Sasha Morgenthaler – My Mother

Ernst Morgenthaler, “Three children on the terrace in Höngg,” 1953.

Barbara Cameron Morgenthaler

In autumn 1924, when I was born, my parents and two brothers lived in Küsnacht on the Lake of Zurich. Mother told me about those times. Our home was an old factory building at the lake’s edge. There was no running water in the house. An old-time fountain with a trough served as our water supply. The factory floor was divided into rooms by curtains. Outside was a shed that Father used as a studio, and a green meadow bordered by poplar trees. Mother looked after the children and the household. She gilded the frames for Father’s paintings. At night she sewed shirts and pants for the boys, dresses for me and clothes for herself. She made all our toys. As was usual at the time, a young girl lived with us and helped. We had a lot of visitors. Friends came on foot or by train, or even in a motor car. Hermann Haller and Hermann Hubacher – two sculptors – rowed their boats across the lake. Discussions about Art lasted deep into the nights.

When money got scarce, and there was not enough for the next loaf of bread, Mother gathered a few of Father’s drawings and watercolors and went to show them to someone who was interested in Art, had plenty of money, and maybe some empathy for a struggling young family. “You were raised on carrots and potatoes,” Mother said. I believe her. Father wrote on the back of a little painting that he gave me when I left home, (it was a small painting depicting a red desert with a black camel having a feed of ca rots): “For my dear Barbara, to remember her painting father (who sometimes is a camel, too, but a grey one). What is the difference between the black camel and the grey one? The black camel enjoys eating carrots.”

Ernst Morgenthaler, “Fritzli,” around 1920.

Shortly after I was born, my five-year-old brother Fritz developed an earache. He became very ill. Mother sat by his bedside through the long winter nights trying to ease the pain. Finally, in spring, an operation cured the middle ear infection.

Sasha Morgenthaler, “Children,” around 1920

My eldest brother Gläis (Nickname for Niklaus) started school, and caught whooping cough. Three coughing and vomiting children brought Mother to the edge of despair. She called a friend who was a doctor and a painter. He came and had a look at us: “Yes, they have got whooping cough,” he said. “It will take six weeks up and six weeks down, and then it will be over,” he called from the door and disappeared into Father’s studio.

I started walking at an early age. On a beautiful day many friends came to our house and sat in the sun by the wall that dropped into the lake. Mother had to go inside. “Watch the little one that she doesn’t fall into the lake,” she called as she turned the corner. I fell from the wall onto the rocks in the water and had to be rescued. Years later Mother kept warning me: “Always leave your little one in the care of a single person, because in a group everyone thinks that the others are watching the child.”

Mother loved and cared for my long, blond, curly hair. I wore my dresses short, so short that the little underpants peeped out. The family moved to Paris and I was left with friends for a few weeks. My long curls proved cumbersome and were cut off. And my short dresses were lengthened. When Mother came to meet us at the station in Paris, she barely recognised me. We lived in suburban Paris in a spacious house with a big garden. The boys loved playing Indians. Mother made tipis for them. She sewed flared pants and feather headdresses. The children of the neighbourhood stood at the garden gate, full of wonder. Then they joined in. My brothers included me in their games. In the back of the garden were stables. Mother went to Les Halles, the Paris market, and bought a little white lamb. She fed it with a bottle. It was weak and died. The boys staged an elaborate funeral with a procession to the grave and a solemn speech. Then Mother brought home two kid goats, one for Fritz and one for me. My goat grew horns and pushed me over. I kept away from him.


Barbara as a child mannequin, modeled by Sasha.

In Paris everybody closed their window-shutters at night. I slept in Mother’s room. Our window stayed open. One night I awoke to see a head in the window frame. Mother jumped up and turned on the light. Something fell to the ground. In the morning we found footsteps in the gravel and a ladder stood against the wall. From then on Mother closed our shutters every night.

I saw Mother sitting at the table with pencil and ruler. She was drawing plans for a house. Soon we moved back to Switzerland. I stayed with my grandmother in Berne for a few months. Meanwhile, our house in Höngg near Zurich was built under Mother’s supervision. It was in the country, ten minutes’ walk from the last tram station. Cows with bells ringing grazed in the fields. There was a pig farm on the hill. The River Limmat flowed past below. We ran through the lower garden gate into the woods along the creek down to the river. In summer we swam across the canal, walked upstream along the river bank and drifted down in the river’s strong current. Two black dogs belonged to the family.

Sasha Morgenthaler with her brother Curt von Sinner 
and her children Niklaus (l.) und Fritz.

Jan had long curls. Simuk’s fur was short and sleek. Mother built an enclosure under the house and bred Flemish sheep-dogs with Jan and Simuk. It did not become a financial success story.

