An excerpt from Unexploded Ordnance.
Sometimes red currants at the farmer’s market glow like dashboard warning lights, the sugar in my shopping basket drags on my arm like lead, and sweetness, beauty, danger taste the same. Sometimes my eyes project the letters from a sign outside the Licht- und Luftbad in Essen, Germany, onto the walls of a new world. Sometimes my retina and taste buds feel like my grandmother’s rather than my own. I cannot tell the currant story in third person, because, though she lived and told it, it is mine.
The woman stops in mid-greeting, mid-step; I nearly bash her knees with the picnic basket swinging from my hand.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, balancing the basket on my forearm to rummage through blanket, coffee flask, fork, spoon, making sure the bag of sugar is still wedged upright, between the currants and the white enamel bowl. She doesn’t answer, doesn’t move. I look up from the basket, then farther up at her face. She gazes past me; I turn to trace the line of her fixed stare. The entrance lodge to the Licht- und Luftbad looks the same as always: red geraniums, peeling paint, tack-bitten wood around the ticket booth window cluttered with signs—women this way, men that way, admissions prices, rules and regulations, opening times. Even the porter is the same.
“What is it?” I ask.
Sweat trickles down my neck. My head feels fuzzy, as though in supplication to this fifty-sixth day of unrelenting heat. I gaze back at her. Shadows bloom across her face, her eyes expressionless beneath black bangs, the skin across her cheek bones blanched under its summer tan. She shifts her weight and gives a little shake, as if to rouse herself.
“I can’t go in.”
It takes another minute, too many seconds, for my eyes to swivel between the entrance booth and her face. Too much time for a thought to drop.
She turns, slowly, away from the entrance. Away from the sign. My delight to see her here, again, today fades to confusion. My brain flicks through images, in search of sense: A deluge of air- and light-filled afternoons. The woman’s slender shape in the sunbather’s dress, long arms flying skyward, her fist hitting the leather ball dead-center. The sparkle in her eyes as she turns to her team, punches the air: “There, we’ve shown them!” The hours—how many?—of rest in grassy shade, my picnic blanket spread in sight of hers. Stolen glances, in between the fork’s glide along pale-green stems. My eyes detach from red orbs pinging into the enamel bowl, touch eyelids, trace lashes, the curves of her arms and chest, the wild flood of her hair. Each de-stemmed currant’s single drop of red into its white crystal bed, hurried spoon-scratch—I scramble to my feet to follow her into another round of ball, leaving berries to bleed into their sugar coats. Returned to the blanket, breathless from play, I spoon and chew as, three paces away, her graceful gestures straighten her dress, re-pin her hair. Inside my mouth, coated pearls explode acid, gritty crunch of half-dissolved sweet, grain-pulp of seeds and skins.
Since days grew hot in June, I have hauled a pound of currants through each sun-soaked afternoon, my sandals plopping across sidewalk pavers awash in broiling heat, twenty minutes from the corner grocery by my parents’ rental flat, down block after block of workers’ housing to this green oasis. After days of gloom and dust, selling cigarettes, three at a time, to men and boys who can’t find work, this is where I come to breathe, to laugh, to be at ease in women’s company. The Licht- und Luftbad is my refuge, my place away from home, from town, from voices on the radio.
The basket drags against my arm, imprinting braided willow onto skin.
“Then I’m not going in either,” I say, seeking her eyes. She nods, once, then turns away. Tears sting. I blink through blurs. I do not need to read the bold-faced print, the words, not meant for me, already too ubiquitous. Two lines, four words. JEWS NOT WELCOME HERE.
My Oma Lotte told this story again and again. Currants brought it on. Reminiscences of hot summers. Deliberations on the merits and dangers of sunbathing, discussions on the value of ball sports for girls. Each time, her Jewish friend’s beauty bundles the story’s light. Never a name, never an indication that the two of them talked more than to acknowledge each other in greeting. Each time the shock at connecting the sign to a face, the instant decision not to go in: a burnt fuse, a breaker thrown, lights-out.
Red currants glow inside a basket. A white sign on brown wood. Black letters slap a label on black curls. My grandmother stood, stunned. She turned and left. She did not return. Then, she got pregnant.
