Uncle Hans in Exile

In his physical presence, at least, my father’s elder brother was a perfect specimen of the old-fashioned patriarch. Larger, louder, fiercer than anybody else, he dominated every family gathering, his laughter as thunderous as his rage, and both somehow unmistakably German in cadence. To show up ten minutes late, to oppose the most minor of his dictates was to witness what looked like the beginnings of apoplexy. Sometimes his meekly adoring wife would clutch at my arm and plead with me to leave, afraid he might burst a blood vessel if he kept shouting at me.

But imperious though he was, he was hardly a patriarch in the grand moral sense. While others in the family devoted themselves to good works, he seemed to take no interest in serious causes. At the age of fifty, claiming that his two brothers worked hard enough for three, he had quit his hated job in a brokerage house to lead his idea of the good life, dragging his complaisant wife to the Serengeti Plain and across the Indian subcontinent, taking up residence in Europe every summer. He spent a month at an archaeological site in Greece and got a visa to visit the pyramids by claiming, on his application, to be a Catholic rather than a Jew. When in New York, he appeared to spend most of his time in restaurants, although he frequented museums also, and occasionally auction houses, buying himself two unsigned Renaissance portraits of Italianate-looking men, with verdant hills and tiny crooked houses in the background. These he hung in the shabby one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights he’d moved to when he and his wife first arrived in New York, and which he saw no need to desert when affluence was upon them.

He entertained himself in odder ways, too—taking private lessons in Finnish, for example, and in Hungarian, because he found it droll to compare the differences among languages; busying himself with the immigration problems of the waiters in his favorite restaurants. He would spend the afternoon, after the lunch crowd had gone, with their naturalization forms spread out on the table before him, talking to them in his pidgin Greek or Italian or Hindi—booming with laughter, insisting that they correct his mistakes; like many lonely people, he always seemed most at his ease with strangers. Sometimes he sent one of them to his lawyer for help with a green card, just as he had sent the cleaning lady in his office to California for a vacation. For his generosity was as immoderate as his wrath. One of his more singular amusements was to pay for the meals of total strangers, particularly women no longer young and not terribly pretty; he would instruct the waiter to bring him their bill and tell them an admirer had taken care of it. Then he would pat my hand: “I couldn’t have done that if I were here alone. Emilio would take me for a dirty old man.”

Twenty minutes later, though, he might be pounding the table and roaring at me—for wearing textured stockings, for wasting my time and my father’s money on the study of English literature, for going on a peace march: ”What do you know about this war? You just enjoy getting together with the others and screaming like banshees. Next time they should throw you in jail with the other criminals and let you rot.” “It’s called civil disobedience, Uncle Hans; it’s not exactly like robbing old ladies in alleyways. Are you really telling me you can’t see the difference?” “Of course it is the same—they are criminals, criminals, and you are a criminal, too.” The people at the nearby tables would stare at us, his friends the waiters would hover solicitously—I was sure they would never intervene if he slugged me, only if it were the other way around—while we glared at each other in pure hatred, a perfect genetic communion of bad temper.

But the worst explosion I ever provoked from him was about the Germans. The year I was seventeen, he had taken my sister and me to Europe for a Grand Tour, and we were spending a week in Paris. On our last night in town, a man who worked for my father had invited us out for dinner, and in the course of the evening he and his wife had told us about their experiences during the war. They had been hidden in a barn by Polish farmers, while their infant daughter was locked in a closet, so that her spine and legs never grew properly; she still needed crutches and a brace. It was the first time I had heard a story like that from someone who had actually lived it. Walking back to our hotel, brooding over what they’d told us, I said reproachfully to my uncle, “I don’t see how you can not hate the Germans.”

He grabbed me without warning, shaking me so ferociously that the wind was knocked out of me, and screamed that they hadn’t known, they hadn’t known, nobody had told them what was really going on; the Nazis were only the scum, the German people had hated them too, but what could they do, they had the guns; it was my precious English who had invented concentration camps … My sister, always anxious to please him, chimed in on his side, but he only shushed her frantically and went on talking, shouting, offering up all the mad justifications for the Germans that the Germans themselves—though I did not know this at the time—were wont to give. The words poured out in a flood, as though they had been lying in wait for years, decades; as though, at three in the morning, when he could not sleep, these were the arguments he conjured up to ward off the horror. He seemed hardly to pause for breath, or to notice I was there.

