After The War
by Tessa Dratt
After the Second World War, my father made his living as a broker in the
scrap metal trade. Because of his German roots and his knowledge of a number
of foreign languages, he was able to conduct interesting and useful business
transactions that involved the collecting and shipping of scrap metals from
one country in post-war Europe to another.
The helmets of German soldiers could be collapsed to make railway ties
for Belgian trains, my father said. Bits and pieces of bombed German
aircraft could be reshaped into girders to hold up a provincial French
factory. The scrap from German artillery shells found in Frankfurt could be
melted down, my father would explain, and used to rebuild the bells of the
(I could tell that my father was especially proud of his work on the
Vatican deal, although at that time, and the product of a sternly Jewish
upbringing, I had little understanding of what the Vatican represented, nor
any inkling of the sweet irony involved in this particular transaction.)
In 1954, my brother, Lee, was almost thirteen, I was ten, and our mother
was that indeterminate age that mothers often are in the eyes of their
children. We lived in a rambling, old apartment on the West Side of
Manhattan, but spent almost as much time abroad as at home.
My mother, brother and I would join my father and travel for two and
three months at a stretch. We visited one country and another, trailing
after my father while he took care of business. Much of this journeying
took us to Germany for extended periods of time. A fat German man by the
name of Herr Schoeppel played a major role in my father's business
transactions and, being as he was a pivotal supplier of German scrap metal, I
came to know him rather better than I would have liked.
The Schoeppels lived outside Munich in a picturesque Bavarian house
complete with quaintly hand-carved wooden furniture, a thatched roof,
gracious gables, flowering gardens and a pack of six fierce-looking hunting
dogs penned up in a yard out back.
Herr Schoeppel had a small, unremarkable wife who seemed to shrink from
his enormous belly and boisterous manner, and a green parakeet named
"Schoenheit" to whom he sang love songs by Schubert and Brahms every free
afternoon between three and four.
Frau Schoeppel accompanied her husband on a small piano that stood in the
corner of the sitting room. She always stared intently at the musical score
when she played, never looking up or away, a human metronome, unerringly
correct and mechanical.
The Schoeppels had no children, so much fuss was made over my brother and
me. Actually, my mother often told me, I got the lion's share of the fuss,
because my brother was a rather withdrawn, sullen boy while I was, according
to my mother, a clowning performer in perpetual pursuit of attention.
Now, I've always been frightened of extremely fat people. Members of our
family have tended to be on the short, small-framed side, so a man of Herr
Schoeppel's proportions was severely intimidating. He stood well over six
feet tall and must have weighed close to three hundred pounds most of which
were concentrated in his belly and his fingers which were the size and
color of uncooked bratwurst.
Herr Schoeppel was fond of squeezing my shoulder as a sign of affection,
and he did so whenever he could.
I'd like to believe that he had no idea just how hard he squeezed. The
day after one of our visits to his home, I pulled down my blouse to show my
brother, Lee, the bruises in the shape of four fat fingers on the outside of
my shoulder and a thumb print on my collarbone.
Lee told me to forget about it. I couldn't. I did my best to put a
distance between myself and Herr Schoeppel's grasp.
At the end of one especially long and heavy Sunday lunch at the
Schoeppel's house, the fat man stood up quite suddenly. He left the table and
positioned himself beside the bird cage. Frau Schoeppel mumbled something I
couldn't hear and ushered us into the into the sitting room.
His right hand on his heart, Herr Schoeppel serenaded Schoenheit while his
pallid wife worked the piano keys. We had no choice but to listen. The
music was very beautiful, but Herr Schoeppel sang badly.
The song was all about a trout that swam joyfully in a clear brook. A
fisherman stood by with his rod. The pretty fish twisted and turned, safe to
play in a stream so clear. But the fisherman was clever. He muddied the
water, and in the end, caught the struggling trout on his line.
As the last bars of the music sounded, my father, seated next to me on
the couch, leaned over, took my hand and whispered in my ear.
"See, darling, never forget this. These Germans, they'll sing to their
parakeets, they'll fluff their birds' feathers, but just a few years ago,
these same Germans shot Jews down in the streets like dogs...."
The sharp edge of my father's tone stunned me. I inspected his face to
make certain that his expression matched what he'd just said. It did. His
face was tight and closed up, and I could see from the funny little spasms in
the skin over his jaw that he was grinding his teeth.
I curled my hand into a fist inside my father's and whispered back:
"Then why are we here, Daddy? Why do we come?"
But Herr Schoeppel had finished singing, and my father didn't have time to
answer. Instead, he let go of my hand and clapped his two together,
"Sehr schoen, Herr Schoeppel, wunderschoen."
