I caught a glimpse of my father’s contorted face. His bushy eyebrows were furrowed together, creating a deep canyon on his forehead. He let out a piercing scream. The stump of his amputated leg was acting up. I knew what was coming. I had experienced it all too often. Once unleashed, the pain might last for several hours, perhaps the entire night, and turn Father, a huge, strong man, respected and feared by his wife and children, into a sobbing, tortured mass. The phantom pains, without fail, always arrived in time to ruin all our holiday celebrations.
Mother ushered us upstairs to the bedroom; Father grabbed his cane and hobbled to the kitchen. He locked himself inside the kitchen every time the phantom pains attacked. No one was allowed to enter. Sitting alone in the dark, he sang for several hours with a loud, mournful voice that resonated throughout the entire house and prevented us from sleeping. I knew all of Father’s moods, all the songs that mirrored them. I knew his favorite Wanderlieder, his favorite Volkslieder, and his favorite Soldatenlieder. I knew the words to all the melodies.
Heinrich and I sat down on my bed and stared at each other. We were both trembling despite the heavy sweaters we wore to save money on the heating bill. It was only half past ten. Heinrich was pessimistic. “We’re gonna miss all the fireworks.” Not ready to give up hope, I thought of the loving father dwelling above the starry canopy and hummed Ode to Joy. I would hum it over and over until joy would visit our home.
Father was sad over losing the war, sad over losing his leg. I listened to the intensity, the ebb and flow in his wailing. I listened for a possible change in his mood. He started to sing In einem Polenstädtchen, one of my favorites. In the song, German soldiers march into a small Polish town and encounter a captivating maiden who refuses to kiss any of them. Many nights, unable to fall asleep, I had mouthed along with the refrain Aber nein, aber nein sprach sie. Ich küsse nie. I had imagined myself as the irresistible maiden among all the lonely men. Like her, I would not allow anyone to kiss me.
The longing and homesickness in his voice were heartbreaking. I pictured Father among a group of soldiers with their knapsacks, marching and singing in the open air. I pictured the long Russian winter, the battle of Stalingrad, being hit by a grenade. I pulled the heavy down comforter up to my neck to ward off the harsh and biting wind he must have felt. I tried to understand his phantom pains, the agonizing torture he felt. But why did his pains, undoubtedly real, have to return today on New Year’s Eve? Did he want to make us suffer, make us feel as bitter and depressed as he was?
Mother, balancing a plate of Berliner Ballen on her palm, entered our bedroom. “It’s a quarter to twelve. Have a Berliner,” she said and sat down between us. “You have to understand your father. He’s afraid of New Year’s Eve. The fireworks sound like an artillery attack to him.”
I pictured Father among a group of soldiers with their knapsacks, marching and singing in the open air. I pictured the long Russian winter, the battle of Stalingrad, being hit by a grenade.
Life was unfair. I was tired of having to understand Father. I was ten years old. It was New Year’s Eve and I wanted to join the jubilation. Not steal away alone in tears, but follow the rose-strewn path.i The War had ended almost twenty years ago. Heinrich and I had never fought in a war, nor lost a war, but we were being punished as if we had. Ignoring the pastries, we went over to the window and pressed our noses against the glass.
The street was full of people. “Holy cow, did you see that Kometenhagel? Amazing,” Heinrich said. Like a silver serpent, it shot up and opened into a cascade of tiny stars. There were mini explosions everywhere.
“Two more minutes,” Heinrich whispered. The people outside started to shout “Zehn, neun, acht, sieben…” yelling louder and louder as the numbers decreased. A thunderous, deafening blast erupted when everyone set off their fireworks at the same time. There were Roman candles, pinwheels, single rockets, cherry bombs, and my favorite, Chinaböller. Brilliant silver, green, red, and gold flashed in the sky.
Half an hour later, the detonations petered out. Once in a while, a Bengali cylinder flame or Bombette shot up. It had been a great show. Heinrich wiped a tear from his eye. I put my arm around him. Our own New Year’s Eve Family Fun Pack sat unused at the foot of the stairs. We had not fired our shells and mortars.
Outside, our neighbors were locking arms, clinking glasses, and downing shots of liquor. Father’s voice soared above the sporadic flare-ups of fireworks. He sounded strong and confident. “Breslau, Danzig, Königsberg. We’ll take you back!” he shouted. Those towns once belonged to Germany. In school, we had learned that the price for losing the war was surrendering parts of our country to Poland and the Soviet Union. My history teacher didn’t think we would ever get these territories back. Father demanded them back. He launched into a combat song:
Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen
Sa marschiert mit ruhig-festem Schritt…
Mother, looking like a frightened little girl, began to tremble. That song always upset her. I liked the melody, so forceful, buoyant, and optimistic. Mother stood up and closed the curtains as if she didn’t want our neighbors to hear Father’s singing. Heinrich sank his teeth into a Berliner while Father sang himself into a rage.
In school, we had learned that the price for losing the war was surrendering parts of our country to Poland and the Soviet Union. My history teacher didn’t think we would ever get these territories back. Father demanded them back.
Free the streets for the brown battalions
Free the streets for the Storm Troopers
The swastika, the hope of millions…ii
Mother sighed: “Why does he have to sing that song all the time?”
“Why are you worried, Mama?” I asked.
“That’s the Horst-Wessel-Lied. It’s illegal to sing that song. Your father could get into trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” I asked.
“Like ending up in jail,” she said.
Heinrich was beaming. “Look, look, I got the pig, the lucky pig!” he shouted, displaying the rosy plastic piglet. Hoping for a delicious plum marmalade filling and a lucky charm, I took a big bite of my Berliner. The strange taste made my mouth pucker up. It couldn’t be true. I had gotten the one Berliner filled with mustard. Disgusted, I spit the pieces of dough and mustard into my hand. They looked like baby vomit. Life was unfair. There was no loving father dwelling above the starry canopy. Only my own father who was like my Berliner Ballen—good on the outside, but filled with the bitterness of war on the inside.
i Ode to Joy (An die Freude), lyrics by Friedrich von Schiller
ii Horst-Wessel-Lied, the Nazi Party’s anthem, was part of Germany’s national anthem from 1933 to 1945. A regulation required the right arm to be raised in a “Hitler salute”
when singing the first and fourth verse. In 1945, the Horst-Wessel-Lied was banned. Both the lyrics and the tune remain illegal in Germany to this day.
Anna Steegmann was born in Germany and has lived in New York City since 1980. She worked as an actress and psychotherapist until making writing her priority. She has translated three books from German to English for W.W. Norton. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, 138journal.com, The Wising Up Press, universaltable.org, Promethean, Epiphany, The Absinthe Literary Review, Boomer Women Speak, Dimension 2, and several German newspapers. Her essay “Mein Harlem” has been selected for The Best American Essays 2008. She teaches writing at City College of New York and the International Summer Academy in Venice, Italy.