Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Searching for Robert Lusser

Springtime:  It's Feria Season

My sister Suzanne used to be a big-time anchorwoman in Los Angeles—I would see her on the billboards, her face 20 feet across as I drove in from San Diego.  That is, until she got summarily fired (happens all the time in that business) and decided to become a writer.  (Her writing is beautiful, click here for an article from Oprah’s magazine to prove it.)  

My superanchorwoman sister back in the day 
She is currently working on a project involving our grandfather, Robert Lusser.  He was a self-proclaimed genius, one of the first pilots in the early European air races, inventor, and the man who perfected the V-1, the notorious Buzz Bomb sent to destroy London.

He was also brought to the U.S. to work on their weapon and space programs.

So when she emailed me that she was flying from LA to Germany for a whirlwind 8-day tour following in Robert Lusser’s footsteps and would I like to go, I jumped at the chance.  First, my sister is fun, and we travel well together.  Second, I am still in the midst of editing my mom’s memoir of her childhood during war-torn Germany.  Third, it was a chance to travel fast through my second homeland and see a number of relatives I’d been wanting to see.  Fourth, I love to plan things, parties, trips, outings, luncheons, you name it—I should have been a wedding planner.  So I cleverly plotted the dates for the trip, shoehorning it between our huge 200-person pre-feria party and the upcoming Puerto and Rota ferias.

Ole viva la feria!

I landed in Frankfurt late, my uncle Mohsen picking me up to head to Giessen where my aunt Melinda and he live.  Melinda is Robert Lusser’s youngest child, only 6 years older than me.  My grandfather had two sets of children, the first litter (as my aunt Heide says) with 5 kids, and the second litter with four more.  That led to the very strange phenomenon of Melinda actually being younger than a number of her nieces and nephews! 

My aunt Melinda and cousin Elina

Suzi arrived the following day for lunch, bravely staving off jetlag, and we drove onward to Kassel, the city the Lusser family lived in from 1941 to 1944.  We arrived at Terrasse 28, where my mother had hidden in the cellar during constant air raids.  

Terasse 28, Kassel, all rebuilt

Terasse 28, before the bombing.

Pushing all the buttons at the now-apartment building, we convinced Anke, from the third floor apartment, to take pity on us and let us in.  We wandered with her through the cellar, the only part of the building to have survived the phosphorus-fueled fire-bombing that finally drove my grandparents to leave Kassel.  

Sharing photos of Terasse 28 with Anke

We told Anke about how my 14-year-old aunt Dorle, in the midst of the flames and collapsing walls, while her parents frantically saved what they could, ran to her piano, heartbroken to lose this precious instrument.  Back on the street surrounded by neighbors and their meager belongings, my grandparents suddenly heard the strains of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata through the crackling phosphorus.  My grandfather ran back and grabbed her just as the top floor began to collapse, but they made it out alive.

Cellar and once a bomb shelter

From Kassel we detoured to Göttingen to see my cousin Sophie, who is studying psychology there (she’s the daughter of my uncle Hans from the second litter), then headed off to Dora-Mittelbau to catch the 14:00 free tour.

"Danger Zone:  Stop!  You will be shot without warning!"

I only knew that Dora was a KZ (for KonZentrationslager, or concentration camp).  Soon I found out that it was the infamous set of underground construction tunnels where the Nazis built their desperate vengeance weapons in the last months of World War II.  

The entrance to Dora Mittelbau, now a peaceful pastoral setting

At Dora, Russian, French, and Polish prisoners (with a smattering of Jews and German dissenters) were worked to death first digging tunnels, then fabricating both the V-1 and Werner Von Braun’s V-2 rocket under horrific conditions.   More people were killed building these weapons than were killed by them.

On the grounds where prisoners were made to stand at attention to be counted, sometimes for hours.  The saying reads, "A Memorial to Those Who Were Victims of the National-Socialist (Nazi) Crimes."
French and Russian prisoners of war at Dora Mittelbau.
They received one piece of bread and a watery bowl of soup after a 12-hour workday.

Robert Lusser was an aeronautic engineer in post-World War I Germany.  As the Hitler regime took over, it became the only game in town if you wanted to design any kind of aircraft.  My grandfather had come up with the necessary design solutions to make the V-1, also known as the Buzz Bomb or Doodlebug, land on London in droves.  By the end of the tour, we were glad that he had NOT been given credit for his critical part in the V-1 creation. 

Entrance to the tunnels where the prisoners worked and died, and where the V-1 and V-2 were constructed.