The fat man lumbered away from the parakeet and the piano and parked
himself in the armchair nearest to me. His belly performed a fascinating
trick in which it folded over and over on itself just like the pleats in the
skirt my mother had bought me that spring to wear to synagogue for the
I knew better than to stare, but the multiple, neatly piled folds of
flesh under the fabric of his shirt drew my eyes like a magnet, and I studied
Herr Schoeppel's mid-section from under heavy lids.
"What did you think about this, Liebchen?" Herr Schoeppel asked me.
"Do you like it, our German music?" he went on.
Herr Schoeppel leaned forward in his chair, his sausage fingers resting on
his knees, ominously close to mine. I couldn't help but notice that his
white-blond head, covered with a lot of down-like hair, seemed surprisingly
small sitting on top of his thick neck and all those bellies.
I drew back and burrowed into the cushions of the couch. I said that I
liked the music very much, which was no lie, because I truly did. But, I
thought, I would have preferred to hear a song with a happier ending, and
better yet, to be the one to do the singing.
"Ach, ja," sighed Herr Schoeppel, leaning back on his chair, "We have a
great and enduring culture, we Germans."
The fat man clapped his hands together. He had a wonderful idea, he
said. He would take us out to the country, to his hunting lodge. The very
next weekend. A day in the country, what a splendid idea, nicht wahr? An
experience for the children, a chance to walk through some of Germany's most
glorious countryside, a chance to wander on the so-called Romantic Road, die
Romantische Strasse. This road stretched for close to two hundred miles
through Central Bavaria, Herr Schoeppel explained, and was dotted with houses
that dated back over two thousand years.
Lee and I exchanged despairing glances. We rarely agreed on anything in
those days, but it was clear we were both sick to death of the Schoeppels,
their countryside and its two thousand-year-old stones. We were at an age
when to see one set of old stones was to have seen them all.
And I had another worry. Would the six hunting dogs come along on the
trip to the Romantic Road, I asked?
"Ja, naturlich," Herr Schoeppel answered and gave my shoulder an
enthusiastic squeeze. One could hardly go to a hunting lodge without one's
hunting dogs, now, could one?
My shoulder stung. I could already feel the precise places where the
finger marks would appear against my skin the next morning when I got out of
What would Herr Schoeppel hunt for, I asked, ignoring the look of
annoyance on my mother's face, the look aimed directly at me indicating that,
as always, I asked too many questions.
"Oh, we shall see, Liebchen, we shall see. Whatever presents itself,
most likely. That's usually the case. Yes, that's usually the way it goes.
And then afterwards...afterwards," and here Herr Schoeppel's watery blue eyes
became round and focused, "Afterwards, we'll eat what we shoot. Imagine!
Won't that be fun, Liebchen?"
The vision of dead deer or birds, or worse yet, rabbits hanging by their
feet, made me want to throw up, but I swallowed hard and, this time, said
Frau Schoeppel appeared out of her vagueness, bearing a plate of butter
cookies and cinnamon buns.
As she passed the platter around to her company, I noticed for the first
time that her eyes were a warm, light brown, the shape and color of roasted
walnuts. Her hair was a similar color, and somehow, as she passed the food
from one to another, she seemed relaxed and content. She gave me a shy smile
and pointed to a heart-shaped cookie saying it was her specialty and that I
should be sure to try it.
Frau Schoeppel moved easily now around her sitting room. It occurred to
me that perhaps she disliked playing the piano for company as much as I did,
and that she might be a person worth getting to know. She probably had
squeeze marks on her shoulders too.
The afternoon dragged on. The day in the country had been planned for
the following Sunday. Frau Schoeppel covered Schoenheit's cage with a large
blue felt cloth to simulate darkness and put him to sleep. The room became
hushed as my father and Herr Schoeppel lowered their voices and withdrew to a
corner to discuss business. My mother and Frau Schoeppel sat close together
and murmured whatever it is grown women murmur when they're tired of one
another and waiting for their men to be done with their affairs.
At this point, Lee and I felt free to go out to explore the yard behind
the house, although at the sight and smell of us, the hunting dogs bared
their teeth and set up an instant and incessant yowling which brought Herr
Schoeppel and my father out back and gratefully hastened our family's
Despite our fervent prayers for torrential rains that might wipe out any
thought of a day in the country, the following Sunday dawned hopelessly
bright. Lee and I found ourselves neatly stashed into the back of Herr
Schoeppel's enormous Mercedes limousine.
My mother had been excused from the outing because of one of her migraine
headaches. Frau Schoeppel couldn't come either because, according to her
husband, she was obliged to attend to a myriad of church and civic duties.