Less than six months after this last visit to the Licht- und Luftbad, unmarried, still living with her parents, and without the financial wherewithal to start a household, my grandmother, Anna Sophie Philippine Charlotte, conceived my aunt Elfriede, her first child. Lotte hadn’t just met my grandfather, Alfred; they didn’t make a baby in a star-struck burst of pheromonal fog. Alfred had been part of her group of male friends for many years. As her mother, Sophie, habitually snapped back at my grandmother’s two busy-body aunts Philippine and Charlotte, as long as Lotte was hanging out with boys by the dozen, there was no room for hanky-panky. Great-grandma Sophie was correct—by mid-December of 1936, Lotte had been dancing and flirting with these men for many years. She wasn’t stupid, inexperienced, or seventeen—she was an adult woman, nearly twenty-five years of age.
Of all her male friends she most enjoyed spending her evenings with, she described one as ein Süßer—a “sweet man,” meaning he was gay. With him, she felt relaxed, because she didn’t need a plan for when and how to say no. They just had fun together: at concerts, dancing, hiking, talking about books and films. Until the day he was gone. Abgeholt—“taken away,” the code word for being picked up by the Gestapo or SS.
I regret that I don’t know his name. I think she may have said once, and I failed to take note. Forgot. Willi, perhaps, or Heinrich, or Karl. I do remember he had brothers, parents, a close-knit family who cared. I don’t know how old I was when she first mentioned him—old enough to know what that meant: abgeholt. Past my first history lesson on the Third Reich. At least in the third grade. Old enough, for sure, to remember a name, or to ask: “How did you find out? What did his parents do?” To ask: “What did you think?” To ask: “Were you scared?”
I never asked. I listened. I listened to her stories of currants and of her friends as I had listened to her telling me about Lilly the angel—nap-time tales of a grandmother’s imagination. I knew that Lilly, though she had a name, was invented while the Jewish woman, nameless, was real. The gay friend was real. I listened the same, no matter whom she was talking about—enthralled, as though listening to music. Not talking back, not asking. Just taking the words that came my way, tucking them in, out of sight—each gleaming splinter wrapped, with care, into the folds of a child’s soft and winding brain.
Many years ago, in the basement of a northern German university, I took a class on using the electron microscope. To thin-slice plant tissues for its high-resolving beam, I made knives by breaking blocks of glass, creating blades much sharper than steel but also much more delicate. I was taught never to touch the cutting edge, that putting your finger there not only slices skin but blunts the blade, renders it useless. I cannot know what my grandmother’s story-fragments meant to her, how they fit together, what shape they made within her thoughts, her memory, her life. What were these glassy shards? A vase, a mirror, a window, a drinking glass? Did the encounter by the porter’s lodge really happen when I imagine it did, before my grandmother was married? How long before that did her gay friend disappear?
Summer in the city of Essen was unusually warm in 1935, unbearably hot in 1936. By 1935, in all of Germany, Jewish people were banned from public swimming pools. But the Licht- und Luftbad was not a pool, just a walled-in green space with two partitions, split by sex, where people played on the grass and rested under trees. Its counterpart in Frankfurt-Niederrad, the only one for which I can find records, claims it was the last one to close to Jews, in May of 1938. So: no later than the summer of 1937 for the currants. Not before 1935. Most probably July or August of 1936.
And which pile of shards for my grandmother’s gay friend? Twenty-six thousand men were imprisoned by Nazi police for “punishable incidents between men,” over one hundred thousand were questioned, brutally; thousands found themselves outside of the legal process entirely, in concentration camps. The law to make this possible passed in 1935, but seventy-eight thousand arrests happened within a span of only thirty months: early 1937 to mid-1939. The friend might have vanished well before my grandmother got pregnant. Or right after. Either way, the threat of annihilation was there, imminent, pervasive. Police and stormtroopers closed gay bars for both men and women in February of 1933; in 1934 the Gestapo sent telegrams to local police ordering lists of men with “known homosexual activity” to be mailed to Berlin. In 1936 the criminal police became part of the Gestapo under Heinrich Himmler, who had been running Hitler’s concentration camps since 1934. That year, many gay men and women married, some emigrated, some committed suicide. By the time my grandmother got pregnant, the knowledge that something could happen to her friend hung in the air like a poisonous, sticky fog. Perhaps he was already gone.
Despite her rapt descriptions of her Jewish friend’s beauty, I don’t believe my grandmother considered that she might be sexually attracted to women. But if she thought about this, would I know? And, more vexing still: Would she have known to label her attraction as anything? Was love between women even really talked about? Gestapo activity in Essen seemed to target only men. As a teen I, too, knew about gay men—the neighbor who regularly came to my parents’ store to tell my mother about his aging partner’s cancer and his grief. But women living together flew under the radar, were assumed to be cousins, sisters, friends.
For gay women in Nazi Germany, the unspoken assumption was that they could be forced to marry and would still give birth to babies for the Führer’s war. As long as they kept silent and played along, they survived.
