Our neighbor is dying. This is what her adult son told me as we passed each other in the hallway. He whispered it, severely, like I should have known already. “My mother, she is very sick and will die soon. The baby is too loud. It is a disturbance.” He gestured toward my infant daughter, sleeping soundly in the baby sling. “He must not cry this much.”
“She. Her name is Marilee—” I started, but he was already turned away from me, unlocking the heavy bolt on his apartment door. He slipped inside, not giving me another look. As clunky as it was, his English was better than my German and I spent the next hour composing responses auf Deutsch in my head, as I put away my groceries and started dinner.
Unfortunately, our baby is not quiet. It’s colic, according to the doctor, and it will take a few weeks to improve. Meanwhile, I’m trapped in time. The weeks lay before me like weeks of famine. Impending suffering. I’m awake far more than I sleep, and my nerves are worn thin from the effort of keeping myself from crying along with her. There’s a certain kind of cry that starts each episode. As soon I detect a thin edge on the wail, I can be certain the cry will last for at least an hour.
Meanwhile, I’m trapped in time. The weeks lay before me like weeks of famine.
Last week it happened in the grocery store. A middle-aged woman came up to me, clucking in German about everything I was doing incorrectly. I understood every word. You have to hold the baby like this. You are feeding her too often. This can happen when the baby is overfed. But, there too, I was speechless in the face of her barrage. Though I understand it well, the language is still too foreign for me to summon an adequate response. In German, I have no real voice yet. That day I used my best scowl on the intrusive Frau and headed straight for the check out. When I told my husband, Jochen, about it at home that night, he laughed. Then he asked me if perhaps I was feeding Marilee too often.
My friends at home were envious when they heard we were moving here. “Just think of how well taken care of you will be once the baby comes,” they said. They had visions of national health care, visiting nurses who do laundry and an abundance of kindergeld. There is a lot of good. People here don’t waste words or time. Nature is everywhere, even in the city. Lawns are populated by clovers and vetch, visited by healthily buzzing bees. There’s someone on the hillside a few streets over who keeps a goat.
Still, I feel just shy of understanding what is expected of me, or how to fit in here. I’m home all the time and Jochen is the only person I talk to. At playgrounds, I have tried to make friends with other moms, but my limited language skills make it difficult. People gravitate toward those they can easily understand. Where they don’t have to work so hard.
The night after I learned of our neighbor, Frau Schorr’s, declining state, Marilee had a particularly long crying spell. I was exhausted, but frantic to dampen her wails for the sake of poor Frau Schorr. Her son’s grimace paired in my mind with an image of her aged body, spread out on the bed, desperate for some peace and quiet. I sought out the most remote part of the building- the storage room we were assigned when we moved in. It’s down at the far end of the basement hallway. Cradling Marilee, I donned a head lamp and perched on some boxes with her until she quieted. The next morning, I passed Frau Schorr’s son on the way out the door and he said nothing. It seemed that we were deep enough in the building that no one could hear her cry.
After that day, whenever Marilee was at her worst, I brought her down there. My husband set up a rocking chair, an end table and a lamp for me. With my eyes closed, it felt like a bedroom of sorts. Many of the boxes that should have been in the storage room, cluttered instead our actual bedroom. We’d been in the apartment six months, but the stress of a transatlantic move, followed by a new baby, meant it barely looked inhabited.
We live in an older building, which is unusual for Stuttgart. Much of the city was bombed during the war, but there are neighborhoods that escaped extensive damage. On the sidewalk in front of our building are three small brass plates- Stolpersteine. They were laid in memory of the three Jewish people who lived here before being sent to concentration camps. Britta Kurz. Liesel Herr. Jakob Rosenblatt. Under each name is a birth date and the words deportiert 1941. No individual date of death.
In many neighborhoods, every few doors you see a Stolperstein. Each spot has an eerie combination of intense gravity and every day functionality. When we first got here, I stopped to look at them all. It seemed insane to march on by without stopping. A city sidewalk filled with gravestones. But it doesn’t take long to acquire the minor habits of the people around you, and soon I found myself walking over them as if they weren’t there at all.
