2016-06-30
Excerpted from Homage to a Broken Man, a new biography by Peter Mommsen. Buy the book or read it online at www.HeinrichArnold.com.

One evening at the end of July 1947, Heiner took the children outside their house for a talk. He led them to the picnic table, saying it was a good night for stargazing. Sitting side by side, they stared up at the Southern Cross and the Milky Way sweeping vast and speckled from horizon to horizon.

Heiner said nothing. He just pointed at the stars. Then, as they watched, they saw a shooting star. "God might send us a baby soon," he told the children. "Maybe that was the little soul coming down." They were silent, staring, transfixed with awe. Up there among the stars was their Opa, Eberhard. So was Tata, and Emmy Maria, whose birthday they celebrated every year. Would the baby come down to them from up there?

Heiner's thoughts were in the hospital, where he had taken Annemarie that morning. "Hospital" was perhaps too grandiose a name for it. A two-story structure built of air-dried bricks, it had room for a dozen beds, a few exam rooms, a surgery, a pharmacy, and a lab. Nearby stood a shed with a fireplace where instruments were sterilized in boiling water.

It was a primitive setup, but well-staffed and well-run, and Heiner knew that Annemarie was in good hands. Phyllis, the midwife, had delivered their last three babies, and today she had welcomed Annemarie with such warmth and cheer. And Annemarie herself had left the house confident and happy. "I can't wait," Heiner thought.

Annemarie, in the meantime, was trying to sleep. All day the labor pangs had come and gone-as they would all the night, and all the next day as well. "I began to feel discouraged," she wrote in her diary. "When would this little being within me come into the world?"

On the evening of the second day, a new series of contractions began, more painful than the first and lasting without any real break for the next twenty hours.

"I had strong labor pangs throughout-so strong that we were sure from hour to hour that the baby would be born. Heiner was up all night; I could not be without him. In the morning I felt exhausted. Phyllis had given me something to hasten matters, but it had been of no use.

"Ruth came, and I begged her to bring the child to birth by artificial means. On examination, she found that the child was not in the right position-that was why I had not given birth."

For Heiner, it was becoming a waking nightmare. During her first five births, Annemarie had always been brave. But now, as her labor stretched on, she became desperate. Never had he seen her in such a state. She begged; she pleaded; she wept for help. When he had gone to the doctors to ask them to do something-anything-they had told him it was best to let nature take its course. He trusted their judgment but could not bear to see Annemarie suffer. Love for her, and a sense of responsibility-as the baby's father, he had caused all this-swept over him, wave after wave.

Annemarie wrote in her diary: "After that came the most agonizing hours, for while the pangs grew increasingly stronger and more frequent, I now knew that they would do nothing. All that pain, as if wasted. Finally, the doctors decided to deliver the baby under general anesthesia, with the help of forceps. But first they had to sterilize the instruments by boiling them for twenty minutes. The wait seemed like an eternity.

"When at last everything was ready, they put the ether mask on me and told me to breathe deeply and quietly. I could still feel the beginning of the next labor pang as I sank deeper and deeper into unconsciousness. My one thought was that now I could escape the pains. Then I knew no more." Now Heiner was standing at her head, gripping her hand. The doctors-Cyril and Ruth-were working to get the baby out with forceps. They tried for what seemed like hours, and then suddenly grew alarmed. Annemarie was turning bluish. She had stopped breathing.

They broke off the operation at once and yanked the ether-soaked wad from her nose so that she would wake up. Cyril examined her. "Her heart has given way!"

Seconds ticked by. Then Annemarie started breathing again, and coming out of the ether. Relief ran around the room. But Cyril was still anxious. "I can't help her with the birth anymore. It's too late."

As soon as Annemarie woke up, sharp pains wracked her, and she pleaded for help. Heiner turned to Cyril. "Can't you do a Caesarean?"

Cyril shook his head. "Her heart won't stand the anesthetic. There's too big a risk of losing her."

Then came the moment Heiner would never forget: Cyril asked him to step outside. "The only way to save Annemarie is to abort the baby," he said bluntly. "If we don't, both will surely die."

Heiner looked at him dumbfounded, and fled outside into the banana plantation behind the hospital. It was pitch dark and drizzling. He had never felt so lonely, although the delivery room was full of people eager to help. An abortion? It was out of the question, especially now. How could he ever let their baby be dismembered? The very idea was evil; it sickened him. "But Cyril says Annemarie is dying," he thought.

