Father


Even now, knowing all I know, I have to force you to come into view. You ask me not to violate you, not to drag you so late into the light. You have no hope of being understood, you who probably never understood yourself.

But I’m not done with you yet, Father. I make wide circles around you, as I think one does when one wants to conjure up somebody. I say, middle age, architect, metal-rimmed glasses; I say moustache, suit, tie, briefcase, Austria. I see your lips (which are my lips too) drawn into a fine, deprecatory smile, as if to say: “With such blunt tools as yours you cannot begin to grasp me. You were always inept, you know.”

Father, even your name was a mystery. It could be read backwards and forwards– OTTO. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, you put that “O” sound and some other neatly exploding consonants into your last name too. KOL-LISCH. When I was very young I thought that you had chosen your last name and that it was your frugality rather than any kinship you felt that gave me that name too. Like Sunday dinner—every bit had to be eaten. Or like the string you saved from every parcel, weaving it skillfully back and forth like a figure eight between your pinky and your thumb.

I think my body was smooth brown as a nut when you tickled me in your bed and let my brothers and me slide down from your raised knees to your toes. This happened regularly Sunday mornings when we were small. You were a Sunday father . . . Sunday you were often jolly, the rest of the days you were irritable and depressed.

I said “your” bed, because my father and mother had separate bedrooms—a not uncommon practice in middle-class households in Austria at that time. In my mother’s room almost everything was white. Her large armoire contained neatly folded nightgowns, lace-bordered handkerchiefs, girdles, stockings, whale-boned bras and pinkish, longish underwear. All this I glimpsed with interest then turned away from it, feeling intruded on while I intruded. Her bed was narrow, covered with white pique; his bed was roomier, it was draped in rich colors, with pillows and Persian rugs thrown over it.

In my father’s room there were, from my point of view, two important objects: One was a tall mirror on the door of his clothes chest, in front of which I made speeches and danced an invented form of boogie-woogie. There I also studied my face, my arms, and my not yet existing breasts, telling myself I was beautiful, even if nobody else thought so. I always wondered about that, that my father had the full-length mirror and my mother’s chaste room had none.

What remained forever father-country, however, fascinating as well as troubling, was a low, highly polished chest which contained his shoes. There were forty pairs of them, twenty black and twenty brown. I imagined him walking in them with his firm tread or stamping his well-shod feet in anger. After a pair was worn once, it was polished and rotated to the back of the chest. My father had two theories: that owning forty pairs of shoes was more economical than owning four; and that shoes, the foundation on which the body stood (my father thought architecturally) had to be made of excellent materials. I was proud of my father’s large shoe collection, but, already somewhat of a socialist, felt embarrassed about it before the maids. They paid my brothers and me ten groschen if we polished a row of shoes.

As I write this, I become aware that I’ve started off with some good memories. Why? Thirty-five or forty years earlier I would simply have begun: My father was a tyrant.

Let me try that now: “My father was a tyrant . . .” First there is silence; I have thought these things so many times before; no memory comes or wants to. Prodding myself, I say such things as: Hitler was Austrian, so was my father. Hitler was short, so was my father. He had a moustache, so did my father. Hitler waved his hands in the air peremptorily, just like my father. Of course I know this comparison is absurd. My father was only a “little man” with big worries. But was there something in that time and place of anxiety and resentment, of living in a defeated, shrunken country and feeling one’s own insignificance, that produced such “little men”? For when I saw my first pictures of Hitler in the newsreels in 1933 or 1934 (I was then about eight or nine) puffing himself up like a rooster, screaming, his face contorted, he immediately reminded me of my father.
 

Baden

 

We were in the garden playing. My father came home from his work in Vienna to which he commuted. His lips were pressed tight. He carried a briefcase, wore a suit and tie. We were in our shorts or bathing suits.

“Why haven’t you watered the roses, verdammt? Why haven’t you raked the gravel path?” His face was drained of color, his voice choking. I thought he would like to hit us but he didn’t. He never did (no, only once, when he beat up my brother Steve). Instead, he looked as if he found us hateful.

My sense of injustice: he had never distinctly assigned us these tasks, I thought but dared not say. (Usually a hired man came to do these things.)

Some of his favorite words of abuse: Trottel! (dumbbell). Scheisshund! (shitty dog)Trampl! (clumsy fool) Faules Luder! (lazy bitch). That last term was fired off more likely at our maids than at me, for it was on our maids especially that he unloaded the excess of his wrath. His cruel words were never aimed at my mother. He said it was in order to protect Mutti (our mother), whose kind nature was being taken advantage of, that he was showering his verbal abuse on the maids.

It didn’t escape me as a child that it was always to “defend” my mother or out of “love” for her that he unleashed his brutal attack on those weaker than he. Thus I learned a lot at an early age about the cowardice of tyrants.

