continued from: Part I; I am the Queen of England (2)
London, England, on Nov 20, 1913, the day Yry was born, was a vortex of political volatility. The Ottoman Empire had all but collapsed. Germany was amassing naval power at an alarming rate, which stimulated a similar buildup in England. Each country feared losing control over their respective colonies. Meanwhile tensions were increasing in the Balkans. The world stood at the brink of a black hole.
As Yry was learning to walk, France, Russia, and Britain were learning to use each other as ballast against Germany and her allies. Yry’s mother was English. Her father was German. As she toddled around the house, lurching from chair leg to table leg for stability, she was innocent of the twisted trajectory that lay in store for her and her parents.
Living in England at the outset of the World War I, Herman and his brother Willy were expatriated from their homeland. Within days of England’s declaration of war against Germany, Parliament passed the Aliens Restriction Act, which required men between the ages of 17 and 55, of German or Austrian nationality, to report to internment camps. By 1919, 600 camps in the Commonwealth held up to 32,000 civilian prisoners. The media portrayed Germans as bloody savages and tricky spies in the same way as America would do for Japanese Americans some 20 years later. Nora, the wife of a bloody Kraut, became a lonely outcast. With her daughter, she moved into a one-room basement apartment and hoarded her dwindling resources as best she could, while steeling herself for angry epithets when she ventured outside to the market.
Herman spent four years in a tent village. Britain’s incessant rain turned the camp into a cesspool. Although prisoners were fairly well treated and the residents of the camps organized themselves into social hierarchies to provide entertainment and comfort to each other, the cold and damp conditions were aphids that sapped Willy’s strength. Despite Herman’s efforts to hoard extra food and blankets for him, Willy grew so weak that he had to be hospitalized, which inevitably saved his life. Indeed, he remained thin and frail throughout the remainder of his life.
Detainees were allowed monthly 15-minute visits by no more than two relatives or friends at a time. The visits were monitored by guards and conversation was limited to English. For those precious few minutes with her husband each month, Norah endured the full-day, round-trip journey by bus and by train, often bringing the baby with her.
With his brother isolated, Herman occupied his time in the tent camp by devouring every book he could get his hands on. Though he lacked a college education, intense reading and study expanded his knowledge, perhaps beyond what he might have learned in a University. He spruced up his French, Spanish, English, and Italian, and taught himself Greek, Russian, and Chinese. His talent with languages would serve him well later in life. His literary and acting skills made him a popular attraction at impromptu performances that the internees presented to pass the time.
Meanwhile, from the camp hospital, Willy was able to contact their father who smuggled money to Norah. Yry and Norah spent many nights huddled together during the blackouts and bombings. The cacophony of the air raid sirens, of low-flying airplanes that vibrated the windows and glassware, and of bombs whistling through the air and thudding to a deadly stop, were forever etched into Yry’s memory, making fireworks an agony in later years.