Archive for May, 2012

Author’s Notes


May 26th, 2012 // No Comments

AUTHOR’S NOTE for Mephisto Waltz

For me, like many others, Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939 was the turning point in my young life.  Every survivor has a story to tell, one more dramatic than the next. For some there was victory. The defeated carry the blame and the guilt.

As Baltic Germans living in Latvia we had to choose between Hitler and Stalin. Hitler offered us a return to the Reich (though my family had never lived within Germany), while Stalin would treat us to a slow death in one of the notorious gulags in Siberia. Back in 1918 the Bolsheviks and later the Soviets had declared us enemies of the people and had done all they could to eliminate us.  Though my forefathers had lived in Latvia for centuries, we had not assimilated (neither, of course, had other minorities, the Jews and Russians in Latvia). As we have witnessed in recent history, in Kosovo and in several African nations, when inconvenient minorities get singled out as enemies, racial conflicts ensue. By 1921 the Baltic Germans had dropped from 20 to 5 percent of the Latvian population. Hitler’s invitation was a life raft. We set off for the Reich not knowing that we would be asked to live as occupiers in soon-to-be-conquered Poland.

I was in bed suffering from angina when the movers crated our furniture that would be shipped to Germany. My parents were too busy and upset to pay much attention to me and left me and my two brothers in the care of our nanny.  She too had tears in her eyes. Though she was Latvian, she considered us her family, as did the cook and gardener. The main distinction between us was that they spoke Latvian while we conversed in German. My parents spoke three languages

We arrived in the Reich and were quartered in a storage room full of discarded furniture. The grumpy landlady had no use for us foreigners and did not care that we had no wood for the stove. Mama was not about to freeze and broke one of the chairs for firewood.  I was so upset by our surroundings that I disobeyed my father. For that I got my first spanking. Things were desperate, and Mama, accustomed to getting her way, insisted that we leave.

Rather than wait for our official assignment,  Papa took off for Poland as soon as he learned that we would be settled there and receive housing and a business like the one he had left behind in Latvia. But he would not live in a home that belonged to Jews or Poles who had been evicted. When Mama arrived with us three children, he was staying with his friend who had no qualms about living in somebody else’s house.  She threw a fit and found an abandoned and vandalized villa with the help of an SS soldier and claimed possession. Once Papa had it cleaned up and renovated it became our home for the next four years.

Our neighbors were Poles who hated us. One of the boys would spit at us whenever he walked by our fence, where my brothers and I yelled back insults. I attended a German school and had friends who belonged to ethnic German families. I loved the house and the garden and our Polish maid and gardener. She’d bring us food from the black market when our rations ran out.  They always did, though we raised chickens and later rabbits.

We had arrived shortly after Poland surrendered. During the first month the Jews, who wore yellow stars, were herded to the ghetto where they had to live behind barbed wire.  I could see them when I rode the streetcar; they stood by the fence and stared in as we passed. The ghetto covered a large part of the city nobody was allowed to enter.

While I was tucked away in a boarding school in Bavaria, my mother gave birth to my sister and later to my brother and talked about leaving Poland.

In the summer of 1944 the Soviets advanced to the outskirts of Warsaw. This was too close for comfort, considering we lived only a couple of hours from there. Mama got very concerned and insisted that we move to Saxony, where she rented some rooms and furnished them. My father was drafted and had to go through boot camp. He spoke fluent Russian, but never got to be an interpreter. Hitler needed fighting men.

For Christmas of 1944 Mama took us back to Poland. She did not care that German cities and trains were bombarded and travel very dangerous. She was going to have a last Christmas with Papa who happened to be stationed there. We stayed at a friend’s house, knowing that our world would soon collapse again. It did. The following week the Russians launched an offensive and broke through the front. We barely escaped their onslaught and fled to Dresden where we stayed before taking off for Austria.

Haunted by a vision, my mother insisted on leaving the city at the crack of dawn and persuaded the commander of a train for the wounded to take us on. It was the only one that left Dresden before the firebombing that would have killed us. The train took us all the way to Vienna where the wounded would be treated.

We had already boarded the train to the mountains when the alarm sounded announcing acute danger. We rushed to the bunker, hauling the baby and my little sister and survived the carpet-bombing that lasted almost an hour.  It was very scary. Vienna was leveled and burning when we came out again and our luggage destroyed. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs and the buggy. My mother used her jewelry to lure a taxi that took us through the burning city to a train station outside Vienna. After passing several freshly bombed stations, and escaped strafing planes eager to wipe out our train, we came to Lienz, a small town in the Austrian Alps.