I thought that my father did love my mother, in his own way. He admired and worshiped her, to him she was the “intellectual/spiritual one”—the poet. My mother had told me when I was still quite young that my father had had a “mistress” before he got married, a woman whom she considered more elegant and worldly than herself. (Aha, I concluded sarcastically, so he wasn’t only interested in the “spiritual.”) I also knew from my mother that he had always enjoyed, even after his marriage, pretty flirtatious young women and buxom peasant girls. The latter were our maids. To his credit, my mother added (and I believe this), he never made passes at them. Is it possible, I wonder now, that his ever-ready rage against the maids was the other side of his attraction for them, the side he didn’t permit himself to act on?

I doubt that my mother and her women friends ever talked about their marriages or complained to each other about their husbands. In her world this just wasn’t done. The job of acting as my father’s critic was left to me: I was the “court jester,” licensed by my mother to speak the truth. To her I could denounce him loudly as a tyrant and as an oppressor of maids. She never agreed or disagreed. But my words had legitimacy only when we were alone: When she was with my father, she was all sympathy; she excused his tantrums on the grounds of his ulcer and did everything she could to smooth away troubles.

My whole childhood was a meditation on power and powerlessness. This was the hierarchy I observed: my father, my mother, my brother Steve, the governess, Peter, and I, the washerwoman, the maids. The maids, however, had in the recess of their insignificance a certain latent power, which, for the most part, they didn’t exercise: anti-Semitism.

I have seen my father grovel before certain skilled workers—a carpenter, a smith, a glazier, men who lived in the neighborhood and came to fix something in our house, or others, particularly draftsmen, masons, and plumbers, whom he employed in his contracting business in the city.

Maybe “grovel” isn’t the right word. Rather, there was a certain bonhomie between these men and my father, for he respected good craftsmanship and they seemed to like him, too. But the fact that they were gentiles and substantial citizens who had even before the Anschluss (Hitler’s annexation of Austria) the power to humiliate a Jew, may also have had something to do with his courteous treatment of them. The maids, on the other hand, being unskilled and female, and often from the provinces, were easily replaced; their probable, but for the most part unexpressed anti-Semitism might have been an additional reason why my father raged at them—knowing he could get away with it.

Yet how he must have trembled, I think now, in the larger world—a high-strung, ailing, Jewish professional and business man in conservative, virulently anti-Semitic pre-Hitler Austria. What a high-wire act it must have been for him to exude self-confidence and insouciance, as if he never doubted his right to own and to belong.

To this day I don’t know how much he allowed himself to understand about the times we were living in, about the dangers which were gathering, ever more insidiously, around us and all other Jews. When my father went on his visit to Palestine in 1936 or 1937, was it just a sentimental journey, or was he looking for an alternative home for us? My father considered himself a Zionist as well as a good Austrian. From his trip he brought back figs, dates, and something we called “manna,” a flat, sweet, brown fruit that grew on what seemed like the inside of a thin brown branch. Exotic presents of the traveler returned! And then? My mother yielded in most small matters to my father but was adamant about her basic beliefs: She considered herself an internationalist and a good Austrian. Could that have been the reason we never heard another word about Palestine or the virtues of working on the land in Eretz Israel?

I have already talked about my father’s abusive verbal attacks but I’m not quite done with that subject yet. All my childhood I was in training to be brave. I made myself dive from the five-meter (later it was the ten-meter) diving board in our swimming pool in Baden. When my father became particularly irrational and threatening, his face distorted, his voice amplified by rage, I would, at times, feel something give way inside me.

And then I would confront him. All fear left me. I was a slave fighting for my freedom. I could never have confronted him if I didn’t believe that the price was imminent death. I shouted abuse in turn: “I hate you! You are horrible! I hope youdie!” I knew what it was like to be him then, to say anything that came to my mind, the more outrageous the better. And amazingly, my father was stopped short. He never hit me, he never even touched me, he just looked at me with a mixture of horror and admiration, as if he had begotten a monster. Maybe in that moment he recognized himself; we were both outlaws, beside ourselves. This gave us a measure of intoxication that my mother, always civilized and striving for self- control, knew nothing of.
 

Our Life as Refugees: England

 

When my father arrived in England, on his way to America, he was subdued. He came directly from London to visit me in the town of Southport where I was staying with a mean, stingy family—the P’s. He arrived on my birthday, August 17, 1939. The P’s made a feast and put a nice dress on me, although ordinarily they treated me like a servant; they denied me food, gave me the wings of a chicken, the burnt crust of the toast. But now you would never have guessed that, judging from the fuss they made over me. Yet I had the feeling that my father saw through that charade, that he understood that I was mistreated and unhappy. He never asked me directly how I was and I never complained. But he was more tender to me than he had ever been.

