Book Review: “The Neighbor’s Son & Wunschkind: Child Without a Country” by Liesel Appel
Reviewed by Mary Ickes
Liesel Appel’s website states that she “… question[ed] her identity from skin-to-soul and [began] a lifelong journey that [spanned] three continents.” Her journey began, at age 9, as she played hopscotch outside her home in Bottrop, Germany, in 1951. Ignoring the young man watching her proved impossible because she was fascinated by the small black cloth atop his dark curls. Instructed to never speak to strangers, Liesel merely pointed when he asked where she lived. Stranger or not, though, Liesel boldly contradicted the claim that his family, before the war, owned the neighborhood department store. “Nah nah … The Witkes have always lived there.”
Before Kristallnacht, he assured her, his family had owned the store for many generations. (Also known as the Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht, April 9-10, 1938, was Hitler’s first coordinated pogrom against German and Austrian Jews.) The Nazis knocked him unconscious, brutally beat his wife and parents, threw his infant son out a second-story window, and arrested them. Years later, he discovered that a man caught his son and delivered him to a family friend. He concluded, “Now, little girl, comes the important part. I don’t know who this man was, only that he lived here. I came to express deep gratitude to him.”
Convinced that her father had saved the baby, Liesel explained that he was dead, but insisted that the young man thank her mother. From her mother’s reaction as they entered the room, Liesel realized that something was dreadfully wrong, but what? Finally able to speak, her mother commanded a neighbor to lock Liesel in her room. Later, exasperated with Liesel’s insistence that her papa saved the baby, she screamed, “Your Papa would never save a Jew. He saved you. He saved us from the Jews. He was a good man.” Ms. Appel writes: “Then I blurted out the terrible final words that I could never take back to the end of my days … ‘You are murderers. Don’t ever touch me again.'”
Certified, third-generation Aryans (required for Nazi approval) dedicated to the Final Solution, Wilhelm and Elsa Steffens, Liesel’s parents, switched their allegiance from Lutheranism and the Bible to Hitler and his Mein Kampf. Elsa, long past child bearing age, eagerly submitted to a special mysterious operation in obedience to Hitler’s command that Aryan women provide children for his new Germany. The day Liesel was born, in September 1941, her father held her aloft and declared, “Heil Hitler … I am the happiest man in the world. A miracle child, our gift to the Fuhrer.” Though ignorant of Nazi ideals and methods, Liesel, from early childhood, strived to be worthy of her great honor: “We’re Nationalist and proud of it and, Liesel, you’re special and a Nationalist too.”
She dearly loved her practical mother, but worshiped her talented and jolly father, a trained botanist, writer, poet, and musician who played the gypsy violin. Ms. Appel writes: “I was most happy when Papa took me out into the forest. He knew the names of every tree, plant and flower, as well as all the animals.”
Liesel’s first indication of her father’s darker side arrived late one night when Allied soldiers demanded to speak with him immediately. After her mother convinced them that he was away, her father raced away on his bicycle. The next morning, Allied soldiers gave her mother one day to evacuate her home, destined to become Allied headquarters. They moved to Bottrop with her mother’s parents where, in 1948, her father, a broken man whom Liesel hardly recognized, joined them. Steffens died in 1950, a few weeks before his trial for war crimes was scheduled to open. For another year, Liesel believed her mother’s ceaseless denunciations of the Allies: “Your Father’s work during the war was good and important work.”
