Two Family Photos
By Bari Lynn Hein
Rob, who’d looked at nothing but road signs while Hailey and I marveled at the beauty of terraced vineyards and hilltop castles, pulled the rental car along the river’s edge.
“We’re almost there,” I said. My anticipation had mounted with each kilometer that brought us closer to my mother’s childhood home. I was not prepared to stop.
“I know, but I saw a sign for the L-O-R…” He pressed his lips together. We could no longer get away with spelling our messages to one another.
I gasped and he laughed. “Really?” I said.
“What’s a lor?” Hailey said.
Rob opened the driver’s side door. “What d’you say, El? We can look for the house in the morning, after we’ve had a good night’s sleep. And right now, maybe go see you-know-what? Get a family photo?” I knew he was right; the sun had already started its descent, casting a tangerine sheen over the pastel houses lining the road. Behind them, small stone buildings, high church spires, and plush trees climbed the hillside.
I threw my impatience to the ground, got out of the car, and stomped on it a few times.
Hailey asked, “What’s a lor?”
Rob took her hand and stepped onto a path following the river. “Your mother is going to tell you about the Lorelei.”
Hailey looked up at me.
“The Lorelei is an enchanted rock. They say a beautiful maiden waits at the top. She sings for sailors in order to lure them to —” I searched the sky for a way to explain this to a seven-year-old “— to make their boats crash.” That didn’t come out quite right.
“It’s kind of like a fairy tale,” Rob said.
“And her name was Lorelei?”
Rob added, “They say if you listen, you can still hear her singing.”
Across the Rhine, the buildings looked exactly as my mother had described them to me: the sugar cube tower, houses the colors of after-dinner mints, the lemon clock tower and the large cranberry house on the corner. Behind them, cliffs jutted through sky-high forests. My mother was still comparing colors to food when she was in hospice, when she could no longer eat.
A ferry drifted beneath a hilltop castle. My mom used to reminisce about exploring castles. “Aviva and I would chase each other along parapets, peer through battered arches. Of course, that was when we were very young. By the time Shoshana could walk and talk, we were no longer permitted to go out on our own.”
She described the first twelve years of her life as a fairy tale. “My parents, my sisters Aviva and Shoshana and I, we lived in a butterscotch-licorice house at the top of the hill. My father sewed dresses for us. All the women in town, they came to the house and waited while he made their blouses and skirts and tailored their husbands’ suits. Of course, the real reason they came to see my father was because he was so charming.” She would end the story there, at least when relating it to her granddaughter. She didn’t tell Hailey that the women suddenly stopped coming to the house, that the family lost everything. She never told her about Dachau.
We rounded a bend in the river and it came into view: a rock resembling a small mountain. Its reflection covered the width of the lavender Rhine.
“We’re losing light,” Rob said. He approached a man wearing dangling binoculars. I wanted to stop and stare at the Lorelei for a while, but I knew how determined my husband was to chronicle this trip with photos of the three of us. “Excuse me, would you mind…?”
The man said, “No worries, mate” with an Australian accent, took the camera, and waited while we positioned ourselves. “Americans?” he asked. My husband nodded imperceptibly, as if he might ruin the photo with the head motion. “Ready? One, two, three…”
My husband’s hand landed on my shoulder. My daughter’s fine hair billowed up, tickling my arm. Two weeks in Germany stretched ahead. For an instant, I felt extraordinarily happy.
“There, that should make a nice family portrait.” Our impromptu photographer approached Rob with the camera.
Hailey was facing the rock. Her body was rigid; her hands were cupped behind her ears.
“Do you hear that, Mommy?” she whispered.
I crouched to bring my head level with hers and closed my eyes. All I could hear was the music of the river and the wind, but a moment later, I heard Lorelei singing too.
So much for a good night’s sleep.
Either I dreamed that I was walking through my mother’s childhood home, or I remained awake and pictured the details exactly as they had been described to me: peach and mint teacups dangling beneath the kitchen cupboards, a brass menorah on the mantel in the family room, lace curtains covering the recessed window in the bedroom she shared with her sister Aviva.
