I love this photograph of my grandmother holding me when I spent the summer of 1973 with her at her cozy home in the countryside of Perkasie, Pennsylvania. I remember this moment clearly. We went for a walk on her property and I insisted on going barefoot. She and my mother warned me about little prickly things that would hurt my feet. I was adamant that I would be fine going barefoot. Does the photo indicate what happened? You can see my toe curling in pain. But the thing that fills me with warmth when looking at this photo is the memory of how my grandmother was so willing to hold me and carry me out of there. There was no scolding, or “I told you so’s,” but just loving arms taking care of me.
My grandmother lived here alone after my grandfather passed away in 1963 at that age of fifty-four (from lung cancer attributed to working in the uranium mines). My grandmother adored him. He was the type of man who had many friends and was loyal to each one. He was a good and honest husband. That is my sister sitting on his lap. He passed away two weeks after this photo was taken.
After his death, my grandmother didn’t see their friends anymore. She preferred to live in solitude, gardening and embroidering. She worked in a factory sewing buttons on clothing right up until she passed away at age ninety. That summer that I spent with her left me with lifelong memories. I can’t look at mint without thinking about the sprawling hills covered in mint leaves, or a purple petunia without thinking about her garden.
And marzipan! Each year at Christmastime my sister and I could count on her to send us a package of marzipan candy imported from Germany. They were so intricate and beautiful shaped and colored like little pieces of fruit. It was almost a pity to bite into them.
My mother, who was only fifteen when they arrived in America, went to high school. Even though she had taken English for four years in Germany, she couldn’t understand a word anyone said. But she did understand that her peers were calling her “Nazi.” And it was unbearable when they learned about the Holocaust in class. She wasn’t exposed to that in Germany and wasn’t covered in school as extensively as it is in the United States. She was sickened and only went back to Germany one time and that was after high school graduation when she was 19 years old. She never visited Germany again because of the Holocaust. Her thoughts keep dwelling on the fact that something so tragic happened there and the desire to go there doesn’t happen.
After that she began a lifelong embarrassment for being a German. It was a fact that Nazis were Germans, but it was never a fact that all Germans were Nazis as many people believed at the time. In fact if you look at the statistics from the 1933 elections it shows 15 political parties that were on the ballot that year. The National Socialist German Peoples Party (Nazi) got a lot of votes, but if you combine the other 14 political party votes, they came out higher than what the Nazis alone received. That means that more people voted against Hitler than for Hitler. But not any one of them alone received more votes. Yet how does one explain what happened? The horrors of the concentration camps and the violence against the Jewish people create a mental block. Most of us become stunned and inarticulate at the horror of what happened. That’s what this blog has been for me – a way to unblock the block. The stigma of Nazi Germany will last forever, but at least we can be glad that it’s over.
In 1959, when she was 19 years old, my mother and her friend Elizabeth, took a Greyhound bus on Route 66 all the way to California. She met my father at a mutual friend’s apartment in Hollywood in 1961, became an artist and never spoke German. When they divorced, she met someone new. He was from Czechoslovakia and had gone to a prestigious art school in Germany. When they spoke, that is when I began hearing German, but she never attempted to teach it to me. Today she is healthy and happy – going strong at age 74. She lives in Hawaii.