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Introduction to My Father’s House: A Childhood in Wartime Bavaria, by Beatrix Ost

My Father's House: A Childhood in Wartime Bavaria, by Beatrix Ost (Helen Marx Books, 2007)

My Father’s House: A Childhood in Wartime Bavaria, by Beatrix Ost (Helen Marx Books, 2007)

The first time I met Trixi Ost was in my living room, where a friend had brought her to tea, and I was overwhelmed by what she looked like: this beautiful woman with her piercing sapphire eyes, and her grey hair streaked with bright blue as though she had come from the atelier of Yves Klein, and her bright red lips, and the elegant jewelry, and a perfectly tailored suit, and that amazing Bavarian accent that resonated from some more civilized time and world but also seemed to know the underside of the avant-garde. Here was a refined mix of extravagance and severity, as though she had allowed herself everything and then, with rigorous self-discipline, had removed half from the mix. I was so struck by her almost forbidding glamour that I didn’t notice, for the moment, that she also has a smile in which all the world’s openness and generosity are expressed. After she left, the friend who had introduced us asked whether I didn’t think she was the warmest person I’d ever met, and only then did I retrospectively notice the thrill of her enthusiasm, which I later learned to know as love.

Six months later, Trixi and I went to Nepal together, along with other friends. There are not so many people with whom one would be bound for Nepal on such brief acquaintance, but once you enter Trixi’s world, you are in it deep, and we had both wanted to visit the monasteries of the highlands and the palaces of Kathmandu and Patan. Halfway through our wonderful trip, we ended up waiting for several hours at an airstrip near the foot of Mt. Everest, and it was there that Trixi began telling me stories of her past. It is not always the case that a great storyteller has great stories to tell, but Trixi’s life in Germany was as fascinating as her recitation was eloquent, and on that windy mountain, a history and a sensibility were revealed to me. Some of the anecdotes were difficult ones, but she recounted them with joy.

Her book is a lot like her. It’s impressionistic; it scuttles along from one thing to another in a way that can be confusing; it’s very stylized and yet also disarmingly frank, with its gentle humor and its embracing of collective humanity. So often in literature, style obscures content, but here the content feels transparently exposed even though the style is highly visible, much as in real life Trixi’s naturalness of emotion coexists with her chic self-presentation. The book expresses a child’s naïve pleasures, and so its evocation of childhood is utterly convincing; but it also reflects the astuteness of someone in the later part of her life, who can compare her own youth to that of her grandchildren. What one most senses here is an underlying kindness. In an age when fashionable memoirs recount the lurid foibles of dysfunctional families, this one is written with authentic affection and great respect. But it is no gauzy fantasy. These are real people, with their many imperfections: the pretentious Aunt Julia, the nightmarish Marie-Louise, the nervous General Brün, the resigned Grandfather Theodor. Through it all runs the melancholy of Trixi’s father, Fritz, the stern and capable master of Goldachhof, aristocratic and repressed, loved but feared and never quite known. The only person who seems unequivocally rosy is Adi, the mother who holds the center with her infinite gentleness and mercy and wisdom: sometimes stern, as when she takes the chambermaid to get an abortion; sometimes heroic, as when one of the farm workers murders another and she has to restore order; but always empathetic, knowing, as mothers should, the feelings of her children before the children do themselves. She is sympathetic magic incarnate.

The process of this book is the accrual of anecdote. There is no grand underlying narrative trajectory except the passage of time and a child’s slow maturation. Still, these are not just discrete sketches; they accumulate to form rich characters and evoke a vanished life so palpably that one tastes it. The author rekindles the sensuality of things long gone: the flavor of the black-market coffee to which Grandmother was addicted as though it were opium, selling off family treasures to get it; the smell of the cigar Trixi stole from her father’s drawer for the neighborhood boys; the sweet taste of berries gathered at a secret spot deep in the woods. In the way of children, Trixi makes little social distinction between her relatives and the foreign servants who kept the household running: passionate, homesick Olga, the Russian cook; flighty, irrepressible Justa, the Yugoslavian chambermaid; and elegant Umer, the Hungarian coachman, with his intuitive control over the horses and his deep connection to Fritz. These staff worked hard, and in turn were cared for and educated by the family. The local farm workers and their bewildering kin also figure large: the sinister Sepp with his dead moles, the sprawling König family with their cheerful violence. Even the animals have vivid personalities: the terrifying, tumescent bull seeking his cow; the high-strung horses who could turn wild at any time; and, most wonderfully, the doe who came to stay for a winter and slept under the kitchen stove until springtime tempted her back to the wild.

