Thank God I did so; I would hate to have the stories of my family be lost. Here are some of the things I learned from him.
My dad, Warren Spandau, was born in Berlin in 1943. Three years later, the Allies ended World War II by bombing German cities, especially Berlin. British and American aircraft cooperated in a program of indiscriminate “carpet bombing” that claimed the lives of nearly half a million German civilians. The Allies were bringing down on the heads of the German people what seemed an appropriate revenge because six years earlier, over a period of 37 savage weeks, Luftwaffe pilots had dropped more than 100 tons of high explosives on 16 British cities.
Dad said that he could remember the bombs and clearly recalls his mother (my grandmother) coming to his crib, picking him up, and carrying him to the basement that served as the family’s bomb shelter.
The war, which was a terrible thing for many Germans, was especially difficult for our family. Before the war, my grandfather owned a shop in which he sold and repaired small appliances. When members of the dreaded Gestapo showed up in the little business one day to haul one of the employees off to a concentration camp, Grandpa stepped in to protect the man. His name was added to the list of people who were not desirable.
In fact, the black mark probably didn’t have too much influence on the ensuing events, because my father was ethnic Jewish. He had attended the Lutheran Church all his life, but that didn’t make a difference to the Nazis who, with terrible enthusiasm, put to death Christian Jews along with all the other descendants of Abraham that they could find in an official pogrom that resulted in the organized massacre of Jews, Gypsies, and anybody who resisted the government.
The Gestapo came for my grandfather and his brother one night and imprisoned them both. They managed to escape, but the guards fired a hail of gunfire at them, killing Grandpa’s brother, and putting five bullets in Grandpa’s leg, leaving scars that remained with him all his life. His brother-in-law, Uncle Henry Bickel, was interred in a concentration camp and would have been “eliminated” along with the others in his barracks except for the fact that he was a tailor and was given the task of creating window coverings for a general’s house. Even so, his life was in constant danger. One day, as they started to lead Uncle Henry away towards the gas ovens, he cried out to the general, “But I am not done with your drapes!” He was one of the concentration camp survivors and lived until age 93.
My grandmother and her sister escaped the Gestapo dragnet and spent the next five years living in a secure hiding place away from the cruel authorities who would have put them in a concentration camp, for sure, and then almost certainly would have executed them. Grandfather lived the life of a fugitive, staying ahead of the swarms of German officials who, with a sense of satisfaction at “a job well done,” would have put him to death, if they had caught him. He could not run his business, of course, or get a job, so he became an experienced thief, stealing whatever provisions he could in order to feed his family. Even though he was just an infant, my father remembers being hungry during those years. His little sister was born when Dad was only a year old, but perished from malnutrition and exposure.
Grandpa was captured on three different occasions. He must have been a resourceful individual because he managed to escape each time. The final escape took place when he was on a train on the way to the camp where he would surely have been killed. He leaped from the train while it was still traveling at high speed, burst his kneecap in the fall, and crawled on hands and knees 15 miles back to Berlin.
Following the conclusion of the war, my dad remembers playing in the rubble of bombed-out buildings that no doubt proved irresistible temptations to a young boy’s natural sense of adventure and a yearning to explore hidden places — passions that, I imagine, were intensified by the long years he had spent cooped up in the darkness of his family’s hiding place. Those ruins were not safe playgrounds but, following the horrors of the previous decade, I suppose my grandparents couldn’t be too alarmed by the possibility of their child twisting an ankle or knocking something down on himself.
Grandpa’s New York cousins had served in the Army Air Corps and had actually flown bombing missions over Germany. We’ve always wondered if Dad might have been playing in the debris left from buildings that his own cousins had destroyed. The cousins helped sponsor my grandparent’s immigration through the Jewish Department, so they were able to immigrate to the United States. In August 1946, Grandpa and my dad came to America ahead of the rest of the family, sailing with other refugees on a ship called the SS Marine Perch. His wife, grandma Helen, had been denied passage because she was pregnant with my second aunt, Sylvia.
Even though he was only four years old, Dad remembers the voyage and recalls watching the landlines between the shore and dock stretch out as the ship set sail. He remembers seeing the Statue of Liberty and his father telling him that they were in America. Dad remembers being confused about why everyone seemed so excited. Like millions of other Europeans, the immigration station on Ellis Island was their first landfall. Grandpa had the choice between going to either Louisiana or Minnesota. He chose Minnesota because he imagined there were more Germans in Minnesota than in Louisiana.
This was decades before daycare was even a word, so my father’s first American home was an orphanage where he remained while Grandpa looked for work. Dad can still remember his feelings of joy when his father was able to visit the orphanage. Grandpa finally landed a job and secured an upstairs apartment near St.
