While at Maus’ house, listening to their recounts of verbal and sexual my abuse, and their disrespect for each other, my childhood memories where awakened. Then, after long deliberation and some agonizing sessions, I decided I must face my past. I decided to take my husband, Alex, to Harburg with me. I wondered if that would free me. I hoped so. Maus came along to lend support.
On our last Sunday morning in Germany, we filled the VW Golf with gas and headed out of Munich. I wondered if the fear, the shame that tortured me from childhood would come back? Maybe. Maybe I would find a sense of belonging instead of being unwanted. I knew I needed to face the shadows in the very place I had surrendered to abuse.
The last time I was in Harburg was in 1981 when I attended the funeral of a school friend. At that time I didn’t feel like getting together with friends to talk about old times. Like their parents, these old friends were completely embedded in the town’s traditions, their interests limited. There always seemed to be a hint of bitterness behind their smiles.
Then, nothing seemed to have changed except the miles years on the calendar and a few more houses had been built. The twentieth-century had not yet reached the town, and they certainly weren’t ready for the twenty-first. In Harburg no one seemed to realize that life now moved at a global pace. As it was when I lived there, there was no tolerance for other people’s differences or way of thinking. They had no idea how to communicate other than to be judgmental.
They certainly didn’t approve of me as a divorced woman, which I was in 1981. Their questions upset me. One classmate said, “Someone else from our class got divorced but she left town. It was better that way, she brought so much shame to the family.”
Speechless about such small minded logic, I thought there must be an old town law book with guidelines passed down from generation to generation about such matters. This mind set left room for a blurred image, and no place for individuality. No wonder this tightly knit social structure was the perfect hiding place for abuse and incest. Their attitude made it impossible for children to speak up in such a society.
Now, as we turned toward Harburg, a familiar fear swept over me. Should I really go there? I found myself holding my breath just as I had as a child when terrified.
Alex had seen pictures of the town and Maus had come along as a favor to me. I was grateful to both of them for their support. I doubted whether I really felt I should face the memories again after all the years I tried to forget them. I reached for another cigarette, but was barely able to light it.
I was so deep in thought, I was unaware of how far we had driven until I saw the little town of Ebermergen and I knew we were almost there. Ebermergen had grown from 5 farms into a bedroom community.
Panic came over me and I yelled, “Maus pull off the road…park right there by the big moss covered dark gray rock.”
Maus asked, “Are you okay?”
I nodded. But I wasn’t all right. It was only two more miles to Harburg and I desperately needed a few minutes to collect my emotions.
Sympathetically, Alex reassured me, “We don’t have to go there.”
“I’m fine, I just want to drive the last 4 kilometers myself.”
As we rounded the long stretching curve I could see the castle standing on the mighty granite mountain watching over the town. My castle, my Harburg. As a child the castle was a place of rescue and safety when I looked for a place to hide. The thick solid walls and the round towers gave me a feeling of being safe. Even on this quiet Sunday morning, there they were watching over the quiet town of Harburg.
I suddenly wished it were May when the green side of the castle would be filled with blooming trees. The wild rose bushes would be painting their light pink between the lush green and the cockchafer would be buzzing in the hazelnut trees.
Instead, it was March. My mouth felt dry as we turned into the street where I grew up. All my senses came to the forefront at once. Panic set in. The same panic I experienced as a child, when I waited for my parents to come home, not knowing if we children would be beat up yet again.
Standing in front of the house my grandpa built, I felt drained. Even as I looked at the house I didn’t feel either hate or anger. It was like someone had wiped away the sadness from inside me. To my right, across the courtyard, I vividly saw “Grandma” Kunzmann telling me the same story so many times that I remembered it word for word. I found myself repeating the story to Alex and Maus the same way “Grandma” Kunzmann had told it.