Heiner lifted his face into the blackness and the rain. He wept and prayed as he had never wept or prayed before. "God, show me your will. May your will alone be done." He went back into the hospital, and ran into Cyril. "The baby can be aborted painlessly," Cyril repeated. "It's the only way to save Annemarie's life." Heiner said nothing, but walked past him into the delivery room.

"I awoke from the ether with a jolt," Annemarie wrote later. "High above me, heads and bodies were moving here and there-Moni, Cyril, Phyllis, Ruth-and the craziest pangs seemed to tear me to pieces, allowing me only the shortest intervals of relief. I didn't know what it meant, or if the baby had been born. Then I heard a voice say, `It won't be long now,' and realized that they were all standing around me, helpless. I was in so much pain, and every minute seemed endless.

"Suddenly the child was born, and voices were exclaiming, `A girl, a girl!'

"Cyril was saying, `She is alive.' I wondered what he meant. Then, straining every nerve, I kept on until the birth had finished its course, and at long last the agony ceased-for the first time in sixty hours.

"I was not in any state to see the baby, but fell asleep again right away. When I awoke, I finally saw her. There was a blue-black mark on her head from the instruments, and her little face had suffered too-it was swollen, the lips especially. She had swallowed a lot of fluid and breathed with a snoring sound, as though something was still lodged in her windpipe. The hospital had no bottled oxygen, and no way to suction out the fluid. They told me she had to be kept quiet. They did not want to wash her, but let her lie undisturbed.

"In spite of all this, there she was-our baby, lying in the crib. She looked big and strong, at least nine pounds, and healthy, or so I thought. I was happy that she was a girl.

"I kept falling asleep-I could hardly move my body from exhaustion. Once as I woke up, Phyllis was lifting her, and saying with satisfaction, `She has soiled everything-her blanket, booties, everything.' And then I saw how round her legs were, with little folds, and I saw her feet. Her little chest too-it was broad and round. That was the only time I saw her. Then they tucked her under the blanket again.

"At times her cry was like that of a strong baby. But other times it was high, like the cry of a little kitten. Her breathing often sounded plaintive and whimpering. I could not see her face.

"Heiner was there. He was so happy to see me. He told me what had happened, and we decided to name the baby Marianne. Then I slept-a deep, refreshing sleep.

"When I woke again, I couldn't see the baby, but her breathing sounded very fast to me. Was she in danger? I was terrified. The doctors reassured me. They even said that the swelling of her face was going down. Ruth pushed the crib closer so I could see her face. She lay on her side, with chubby cheeks, a wide nose, a triangular mouth, a determined chin, and two well-formed little ears.

"How I longed to have her in my arms, to feel her little body and breathe in the delicate fragrance that belongs only to a newborn child!

"I fell asleep again, and woke in the middle of the night. Heiner and Emmy and Ruth were in the room with me. The generator had gone off for the night, so there was only an oil lamp. Heiner pushed the crib next to my bed. Marianne's face looked all wrong. Or was it just the lamplight? They lit a second lamp to see better. It was true-her color was terribly dark.

"There was not much we could do. Ruth tried to clean Marianne's throat by sucking through a thin rubber tube. The baby opened her eyes. Ruth said, `Look-she's trying to nurse on the tube.' We told each other that it was a good sign.

"Minutes passed, and Ruth felt the baby's color had improved. I could not see much difference, but I was only too glad to believe her. Then the sound of her breathing grew softer and softer.

"Filled with fear, I said, `Her breath is so shallow.' Ruth asked Heiner to fetch Cyril. Then, as I watched, Marianne closed her eyes. Her breathing became quieter and quieter, and then died away. Her little chest did not rise again. `She's stopped breathing!' I cried out. `She's stopped breathing!'

"Ruth hastened to give her an injection of adrenaline, hoping to start her heart again. Cyril rushed in, and listened for a long time with a stethoscope. I knew already-yet I was still hoping they would say they had found some sign of life.

"But they didn't. There she lay, as if asleep. I kept looking at her, watching, waiting to see if she might take another breath after all.

"Mama picked her up and put her into my arms. I felt her weight. Her hands were already cool, but her neck and cheeks were warm. I can still feel her. Her legs, too, were quite warm. It was the first and the last time I had her in my arms. I could not get my fill of looking at my beloved child. And it was so hard to grasp that this little girl, so greatly longed-for, born under such pain, had now left us before we had even gotten to know her, before we knew what kind of person she would be.

"I held her as long as I could. I looked at her again and again. Then came the final parting. Heiner's mother carried her out of the room to prepare her body for burial. My heart felt as if something were tearing it.

