In the poverty-stricken neighborhood where the Gruener family lived, tuberculosis was a well-established part of life. But in the fall of 1918, something new visited their Frankfurt community that remained until 1920. It began as a fever and sore throat. Headaches, body aches, cough and nose bleeds were common. Doctors advised their patients to take up to 30 grams of aspirin per day. For some, this regime appeared to work as their symptoms improved. Days would pass before this mysterious manifestation returned worse than ever. Aspirin could not help them. In that first October of the influenza outbreak, the Gruener family lost seven of their thirteen children. By the end of 1920, the virus had completed its sweep through Germany and 287 000 Germans had lost their lives.
“Schändlich!” the headline from the Frankfurter Zeitung met Werner’s eyes every morning upon awakening since June 1919. On the wall opposite, tacked there by his father, its coffee-stained appearance bellowed “Shameful!” It was a constant reminder of Article 231, the War Guilt Clause, of the Versailles Treaty. It was deemed a direct attack on Germany. Scrawled on the wall beside it his father had written “November Criminals!” A nickname given to the German politicians who had signed the armistice in 1918. His father’s inebriated screeching voice echoed through his head. “Germany was made to feel inferior, less a country. Why? Because Germany was blamed for the war! I spit on this Weimar Republic.”
Werner glanced around the one-bedroom, shoe-box-size apartment. The room was empty except for him, but he could still hear the screams of his siblings and his father’s stumbled step as he ascended to their lodging after the tavern closed. Beatings spared no one on payday.
He stretched his neck and glanced at the closed bedroom door. Payback had felt good! he mused. He rolled onto to his side and slowly, very carefully, sat up. Thud! The parallel hardware and serpentine springs gave way. “Ouch! Ouch!” A subdued scream was muffled between tightly compressed lips. His makeshift bed, which masqueraded as a couch during the day, had finally succumbed to the rambunctious trampoline antics of his brothers and sisters. He missed them but for no other reason than they deflected his father’s physical abuse occasionally away from him.
Barely breathing, more out of fear than the pain which had become his constant companion, Werner listened carefully. Except for the occasional snort, snoring beyond the closed bedroom door continued uninterrupted. He combed his fing...