By Norbert Ruebsaat | February 4, 2009


One day in Hersfeld, a town in Hesse close to the East German Border where we lived when I was four, I walked up the street to our house on the Hainberg with my father and told him the story of my other father. I carried two blocks from my wooden block set, Baukasten, and I put them under my shoes and pretended they were skates; with each push into the “skates” on the dirt road surface I spoke a sentence from the story. I said my other father had been blond, like I was, not dark-haired, like my father was, and I had done the same things with him as he, my current father, now did with me: I threw my other father in the air and caught him in my arms and he laughed and giggled; I put my hands over his ears and lifted him up by his head so that he could see Cologne (Kölnsehen, this game was called), and hear the Cologne Cathedral bells inside his head; my other father and I sang songs together and we walked through the woods and I played my guitar and he walked in time. Then one day I sawed him up. I laid my other father over two sawhorses by the woodshed behind our house and sawed him into small pieces. My other father was getting bigger, I explained to my current father, and he was getting dark-haired, and I was getting smaller and blonder. I told him I had to saw him up so that I could be born. My other father didn’t mind; he told me in a calm even voice how to saw him up and he wished me good luck in my life.

My real father nodded as he listened to my story. He told my mother about it and she nodded, too, and seemed vaguely interested. Tante Friedlieb, our neighbour, and mother of my playmate Muschi, was a member of a reincarnationist group, of which there were many in Germany at the time, which was shortly after World War II, and she became excited when my father told her my story of my other father and my previous life. She encouraged my parents to take me to the group’s next meeting. Apparently my parents, or at least my father, did take me to a meeting. When I was stood up in front of the group of adult strangers, I claimed that the story was not true, that I had made it up.

You clammed up, my father said. Deine Stimme stockte. I have no memory of this, but my mother told me later that I had told her, in confidence, that I didn’t want to speak to adult strangers about my previous life and my other father because they wouldn’t understand me. The story belonged to our family, I said.

On the Hainberg we lived with my grandfather, my father’s father, who had come out of prisoner-of-war camp and lost most of his memory. The Americans had arrested him and interrogated him about being a Nazi—he wore the uniform of the Heimwache, the Home Guard, into which older men were drafted, and he had the civilian title Rat, counselor—and when he came back from the prison camp, a year and a half after the war ended (in those eighteen months no one in the family knew what had become of him) he couldn’t remember anything about where he had been, about the questions the Americans had asked him, or about his life before the war. One thing he could remember was his son, my father’s younger brother, after whom I am named, and who was killed in Russia in 1941, when he was nineteen, by a sniper. Where’s Norbert? my grandfather kept asking my father and also my mother when he came to live with us on the Hainberg. He followed them around the house with it; and my father and mother said, He fell in Russia. Oh, my grandfather said. But then ten minutes later he would ask again, Where’s Norbert?

My grandfather often escaped from the house and went wandering in the forested hills and ravines that surrounded Hersfeld. He “rambled,” is how my father describes it in English. Since he had no memory he would lose his way and my mother, who had me and my baby sister to take care of, left us and went looking for him. My mother would find my grandfather in a ravine somewhere, on the other end of Hersfeld, and would take him home and he told her wild stories about where he had been. He had been to the Carpathian Mountains, for instance, where he had met Norbert, his son, and they had gone hiking in the mountains together as they loved to do. They had sung the old songs, and they had looked at nature and left the war behind. The Carpathians were in Russia, my grandfather explained to my mother, and my mother nodded.

Sometimes, when she did not want to leave my sister and me at home alone, my mother sent the police after my grandfather. The police would find him in a ravine or on a hilltop, wearing two hats, his Home Guard and his civilian one, and they would bring him back home. They told my mother to keep him there, and my mother tried locking the door, and my grandfather would put on his hats and go to the door and try to open it, and when he couldn’t he stood there like a dog and waited with his head bowed. At other times he picked up his guitar, my mother recalls, and followed her around the house—into the kitchen where she worked, or out onto the veranda where she did laundry—and he stood behind my mother and sang. Do you remember this one? he said, and sang a song. My mother said yes, and sometimes, not often, sang with him; and when they had finished, my grandfather started the same song again, singing louder, and faster. Remember this one?

Fabulieren, is what my father called his father’s way of speaking. To confabulate. My father said his father had perhaps begun to do this, confuse reality and fiction, imagination and fact, because he had had a mild form of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s was not known at the time, said my father, but it was probably widespread in post-war Germany, and created the—mistaken—impression that people were unable to deal with their recent memories. My grandfather, my father said, couldn’t remember his interrogation, couldn’t remember the end (and the loss) of the war, and he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—remember the loss of his favourite son, Norbert, who was blond, “Aryan,” and who had died in Russia (no one knew where he was buried, or even if he had been buried). My father said the only contact he could have with his father in the latter stages of his deterioration, when my grandfather was in the sanatorium where they eventually put him, was to sing the old folksongs. My father brought his guitar to his father’s bedside, and father and son sang together about marching through the steppes to the Carpathians (say) and beyond; they sang about taking ships with the Vikings to Scandinavia and learning their songs and bringing them back to Germany; they sang the songs of the Pfadfinder, the German branch of the Boy Scouts, and the Wandervögel, pre-World War I youthful wanderers and sojourners who gathered together in comradeship and harmony and pleasure, out in nature and in distant lands, away from the mundane reality of daily city life and the distractions of money. My father said he in this way sang his father into a possible other life, the Hereafter, as my father called it.

