top of page

Clutching Life

(by Ursula James)

My mother, my namesake, was born in Berlin in 1920. The family lived very near the Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam, built by the “alta" (old) King Freidrich as his summer palace. There were many court functions on the palace grounds, which were always open to the public. Often, my grandmother pushed my mother in her carriage there for an airing. Grandmother herself had grown up playing in the gardens, and as a teen, she often wished to be like the fine ladies of the court. She attended finishing school, where she learned gourmet cooking, sewing, managing a house, good manners and speech. And she raised her daughter with those standards: My mother’s skirt would be lifted and her underwear checked, for it had to be starched white linen. (Personal note: It must have been difficult to grow up in Grandmother’s house. Feeling for my mom at the moment.)

Grandmother cooked like a chef. Before World War II, she followed the French way, with plenty of cream and butter. Puddings and brûlées were laced with rum or brandy. Delicate pastry was handmade with fine sugar. But the war changed all that. Fresh meat and vegetables were harder and harder to get. Flour, eggs, butter, and cheese were impossible to find. In the last two years of the war, there was barely a scrap of bread. It is difficult to express the feeling of the time. Tulip bulbs were boiled and chewed. Leather was boiled and chewed. Any animal caught in a trap could be cooked and eaten. Rats were everywhere, and if one was caught, it was cooked over fire. People traded anything for some kale.

My Dutch-born father, Cornell, was in the German army at Falkensee, near Berlin. We're not sure whether he joined voluntarily or was conscripted. There he met my mother, Ursula. Somehow a relationship developed (knowing my father, he found a way), and my mother became pregnant with her first child. But German women were not permitted to marry foreigners. Blood purity was of primary importance to Hitler, ensuring the survival of the Aryan race and the “Thousand Year Reich.” Anyone acting outside of these laws was deemed to have committed the crime of “racial pollution.” But my parents discovered they could get an exception if Father joined the Schutzstaffel—the infamous SS that was Hitler’s paramilitary organization. Perhaps they considered it a formality, a piece of paper, a means to an end. No one in the family can recall my father or mother ever talking about it. At any rate, Cornell and Ursula were married (by that time, my oldest brother was already born).

The SS asked for volunteers who could play musical instruments, as they were forming a band. My father, charming and good-looking, with no musical training whatsoever but amazing talent and nerve, volunteered, playing the slide trombone. The band played for military events and to send the troops off to the front. When the fighting became worse, my father was assigned the job of ambulance driver. Driving the wounded and dead back from the front was done at night, without headlights, so they would not be strafed by the enemy. One night, in the pitch dark, he accidentally drove straight into a burned-out army tank and suffered a head injury.

In 1945, just before the Allied air invasion of Berlin, my grandfather hurried his family through the pandemonium in the streets to the nearest bomb shelter. My mother was clutching her two small children to her breast, swearing out loud to God, “I won’t have any more children to put them through this.” My grandmother clutched a bag of food, a bag containing valuables, and one very important item: a gold menorah, miraculously hidden from the Nazis, which had confiscated so many treasures. It had been brought from Poland by my Jewish great-grandmother, who had gone to Germany to find work. My grandfather took her in as a maid and later married her.

(My mother, age 20)

I remember my mother describing the bombing as "the whole world ending,” as if the Allies wanted to wipe Berlin off the map and all the people with it. Russian boots on the ground ransacked every house for whatever they could steal, then deposited their feces in cooking pots—the final insult. To this day, I do not like or trust Russian people.

My dad survived and came home to a divided Berlin, but it became clear that those in charge of the Russian zone were looking for him. He took his family and fled to the British zone, where he got a job driving for Brigadier General Armitage.

(my father, driving the General's Mercedes)

My mother did have more children—six of us in total, including me in 1952. The war had ravaged Germany, leaving it with hunger, death, and destruction. So my parents moved to a village in Western Germany at the border with Holland, near my paternal grandparents—a safe harbor, although without much food available. My mother provided the best she could, learning some of the simple foods my father grew up eating.

My father always wanted “more,” whatever that meant to him, and he had the “carrot” of the American dream. The U.S. wouldn’t accept us, but Canada did. We settled in a small town in the southern province of Ontario. To this day, I have a great love of the place. And one of my first memories is of Mother filling two shopping carts with food. I expressed many oooohs and ahhhhs when I saw her carrying those bags home. It was better than Christmas, almost. We ate and ate, then ate some more that day.

