Beside the Golden Door
by Beth Staas
The Story So Far
World War I is over. Parts of one German family have the opportunity to move to America, thanks to the sponsorship of a generous uncle-in-law. Chapter one begins with August’s arrival in America. He is greeted by three brothers and one sister-in-law where he will stay until the rest of his family arrives. It is 1928, the year that heralds the Great Depression.
Chapter Two sees the family in Germany gathered for Sunday devotions at the home of patriarch Frederick and his tubercular wife Pauline. It is to be a farewell to August’s family, preparing for their journey to America. The sleeping baby Werner had been tucked safely in bed. But they discover to their horror that the baby has died: Crib Death, not unknown even then.
Chapter three takes us back to Chicago. August’s family has arrived, where they accommodate themselves as best they can in a basement apartment, with baby Elsie, born a year after their arrival, adding to their struggle to adapt to America’s customs and language.
Chapter 4: Germany, 1930
When does a marriage turn bad? Is it when the familiar is no longer a comfort and the daily becomes dull? Is it when there is nothing to say except in anger? When there is grinding poverty and no hope of joy or a welcoming smile? Alma smoothed her dress and stared off in the distance, half-listening to the pastor’s voice. Helmut had moved out to live with his sister. Or maybe Alma had thrown him out. It was too painful to remember. She just knew that the marriage had never been good. She’d expected much more, maybe a nice flat with a couch, a modern stove and food in the pantry.
A hero who had earned the Black Cross, Helmut had gotten a job in the mines and suddenly Alma realized he was a dirty, smelly coal miner just like the rest. And like the rest, stopping at the saloon after work, coming home drunk. Payday was the worst, drinking until the money was gone. By then Hilda was born and Gunter on the way, so that was that.
Then Helmut was laid off.
Renting out a room in their flat was of little help. Oh, the boarders thought her pretty enough and Helmut didn’t interfere, his eyes watery from too much wine, wordlessly watching as she mounted the stairs to be with her friend.
Rousing herself Alma shifted in the pew to look at Guste, her younger sister and the newborn asleep in her arms, at Siebold at the end of the row now a proud Papa. Her eyes moved to Wilhelm, her eldest brother and his wife Ida seated with their four daughters, the picture of health.
She stroked Hilda’s hair, smoothing the wisps over her ears. It was dirty and should have been washed. The Director at the Children’s Home was supposed to take care of that before Hilda’s weekend visitation. How long had it been this time?
The music swelled. The sign of the cross and the blessing said the service was over.
Alma reached for her pocketbook containing pictures drawn in school and colorful stones gathered along the way. The orphanage didn’t have much to offer beyond safety. But after the separation, child-care had been more than she could afford and no one stepped forward to help. Guste and Siebold were living with Papa, the place already crowded, and Ida had her hands full with the four girls.
It had happened after Gunter and Hilda forgot their house key, huddling outside before returning to school with pinched cheeks, ice-cold hands and nothing for lunch. That evening Alma came home to an empty house. Frantic visits to neighbors, then the report on child neglect. Who had generated the charge? Why? She never knew.
Foster care came next. The first family was good to Hilda, treating her well. The next was on a farm along with a case of head lice. She was moved to the orphanage, her brother Gunter sent to a location even further away, both children placed with strangers.
“Do we have to go now?” Hilda whispered.
“Yes. Tomorrow is school,” Alma replied. “And you have to go back. You know that.”
“We will walk a little with you,” Guste offered. “It keeps you company a little bit. But first would you like to hold baby Elvira?”
Hilda sat down to make a lap, her face brightening. “Someday I should be a Mutti and have a baby too.”
“After you finish school and get a good job,” Alma declared firmly. She rummaged in her purse. “Here, take my handkerchief. Wipe the baby’s nose.”
Guste laughed. “Mutti is right. Babies always need wiping.”
The hall had emptied. There could be no further delay.
Outside the air was still warm, the sun winking through the bright autumn leaves. Loosening the blanket, Siebold shifted the infant to one arm taking Hilda’s hand with the other. “So in school you need to study and get a job that pays good money. Ladies need to work too.”
“Papa studied hard but he has no work because of the war.” They were approaching an overpass and Hilda pointed. “I remember the French soldiers. I pushed through the barbed wire to beg for food. But the soldiers pointed their guns and I ran fast…”
“Guns and lice. That is all we get for our troubles,” Alma muttered.
Hilda looked down, ashamed. Tante Guste was not supposed to know about that.
