01 Sep I Inherited My Father’s Snuffbox
“I Inherited My Father's Snuffbox”Written by David Feuling Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 12 minutes
I’m used to mysteries in my life. I never met my mother, for example. My dad used to talk about her all the time, but she always felt like a pretend character, or like maybe she was just an imaginary best friend of his. Dad passed a few months ago, so I can’t ask him for any new details. He left me something in his will, though. It explained a lot that I hadn’t understood before. There are still mysteries, but the snuff box has revealed more than I ever expected to know.
The portable, steel container with the heavy lock on it was stored under Dad’s bed during my whole childhood. Whenever I asked him about it, he would answer that it was his snuff box. He would always grin wryly, as though making a joke I couldn’t understand. It was a weird kind of pun, I think. He never used tobacco, and so the only other meaning I could imagine was that it had something to do with killing. My father seemed like a gentle man, though, and so I chalked it up to English being his second language.
I was given a key to the snuff box as part of Dad’s final wishes. After he passed, I waited a few days to open the container. Years of foggy guesses had made me hesitant to learn more. I finally opened the box, though, and was relieved to find that it only contained documents and photographs. They were all seemingly normal keepsakes. On top was a picture of Dad with my Mom while she was still pregnant with me. It was the youngest and clearest photograph of her that I had ever seen. Dad looked happy, just like I remembered him to be in life. Under that picture though, were a dozen or so pictures of my Dad alone. I wasn’t in these other pictures, and neither was my mom. In every single photograph, my father’s eyes were hard and hollow. He looked positively haunted by something in every picture taken of him between the years of 1961 and 1969.
I was eight years old when my father took me out of East Germany. I was eleven by the time he brought me to America. It’s strange to think back and remember little snippets of certain days that the snuff box documents. I don’t remember my father killing anyone, but I do remember him leaving me in the car at a freight traffic checkpoint near the Berlin Wall. I remember sitting quietly while the engine ran idle for what felt like a long time. After that, I do recall my father hustling back into the driver’s seat looking grimier and less steady than he had been before getting out of the car. This is what I’ve been able to piece together about those years. These are the clues from my father’s snuff box.
* * * * * *
I know from my father’s stories that I was born desperately premature, such that I was unlikely to survive. It was the summer of 1961, after all, and technology to sustain premature babies was crude and often completely unavailable in poorer parts of the world. Such was the situation in East Berlin. I knew all this already, but the snuff box provided a few new details that I hadn’t known. My mother had gone to stay with her family across town, in West Berlin, on August 10th. She was there to visit the relatively upscale medical and hardware stores, so that a better incubator might be built for the still-ailing infant me. In the snuff box were hand-drawn designs for the incubator. The handwriting was not my father’s; it could only have been my mother who knew enough about medical treatment to create and build the contraption.
On the morning of August 13th, my father called my mother and told her to hurry, because the border between East and West Berlin was being sealed by the Volksarmee soldiers. In the snuff box, there’s a blurry picture of three people dressed like soldiers in front of a tangle of concrete barricades and barbed wire. Partially obscured behind the early Berlin Wall fortifications is a woman I believe to be my mother. Another picture, dated three days later shows more fortifications, and the same woman waving to the photographer from behind the growing snarl of hindrances. Even despite two soldiers standing to block her way, she’s doing her best to be seen by my father on the other side.
Dad still thought he’d surely see his wife again soon, after the confusion was cleared up. His diary entries at the time express this naïve hope. There’s little in the snuff box from 1962, but the year after that included several important new documents that served as helpful pieces of the puzzle. In the far right corner of this second picture, standing on the East German side, is a man wearing neat and professional clothes who is glaring out of the corner of his eyes at my father while he takes the picture. I wouldn’t have noticed the man there, except that my father circled him with a red marker. In German, my dad has labeled the man with a question that was dated March 24th, 1965. Almost four years later, Dad apparently returned to this picture and asked himself:
Could this really be Karl Zaissen, already watching me?!”
I found more than a dozen documents from various months of this year. All of them seemed related in some way to my father’s attempts to reunite our family. There were moments of fear and even despair in his journal entries from this time, as well. “Does she simply have a much better life in West Berlin?” This was what he asked himself on the 21st of April. It breaks my heart to know that my dad imagined my mom abandoning us like that. That wasn’t the truth at all, as it would turn out. The reality was much darker.
Dad’s first direct encounter with SSD Officer Karl Zaissen would be only a taste of the frightening and awful things that our family would suffer at the hands of the East German secret police. I vaguely remember this visit, only in so much as I remember a strange man knocking aggressively and then making himself quite at home in my father’s apartment. My dad was distressed for days after the visit, and it was only after reviewing the journal entries that I now understand why. By my own translation, my father wrote:
“Your wife has been classified as a western agent,” Officer Zaissen told me. “Her return to GDR would likely be a thinly veiled attempt at espionage. As such, she will be refused entry to East Berlin until the GDR has claimed the rest of Germany.”
”She’s no spy,” I told Zaissen. “She just wants to see her son, and her husband.” Zaissen scowled at my last remark.