Change was slow to come. In 1957, the German supreme court ruled that Paragraph 175 of German criminal law, which forbade same-sex relations, was “insufficiently related to Nazi law” to necessitate a reconsideration. This ruling kept same-sex relationships illegal until 1969, by which time fifty thousand men had been sentenced in court. The criminal police continued to maintain “pink lists” of gay men until 1978. Through my early adolescence, love between women remained implicitly illegal—as safe as it was invisible. Marriage between same-sex partners only became legal in Germany in 2017.
Alongside the word fragments, expressions, anecdotes, my memories catch on my Oma Lotte’s tone of voice. I can still hear her swooning over female lawyers, chief secretaries, doctors, authors, and, once, a baroness: Eine tolle Frau! The German adjective toll lives on tonality. English dictionaries toss up “neat,” but “neat” conveys some distance, a judgment that separates the speaker from the spoken-about. Toll, in German, is unrelated to the English: it knee-buckles in admiration, waves a lighter at the concert, dances in the streets with joy. It is forever star-struck, drunk on hormones, twelve.
My grandmother loved my grandfather. My grandparents accomplished more than a lasting marriage, more than mutual care, more than raising three children in terrible, frightening times. Through thirty-four years of marriage, they talked. I know because I heard them speak to each other. I know because my mother heard them, too. I know because, later, my grandmother talked about how they talked. And I know because I have some of my grandfather’s letters, sent from the Russian front—letters about the two of them, brim-full of emotion: love, and longing. Anger, homesickness, and fear, humor, care, jealousy, grief, pain, and returning, over and over, to love. Their marriage didn’t skirt emotion—they lived it.
Why, then, do my fingers on the keyboard keep tripping into acid-sugar, currant-red, into my grandmother’s sandals on hot pavement stones? What makes her story mine to feel, to tell?
Maybe it is mine because she ached to write and never did. Maybe it’s mine because I was there, with her, listening. Listening after my grandfather’s death, listening when my aunt Elfriede’s mind bounced between heaven and hell, listening when my uncle and my mother were so intent on building safe and ordinary lives that, each time my grandmother began to speak about the war, both of them jumped up to do something else, something very urgent that needed to be done exactly then—my uncle, usually, to strum his guitar, my mother to make more coffee.
This story is mine to write because I stayed at the coffee table. It is mine because of shared hours of folding sheets and towels, of stripping currants for jam or cake. It is mine because she told me, because it stuck with me. Maybe I listened differently from everybody else. Maybe what I heard was not my grandmother’s story but my own.
My husband and I met in graduate school, en route to a seminar about the genetics of wild sunflowers. That’s my story. He says the seminar was about butterflies.
After several failed relationships with men, I was determined to live happily on my own in a tiny studio apartment plastered onto the side of the oldest house in a small town in Oregon. Both the house and I were transplants: the house from its original site by the Willamette River, I from Northern Germany. Inside its walls, I lit tea lights, rolled out my yoga mat, worked hard toward solitary contentment. But every Wednesday night, on my drive home from a shift at the local food co-op, I cried. I told myself I was just tired.
Hummingbirds buzzed by my new apartment on their way to the neighbors’ Ribes sanguineum, Oregon’s native currant bush. Forget-me-nots grew around its wooden stoop. Because of the butterflies, it soon had two people living within its 250 square feet. A botany professor called our arrangement “a grafting experiment,” tissues forced to fuse by proximity. We easily agreed on taking turns standing to dress or cook and sitting on the bed. After I defended my PhD and before my visa expired, we married, so that we could both live in Germany. Nearly twenty years later, I fell in love with a woman.
Breaking up my marriage felt like untangling grafted hearts—life-threatening surgery, the hardest thing I ever did. We grieved. We stayed friends. My mother said she hadn’t wanted to mention it before, but it had bothered her from the beginning that my wedding picture shows one of my hands balled into a fist. My husband’s smile is rapt, and I smile in return. But my fingers obey a different line of emotional control. My husband only discovered the fist after we separated, while leafing through old wedding photographs. It made him cry. I had noticed it immediately when the pictures came back from the developer. But the part of my brain that saw such things had a habit of fainting into the next armchair instead of making itself heard. Maybe it didn’t know what to say or how to say it. Most likely another force within my psyche kept it choked. Until I tried to write about my grandmother eating red currants at the Licht- und Luftbad in 1936, about the disappearance of her gay and Jewish friends, I did not understand that the choking part might be a safety switch.