Siebold moved closer. “I tell you something funny. Is real, not a joke. But it will make you laugh. You know how Tante Marichen just had a new baby in America? It was in a real hospital not with midwife. And Onkel August waited downstairs until the doctor come and say baby is fine and so is Tante Marichen. And Onkel August say Thank you and he goes home and never sees Tante Marichen or the baby. He thought baby was a boy but it was really a girl.” Siebold clapped his hands. “Is funny?”
Hilda looked uncertain. “Is joke?”
“Onkel Siebold wants to make you to smile,” Guste said gently, “so you be happy.”
They had reached the intersection where Guste and Siebold would be turning off. Before them was the orphanage with gaslights glowing.
“We go the other way,” Siebold said. “You be good and we see you next week. Pray that Mutti finds a job so you live together again with Gunter. With God, everything is possible.”
The orphanage was sturdy and formidable, the first floor containing a foyer encircled with offices and meeting rooms, the second floor a dining hall surrounded by dormitories.
Hilda began to tremble. “Take me home with you Mutti,” she whispered, clutching at her mother’s hand. “I’ll be good, I promise. I’ll clean the house and cook. You can go to work…”
“We did that, remember? And the school reported us.” Alma grasped at Hilda’s shoulder. “And don’t start to cry. Because they think I beat you when you come back crying.” She reached for the doorbell.
Just then the door swung open with Frau Klepper, director of the institution, framed in the light. She looked at Hilda’s woebegone face then back at Alma. “A little early I see.” She paused. “Well then maybe you can stay and eat with us. A little soup with some bread… I know is hard when time to leave.” She drew Hilda toward the stairs as the little girl’s sobs echoed through the halls causing doors to open with children peering out. “Go back, go back,” she cried, waving at the interlopers. “This has nothing to do with you!”
Turning back to Alma, her face was stern. “Mother’s visits are supposed to be happy.”
“Once a week is never enough.” Alma’s voice could barely be heard over the din. She tightened her jaw, determined to speak up. “So how come Hilda comes with dirty underwear? You are supposed to take care of that.”
“She could have told me,” the Director huffed. “She can talk plenty when she is supposed to be quiet.”
“…and her hair is dirty too.”
“Again, I tell you…” Hilda’s wailing had declined to shuddering hiccoughs her face awash with tears. “Maybe you should stop coming until she gets used to us here.”
Alma’s head snapped around. “Never!” She thrust herself forward, trembling. “And don’t you try to move her away from me again.” Then as Hilda’s sobs reached a new crescendo she turned and stormed out, running most of the way with Hilda’s cries echoing in her ears.
Out of breath, she entered the room she could barely afford, sparsely furnished with a straw mattress atop a wooden platform, an armoire and a small chest. Next week’s rent was due and there was not enough money to pay. She threw herself across the bed pressing her face against the rough pillow remaining fully clothed to deal with the cold. One door after another slammed shut no matter how hard she tried. She’d listened to an array of men making promises, offering a pittance then calling her filthy names when she asked for more.
Turning on her side she fell into a dreamless asleep waking as the sun lightened the morning mist. Her back was sore and would be more so by the end of the day.
Being a live-in maid wasn’t hard. The hours were long but one could pace oneself. Work in a boarding house was harder, cleaning up to fifteen rooms and two toilets by lunchtime, serving men who were like pigs, their disgusting habits used as a sign of manhood. It would be bending, reaching, scrubbing and scouring while keeping an eye on the clock. After lunch came kitchen cleanup. Yet it was something she would gladly do, given half a chance. A job. A pay envelope. It had been so long she could hardly remember. In the meantime she’d lost everything.
Her chin was set as she rolled out of bed. Today she would not stay home looking at the walls. No, today she would grit her teeth and do what had to be done.
It was about a kilometer away and her movements slowed as she entered the courtyard. Then up two flights of stairs where she paused and taking a deep breath, knocked on the door. No answer. She knocked again, this time harder. Finally footsteps and the door opened.
“Hello, Helmut.” She could barely get it out. “Can I come in?”
He looked startled running a hand over his unshaven chin, the other trying to smooth his rumpled hair. “Ja, sure. I didn’t hear you at first because I was reading.”
“That?” She gestured toward the Bible on the table.
He nodded. “I have now time.”
She stood, uncertain. “Can I sit down?” She cleared her throat. “Can we talk?”
“Ja, sure.” He pulled out the chair. “My sister is still at work. She works nights.” He hesitated. “Can I give you coffee? I think there is some left.”
She shook her head tucking her reddened hands under her sweater. “I need to get back pretty soon. I take in a little sewing…”
“At least you have something to do.” The edge on his voice echoed their final quarrel, soft but cutting. “So tell me what you came for. I will not keep you.”
