Cycles of Rejection: An Elegy for My Four Parents

Alex M. Frankel


I found out who I was on a bleak summer day in San Francisco when a large envelope arrived from an adoption lawyer. I was almost thirty years old. I opened the envelope and pulled out a picture of a pretty teenage girl who looked like me. This was my mother. I have since learned to call her my “birth mother.” I must back up, though; I must go back to the beginning to chronicle how I arrived at the discovery of my real kin.

My adoptive parents, Henry and Vera Frankel, were not able to have children of their own, nor did they adopt anyone else after me. I was an only child raised in San Francisco in the foggy area near the beach. My parents were two decades older than everyone else’s parents and were often taken for my grandparents. They spoke English with a thick German accent (which I didn’t notice or hear) and, because I was very attached to them and had few friends, they passed this accent onto me. Although it is a bit less noticeable now than it was years ago, I’m still sometimes asked about the peculiar way I speak.

My parents were strict and traditional, more German than Jewish. Besides Hanukkah and the High Holidays they hardly turned to their religion at all. My mother, Vera, was well-liked and warm-hearted, but she was also rigid and puritanical and—though she never told me this in so many words—didn’t like the idea of me having friends. I know that, in her nonphysical, overprotective way, she adored me. When school was out, I had to come home right away and was never allowed to bring other children or—heaven forbid—go over to another child’s house spontaneously without days of formalities and negotiations. She was born in Hamburg and, after escaping Nazi Germany and spending a decade in Mexico, migrated to San Francisco in the late ‘40s. She came from a wealthy family of Jewish merchants. Sigmund Freud appears in a remote branch of her family tree, and in Mexico she knew Otto Klemperer. Together with my father, she trained me to love classical music; nothing else was acceptable or decent. She smoked heavily and the house smelled of her cigarettes; no one knew about passive smoking in those days. She longed for Germany and Mexico and seemed to live in an earlier era. When I was a teenager in the ‘70s, she still wore gloves any time she went out. We lived near Haight Ashbury and the Castro, but we might as well have been stranded on our own island miles out at sea.

My father, Henry, was like her in many ways: rigid, high-strung, behind the times—a Holocaust survivor badly scarred on the inside. I still have some of his documents from the Third Reich era, and I’m looking at them and touching them as I type these words. I see his “Kennkarte,” or ID card, issued by the “Deutsches Reich,” with a big Gothic letter “J” for Jew on the front. It is a brittle two-page booklet made from a kind of cloth. It has three stamps with eagles and swastikas, two fingerprints, the signature “Heinz Israel Fraenkel” (all Jewish males were forced to take the middle name “Israel”) and an unsmiling black-and-white image of my father—whom I only knew when he was heavy and old—as a slender youth of eighteen. Heinz Israel Fraenkel’s Kennkarte has an old-book smell to it; it is a piece of history I can touch and handle right here at my desk, and it evokes the same kind of fascination and wonder I felt when I noticed an old woman’s tattooed concentration camp number still visible on her forearm while she was relaxing in the California sun half a century after the war ended.

My father was born in Berlin and fled with his family to Shanghai, where he lived in poverty for the duration of the war. When he settled in San Francisco, he went into the export business. My parents met in the early ‘50s. Unlike my mother, he was an angry, bad-tempered, dishonest person, with no friends of his own. Having known hunger in China, he had an inordinate craving for rich food and comfort, and always insisted on the most expensive French restaurants and the fanciest five-star hotels. He was not a kind man; he didn’t like people and they didn’t like him. My parents were not happily married. What I remember most about them was their fights.

They fought constantly. And when I say “fought” I don’t just mean they quarreled. They shouted and they threw plates and knives and they kicked, hit, and slapped. Fights would sometimes go on for entire evenings. A fight could start in one part of the house and my parents would work their way from room to room with their accusations and recriminations. The dogs hid under the beds; I wanted to hide with them but I couldn’t fit. I tried to stop my parents. I ran between them and begged them to stop; but they wouldn’t stop. The worst fight happened when I was about eight. In the middle of the night, I was woken up by the sound of breaking glass. I ran into my parents’ room and saw my father with blood on his face and glass all over his pajamas and the sheets. My mother, fed up with his shouting and meanness, had thrown an ashtray at him. So in the fog and the peace of the Sunset District, my family had its own Kristallnacht. For days he went around with a Band-Aid on his nose and for days there was silence in the house.

I believed—as children often do—that I was to blame for this violence. I believed I was bad and all the fights were a punishment by “God” (as I imagined him) for trying to be tough and assertive, like the other boys. I was not good-looking or athletic or tough or popular or cool. I was called a “sissy,” though the harsher taunting came a few years later, in junior high, when I was bullied and called “faggot” and “Fifi the French Poodle.” Sometimes, in elementary school, I made efforts to be a boy, but every time I did, I felt the wrath of God strike the house in the form of Mami and Deddy shouting and hitting and kicking each other in front of me.

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