What is suicide if not a form of madness? Why else would a person choose to take their own life? That is a question that has plagued me ever since I learned that my grandmother killed herself many years ago. In retrospect, it became a double tragedy, because years later it led to my mother’s madness – an emotional breakdown that caused her to be institutionalized and from which she never fully recovered.
But to understand how this all came about, we have to go back to the summer of 1929. My father had lived in New York since 1926, working as a salesman for a firm that manufactured luxury eiderdown bedding, a business similar to his own father’s in Germany. But in July of that year, he took time out and returned to Germany to marry my mother, with whom he had a long courtship, much of it by mail.
After their honeymoon in the Hartz Mountains, my parents returned to America and to my father’s new assignment in Los Angeles, CA, where he would head up his company’s new West Coast office.
My parents lived quite comfortably….for four months. Then on October 29, 1929 the stock market crashed, and the country slid into the Depression. As jobs disappeared, the money for luxury goods dried up and within a short time his company had to close its new L.A. office, transferring my father back to their New York headquarters.
Meanwhile, my mother, who felt out of place as an immigrant, had become terribly homesick and within days of their return to New York made a solo voyage back home to Germany for an extended two month vacation.
But during her trip back to Germany, she got a cold reception from her mother in law, my grandmother, Gertrude. Even though it was purely a visit, Gertrude resented my mother for “betraying” her favorite son, by deserting him just when he needed her support the most, for a vacation in Hannover.
Then more bad news when she did return to my father. While she was gone, he had lost what remained of their savings as a result of some bad investments.
Then another stinging rebuke. During my mother’s absence, Gertrude had started a letter writing campaign, urging my father to come back home to Germany and return to the family business. She would see to it that my father’s older brother would create a new position for him when he arrived.
It didn’t take long because a few months later my father’s New York employer declared bankruptcy. Now feeling he had no other choice, he accepted his mother’s offer against my mother’s vehement pleas not to do it. But he prevailed and they returned once again to their former home in Germany.
Arriving in Hannover on June 1, 1932, they moved in with my father’s parents. But that was not a good choice and proved to be short lived. The antagonism between my mother and my grandmother Gertrude was almost immediate. Within three weeks my parents moved out, and into their own apartment in another part of town – a precursor of what was to follow.
Meanwhile my father was not happy with the new position his brother created for him, finding it far too menial, and the friction that resulted between them escalated to near the breaking point.
Then in less than seven months after their return to Hannover my father quit, and my parents moved to Berlin, where my father started a new business as a manufacturer’s sales rep.
But barely four weeks later, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and so began the anti Jewish episodes which followed in quick succession, including the burning of the Reichstag, and the Nazi Boycott of Jewish businesses with countless vicious assaults by Nazi thugs on innocent Jews .
During all of this Gertrude, had been suffering from severe migraines and was under a doctor’s care. But then came the ultimate shock. Three days after the Nazi Boycott she took poison and killed herself!
The fallout on my parents was immediate and palpable. Already feeling disenfranchised from their family, and treated as pariahs, my parents were accused of being the cause of Gertrude’s death. In spite of the widespread Nazi violence going on everywhere it was regarded as my father’s fault for breaking his mother’s heart, when he chose to leave Hannover after such a short stay. And my mother was scorned and accused of being the reason for their sudden departure.
I know my father never felt his older brother was fit to run their father’s business in the first place, which was the primary reason he left it and went to New York in 1926. But after Gertrude’s death the hostility between the two brothers escalated to the point where they essentially renounced one another until after WWII.
Yet we’ll never really know how much Gertrude’s inability to control the turmoil within her family caused her to take her own life, or may have been precipitated by her migraines or the drugs she was taking.
Or, if her death was provoked by the sudden departure of my father, or actually driven by Hitler’s swift domination of Germany and the imminent Nazi threat to German Jews, and ultimately her family’s livelihood.
Or all of the above.
Despite all the conflicting evidence, my mother never felt free of the accusations, and continued to carry the burden of guilt for her mother-in-law’s suicide for the rest of her life.
But for my father, it took no further prodding to see how dangerous it was to remain in Germany. My parents returned to America two months later.