After the war, my father lost the circus and decided to run a small carnival instead.
I was born two years later, their third daughter and the second one who lived.
When I was little I didn't know it was a struggle for my mother to raise her children in a caravan home
and keep food on the table. It all seemed normal to me.
My mother eventually had six children. We never went hungry, but with the constant stress my Mutti,
as we called her, didn't have a lot of love to go around. This is the award-winning story of my
upbrining in the most dire circumstances and the joy and wonder I found in spite of it all.
Chapter six of my memoir, titled "What's in a Name," won honorable mention in the Laughing Gull
Writing Contest, and parts of several other chapters, combined into one story, were accepted for publication
in the anthology, His Forever: Real People Coming to Jesus.
Conversations with MargotThis chapter won First Prize in the Joyous Publishing Writing Contest, December 2005!
I’m waiting at the airport with my husband Ken and my two youngest daughters. My mother will soon arrive. I haven’t seen her for eight years. When she finally comes along the walkway, it takes me a moment to recognize her. She is smaller than I remember, but, at 84, she isn’t frail. I can’t imagine my mother being frail. Her once black hair now is an artificial auburn, the gray coming through at the roots; but her eyes are still dark and as piercing as ever. Mutti, as I still call her, is excited to be in America.
I have just finished writing the story of her journeys with the circus through Nazi Germany. During this visit I will talk with her about her life on the carnival circuit while I was growing up.
But first Mutti tells of her time with my father and her struggle to have a normal life.
My mother had children before me. Mutti, half-Jewish, hated and despised, a woman of much sorrow, bore children and presented the world with new life at a time when her people were being fed to furnaces by the millions.
Because Hitler was still in power, Mutti didn’t dare visit a doctor during her first two pregnancies. My oldest sister was born in a circus caravan, far too early, and lived only a few hours.
After the death of this child, Mutti became pregnant again, in early 1945. She took it as a blessing and was sure this time things would turn out all right. By the time the baby was due to be born, Germany had become safe. In June, the war was over, and a few weeks before the birth of the baby, Mutti and Vati, my father, were able to be married by a representative of the hastily thrown together new government of Germany. Carmen was born, in a hospital, two months after the marriage ceremony.
Carmen, too, was born premature. Her breathing was labored and painful, and she could barely move. The skin on her bottom was so thin and tender, Mutti saw the blood vessels through it.
“I’m so sorry, Frau Francesco,” the doctor told her. “There is nothing I can do. The incubators are destroyed, and we just don’t have the resources to keep your little girl alive.”
“Please, Herr Doktor, what can I do?” Mutti begged.
“Take her home. Try to feed her. If God wills, maybe she’ll survive.” He smiled a tired, sad smile. “Your love can do more for her than what we can do here.”
He left to attend the many war casualties.
Mutti took the barely breathing baby home to the rickety old caravan home where she and Vati lived.
Carmen was too weak to suck. For almost three months Vati and Mutti took turns feeding her every two hours, day and night. Mutti pumped the milk from her engorged breasts. At first they fed Carmen by eyedropper, and then with a bottle. For many months it didn’t look like Carmen would survive.
When she finally was strong enough to suck and even started to take solid foods, diarrhea hit. For days the little girl screamed with cramps and lost almost all her bodily fluids. In desperation, Mutti took her to another doctor, in another town, where the circus was playing at the time. This doctor, too, was overwhelmed trying to treat the wounded soldiers and civilians who poured into the western towns from the east, to worry about one small baby. After a cursory examination, he told Mutti dysentery had left the baby severely dehydrated and, since she couldn’t hold any liquids, he didn’t think she would recover. Mutti could try to keep her hydrated and hope for the best, but that was all that could be done in such a situation.
To this day, Mutti doesn’t give up easily. In tears, she found a drugstore and asked what could be done if a person had dysentery. The druggist sold her a small box with black tablets, carbon tablets. He warned her to be very careful, because such tablets could easily worsen the situation. Faced with the danger of losing another child if she did nothing, Mutti ground up half of one tablet, stirred it into a bit of oatmeal and fed it to her sick baby. Carmen survived.
Sometime in February 1947, Mutti stood at the table in the kitchen section of her circus caravan home, butter knife in hand. While spreading margarine and strawberry jam on rye bread for little Carmen’s breakfast, she hoped against hope her period was only late. With unseeing eyes she stared through Carmen, who sat on a chair atop a block of wood covered with a pillow. The coal burning in the kitchen oven suffused the small room with warmth. Carmen stuffed small bites of bread into her jam-covered mouth. The cold late winter rain pounded on the thin caravan roof and ran in rivulets down the window by the kitchen table.
Standing in the kitchen and watching her baby eat, Mutti didn’t know if she could do this again. Maybe she was fated to have bad pregnancies. She knew she wouldn’t have the energy to snatch another baby from the jaws of death. Not with having to sell tickets in the circus and caring for little Carmen, too. So far, each of her pregnancies had produced premature babies. She was convinced she’d have another preemie if she were pregnant again.
She wiped the baby’s face, picked her from the makeshift high chair and placed her safely on her hip. Automatically she cleaned the kitchen table, all the while thinking about her predicament. She couldn’t go through this again. This time she’d break. But what else could she do?
She told herself to cheer up. Maybe her period was just late. She’d be all right. If this were but a false alarm she’d be very careful from now on. She watched Carmen, in her old playpen in the living room, the middle section of the caravan, and decided to let Kolya, my Vati, know.
At noon Vati came in from helping to put up the circus tent, and she told him. He comforted her and told her to wait and see. If there were another baby they would take care of it, too. Surely this one wouldn’t be premature, now that they had more and better food to eat. And this time for sure they’d have a boy, someone to carry on the name and the circus.
On September 29, 1947, I was born. I was lucky. I was born after the war, and in much better health.
On the one hand Mutti was happy. This baby was on time, strong and healthy. On the other hand, I wasn’t the boy they had wanted. They didn’t even have a name for me, another girl. After a few days to consider the problem, Vati decided to call me Sonja, after his sister.
Eighteen months later, my sister Josefa was born. Mutti asked the doctor if there wasn’t something she could do so she wouldn’t get pregnant again, but the doctor told her no. She should consign herself to God’s will and be glad He had given her these children.
Mutti cursed the doctor and her fate. Three children were too many in these bad times. She wasn’t able to care for more and would do what she could to prevent another pregnancy. And just eight months later she was pregnant with her fourth child.