He didn’t conceal from me the fact that he was worried. I was worried, too. My mother was still trapped in Austria. For the sake of the children they had agreed that whoever got their exit papers and their affidavits first should leave and help the other from a place of safety. But now it was not at all certain that my mother would get out. In the large, manicured garden of the P’s, we walked back and forth arm-in-arm. We spoke about Mutti. He told me that she was counting on us to be patient and brave. I choked back tears and my father did, too. He was going to Bristol to see my brothers, then on to London, to the American consulate and to various Jewish organizations to seek help for my mother. I planned the strategy with him. He looked so tense, I asked him to be careful of his diet. I was fourteen years old; it seemed to me that I had become Mutti, and that it was my job to strengthen him.
 

Staten Island

 
The family was reunited. (My father came to America in September 1939, my mother arrived, to our immense relief, a month later. We children left England in April 1940, on one of the last possible ships.) On our first day my father took us to the local library. The librarian already knew him. She was impressed by my father’s interest in our education. She issued us temporary library cards and we each carried home an armful of (free) books. Happiness!

My father went to night school on Staten Island to learn English; my mother was already fluent. In fact, she gave English lessons to refugee friends for twenty-five cents an hour. My mother worked briefly for a rare book dealer before she got a license to practice massage—a skill she had acquired before emigration. My father would have to wait a long time before he passed the exam for his architect’s license. Meanwhile he sold Fuller brushes, and a little later, Electrolux vacuum cleaners.

He would trudge up and down flights of stairs, knock on doors and offer his goods in broken English. The equipment was heavy. My father wasn’t very strong. I thought of the peddlers (often Jews from Eastern Europe) who used to come to our door in Baden, selling ribbons and combs out of battered suitcases, and I pitied him. He seemed not to have pitied himself. I think my father never mourned the loss of his possessions. After all, he had his life! He had Mutti restored to him and he had us! My parents didn’t talk about it but the energy and hopefulness with which they threw themselves into the struggle to gain a footing in this country must have had a lot to do with the knowledge of having survived.

We lived in a railroad flat in an old building in an Italian neighborhood. My parents still had separate bedrooms. My father’s was really the dining-room alcove, the boys slept in the living room. I had a tiny bedroom of my own and considered myself lucky.

At the end of the war, my father got a job as an architect in the New York subway system. Every day he commuted to the city; his office was right by the ferry, near Battery Park. I know nothing of what he did there. But he now had his own world, his work. His posture improved, his ulcer got better. He was the oldest in his department. They called him “Otto.” My father was charmed by that. He seemed happy to be “one of the boys,” not in any visible hierarchy, neither at the bottom nor the top.

At home, too, hierarchy had almost disappeared. We were more like a little troop of scouts than like a patriarchal family. There was a sense in which we were all camping out, that we were posted at the edge of the wilderness (America). We had to be deft in knotting the knots, reading the signs, and interpreting the sounds of that strange land. One false move and we could come to harm. My mother had a room apart, with flower pots in the window and a white bedcover. She still stood for civilization; our beds were made hastily. Everybody did chores to keep the camp functioning. The children did the big grocery shopping every Saturday, my father mopped the living-room floor. My mother assigned the jobs, she made up the shopping lists, she was the brain of the operation, the executive and planner. But, though in charge, she was more like the director of an amateur theatrical company than a scoutmaster. And my father had become almost like one of the children. It was hard to dislike him now; diffidence became him.

In 1950, just when life was getting easier for my parents (the war was over, the children were self-supporting and had moved away from home), my father was struck down with intestinal cancer. There were several hospitalizations. I don’t believe he was operated on; the cancer was all over.

When his powers started to fail, my mother had a hospital bed installed in the living room (formerly the boys’ room). His suffering was great, he became emaciated and developed bed sores. It took two people to turn him over on his side or to make up his bed. We had to dress his wounds and feed him with a spoon like a baby. We learned to change his bedpan . . . Toward the end my father weighed about ninety pounds. His face was hollow, his eyes were pitiful. He was rarely conscious; sometimes he mumbled and smiled wanly.

I would sit by his bedside and stroke his hand. It was skeletal, the nails like claws; he struggled uncontrollably when my mother tried to cut them. I thought of his manicure set in Baden, with the many shiny instruments, the clippers and files and mysterious little picks and shovels. I remembered how fastidious he had been . . .

One day he was dead. We had all in our different ways wished and prayed for his death. It came in his sleep, the proud little man shriveled up like an inmate in a concentration camp. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery on Staten Island. My brothers and I felt numbed shock, a mixture of grief as well as relief that his suffering (and our chores by his bedside) had ended. Soon we were back to living our own lives.
 