And for onceI was too frightened to shout back. I stood there paralyzed, waiting for sanity to return, until finally, abruptly, he released me and marched off in the direction of our hotel. But I had learned a certain measure of prudence. When we arrived, a few days later, at the Grand Hotel in Nuremberg, the city where my father and uncle had been born, I pretended not to notice the scars on the cheek of the obsequious desk clerk who greeted Hans by name; nor did I mention the creepy middle-aged man who had followed me when I went out alone, and how I had burst into tears and called him a Nazi.

My uncle took us to see the Gymnasium he and my father had attended, from which he had nearly been expelled for dangling his feet out a window; the narrow street where they had lived with their parents; their grandfather’s incongruously lacy, French-looking villa, just inside the city’s old wall. Here my great-grandfather had entertained Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, who had conferred on him certain honorary titles for his services to the court. We went to the Albrecht Diirer Haus and the Biergartens, where the professionally jolly waiters laughed with Hans about our failure to drink up, and we gagged over headcheese and something concocted from pigs’ bladders. We accompanied him to his tailor, and to the shop from which he always bought his old-fashioned shirts with the detachable collars. We made excursions to the opera house in Munich and to Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee, the castles of the mad King Ludwig.

But never did wego to Dachau, from which my mother’s father had carried his dying brother in 1938, both of them so ill with typhus that the Nazis didn’t want them there anymore; and from which my favorite cousin had rescued her husband in 1939 by bringing his medals from the 1914-18 war to a police station that was imperfectly Nazified and persuading the police to intervene. (Her brother, also a war veteran, had once horsewhipped Julius Streicher in his office for publishing scurrilous stories about their father.) We were pretending that German history was all Schiller and Kaiser Wilhelm and Friedrich Barbarossa, that Nuremberg was simply a great medieval city, not the home of Der Sturmer, the site of those vast rallies in the thirties, a place that had given its name to certain infamous laws restricting the rights of Jews and half-Jews, quarter-Jews and Jews married to Gentiles in Hitler’s Reich. The Tourist Authority of the Federated Republic, whose brochures so assiduously promoted the same impression, should have given us an award.

Yet the longer we stayed in Germany, embroidering our lie of omission, the gloomier my uncle became, sinking further and further into silence, until even I began to feel a little sorry for him. He would sit in a cafe, staring out over the square, and sigh heavily; he would gaze morosely down certain alleyways we passed, or at certain windows of old buildings, removing his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose like someone wiping away tears. What was he thinking of? Was he grieving for the victims of genocide or only the ordinary passing of a childhood world?

The rest of the family, too, had emigrated with their leather-bound volumes of Goethe and their prized recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets. Presumably they did not throw out the Lebkuchen and Bratwurste Hans sent them on his periodic trips back, but none of them indulged in this shameful nostalgia for Germany. Perhaps they disapproved of it as I did, finding it undignified or worse: to them, it was a point of honor not to keep pining for a country that had spurned them. For that was what my uncle was like—a spurned and stricken lover, unable to believe that his beloved had turned on him with such viciousness, trying to cast the murderous facts in a more palatable light.

It is possible to imagine him—the eldest son of the eldest son, destined to inherit the Frenchified villa and the best Meissen and his father’s decorations for bravery—feeling some particular streak of patriotism, a special allegiance to the country his father had fought for. And it is possible to discern, in his lifelong fascination with the heroic past—he had been a passionate amateur Egyptologist, serving as a consultant to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin—some strain of romanticism that made him more susceptible to the Teutonic myths than any Jew should have been. Apart from that, it is difficult to see why he, of all the family, should have clung so desperately to the idea of Germany. They had all thought of themselves as Germans, after all, that being the only identity they’d been taught. None of them had been given religious training, celebrated Jewish holidays, attended a synagogue except for weddings and funerals—and even weddings, as in my uncle’s case, were often civil affairs, since many of the family married Gentiles. They had prided themselves on their assimilation; Germanness had pervaded their lives; and suddenly permission was withdrawn, they were not allowed to be German any longer. Yet, of all of them, Hans was the one who wound up sitting in a crowded cafe in Nuremberg in a state of such palpable loneliness that he seemed to be surrounded by vast and desolate space. He was the one trying, in the city of his birth, to buy the friendship of waiters with extravagant tips.