The rusting remains of unfinished V-1s

Somewhat shell-shocked by the brutality of Dora, Suzi and I headed up to Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea, where the V-1 and V-2 had been designed and tested, getting only (we hope) one speeding ticket on this 6-hour drive.  The following morning we visited the Russian submarine in the harbor and the extremely well-done museum.  

Das Russian U-Boot

Again, my grandfather’s name was nowhere to be found on any exhibit, unlike Von Braun, whose name appeared in huge lettering over explanations that detailed his moral and ethical failings for being willing to build the first weapons of mass destruction as part of the crazy Hitler regime even after it was clear that the war was already lost. 

A reconstructed V-1 on its catapult in the background

We ended up at the Peenemünde airport to snap a few photos of the actual test sites and head out.  Instead, we met Rudolph, a stout retired aeronautical-engineer-turned-tour-guide who promised us a brief 45-minute tour of the test sites.   Rudi knew everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—about these vengeance weapons.  His tour was excellently organized with old photos and video footage to show exactly where in this now-beautiful nature sanctuary everything happened.   

Bunker ruins in a now-beautiful forest

Rudi shows me the test sites

He showed us the catapults where the V-1 was launched, including a picture of Robert Lusser at the test site.  He was the only person who knew anything substantial about our grandfather, and said yes, he was a genius. 

Relaxing on the test dummies for the V-1 catapult

The V-1 and its parts, according to engineer Rudi

Over two hours later we headed off to Berlin, our stopover on the way south and where our grandfather worked after leaving Peenemünde.  We met multiple cousins for dinner—Julian, Melinda and Mohsen’s son; Olga Kral, from the relatives Suzi and I had lived with when we were sent to Germany years ago to learn the mother tongue; and Sara Grether, first-cousin-once-removed from the first litter. 

Olga, Sarah, Suzi, Julian, Vero, and Steph, all cousins in one way or another!

After a morning in Berlin driving past the major monuments, we headed for Bernau am Chiemsee in Bavaria.  My grandmother Hilde had worked on the Stöttnerhof, a farm near there, when she was a teenager, and later my grandparents had honeymooned at the same farm, hiking the surrounding breathtakingly beautiful mountains.  Hilde brought her younger children to the Stöttnerhof  to keep them safe from the escalating bombing attacks while Robert worked in Berlin. 

Stöttnerhof, 1926

Stöttnerhof, 2016, 90 years later, rebuilt in 1946 bigger and better

We stayed overnight at this same Stöttnerhof, site of our favorite war story.  “Tell us how your mother died!”  we would beg my mom when we were little.  “Well,”  she would start, her eyes sparkling, “I was braiding Bettie’s hair when we heard the airplanes.  We went outside to look, and saw the “V,” then one plane circled off…”  

You can still see bomb craters; this one has been turned into a trout pond.

Memorial:  Burning farmhouse, plane, dead grandmother in foreground.
At the grave of our grandparents

Bombs hit the Stöttnerhof barn, slaughtering all the milk cows, and collapsed the wall in on my napping grandmother, killing her instantly.  My aunt Heide and uncle Ulrich were buried in the rubble and rescued just before suffocating to death.  It was March 13th, 1945, just 6 weeks before the official surrender.  A memorial now stands in the rebuilt Stöttnerhof. 

With Alois, the grandson of the farmer who gave my grandparents refuge during the war

The stunningly beautiful Bavarian mountains
More pictures and the website of  the Stöttnerhof here

Again homeless, and now without a wife to care for his children, my grandfather moved his family to a nearby orphanage, quitting his job and becoming the orphanage’s handyman.  Suzi and I stopped by the Kinderheim (orphanage) just to take pictures, but there we found Flori, the granddaughter of Mamu Kronseder, who had owned and run the Kinderheim.   In her memoir my mother remembers lice and scabies, crying children, grief, unending hunger, and the smell of pee and feces, but all we could see was unending beauty in this enchanting countryside. 

Fairy-tale beautiful:  Samerberg, where the Kinderheim is located

We headed off for another farmhouse, this one the vacation home of the Kral family, my German relatives who hosted not only me for a year, but Suzi and Simone, too, in subsequent years!  We ate home-made zwetschgenkuchen with Volker Kral and Elke, telling stories about my grandfather and the war. 

A warm Spring afternoon with Volker

We never had enough time at any one place.  Volker invited us to dinner, which was so hard to turn down, but we’d made plans with Renate Schlund, the niece of Robert and the daughter of Robert’s deaf older brother Erich.  As we came into Augsburg, I saw the name Göggingen on the signs…where had I heard it?  I had the address of the Bauhaus-like home my mother was born into, and sure enough, we were 4 minutes away.  We meant just to pass by to take some pictures, but when Suzi jumped up on the wall to see what our Go-Pro was taking video of, there was the owner!  Erica Kräntzle invited us in to her charming garden, and we got a tour of the house which my grandfather built. 