“You should be careful not to make me suspicious. Loyalty to a West German spy makes you an untrustworthy comrade.” I begged him to consider that there might be some mistake. Throughout my pleading, Zaissen could only smirk and roll his eyes, and once even spat on my floor. As he was leaving, he added another comment I know to be untrue.
“You may also find it valuable to know this,” Zaissen told me just before slamming my door shut behind him. “There is strong evidence that your wife has taken to street prostitution as a way of fundraising for the FRG. I am told by our informants that she costs as few as 16 marks for an hour to use her.”
He is a sadistic man, intent only on causing me pain with his visit, though it is veiled by claims of state business. I will not believe his lies.
It is true that the Stasi was famous in its usage of Zersetzung tricks to break down citizens. They would tell only the most painful lies, and sow distrust wherever it was most damaging. What we call “gaslighting” in English was an art form in East Germany. I believe that Karl Zaissen observed my father to be strong, and simply desired that he be broken.
1966 was an especially deadly year on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. Because we were still under GDR control, we wouldn’t hear about it until much later. Twelve people died trying to cross the border without permission. Of those twelve, two were teenagers and three were children. Eleven of them died from gunshot wounds. The twelfth was a child from West Berlin of six years old. He drowned after a playmate sent him tumbling into the Soviet-controlled Spree River. Because of the border dispute, those present from both sides of Berlin hesitated to save the child until it was too late. Things were reaching a fever pitch in Germany, and yet even as the outright chaos was suppressed by the increasingly brutal state, things would still get so much worse in other ways.
I remember walking into the apartment with my father one day to find it ransacked. Even my room full of playthings had been thoroughly destroyed. I had been at school and my father at work. I helped my father clean up and check to see if anything was stolen. Nothing was missing, but everything was broken. It was clear, I remember my father saying, that the Stasi had done this to send a message to us. He must have been right, because later that night my father’s boss called him on the telephone to say that he had been terminated. Just before dawn, we were awoken by the sound of smashing glass and the clanging din of metal striking metal. Dad’s car was totaled by men who did not rush to flee as my father confronted them.
Instead, they approached, and one of the masked men extended his weapon – a heavy, steel pry bar – to prod my father directly in his chest. I remember watching from the window, fearing that I was about to see my father die. In our driveway, the men exchanged hushed words I could not hear, and then my father returned to the house looking as white as a ghost.
Father was despondent for weeks after this, but did his best to protect me from the fear that he was feeling. I remember his mood suddenly changing one day. He was previously depressed and meek, but suddenly he was focused and angry in a secretive way that I did not understand. Now, the snuff box has once again clarified things. In his journal, he wrote on October 2nd:
”A furtive man arrived at the door early this morning, and pressed an unmarked letter into my hand.”
The letter was in the snuff box too. It was from my mother, saying that she loved and missed us terribly, and desperately hoped to see her husband and her son before much longer.
“Some official on your side of the wall has apparently been turfing all my applications to come visit or relocate back to East Berlin,” she wrote. “I’ve learned that he is called Karl Zaissen. I’ve been advised that he may be holding some grudge against you or myself, or both of us, because officials on this side say they’ve never seen such prejudicial termination of minor claims before.
The last document labeled as being from this year is a page that Dad apparently tore out of his old school yearbook. An awkward-looking student with hard, glassy eyes was circled and captioned. The name beneath the photo read “Karl Zaissen.” The caption my father added in red marker reads as translated:
“She never wanted your affection, so now you spite our family. Disgusting worm.”
This was the final realization of East Germany’s inequities for my dad. He became someone who was willing to murder if that meant leaving this place.
It was July 21st when my father received his wife’s death certificate. That was the first page filed in this year within the snuff box. The document said that Mom had passed away from illness in late February, almost five months earlier in the year. If there had been a funeral, then we had surely already missed it. Mom was gone, and it had been a deliberate act on the part of Karl Zaissen that were missed absolutely all of it.
There was so much water damage on the document that I could barely set about understanding it at first. At first, I thought perhaps the letter had been allowed to sit in the rain, but then I remembered our old East German apartment building had indoor mailboxes and tiny, useless windows which we rarely opened. No, I realized, it couldn’t have been rain. I believe my father must have wept over the paper repeatedly, tormenting himself with it for days, before he finally stored it away.
Father drank and cried, and I remember this part clearly without understanding why it should be stored so vividly in my young mind. I was witnessing a transformation in my father, and although I didn’t then understand it, I could sense the magnitude of what was happening. After the grief had poured out of him for weeks, his despondent sadness and newly focused hatred for Karl Zaissen became a new and unified mood which frightened me even then. His trauma transformed into daily periods of wild focus at his craftsman’s workbench. He was building something secret and terrible, which he would not let me see. When he was too exhausted to continue working on it, he would go into his bedroom and hide it somewhere even I didn’t know about it. Under the floorboards, perhaps? He had surely planned that even the Stasi, with their home invasions and careful surveillance, couldn’t ruin this – his final plan against them.
It was only upon reaching the bottom of the snuff box that I finally realized what he had made.
