When I remember my childhood, I prefer to leave behind all I have learned in the many decades since my innocence has been destroyed. That feeling of innocence becomes sanctuary from the heavy weight that was laid upon my shoulders when I became conscious of the adult world that existed beyond my grandmother’s apron strings.
I learned to love my German roots before I even knew they were German. In the narrow scope of a child’s mind, I believed that every family in the world was having the same experience as my own. I believed that everyone’s parents drank peppermint schnapps on Christmas Eve. I believed everyone in the world sat down frequently to meals of meat, sauerkraut and potatoes with thick brown gravies. It was beyond my comprehension that there might be places in the world where a child would not know the pure joy of sinking one’s teeth into a Linzer Torte cookie with its nutty almond crust and raspberry center. It would take more than three decades before I would discover that Germany had indeed invented the Christmas of my childhood. My first glimpse of my cultural roots came when my grandmother taught me to sing Silent Night in the original language. I grabbed the ball of cultural pride and ran with it, never imagining that one day, decades later, in what I now deliberately choose to call the “Motherland,” that pride would come back to slap me in the face with the accusation that I am “too” German.
It is not difficult to remember the date I first set foot on German soil. It was April 26, 1986, the day of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I was so absorbed in the process of finding my roots, it was nearly a week before I realized that the milk I was drinking and the produce I was eating was possibly radioactive. I was overwhelmed instead, by my first experience of tribal identification.
The recognition of my tribal family actually began on the World Airways flight from San Francisco to London, then Frankfurt. The flight attendant was the spitting image of my sister Pat, but with a heavy German accent. Even that did not prepare me for the experience of ascending from the U-Bahn (underground) station onto the streets of Frankfurt for the first time. In every direction, at every corner I turned, there were people who reminded me of my grandmother, my mother, my siblings, my aunts and uncles and cousins. As the days passed I became more aware of the behavioral patterns that had survived the one hundred years since my great grandfather made his long journey from Nusplingen in the Black Forest, arriving at Ellis Island on a ship from Hamburg, then traveling to Illinois.
At the age of 37, I was compelled to go back through the memories of growing up in Central Illinois, to reevaluate everything I knew from my new perspective of belonging to a tribe. As a child my concept of the physical makeup of other human beings was limited to what I could see personally. A friend with short tight curly hair simply resembled his father. A girl with red hair and freckles looked like her mother! The only tribal separations that were evident in my childhood were the separation of black from white. It never occurred to me that a white family could actually be a part of a tribe that was part of a nation. Growing up as a child in the Midwest, it never even occurred to me that family names where connected to nationalities. I was the perfect example of the fourth generation Midwestern melting pot, mostly oblivious to the rest of the world. But even that had not quelled my desire to search for my true roots.
My first visits to Germany were on holidays. I was able to slip in and out of the country without ever going deeper than the uncritical perspective of a travel guide. Of course my search for my roots was based on fond memories of my childhood and stories from “my best friend” my grandmother. My perspective from the onset was biased, in many ways naive. In the first few years I simply built upon my innocent childhood memories, adding layers of German traditions and characteristics that melded easily with what little I already knew.
It was in the spring and early summer of 1989 that my perspective of Germany was radically altered. I had moved to Munich in an attempt to totally submerge myself into the German cultural experience. I convinced my German roommate to participate in the Gay Christopher Street celebration in June. We marched in a parade with about 1000 other participants. I was horrified by the animosity and outright hatred displayed by many along the parade route. My fear and disappointment was mitigated slightly by the loving reception we received when we arrived at the Bayerische Staatsoper, the Opera House. People were cheering as they threw confetti out the windows as if to say: “you have entered the sanctuary, you are safe now!”
My search for my German roots has been an evolutionary experience. I was very early in the process at the time I encountered the hostility in Munich’s Gay celebration. My first reaction was to ask myself if it wasn’t true “what they say about the Germans!” But to accept the ridiculous idea that fascism is in the blood of Germans, would be to implicate myself. I was too much in love with my history to embrace the “us and them” syndrome. I had to force myself to stand back and take a more in-depth anthropological perspective, focusing on asking why and how this behavior became so prevalent in this particular culture. At the time, I could find no one who could answer those questions to my satisfaction.
For Gay people, Munich has changed dramatically in the past 22 years. But still, there is a big difference between the North and Bavaria. It is no accident that my awakening began in Munich. This region of Germany is much more conservative than much of the rest of Deutschland. Many of my German friends characterized the American perspective of the world as Disneyland. In the summer of 1989 my rose colored glasses had been smashed. I had become a little more German and a little less American (Mickey Mouse) in my world view.
When my partner Rob and I moved to Berlin in 1991, I arrived with the same love and admiration of the German people and culture I have carried throughout my entire lifetime. But I was still German/American, not German. I was raised with concepts of the world that constantly clashed with what many of my German friends had been taught. As an American expatriate, I was able to say and do many things that were absolutely verboten to Germans. But I was born with the same determination and stubbornness that many attribute to Germans, for whatever reason. So I asked questions that were forbidden to ask and said things that were forbidden to say, regardless of how many times I was admonished. I had the distinct advantage of not being indoctrinated by German parents and culture, an advantage most expatriates enjoy when living in a foreign land. This opened a door to dialog that was new to both myself and most of the Germans I met. Eventually, I realized the incredible value in documenting these conversations.