A Bauhaus-like design, futuristic in its day, now just modernly beautiful

Newly built:  Augsburg house, 1936
Finally, we made it to Renate’s house.  She and her husband Rudi were (as my aunt Heide had predicted) the most gracious hosts, and Renate had many stories that were new to us, such as the miserliness of her Tante Frieda, who would send Christmas packages to her brother Erich full of things like broken coffee cups, old calendars, rusty razor blades, shirts with buttons missing—in short, anything Frieda didn’t want any more.  That would have been okay, except that Frieda and her husband were quite rich, and Erich and his family quite poor due to his handicap. 

As my Tante Heide said, "You will not have more gracious hosts than Renate and Rudi."  So true.

The next afternoon we left to meet my mother’s cousin Susi. I have never quite understood why I haven’t met her—she lives only half an hour from Stuttgart, where I lived for a year, on the way to Tübingen, where I lived for another year!  But better late than never.  Susi is the niece of my grandmother Hilde, from the gypsy side, and she looked it, magically young and full of life and energy.  

Susi Schön (an appropriate name, schön = beautiful) at a youthful 79 years old

She and her husband Horst told us about die Relle, my great-grandmother who was half-gypsy and where we get our wild streak! 

Sharing history with my gypsy cousin

Winding down, we arrived in Stuttgart to Martina Kral, our German sister (although we are not blood related, just through marriage).  Practically the whole Kral family turned out, from my German mother Valerie (who is really English) to Rainer the patriarch, to my German sister Fiona, down from Frankfurt.  

Nearly the whole clan (Fiona taking the picture, Theresa in Frankfurt, Oli in Italy)

We laughed about Rainer’s story of traveling to Capetown, South Africa, where he met an older German couple.  “Where are you from?” asked Rainer.  Bernau am Chiemsee, was the answer.  “Ah, my first kiss was from a girl living in Bernau,” remembered Rainer.  “Oh, I was terribly in love with a girl who lived on the Stöttnerhof, whose mother was killed in a bombing…her name was Heide…”  The very same Tante Heide that belongs to me, too!  My aunt Heide, Rainer's first kiss, a South-African German's first love.  The world is a small place.

Rainer's first kiss

From Stuttgart we arrived in Freiburg, where my mother’s two sisters live (both from the second litter).  My aunt Andrea, a naturopath and medical doctor, adjusted our backs and recommended ways to stay as young-looking as she was, aside from telling more interesting stories about her life with her father. 

Me and my aunt Andrea

Sylvia and her boyfriend Erich took us to dinner at an excellent Greek restaurant, where we shared our journey and got her take on her father’s life.   Sylvia had interviewed my mother and her sisters a decade earlier in a similar search about her father’s life, and had transcribed over 200 pages of recordings, which were eventually made into a German documentary aired in 2008.  Suzi had translated it with the help of our aunt Heide, and it was fascinating to hear the back-and-forth about what each had learned. 

My aunt Sylvia

Finally, we ended up in Frankfurt again to meet with the director of the documentary, Benedict Burkhardt, and to see my German sister Theresa, who had not made it down to Stuttgart.  We ended our trip at my uncle Hansi’s house, where he and my aunt Paige (American and proud of it!) live in Wiesbaden.   Out came a box of photos and memorabilia, all of which had a story attached.  By this time Suzi and I were both exhausted, and ready to go home, but we stayed up late, too interested in the stories and pictures to quit.

Robert Lusser memorabilia, normally stored in a shoebox!

My grandfather...a complicated and complex man.  One thing you can say for him, he was NOT boring.

Finally, we made our way to the airport the next day, dropping off the car, in dirty clothes, up to our eyebrows in Robert Lusser stories and happy to be on a flight back home.  Now the question is:  What will Suzi DO with all that stuff we collected?  I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

What an adventure!

Robert Lusser, genius grandfather.

1 comment:

  1. Great to hear about your Lusser stories! I couldn't believe it - once, when I had been living in the US for a few years, I opened up a magazine (I think it was the National Review) and there was a story about Robert Lusser and "Lusser's Law". I read into it, and they described the bombing of the house of my grandmother's sister (your grandmother Hilde), even mentioned her by name! Btw no wonder you guys are all so high-achieving and amazing with such a brilliant father and grandfather! Greetings from the "gypsy" side of your family! Roze


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