After that trip to Germany, I went off to college and my uncle resumed his travels, so that for years we saw each other very infrequently, and always with disastrous results. That was the period of my textured stockings and protest marches, and of his increasing bitterness with the world, so that our lunches could be counted on to end in an eruption. Once he actually ordered me out of a restaurant, because I had told him I loved Oscar Wilde. When my father reported that Hans could no longer travel as he used to, because his wife was sick with “hardening of the arteries” and he would not leave her, I said meanly that it served my uncle right. After years of doing exactly as her husband wanted, of never daring to interfere with his plans, my submissive aunt was exacting a sort of revenge.

If my father had not gotten bone cancer, and I had not left my rich husband, I might hardly have had any further contact with my uncle. But the two events in combination brought me back to New York when I was twenty-four. I had determined, in a rather consciously righteous way, not to take any of my husband’s millions away from him and was surprised to find that nobody thought this a wise idea. My usually temperate father, lying in a hospital bed with his leg amputated at the knee, became horribly agitated about it, crying out that I was a fool and threatening to hire a lawyer to intervene in the matter. Even more shocking, my friends from college, whose lives of poverty in the East Village I had regarded as more virtuous than my own, all seemed to agree with him.

My uncle was the very last person I expected to appreciate the subtle point of honor involved. On the day he came to visit me in my dingy apartment on Tenth Street—inspecting the place, I knew, at my father’s behest—I braced myself for the worst explosion yet. But all he did was shake his head mournfully, hand me an enormous parcel of tea and lingonberry jam and Bahlsen cookies, and ask whether my husband hadn’t at least offered to give me something to tide me over. I said that he hadn’t, which was true—he had only offered me various inducements (an English sports car, a full Freudian analysis) if I would stay. My uncle looked stern. ”Then of course you can’t ask him for anything. It’s very bad to take money from a stingy person.”

In retrospect, I am not sure he had hit on a maxim to live by, but at the time I felt as though I had received a benediction. For the first time ever, he was on my side. And during the year that followed—while my father was shunted from one hospital to another, radiated and burned and poisoned, his leg hacked away still further; while my uncle’s wife, afflicted with what must have been Alzheimer’s disease, withered away in a nursing home in Westchester, moaning for him constantly when he was absent but moaning just as much when he was there—my uncle and I arrived at a truce that would prove to be lasting. Occasionally there were still the old outbursts—when I changed jobs, for example, and he, who had never shown much fondness for jobs, roared at me that I had no Sitzfleisch, no Sitzfleisch at all—but mostly we were awkwardly, fussily gentle with each other, full of lame solicitude. If one of us so much as sneezed, the other would cluck and fret and propose remedies like a mother hen—hardly the customary practice in our family.

When the weather permitted, we might go for long walks in the park on Sunday afternoons, he in his high-topped, glossy black shoes, with the funny rounded toes and the little hooks instead of holes for the laces, that he ordered from a shoemaker in Zurich, I in battered sneakers of which he surely disapproved. Once he persuaded me to come with him to the opera, sometimes I met him for dinner after he’d been to visit his wife, but most of our time together was spent in the back of the car that took us out to Connecticut to see my father. My brother was away at college; my sister had moved to Canada with her husband; my father’s younger brother had died ten years before. Hans and I, then, were the family’s chief attendants, constant visitors from New York to that suburban hospital where, until recently, my father had served on the board of trustees, launching an expansion program that would link it to various teaching hospitals. Now his efforts were bearing fruit in his own case: the doctors connected to the place kept coming up with hopeful new suggestions, new leads to follow up about experimental treatments at Yale or Sloan-Kettering or Dana Farber. They were always showing up in my father’s hospital room with copies of the New England Journal of Medicine, write-ups about chemotherapy and radiation and hormone treatments, promises to phone the man in charge and ask him to see my father at once.

It was probably unfortunate that my husband had been a Harvard doctor, doing a residency at a Harvard hospital, so that I could not regard such figures as infallible, especially since half the conversation among the interns and residents had consisted of horror stories about hospital screwups. I had heard about the anesthesiologist at Mass General who was late fora tennis date and so yanked the oxygen off someone before breathing function was restored, and the inept graduate of the medical school who had been thrown out of two internships elsewhere and then given a place at Cambridge City, because Harvard looks after its own. Even worse, my favorite among my husband’s old classmates used to fulminate against the oncologists, painting them as vultures always on the look-out for prey. They lied about their success rates, he said, in order to trick cancer patients into participating in their experiments; they recommended treatments based on their need to justify expensive radiation equipment they’d bought.