(First Christmas in Canada; I'm at the bottom, next to my brother Cornell, Jr.)

We ate poor people’s food—I remember lots of sausages fried in butter and a dish called "milch rice" (rice cooked in milk)—and sometimes we had next to nothing in those early years, but we had each other. There was warm delicious love, and warm delicious toast with cinnamon. Our few clothes were washed and ironed; our house was spotless.

In a way, our family had made a dream into reality. But my mother still lived in fear. She had anxiety, and I got it too. The memories of the war were fresh in the hearts and minds of Canadians and Americans, and we were considered “dirty” Germans.

It was still my father's dream to move to the United States, and the year I turned 18, we moved to Los Angeles. It was my last year of high school. I did not know how to fit in. I did not know the meaning of the Black Panthers jackets that some kids wore. I said and did everything wrong. No one wanted to be friends with a dumb kid like me. I became shyer and shyer, drew in to myself, and would not talk much. The only fun I had was going home after school to eat. I developed a voracious appetite and got fat. No boys asked me out; life got darker and darker, and I crashed in deep depression.

My mother tried hard to get me to be more like her mother, rather than my paternal grandmother, who was Dutch, Catholic, loud, and bossy. (Unfortunately for me, I looked just like her.) I admired my mother completely. I loved her kindness, her coolness, her ability to persevere. Even though dirt poor, she always had class. She never wore makeup, and the years of drudgery did not leave a mark on her face. She stayed a beauty until near her end. I wanted to be like her, but I was a constant aggravation to her. I was a tomboy in every sense of the word. Never arriving home for dinner, fighting over a cold plate, often I sat there until she gave up and went to bed. Her other daughters listened but not me. I came home barefoot with cuts and bruises and sticks and burrs stuck in my head. Combing them out was like a war with Mother and the brush. I swore like a sailor. I liked cutting up worms. I liked to be with my dad in his garage and learn dirty jokes. I wasted money. My mother would throw her hands up and say, "If your grandmother could see you now" and “Your father will hear about this.” Eventually she gave up. I could not be tamed. Stumbling, often landing unceremoniously on my ass, her teachings were lost on me. I had difficulty getting a social life because of it.

In the end, it was food that balanced me; in fact, it rescued me.

I refused to get married until I was 31, but once I did, I needed to cook. I needed to be a wife and wanted to be a parent, although sadly, that never happened. One day, I was rummaging through a box and came across my mother’s only German cookbook. Some of the colorful photos triggered memories of my mama in her kitchen—the aromas of goulash or a roulade with gravy and onions. Others reminded me of horrific events in our family life and made me feel ill. I have discovered over my 70 years on this earth that some tastes are psychological.

I wanted to know more of my mother’s days during the war and begged her to tell stories of that time, but she flatly refused and told us to never speak of it outside the home. Her stock answer was always “Just be glad you live here now.” You see, she was always protecting us from hate. Yet she held onto the past herself. She was not comfortable with speaking or learning English. She was fond of saying, “I am a Berliner,” before JFK said it, and she was, down to her bones, while I wanted to be as western and as cool as my schoolmates and neighbors.

Although I turned out differently from my mama, she was my fearless warrior, my everything, until her last breath, and I was there for it. I held her hand. My face lay on her chest, and I placed a light kiss on her cheek.


Ursula James is an American citizen living in San Diego, California, since 1980. She can be found on Backstage.

German Borscht

(My mother cooked from memory and a method of tasting and sniffing the brew until her nose and taste buds said Ahhhhh; then we ate). But the exact ingredients probably were as follows.)

1 lb. ham bone with plenty of meat still on

1 c. chicken broth

4 c. water

6 - 8 whole ripe tomatoes

3 stalks celery, chopped

2 - 3 medium carrots chopped

1/2 c. yellow onion, chopped

2 medium red potatoes, diced

1 c. red cabbage, chopped

paprika, to taste

salt and pepper, to taste

sweet cream or sour cream

sprig of rosemary

Cook ham bone in boiling water until meat falls off.

Remove meat from bone, and set aside.

In a large pot, add chicken broth, water, tomatoes, celery, carrots, onion, potatoes, red cabbage, paprika, salt and pepper.

Cook over low heat until vegetables are very tender, about 2 hours.

Return meat to the pot.

Serve with sweet cream or sour cream and rosemary.


bottom of page