Category Archives: Remembering

Wolf Blitzer’s Journey

The CNN correspondent uncovers his roots

The Peace Bridge author, me in other words, has just watched the amazing journey that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer undertook to uncover his roots. It took him far back to Auschwitz where his grandparents were murdered but his parents survived, and then to Buffalo, NY, actually Kenmore, where I also spent most of my childhood. We went to the same high school – Kenmore West. He graduated 2 years before me in 1966.

At Ken West there was a large contingent of really bright Jewish kids in my classes and I was always in awe of their intellectual development – far beyond mine, that was for sure. But at the tender age of 15-17, I had no idea about their backgrounds, that some of them must have been children of Holocaust survivors. In the late 60s I had only just about heard of the Holocaust and no way would it have occurred to me to make any connections between it and the Jewish kids in my classes.

But I do wonder if it was my memories of those bright kids, like Wolf Blitzer, that left me with a permanent historical fixation on the Holocaust, where some of the brightest and most productive members of European society were murdered. It may well be this that led me to write a story about a Jewish family trying to overcome the late and lasting consequences of Hitler’s Reich.

I am thankful to Wolf’s film for bringing this connection home to me. Better late than never! On a more upbeat note, I loved that he, too, when on a visit back to Buffalo, also goes on a pilgrimage to Anderson’s Custard and Ted’s Hotdog Stands on Sheridan Drive. Funny, the things you take with you on life’s journey.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MaiaIdjcK8

 

 

 

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Filed under German History, Holocaust, Remembering, Roots

GERMAN REUNIFICATION – 25 YEARS AGO

WE’VE COME SO FAR – WE MUSTN’T TURN BACK

I am shaking off the stupor caused by house-related renovations to comment on a breath-taking event that took place 25 years ago. Throughout the spring and summer of 1989, the situation in the German Democratic Republic escalated. East German “tourists” went on holiday to Czechoslovakia and Hungary – just about the only places they were allowed to travel. But they did not return home. They ended up camping on the grounds of the German embassies in Prague, Budapest and even Vienna, while behind-the-scenes frantic diplomacy was deciding their fate.

Back in East Germany, while the powers-that-were were gearing up to celebrate the up-coming 40-year birthday of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in October, activists in Leipzig and Dresden and other eastern cities continued their weekly Monday Demonstrations. The meetings and marches were non-violent and centered around the Protestant Church, an institution just about tolerated by the government. Plenty of “unofficial” Stasi operatives took part, to be sure.

What did these people want anyway? Just everyday things really. Like being allowed to travel unhindered and not be walled in. Like the freedom to speak their minds without fear of arrest. Like not being spied on by neighbors and “friends” who had been enlisted for this purpose by the Stasi – the secret state security police. Just simple things really, things we in the West have always taken for granted.

Of course on the west side of the wall, West Germans watched expectantly, fearfully. There was no telling where it would all end. And from past experience, there was a good chance it would not end well. But bit by bit, the regime granted concessions. And then, almost by accident, on November 9th the wall opened. People turned up at various Berlin border crossings, demanding to be let through. East German border guards who were not able to get any clear orders from above, raised the barriers. Thank heavens, they had no desire to fire on their own.

And my husband and I watched this spectacle, wide-eyed and incredulous, from the comfort of our West German living room, along with most other “Wessis” (West Germans). From one day to the next, separated families could be reunited, ordinary “Ossis” (East Germans) could suddenly go where they pleased. And over the following months the road taken in Trabis and Wartburgs would lead to what became an inevitable destination: reunification.

Those were heady days, weeks and months. We became addicted to following the news reports on TV and radio, anxious to hear of the next unbelievable milestone in the journey to once again becoming one Volk. And 25 years later a generation has grown up that did not know the sorrow of a Germany rent in two by the post-World War II settlements. Those young people can’t imagine what it means not to be free.

And although the east of the country still lags behind economically, huge strides have been made, billions have been invested in infrastructure. BMW builds cars in Leipzig, VW in Dresden. Berlin is now, once again as it should be, the capital of the country. Both the Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Federal President, Joachim Gauck, hail from the east.