New York

 
In 1951 I was twenty-five years old. Unfair as it may seem, and in spite of the changes I had witnessed, my American father quickly left my memory and the tyrant of the Baden years returned. That’s how I used to describe him to my friends when we sat up until late at night in Greenwich Village coffee shops, endlessly and passionately discussing our parents. (These were the years when everybody I knew was deeply interested in psychoanalysis.) But by the time I became a parent at age thirty, I stopped thinking about my father consciously altogether (except for the moments when I let my little boy slide down my knees). Sometimes, unbeckoned, he would appear to me as figure of pathos. But for the most part, he had again become in my imagination the father of my childhood, frozen in a scene of irrationality and rage.

Two things happened, however, at very different times of my life that showed me that I wasn’t quite done with him after all.

A year or two after his death I took my first trip to Europe. First I went back to Austria and visited some of the Bauhaus-style public housing my father had built. I was glad to be grown-up now so that I could appreciate his achievement without having to fear him. But mostly my emotions were shallow. Seeking out my childhood and the events that we had experienced under Hitler was still quite beyond my power. I was almost relieved that I was not allowed to go to Baden, which was then in the Russian sector.

After Vienna I went to Paris. There, one day, I happened to visit an aquarium. I am not very interested in fish but this aquarium was beautiful. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly I saw a small grey fish that seemed to be my father. There was no question in my mind that it was he. There he was, grey-suited, bespectacled, with a worried expression. He looked at me for a long time and I returned his gaze, sensitive to the slightest change in him. Suddenly I saw his lips moving and whispering. He looked at me beseechingly and I thought he said, “I love you, love me.” He repeated these words several times before he swam away. I climbed up the stairs into the street, dazed, but filled with unbearable joy. It was an emotion I couldn’t hold on to; the intensity of the vision quickly receded, untenable as it was in the light of day.

The second event was this: After my mother’s death in 1979, it was my job to go through her papers. Among her many other effects I found a correspondence between my parents from the year 1939—that crucial time when my father had been in England (later America) trying desperately to get my mother out of Austria.

I didn’t read these letters until three years ago because I had lost the ability to decipher my father’s handwriting. His writing was minuscule, architectural, and in Gothic script. Since I didn’t want to read my mother’s letters without reading my father’s, the box was put away. Three years ago, however, I found a contemporary of my mother’s who could read that writing and had the kindness to transcribe it into readable modern script.

There were several long letters from my father, written from England, later from America. I read them all at one gulp. Then I tried to find the corresponding letters from my mother and read those. Then I read everything over again in sequence and broke into tears.

My parents’ voices were in the room with me in the hour of their greatest need. Fifty years after they were written, I listened to their grave worries, to their exchange of crucial information, to their words of hope and encouragement, and to their endearments and expressions of overwhelming tenderness. All my childish speculations about whether they had really loved each other stood reproved when I read those letters. My mother’s letters were, as I had expected, brave and spirited, but my father’s emerge with a concreteness and humanity I had never imagined. But most important of all for me: Alongside his harrowing anxiety about her life and his self-reproaches about having left her behind, there is an account of his visit to the children in England; it abounds in expressions of affection and love. He tells her how proud he was of us, of our sudden independence and maturity, and how precious was the time he spent with us. He speaks of us as Schatzerln (little treasures) and he characterizes me as “sweet”, calling me “Evi,” a term of endearment that I don’t remember having heard from him before.

So there it was. Proof of his love (for me, for us!) which I had sought for all my life in vain. I suppose I should feel appeased, rewarded, but I don’t know what to do with such unexpected bounty. True, when I first read these letters I was overcome by rapture. But even then I said to myself with some bitterness: “Oh, yes, he can be like that, but only in moments of greatest crisis.” Yet I felt it was haggling and cheap of me to think that. There was too much spontaneity and kindness in these letters; a person doesn’t develop those qualities overnight. Had I misunderstood, had I made up the evil tyrant of my childhood?

I refuse to believe it. “The child is always right,” says one school of psychoanalysis, and I agree. When we get older, we forget, we edit, we lie . . .

Too late! I cannot use this new father now. Oh, when I saw him as a fish, maybe. But then I had to make him mute and very small before I could recognize his need and hear him speak his love.

Idle speculations. The old frozen father inside me has broken up, the pieces shaken loose, their relationship to each other, their meaning, all confused and blurred. To the mystery of my own life and approaching old age I must forever add the mystery of my father.

Eva Kollisch at age 13 was rescued from Nazi Austria by a Kindertransport.
She taught at Sarah Lawrence College over thirty years. Her memoir, Girl in Movement,
was published by Glad Day Books in 2000. Her new book, The Ground Under My
Feet
, will be published in October 2007 by Hamilton Stone Editions.

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