I was brought back to remembrance one night in the storage room. I was rocking Marilee in the chair, singing quietly. Every now and then my head bobbed into sleep. She felt the loosening of tension in my arms and it jerked her awake starting the crying all over. I assumed I had dreamed him at first. Maybe it was a sound, a brief flash of movement, I couldn’t be sure. But the resulting adrenaline woke me fully and I looked around. I saw a man in the corner, sitting on a box, his visibility wafting. He was short and dark-haired, his wide head capped with an old-fashioned working man’s hat. He had a thick beard and a dark suit. When I could see him well, he leaned forward and laid his head into his hands. Then he disappeared. The whole thing happened many times. He appeared for this short tortured gesture, only to fade again.
I was so intent on watching the spectacle, that I didn’t notice Marilee’s silence or the shift of her attention to follow mine. The repetitions must have happened only a few times before I came to my senses enough to feel afraid. Then I was truly afraid. I grabbed Marilee close to my chest and bolted from the room. There was a crash as the heavy steel door slammed behind me and I ran down the hallway and back upstairs. I tucked Marilee into bed beside me that night, but still it took me many hours to sleep.
The next morning I told Jochen about it.
“What makes you think you weren’t dreaming?” He nestled Marilee into his elbow as he brought his coffee to the table.
“I woke up so fully when I first spotted him, or it, out of the corner of my eye. And then, I ran back up here. I couldn’t possibly have been asleep.”
“Well, maybe a hallucination from not enough sleep. I will stay home this morning so you can go back to bed.” He sternly does not believe in ghosts, but is sensitive to human fragility. I had to appreciate his willingness to help.
“I really don’t think it was that. Afterward, I was thinking it could have been the man who used to live here who was killed in the Holocaust. Jakob. He would have good reason to haunt this place. If I were him, I would haunt it.”
Jochen breathed out, but didn’t reply. He sipped his coffee and laid Marilee on his thighs. “I could ask my mother to come for a few days, or weeks. To help with the baby if you need it. She would be willing.”
“No, please don’t. I’m really fine. Besides, I’m not sure how she would help.” The idea of another person in the small apartment, giving me advice, was enough to make me start to feel actually crazy. It seemed best to drop it. Clearly Jochen wasn’t going to go any further into this with me. “Maybe you’re right. I probably just need some more sleep.”
I did go back to bed and sleep was looking for me. It hovered close by and I felt myself start to fall into it. But in order to sleep, I had to loosen my thoughts, and they were consumed. I saw a terrified crowd standing on a railroad platform on the date of their deportation. I saw our apartment, empty and looted. I saw that ghost. Poor Jakob, mourning the loss of his life and home. Every time sleep took over, such a shadow jerked me out of it.
When I did fall asleep, it wasn’t for long. I awoke to the baby crying. The sound propelled my body, heavy as it was with lingering dreams, and I came into the living room to take her from Jochen. He was dressed in his suit and his work bag sat beside the door.
“I should go in now.” He said, nodding at the bag. He gave me a kiss on my head, as I sat down to nurse Marilee. “When she naps, hopefully you can sleep again. Liebe dich.”
“If she naps,” I said, but smiled at him. She looked so tender in my arms that the strain left me, replaced by the happy union of nursing. “Thank you for letting me sleep,” I said. He smiled and left. Once Marilee was done feeding, she fell asleep and I laid her in her crib, then went to my own bed. I slept again and didn’t wake for hours.
The next crying jag started later that afternoon. I was halfway through making dinner, trying to decipher the German cookbook my mother in law had given me. I tried all the soothing methods: the blanket, the baby swing, a firm swaddle. Finally I gave up on dinner and walked around the apartment gently bouncing her. She continued to cry loudly. I thought of poor, sick Frau Schorr and felt guilty. After half an hour of nothing working, I cried too. I put her down and yelled at her to stop. Then, guilty, I picked her back up, hugged her to me and tried singing again.
There was a knock at the door. I opened it halfway and peered around the doorframe to see our neighbor’s son looking back at me with impatience. He started right in without a hello.
“The baby is crying again.” He spoke in German this time.
“Yes, I know.”
“It is too loud. For my mother. You must not allow this to happen.”
My cheeks turned red.
“I try.” I said, knowing my German wasn’t perfect. Tears were close. “There is nothing I can do against it.”