"How glad I was that in those hard, hard hours my dear Heiner was with me, and that our souls were now so close together! He looked so disconsolate. How he had looked forward to holding a little baby again, for the first time in four years! He had been far away in Sapucay when Lisa was born.

"Visitors came. They said how happy they were that I was still alive. It was only then that I gradually understood how dangerous it all had been.

"When I awoke the next morning, our room was quiet and empty. There was no baby. In a burst it all rushed back into my mind. I looked out the window. It was raining. It rained and rained. I looked out at the somber autumn landscape-the bare linden trees, the brown meadows, a few last roses. Now and then I heard the cry of birds. And in my room, the oppressive silence, the bare white walls."

Now that the baby was gone, Heiner felt a sudden spasm of guilt. At the time of the birth, Annemarie had taken all his attention. As her labor had continued hour after hour, the danger mounting, he had despaired of her survival. And then the baby had come so quickly and naturally-a miracle. Of course he had been glad about the baby, but all his thoughts were with Annemarie. A feeling of gratitude had surged through him, so intense that it hurt. "She is alive!" he thought. "And the baby also." But as long as Annemarie had been in danger, he had thought only of her, and hardly at all of Marianne. He had not even held the baby. He had neglected her. Now she was gone.

He planned to tell the children at breakfast. He knew it would be hard-for the last two days, they had been waiting for him, full of anticipation, every time he came back from the hospital. Each time they had met him with such eager questions. Little Maria had been telling everyone, "Mama has gone to heaven, to Mary in order to get the baby." On the second day, she had become impatient, demanding. "Why isn't it here yet? Is God still finishing it?" When at last Heiner had announced that they had a little sister, the children had gone wild with excitement.

His step slowed as he approached the house. How should he break the news? Then they were rushing out to meet him, clamoring and clinging all over him. "How did she sleep last night?" Roswith wanted to know.

"Come. Let's go inside and sit down for breakfast," he told her.

"But Papa, you only have to say yes or no. Did she sleep well or not?" Roswith insisted.

Heiner took the chair at the head of the table, while Anna, the baby-sitter, took the chair at the other end. As she sat down, the children saw that tears were streaming down her face. They looked to Heiner for an explanation.

"Children," he said, "I have to tell you that your little sister went back to heaven."

Christoph's eyes grew big. "Does that mean she's not our sister anymore?" Roswith started sobbing, and Maria cried over and over, "Get her back! Get her back!" They all cried.

Later, Heiner found Roswith in the woods picking wildflowers for a bouquet. He asked her if she wanted to visit the baby. "Marianne's soul has gone up to heaven," he explained. "But her body is still here on earth, and we can see her now, if you would like to."

Marianne was lying on a table in a tiny casket, wearing a garland and holding roses in her hand. Someone had decorated the room with palm branches, and the fronds seemed to bend protectively over the baby. Roswith's face beamed as she took in the sight-it struck her, she said later, as a picture of heaven. "She's only sleeping!" she exclaimed. "When will she wake back up?"

Heiner answered that someday everyone who had died would wake again. "Also Opa and Emmy Maria?" Roswith wanted to know. His answer reassured her. After they got home, Roswith told Christoph and her sisters about what she had seen, and in the following days, Heiner often overheard them talking about heaven. They seemed to believe it was a place they all might visit any time.

The funeral was on a Sunday morning, and since the cemetery was a few miles from the hospital, the community went out in wagons. Heiner got up early and visited Annemarie. He told her that Marianne's body was still the same, "sweet and unchanged." Then he went with a heavy heart to close the casket and carry it to the wagon. Like Marianne's room, it had been decorated with palms.

Annemarie, who was in no condition to attend the funeral, watched from the window as the wagons filled with people. Just at that moment, a harsh wailing broke out from the other end of the hospital. As she later found out, it was the family of a Paraguayan woman who had just died after bearing her twentieth child, a stillborn. To Annemarie, that wailing-so hopeless of anything beyond its pain-seemed to contain all the misery of an unredeemed earth.

It was raining as the first wagon left-Heiner with the casket, Hardy driving. The procession passed below Annemarie's window in silence. She strained but could see nothing of the little casket as it went by. A few hours later Heiner returned. It was still pouring outside.

"These are incomprehensible days and hours," Annemarie wrote that night in her diary. "Sometimes it all seems so unreal to me, as if it had never happened. And now it is not easy to find the way back to reality, to pick up the broken thread again. It would all seem like a passing dream if I did not remember again and again that our little one had lain in the crib right beside me, so warm and so alive. Marianne! Our so dearly beloved, yet so little-known child."

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