Father lived in his big studio, drawing and painting. He played the piano and the violin. His interests lay in Art. Our upbringing was left to Mother. Father never reproved or punished me. When he asked me to pose for him and I sat there in a bad mood and made a face, he threw his hand in the air and said: “Let’s leave it.” When I sat at the piano reluctantly practising my lessons, he accompanied my efforts with a monotonous “Moyam-moyam-moyam” song. He signed my school reports without looking at my results, asking me if I was happy at the school.

Fritz wanted to study medicine. He passed the entrance exam to the Gymnasium (High School) on a provisional basis. With every second report came a renewed warning, and Mother had to pay the headmaster a visit. “You shouldn’t be so ambitious about your child’s career. Take the boy out of this school,” the headmaster advised, “there are lots of things that he could do much better.” To which Mother replied that it was Fritz who wanted to stay at the school. And every time Mother succeeded in getting another provisional term. In Fritz’s fourth year when another letter from the school was due, Father came in from the mailbox. “I think Simuk has chewed up and swallowed the letter,” he announced. No more letters came from the school.

Many hawkers and beggars called at our house. When Father went to the door he always bought something or pulled coins out of his pocket. One day an old man stood there. He asked for work. Father offered him a chair in his studio and started painting his portrait. Mother gave him food and made a bed for him in her workshop. When he fell ill Mother cared for him through the winter.

On the dinner table in the living room Mother sculpted cloth and wire into animals. I marvelled at how the camel came to life. The water-buffalo frightened me a little. For every meal the table had to be cleared and set with tablecloth and flowers. The maid prepared the meal and served it. Mother had a bell underneath her foot on the floor with which she called the maid from the kitchen. We sat at the table with straight backs and bibs round our necks, our forefingers on the edge of the table. When Mother picked up her spoon we started eating. Father took his liberties. He dunked his bread in the soup in spite of Mother’s disapproval.

Father had a lot of friends. They came also to look at his paintings. They came to play “boccia” or chess, or to make music. Others came to sit for portraits: demure gentlemen, charming young ladies, unruly children. Tea was served on a tray in glass cups and saucers, with a plate of paper-thin slices of dark bread with butter.

In order to make a bit of money, Mother drew a card game of animals. She had the cards printed. The whole family was involved in the job of coloring in. We each had our special animals. Father painted the moonlit night with the moles. I was allowed to color the mon keys. Then the cards were packed into a box and taken by bicycle to be cut into quarters. Something went wrong on the way home. The quartered cards slipped into each other. Sitting on the floor, it took us many hours to piece together the cards of a hundred games.
There came the time of the silver balls. Mother made a little duck that rolled across the table. She painted it blue and white, the colors of Zurich, and sent it to a competition for an emblem of the Swiss Show in Zurich. She got first prize. The rolling little ducks appeared everywhere.

I was nine years old when Mother decided to become a midwife. She left Father and brothers in the care of the young woman who helped in the house and brought me to her sister’s family in Riehen near Basel. The Midwifery School was in a Basel Hospital. All the trainees were young. Mother was over forty. During the day the floors had to be scrubbed. At night Mother was asked to keep watch by the beds of very ill patients. In order to stay awake she sewed a cossack’s blouse for me and embroidered the wide sleeves with fine cross-stitch. I cherished this blouse.

Mother had little time to come and see me. Once she showed me a letter from home. It paraphrased “mirror, mirror on the wall…” to “fried egg, fried egg on the plate, are you the only food in the land?” At the end of the year Mother was midwife and we returned home.

Sasha in her studio in Höngg.

Mother started making mannequins in plaster. Karl Geiser came often. He was either in Father’s studio or in Mother’s workshop. Mother spent time in Father’s studio. Father went down into Mother’s workshop in the cellar. They asked each other’s opinion, they criticised, they gave each other encouragement. They had passionate arguments that ended sometimes with laughter and a glass of wine. But at other times the air was thick in the house.

Towards the end of primary school my teacher prepared a few good students for the entrance exam to the Gymnasium (High School). I was not among them. But I wanted to go to the Gymnasium and later to University, Mother went to see my teacher who finally agreed: “Oh well, she can always try.” I was surprised when I passed the exam. On my first day Mother came with me to the “Töchterschule” near the Pfauen, in the centre of Zurich. She showed me how to get a tram ticket and where to change trams. During the two-hour lunch break we went to the “Olivenbaum”, an alcohol-free restaurant near the Stadelhofen Station. “You can come here and eat lunch,” she explained, “then you return to the school and do your homework.” Mother gave me a weekly allowance for tram and meals. On the second day I was on my own. All the other students went home for lunch. They lived closer to the school. I came to enjoy my independence. Soon I by-passed the “Olivenbaum” and went to the bakery for a pie. Later I managed the occasional rent of a little rowing boat to spend lunchtime on the lake. Mother never probed into what I did, where I went or what I ate.