My eyes were open when rain tapped the windowpane and pale gray light drifted into the hotel room, so I probably hadn’t slept. But neither rain nor insomnia would stop me today from visiting the house on Märchenstrasse at the top of the hill. I was well aware that it might have been reduced to rubble during the war. It may have been repainted or renovated. Or perhaps it remained a butterscotch half-timbered house with a peaked roof.
By the time we left the hotel, the rain had stopped and spears of sunlight pierced the clouds. Small buildings lined the streets, mostly hotels, souvenir shops, and cafés with umbrella-shaded tables. Steps appeared here and there to compensate for the steep terrain. Church spires emerged through bundles of trees.
When the street sign for Märchenstrasse came into view, my husband took my hand and no doubt felt my pulse galloping.
“Is that the house?” Hailey pointed to where the street ended at a wooden fence and a grove of pines. Between the fence and a large white house was a butterscotch house with a peaked roof, trimmed in licorice timbers. I closed my eyes.
“It’s okay, El,” my husband said.
I heard Hailey asking him if Mommy was all right, and Rob telling her yes, Mommy is just thinking about her mommy. Maybe Hailey was afraid to talk about her grandmother with me. I’m sure she missed her, too.
I opened my eyes. “You remember what we told you, right, Hail? Bubbie used to live here when she was a little girl.”
I walked slowly, looking around in case another butterscotch half-timbered house should appear. My mother never told me the house number and it was too late to ask. From up here I could see the rooftop of our hotel, sunlight sparkling on the river, buildings and trees on the other side. This was her view, before it was all taken away from her.
The house at the end of the street had been well-tended over the years, the paint fresh, the lawn manicured. No lace curtains.
My husband raised his camera. As if this set off an alarm, an old man strutted out of the white house next door. He had sparse silver hair, white whiskers, and pale blue eyes.
“Kann ich Sie helfen?” Somehow, in our hesitation to respond, he knew to repeat the question in English. “May I help you?”
My voice came out high-pitched, almost childlike. “Hello. Hi. My name is Eliza Ennio. I think my mother used to live here.”
“Your mother?” His silver brows lifted. “What’s her name?”
He blinked. His shoulders dropped. “Miriam had a child. She —”
I wanted to stop him from using the word escaped. “She came to America, after the war.”
“My Gott… You look just like her. How is she?”
“She died last year. Cancer.”
“Oh, no. I’m so sorry. And Aviva and Shoshana?”
I shook my head. Everyone had died in Dachau — everyone except my mother.
“Dina and Ezra, too?” I stopped moving my head and could tell from the set of his silver brows that he understood. “Your grandparents were good people.”
“You were named after your grandfather Ezra, weren’t you, Mommy?” I wondered if Hailey sensed how shaken we were.
Rob stepped forward and extended his hand. “Hi. I’m Rob Ennio.”
Had my mother ever mentioned an Otto? I wished I could ask her.
Herr Weber looked at my daughter, who had plastered herself against me. “And this is…?”
“This is Hailey.” I should have let her introduce herself.
“Hello, Hailey. Guten tag. Would you all like to come inside for coffee and biscuits?”
Rob and I looked at one another with raised brows.
“Please,” he said. “The coffee is fresh. I just made it.” His lips twitched. “There is something I’d like to give you, Eliza.” His pale blue eyes became iridescent.
It was too late for me to tell my mother that I’d met Otto Weber, and that he remembered her, but not too late for me to accept an invitation from him on her behalf. We followed him inside. The scent of coffee was intoxicating as we entered the kitchen. A small glass prism spun in the window, covering the white cupboards in rainbows.
“Do you like Spekulatius, Hailey?” Herr Weber asked, fanning a dozen windmill cookies onto a plate. They were just the kind my mother used to bake — thin and crisp, encrusted with almonds. Hailey recognized them and flashed me a semi-toothless smile before accepting one. Herr Weber poured milk for her and coffee for my husband and me, and then left the kitchen. One sip started to revive me. I hadn’t sweetened the coffee but it tasted like sugar.
Our host was gone for several minutes. When he returned, he was clutching a manila envelope. “My father took a photograph in the thirties, when I was a boy and your mother was a girl. He always felt bad that by the time he developed this, it was too late. Your family… Your family was gone.” His eyes flitted in Hailey’s direction, then back to me.