She took a deep breath. “I was with Hilda yesterday all day. Gunter is so far away I can’t even see him once a week. Hilda cries so much she makes herself sick.”
“So? Why come to me? I told you not to do this. I said this would happen. I begged you to be a good wife, to stop with the men, to stay home and take care of the house, the children…”
“What else was I supposed to do?” she cried. “No food on the table, no meat, cabbage, not even potato peel soup. No soap to wash the face or clean the clothes. Go to the toilet and what is there to wipe your bottom? Not even newspaper.” She dropped her face in her hands. “What I was supposed to do?”
“Look to have fun? That is what you did. Two children and a husband out of work but you go out and want to have fun. Like a cabaret queen dancing and singing while everything falls apart.”
“I did nothing wrong. They took the children just because we leave them at home alone.”
“Not we – you! And why they were alone? Where were you, little Mutti?”
“I was looking for work, Helmut. That was your job but I did it.”
“For sure. But why didn’t you do that before you threw me out? I wasn’t garbage.” He drew himself up. “And I not garbage now. So what do you want from me? Why you here?”
She shrunk down, small and vulnerable. “They say we can take the children back if we come together again. The Reichstag is promising jobs. We could go to the Rathaus and put in for some new Welfare. I’d find work and we could live, you know, like brother and sister…” She spoke rapidly afraid she’d lose her nerve. “Oh Helmut, you should see them the way I do, Gunter and Hilda so dirty and sad. They don’t deserve this.”
“I do see them,” he said dryly. “I go every day to the orphan home and look through the windows. I walk all day to look at Gunter even when it’s far away. They are my children too.”
“We could make a contract. I stop going out. You stop drinking.” Her voice softened. “We do it for the children.”
He was quiet for a long minute. “I think about it.”
This was not what she expected. “You think about it?” she shrieked. “You live here like a beggar while your sister works nights? All day you read or go out and peek in windows. Is it too much to ask you to stand up and be a man?”
“I think about it,” he said firmly. “Because I am a man and will not have my wife running around like some Jezebel, like some harlot. The children not should see such things. And they not need to hear us fighting all the time. I pray every day that God gives us a better way to live. So tonight I will pray for a true answer and not one from the devil – or from you. I don’t drink no more and I read the Bible every day. I will pray God to tell me what is really in your heart.”
“I cannot do this anymore, Helmut,” she whispered. “I cannot look in the mirror for shame. Life is too hard and I cannot go it alone. If we go hungry let us do it together. If the world, if Germany dies, let us die together. God should be the judge not you.”
“I did not break the Commandments. I did not break my marriage vows.” He pointed at the open Bible. “A sin is a sin.”
Her voice was hoarse. “Can’t we try? At least try a little? For the children. I beg you.”
“You beg now do you? So how does it feel? Do you cry in your pillow at night? Yes, I am a man but I cried. What else could I do? I no can shoot this man and that man and the next man. I not strong. The Kaiser took that away along with half my stomach in the war. I not can fight. But I am still a man. And I am proud. You shame me again and again. How do I know you not shame me once more?”
“I will not do anything that makes me give up my children. Never again. May I be damned to hell if I do. I swear it to you and to Jesus and to God.”
He stared at her for a long time. “Then put your hand on the Bible and promise. So Help Me God.”
Slowly, she took her hand from under the sweater and placed it trembling on the Bible.
“You will not ever again call me names or tell me I’m no good. And you will clean and cook and be a wife.” He looked deep into her eyes. “…not like brother and sister but like a real wife.”
Alma sucked in her breath, then nodded. “So Help Me God,” she whispered. “For the children.”
He sat back. “Good. So now I can tell you. I have a little job. Is not much, only two days a week filling holes in the street, painting and cleaning up. But like you said, soon there will be extra money for men who lost jobs in the mines. Or maybe they start to hire again now the Occupation is over. I go find out.” He studied her face then got up and walked around the table touching her shoulder.
She tried not to cringe. “We will need to find a flat. My room is not big enough. Then we have to tell them so the children can come home.”
His hand slipped under her sweater. “We still married you know. And my sister will not come home for a while. You can stay a little. Do us good, a new beginning.” His voice was soft and caressing. “It’s been a long time.”
An oath sworn on the Bible. Jesus and God would be watching. She got up slowly. Yes, it had been a long time. She could barely remember why she’d married him. But it no longer mattered.
She felt herself being led into the bedroom. It was just for the children.