He scoffed at what he clearly deemed my faults as a mother, or my American stupidity. “Das gibt’s nicht,” he said as he turned away from my door. It was meant as a response of incredulity, but translated exactly it means, this doesn’t exist. As if with a phrase, he could completely negate our annoying presence.
Two nights later the crying fit happened very late in the evening. Jochen held her, but I could see the exhaustion in his face. His had to work in the morning. I gathered Marilee up in my arms and headed for the basement.
“Remember, there is nothing to be afraid of down there,” he said. “Only your imagination. Think about something else.” He kissed me and headed to bed.
I took the hallway in a half-run to get Marilee by the neighbors’ doors quickly, shushing her as I went. When I got to the store room and into my rocking chair, I relaxed somewhat. A crying baby is hard, but angry neighbors are harder. At least here she could cry as much as she needed. I breathed in and out, trying to form my mental space into something more peaceful. She was dry; she was fed. She was loved. If she needed to cry, I was there to hold her through it. I rocked her and the cries softened, but continued on. This time I didn’t sleep.
Instead, I went back in my mind to a favorite scene from my childhood. My grandparent’s house in the summer, the sprinkler set up in the backyard. The sun shining on me through birch and poplar leaves. I pictured every single face. My grandfather’s worn smile. My grandmother’s grey braids and hoarse laugh. My mother running through the freezing water. Basking in such deep familiarity brought the peace I needed.
Then the ghost came back. He was on the same box, leaning into his hands. My breath caught, but I kept my eyes on him. Summoning courage from up out of the happy memory, I spoke to him. “Who are you?”
There was no response. Just the falling motion into his own lap. Marilee was settling into sleep on my shoulder and I was loathe to move her, as she wasn’t far enough gone to prevent her reawakening. So I settled back and rocked. The man came and went as long as we sat there.
The next morning when I told him, Jochen sighed, but made an effort not to be dismissive. “Maybe this ghost experience is saying something to you?” he asked me.
“What would it be saying?”
“Stress can cause such things. You do nothing but care for Marilee. Perhaps it’s too much.”
“But, it was really peaceful last night. I didn’t feel scared.” I scrambled the eggs in the pan. I wasn’t ready to dismiss my ghost that easily.
“Ok, but you have to admit it’s not really a ghost. There’s no such thing.” He looked uncomfortable challenging me.
“Says science and reason. They just don’t exist.”
“I saw it with my own eyes.” I took my growing anger out on the eggs.
“I just meant it’s ok to ask for help.”
“I’m fine! I’ve said that many times. Of course this is hard, but I’m handling it, and she’ll outgrow it soon. The doctor said that last time we went. Twelve weeks is the magic number.” I put the eggs on our plates, brought them both to the table and continued talking. Jochen would likely never believe me, but I wasn’t going to let him talk me out of my own experience. “I think there is something that could help me understand better what’s going on.”
“Anything,” he said as he started in on his eggs.
“I want to meet our neighbor, Frau Schorr. Would you help me arrange it?” I knew there was a nurse who spent the day there while Frau Schorr’s son was at work. I had seen her coming and going; she was my best chance at an introduction.
“I don’t think we should bother someone who is dying. Why would you want to visit her?”
“If she’s that old, maybe she knew Jakob. I want to know more about him. Maybe there is something I can do.”
“What do you mean do? He’s been dead seventy years. Anyway, you can’t just go in there and ask her about it. This is not the kind of thing you talk about with your neighbors.”
“She’s sick. Maybe she’ll want to talk to someone.”
“She has her own family.”
“Well, what if I do it just to be friendly? Would you arrange it with the nurse if I promise to just say hello and bring by a few dahlias from the garden? She might like that. Since I can’t really do anything else useful here, I might as well cheer up the neighbors.”
Jochen peered at me over his coffee. “You promise not to bother her with questions? We have to keep living next to them. You remember how hard it was to get this apartment?”
“I promise. I really won’t.”
While I nursed Marilee later that morning, I thought about what I would ask Frau Schorr. Even if she hadn’t lived in this building, she would have experienced the war. My mind was filled with the images I had been exposed to growing up. American soldiers in folded green caps, coming to the rescue. Starved people in concentration camps. Grainy films of bombs being dropped. Now that I was here, on the actual piece of earth where it happened, it felt distant and hard to believe. Everything was so clean, beautiful and well-built, it was difficult to imagine such destruction and abuse taking place only one generation before.