My daughter listened with rapt attention and a milk mustache. For her, the word gone probably evoked images of suitcases, labelled boxes, and final nostalgic gazes into empty rooms. For me, there were men in brown uniforms emblazoned with swastikas standing in the kitchen, shouting at a terrified family.
As he handed me the envelope, I already knew it contained a photograph of my mother as a girl, and my eyes burned because I’d never seen pictures of her that predated her wedding day. The photograph was sepia and off-white. They were all there, all five of them. I recognized my mother’s face on the oldest of the three girls; it had changed little over the years. It was the same face I’d stared at when she fell asleep during chemotherapy, when she didn’t know that I was memorizing her features. A slightly smaller girl stood to her left. My grandparents stood behind them, my handsome grandfather with dark eyes and dimples, the man for whom I was named. There was a baby in his wife’s arms, looking up at her father, smiling a full, gummy smile. And staring straight at me, holding her baby like an appendage, was my grandmother. Dina Schneider. I recognized her look of bliss. She was surrounded by her family.
I believe I’d worn the same expression the day before, standing in front of the Lorelei.
Dina wished Ezra would focus more attention on the children and less on a camera perched upon a tripod. Josef Weber was not in the yard, as he was supposed to be, but Otto was, riling up the girls. Herr Dr. Weber’s twelve-year-old boy was chasing Miriam and Aviva through the garden, and was Ezra doing anything about it? No. He was gazing into the back of a camera as if he had any idea of how to operate it.
“Just a minute, liebling.”
“Where’s the doctor?”
Ezra stuck his head out from behind the camera. “Josef went to fetch another lens.”
Oy vey iz mir.
To make matters worse, Shoshana was kvetching. She’d had a fever last week. Reflexively, Dina placed the back of her hand against her forehead; if anything, she felt cool. At her mother’s touch, Shoshana smiled that precious smile, the one that exposed just two bottom teeth.
“She looks like she’s feeling much better.”
Dina hadn’t seen Josef Weber come into the yard.
“Yes. Much better.” How could she begin to properly thank him for examining Shoshana last week, without charging her a single reischsmark?
She had brought the baby to the pediatrician at the bottom of the hill, the one who’d taken care of Aviva and Miriam for years but, without explanation, he had refused to examine her youngest. “I can no longer treat your children,” he’d said, words that had continued to inflict pain as she made her way home. By the time she passed her neighbor’s house on Märchenstrasse, she was in tears.
“I’m glad.” Josef Weber wrapped Shoshana’s tiny hand around his thumb and shook it, making her laugh.
“Herr Doktor, How can I ever — ?”
“Josef. And think nothing of it.” He threw his attention across the yard. “I think I found what I was looking for, Ezra.”
“Very good, mein Freund.” Ezra finally stepped away from the camera, tripped over the tripod, and stumbled past the boy and two girls speeding by. He crossed the yard and called to his children.
Miriam twirled toward her father like a ballerina. Oy, the hem of her dress was mud-splattered in back. “Miriam, you’ve dirtied your blue dress,” Dina said.
The reproach did not faze her oldest daughter in the least. “You mean my blueberry dress,” Miriam said, continuing to twirl, wearing an expression of unfettered joy.
Dina wanted that expression to be captured on film; a small splash of mud was of little consequence.
The girls settled down once they saw Otto join his father at the tripod. No sooner had they taken their places in front of their parents, the baby began to kvetch again.
“Oy vey iz mir,” Dina muttered.
“Don’t worry, liebling,” Ezra said. In a soft voice, he sang, “Sho-sha-na. Look at me, tiny one.”
The baby reacted to the sound of her father’s voice. She stopped crying, but somehow, she’d misplaced him, even though he was standing right beside her. When she found him, he waved to her and she lifted both arms to return the greeting, which delighted her sisters.
Dina felt her husband’s hand land on her shoulder. She smelled the fragrance of Aviva’s hair and felt a vibration against her arm as Miriam giggled. A bulb on the camera flashed and, for an instant, Dina felt extraordinarily happy.