Continued from: The Soldier

Herman’s reaction tripled Yry’s anxiety. His initial outburst was followed by a spanking, which may have been a first, as his voice and penetrating gaze had always been enough to discipline his daughter.

What a foolish ninny you are! If you’d spoken English, he’d have backed off immediately.

While German speaking citizens were bullied and abused by their former war adversaries, the French occupiers treated the British with the respect due their esteemed allies.

After the spanking and the lecture, the maid, Marie was ordered to draw her a scalding hot bath, as if this could cleanse her . . . of what, she was unsure. Was it her evil or the soldier’s that her father hoped to expunge? Marie took this time alone with Yry to soothe the sobbing child. She quietly explained, as best she could, the implications of the attack. This was Yry’s sole birds and bees talk. From then on Yry spoke only English on those rare occasions that it was absolutely necessary to speak to strangers.


After hearing this story, several pieces of my mother’s puzzle cha-chinged into place for me. It had infuriated me when she insisted that I enroll in Spanish rather than French in the seventh grade. Her argument—that Spanish would serve me better than French in the western United States—was sound, but not good enough for me. And for a person who abhorred racism, she was blind to her own prejudice against anything French, be it French food, the French language, or French people. I was ashamed for the times in the past, when I had rolled my eyes at mother’s veiled references to a “nasty French soldier.” I had always suspected her of über dramatics, as if she’d had to fight off the entire male race single-handedly. Now I understood that this episode with the French soldier was a rightfully defining moment that left my mother with a fear of strangers and a lifetime phobia. And also, if I strip away the veil of political correctness that obscures reality today, I know that women suffered deeply, the penetrating gaze and lewd comments of unleashed males before the enlightenment of the women’s movement infiltrated the public conscience of North America and Europe during the later third of the twentieth century. I was too little, too ignorant, and too caught up in my own childhood anguishes to recognize the ugliness that women endured when unaccompanied by a male companion.

Mother’s humiliation was not complete. The following day her father hauled her off to the family doctor who assured Herman that there was no permanent damage from the attack. However, he had noted the unmistakable symptoms of acute anemia. Again, Germany’s post-war conditions influenced Yry’s life. The good, healthful dairy products so vital to a growing child were unavailable. Even Herman’s forced buttermilk regimen was not enough to counteract the poor diet. Herman arranged for her to stay at a children’s health sanitarium in Switzerland. It was March of 1924.