WAS or is YOUR BIRTH LAND’S ENEMY
Michael my husband, my kids’ father, was born in Berlin Germany in 1939 on the eve of World War II. As a toddler he played in bombed out buildings and rubble. He and his brother developed debilitating stutters from the trauma of the overhead bombings. At 4 he recalled hiding under a bed as Soviet Mongolian soldiers with great mustaches riding on ponies clip clopped into the village in Poland where he had been sent for safety. At six, back in Berlin, he remembered running alongside American army tanks as the “GIs” liberated the city and handed out chocolate bars (chocolate!!!) to the kids. And at ten, he and his family survived the Berlin blockade by the Soviets because the American-led “Berlin Airlift” brought them food and water in hundreds of planes that landed every two minutes. He loved Americans.
Fast forward 30 years later. Michael had conquered his stutter, graduated as an electrical engineer from a good German university and went to Argentina to work and see the world. That’s where we met when I was a journalist there. We married, traveled, lived in France and eventually went to my home town and the university in Santa Barbara CA where we earned our Ph.Ds, built a home and settled down into jobs and raising our daughter and son who were born there in the 1970s. We led a very American life deeply involved in Scouts, PTA and coop nursery schools, tennis, music lessons and youth soccer. But we also traveled summers to Germany to see the family and the German family visited us for exended periods of time; we spoke German at home so the kids were comfortable in it and we often had “kaffee and kuchen” on Sundays which was our sacred family day.
Michael had a heavy German accent all his life (he died in 2011) but when people asked where he was from, for decades he would say “Europe”. “I am part of the “geschuldige Generation” he told me – the guilty generation. We were babies and toddlers during the war; we had nothing to do with the Nazis. If we were lucky enough to still have fathers after the war, we never talked to them about their experiences; we had no idea ever what they did during the war”.
And yet, and yet, it was ALWAYS there. Germany’s Nazi past clung to Michael, his siblings and his family and ours no matter when or where or how many years after the war they were born. Out of real fear of being labeled a Nazi Michael would avoid confrontations at all times; he was a nice man but often, a mouse in situations where he needed to stand up for himself. Our German nieces and nephews all traveled to countries like Greece and Israel, worked in kibitzes and hugely supported the European Union, open borders and diversity – eagerly taking it all in but also hoping to obliterate that Nazi history of their natioality. Even my American-born children were tainted. To this day they hesitate to tell people they speak German fluently (both attended a year of high school in Germany) nor talk about their German heritage. They have both experienced being called “Nazis” if they spoke out at a meeting or as teenagers insisted on going home before midnight, which was the deadline their “Nazi” father (so labeled by their friends) had imposed on them.
Kids can be mean.
But adults can be too. Labeling and “profiling” is such an easy way to quickly place a stranger or even a friend in a dramatic category, good or bad. It’s impossible to avoid, even when its your parents or even grandparents who are from a place that had been or has become an enemy of Americans – especially if that nationality is constantly portrayed in the movies and TV as the vicious enemy: Japanese kamikasies, German Nazis and now Arab terrorists. Their accents, home traditions and music that as children and toddlers they learned to love and associate with family, become private, hidden away. If they in turn marry a foreigner as my son did who speaks publicly to their children in another unpopular language (some languages are more popular than others) and come from an unpopular or unknown culture, then the grandchildren carry a double burden – second gen of a second gen non-liked immigrant nationality.
I can understand why German Chancellor Angela Merkel suddenly opened Germany to over a million migrants rushing over their border. Already the Nazi analogies had begun in the fall of 2014 as Germans hesitated to take in the first waves. “We’ll take a million – how many will you take?” challenged Merkel last summer as she was kissed by joyful Syrian men and considered for a Nobel peace prize by the relieved liberal Norwegians.
This is not to complain or point my finger and say “you must” or “mann soll” not be biased. In fact my message is the opposite and more difficult in this time of hyper-sensitivity of any and every offense and discrimination. It’s human nature this bias, this hanging the worst image of a nationality on all who carry its blood not less its flag. I found that it was almost an art form in the salons de tee and cafes of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where I worked as a press officer in the 80s. There at the UN, guessing what the nationality was of every new person and then disparaging it, was lunchtime’s second favorite topic after bashing the nationality of one’s boss.
Both sides need to lighten up and confront absurd historic bias leveled on those who had nothing to do with it, with if possible some humor or at least a shrug.
“My dad is not a Nazi. He just wants me home by midnight,” my daughter would finally tell her date.
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