Of course, the fall of the inner-German border was just the beginning. Along with it, the entire Iron Curtain came crashing down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Voila, the end of the Cold War and the commencement of a new world order.

Unfortunately, black shadows loom overhead. Need I list the crises that dominate the news every night? The new world order has not brought world peace but new instability. One of the crises in particular seems to me to be so stoppable. That would be the Ukraine.

Why, dear Mr Putin, do you want to go backwards rather than forwards?
I wish he’d give us an answer.

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Filed under Beginnings, Cities, Endings, German History, Remembering

August 4th – Commemoration of Britain’s Declaration of War Against Germany

All day Monday services of commemoration took place in Belgium and across the UK. In the evening the BBC broadcast the services held at the military cemetery Saint Symphorien near Mons, Belgium ( the site of the first battle between the British and German forces). This cemetery where soldiers from all the combatant countries were buried next to each other was the idea of a German officer in 1915 – during the height of the war. The idea was to create a Waldfriedhof, a forest cemetery, honoring the sacrifice on all sides.

British, Belgian and German heads of state and several heads of government were present and participated actively in the proceedings. Serenely orchestrated combining music, poetry and prose, it was a fitting remembrance of the millions who died, I hate to say it,  completely in vain.

CORRECTION OF AUGUST 1st POST

I would like to correct my post in which I stated that Russia declared war on Germany on August 1, 1914. In fact it was the other way around.

In the lethal chain of events that precipitated war on so many fronts, Germany declared war on Russia when they mobilized on Germany’s eastern borders.The Russian-German border ran right down the middle of where Poland should have been!

Russian claims  that they were “only” mobilizing against Austria-Hungary because of the latter’s war against Serbia were of no help since Germany was allied to Austria-Hungary.

August 4th marks Britain’s declaration of war against Germany upon their invasion of neutral Belgium. And so the tragic timeline continues during the course of August and on into the following 4 years.

It is scary the way so many journalists are comparing the current situation with that of 100 years ago: Ukraine, Syria, Gaza, Libya, Iraq. And let’s not forget Afghanistan and Pakistan. Where else have I left out?

The only hope is that we did learn something from all the mistakes of the 20th century. Nothing is predestined. And there mustn’t be any attempts scorned at finding solutions

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Filed under Endings, German History, Great Britain, Politics, Remembering, World Wars

The Wooden Leg

100 years ago today Russia declared war on Germany and the fatal circus that had already begun between Austria and Serbia began its rise to global dimensions. In the course of 1914 there were 22 declarations of war.

This morning I heard on the radio a fascinating persepective from a man whose grandfather was wounded early in the war. A very young August Müller lost his leg and his war service was over. Every year that loss was remembered and celebrated within their family. On first consideration, it seems a weird thing to celebrate.But think about it. If August Müller had not lost his leg, he may well have stayed in the war long enough to lose his life. Considering the number of dead in that war – 17 million on all sides including civilians – this would not have been surprising. Thus this particular branch of the Müller family has August’s wooden leg to thank that they are living and thriving today, 100 years later.

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100 Years Later – And Still No Wiser?

The past few months have been full of reminders of the events in the summer of 1914 that drove Europe to the most destructive war ever seen by man to that date. Echoing the title of Christopher Clark’s monumental work on the beginnings of the Great War, the empires involved – Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain – sleep-walked into a conflagration that would change the continent physically, socially and politically forever. Seventeen million dead human individuals (9 m soldiers, 8 m civilians) from eight countries, that was the horrendous price paid for the hubris of emperors and politicians.

And yet that First global war has been eclipsed by the Second (with a total death toll approximated between 60 and 85 million!) in such a way as to have allowed the First to retreat into the dark black hole of memory we reserve for much of our history. This  centenary is the perfect opportunity to raise our collective – and personal – awareness of mankind’s inhumanity to its own species. Television is awash with programs to do just this and I can only recommend watching them.