I have only one personal memory of my father’s father: we are in his darkened room in the sanatorium; the curtains on the window are drawn and I can barely see him, lying on the bed. Out of the darkness I hear his voice calling my name. He’s here, says my father. I have brought him. He leads me to the bedside and places my grandfather’s hand on my arm. Here, he says. Here’s Norbert. Thank heaven, says my grandfather. I’m so glad you are back. Then a few moments later, with his hand still on my arm, he says, Where’s Norbert?

In my father’s version of this story, my grandfather got angry after a time because he recognized that I was not the son he was asking for. He kept asking for the “real” Norbert, and when the real one did not appear my grandfather broke into a rage which brought him close to death. My father calmed him down by striking up a song, into which he asked me to join.

When my father told his father (I imagine them to be in the same room in the sanatorium) that we were immigrating to Canada, his father said, Oh that’s nice. Then there was a pause, and then his father asked again, wo fährst Du hin? Where are you going? Nach Kanada, to Canada, my father repeated: we are going to Canada. Oh, his father said. And then five minutes later he asked again, wo fährst Du hin? It was awful, my father told me. I sang songs with him. It was the one way of connecting with him that remained.


My father was dark-haired and brown-eyed and my uncle Norbert had been blond and blue-eyed. Throughout his youth, my father wondered if he was alien—ein Fremdling. At other times, especially when a skin disease Profeiria, as it’s known now but was not known in my father’s youth, caused him to break out into dark scabs whenever his skin was exposed to hot sun combined with wind, my father fancied himself a werewolf. He spent a good part of his childhood, in the nineteen twenties, and in the thirties during the Nazi period, developing in his mind the story that he was adopted: his parents’ overt favouring of Norbert, the blond one, (also, it was said, the smart one, the one with the fast mouth) intensified this belief. When I was born my father sighed, so I’m told, with relief because I was blond—albeit brown-eyed. I imagine he also felt fury, envy, rage.

My father said once that as a teenager he had sometimes worried he might be a Jew. He was not a werewolf but a Jew. The other, less terrifying possibility, was that he was part Italian: his black hair and dark eyes might stem, said some aunts and uncles, from the Italian branch of the family, the Lambertis, who were ancestors on his mother’s side—even though his mother was blond.

There was—still is—great controversy in the family about the colour of my paternal grandfather’s hair and eyes. Because he went bald in his early thirties (so the story goes) he shaved his head. This was in keeping with the political fashion of the time: my grandfather was sympathetic to the nationalist Deutschland Party which was composed of neo royalists and extreme nationalists and which arose in opposition during the Weimar Period to the ruling Social Democratic Party; its adherents became early enthusiasts for the Nazi Party. Many of them joined or toyed with joining the Freikorps, the free corps who went, or dreamed of going, into the mountains and conducting guerrilla warfare against the Allies who had, with the help of the infamous stab in the back of the German people by the aristocratic Prussian government, won the War in 1918. I don’t know that my grandfather actually joined the Freikorps but I can easily imagine him marching with one of the military, paramilitary, political, youth or party organizations that, bedecked in uniforms, enveloped in banners and flags and driven forward by music and slogans, composed the streetscape—das Straßenbild as my father has called it—of towns and cities all over Weimar Germany.

There’s a photo of my grandfather in the family album. In it he has a thick thatch of dark hair, verging on black, and a small thick moustache slightly wider than Hitler’s. It’s hard to tell the exact shading of the hair in the black and white sepia photo. The eyes look dark. There is a later photo of him in what I thought of as a Brownshirt uniform, but which my father explained to me later was the uniform of the Home front, die Heimwache (as a result of the wearing of which the Americans imprisoned my grandfather) and in this photo he has the characteristic shaved skull of the skinhead. My father claims the earlier photo was taken when my grandfather was in his early twenties and just about to marry my grandmother, and it demonstrates that his father had “dark blond” hair, slightly darker than his bride’s, who was “pure blond.” My father produces a double head shot of the newlywed couple to document his claim: there’s my grandmother, blond, blue-eyed—according to my father’s reading of the black-and-white photo—and there’s my grandfather, dark-haired—according to my reading. He had brown, slightly hazel eyes, said my also dark-brown-eyed father—and I find it nigh impossible to appreciate, as I recall these conversations, how vital to personal survival these subtle gradations of personal shading, eye and hair colouring, were at the time, how they dominated perception.


My grandfather died in 1953, one year after we had immigrated to Canada; my father learned of his father’s death in a letter written by the sanatorium’s director. Sometimes, after this, I watched him walk around the house in silence and imagined there was an empty space walking beside him: he leaned into it, like a person slightly off balance, a person who might fall, if he didn’t watch his step. A gulf as wide as the Atlantic was yawning open beside him.

I looked for my grandfather’s grave in 1965 when I was nineteen and had returned to Germany to travel and study. I followed the vague directions my father had given me and I located what I thought was the sanatorium he’d described, just outside Hersfeld. It looked abandoned. I walked into a field which I imagined was the sanatorium graveyard. There were no gravestones, and a meadow sloped up a hill, and I walked up through tall dry grass beneath dispersed oak and beech trees. Oaks and beeches were tree species my father deeply missed after we came to British Columbia: he missed the Hainen, the open meadows and broadleaf forests through which you could wander beneath the leaf canopy and which marked, for him, a homeland. As you walked, you often sang. Now as I walked, I did not sing. The grass caught in my toes and the buckles of my sandals, and a curious twist of identity curved through me: I felt extremely German; I felt, also, extremely Canadian.

I didn’t find the grave—or any other graves—and a strong wind blew up: I pursed my lips into an “O” shape and the wind caught their edges: O-pa.

2537 words February 3, 2009


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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