When I moved to a small village on the south coast of the island of Crete, in the Greek islands in September of 1991, it provided the perfect setting for my interviews with Germans. Germans are drawn to the Greek islands because they represent freedom and a very distinct divergence from German culture. It was a place Germans could find courage to say what was forbidden to say in Germany. It was the perfect place for me to ask them forbidden questions. In the beginning I was moved by a very basic distinction between our views on the nature of human existence. I was raised with the idea that everyone is basically good at the core and we simply need to nurture that goodness in order to create a better world. Most of the Germans I spoke with balked at this idea! Many invoked the Disneyland reference as they spoke of my naive Mickey Mouse perspective of the world. Many of the Germans I spoke with believed instead that we are all evil at the core, and that we must spend our lives trying to suppress that evil nature. After hearing this repeated time and time again, I became obsessed with finding out how they had become so pessimistic about human nature, because my personal interactions with them gave exactly the opposite impression. I began to translate their stories into prose I constructed in a poetic form. I decided to call the collection “Speaking Into The Silence.”
The first person to inspire me to actually write down the German stories was Kriemhild Pachal from Weimar, the grandmother of my friend Elke. I was struck by the urgency with which she told her stories of surviving the Second World War. "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it!" That was a phrase I had heard before, without really understanding it or taking it into my heart. After spending a weekend with Kriemhild, I felt I was obligated to carry this message forward to coming generations. Now, twenty years later, I feel the urgency personally. Those last survivors of the holocaust have all passed away now, leaving their stories entrusted to me.
The Silent Victims
The half-century nightmare
Again I see the sunken eyes
The emaciated ghosts
Marching to Buchenwald
Death on my doorstep
I watch from behind my curtain
My forbidden act of courage
Struggling to free myself
From the fear which paralyzes me
I hear the footsteps in the hallway
Do they come for me this time?
I hear my friends, my neighbors cry
I remain silent in terror
The terror which I now breathe
It feeds me, it is familiar
I must survive to see the terror end
I will do anything to survive to see the terror end
But it never ends
We pass it on to our children
And they despise us
They say it will end when we die
They ask the question
Where were you, what did you do to stop it?
Again we remain silent
We must teach the vow of silence
The only way to end the terror
But in reality the terror lives
The ghosts are everywhere
We must never forget say the children!
No, we will never forget
Those of us who still breathe the terror
We will never forget
We scream the deafening silence
We are afraid to be proud
Afraid to speak the truth
We the despicable Germans
The good Germans who said nothing
If the world ever finds the courage to forgive us
We will find the courage to speak into the silence
And we the silent victims will say
“We forgive you too”
My first interview after settling in the Greek islands was with a young woman named Birgit. Birgit was in her late twenties. She was fascinated with my search for my European identity. She offered an incredible insight into the thinking of the generations who were born after the end of the war, but educated about it through the German school systems. Birgit told me about a recurring nightmare she had experienced as a young student.
Sometimes I dream I am a child again
Such innocent eyes
Soft eyes filled with laughter
My mother and my grandmother
Hold me with such love
But then the soldiers come marching
In perfect rhythm
Swastika blazing on their arms
I hear the movie projector behind me
That slow hum of terror
Teaching me the truth of who I am
Hitler’s voice replaces my mother’s
The masses of people cheering in the streets
Children waving their Nazi flags
That wonderful, horrible energy
Which is ever so pervasive
And always I am seated before the projector
This is who I am, I am told
This is my life I watch on film
I am responsible for this
It must never happen again
Then as I become older
It is decided FOR me
That I may now see the real truth
Now I am shown the concentration camps
The dead decaying bodies
Stacked in piles like garbage
You are responsible for this
Says the voice from behind the projector
It must never happen again
I want to scream NO! this is not true
I am a good person
But this is forbidden
I am forbidden to turn around
How can this have happened, I ask?
How can it be that so many did nothing?
I would not obey, I tell myself
I am good, I would not obey
I turn to the projectionist and scream
I WOULD NOT OBEY!
Behind the projector
With the swastika blazing on his arm
Tells me to turn around and be quiet
Everyone around me stares with anger
Once I began to put the words on paper, then read them aloud to other Germans, my serendipitous journey took a sharp turn. I realized that all of the stories collected in Greece were from Germans who were born after the end of the war. When I returned to Germany to read the pieces I had recorded in Greece, it inspired some very powerful dialog. I had become the conduit for a process that now had a life of its own. Truth exploded into the silence that had separated generations. Like splitting atoms, the words created an uncontrollable energy that shattered rules that had prevented healing.
I continued to speak with Germans in their late eighties with a new determination. I became their surrogate child who was willing to listen to stories their own children and grandchildren refused to hear. An intuitive urge pushed me forward with the knowledge that something more than a mere desire to know my roots was now at play. Kriemhild had pointed the direction I should follow. One sentence she had spoken haunted me throughout my subsequent interviews. “If only we had found the courage to speak up in the beginning before it was too late!”