The most fascinating documents in the snuffbox were the forged papers my dad used to cross the border. I remember how the guards had nearly waved us through, when suddenly there was some commotion that I noticed even as a child. Dad was told to leave me in the car and come with the soldiers for a “short chat.” Looking at the papers now, I can see that they were hastily forged. Spelling mistakes and blurred “official” seals were the best my father could do in imitating government permission to cross into West Berlin. These subtle hints of forgery aren’t the most interesting. What are most interesting are the spatters of dried blood on the papers. The bloodstained sections are circled in marker by my father, and arrows from each brown-red speckle draw the eye to a single note written in German:
“This blood used to belong to Karl Zaissen, but he doesn’t need it anymore.” After the note, a grinning smiley face is drawn. Dad’s diary entry on September 6th of this year explains in more detail about what happened on the day we escaped. I’ll translate an excerpt here as best I can:
The guards fell for my counterfeit documents, but Zaissen had been tracking me for years and today’s trip was no exception. He arrived just in time to halt our passage and demand that I be questioned more thoroughly. He insisted that he would interrogate me personally, and alone. I’m sure he intended to torture me before I was to be killed or else imprisoned forever. Luckily, I was prepared. I’d spent weeks fashioning my snuff tool, and I was already carrying it in my pocket.
I found the snuff tool that Dad was talking about, too. It was something like a captive bolt pistol that he had designed to be fired using a gunpowder cartridge that was loaded inside. Dad must have cleaned off the bits of flesh and dried blood from the heavy bolt, because there was little evidence that it had been used at all. Inside the propulsion mechanism was the sooty residue of burnt gunpowder. The device had certainly been used at least once.
Zaissen was in such a rush to begin beating me that he didn’t have me searched first. He even ordered the guards to return to their posts outside, likely so they wouldn’t hear me screaming while he tortured me. This was a stroke of extremely good luck, because it allowed me to return to the car without anyone witnessing what happened next. After the door was closed, I approached with purposeful meekness, as though begging for his understanding. When I was within arm’s length I stepped forward and put one hand tightly over his mouth and pressed the snuff tool against the side of his skull, near the temple. He knew what was happening, and so he struggled hard, driving a knee toward my groin and sending his forehead slamming away from the wall in an attempt to headbutt me. I resolved myself even further in killing him, but fumbled with the snuff tool as I drove it forward and triggered the bolt to fire.
I had done my best to impale his brain with my tool, but his squirming sent the bolt somewhere else instead. As I pushed him backwards to retrieve the snuff tool, I saw that the steel intrusion had not penetrated his skull, but instead pierced through the front of his throat near his voice box. The choking, strangled wheeze of air that Zaissen hissed out as tried to scream for help confirmed that I had silenced him but not dealt a lethal blow. Covering the new hole in his neck with one hand, he weakly tried to push past me toward the door. I followed, and allowed him to retrieve his keys and move a trembling hand toward the lock. It was then that I pushed him down hard into the corner of the interrogation room.
He fell forward onto his hands and knees. I put one of my boots between his shoulder blades and made him rest flat against the smooth cement floor. Kneeling over Zaissen, I pocketed the snuff tool and instead filled both of my hands with thick fistfuls of his hair. I pulled his head up with all the strength in my arms while my foot kept his shoulders planted firmly against the floor. I estimate that it took twenty seconds of this before a loud cracking came from Zaissen’s neck. The pressurized hiss of air from the new hole in his trachea no longer wheezed out forcefully. When I untangled my fingers from the man’s hair, his head fell forward limply and struck the floor hard enough to unleash some of the blood that was inside. The thick, visceral blood from his broken spine started pooling to fill his mouth too, and out the new hole that my snuff tool had made. There were no more bright red droplets. Everything was congealing into the purple ooze of death, although I only stood over the dead man for what felt like less than two seconds.
I collected my documents and returned to the car as though a simple clerical concern had now been resolved. The guards waved us through. Looking down at myself after we were safe, I saw how much of Zaissen’s blood I had gotten on myself, and smeared on the documents by mistake. The guards must have seen the horrified look in my eyes, and simply assumed that the blood was my own.
* * * * * *
From Germany, we made our way to Austria, where we lived until I was ten years old. My father obtained a worker’s visa to the US when I was eleven, and we’ve stayed here ever since. My father never remarried, and I miss him every day since he’s passed, but there is one thing that makes me very glad to know. In all the photographs that he and I have taken since moving to America, that haunted look in his eyes has never once made a reappearance. Losing my mother turned my father into something almost craven – someone willing to murder an enemy at a moment’s notice, if it meant not losing any more. After Zaissen died and he knew that I at least was safe, I think my father returned to who he always really was. He never wore that haunted look around me, never once during my childhood and not even on his deathbed. The bad memories had been stored away somewhere safe, banished to the snuff box so that they could not escape until he was done being my father. His work is done now, and I’m glad to understand what he did for me.
The picture of Dad standing next to my Mom from 1961 is now in a frame by my bedside. The sadder parts of his story are locked back up in the snuff box. I put the steel container under my bed, just like Dad used to do. I’ve set the bad memories aside to make room for joy, but I won’t ever forget that they’re there.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableDavid Feuling Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A