I wanted to join the Girl Guides. Mother was not impressed, but she bought me a uniform and let me go to the camps. I loved the forests and the mountains. At home Father and brothers teased me: “Have you done your good deed for today?” Once I was late for dinner and overheard Mother scolding: “I don’t want to hear another word from any of you about the Guides. Butz (as I was called at home) is as free as you are to do what she likes to do.”

I lived for the Guides. School took second place, and I had little interest in whatever else happened around me. Mother travelled to Berlin. She was away for a long time. She returned with my grandmother’s brother, Uncle Alfred, and his wife. My grandmother came from a Jewish family in Berlin. In his young days Uncle Alfred had been a Prussian Officer in the war with Russia. He could not conceive that he and his wife were in danger. With difficulty Mother persuaded them to leave everything behind and flee to Switzerland. A few weeks later we received news that their property had been ransacked and their home burnt down.

The Second World War started. Father, Gläis and Fritz were called into the Swiss Army. Stray bombs fell on Schaffhausen, one fell in our vicinity and destroyed a house. Mother organized women’s aid groups (“Hülfstrupp”). With great enthusiasm women got together and learned how to make a fire and cook in the open. They built tents, make-shift latrines. They practised First Aid. They brought and shared their own skills and knowledge. When refugees began to stream into the country and crowded trains pulled into Zurich Station, the “Hülfstrupp” was called to help. These trains were under military command. The refugees were counted off. “This group of one hundred goes to the Schoolhouse Wipkingen,” came the order, with no regard to a child being separated from its parents, a man from his wife, a sister from her brother. Mother was furious and confronted the commander. She spent the following nights driving from schoolhouse to schoolhouse until all the families were reunited.
Father was put in command of a refugee camp. He brought two young people home with him for Christmas. They stayed with us until the end of the war.

Mother started making dolls. A bigger working area was built. She surrounded herself with people who worked with her untiringly and with great commitment: the plasterer and cast-maker, the Haute Couture seamstresses, the wigmakers, all experts in their field.

But foremost was the young woman who worked with Mother through all her years of making dolls – Trudi Löffler.

When my school days were over, I had no idea of what to do next. Life looked murky and long. I went through a carpenter’s apprenticeship course. Mother made room for my bench in her workshop. I enjoyed working with wood, but it was not what I expected of life. I tried many different things, but nothing satisfied my expectations. I became moody and withdrawn. Mother did not blame me. She left me alone and waited.

On the 5th of May 1945, I crossed the Swiss frontier on a Red Cross Mission truck. Whenever I returned from my travels I found a welcoming home. Mother nursed me when I was sick with hepatitis. She helped me with the birth of my first child. She gave me work with the dolls when I needed employment. She looked after my two-year-old son when I went for a job in Morocco.

I emigrated to Australia in 1956 and took my son with me. It was a blow for Mother, but she did nothing to hold me back. She helped me along and made the long journey possible. A year later Mother and Father came to visit us. They loved the wide open spaces and the bright sky of Australia.
After Father’s death Mother came to see us regularly, often for Christmas. This was always a big occasion for our family and was followed by the long summer holidays at the seaside. Mother liked being in Australia and sharing our life. Soon, however, she would start missing her work and want to return home to the Sasha Dolls.

Don and Barbara Cameron in Australia, 2013.

Barbara Cameron Morgenthaler (1924–2017) was Sasha and Ernst Morgenthaler’s daughter. She went to commercial school in Zurich and was the secretary of the Swiss doctor’s organisation Centrale Sanitaire Suisse. In 1946 she went to Yugoslavia and contributed to the establishment of a hospital in Bosnia, with her brother Fritz as well as Paul and Goldy Parin-Matthèy. In 1947 and 1948 she acquired language and translation diplomas in Paris, Florence and Geneva. In 1950 she married George Ballou in the United States, returning to Zurich in 1951, where her son David was born. Barbara and George spent a year in Casablanca in 1953, and travelled by Vespa to Tangier, where they met the Australian television pioneer Don Cameron (1926–2017). In 1956 she emigrated to Australia with her son David and married Don Cameron. In 1958 Danielle was born, followed by Michele (1959), Annette (1962), and Janine (1965). The family built a house in the outback in Warrandyte, near Melbourne, according to the the blueprints of her brother Gläis.