Papa was deployed to Berlin where he fell in Hitler’s last battle.  I grieved for many years until I ran out of tears.

The day we left the station in Lienz where we had spent the night, it was bombed. Once again the Russians approached and the air raids became even more ferocious. Why not move to a distant village where nobody would find us?  In Kals

I attended an eight-class schoolroom. I giggled and got ten lashes on my palms. I could not help giggling and poking fun at people. The world was so amusing.

In May of 1945 British troops marched in and occupied the village. We watched them park their armored vehicles in the square and enter the town hall where they arrested the mayor. With nobody defending the village this was an easy conquest. I even cheered when I saw them haul the teacher away. He had three goiters, a common trait among the local people. That was the end of school for me. I did not mind that at all. Who needed an education when we had to find food and wood for cooking? I walked to distant farms to fetch milk for the baby. The Brits did not search for the German soldiers hiding in the forest who tried to  walk home.

Amid all this excitement I came down with appendicitis. My screams scared my mother.  How could she get me to the distant hospital when we were in the early days of occupation? Now what? My mother, who always did what needed to be done, went to the British officer who had occupied Kals and explained the situation. To everybody’s surprise he detached a jeep and had a soldier drive me to the hospital. The ride through the glorious mountains in an open jeep let me forget my pain. I could have gone on forever. This charming British soldier who gave me chocolate was the enemy we had been so afraid of. From then on I loved everybody in a brown uniform who spoke English. The thought helped me through the torment of an ether anesthesia, and the subsequent thirst and pain.

There was a second incident that made me idolize the British soldiers. We left Kals and moved to another village, Ainet, where we could stay in a farmhouse while the farmers took their cattle to an alpine meadow to graze for the summer. My two brothers and I had been begging for food from the farmers all day, but all we got was a cup of flour, a few potatoes and some milk. We had no ration cards because we had moved without permission. Mama did not believe in playing by the rules.  We sat in front of the house enjoying the sunset when we saw a British soldier escort our grandmother up the steep hill. She was still regal and lovely in a long black dress (similar to the elderly counterpart I describe in my book). He smiled. We smiled back.

Mama gestured for him to come into the ancient kitchen where we sat down around the table and watched each other while grandma told us how he had come to her aid. His name was Georgie. We had nothing to offer other than the watery soup made of roasted flour and a potato. He did not take any, just kept looking at Mama. Her charm was irresistible and he obviously liked what he saw.  Then he played with the little ones. I immediately fell in love with him and probably acted obnoxious to get his attention. But Mama did not say anything. She only had eyes for him and he for her. As refugees we did not know anybody in the village and had to fend for ourselves—a tough proposition. Mama believed in her destiny and saw in Georgie a messenger from Heaven.

She accompanied him to the village so he would not get lost. The following evening he returned and brought us sweet rolls—white bread of a kind we had never seen before—and olive oil. There were other delicacies, though any food was godsend. We feasted, trying not to gorge ourselves like animals, eager to make a good impression.

Over the following weeks Georgie came almost every day and brought us food and his mattress so that Mama would not have to sleep on straw. They took walks while I babysat the kids—a terrible injustice in my young mind.  Someday I would have a friend like him! I was only ten, and very skinny, but convinced that I would grow up to be voluptuous and beautiful so that Georgie would fall in love with me.

Though Mama could not speak English she communicated to him that she needed a certificate from her Latvian friend in order to get ration cards for food. We certainly could not survive on begging.  Nobody knew how embarrassed I was when I stood in front of a closed door and had to knock, asking for a cup of milk or a piece of bread.  But there was the joy I felt when I could bring it home. Everything was on hold. No transportation other than farm carts and British convoys.  All travel was on foot. We watched as more and more German soldiers surrendered. Then the  kid across the street came down with polio that had broken out. The school would remain closed until further notice, which came months later.

Georgie, our savior, drove up one night in a military truck, had Mama put on a British beret and coat and took her to a distant place where pastor Singer lived. He wrote out the certificate Mama needed and explained to Georgie in English what this was all about.

They returned later that night so that he could sneak the truck back before anybody would miss it. The following day Mama received ration cards. Now we could buy some food.

Though I still had to go begging, gather berries and hunt for mushrooms, we had milk and cereal for the baby and my little sister.