She writes that after the stranger’s visit, “I lost so very much on that day in 1951. The love and devotion of my mother … could no longer reach me. These were unbearable damages for a child my age, and I felt the impact instantly.” So did her mother, on whom Liesel relentlessly vented her ire and hatred. She vowed to never again utter the terms mother or the endearing mutti. Liesel attempted suicide with rat poison. When an aunt remarked that a young man would soon claim their lovely Liesel, she sneered, “I’m going to marry a Neger (Negro).” (She had never met a black person, but Liesel, immersed in literature censuring human suppression, had been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) Repeatedly, school officials protested to her mother about Liesel’s deliberate animosity toward her teachers and other students. Simultaneously, she fiercely defended the misfits that bullies called … stinky Scheine (pigs). … Successful completion of two-year training to become a kindergarten teacher greatly heartened her mother – until Liesel accepted a job teaching female lawbreakers sentenced to reform school. To her mother’s great relief, Liesel became engaged to a dedicated law student capable of reforming her renegade behavior.
Instead, assisted by Hugh Scotland, a black man she met at a relative’s home, Liesel, age 19, ran away to London. She eventually called to inform her mother that she had married a black man and was expecting a child. She writes, “My words stabbed my mother’s heart. There was no bigger, more hurtful transgression.” Severing ties with her mother mirrored Liesel’s conviction that she must renounce her German heritage to search for the peace and contentment she craved.
She writes, “I stormed into London’s black life in the early 1960s. This was the world of my new and chosen clan.” She studied black history, marched, demonstrated, and electrified crowds with her speeches. She joined Congolese Ambassador Thomas Kanza’s doomed campaign to overthrow Moishe Tschombe. Soon after, she divorced Scotland to marry George Browne, London’s popular calypso singer. She reveled in her life as a respectable mother, housewife and entrepreneur for twenty years. Then, heeding the sirens’ call to utopian Palm Beach, Florida, Ms. Appel plunged her family into racism, financial ruin, and divorce. Recovering from a second suicide attempt, she contemplated her bewildering life, still void of peace and contentment.
Responding to a brochure that arrived by mail, Ms. Appel registered for an Emotional Healing and Transformation seminar. While waiting for the seminar to begin on Friday night, she wondered what she, an exceedingly private person, was doing in a place where … everyone wore their emotions on their sleeves and was ready to cry. As Saturday progressed, Ms. Appel decided to finish the seminar because speakers presented new and intriguing ideas. Rachel, Saturday night’s speaker, explained that she needed emotional healing with her parents who were, “Too protective; you see, both my parents survived Auschwitz.”
To say that Ms. Appel was stunned states the case mildly, but, she realized that, whatever the consequences, she must finally acknowledge and accept her heritage.
The most admirable aspect of Ms. Appel’s story, Reading Friends, is that she frankly shares her admirable and less-than admirable behavior. In the chapter Heart of Stone, for example, she expects to meet her brother during an airport layover; instead, she finds her mother. Until then, I supported her – practically yelling, “Go, Liesel!” But I was outraged by her frigid response to the frail woman who, despite failing eyesight, had traveled many hours by bus and rail hoping to reconcile with her beloved daughter.
My muttering and sputtering stopped as I realized my hypocrisy in condemning Ms. Appel’s behavior. Though older and more fragile, this was the same woman who had proudly hailed her husband’s “good work” for the Nazis.
Therefore, she deserved all the punitive pain and suffering life could inflict, especially her daughter’s rejection. Or did she?
My conundrum was, I realized, exactly the response that Ms. Appel desired from her readers because her neighbor’s son was not an isolated case during the Nazi regime. Instead, he symbolizes our era’s inhumanity and response.
Wunchskind: Child Without a Country is Ms. Appel’s life written for children with her as a grandmother awaiting their response after she finishes.
Ms. Appel has raised several million dollars for charities, mostly Jewish causes. She has presented her story at educational seminars, the Steven Spielberg Library, and countless Holocaust Memorial Services, and she has appeared on radio and television. She travels the USA, Canada, and the world. Liesel was published in the Los Angeles Times, the Palm Beach Post, in Professor Alan L. Berger’s Second Generation Voices, and in Professor Charles Patterson’s book, Eternal Treblinka. Large features about her have appeared in Mareev in Israel, Aufbau, the Jewish Times, and the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Ms. Appels’ website is here, theneighborsson.com, and you can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.