HITLER’S MOUSTACHE, MY GRANDFATHER’S LIP
In the hallway just outside the preschool, pictures of past synagogue presidents. First names: Jacob, Jacob, Louis, Max, Adolph, Jacob, Adolf, Max, Moses, Adolph, Samuel, Sam, Aaron, Joe, Joseph, Moses, Leo, Adam. At a certain point, the name Adolf falls out of fashion.
At another point, Hitler’s moustache and my grandfather’s traded places. Did they pass in the street and one jumped off the upper lip of the other? Did the Führer sneeze during a salute and my grandfather, hiding in an alley, sneezed at the exact same time and so the trade was made? Such mysteries can never be known. Eventually, my grandfather and the new moustache emigrated to South Africa. My grandfather’s original moustache hid beneath Berlin on Hitler’s lip, then was blown away with the rest of Hitler’s face as the Allies entered the city and Hitler shot Eva Braun and then himself.
The idea that a growth of hair could have a name is strange but also telling. Van Dyck, Fu Manchu, Charlie Chaplin. Did my grandfather initially adopt the look because he was emulating the Little Tramp, Oliver Hardy, a truncated Groucho Marx? Pratfalling his way out of history, somehow escaping what he knew was soon to occur?
The Nazi moustache on my grandfather’s lip made calls on the wall phone late at night when my grandfather would sleepwalk into the kitchen. Germany. France. Argentina. Brazil. Can a moustache cry? A moustache can cry. It can also move money from one offshore account to another. It spoke to beards. To pointed sheets. To shoes whose shine reflected a vast network of stars and small planes which flew overhead. Sometimes it would sing sweet German songs.
Mein Liebchen, wir sassen beisammen
Traulich im leichten Kahn;
My sweet one, we sat together,
We loved one other in our light boat.
My grandfather’s original moustache woke up several years after Berlin was divided between east and west. It barely remembered what had happened. It would play chess in the park. It got foam from Viennese coffee on its hairs. It read newspapers in the library. It spoke to emigrees.
The name Adolf appeared more in 1937 than at any other time. It was used infrequently until about 1920. After 1937 there was a steep decline, another small peak in 1964 (the year I was born) and then a more gentle decrease, although its use has continued to rise until the present day.
According to Wikipedia, my grandfather’s “toothbrush” style of moustache first became popular in the United States in the late 19th century; from there it spread to Germany and elsewhere, reaching a height of popularity in the interwar years, before becoming unfashionable after World War II due to its strong association with Hitler. The association has become strong enough that the toothbrush has become known as the "Hitler moustache.
One story attributes gasmasks as the reason Hitler trimmed his more fulsome Kaiser-style moustache. As a soldier in the First World War, his mask did not seal and so he had to trim his facial hair until it achieved its iconic shape. Another attributes a stay in Liverpool, the “lost years” of 1917-18, with his sister-in-law Bridget. Apparently they argued over many things including his unkempt facial hair and so she cut it.
The preschool in the synagogue is in Temple Anshe Sholom, the oldest Reform Synagogue in Canada, founded in the early 1850s by a small group of German Jewish families who settled in the city of Hamilton. My children attended this school in the 1990s. It was run by a woman called Celia Berlin and so I called the protective divider between the hall and the school, the Berlin Wall.
I remember standing on a gentle hill in Ireland in soft light with my father. A small white car drove by. A VW. My father said his father would never buy one because it was German. When I was a teenager, my father bought a Mercedes. It was a beautiful and well-made car. The doors closed with a precise click. “To keep in the Zyklon-B,” I said.
