I had my father for a relatively short time: 24 minus 6 years. When he died suddenly, more than half a century ago, I was distracted by both the immense joy and relief of having recently met my life partner and the distressed atmosphere of my immigrant nuclear home. So I never mourned Vati properly. This year, perhaps because I am recently widowed, Dr. Hugo Bamberger has moved to the front of my consciousness. I owe him my sense of humor, my ability to work hard, my optimism, and my gratitude for what is rather than excessive regrets about losses and unfortunate developments. I don’t think I ever heard my father complain. I took it to heart the one time he chided me for not appreciating that I never was poor or hungry.
Hugo was a busy man. He got up hours before my mother, tending to his small chemical factory. We lived in a big Victorian house located in a suburb of Hanover, Germany. Anna, our cook, prepared the meals. After my fastidious father had washed, shaved and donned his meticulous clothes, he woke me and carried me downstairs to our imposing dining room. I kept him company while he drank his coffee and ate a soft-boiled egg and hard roll slathered with butter and jam.
His return at six was heralded by his loud whistle. Often my mom was still attending to her own interests, and it was me who responded to his shout of, “Sue, I am home.” We spent another tête-à-tête, weather permitting, on our terrace facing Hanover’s surviving native woods. My father and I bonded. Far from preparing me to be a typical stay-at-home wife, the time we spent together inspired me to hope for professional exploration and adventure. I wanted to be like my dad, leading a fun-filled life out in the world.
Both he and my mother had badly wanted a son and heir and were disappointed when I showed up. Vati, however, soon declared that I was the “most beautiful infant in the world.” Nevertheless, I was aware of my parents’ regrets and felt that I had to take the place of my unfortunately nonexistent brother. I became a tomboy, very good at getting things done. By the time I was a young teen my mother said, “When something is difficult we send Sue.” When I was five or so, I decided to study chemistry so that I could take over Vati’s business.
Women loved my father and he unfortunately responded. I believe that at one point my parents, like some of their friends, opted for an open marriage. The arrangement misfired. My mom, whose explanations about sex were always gauche and mystifying, once explained to me that: “Vati was not much of a family man but a ‘lover’ (amant) who preferred to gift a woman sexy undergarments rather than sensible pajamas!!!” It was a peculiar way to state that your husband liked to play around.
One of the biggest treats of my childhood was to visit Vati at work. Somebody walked me to our local railway station and entrusted me to the care of the conductor. I bordered the train to Lehrte, the site of the factory. I lunched with my father. Then, knowing when to disappear, I spent the afternoon visiting “my friends”: secretaries who let me use their typewriters, the lab technician who “turned water into blood,” and the factory worker who monitored the growth of pure chemical crystals in large vats. Everyone treated me like visiting royalty. Thereafter I repaired to a large garden attached to the factory where Vati grew mounds of fruit and vegetables. I had my own patch of radishes. I climbed a safe tree and read Winnie the Pooh and other favorites over and over again. Hanover seemed to lack public libraries. I received five or six books on gift-giving holidays and they had to last me the year. Fortunately the Greek hero tales and Arabian Nights were very long. I am convinced that these solitary afternoons taught me to enjoy my own company—a very useful skill for a future hidden child, not to mention Covid-19 lockdowns. Our Jewishness and the fact that we were discriminated against was a much-neglected topic. As with the wishy-washy conversations about sex, information was lacking; frank discussions and righteous indignation would have been useful.
The first job I did for my father was to brew his afternoon coffee. I ground the carefully chosen beans, slowly dripped the boiling water through a Melitta filter and served the concoction. My father was as choosy about his food and tableware as he was about his clothes. I still treasure his blue and gold Fürstenberg cup and coffee pot. And Father was a real gourmand. Around Christmas time he ordered smoked goose breast and Westphalian ham. Fat white asparagus marked spring; new potatoes, simply served with butter, signified fall.
These idyllic times did not last. Vati and I had our clashes about table matters, Latin grammar, pronunciation, and how to address people correctly with all their titles. Hitler came to power and my poor parents had to find us a safe haven. Much later I learned that each had kept a small suitcase packed in case of unexpected arrest by the Gestapo. The 50-plus-year-old Dr. Bamberger lost his factory and wondered how he would make a living. We moved to Belgium. Two years after we got there, the Nazis followed us. Before they overran Brussels, the Belgian police arrested Vati because we were German enemy aliens. They shipped him to a French detention camp where dysentery, cold, and famine reigned. He managed to reach the United States in 1941; we remained hidden in Brussels and arrived in America in 1946.
I was anxious meeting Vati after an absence of six years. He had worried himself to death while his little family was threatened with extinction in Europe. Instead of the vigorous, attractive man I remembered, an elder suffering from severe arteriosclerosis met our boat. I was afraid that he would be bald. His hair was okay, but the dentures that replaced his familiar, crooked teeth shocked me beyond belief.
For six years my glamorous, spoiled, much younger mother had managed life on her own, shepherding my sister and me through the Holocaust. She was no longer used to receiving a weekly household allowance and accepting restrictions from a spouse. She also had discovered that back in Germany my father had had a long-term affair with his secretary. Moreover, the two had corresponded ever since and now he supplied Miss B. with food and nylons. I never understood why, since my parents must have had a sort of arrangement regarding marital fidelity, my mom considered this transgression so serious. Meanwhile, my disoriented maternal grandmother had joined us in New York, and life in our small house in Forest Hills was stressful. My sister and I felt very responsible for our parents’ relationship. We were all miserable, though Mom and Dad told us not to worry. They assured us that when they were alone with each other they “did quite well.”
As planned, I studied chemistry, and for a while I worked as a laboratory technician at Chemo Puro, the small factory Vati had founded in Long Island City. Like the bigger enterprise in Germany, it manufactured extra pure chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry. We had not, or not yet, recaptured our closeness, though he was overjoyed that his future son-in-law was a chemist.
Three-and-a-half years after we were reunited as a family, just as things were getting better at home, my father died. He was 62 years old. We all were devastated. His funeral was one of my life’s worst experiences.
I think that Vati was content with his life. His little family survived and grew new roots. He provided for us under difficult circumstances and he loved America. I deeply regret that he did not meet his four grandchildren, evenly divided between boys and girls or read the dedication of my 1115-page-long Nurses’ Drug Handbook published by Wiley in 1976. It is dedicated to: “The memory of Dr. Hugo Bamberger, and to Margaret Bamberger.”