When I think of my father, I can see him lying on a couch, white hair combed back, beard neatly trimmed, glasses slid to the end of his generous nose, contentedly reading. Often he would laugh and read an amusing passage out loud to my mother who also lay on a couch reading. My father, a true intellectual who spoke five languages and enjoyed knowledge for knowledge's sake, especially loved historical biographies, and would become particularly gleeful when reading about a scandal. My mother, twenty-eight years my father's junior, adored my father - his wit, his European charm, his casual elegance - and he adored her. Happy in their own world, he made literary jokes to her, quoted Latin, and they shared the New York Times crossword puzzle on Sundays while listening to Beethoven. Our apartment in a housing project on Staten Island was crowded with books, antique furniture in a mild state of disrepair, large paintings in gilded frames, my mother's sewing supplies, and stacks of this and that.
My father, Botho (pronounced Bo-toe) Alexander Burchardt, was born in Berlin in 1893, to a German Jewish well-to-do family. My father's great grandfather had been called Elias Ben Baruch, "Elias, son of Baruch," according to the ancient Hebrew tradition where instead of family (last) names, people were identified by their father's first name. This wrecked havoc with the German record keeping system organized according to family lineage, and a law was passed requiring all Jews to come to a central registry and pick out a German name. Some Jews, speaking only Yiddish, were given insulting names - for example, "Weissfeder," which means white feather, a sign of cowardliness. Elias Ben Baruch, who spoke perfect German, choose the Swiss spelling of Burchardt because it contained all the letters of Baruch.
Elias' son, Adolf Burchardt, started an interior decorating business, which grew in prominence, coming to be called "Adolf Burchardt Sohne" when he was joined by his two sons, Ernst and Martin. Ernst, my father's father, I know only from the enormous portrait of the imposing, portly, stern gentleman which gazed out at me on visits to "Auntie Wera" during my childhood. Mary, my father's mother, from a Russian Jewish family in Moscow, married Ernst about 1890 in an arranged marriage, as was customary among the Russian upper class at that time. (I recall Granny Mary as a dear old lady who wore polka dot dresses.)
My sister and I, two small girls with long hair, dressed in nightgowns, loved to hear bedtime stories about my father's past. These were the fairy tales of our childhood. The grand apartment in Berlin where our dining table had once served as a side table in a foyer. The red velvet walls in the great dining room hung with statues of angels. Governesses who raised my father, his older sister and younger brother, and fed them separately from their parents until they had developed proper table manners. These descriptions were peppered with jokes and stories my father told about himself and his siblings, making them come to life as children in this enchanting world. There was a joke that as a small boy, my father was once sitting on his mother's lap when she asked, "Botho, do you love me?" He thought it over and replied, "Governess dresses me, Cook cooks for me - what do you do, Mutti?" Then, the first time my father was allowed to eat with his parents they were having unfamiliar lamb chops. Looking at the bone, my father piped up, "Daddy, do I have to eat the tree too?"
And the fun they had! There was the story about my father's mother playing hide and go seek with the dachshund Menner. When Menner found her on top of the piano he is said to have actually grinned. There was the story about Botho, his sister Wera (pronounced Vera), and brother Waldi (pronounced Valdi, short for Waldimar) running rope between their bedrooms when they were sick, and sending each other mail by attaching notes with clothespins to the rope and pulling the rope round to each other.
The Burchardts were proud to be German. Ernst's father Adolf had been part of a special guard for the German Emperor Wilhelm II when he was a young man - a surprising appointment for a Jew. My father served in the German army in World War I, where he rode horseback fixing telephone lines far away from the fighting. He only fired his gun once, in celebration of New Year's Eve. My maternal grandfather from Long Island, a disagreeable individual not known for his veracity, claimed to have fought overseas in active combat in that same war - although in reality he was a Lieutenant stationed in Ohio where the United States army made ammunition. A joke of my father's was, "Ask an American what he did in the war and he'll tell you how he fought on the front lines; ask a German and he'll tell you he never got close to the fighting." Sadly, my father's younger brother Waldi was killed in 1917 while fighting in Italy. Apparently he was one of the few Germans who did make it to the front lines.
The Burchardts, although proud of their Jewish heritage, were not very religious. I believe it was Waldi who once asked, "Daddy, do Christian's celebrate Christmas too?"
"Adolf Burchardt Sohne" grew to be a profitable, highly respected interior decorating firm, which included wallpaper design. My father had studied law in Frankfort, but when his brother Waldi was killed, he was called upon to help run the business. I imagine him in his younger days, slim (which he remained throughout his life), slicked back brown hair, and round wire rim glasses that were the fashion of the time. Apparently he was somewhat of a bohemian, hung out with the artist crowd in Berlin at the Romanische Café - the place to hang out - and was popular with the ladies.
Then came the Nazis.
The Burchardts felt themselves to be German first and Jewish second. Suddenly, they were second class citizens, as the Nazis grew in power swelling their representation in the Reichstag (parliament) almost overnight from 12 seats in 1928 to 107 in 1930. My father's sister Wera had two teenage daughters - Madeleine and Lili. Three months after Hitler came into power, it was announced in the papers that no Jews could attend universities. The outrage! From her tender vantage point of 19 years, my cousin Madeleine, now 85, recalls this as the perfect excuse she could use to get her mother to let her study abroad in Paris.
