My discovery of my Inner German started when I was ten years old when we had to move from our apartment to a house. Well, our apartment building was sold and my carpenter father lost his workshop in the basement. The new landlord didn’t like all the noise that my father made while he was working; making noise is part of being a carpenter!
After a little looking around, my parents decided on a ranch house in a predominately Jewish neighborhood of Evanston, Illinois. However, contact with young Jewish people my own age didn’t happen till I entered middle school.
My first Jewish friend that I met in 7th grade was David Hartman. David was nice enough to invite me over to his house to play croquet; his grandfather would often join us in the game. David introduced his grandfather in a very unique way: “This is my grandfather and he was born on the same day and year as Adolph Hitler… April 20, 1889.” Well, at the time I barely knew David or his grandfather, let alone this Adolph Hitler guy. All his grandfather said to me is: “It’s’ your turn”. I obliged and took a wooden mallet and smacked the ball through the metal hoop. This was my first encounter with a Jew.
The second encounter with a Jewish school mate didn’t go so smoothly. This particular classmate was helping his mom carry groceries in from the trunk of the car. Being the helpful youngster that I was, I pitched right in and carried some groceries into the house. Somewhere along the carrying, the subject of my religion came up. Both mother and son thought that I was Catholic, but I informed them that I was Lutheran. Well, I had to add that most Germans are Lutheran. Well, my school mate asked me: “Are you a Nazi?” I told him no. At the time I wasn’t quite sure what exactly a Nazi was supposed to be.
When I got home I relayed this story to my mom. She told me: ” You should go back there and throw the groceries down the stairs and tell them that you are proud of being German”. That was one time that I didn’t take my mom’s advise. Years later as I retold the story to a Jewish co-worker, he told me that throwing the groceries down the stairs would have been the real Nazi thing to do!
Being the inquisitive youngster, I wanted to find out what these words Nazi, Adolph Hitler, and German all meant. Sometimes I heard kids kind of blend all these words together. Well, I did some reading, asking of questions to find out more. Then I found about another terrible word related to the other terrible words, “Holocaust”, Hebrew for destruction by fire.
Well, through my reading and questioning, I found out that Germans started wars and killed millions of Jews. They not only killed, but did it efficiently. The media during this time was also a great learning tool about Germans and their past. What I was finding out about my German past, part of me wanted to hide it under a rock; preferably a boulder.
Through some positive discovery I started to crawl out from under that boulder. My positive discovery, like all good things, started at home. I discovery that my Great-Grandfather on my father’s side was part of the Volga-Deutsch emigration movement to United States during the 1880’s. My understanding is that Katherine The Great invited Germans to Russia for their superior farming skills. Well,my grandfather decided to leave Russia so he wouldn’t be drafted and serve in the Czar’s army for seven years. My grandfather and other Volga-Deutschers that followed brought their farming skills to the United States. The result of the immigration influx of these German farmers was that the United States was not only able to feed itself, but the WORLD.
Rummaging through some things at home I discovered a volunteer certificate that my mother’s father (John Bench) received from the United States government. The certificate read: “Every rivet that you rivet helps to defeat the Kaiser in The Great War.” It is hard to imagine that someone who emigrated from Germany would use his sweat and muscle to help defeat the country that he use to call home. His new-found freedom must have had a tremendous impact on his psyche toward the United States. It would have been an honor to have been able to meet him, but he died in an industrial accident when my mother was 3 years old.
My discovering and rummaging to discover more about my German heritage continued. The discovery lead me to appreciate classical music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the American John Denver (John Henry Deutschendorf), known for “Rocky Mountain High”-he got his high naturally; Germans like Mies Van Der Roh, Helmut Jahn and August Roebling designed and built structures in the U.S. and around the world; German scientist Werhner Von Braun sent America into space. Yes, Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany but he is Jewish. I wouldn’t want to upset any of my former Jewish classmates. These events were helping to get ne out from under the boulder.
Unfortunately the grief of Germany’s World War ll past wouldn’t let me get completely out from that boulder. One day I read the story of a woman who sought out a minister for grief counseling after the murder of her sister and brother-in-law. The woman sat in the minister’s office and was told: “Now make a fist and put it in front of your face. The fist is your grief. Gradually lower your fist. Your grief will always be with you. But your grief will not be the only thing that defines your life!” The grieving woman took the minister’s advise and lived a very productive life.
Well, I was finally out from underneath that boulder. My advise to any nationality or racial group is to lower your fist and keep on discovering.
Oh, I did forget to mention something. I’m Swed-ish too!
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