And what is the point of digging up what is for some a period of history better forgotten? Besides remembering those who sacrificed their lives – on all sides and fronts – I still believe – if we really work at it – we are capable of learning from our past mistakes. Without the First World War and its ignominious Versailles Treaty (see photo below), there would have been no Second World War. Do any of us really want to experience a Third World War – with today’s nuclear potential?

Which brings me, the American ex-pat and German-by-choice, back to one of my favorite themes: The European Union…

The European Union may have many weaknesses and, Lord knows, we love to complain about its regulatory derailments and bureaucratic bloat, but it  is the child of a post-war France and a post-war Germany who were determined to end death and destruction on European ground. As a political body reacting to conflicts within as well as beyond its borders, Europe has a reputation for slow reactions. Think the Yugoslavian disintegration into war in the 90s, the recent Euro crisis and now the ever deepening Ukrainian crisis with its threat to the balance of power between the east and west. In these instances, however, I’d like to believe the slowness is deliberate. Rather than sliding –  sleep-walking – into escalating conflicts, today’s leaders must calculate their justifiable national interests and the consequences of pursuing them.

Personally, I am prepared to suffer a lot of somewhat inane and seemingly sclerotic bureauocracy from an as-yet-imperfect European political system if it prevents blood-letting on world war scales.

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Filed under Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Politics, Remembering, World Wars

The Warsaw Pact Takes on New Meaning

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When we were visiting Warsaw a week ago, I had no idea we were just missing Barak Obama’s arrival. After five days there, spent delving more deeply into the history of Poland in general and Warsaw in particular, I appreciate the President’s confirmation of the resolve of the US and NATO to defend, if necessary, Poland and the other former Soviet satellite states which are, indeed, now members of NATO. For the Ukraine crisis has certainly given the countries at our eastern outposts a mighty case of the jitters. And for good reason: Promises are one thing, carrying through can be quite another.

Warsaw is a city resurrected – by its own strength and resolve – from the ashes of World War II. Although under Soviet dictatorship, the citizens immediately started to rebuild their city, not a modern incarnation of it, but as it had been, as they had loved it before 1939.

Before / After

Before / After

After a visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which presented blow-by-blow the city’s last-ditch struggle to survive, I came away realizing that it wasn’t just the Germans and the Russians who raped Poland. In September 1939 when the country was invaded first from the west by the Germans and then from the east by the Russians, Poland’s allies – Great Britain and France – did not lift a finger. They were powerless; they could only let the invaders have their way.

With its low plains, Poland had always been an easy target for armies to march across. Napoleon certainly took advantage of that. And its geopolitical location between three greedy empires (Austro-Hungary, Russia and Germany) made it a tempting target. Thus in 1795 Poland became the tragic victim of its geography and topography. It was divided into pieces, like a cake, between Austria, Germany and Russia. Only at the end of the First World War did it reappear on the map as a sovereign nation.

In 1939 the German National Socialist regime was determined, once and for all, to quash Polish identity. One element of that was leveling Warsaw. In their perception, that would destroy their national identity. By 1945, 90% of Warsaw had been bombed and burned out. But they underestimated the will of the people to stay Polish, as evidenced by their final uprising in the summer of 1944. They went down but they went down fighting.

 Warsaw reborn_0002

Aerial view of a city devastated

 

During the war, the Polish government was in exile in London; Polish troops fought side-by-side with the British, French, Americans, Canadians and others. What remained of their airforce flew with the RAF. They fought bravely and believed when the war was won that they would get their country back.

At Yalta, a seaside town in then (and now once again!) Russian Crimea, in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin set the framework for the post-war political landscape of Europe. Poland was already occupied by Russia. The western allies, again, did not have enough strength to counter Stalin’s drive to secure his sphere of influence. Poland was left to Stalin. The rest is, obviously, history. My conclusion: Poland was f***ked, repeatedly, not only by her enemies but also by those she thought her friends.