Life could have been wonderful, but Georgie was obliged to go home. He obviously would have preferred to stay with us, or rather Mama, and looked so sad when he came to say goodbye. Mama cried for him and for Papa.  Whenever I could I’d hang out at the inn where the British soldiers stayed, hoping I might get the attention of another Georgie. No luck. Only once did one of them take pity on me and gave me some sweet rolls. We were alone again and worried how we would get through the winter. The farmers had returned and we were obliged to sleep in the barn.

Mama found a hall at an abandoned resort where we could stay. People gave her some bedding, and we still had the pot that had traveled with us from Latvia. It not only cooked our meals, it also served as basinet and laundry-tub.

The weather was cold and damp when Georgie showed up out of the blue. He had been looking for us all over town until he found us again in that distant village. We cried, sang and danced as if an angel had stepped from Heaven. We all loved him so much—not just for the food. He was a friend who cared when nobody else did. He visited us several times. During his last visit he was so sad that Mama’s sixth sense told her he would not be back. She was right. He had probably been discharged. Even though some of the German POWs in the nearby camp admired Mama and let us eat their food and their British guard, who lived next door, talked to us, nobody could replace Georgie.

The Russians, who had escaped capture by the British, were settled in former barracks and received food from the UN Relief. Years later Mama met one of them in California and married him.

Knowing that we could not survive in Austria after the Reichsmark was declared invalid, she traded the wood we had cut for the winter for a border crossing pass into the American Zone. In Salzburg we crossed the border to Germany and landed in Stuttgart, where my uncle lived. For a little while we could stay at the Displaced Persons camp until screeners discovered that we were not really Latvian and kicked us out. It was winter and the only shelter the railroad station. We could spend the night there, but had to leave in the morning. Time crawled while we wandered through the ruins of the city, cold and hungry. The baby cried. He was hungry, cold and wet. The rest of us knew that complaining wouldn’t do any good, and suffered in silence. Mama was ill and exhausted. When we came to a bridge she talked about jumping off, convinced we would be better off in an orphanage without her. A nun watched her and offered to take Mama to the convent. There the nuns fed us, admitted Mama to the hospital and found homes for us children. One of my brothers and I came to three maiden sisters who bathed us and found clothes. They insisted that we go to school and return to civilized life.  The baby landed in an orphanage.

Mama survived. I helped her recover the baby.  My grandmother, who had been with us most of the time, passed away. We missed her so. She had been home to us. It took years before Mama found a place big enough that we could all live together again.

I quit school at fourteen and found a job in a factory. In 1949 the problem was no longer a shortage of food, but of money. Mama’s war-widow’s pension could not cover the food bill not to mention that we needed clothes and household goods. My factory job paid a pittance. Even a ten-hour day did not cut it.

The new government paid for my attending an interpreter school where I studied English, shorthand and typing. With those skills Mama’s friend landed a job for me at the UN Refugee Relief, though I was only sixteen. Mama worked odd jobs, but we barely made it through the month. My goal was to emigrate to America and help her from there. I not only adored the American way of life, I wanted to have a place where I belonged. I did not feel that Germany was my homeland. The Latvian quota had a five-year waiting list. Pastor Singer had emigrated to California and found a sponsor for me there. I could not wait to leave.

In 1953 I met and married a German colleague who happened to have a visa to the States, and we set sail in 1954. Though Hoboken, New Jersey, was not how I had envisioned America, when I came to California I knew that I found what I was looking for—my homeland.

After adapting to the local lifestyle and studying at a college, I found my place. My writing career served as a catharsis and let me clarify my past.  Psychology, philosophy and the mystery of the spirit opened my mind to the infinite possibilities that present themselves to us.

In 1980 my mother came for a visit, hoping to recover from her cancer. That night I had a vision that I must interview her. Though I had heard her stories throughout my life and had talked to relatives and friends, I could not see the large picture. She was delighted in my interest and talked and talked while the tape recorder kept running. Together we relived the years of her and my childhood, the places we had lived, and the people who had influenced our lives. I learned about her meeting my father, the handsome and wealthy young man who fell in love with her at first sight. There were tales of her childhood in Russia where she grew up in a manor; of Yosip the gardener and the communists who set my grandfather’s estate on fire; how Grandma escaped her execution; and all the other stories I described in my novel, THE BARONESS.