Seated across from our father and the fat man, who was decked out for
the occasion in leather shorts, a peasant shirt with billowing sleeves and a
green felt Tyrolian cap with a yellow feather sticking out of the side, I was
confronted by the enormity of Herr Schoeppel's thighs, the size of twin tree
trunks and as pale as his fingers and the blond down on his head.
"So, Liebchen," Herr Schoeppel said, "Are you excited?"
I mumbled something in response and fixed my attention on the jade green
hills, the sputtering streams and crumbling old cottages that rolled past us
one after another outside the window.
"Where are the dogs?" I finally found the courage to ask.
"They were sent on ahead," said Herr Schoeppel. "They will be happy to
see you again," he added.
My stomach did a little dance and turned over on its side. Lee poked me
with his elbow and made a low growling noise in the back of his throat. I
slipped a hand behind him on the seat, grabbed a small wad of flesh just
above Lee's waist and gave it a sharp twist. He didn't make a sound, but I
checked his eyes out of the corner of mine and noted with satisfaction that
they were smarting.
Some two hours passed during which I was bathed in boredom laced with
nervousness. Finally, the Mercedes slowed, turned off the main road and wove
its way through dense, dark forest paths until it pulled up and stopped in
front of a long, simple wooden structure that looked to me like an enormous
rectangular coffin. With an amazing coordination and dexterity for a man
of his size, Herr Schoeppel threw open the Mercedes door, bounded out of the
car and called out "Hans, Karl, Lisle, Utti, wir sind angekommen!"
Doors opened all over the wooden house, and the staff of the hunting
lodge hurried outside. The dogs could be heard howling and carrying on from
somewhere in the distance.
Hans and Karl were tall, blond and youngish, no more than sixteen or
seventeen I guessed. They looked like brothers. They smiled at Lee and me
and gave us each a little wave. Lisle, an old kerchiefed woman whose pink
face was the color of poached salmon, stepped outside in stiff-looking black
boots. She held a dish rag in one hand and a head of red cabbage in the
She set the cabbage down on a window ledge and wiped her hands on the
dish rag. She wore a wilted-looking apron that must once have been white
over a long flowered skirt. Her face was so blank that I couldn't understand
anything about her. That frightened me.
Then the man called Utti came forward with a lopsided walk and pumped
Herr Scoeppel's hand. He smiled, revealing a frightening assortment of
teeth, some gold, some silver, some blackened or broken. He spoke to Herr
Schoeppel with great enthusiasm and a lot of gesturing with red, rough hands.
One by one, my father, Lee and I were introduced to the staff. The tall
brothers seemed pleased to meet us. Lisle and Utti, however, looked through
the three of us as if we were made of glass.
Our father was not a man generally ignored, rushing noisily around Europe
as he did putting deals and people together. But as he stood there, in front
of the hunting lodge, next to the ponderous Herr Schoeppel, he looked
unusually small and just a bit silly in his city slacks with their neat
crease and his trim, white shirt. I moved closer to him and took his hand.
It was as much for him as for me.
Lee wandered off to one side and kicked a rock around in circles with the
tip of his high-top sneaker. Lee tended to stay on the fringe of situations,
on the outside looking in. I always needed to be in the thick of things, as
if the only true security lay in the movement and texture and resonance of
events and people.
But neither Lee nor I were at ease as we were ushered into the lodge by
the expressionless Lisle, followed closely by Utti and his metallic teeth. I
looked around for the Hans/Karl brothers, but they had evidently joined Herr
Schoeppel and my father on a tour of the grounds.
"Sit there," said Lisle.
She pointed to two small wooden chairs at the foot of a huge slab of oak
that occupied the center of the dark main room. The table was covered with
different types of rifles, some long, some short, some in between. Beside
the rifles, lay cases of sleek, shiny bullets. It's true that I was young,
but I'd seen enough Westerns to know a bullet when I saw one.
Also neatly lined up along the top of the oak slab were horns made out of
antlers, brass whistles, black leather whips and strangely shaped woven
baskets of various sizes.
"Don't touch anything," Lisle said.
It was then I realized that Lisle didn't blink. Her eyes were round and
empty and open all the time.
Dish rag in hand, she picked up a rifle, the heaviest of all, and began
to dust it, end to end. Lee and I looked at each other. I could see he was
every bit as scared as I was. We sat, stiff and still in our designated
Utti took a chair at the opposite end of the table. He crossed his legs,
pulled off his left boot and put it up on another one of the wooden chairs.
He motioned to Lisle with a subtle turn of his head.
She set the rifle back on the table, took a seat opposite him, pulled off
his thick, woolen sock and began to massage the foot.
Utti's foot was riveting. Four out of five toes were missing, with only
the baby toe left and it stuck up from the stump like an angry exclamation
"What are you staring at?" Utti asked.