I have an uncanny ability to sense things beyond the temporal realm. At times it has seemed like a curse. But I have learned to accept it and use it for good when I can. In the autumn of 1992, I spent a few nights with my friend Mary in Amsterdam. I slept in a bedroom at the back of the house at the top of a stairway that seemed more like a ladder. Each night I had nightmares about the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. I would awaken in a cold sweat, with the fear that somehow I would be discovered, taken away by German soldiers. When I told Mary about the bad dreams, she revealed that the room where I slept had been a hiding place for Jews.
These dreams continued when I returned to Germany, mostly in Berlin and Munich. In Germany there was no one to verify the authenticity of the dreams. But in my heart I knew they were real. I understood that the stories I accepted from the survivors of the war had opened the gate to Hell. I had to trust that my belief that we are all good at the core of our being would protect me. Over and over again the elder Germans had told me that I must get in touch with my dark side so I could recognize it and protect myself from it. The poor naive boy from Disneyland was horrified to learn that he too was capable of being overwhelmed and swallowed by the energy of evil.
So to the spirit of my dear Kriemhild, I want to say that your words were not spoken in vain! I will have the courage to speak up in the beginning before it is too late!
People may argue about the origins or the meaning of the term Fascism, but I’m sure that what I witness today in America is what my German friends warned me against when they said we must never forget the past lest we be doomed to repeat it! So I am tempted to leave the controversial word Fascism to rest here in this one paragraph, because the perpetrators of today’s evils were very clever to repeatedly misuse words of the past to the point where they have no meaning any longer. They are masters at Orwell’s doublespeak, flooding our basic public discourse with euphemisms that deliberately reverse the meaning of words. What’s happening in America today has a very modern American flavor, but its intent and structure are very old and familiar. It is incumbent upon all Good Americans to stand up and speak out now, before it’s too late!
When I look back now on a half century of my own political consciousness, I am struck by how many eloquent attempts there were to warn us of exactly where we are today!
President Eisenhower’s Farewell Speech
More than forty years ago when I was a student of political science, I was taught that the Fairness Doctrine was created specifically to prevent the kind of takeover of the media that occurred in Nazi Germany for the purpose of propaganda. Today, if one Googles the “Fairness Doctrine” the search uncovers mostly right wing propaganda that characterizes the Fairness Doctrine as a Liberal plot to censor free speech! I am reminded of the memorable scene in the movie Cabaret, when Brian Roberts played by Michael York responds to other residents who quote Jewish conspiracy theory from the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter. Brian responds by calling them an “international conspiracy of horses’ asses.” Today, in a world where newspapers are less important than television, we have Fox News!
But long before the movie Cabaret, Hollywood made many attempts to educate us on the dangers of nationalism and fascism within our own borders. My favorite is of course Katharine Hepburn in “Keeper of the Flame.” When Hepburn’s character Christine Forrest opens the cabinet in her late husband’s office, she spells out the character of our political world today as she tells Steven O’Malley, (played by Spencer Tracy) of her husband’s plot to destroy American Democracy.
“They didn’t call it fascism. They painted it red white and blue and called it Americanism! With fantastic amounts of money ascribed by a few individuals who wanted political power, but could never get it by democratic means.”
The essence of their plan was to stir up hatreds against Jews, turn farmers against city dwellers, stoke racism and anti labor sentiment, destroy labor unions, appeal to white supremacist groups. “Each group to be used until its usefulness was exhausted, hates played against hates.”
“If one group threatened to get too powerful, it would be killed off by another group.”
“And in the end, all the poor little people who never knew to what purpose they were lending themselves, would be in the same chains, cowed and enslaved!”
An old woman in Bavaria told me that because of the horrible conditions and exterminations in the concentration camps, history tends to downplay the forced labor aspects of the camps. The United States today has less than five percent of the world’s population, but has one quarter of the world’s prisoners! The idea that everything should be privatized for profit is one of the foundations of America’s move to the far right!
In 1938, Jewish and Gypsy children were prohibited from attending German schools. That story came to my mind as I watched students from the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Michigan, being dragged away in handcuffs, for protesting the closing of their school!
As I look on in horror at a country and government I can barely recognize any longer as the America I was taught to love as a child, I must speak out very clearly and succinctly about what I see as parallel to the past I am obligated to remember. Questionable elections, rampant uncontrollable corruption, innocent people imprisoned while capital crimes of the wealthy and powerful go unpunished, corporations treated with more respect than human life itself, civil liberties bartered away for the illusion of safety from imaginary enemies, hostility and outright hatred of education, contempt for intellectuals and creativity, demonization of labor unions and working people, religion used as a pawn for unethical immoral behavior, censorship of truth and right wing control of mass media, dangerous nationalistic rhetoric and flag waving and disproportionate funding of the military are all signs that I’m sure my deceased German friends had wished they had spoken up about before it was too late.
Unfortunately, now the boy from Disneyland understands how people could believe we are all evil at the core and should spend our lives trying to overcome that evil urge! But I still believe we are all good at the center of our being. I believe the struggle is not to overcome evil, but to overcome the idea that it is the basic natural instinct of the human species!