The year before I moved to Oregon, its voters passed Ballot Measure 8, which repealed the governor’s regulations to shield gay people from discrimination. The repeal enabled landlords to evict tenants based on sexual orientation and employers to fire them. I first heard about Measure 8 in 1992, when the Oregon Citizens Alliance put forth Ballot Measure 9, which, if it had passed, would have declared homosexuality “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse” and forced schools, public universities, and all government branches to expel gay employees.
After that election, I walked around in shock. It felt physical, a slug to the gut, an intensity I couldn’t label or explain. My fellow graduate students and co-workers pointed out that there was no reason to be dismayed: Measure 9 had been defeated, after all. Fifty-six percent “against” was a resounding victory, they said. But I could not stop counting off strangers in the street, wondering who had voted “in favor.” Forty-three percent, to me, looked very much like nearly half—just about every other person. My stomach tightened, yet my head told soothing stories of how I was dating men—my belly-clench horror was sympathetic, someone else’s, the threat of expulsion never about me.
Two years later, Measure 13, banning books by or about gay people from public libraries, failed even more narrowly, by a little under 19,000 votes. A fellow graduate student and her girlfriend spent a night in a protest camp on campus, just around the corner from where we worked in our labs. Someone took potshots at their tent. I was outraged. And shaky. And still, I told myself my rage and fear were only about threats to my friends and favorite books.
Over the following years, I saw three doctors for inexplicable exhaustion, brain fog, stomach and kidney troubles. My diaries from this time despair over fatigue and inconclusive medical exams, but never once mention the election. Instead, pages and pages about feeling safe inside my relationship with my boyfriend alternate with desperation over not wanting sex. Never once a sentence about feeling attracted to women. No memories of such thoughts. But there, on an empty page, apropos of nothing, a newspaper clipping, a grainy black-and-white photograph of a painting by Hans von Aachen from 1604: Die drei Grazien—three standing nude women, a triangle of interlocking arms, arranged to display breasts, thighs, bellies, buttocks from the front, the back, the side.
Women don’t need a grandmother who came of age in a fascist state to be blindsided by a first same-sex attraction in mid-life. There are books about this, scientific studies, online discussion groups. Some hypothesize that late-onset changes in sexual orientation arise from hormonal change. Some propose that being attracted to one sex for part of our life and another at a different time is a function of sexual fluidity, that this is how humans are made, and that only culture induces us to think otherwise. One of my friends claims that all women are sexually drawn to other women, but that few of us dare to live that attraction.
I thought women being more attractive than men was just how things were, objectively. I remember a moment on a college trip: a shared bathroom, glancing into a large mirror over a row of sinks. Behind me, a curvy fellow student stands naked, the perfect renaissance nude. She waves her hands, raves about a man she met. “Wow,” I thought. “I can really see what that guy must see in her.” Yet, that was it. I don’t remember thinking about touching, about anything beyond the pleasure of this stolen glance.
My mother says my grandmother kept secrets. A day or two after I tell her that I’ve fallen in love with a woman, she calls me on the phone.
“I’ve remembered something,” she says. “After the war, your Oma Lotte used to take me and Elfriede to see two of her friends. We called them ‘aunts,’ but they weren’t really related to us or to each other. They lived in Essen, so we would sometimes take the train to see them when your grandfather was out of town.”
Images of a trip with my grandmother rise in my mind. “Did they live in a very small apartment?” I ask. “In one of those giant apartment blocks with a lawn in the center? Was there a bathtub in their kitchen, with a board on top, so that it worked like a kind of counter?”
“Yes,” my mother says. “Yes, that’s how it was. And whenever she took us, she said we absolutely could not tell your grandfather where we had been.”
I ask her what she means
“Your grandfather was very jealous,” my mother says. “I now wonder if those women were a couple. I know your Oma Lotte was fiercely fond of them. And your grandfather would get really angry when she mentioned them. Each time we went there, she was adamant that we could not tell him.”
My mother’s mention of my grandfather’s jealousy sounds familiar. I look back through my transcripts of Opa Alfred’s letters from the Russian front. Because Lotte decided that her children did not need to know everything about their parents’ marriage, she culled much of what he wrote. But some of his surviving letters bounce from cursing his own jealousy into angry admonishments that my grandmother spent too much time in conversations with other women instead of writing to him about more details of her daily life. Some letters reference other—missing—letters, drawn-out written fights.
Later, I remember how Oma took my sister and me to see the “aunts” after my grandfather had passed away, when I was maybe ten. When I ask my sister about her memories from that trip, she describes being fascinated by a photograph in their apartment, showing one of the women in a fancy dress and swooping hat: young, beautiful, glamorous—an actress, my sister thought.