His German was an even rougher language than the one I heard at home.
"Sorry," I mumbled.
"If you're so curious, come here and have a closer look."
Utti raised both his red hands and motioned for me to come to him.
I said no thank you, I was fine where I was, but he insisted.
Lisle still held the foot in her lap, her unblinking face neither cruel
nor kind, happy nor sad. But she seemed tired. Her hands fell to either
side of her body, and she slid down ever-so-slightly in her chair.
Slowly, I moved around the table and came up next to Utti.
Utti grabbed onto the back of my hair and pulled my head forward and
"This is what your Jew bastard countrymen did to me!"
He spat the words out into my face with hot breath.
I forced my eyes to stay open. I made myself look at the mutilated foot
where the flesh had mended itself unevenly leaving raw red criss-crossed
scars in the places where the four toes should have been.
"Touch it," Utti commanded.
"I...I don't want to," I said and pulled back as if I'd been slapped,
knocking one of the boxes of bullets off the table in the process. The
bullets rolled and bounced and scattered all over the wood floor. The
clatter echoed through the room.
"Now see what you've done!" barked Utti. "Come back here! Come back here
and touch my foot, you little piece of Jewish filth!"
I looked around for Lee, for his help, for his protection, but he was
frozen in his chair, studying the floor boards.
"Let her be, Utti," Lisle said suddenly in a harsh whisper that was more
like a hiss.
"I said, let the child alone," she repeated. "This time, Utti, you go
Utti's head dropped to his chest. He was quiet. Then I understood that
Lisle was Utti's mother. Mothers have ways to silence their children.
A loud racket started up outside the lodge. The dogs barked, mens'
voices sounded, and laughter, and I heard Herr Schoeppel's voice shouting out
orders for the hunt.
I ran for the door of the lodge and shot through it as if fired from one
of the rifles. I flew into my father's arms. Tears blew off my face in
every direction. My body shook with the accumulation of fear, of the guns
and bullets, of Utti's horrid teeth and poisonous tongue, of Lisle's
unblinking eyes, of the toeless foot.
Herr Schoeppel hurried over.
"Was ist den passiert? Liebchen, what's wrong? Why do you cry?"
I couldn't look at him, at his fatness, at his stupid hat, at his downy
head. I couldn't look at any of them. I could barely speak. My father
kneeled in the grass and held me.
"They hate us, here, Daddy," I cried in English, not caring who heard or
understood. "They hate us!"
"We have to leave. We have to leave right now. Please, Daddy! Please,
or they'll hunt us instead of animals!"
My father stroked my back and kissed my hair as I sobbed in his ear and
told him what had gone on. The words spilled out so fast, I was babbling.
Lee had come out of the lodge. He stood near us, white and silent,
nodding now and again as if to punctuate the strangled narrative I was
"Oh my darling, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," my father said over and
"So sorry, so sorry," he repeated like a mantra.
"We'll go...we'll go," he said as he rubbed my back. "Never again,
darling. Never again. Never again, my darling child..."
I began to quiet down a little. From the corner of my eye, I could see
Herr Schoeppel in a huddle with Lisle in the doorway of the lodge. Utti was
nowhere in sight.
The Hans/Karl brothers came over. They looked upset and awkward, young
and frightened. They asked my father if they could speak with him a moment.
They wanted to explain about their father, Utti. About the war. How he
hadn't been the same since the war. The war had changed him. He wasn't a
bad man, really. Just sort of broken. Whatever had happened, the boys were
sure their father hadn't meant any harm. No harm, the brothers said. The
war had taken their mother and Utti's toes. It was the war, they kept
repeating. The war.
Having assured himself that my hysteria had subsided, my father sprung
into action. He was all movement, noise and decision. He instructed Lee not
to leave my side and went over to Herr Schoeppel.
The two men entered into an animated discussion. No voices were raised,
no angry looks exchanged, although I could see from the way my father held
his back and shoulders, at attention like a soldier, that he was doing
whatever it was a father needed to do to take his children out of harm's way.
Herr Schoeppel and my father shook hands, and both men came over to us.
The driver would take us back to town in the Mercedes and deposit us at our
hotel. Herr Schoeppel would stay on at the lodge and enjoy the hunt without
us. He would miss our company, he said. He was sad to see us go.
Herr Schoeppel reached out to put his fat hand on my shoulder, but must
have thought better of it. He let his hand fall back to his side. Instead,
he gave me a weak smile and shook his head slowly from side to side as if he
were considering a problem to which there was no solution.
Lee and I ran to the car and climbed inside, our father close on our
heels. The Mercedes pulled out of the driveway in reverse, then made a half
turn that brought us back out to the Romantic Road which would lead us, if
not home, then to a safer place.
from the July 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine