In Immigrant Soldier, Herman recalls his childhood days as he sits in a deck chair during the stormy passage to America. He remembers the tension in the sunny, well-furnished home on Bernard Strasse and his mother’s unhappiness. When I first wrote this section of the book, much of the information I knew about Hugo had to be left out. Now, perhaps, some readers will be interested in the kind of man who ruled the Lang family home.

I never met my paternal grandfather Hugo, but stories of him loom large in my childhood. I have a photo of him, taken in his World War I uniform. In it he looks handsome and trim—it is an attractive vision of a young man. But the father Herman remembered from his childhood was a stout man, florid and strutting—an autocrat who loved rich food, fine wine and liqueur, the theater, and his cigars. By all accounts, he did not show any gentleness toward his wife and was stern and distant to his three children.

The marriage of Hugo Lang and Clara Kohn was an arranged union propelled by a large dowry that appealed to the groom and his family. In 1914, while the newlyweds were still on their honeymoon, World War I erupted. Hugo was inducted into the German Army and left his now-pregnant bride alone in Meiningen. Ten months later, he returned to recuperate from a bout with typhoid fever. He came home to a wife he hardly knew and an infant son, Herman’s older brother, Friedel (my father).

The stories of home life told me by Herman, my father, my aunt, and my grandmother are always shadowed by Hugo and Rolla, his second cousin. A strict and unpleasant woman, she came to help before the birth of Clara’s third baby, Herman, and she never left. (For various reasons, I did not include any mention of Rolla in Immigrant Soldier)

Rolla was given the favored tower bedroom and became Hugo’s special confidant and a permanent member of the family. For reasons a small boy like Herman could not understand, Rolla wielded power in the home second only to Hugo. It is whispered in our family that she was his mistress. Certainly, she was no friend to Clara.

When Hugo was traveling on business, the children lived in fear of the stories Rolla would tell to him when he returned. Minor misbehavior became major when Rolla told the tale. During the fifteen years she was part of the family, her demanding ways and criticism of the children caused friction in the household and left Herman’s mother, Clara, lonely and with little authority.   Herman’s father was not often home during the week. After traveling the country selling leather, he returned for weekends and occasional long holidays. When he was home, he seldom talked to his children beyond asking how they did in school or getting reports on their behavior. Hugo was great friends with many of the actors and actresses from the theater across the street, and they were often invited over for meals and playing cards. They talked and drank long into the evening. Tired from his late-night social life, Hugo took an afternoon nap when he was home in the downstairs master bedroom. During his nap, all activity in the house came to a halt. No walking was allowed in the living room or salon and only quiet activities on the second floor. Especially in winter, the children would retreat to the attic to play games and read during the long afternoon “quiet hours.”

Almost every day he was home, Hugo spent about thirty minutes in his sitzbad, a strange contraption which stood in the foyer just outside the master bedroom door. It was an important ritual, which both Herman and my father remembered clearly. The sitzbad was a wooden box lined with warm electric bulbs, which made Hugo sweat profusely as he sat immobile and entrapped in the contraption. Heavy perspiration was thought to cleanse the body of impurities and more importantly, to aid in weight reduction. Each day, Hugo hoped to sweat away a few extra pounds so he could enjoy another evening of fine food and wine.

Herman remembered that, with only his head protruding from the box and a thick, white towel wrapped around his neck to catch the dripping perspiration, Hugo was often bored. Amazingly, he relaxed in the sitzbad and was sometimes willing to chat with his family. Though his father’s reddened and dripping face looked more ferocious than usual, Herman would find himself drawn down the hall during the ritual of the hot-box.

“What do you want?” Hugo would puff as his son approached. After taking a deep breath to bolster his courage, Herman was able to tell his father about a success at school or some other news he hoped would gain favorable attention. While in the sitzbad, his father actually seemed to listen, and sometimes he would respond with a story of his own youth, something that was supposed to teach a valuable lesson. At these times, Herman could almost feel close to his father.

Hugo considered himself, first of all, a German and instilled the love of the Fatherland in his children. He participated in a lodge and the very German activities of the local autumn festival, Schützenfest. The three children darted among the food stalls at the festival and watched their father perform with his lodge buddies in funny skits. Edith, her long blonde braids flying, always dressed for the event in a Bavarian dirndl, while Herman and Friedel wore lederhosen—short leather pants, held up by embroidered suspenders, and lovingly prepared for the occasion by rubbing spit and snot into them until they could stand by themselves.

Hugo loved any celebration of German culture and he insisted the family celebrate Christmas like their neighbors. He personally selected the tallest evergreen tree that would fit in the front door and oversaw its decoration on Christmas Eve. When the light of the candles shone out the windows for all passing to see, the family gathered to sing “Oh, Tannenbaum,” a holiday carol that made no mention of Christ’s birth.

Hugo was a strong, atheist “Free-Thinker.” He shunned all things Jewish—both cultural and religious. He was shocked by the rapid development of anti-Semitism after the Nazis came to power. However, Hugo was also a realist. He knew that neither Schützenfest nor Christmas celebrations would make his family German enough for Hitler. In 1934, he encouraged his oldest son, my father, to emigrate and settle in the United States, and he sent his daughter to find refuge in England only a year later.

Hugo died of a heart attack on July 20, 1935. He was spared years of mounting restrictions and humiliations. I cannot help but wonder if the theft of his German identity by Nazi ideology helped to hasten his passing.

The first thing Clara did after her husband’s death was to kick Rolla out of the house. (No one knows what happened to her)  After Hugo’s death, Clara was able to be herself again. She tended to selling the family home and rearranging her life under the laws of The Third Reich.


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