Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Farm in the Green Mountains

This memoir, first published in Germany in 1949, covers the lives of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer and her family while they lived in Vermont during World War II. Alice was born in Austria to a wealthy family. Her second husband, Carl Zuckmayer ("Zuck"), was born into a wealthy German family. They met in Berlin and married. She had a daughter from her first marriage, and they soon had another daughter. Zuck was a successful playwright, and he had also written the screenplay to "The Blue Angel," the popular film starring Marlene Dietrich. Zuck had served during World War I in the German army, but he became out of favor as Hitler rose to power, because one of his plays was a satirical portrait of the rise of militarism in Germany. They lived in Germany and had a house in Austria, but in 1938 they moved to Chardonne-sur-Vevey in Switzerland because of Nazi pressure. In 1939, when they were officially exiled from both Germany and Austria, they decided to move to the U.S. Ironically, although they both had Jewish ancestries – a fact that doesn't come up in the book – that apparently had nothing to do with their exile.

During their first three years in the U.S., which are not described in detail, they spent summers in Barnard, Vermont and had an apartment in New York City. Zuck apparently also spent time in Los Angeles, but, although no details are provided, he seems to have given up entirely on the idea of writing screenplays in Hollywood. Thus, in late 1941, they decided to move from New York City and live for the duration on a rented farm in Barnard, known as Backwoods Farm, which was different from the ones they had occupied on the previous summers. The U.S. entered the war that year, and most of the book describes the details of life on the farm, where they lived until 1946, at which point they returned to Switzerland and lived in Saas-Fee.

I was interested to know what life was like in Vermont then. Barnard is located in Windsor County, which is adjacent to Addison County, and we drove through there last fall on the way back from Woodstock. Their farmhouse was primitive by current standards, and all of the heating was done with wood and coal. Although they had enough money to build large new chicken coops and send their daughters away to school, they do not seem to have grasped how much labor would be involved when they purchased chickens, ducks, geese, goats and pigs. Operating on a European model, they must have thought that cheap labor would be available when they needed it, but it wasn't. Then and now, most small farms, with the exception of dairies and orchards, require no employees, as nearly all of the work can be done by family members. The physical labor at times became overwhelming, and during wartime there were even fewer adults available to help them. Nevertheless, Zuck enjoyed the lifestyle and even managed to write a play, which became a hit when they returned to Europe. Although they were Germans living in the U.S. during the war, there was no stigma placed on them, and they were merely required to remove the shortwave components of their radio and were not permitted to own guns.

They were shocked by the severity of the winters, which were extremely cold, though I think the temperatures are exaggerated a little, and the snow made travel difficult. Mud season was also bad for travel, since few roads were paved. The chapters each describe specific events that occurred during their stay. Perhaps the most harrowing was the sudden and enduring attack by Norway rats, which chewed their way into the chicken coops and ate the chicks. Eventually, with poison, they killed most of the rats, and finally the remaining rats left. They relied heavily on the USDA for information and found it quite helpful. Many of their household items were purchased from the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

Portraits emerge of the Vermonters who helped them, and they sound much the same as Vermonters today. Their telephone was on a nine-party line, and they got to know their neighbors quite well. My theory is that a sort of natural selection occurred in Vermont, with the people who stuck around being less interested in acquiring wealth and more interested in quiet country lives than those who moved off because they were more financially ambitious. Most of the people who moved here from the late 1700's to early 1800's seem to have moved west by the mid-1800's.

At times it seems that Alice was rather depressed, though she describes this only obliquely. Her relationship with Zuck is never examined closely, though on the surface it seems harmonious. One of her hobbies was making solo trips to the Dartmouth College library, which were harrowing experiences during the winter. I think that she wanted to be a literary person, like Zuck, and the stated origin of this book, as letters to his parents written after the war, seems contrived. However, there can be no question that their Vermont experience was truly moving to both of them, and they briefly attempted to live here again after the war but gave up due to various practical considerations. As I've mentioned before, the U.S. has been alluring to many, but those who have other options often choose not to stay. Certainly there are better places to live for civilized people, and everyone seems to come here for money.

Alice's writing is occasionally rather poetic:

That was the house in which I was to live now, and around the house were the meadows, and around the meadows the woods with their uncut underbrush.

There was a pond out of which dead trees stretched their arms like drowning people.

A brook flowed steeply down into a wood in which raccoons climbed up the trees, snuffling porcupines scraped and slid through the bushes. There were sometimes lynxes that crouched with glowing eyes on the rocks and screamed shrilly. 

There wildcats spat, there wild rabbits ran, there skunks shuffled and stamped, there a bear sat in the bushes and ate raspberries. In the autumn cranes flew over the woods to the pond, in the summer the hummingbirds whirred in front of the windows, unfamiliar birdsongs came from the trees, and in the shed giant spiders with mighty bodies sat in their webs.

At night the moon stood like a half-lowered sickle over the landscape with its strange animals.  

Zuck, much later, also wrote a memoir, which I have ordered. I'm not sure whether I'll read it closely, but I am curious as to some aspects of the story that Alice seems to have glossed over.

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