Many children grow up listening to fairy tales. I grew up listening to my mother's stories.
Her stories took my brothers and sister and me far away from our safe and uneventful American
childhoods. Mom grew up in Nazi Germany, and World War II shaped her earliest experiences. Air
raids; food shortages; worries about which of your neighbours would denounce you to the authorities if
they thought it would buy them some advantage: this was the background upon which her memories were
drawn. Her family were the sort of people that dictatorial leaders despise: they thought for
themselves. My grandparents helped his Jewish boss and his wife to escape into Switzerland. A couple
of the older men in the family found themselves drafted and sent to the eastern front to get themselves
killed -- a common method of getting rid of troublemakers -- and they obstinately survived the war.
My grandfather was active in the resistance, and we suspect that one of his brothers-in-law was part
of one of the plots on Hitler's life, as he died under suspicious circumstances. But for the most part
my mother's family told the Nazis to go to the devil, made it stick, and lived to tell the tale. I come
from a tough and stubborn tribe.
Not all of Mom's stories involved the war. In fact, many did not. Even in dire circumstances,
children are still children, and a lot of her stories involved the adventures that often occupy young
minds. She told us of having to ski several miles to school in the winter (and worrying about wolves), of
watching workmen digging up old graves in a cemetery to make room for the newly dead, of summer
visits to her grandmother who lived in a 'haunted castle'. And her war stories themselves could be
humorous, albeit darkly humorous. Like the time my grandfather got arrested for calling the local Nazi
bully an assh**e. Or how he and the parish priest would lock themselves in his study after Christmas
dinner and tell Hitler jokes. Or how a cousin got into trouble for making up a rude poem about
I remember us kids sitting around the kitchen table on chilly Saturday afternoons. Mom would be
busy preparing the evening meal. The radio would be tuned to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast, and
we'd listen to some hair-raising story involving a passionate woman, sung by the large and
temperamental soprano, dying for love of the hero, sung by the svelte and arrogant tenor, and what on
earth was she thinking because anyone listening could tell that the baritone was the man for her.
Something would catch Mom's attention - she'd wanted to be an opera singer when she was younger and
she knew the librettos by heart - and she'd be off and reminiscing. And we would leave the singers to
their 18th Century Italian woes and find ourselves in 1940s Germany with a more personal tale to
They may not have been fairy tales, but my mother's stories contained the same elements: heroes,
villains, and a dilemma to be faced with intelligence and courage. We learned about the indifference of
fate; about evil and the faces it wears; what honour looks like. We learned that the world is full of
things more frightening than wicked witches but that they can be overcome with persistence. Finally,
we learned that a well-timed chuckle is sometimes our only weapon in a world gone mad.
Here is a gentle story from one of our typical Saturday afternoons.
Of Mushrooms and Witches
We kids were hanging out in the kitchen, paper and crayons spread out on the table. Dinner was
simmering on the stove. The Met was performing Humperdinck's opera 'Hansel and Gretel'. We
listened as the two children found themselves lost in the woods...
Do you hear Hansel and Gretel singing about the little man standing in the woods
beneath a tree? They thought they'd spotted a gnome, but it was really just a mushroom with a bright
red and white cap. Do you remember seeing pictures of them in your Hansel and Gretel
Like the mushrooms on your green music box?
Just like them.
Why were they just picking the berries? If they were hungry, why didn't they
pick the mushrooms too?
Because the red and white ones are poisonous. You have to be very careful with
mushrooms and toadstools. Often the prettiest ones are the most dangerous, and some of the
odd-shaped and weird-coloured ones are good to eat. And many good mushrooms have poisonous 'twins'
that look almost the same. You should never taste anything wild unless you know exactly what it is and
that it's not dangerous.
How do you know which are the OK ones?
Well, usually good mushrooms grow out in the open, not under trees. Their caps
are smooth and white. Toadstools will often have a different coloured cap with lumps or spots on it.
And if you look underneath the cap of a good mushroom, it's usually dark. Toadstools or poisonous
mushrooms are white underneath. ... During the war your grandmother used to go into the woods near
our house and gather mushrooms and berries for us to eat. A lot of people did because food was
rationed. She wouldn't let your Aunt Irm and me pick any mushrooms, though, only
I don't like mushrooms. Are we having them for dinner?
No, sillies, we're having chilli tonight. Can't you smell
Yay, chilli! No mushrooms in chilli! ... Were there witches living in the
No, I don't think there were any witches. There was an elderly woman living in
a cottage some ways outside the village, and we children were all afraid of her. She always wore black
and shouted at us if we got near her house. Your grandmother told us to stay away from her, that she
didn't like children and we shouldn't bother her. Her two boys had died when they were little, and we
used to make up stories about her. We whispered that she'd really killed her children and that she
would kill us if she caught us. If anybody got sick, we were sure she'd put a hex on the person. The
boys would run up and knock on her door and call her rude names as a dare. Now I think she was just a
very sad and bitter person and that seeing all of us reminded her of the children she'd lost. We
behaved very badly...
Do you think that old lady in the dark house on Sheridan Road is like the old lady in
I think she's a lot like the old lady in the woods.
We considered the old lady in the dark house for a minute and went back to our crayons.