Of particular interest to me was the story of Olga, who inspired the main character of this book.  As my mother’s best friend I witnessed Olga’s bizarre behavior and heard her talk about Ingo, the love of her life. She was the kind of heroine every novelist is looking for. I became a refugee when we were obliged to flee the Soviets and could now describe what it was like to be out in the cold knowing that this was a life or death matter. However, accustomed to the world at war and still a child I saw our flight more of an adventure. I remember Dresden and all those refugees and their covered farm wagons that reminded me of American pioneers heading west.

My mother was a gifted storyteller who had me spell-bound. So much so that I spent twenty years to learn the craft of writing and piece the stories together into   novels. The tapes provided the details I could not have dreamed up for my narrative.

MEPHISTO WALTZ is not about military or political conquest, of nations winning or losing the war, but about ordinary people, their relationships, inter-dependence and the pain of separation. It is about women who love, pine and wait.

I waited for my father for two years to be the first one to embrace him when he returned from a POW camp. Even after we were informed that he had been killed, I kept on waiting. Writing the book allowed me to be with him during his last days and come to terms with his death. I named him Gottfried.

 


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The world Charles calls home aka San Quentin


May 1st, 2012 // No Comments

I’m always amazed how well things turn out when least expected. When I don’t feel like doing something the slightest obstacle will stop me from pursuing the matter, it wasn’t meant to be, whereas if I really want something, nothing can stop me.  Seeing Charles this weekend was not at the top of my list of things to do except that I imagined how sad he would  be if nobody showed up and light up his dreary existence. I was actually glad when I called San Quentin for an appointment and the answering machine said that they were not accepting calls that day. Now I didn’t have to feel guilty.  Later that day I found out that it was not Wednesday but Tuesday, when SQ didn’t take any calls.  No excuses now, but try again the following day. And sure enough. Unlike the usual hour-long wait to get through, the call was answered by a man who already knew my voice. I complimented him for his memory. I am sure there are plenty of visitors calling with an accent.  Saturday was booked, he said, but he could give us an appointment for Sunday in the “overflow” room at 10:45. What a deal.  We wouldn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and might even find the vending machines well-stocked. For Charles getting fruits and a fresh salad are a big treat. Of course he loves his ice cream and hamburgers. Seeing him eat with such gusto is so gratifying. Once again I learned not to jump to conclusions just because things don’t work out my way. Now we would be treated to the big room where men with lesser sentences get to sit with their families at tables in comfortable chairs.  As death row inmate, Charles is still obliged to sit in a cage, but it’s larger, has an open window and a beautiful view over San Francisco Bay.

Sunday morning, when we passed the building, Charles stood at the window, grinning from ear to ear and waving. I had never seen him happy. He’ll smile at some funny remark, even laugh (kind-of) but there is always sadness in his eyes.  Who can blame him. Spending two decades in solitary is not a laughing or even a smiling matter. The window, fresh air, sunlight and view changed his personality. He gave us enthusiastic hugs when we finally arrived with a tray of  food from the vending machines after getting him an advanced treat – ice cream sandwiches  which we had slipped under the iron bars of the door to sweeten his wait.   The human touch, a friendly face, a caring gesture and the opportunity to relate allow him to be human.  Most inmates have family and friends who visit them twice a week. Charles only has us and another friend who comes from time to time to keep him company.  She too feels sorry for him considering what he’d been through.