Paul’s Roberts Street Bridge. He retrieved my father from the orphanage and sent for my grandma and her infant daughter, my Aunt Sylvia, to join them.
Dad had a facility for language acquisition and, like many young children, picked up his new language with little effort. By the time Grandma and my aunt arrived, you couldn’t tell from his speech that he hadn’t been born in Minneapolis. However,
Dad apparently could lose an old language as quickly as he could acquire a new one because when he first saw Grandma, he could no longer speak any German and was unable to understand a word of what his mother was saying to him. Grandma could hardly speak a word of English at that time so, even though the long months of physical separation between the poor woman and her beloved child had ended, a wall of silence continued to keep them apart. Even worse, perhaps, Dad had forgotten what his mother looked like and the first meeting between the two of them was strained by the fact that he regarded his mom as a stranger.
Nevertheless, the difficulties of the reunion were offset by the relief that my dad felt at putting the orphanage experience behind him and being reunited with his father. Before long he began to get used to the strange women who had come to live with them and reacquired his facility with German. On the other hand, Grandma had a desperately difficult time picking up English so German became the lingua franca — or common language — used in the house between the two of them. Grandma never completely mastered English. Dad told me that he remembers his mother running a vacuum with one hand while studying a paper she held in the other hand containing English words that she would need in order to become a citizen.
Grandpa was never able to make use of his skill with electrical appliances because he could never get into the union, so he became a plumber, beginning as a journeyman and rising though the ranks until he became a master plumber and then started his own business. He eventually got a position as municipal inspector for a Twin Cities suburb called Falcon Heights, which was home of the Minnesota State Fair. He bought a house in Como Park, which is an upscale St. Paul suburb with a beautiful lake, footpaths, a lovely waterfall, golf course, Japanese garden, conservatory, and a zoo.
Grandpa suffered a heart attack in 1964. My dad was in the Navy at the time and they evacuated him by helicopter so that he could be by Grandpa’s bedside. The doctors told Grandpa that he was supposed to take it easy, but Dad told me that he didn’t think his father ever knew how to take it easy. A year later, he died of a second heart attack. He was only 56 years old.
My own father’s story began to gain some momentum when he was in the seventh grade at Murray Junior High and became friends with a fellow classmate, named Sharyll Givans. Dad told me that “Sharyll was a looker and smart.” Dad was cowed by her beauty and intelligence so he never got up enough nerve to do anything about his infatuation.
Following graduation, Dad joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed on an aircraft carrier, called the U.S. Wasp. I learned that it was actually called a multipurpose amphibious assault ship and served as the flagship of the Second Fleet. This was not wartime, but dad was involved in some historic and frightening political events including the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crises.
After getting out of the service, Dad attended vocational school and learned the steam fitting trade. He became a pipe fitter and welder and got a job working in a New Orleans shipyard. He subsequently worked on a variety of important projects including refineries, nuclear facilities, and airports. “I went everywhere I was needed,” Dad told me. “And worked on anything that needed some pipe-fitting.” He also told me that he had spent “a lot of windshield time” away from his young family.
Dad had begun water skiing when he was 12 years old. He took to the sport like a duck to water and almost from the beginning was able to slalom on one ski like a pro. As soon as he was old enough, Dad got his own boat and began practicing every day. He became a tournament water skier in the summer and a snow skier in the winter. He was a member of the Bald Eagle Water Ski Club And Show that had its headquarters on picturesque Centerville Lake, just north of St. Paul. Dad said that he was practicing jumping on Lake Owasso one day. A guy who was fishing for croppies under the ski jump refused to move so Dad said he jumped over him. “That made him move,” Dad said. Then he added, with a smile. “Probably made the croppies move, as well.”
Dad married a New Orleans girl, Patricia Jean Albert. When Grandpa died they made their home in Minnesota and, in 1978, moved to Washington. After 15 years of marriage and three kids, Dad divorced Patricia. A decade later, at his school’s 25th reunion, he ran into his old flame, Sharyll, and made the discovery, both disconcerting and encouraging, that Sharyll had a crush on him in high school, but, like Dad, was afraid to do anything about it. Dad was working at St. Cloud, Minnesota at the time and Sharyll lived in nearby St. Joseph, so Dad asked her if she wanted to have coffee sometime. That was more than two decades ago. Dad & Sharyll have been drinking coffee together (and doing a lot of other stuff, I guess) ever since.
I suppose some might regard it as tragic that, even though they were soul mates, Dad & Sharyll had taken that decades-long detour, but I sure don’t feel that way because, after all, I was born on that detour.
To an important extent, each of us is the person that our personal history and our parents have made us. I thank God for the positive influence that my father and grandfather exerted in shaping my own life. It’s been a privilege to share the stories of these two wonderful ancestors!