Hitler’s moustache eventually emigrated to Canada with my grandparents. First to Moncton, New Brunswick, then to Vancouver and finally, when my grandfather was ill, to Ottawa to be with my doctor father. I remember hearing my grandparents coughing when they woke in the morning. Both had been heavy smokers. And no wonder, my grandfather owned a tobacconist’s shop for many years. My grandfather sitting on a bench by an outdoor hockey rink, Hitler’s moustache fluttering slightly in the cold breeze. My brother skating. Then my grandfather and the moustache listening to me play Bach on alto saxophone in our kitchen. My grandfather’s watery patient eyes. Did the moustache make late night calls from Ottawa? Did it attempt to gain support for taking over new countries, or for the rebirth of the will? It seemed meek, listening to the Bach sarabande and the bouree, the gavotte and the gigue. Then my performance of The Pink Panther.
Once I was in my bed reading The Count of Monte Cristo when my grandfather’s moustache came in the room. I recognized it as it stood in the dim light near the door, even though it had not been on my grandfather’ lip since before I had been born. Before even my father had been born, before my grandfather escaped to South Africa. “Does the other moustache know you are here?” I asked. It had travelled from Berlin and somehow found me, my grandfather, and Hitler’s moustache. “Shh,” it said. “I don’t want them to hear.” Then it began to quietly sing the Sh’ma. The central prayer of Jewish identity.
In the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nazis tried to hold a rollcall to determine who to send to death camps. The guards insisted the Jews count faster and faster until finally, as an act of resistance, they sang The Sh’ma. Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw tells the story and begins, "I cannot remember everything. I must have been unconscious most of the time.”
There is a long tradition of magic in Jewish tradition. One scholar notes that still, even many modern Jews employ practices that are quite like protective charms. Observant Jews wear tefillin for morning prayer—small boxes held to the upper arm and forehead by leather straps. Prayer scrolls in a special case mounted on the doorframes. Both contain prayers including the Sh’ma.
As soon as I was old enough, in fact, even before, I grew a beard and moustache. Both were protective charms. Magic to protect me. From fear. Time. Society. Not growing.
Wikipedia again: During puberty, the first facial hair to appear tends to grow at the corners of the upper lip (age 11–15) then spreads to form a moustache over the entire upper lip (age 16–17).
This is followed by the appearance of hair on the upper part of the cheeks and the area under the lower lip (age 16–18) which eventually spreads to the sides and lower border of the chin and the rest of the lower face to form a full beard (age 17–21).
The moustache showed me stars out the window. Constellations which appeared in northern skies. Then we planned how it might return to my grandfather’s lip, how we might vanquish Hitler’s moustache. Not with a razor or clippers but with cunning and careful planning. How should the moustache feel? What should we say? Who should we consult?
Nazis who wore Hitler moustaches include Karl Maria Demelhuber, Sepp Dietrich, Irmfried Eberl, August Eigruber, Hermann Esser, Julius Streicher, Franz Ritter von Epp, Christian Wirth and Kurt Zeitzler. Many others have worn the moustache including Fred Trump, prominent Israeli politicians and Robert Mugabe.
My granny and grandpa’s bed was against the window. My grandfather wore an eyemask to keep out the beams of the streetlights. In sleep, my grandmother looked like a child, worried yet earnest. Years later, when she was dying of cancer, I sat by her bed to say what I expected would be my last words to her. Because of her illness, she had been unresponsive, seemingly unable to understand or communicate. “I love you,” I said, though I was embarrassed. She smiled as if she understood.
The moustache and I crept to my grandfather’s side of the bed. There it was, Hitler’s moustache. Even in the half light, I could see what I had not been able to. There was something not right about the moustache on my grandfather. “Should we wake him? Should we tell him?” “Let him sleep,” the moustache said. I followed instructions. We each had our jobs. The moustache would leap onto my grandfather’s lip after I’d finished.
I slowly lowered my fingers over my grandfather’s face and then took a firm hold of the moustache and pulled quickly as if removing a Band-Aid. Then I ran, the moustache in my hand. I ran down the stairs out the front door and into the street. I ran towards the park, gripped a rock and putting the moustache on the end of a slide, pounded. Pounded. The metal of the slide clanged loud in the night, a muted bell. I pounded the moustache with the rock again and again. Again and again. The moustache had been flat but become even flatter. Did I sing the Sh’ma Yisroel? I said nothing.