Let’s hope and pray that the USA, within the scope of the NATO alliance, does in fact, this time, defend Poland and the other former Iron Curtain countries from Vladimir Putin’s latest version of Russian egomania and paranoia, should this become necessary. The rest of western Europe must move on from its tentative measures and show more backbone. For with one eye on 20th century history, it is easy to understand the nervous twitch from which Poland and her eastern neighbors are lately suffering.

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Filed under Cities, Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Great Britain, Holocaust, Politics, Remembering

Madiba Rests in Peace

…and we must pray that his country will have grown strong enough to live in peace without his presence.

With the passing of Nelson Mandela last Thursday, the world lost the most iconic man of the entire 20th century. He was one of those rarest of human beings who combined intelligence with the wisdom to use it. And with it he saved his nation. The struggle in South Africa is not yet over, but that the people have come this far without a bloody civil war must be credited to this one man with the moral authority to risk love and forgiveness when others would have preferred hate and revenge.

Just think how much better a place the world we live in could be if we all emulated Madiba.

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela

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Martin Luther King Jr. Had a Dream

Beyond the breaking news that the US is close to intervening in Syria, the country is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, August 28th 1963.  Yesterday a commemorative gathering was held on the Mall, before the Lincoln Memorial, the same location as Dr King chose long ago as center-stage for his campaign of non-violent protest to the plight of black Americans 100 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation liberated them from their shackles.

JOBS AND FREEDOM

Over 200,000 people – 2/3s of them black, the rest white – arrived in Washington, not to burn down the capital but to set hearts and minds aflame for the just cause of equal rights for all. Jobs and Freedom was their cry, a modest demand in the home of the brave and land of the free. Yet it had still not materialized for the portion of the population who happened to be born with a different shade of skin.

HE HAD A DREAM

Dr Martin Luther King Jr,  a 34 year-old Baptist preacher and leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, didn’t hold a speech. No, he preached a sermon that every American needed to hear. I watched a recording of it last night and it gave me goosebumps. He departed from his written speech to hold forth eloquently about his American dream. And that dream was inconceivable in 1963. Here, the relevant portion:

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.

Fifty years later great progress has been achieved. However, speaking at yesterday’s gathering, the black sports star Bill Russell admonished his audience not to rest on past achievements. He told listeners not to measure progress by how far we’ve come but by how far we still need to go.

There is much truth in that, however, it seems to me so much has been achieved that it must be acknowledged as a major miracle.

RETRACTION

I feel a great need to retract a statement that I made as a reply to a comment on my last (guest) post on Italian politics. I agreed with Alison that we were powerless to have any affect on what’s going on around us on a national or international level; that yes, it probably didn’t matter much whether we knew what’s going on in the world or not.

After revisiting the events of 1963, I must retract those views. If those black and white individuals had not been determined to change their world, blacks would still be living the lives of semi-slaves and whites would be the perpetrators. I am so grateful to those people who had the courage to march and to protest non-violently despite police brutality, who weren’t satisfied to sit on their couches and live with the world as it was. Thank you for changing our perceptions. Thank you for proving that the actions of individuals do count.

Do we not owe it to them – and to ourselves – not to relinquish our responsibilities, not to disenfranchise ourselves? Because if we do not participate on some level in making our society a better place for all, we have little right to damn the Germans in the twenties and thirties for allowing a Hitler to happen.

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THE WALL – ROGER WATERS IN FRANKFURT

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All week the radio stations hyped the event. Last night it happened: Roger Waters and his crew staged a magnificent performance of THE WALL.

The music was as powerful as when first released in 1979. Live performances of the full-blown rock opera have been infrequent, thus making the Frankfurt gig a rare gem in the year’s schedule of big name appearances.

The special effects – light, sound and visuals – were stunning. The droning airplanes and thwacking helicopters, the crashing bombs and the flak artillery, were not only loud. You felt them shake the arena; your internal organs vibrated along.  They even flew a real airplane through the air to explode into the stage.