And there was my father, with his exaggerated diffidence in the face of other people’s learning, his near-nineteenth-century faith in science and reason, Harvard degrees and human progress, thanking those men profusely for their efforts and signing on for one bout of torture after another. I could not tell him what my husband’s friend had said—it would have been like saying he was doomed to die—but every time they tried one of those treatments and failed, every time they burned or poisoned him or cut him open to no avail, I remembered the story of the falsified success rates. My father had taken on a look of dazed suffering, a sort of terrible, mute patience that made me hate those doctors more and more.

Only to my uncle could I express such feelings, he having also no faith in doctors and science, or American know-how in general (the treatment he’d chosen for his varicose veins was to be leeched by an elderly doctor in Switzerland). Together we grieved for my father’s innocence, his humility, as though he were our trusting virgin daughter being seduced before our eyes. We looked on helplessly, unable to protect him, as these men showed up to offer their blandishments, and then vented our bitterness on the ride back.

‘What do you think they would have done to him if he’d been the local mailman? Do you think they would have given him this new treatment?”


“So: they let the mailman die in peace, and your father is put on the rack. But this Dr. Castilaw seems pleased with the treatment. What did you think of him?”

“I thought he was a self-important jerk like all the others. A real Harvard bastard.”

“You shouldn’t use that language; your husband won’t like it.”

“But I don’t have a husband, Uncle Hans.”

“When you have one, he won’t like it.” He sighed. “You’ll marry a marine biologist in Corpus Christi, Texas, and I’ll never see you anymore.”

“I’ll come visit you.”

“Not very often. What will I do when I’m old and sick and need to be put out of my misery? Who’s going to shoot me if you’re not around? Your sister will never do it.”

Finally, the time came when the doctors stopped suggesting new treatments, when they started to withdraw from the picture, and my father requested that they do nothing further to keep him alive. He slipped in and out of high fevers. We could never know, when we went to see him, if he would be awake or asleep, or if he would recognize us when his eyes opened. And in the last weeks of his life, he, too, began returning to Germany, inquiring about trains to Stuttgart, imagining I was visiting him from Heidelberg, where their younger brother had gone to university. Once, it being winter, I arrived at the hospital in high leather boots, and pointing at them, he said faintly, “So wie die SS.”

Unlike my uncle, my father had never talked to us about Germany, never even told us stories about his childhood. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to burden his American children with the weight of his history. He had been so fervently American in many ways, so busy with civic projects, so concerned with what lay ahead rather than behind, that I had scarcely thought of him as an immigrant. Now his German brother was reclaiming him, bearing him back into their past. More and more, they spoke together in German, my uncle bending down close to the bed, my father, half-conscious, whispering things I could not understand. Watching them, I felt an enormous loneliness, although whose it was I could not be sure—whether my own, at seeing my father die in a foreign language; or my father’s, at the approach of death; or some distillation of how the two of them must have felt once, the old loneliness of being cast out from everything they had known.

On almost our last ride back from the hospital, at two in the morning, Hans said to me, “Do you know what I am? The Generation of the Desert. Do you know about them?” I didn’t. “They are the ones who wandered in the desert for forty years but could not get to the Promised Land, the ones who kept saying to Moses, ‘Why did you ever bring us out of Egypt? Things were so much better in Egypt.’ Your father got to America, he made it to the Promised Land, but I never did.”

It could be argued, of course, that my uncle did not deserve much sympathy—that none of them did, none of those German Jews, who were guilty, after all, of every sin of which their co-religionists accused them: arrogance, snobbery, betrayal of their heritage, selling their birthright for a mess of second-rate mythologies and sentimental poems. What did they suppose they were doing, trying to out- German the Germans, distancing themselves so scornfully from the vulgar Ostjuden who actually had the poor taste to practice their religion? They should have seen that they were only parroting the anti-Semitism of their world, that their snobbery amounted to hating what they were.

It is easy to accuse them of cowardice, hypocrisy, monumental self-deception, but there were the Germans, offering them that dangerous choice—saying, in effect, “It’s a terrible thing to be Jewish, but we won’t make you be; we’ll let you be German instead: enlightened, cultured, dignified, prosperous too. We’ll give you this world instead of the other one.” And then they stripped it away from them, leaving them with nothing at all. When I remember my uncle in Nuremberg, I seem to recognize the expression on his face, incomprehensible to me then. It was bewilderment at the vagaries of history, at what had been done to him, which was so much less than what was done to so many others, and yet enough to leave him marooned for life.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Evelyn Toynton has written for Harper’s, The Atlantic, and other publications. She is the author of Modern Art: A Novel, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up