My Father’s House is imbued with a profound sense of place. Every aspect of Goldachhof’s hallway and kitchen and living room is evoked, and the shapes of the royal-crested furniture, the textures of the woods and the moor, the very dirt of the fields. The farm is a character in the lives of the people whom it has embraced, and the landscape of Bavaria is a necessary condition to these stories. Trixi Ost has lived most of her life in the United States, and that particular yearning that is the harsh fate of expatriates comes through in the sharpness of her recollections. Her regional pride is rendered more vivid because so many of the domestics and farm-workers who lived beside her dreamt of homelands to the East. Little Trixi could not fathom how or why they would want to be anyplace but right where she was happiest, but that very happiness throws their sadness and longing into poignant relief.

The good manners that Fritz and Adi taught to the children and servants are somehow borne out in the way Trixi tells the stories, apt and precise but always a little deferential to those who were older and wiser than she. Despite this reserve, she acknowledges how the sinister quality of the outside world impinged on Goldachhof, and the book has a richly specific flavor of its time. Adi had to buy and sell food illegally, and Trixi was afraid of these clandestine acts committed in the half-light of dusk. From time to time, the impoverished gleaners would come to pick whatever the farm workers had left behind, and she did not miss the hungry rumble of their despair. When the air raid sirens went, and they went often, the children hid under the bridge, barely protected. And yet for Trixi, it was possible to love the Americans when they came, not as liberators and not as conquerors, but as an interesting new variety of people among whom she would spend her adult life.

America’s perspective on wartime Germany remains famously tortured. We see it through the eyes of victims: the Poles, and the Jews, and the brave men who plotted against Hitler, and the Allied soldiers. We hear almost nothing of what happened to ordinary Germans. The idea of “two Germanys” is often used in relation to the subsequent division of the country into East and West, but there is another Teutonic dichotomy, and it is between the Germany of brutalism and expansionism and concentration camps, and the Germany that is all gingerbread and music and apple-cheeked women in dirndls, and this book is a resounding affirmation that this good Germany existed even in the period when the evil Germany was ascendant. Fritz managed to resign from the Nazi party after serving in North Africa; he detested Hitler and the war, but kept a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in his own ever-expanding household, which was constantly absorbing displaced relatives and friends. Trixi’s troublesome brother Uli, on the other hand, happily signed up for Hitler Youth, and was kept out of the SS only by his authoritarian father. The dinnertime debates about the Nazis took much the form of political debate in any family in any place; these could be arguments about George W. Bush, and do not participate in the absolutism with which history has treated National Socialism. It is one of the refinements of this narrative not to sentimentalize the characters into false acts of political courage. Mostly, these people were not engaged with politics, but with immutable rural concerns, cycles and struggles more fundamental than those of policy. Their idyll was not about formulating a better social system, but about escaping systems they could not hope to change. Of course, for the child through whose eyes we see, these matters were all incomprehensibly abstract anyway. The fact that the book is neither an indictment nor a rationalization makes more touching the scene in which a group of Serbs and Gypsies appear on the horizon and walk toward the farm, refugees from Dachau. The kindness that Trixi’s mother shows them, nursing one through his final hours, is universal, an embodiment of character rather than of politics. The most evil things imaginable happened in wartime Germany, but all of humanity was not corrupted. Beside unspeakable horror and great moral courage, simple benevolence also persisted.

At the end of this book, the reader finds himself nostalgic for someone else’s childhood. That is no mean accomplishment. It is particularly impressive given that the tale is set in a malevolent larger context. These stories are not saccharine, but their message is that wartime is not antithetical to love or to beauty. Those dark days formed the person who is our narrator, whom one cannot help but like and admire, in part for the way she likes and admires her own past self. Between the Trixilein who is described and the Trixi who is describing, there is unbroken continuity, and that is as reassuring to the reader as recollection of the farm’s cozy solace is to the author.