The next morning, Jochen texted me from work that he had caught Frau Schorr’s nurse in the hallway and she had said it was fine to come by any time. Marilee was in the middle of her morning nap, peaceful and likely to sleep for sometime longer. I gently placed her into the baby carriage and then gathered a box of tea and some flowers from the yard. I used a clean jar as a vase and tied a little piece of orange ribbon around the neck to make it look nicer. Then we went out into the hallway. I knocked on Frau Schorr’s door.
The nurse opened it and peered out at me. I breathed in and tried my best Deutsch.
“Hallo, ich bin hier, Frau Schorr zu besuchen. Wir sind die Nachbarn.” We are the neighbors.
She smiled and answered, opening the door for us. Her German was clearly no better than mine, but she was friendly and we made our way through with smiles.
“Herein,” she said, showing me to the bedroom. I smiled again a thank you and handed the nurse the tea.
“Für Frau Schorr,” I said and she nodded.
Frau Schorr was sitting in an armchair, reading. The room was tidy and smelled fresh. Clearly the nurse was good at her job. There was a bed against one wall, a wheelchair, a large bookcase and a few books and magazines stacked on the bedside table. She looked very elderly, but her cheeks had color. Not quite so close to death.
“Hallo,” I said as I set the jar of flowers on the table next to the bed. Frau Schorr looked up. I felt nervous, so I rocked the baby carriage back and forth. The nurse began to speak to Frau Schorr. She was introducing me as the neighbor. I reached for her hand.
“Guten Morgan, Frau Schorr. Ich heisse Frau Steinmetz. Ich bin dein- Ihre Nachbarin. Das ist mein Kind Marilee.” I had no idea if any of the gendered articles were right. Frau Schorr shook my hand and sat up a bit. The nurse pulled up a chair for me beside her.
Now I had to concentrate. None of what I wanted to ask would be easy to say in German and I racked my brain for the right phrases.
I proceeded in German, stumbling. “We wanted only to meet you and to say hello. We have moved in just before.”
“Nice to meet you,” she replied.
“I hope we don’t bother you.”
“No, I don’t get many visitors anymore. Katharina is nice, but I have heard everything she has to say.”
“You have lived here a long time, or?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “How old is the baby? Can I see her?”
I brought the carriage closer, so that she could see in. “Almost three months,” I said, somewhat proudly. “She is very sweet. I know that she has disturbed you. I’m sorry.”
“Me?” Frau Schorr looked shocked and possibly offended. “No. How would the baby have disturbed me?”
“How she cries, I mean.”
Frau Schorr shook her head. “I haven’t heard anything. What a sweet baby.”
My heart skipped.
“But your son said—” I was unsure how to finish. My cheeks were red and my stomach turning sour. To think of all the stress I caused myself, worrying about being a disturbance.
She fluttered her hand away in dismissal of his behavior. “My son is an Eumel.” I didn’t know the word, but caught the meaning.
I conjured a smile, in gratitude for how easily she brushed the issue away. “She is a good child,” I went on. Frau Schorr nodded.
“A beautiful baby. You must be proud.”
“I am,” I smiled. Then I dove in. “You have lived here for how long?” I asked.
“Since I was born.”
“That is long.”
“Yes, my father bought the apartment just after the first world war.”
“Did you live during the second here?”
Frau Schorr nodded. “Oh yes. Horrible times.”
“Yes, very horrible.” I cleared my throat. “Furchtbar.” I said it again, just for the feel of it on my tongue. Literally, it means fear-able. Horror-able. They were times that enabled horror. I fiddled with my shirt buttons forming the next sentence in my head. “Did you know the people who from here were deported?” Deportation was an easy word for me. So close to the English, and I had read it so many times on the Stolpersteine. I was nervous, having let such a loaded question out.
Frau Schorr was quiet for a long time, her face glassy. Her eyes moved back and forth in their sockets, like REM sleep. “Yes, I knew people who were deported.”
“Were you knowledgable about Frau Kurz or Herr Rosenblatt?” I asked.
“Yes, I knew them.” She reached for her water and drank. “They were horrible times.” She repeated.