Being Chinese Charles is ostracized and shunned by his family and the Chinese community for bringing shame on them. They don’t care that he might have been wronged, that he had been judged before the trial, tortured and  dehumanized  to break him down and force a confession. His being in prison makes any contacts with him awkward and embarrassing. It is difficult to believe that our judicial system stoops so low to torture people in order to get a confession that allows them to pass judgment and close the case, rather than pursue their investigation and find the truth before convicting the accused. (That only happens in TV mysteries.) The reality can be brutal, especially if the killer is perceived to be one, like that angry young Chinese who escaped arrest and sought shelter in some hiding place. Who wouldn’t under the circumstances, or any circumstances? Most people will try to escape capture before surrendering. While kept in a cage,  he was not only humiliated and deprived of decent food, the guards harrassed and bullied him, and would not let him use the toilet which obliged him to, yes, that – a  further embarrassment.  Valerie had witnessed the circumstances under which he was kept and describes the conditions in the book she writes about him. She too felt embarrassed and even frightened when she visited him at Folsom Prison.  There are so many ways in which people can inflict torment. Naturally he acted angry and defensive, which convinced his guards that he was a serial killer who had to be punished and executed. None of that innocent until proven guilty bit for them. Human rights? Forget it. That’s for people who can afford a good lawyer who assures his client decent accommodations and treatment. Charles had nothing and was at the mercy of the public.  Chinese, an illegal immigrant, a previously convicted fellon who had escaped was certainly enough to be convicted, but executed?  Most people will do whatever they can to escape prison. Our instinct of self-preservation will seek protection.  I would have tried to find a way to escape. But I’m caucasian and a woman and could charm my way out. Our basic distrust between the races builds animosities until we get to know each other.  Though he had been educated in his hometown, Hong Kong, a private school in the UK, had studied at an American college and spoke English fluently, he was still Chinese. An alien who did not belong to the WASP community, no matter how hard he tried to fit in. The famous athlete,  O.J. Simpson, got all the breaks and was acquitted, though the evidence left no doubt about his being guilty of murder. Charles’ evidence was that he had lived with Lennard Lake, a professed serial killer, and his wife, Cricket.  They had been friends, the only friends he had made and who sheltered him against the police. The fact that Lake professed his guilt by committing suicide was not enough for the sensation hungry media and their equally blood-thirsty readers, who wanted a lynching. Charles was perfect cannon fodder for the newspapers. Journalists outdid themselves with gory details. All of them true, but they had no evidence to blame Charles for it.  Nobody even bothered to give him the benefit of the doubt or checked the thin evidence, far-fetched, circumstantial, and even fabricated. They portrayed Charles caged like a wild beast, as a dangerous killer who had to be executed.  Cricket who had been with Lake during the years when the murders were committed and not only knew about it, but had probably participated in luring the victims to the home and taking pleasure in watching them squirm, was not even obliged to testify. The judge accepted her refusal. Her deposition remained in the hands of the investigators without being open to the public. Her background and perverse taste in sex made her a more likely suspect than Charles. There is no record of her plea bargaining. She had three days to remove all incriminating evidence and plant the video that showed Charles talking to one of the victims (the only evidence. He had followed Lake’s scenario, unaware that Lake would later kill the victim.  Cricket could bring the whole mystery to light, but she is not about to incriminate herself. Let Charles hang.

On this beautiful day, sitting by the open window behind thick, iron bars, I thought about that. But Charles does not blame her. She had been a friend and her relationship to Lake was none of his business. Yes, they fought, but then made up again. As Lake grew increasingly paranoid and obsessed with the idea that unproductive people had to be eliminated as he had documented in his diary, she would leave but then return. Sooner or later Lake would have turned on Charles when he was no longer useful, as would have been the case after he was caught shoplifting for Lake. With his Asian face Charles could not disappear in a crowd.  Perhaps Lake wanted to get rid of Charles in that way.

We talked about his origami art and the exquisite miniature pieces he had created and sent to us. The last was a card on which  he had pasted  two owls perched on a bar under a crescent moon. Inside the card he had a heart that opens to a tiny book with the inscription “The little book of love, created and authored by Charles Ng, 2012, SQ.” Valerie and I have become his mothers. He was so pleased when I told him that I felt the love he had put into his art. How many hours had he spent folding those tiny bits of paper under such difficult circumstances – he has no table, only his bed to work on. Instead of spending his “exercise time” outside with the other men, he uses the quiet hours to concentrate on his work. During the day he must bear up with fifty inmates shouting to each other across the hall. The noise is so great that the law distributes ear plugs and the guards stay out of the hall altogether. The shouting goes on all day along with TV and radio.  He told us of the racial gangs and their practices. Governor Schwarzenegger, who thought that desegregation would benefit the inmates, only disrupted the existing relationships of the different groups. He should have known that people like to be with their own kind. That is why we have ghettos where people form their own communities in order to practice their traditions. Being incarcerated is bad enough, but sharing the tiny cell with a stranger, who would always remain a stranger, is additional punishment. Charles is content with being on Death Row where he has his own place which he calls home. He has nothing but time which he uses in educating himself, studying law and politics, working on the design of his origami and producing those creative pieces or drawings he has sent us. He accepts his predicament, knowing that fighting it would only make things worse. He is the only Chinaman on Death Rows that warehouses some 750 condemned men, among them Scott Peterson, who plays the celebrity.

He was sitting by the window where he could see the sky and inhale the cool air coming from the Bay. We’ll visit him again next month and bring him the human touch “when I need it most …” he wrote.

 

 


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