by Irene Katzenstein Schmied
I left Berlin on a Kindertransport to England in January 1939. On my last evening at home, I roamed through the rooms of the house and touched the walls, bidding them farewell, telling them that I would remember them, even if I were never to come back.
I did remember them, and the cherry tree in the garden, the pattern of large flowers on the sofa in the living room, the picture of a girl walking down a country street in the dining room. I did go back to Berlin several times, but returned only once to that Bauhaus villa on its outskirts.
Over 50 years later, I found myself sitting on the terrace where I had played as a child. My husband and the present owners talked over afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen. They did not understand my need. I looked out on the garden, searching the smooth green lawn for the long uprooted fruit tree, for my sand pit. The air, laden with the scent of watered lawns and the sound of children at play, brought with it the old familiar sense of dread. The neighbors were long gone – emigrated, deported, or killed in action. The house had changed during World War II. Its walls were no longer the same, they did not remember me. Here a corridor had been drawn, there a door had been inserted, here a window where none had been before. Only memory backed by imagination could reveal that house as it had once been or rather as it had seemed to me.
I left England with my mother in 1947 to join my father in Santiago, Chile. I knew I would come back. And so I did, at first just briefly, then longer and ever more frequently, but never to live there again. I revisited the English friends who had become my family during my wartime separation from my parents. I sat in the same chairs, drank tea out of similar china cups. Honeysuckle still grew on the hedges along the road, primroses and bluebells hid in the wooded shade along the lanes. A patchwork of fields in varying shades of green and populated by cows here and sheep there stretched out along the Downs towards the horizon. It all filled me with wonder as it had done during my adolescence. But it was not the same. Our ways of life had diverged. Only our reminiscences were still the same. The smell of wisteria filled me with melancholy. Had there been something missing in those years of tea parties and country walks and polite behavior, even in the passionate girlhood friendships at boarding school? real sense of belonging, or of home, perhaps? Perhaps also there had been promises of a future – an English one – that remained unfulfilled.
I left Chile, where I had lived with parents and then alone with my mother for over 10 years. There I was at home with my family again, and yet never quite so. The many years of separation had left their mark. From being English, I turned to becoming Chilean. Again it was the landscape that drew me in. Under a blue sky, rugged snow-peaked mountains pushed their foothills toward the city. The smell of eucalyptus trees stung the air. In winter, high up in the cordillera, skis sliced through the snow. The nearby ocean shoreline strung out its necklace of rocky bays, steep inlets and sandy beaches. There was poetry, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral; magic realism steamed out of the coffee cups of the writers meeting in downtown espresso bars. I drank the wine, taught English, kept at my writing and talked passionately about politics. Friendship was more part of my life than ever before or since. And yet I left—after all, I was 27 years old, still single, ever writing and never quite fitting in, either into the refugee world or the Chilean world. New York beckoned.
I came to New York. No one was waiting. Thrilling at first, it soon became desolating. No one cared, but I stuck it out. Work as a translator and writing, a love affair or perhaps two, helped. After my mother moved from Chile to London and was financially secure once more, I wrapped the supportive mantle of year long, weekly psychotherapy around myself, and fulfilled my schoolgirl dream. A BA, then an MA at Columbia University followed. There was marriage, a failed pregnancy, above all a home, and finally time to write.
I will never leave New York even if I go off in search of past and new selves. As I write here at my desk of an evening, the lights from the windows of the surrounding high rises wink at me. I see others like me sitting at their computers, moving round their kitchens. They are people I do not know but I feel at one with them. We are all part of a city where I belong and am at home.
New York, November 2003