“I’m sorry when I talk about bad things,” I said. “I mean, I don’t want that this is too uncomfortable.”
She waved the thought away in the same way she had disregarded her son. “They were friends of my parents when I was a child. Before the Nazis.”
“I understand,” I said. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I had heard the phrase used often, Ich verstehe- I understand, and it seemed fitting here, but once it was out, it felt ridiculous. Seeing the crystal look in her eyes and the matter of fact way she remembered, I felt certain that I didn’t understand.
“But we did not see them much in the years before the fighting started. When I was very little, I used to go to Frau Herr’s house. Where you live now. I would help her in her garden and she often gave me cookies. But when things got worse, my mother did not allow me to go anymore, or to even say hello to her in the hallway.” With one finger, she traced the outline of her book, which still lay open on her lap. “We moved to the countryside to live with my mother’s family during the war, so we did not see them go. But we heard about it later, of course. We were lucky to be able to come back. Many of our neighbors’ houses were no longer standing. No, we were very lucky.”
Marilee stirred in her carriage and I rocked it until she quieted. I felt knotted up. What could I say? I brought myself back to Jakob. “How did Herr Rosenblatt look?”
She rubbed her eyes. “What did he look like? Ach, it was so long ago.”
“Did he have a—?” I didn’t know the word for beard, so I mimed it.
“Beard. Many men had beards then. Especially Jews.”
“Do you have pictures from him?”
“Why do you want to know so much about Herr Rosenblatt?”
“I wonder only who has lived in this building.”
“He was a jeweler. I remember that. But, I didn’t know him well. I was only a child when the war started.”
“Frau Herr has lived in my apartment?”
“Yes. Later a family moved in. But I don’t I have any pictures of those times. We didn’t make pictures so often back then.”
Marilee started to wriggle, making her waking up noises.
“You don’t know how Herr Rosenblatt has looked?”
Frau Schorr thought. “He was tall and thin. Otherwise I don’t know. He lived upstairs.”
Marilee started crying. I stood from my chair and picked her up.
“Are you sure he was tall?”
“Yes, quite sure. It was noticeable. He was even taller than my father.”
I rocked Marilee in my arms. “I think, I must now go. Thank you very much for the visit,” I said. “It was very beautiful to talk.”
She took my hand and shook it. “Thank you for the flowers. It was kind of you to come.”
“Can I again come?”
“Yes, yes. Just let Katharina know.”
I waved again as I left, pushing the carriage, while I held Marilee.
“Her son is such an ass,” I said over dinner that night. “I can’t believe he’s been making me feel bad.”
“Maybe we should set Marilee’s crib outside his door next time she has a fit,” Jochen said, breaking apart a piece of bread. “How did Frau Schorr seem? Healthy?”
“She was sitting up reading when I got there. And she had no trouble remembering things from seventy years ago.”
“Did you hound her about the ghost?” He looked shocked.
“No, I didn’t hound her. But I did ask.”
“What did she say?”
“She didn’t remember much. Jakob Rosenblatt was tall. Apparently a lot of Jewish men wore beards and hats.”
Jochen mumbled into his bread, but didn’t reply.
“I just can’t help thinking of this poor man and what it must have been like for him. Frau Schorr said she wasn’t even allowed to talk to their Jewish neighbors. People who had once been friends.”
“Furchtbar,” Jochen said without emotion. “Unimaginably horrible.”
“Yes, I know. But, there must be more than that to say about it.” In my mind Jakob appeared, haunted and pitiful.
“It was a kind of suffering I think it’s not easy for us to imagine.” He took another bite of dinner and chewed. “In any case, it sounds like you won’t need to go to the basement anymore. I’ll bring the rocking chair up after dinner.”
“Oh,” I said. It was true that I was indignant about being sent unnecessarily to the basement, but I wasn’t altogether happy to see it go. When might I glimpse my ghost again? “Yes, we can put it in the other bedroom, I guess.”
In the morning I decided to take Marilee to the library. At the very least, this quest to learn more about Jakob was making me braver with German. I rehearsed what I might say as I pushed her along in the baby carriage. I stopped for some of the Stolpersteine, looking for people about Jakob’s age, who might have known him. Jakob was born in 1902. That meant he was 39 when he was deported. Close to my own age.