With all this sound and fury, it must be noted that this is an anti-war message par excellance.  Waters protests against the wanton destruction of individual human beings and their worlds with anger and irony. One bit of graffiti on the wall: “If at first you don’t succeed, call an airstrike.”  Waters takes to task every element of our society responsible for causing war: the three big religions, political ideologies and big business. Symbols of these forces fall as payloads from bombers, causing death and destruction as they hit the ground.

Behind the anti-war message lies Waters’ own private demons: the death of his father who he never knew in WWII, abuse by bullying teachers at school, an over-protective mother and his divorce.

This statement on the wall, however, conveyed Roger Waters’ entire message to me in three words: FEAR BUILDS WALLS. I couldn’t help but think of my own small-scale, non-explosive creative efforts. In THE PEACE BRIDGE Hannah Zimmer fights to bring down the wall of silence that her family has built around the past. Fear built that wall, too. Like Hannah and Waters’ protagonist, Pink, we each have demons that haunt us and make us fear what we are walling in. Or walling out.

Were you there last night? If so, what did you think?

BTW: The performance deserves better photos! Sorry I couldn’t deliver.

 

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Filed under Fiction and Other Truths, Great Britain, Poetry, Politics, Remembering, Rock Music

BLAST FROM THE PAST

Passion for history is stoked – especially when it’s personal

It’s probably just my advancing age, you know, getting to the point where there is a huge chance that more of your life lays behind you rather than before you, but it seems in the last little while the past keeps reaching out, sort of jumping up and down, waving its scrawny arms around and shouting: “Remember me?”

If you are anything like me, there are plenty of things you do want to remember, or be reminded of. But also a whole lot you’d just as soon see sink into a swamp, never more to re-surface. Like the time…no wait…I’m telling anyone about that!

Seriously though (well, halfway…), through some recent attempts by the internet to suck me completely under its control, I found myself at a website (classmates are us, or something like that) that wanted to reconnect me with friends from Kenmore West Sr. High from 19…, suffice to say: from way back when.

Despite my growing talent for forgetting the names and faces of people I met last week, I actually recognized a couple of people who were turning up at the site and I was re-routed to the class Facebook page. I found out that one of the cheerleaders and class president, Martha B, was diligently organizing a class reunion for September. It sounded like fun. On closer scrutiny though, I discovered that it was being held two days after I would depart from my visit in New Jersey in early September. The really sad thing: I would also be visiting the Buffalo area during my stay – for the first time since 1997. Just two weeks too early. It was not meant to be.

This whole affair made me pull out the Ken West yearbook from my senior year. It hadn’t been opened, I believe, since graduation day. It was a real ah-ha experience, looking back at kids I once knew, wondering where they are now, wondering who they are now.

It made me try to reconstruct who I was then. Judging by the loving comments (really personal messages written next to pictures of people, some of whom I couldn’t for the life of me recall, wishing me luck and telling me to stay the great girl I was), I seem to have been considered intelligent and I already had a smart-mouth that contributed to making gym class more bearable for my co-sufferers or, alternately, got me a dose of detention. That hasn’t changed much.

Going back to an even earlier past than my high school days, my husband and I are in the midst of clearing his mother’s house in England. The Herculean task of dismantling a life is not only a sad process; it also means excavating every nook and cranny. Everything has to go. It’s hard to throw things away but you have no choice. One category of “finds” that must be kept and treasured, however, is all the photos, especially those from her life before children. She was so pretty and athletic and the man she would marry had the muscular physique of a recently de-mobbed soldier. It’s good to be reminded of the time when she and he were strong and active, working hard to set up housekeeping and start a family in those austere post-war years.

Grandma and Grandpa on a tandemAnother ghost from the past resurrected herself the other day. My sister received a letter from a long-lost cousin of ours. The letter stirred up all sorts of questions that may well only be answered by consulting a geneticist. I wouldn’t want to elaborate on this subject here though. I’d rather save it as tantalizing material for my next great novel.

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”  L.P. Hartley (killer first line of The Go-Between)

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