Wednesday, April 16, 2014


The year was 1945 when Russia annexed eastern Germany. Sixty-nine years have passed since then, and few of us who experienced the annexation are still alive. Yet those who are, remember it as if it were yesterday. It was a Russian “check-mate” move like no other. The Russians are experts at chess.

During the preceding twelve years Hitler had battered the German people into total submission. It was easy for the Soviets to become the new master, especially since most people of means and education had fled or were being exterminated.

Law and order vanished overnight. No person or object was safe—not anywhere. Scientists and inventors were the first to be dragged from their beds and shipped to Russia. Doctors and nurses, among them father’s young sister, went next, as well as hospital equipment and beds.

The Czechs had driven us—mother, our pretty au pair and us children—from our mountain cabin with nothing but the clothes we wore. We had taken refuge there from the nightly air raids in the city. 

The Czech soldiers had stormed into our cabin unexpectedly. We had to stand against the wall with our hands above our head, and stared down their gun barrels. Yet mother chatted with them amicably as if they were visitors. They searched the house, and miraculously, none of the soldiers touched us. One of them even escorted us safely to the border that led into East Germany. I still think of them with gratitude.

We hurried to the next village, the Ski Resort Oberwiesental. There, a compassionate hotel owner who remembered mother from better days took us in.

“Don’t open the windows or curtains,” she warned us. “My friend down the street was shot dead this morning while he was using the open window pane as a mirror to shave himself. Soldiers took his mirrors a few days ago.”

So we children watched life from behind the curtains. We had no books, no toys and felt like prisoners in our room we couldn’t leave. Yet the world outside was much too dangerous.

We watched as the Russians marched groups of civilians down the street. We saw them poke people who were passing by with their guns and push them into their group. Where were they taking them? No one knew. They disappeared and never came back.

Sometimes it was women and children they herded away, but I’d rather not dwell upon those memories.

We saw German women guarded by armed soldiers drive cattle and goats past our window. “They are on their way to Russia,” it was murmured, and later confirmed.

When East German schools reopened, Russian became the only language that was taught. However, in the three neighboring countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that were annexed earlier, Russian became the only language that was allowed to be spoken in school.

When the long-interrupted mail service eventually resumed, letters took months to get in or out of East Germany; Russian censors were analyzing them first. Some letters made it across the border, some did not, and some had passages that were thoroughly blackened out. So letter writers took to veiling their messages to get past the censors. It became quite an art. I’m glad to live in the Land of the Free, where there is hope that the sanctity and privacy of our electronic mail will be restored one day.

Precarious as it was, we managed to escape to West Germany. An incredible adventure, but we made it—you may have read about it in The Madman & His Mistress.

We were East German refugees now, and deeply despised by the West Germans. We competed for their shelter and food, and there was not enough to go around. Years of severe hunger and deprivation!  But thanks to the Marshall Plan that fed us starving children a heavenly noodle soup at lunchtime we survived and we were free.

Many years later, as luck would have it, a scholarship brought me to the United States (and my first good meal). What a blessing to live in these United States of America, a country that does not lie in the path of annexation.

Until next time,


Sunday, April 6, 2014


Empathy is the ability to perceive the joy or pain of another person and share these feelings as if they were our own.

Maxi, our beloved German Shepherd, had extraordinary empathy. When we children came home from school disheartened and depressed, Maxi would sadly hang his head and lick our hands consolingly. But when we came home with big smiles because it was Friday, he’d jump and run, wagging his tail with joy.

The memory still brings tears to my eyes because one day a Nazi official came to take him away. He was to be sent to the front—World War II was raging. Maxi was the only friend we had in whom we could confide our pain of always being hungry and cold or being beaten by our teachers for no reason at all. Merciless informers were everywhere, and complaining was strictly forbidden.

The capacity for empathy varies widely. Women tend to be more empathetic than men. Some adults may be totally lacking it, while some small children can show amazing discernment. When my daughter was a few months old, a visitor came. She took a glance at the baby and then gushed forth in exuberant praise, so insincere that even the baby perceived it. When the woman tried to pat her, the baby turned away and cried.

Empathy goes a step further than sympathy. While a sympathetic person feels compassion and pity, an empathetic person will actually feel the pain as if it were her own. In times of deep distress an empathetic friend who will share our grief can be of great solace.

When a good friend has lost a loved one, we may feel at a loss for words. Empathy may provide an answer—to share the feelings, share the sadness, share the silence or tears. A bereaved person does not want to be cheered up or hear platitudes, such as time heals all wounds. It is better to speak loving words of the deceased or quietly share the pain.

Time does heal many wounds, but not all. When it comes to the pain of losing a child, time cannot heal that pain; at best it can help a person to slowly become accustomed to the loss. With empathy we can reach out and touch a person, not just with our hands or with our words, but with our heart.

At times and in varying degrees we all need empathy—someone who will try to understand us and share our feelings.

Until next time,