Soon after, a Nazi soldier who came to Lili's high school class to talk about the superiority of the Aryan (German) race, choose blond, blue-eyed, and Jewish Lili Cohn to show the class what a superior Aryan child looked like. As it was told to me, standing in front of the classroom Lili's eyes grew wide with terror. One of her non-Jewish classsmates could give her away. They could say that her last name was Cohn. Anyone could smile at the Nazi soldier's mistake. He would have been furious because he had been made a fool of. Then what would happen? The way to survive with the Nazis was not to volunteer anything not directly asked for. Fortunately, Lili's classmates kept their mouths shut.
As a child I was aware from an early age that whatever had happened in Germany was horrific and painful, something my generally cheerful father could talk about only briefly.
I don't ever remember not knowing about "the Nazis". They also played a role in the fairy tales of my early years. A feeling that my safe world was not totally secure. There were shadows in the corners. The evil monster Hitler destroying the fantasy world.
The father that I knew was always positive, loving life, telling jokes - but I detected a pain buried deep within him that he rarely spoke about. There was a fragility - a vulnerability that he kept hidden, and covered up with jokes and stories. If you paid close attention to the jokes, though, you could generally sense what he was feeling. On several occasions at the dinner table I pressed him for more information about the Nazis than he was offering. I don't remember the content of what we spoke of, but I do remember that he could bear to speak only briefly and evasively, saying "Well, that's enough of that, my dear," while he rose from the table and retired to the living room. I was aware that I had crossed an invisible line. Prussian soldiers don't complain. In Berlin, as the Third Reich insidiously grew in power, the situation grew more and more dangerous for Jews. Business was deteriorating. By this time my father was married, and had a small son called Laurie -- my (half) brother Larry -- born in May 1938.
I was told that one night my father got a call from a non-Jewish friend of his, who said, "Meet me on the corner of (such and such) streets, bring your toothbrush and don't ask any questions." I imagined my father hiding out, sleeping in his suit holding onto his toothbrush. The next day the friend said, "You'll have to leave because I don't trust the maid." I later learned that night was Krystalnacht (November 9/10, 1938), which means "Night of Broken Glass," so called because the Nazis ravaged the city, breaking shop windows of Jewish businesses, burning synagogues, and taking Jewish men into custody. Soon after, my father was forced to sell his business to a non-Jew for a fraction of what it was worth. The family realized they needed to leave the country and began making plans.
Uncle Sol, my Auntie Wera's husband, was taken into custody along with other older Jewish men. Wera had courage to go down to Nazi headquarters, beg them to let him go, and promise to leave country. Remarkably, they released Sol. But the family knew they definitely had to leave.
My father was very, very lucky. He had the wherewithal and the means to get out of the country. In fact - he was able to check out two countries - Norway and the United States - before officially emigrating. As he told it, he found a dime on the sidewalk while walking in Manhattan and decided to come to the United States, where money could be found in the streets. How typical of him - to find the humor in a devastating situation.
My father left Germany by ship in 1939, with his wife Maria, and one year old son Laurie. His mother Mary, and Wera and Sol followed soon after. (Ernst had died of a stroke in 1928.) They all had managed to get out of the country while they still could. At that time Jews approved for emigration were only allowed to bring allotted amounts of possessions - but no money and no capital. Everything else the family owned, they had to surrender to the Nazis in exchange for leaving the country. They brought with them a sample of what their lives had been, what they hoped their lives would be. Antiques, paintings, and custom-made tuxedos and shoes for my father and brother in assorted sizes. (Later, my sister Wendy and I used those tuxedos for Halloween costumes.) But they left with their lives.
I later learned some of the other relatives were not so lucky. On the day that Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal, was hanged in Israel, my father was waiting for a bus and overheard one woman remarking to another that they shouldn't have been so harsh on Eichmann. My father approached the women, tipped his hat, and politely said, "Madam, it so happens that Eichmann was responsible for the deaths of several of my relatives."
Lili decided to emigrate to Israel, a feat she accomplished by marrying a stranger who had come from Israel to Germany for the expressed purpose of getting her out of the country, as many others were able to do. Sadly, he fell in love with her, but she didn't return his affections. They were divorced, and she ended up happily married to Erich for many years.
In the United States the family settled in New York City. Auntie Wera, Uncle Sol, and Granny (as I was to call them) moved into an apartment in Queens. Sol and Wera obtained employment; I don't recall what kind of work Sol did. However, Wera, who had studied painting, found factory piecework in which she painted designs on manufactured goods.
My father settled in Manhattan and tried to make a go of it in interior decorating, but didn't have the capital. Determined to be in business for himself, he became a Fuller Brush Man in a housing project in Stuyvesant Town (lower Manhattan) - where he maintained decorum by always dressing in a suit and tie, and using impeccable manners. By this time his marriage had fallen apart, and he was quite depressed, having lost his country, profession, and family. Several years later he met my mother, the love of his life. Although his customers adored him, money was always extremely tight - I remember asking him for a dollar, knowing it was painful for him.
The day came that Germany would pay war reparations to those who could prove what they lost financially. I was about 10 or 11 years old. I remember that time very clearly.
There was a large desk in the kitchen of our apartment that came from Germany. My father had lost the key, and it remained locked for many years. I recall my father prying off the back. Inside, stuffed behind a small drawer, he found a trade paper of the wallpaper industry. There was a angry letter to the editor by a Nazi demanding to know why the Jewish firm of "Adolf Burchardt Sohne" was given the plum job of decorating Goering's mistress's apartment. Hermann Goering, second in command to Adolf Hitler, was judged guilty of war crimes at Nuremberg for creating the Gestapo (German secret police) and approving concentration camps. He was also known for his extravagance. With that letter written by a Nazi, my father was able to prove the magnitude of his business, and was awarded war reparations. My parents built a summer cabin in Vermont, and my father took his first vacation since coming to the United States.July 19,1999
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