My sister Nancy and I are off on a major trip tomorrow. We are part of a 40 person group that has been invited by the City of Frankfurt as part of a program called: “The Frankfurt am Main Visiting Program for former Jewish Citizens and their Descendants”. Our dad visited his homeland in 1995 and somewhere between then and now we had placed our names on a list of interested people to go on this trip. About 1 ½ mos ago we received the invitation (they are paying most of the expenses of this trip). In planning for this I have had much going on in my head and before I leave, I want to remember these thoughts and to revisit them after the trip for any new insights into my past and myself.
What is my identity? I spent my whole life thinking of myself as an “American”, which I am. Now having lived in another culture – Mexico, I even have feelings that I belong here in one way or another, though it is a culture that is very difficult to enter if there are neither Mexican nor Spanish roots. However, now, as I am embarking on a trip to Frankfurt, Germany I have many thoughts and feelings brewing inside of me.
I have always known that I am a first generation American with parents both born in Germany (and they met on a blind date in the USA on Pearl Harbor Day) but until this last month, I have spent not little, but NO time thinking about my roots and how I am truly connected through blood to this country that I do not know and to its people. There are just some simple facts that I know – my parents did not seem to have anger nor did they express negative feelings about either Germany or its people though they both left as a result of the Nazi movement in Germany. They seemed content in their lives to live the “American dream” and not look back on what I would imagine to be, a very difficult time in their young lives. A note here to remember is that when asked what his race was, my father always answered “Human” which I always felt was a great legacy and one of the reasons that perhaps I have little outward prejudices (though I believe that we all have some.)
Our maternal grandmother, Grete Heimerdinger, was bitter and angry most of her life with her situation as she was no longer recognized as “feine leute” (fine people) when she arrived in NYC. She was just one of many immigrants leaving her riches and fancy lifestyle behind. My grandfather's jewelry business in Weisbaden was "jewelers to the king and queen"! In fact, she spent her many remaining years (she arrived in NYC at the age of 29 and died in NYC at the age of 98) wishing and hoping that she would regain her former status. One of my favorite moments with her (as there were difficult ones as well) were when she reminisced and told us the stories of her days in Frankfurt and Baden Baden and the fine times they had before the war.
My paternal grandmother, Edith Vogel (Boma to us) was different. I traveled with her in the summer of 1966 (she would have been 67 years old – almost my age now though she seemed older to me at that time when I was only 20) and when she saw or overheard someone with a German accent the hairs on her neck stood up and she had only unpleasant and unhappy thoughts in her mind and she did express this to me. I did not understand at the time and asked her always how she could feel this way about someone who was surely not there during this time of Germany as they seemed too young. Of course that was only 30 some years after their exodus from Germany and in that short time, her feelings were still raw. She did not, however, let this stop her life of travel and doing good. It merely stopped her from ever wanting to go to Germany. Now, many years later, I have so much more understanding of why she must have felt this anger toward her countryment.
Both of our grandfathers died when we were young so we did not have the fortune to connect with them as we did with our grandmothers. For the most part, in our household or at any of our family reunions of the time when there were many relations that met every year when German was the language between them, there was never real discussion about this difficult time in both sides of the family. Hence we grew up on Long Island living the lives of suburban New Yorkers doing what we all did in the 50’s and 60’s – living kind of like the old TV shows of the time.
As I write, we (my sister Nancy, and I) are gathering materials, reading whatever we can find on the subject, communicating with Cori (our niece who is our family historian) and reading books about this time. Nancy is reading the short book written by Henry Salfeld about his exodus and arrival on the US shore in 1933 and there is much information about our family and their early days in NYC that we are finding interesting, with dates and information to piece together about things that have happened in the past. Our cousin Rolf from Switzerland has also done much research on the family for the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt. We could do a full investigation of our family but I probably will not as it would take a great deal of energy and time. Mostly I want to “feel” what my roots are and be open to what that feeling is.
Having lived in several Latin countries, I can only imagine how it would feel to be connected by blood to these people and how, through culture a people develop their habits, customs, thinking, etc. So, the German people – both the good and the bad, have some characteristics that I am sure are in me and I am beginning to re evaluate my identity. Will I discover connections to my Jewish identity or will I only feel my connections to the German identity? I think because our parents and grandparents were more “German” than “Jewish” in their lifestyle and perhaps this is culture, this surely had an effect on my upbringing. Having developed my own “spiritual” path with little connection to any religion has allowed me to think openly about this for myself but never in the context of religion. Will I experience a “connection” to these roots? As we say in Spanish – vamos a ver (we will see!).
I do believe that traveling and living in a county with its people allows one to experience a culture. The difficulty in one where the language is different is that one has to either learn the new language to really communicate and then still feel like an outsider, or be more or less a tourist looking in a window but not really living in the same house. I am afraid that this might be how I experience Germany as I do not know the language and it surely too late for me to try learning another one so completely different than Spanish which is still a challenge to be fluent.
So, here I am, one day before my travels with many thoughts and ideas. As I have more, I will write more. I will hopefully be able to answer some of these questions about myself, my identity, my feelings of the father/mother land and my connections to this very deep and compelling past – the land of war, hatred and intolerance. These are thoughts that are COMPLETELY against all my values and yet they existed – in my own “people”. How did they all learn to hate with vengeance when many just thought that they were doing the best for their country? Hard to imagine but maybe that is why I do not understand war at all – how do people hate their neighbor when the day before they lived in peace.
It is very hard to imagine the thoughts and feelings that everyone had when their need to flee was eminent. How would I feel today in the same shoes? Questions, questions, questions???
Thanks for indulging me in my thinking process and more shall be revealed!