Q&A with Beatrix Ost: My Father's House
You were five years old when most of this book occurred. How did you remember?
After finding my father's letters I got an overwhelming urge to know him better. Who were these two people? Who wrote these tender, caring letters, I wanted to know -- after eighteen years of marriage? So off I went with my husband to visit the estate near Munich. Amazingly enough, we arrived to find it had just burned down, but somehow that turned it into an almost perfect outline I could fill with memories. Memory grabs the thread of your most recent recollections and if you pull it you can go all the way back. I could practically smell my childhood. And then I did some fact-checking with my older brother.
Your father was such an imposing figure, and a little frightening too, but not to you, it seems.
Yes, he was, but I had plenty of time to get used to him growing up, and don't forget I came along late in my parents' life. It's different for late children. They see the whole picture. I saw the tender side in him early on and slipped through that door. You know, late children are often a gift and sweetly ignored. Interestingly, he was very much loved, not just respected, but it took personality to stand up to him. Yes, he was an imposing figure, but what a gift to me in adult life -- he made it impossible for me to be afraid of anyone.
Can you explain the circumstances surrounding your brother's time in the Hitler Youth?
You could say Hitler Youth was the ideological crack cocaine of my brother's generation. It was very seductive. They made it seem like super-duper Boy Scouts. They took those young lads from their homes, took them traveling, engaged them in competitive sports, there was camaraderie. Hitler was the Pied Piper. There was a promise of a place in that new society. My father of course was horrified and saw right through the psychological seduction. Later on we often discussed my father's revulsion at Hitler, right from the start. He was so clear about it, and heroic. He was incredibly lucky to be friends with Rommel -- otherwise he would have been court-martialed and not just sent home. If anyone had known what he had done for his Jewish friends he would have been shot.
The people who worked on the farm seemed like they were extensions of your family. Could you talk about a couple of them who you felt especially close to?
Yes, there was closeness, but clearly with the distance of respect. There was a definite class system and it kept people in their appointed places. I was especially close to Justa and Olga, spending time in the kitchen, listening to their chitchat and their dramas. They certainly opened my eyes to the facts of life with their crude remarks. I loved that -- all the things my mother refused to discuss. It was an intimacy I shared in quite a different form with my grandfather. Also I did love Umer, our coachman. He was so elegant and secretive, somewhat noble, and so well liked by my father. That alone was enough to draw me to him.
How did the farm people react when the Americans came to the farm in 1945?
The farm folks and everyone else in the house were united in fear and we had hidden all of our prize possessions underground. No one said a word until we were more secure about not being plundered. Then there was the sex question. Back then everything was so scarce that when they showed up with complete novelties like chewing gum and Hershey's chocolates and Marlboros they all seemed like billionaires. So they had a pretty easy time seducing the women. My mother packed my fifteen-year-old sister off to a convent school in a matter of days. One has to understand the particular situation --- the
Americans were so expansive and jolly with their transistor radios and their music, while we were downtrodden by the dreadful war, by hunger, by destruction.
How would you describe the position of the General in your household?
Being a general was nothing to be proud of at that moment so he had to be somewhat apologetic. All that was left of his military career was his stiff bearing. Other than that, he was a poor devil who had lost everything. My father, with his ambiguous, mainly contemptuous view of the military, had very little use for him, but the women in the house liked him, my mother among them -- he was so well-mannered. He had nothing to do in the house. When he finally landed a job and seemed to have some kind of a future he had to sell coffee-grinding machines, the ones with the crank and the little drawer for the grounds. Pathetic by today's standards, but that is what made it possible for him and his family to leave us.
How would you describe your grandmother and grandfather?
My grandmother was a character out of Strindberg, a household spy and politician, pitting situations and people against one another. She was a truly mean person, in contrast to my darling Grandfather. He was her polar opposite. He ignored her, somewhat helplessly, hiding behind Latin phrases, but for the rest of the household he was a great source of historical knowledge. Everybody adored him as much as they avoided her.
How does it feel now, thinking back to that time in your childhood?
The times have changed so much that it feels like an old classic movie. It is a sample from the very private history of a family at a highly charged place and time, and very valuable, I now think. After my readings in Germany people would come over to me saying, Yes, that's exactly how it was, and they would start telling me their own stories. That's when I knew I had opened a secret box -- the famous silence of the German people. Because of Hitler there had been a taboo on discussing the private lives of this period, but in reality there was plenty to tell.