At the library, I asked the woman if there were archives from the time between the two wars. It was a long stumbling sentence, but I got there.
“I’m afraid not very much. But we do have many modern books. I will show you what we have.”
“Is it possible to look people?”
“Look people up? Yes, sometimes. It is all digitized now, so you can search the database for names.”
She led me down a hallway and into a small room with a few computers. “Here is where you can do the search.” She pulled up the application and showed me where to enter my search items. “Then, we also have some books with photos from that time. Follow me.” She showed me where to find the books and I thanked her and headed back to the computer. I handed Marilee her blanket, which she chewed as she stared at the ceiling.
I entered “Jakob Rosenblatt juwelier” into the search box. Several items came up. One an advertisement he had placed in a newspaper in 1927. Another had his name among a longer list of names, surrounded by text I couldn’t understand fully. I printed each page out though. I could use my dictionary, or get Jochen’s help.
I pushed Marilee along in front of me and went to the shelf of books the librarian had indicated. There were quite a few historical books, some with photos. I decided to check out two that focused on Jewish life in Stuttgart in the decades between the wars. Both books had many pictures. We didn’t yet have a library card, but I didn’t want to have to make the trip again with Jochen. I knew he wouldn’t be excited about it and the library was a rather long walk from our house.
At the desk, I steadied myself and dug deep for the right words. “We want a card. For the library.”
“Of course. I need your address and ID.” I handed her my passport and gave her our address. Jakob’s address. She typed away and a few minutes later we had a temporary card, which we used to check out the two books. Then I paid for the print outs.
Near the exit, I spied the children’s section. I perused a bit and found a few German nursery rhyme books, which I also checked out for Marilee. On our walk home, I felt lighter than I had in weeks. I had accomplished something. Auf Deutsch. No problem.
The weekend was busy and I didn’t have a chance to dig into the library books until late on Monday afternoon. Jakob Rosenblatt was not in the index, but I took it page by page, scanning for his name. It was slow going. Every evening I did a bit of looking.
In the newspaper that week, I read that the first plane full of asylum seekers was sent from Germany back to Afghanistan. Deported. They were denied asylum in Germany because Afghanistan is deemed safe enough. One of the deportees took his own life soon after arrival. Later, in a magazine, I saw an ad for a hiking vacation in Afghanistan for German tourists and I wondered, who decides what’s safe? And for whom?
Marilee’s crying fits still happened, but they were becoming less and less frequent. The mood in our little apartment had softened considerably. On Friday our new library card came in the mail. I stuck it on the cork board in the hallway and showed it proudly to Jochen. That evening I took the second library book and picked up where I had left off in my methodical search for Jakob. After half an hour of looking, I found him. It was a picture of him as a young man, standing next to the master jeweler he was apprenticed to. The picture was clearly labeled with both their names. He was noticeably tall, just as Frau Schorr had said, and thin. The hair on his head was so light, it barely showed and he had not a hint of facial hair. His nose was narrow and long, his chin thin and rounded.
After dinner I showed Jochen the picture.
“It doesn’t look like the man you described,” he said.
“No. It doesn’t at all. I don’t understand it though. Who is the ghost then?”
“Does it matter?” he said.
“Yes.” It did matter to me. I closed my eyes and rubbed them. I wanted to know who it was I had seen during those nights. The ghost appeared again in my mind, but now muddied together with people like him I had seen on TV in my childhood.
Jochen sat on the couch and turned on the evening news. I brought Marilee into the bedroom, changed and fed her, and put her down to sleep. While I waited for her to fall asleep, I sat on the bed looking through the book again. Each face had its individual peculiarities. They all wore stern expressions, in the way of old photographs. I couldn’t have guessed what they were thinking.
Once Marilee was asleep, I closed the book and went to the couch to sit beside Jochen. The newscaster spoke at hyper-speed. The report was about further developments in the current refugee crisis and how the government was adjusting its policies. I looked into the faces of the men and women shown on the screen: people who had given up everything for a chance at German citizenship. I leaned close to the television and tried hard to understand what they were saying.
Heidi Davidson-Drexel is a writer and middle school math teacher. She is currently a student in the Stonecoast MFA program through the University of Southern Maine. Her work has also been published by Longridge Review. Heidi lives in Portland, Maine, with her family.
Cagibi Issue 7