Was there one bedroom in that no-room-to-turn-around apartment? Were there two? Who were my grandmother’s women friends? What were they to each other and to her? All I know is that the very moment I told my mother I had fallen in love with a female friend, the forbidden childhood visits to the “aunties” rose immediately in her mind.
My sister once walked by the Licht- und Luftbad on a trip with my Oma Lotte, when they went to find the house where Oma grew up. Deep in the workers’ quarters of Essen, close to Krupp’s steel factory, they trudged through streets lined with apartment buildings, each block of houses a square shaped around a central lawn, green space originally designed for spreading laundry to bleach in the sun, now turned into playgrounds.
I ask my sister whether they met with any of Oma Lotte’s friends while they were there.
“No,” my sister says. “Remember, she was the only one who got away.” I frown: “Away from what?”
My sister says the Licht- und Luftbad was where my grandmother met her Commie friends.
“Her Commie friends?”
“The KPD folks,” my sister says. “Her group of friends. They had regular meetings to do Communist things.”
“Communist things like what?”
“Like learning Esperanto,” my sister says. “Except Oma Lotte never learned, because her mother forbade her to go to the evening class. It wasn’t political, Sophie was just against her daughter going out at night; she wanted to have her home.”
My sister says our great-grandmother Sophie’s possessiveness spoiled Lotte’s fun but saved her life: the Gestapo used the Esperanto class roster to find and deport her friends.
“Deport? Like, send abroad?”
“No,” my sister says, “deportiert. Like, abgeholt.”
I had known about the gay friend, had pictured my grandmother distraught to lose him, to lose her beautiful Jewish friend. I had never imagined most of her group of peers mown down. I never considered that, by the time she conceived my aunt, in January of 1937, her one right-leaning friend, my grandfather, might have been the only one of her friends left.
I have checked my sister’s story: the Licht- und Luftbad as a place where women secretly talked politics. Exercise grew into a common pastime during the industrial revolution. Cycling, soccer, and gymnastics clubs became class-segregated nearly from the start, leaving workers to establish their own. Because Nazi philosophy saw physical education as a way to demonstrate Aryan supremacy, even left-leaning sports clubs initially remained untouched by Gleichschaltung, the alignment of all public life under Nazi ideology. During the first few years after Hitler rose to power, some exercise establishments in working-class neighborhoods developed into hubs of Communist or social democrat resistance. In between ball games, women plotted how to slip money and food to families of the “deported.” JEWS NOT WELCOME HERE killed an island of resistance, a last refuge of political community.
Currants and love survive by local law. Few Americans know the taste of currants, fewer yet crave it as a taste of home. In Pennsylvania, currants are hard to find, because currant bushes were outlawed in 1933. Several states had already banned planting of any members of the genus Ribes in the early 1900s to prevent a tree disease called White Pine Blister Rust. Because most modern currant cultivars carry resistance genes to the rust fungus, Pennsylvania no longer enforces its ban. When neighbors gave me extra currant bushes from their yards, I crossed my fingers that no one would care to resurrect old prohibitions. I planted joy in glowing red. Each summer, robins, chickadees, and cardinals beat me to the harvest, but every remaining berry spills childhood memories inside my mouth.
Hans von Aachen’s renaissance nudes have names: Glanz, Blüte, Frohsinn—radiance, blossoming, joy. The choking part inside my soul, the part that makes me look away from joy because of bright red danger signs, the part that won’t permit the fullness of who I am, the part that dims my light—I owe her gratitude. I watch great-grandma Sophie pull a metal comb, relentless, through Lotte’s snagging curls. I hear her throw a fit about her daughter’s night-time Esperanto class, quenching her exuberance, saving her life.
To walk my own life’s path means naming Sophie’s voice. It means hearing the sound of Lotte’s sandals plodding homeward across hot paving stones. It means the braided willow imprint on the skin below her elbow, the drag of currants, uneaten in her basket, the weight of sugar, separate in its paper bag.
Catharina Coenen is a first-generation German immigrant to Pennsylvania, where she teaches biology at Allegheny College. Her essays have appeared in literary magazines includingThe Threepenny Review, The American Scholar, The Christian Science Monitor, and Best of the Net. Catharina is the recipient of the Appalachian Review’s Denny Plattner Creative Nonfiction Prize, a Creative Nonfiction Foundation Science as Story Fellowship, and a Hedgebrook Residency.
This piece first appeared in The Bare Life Review, Volume 3, 2019.