My Obstetrician’s Rx: Liverwurst

A Mother-to-Be Ponders Giving Birth Abroad

By Deborah Kolben

Published October 06, 2009.
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When I moved to Berlin last year, I settled into a Bohemian-chic neighborhood in what was formerly East Berlin. Despite Germany’s declining birth rate — the once decaying buildings here, where coal ovens and shared bathrooms have been replaced with stainless steel kitchens and cupboards filled with organic muesli — are packed with babies. It’s considered a German miracle. Coffee shops are more like nurseries. My block was home to three preschools, including one in my building. They say to be careful — there’s something in the water. And then, it happened to me.

One morning I noticed something was wrong. I went to the drug store and asked the clerk a question that must have sounded like: “Have you test me pregnant?” I took home three. My husband wasn’t convinced after the first test, and encouraged me to complete the trifecta.

A week later, after the news had sunken in, I set out to find a “women’s doctor” as they are called there. I stopped a seven-month pregnant woman on the street and forced her tell me the name of her doctor. As it turned out, this doctor had the main attributes we were looking for: She spoke English and she wasn’t, well, German.

My first appointment wasn’t entirely smooth. While the doctor spoke Spanish-accented English, one must converse with the nurses in German. During the intake we were able to get through the blood test, the family history, etc. But then she stumped me with a question; I just couldn’t figure out what she was asking. Finally, totally frustrated, the nurse put her hands between her legs and started saying in a raised voice, “Baby raus, baby raus?” “Abortion and miscarriage!” I shouted like a winning game show contestant. The gynecologist’s office, my mother later pointed out, is really no place for charades.

On my second visit, the doctor took a look at my medical records from America. She sat staring at one paper for a long time. “What is all this?” she asked pointing to the full set of genetics tests, including one for something called “Maple Syrup Urine Disease” that my doctor in New York had done before I got married.

I tried explaining that we were Jews and it was fairly standard to test for Tay-Sachs and other genetic diseases, thinking that I’d be teaching her something she didn’t know. But it turns out she’s actually the doctor for the local rabbi’s wife. She then asked if I wanted my husband to come in to the examination room because she learned from treating the rabbi’s wife that she shouldn’t shake his hand and that he certainly didn’t want to be in the room when the doctor pulled out the large plastic ultrasound probe.

A week later, I received the following message on my answering machine, “Hallo, this is Dr. R. Your iron is very low so now you eat blood sausage or liver two times a week. Ok, bye bye.”

I cannot lie. I ate my share of wurst in Germany. They come in all sorts of varieties and are a tasty snack. But forced blood sausage consumption when even potatoes made me queasy was out of the question.

Differences in ideas about meat consumption obviously weren’t my only concerns about having a baby in Germany.

On another visit to the doctor, she was doing a routine ultrasound, showing us the baby’s two hands, two feet, the parts of the brain, and then she paused. “What is that?” my husband asked excitedly as the doctor pointed to something on the screen that clearly indicated that the baby could be a boy.

A boy! Yes, that was wonderful news. But it brought with it other questions. I immediately went online and started Googling mohels in Germany, which elicited a few diatribes against the practice and no practical information. At Passover, I cornered a rabbinical student who said that there is one well-known mohel in Germany, but he’s 83 and maybe a bit shaky. He mentioned another local mohel, but noted that he’s been known to ask for upwards of 2,000 euros — because he can.

As the due date approached, it turned out that we were actually having a girl. And my husband and I continued to agonize over whether to stay in Germany or return to America to have the baby. There were practical questions about things like health insurance and being surrounded by family as opposed to the harsh sounds of this unfamiliar language. But maybe the strangest part about the prospect of having a baby there was that I was not automatically turned off by the idea of my child starting her life in Germany. It just didn’t feel as uncomfortable as I thought it would. I’m not sure if that marks some sort of historical progress.

Ultimately, we did come back to New York City and our baby’s geburtstermine, “birth appointment” is just a couple of weeks away. Still, I do sometimes wonder what my husband’s grandfather — a Holocaust survivor, born in Dresden, the son of a watchmaker — would have thought if we had stayed. Despite spending a year in Majdanek, he maintained a peculiar fondness for Germany. When he was dying, my husband came to the hospital and cheered him up by singing a German song he learned in school. He’d probably have mixed emotions about our child being born there. Then again, I’m told, the man was particularly fond of wurst.

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