I am at the nexus of an indefinite past and indeterminate future. My history will forever remain clouded, built of conjecture, legend, and images. The future is shrouded in hope, desire, and uncertainty. It is my sense of belonging, and relatedness that joins the two and forms a unity of design and purpose. More
As you most certainly know by now, my mother is German. She is a product of having grown up during the time of the Third Reich. My father, on the other hand, has always thought of himself, or so he says, as one of those conquering heroes who had the great good fortune of meeting the love of his life in the rubble that was post World War II Germany.
It has always be a curiosity to me that such a time and place could produce the circumstances and love of which I, my sister, and my children are all products.
Everyday, when I am home, I look at the wedding picture of my parents. In that frozen image, I see youth, hope, and joy. Absent understanding the circumstances of their lives, a wedding photo ought to evoke those images and emotions.
However, there is more to this story. In the years immediately preceding my parents marriage in 1950 “a lot went on”. In 1945, my mother’s family had been dispossessed of their family holdings (farm) by the Russians and Poles as part of Germany’s surrender conditions. At the time of dispossession, my grandfather was forced into servitude by the Russians on his own lands for its new Polish owners. These lands and farm been his family’s legacy to him. They were his livelihood, his pride, his joy and his bond to his past. They were lands for which he could and would never accept compensation from the German government.1 It was his opinion that there was no compensation that could adequately assuage this loss.
Coincident with my grandfather’s transition from land owner and farmer into servitude, the Russians forced marched my grandmother, who was about 47 years old at the time, into a slave labor camp (salt mine) in an area just east of the Ural mountains. After her enslavement, my grandfather, who could no longer tolerate the conditions of his servitude, escaped and marched, at age 67, over 600 miles across Poland and East Germany into Bavaria where he ultimately found my mother and sanctuary.
I suspect that there are few who would argue that Hitler’s Germany ought not to have been defeated in World War II. However, it seems a horrible trick of fate that this same man, who suffered so much in World War I, should now have everything he, and his family, had worked for stripped away, including in so far as was possible, their dignity, tranquility, security, and future. It does not seem right.
Yet, in spite of all these circumstances, I have this photo of joy, hope, and aspiration.
As I reflect on my recent encounters with misfortune, illness, age, and infirmity, I think about my parent’s wedding photo and the five short years that preceded it. I am forced to acknowledge that many wrongs occurred, many perpetrators ‘conspired’ to harm, even break, the future and happiness of my family. But, they did not succeed. They did not succeed because my parents and family chose not to let them succeed; they chose not to be broken or defeated. Instead they chose to look forward, to pull together in the face of significant hardship and adversity; they chose to persevere. They put all their energies towards a positive future, one of which I, and my family, ultimately became an integral part.
My challenges of today are no greater than theirs; my fears are no larger; my hardships no more severe. They are just different and they are mine.
As I face my fears, the most important lesson for me is that our hopes need not be made small by adversity. The challenges through which we pass make it possible for us to respect our past, reflect on our joy, and have hope in our future. Even if it is not the future we had planned, hoped for, or anticipated.
1- The post world war German government offered limited compensation to those in the “East” for the lands that were lost in the surrender of Germany. Acceptance of any compensation offer meant a formal release on any future claim of ownership or eventual ‘right of return’.
As I look at photos of my great grandparents, grandparents and parents, I see the faces of my past. Each looks at me across the span of time without movement or animation, yet each coveys a strong message of simultaneously being connected and disconnected in time, space, and place. I am certain that we each assume that same position for our successors, and are especially so for our children and grandchildren. More
As we were traversing the nightmare that was my 50-51st year, we had many opportunities for introspection and thought. There were times when we were angry. Times when we were fearful. Times of doubt. And even, times of joy.
I would be less than truthful if I said that we were not forced to re-examine ourselves, our lives, our values, and our faith. That is not, however, where it stopped. I had always been comfortable with my faith, what was more interesting was that I not as certain how I fit in my family and world.
I have a history of absence from my family. My work, has for the last 15 years, involved a significant amount of travel. I assumed that this made me different from most husbands and fathers. I even thought that my absences might, in some perverse manner, have contributed to my familys’ problems; the vengeful God fear. Ultimately, I arrived at a different rationalization. This rationalization is a product of considerable introspection; an introspection grounded in an effort to better understand my predecessors and may relationship to them.
Simply stated, I believe we are all absent. It is inevitable that we are either physically or mentally (or occasionally both) absent from our families, ourselves, and our spouses. What we can not be absent from is who we are, our potentialities, and the legacy of our very existence.
This notion became evident to me one day as I looked at a picture, actually a postcard, of my mother’s father. I know this sounds peculiar; it actually seems peculiar to me as I write this. It is nonetheless true. Let me try to relate the situation, images, and thoughts more completely.
The postcard, I mentioned, is of five men; one of them is my grandfather.
He was about 37 years old when the photo was taken. In the photo, he is surrounded by four of his compatriots. The postcard is very worn and tattered. The image, although difficult to see, seems to have been taken on a spring day, bright with sun. There are broken trees in the background. Each of the men are in uniform; the uniforms of WWI German artillerymen. This photo was taken in April or May of 1916 near Verdun France . My grandfather spent 4 years in the killing fields of World War 1. He was one of the lucky ones, he survived Verdun, however, that did not come easy.Once, he was the sole survivor of his company; a second time he survived along with one of his company man. I never saw the emotional scars he must have carried away from his years of war, but I was always aware of his hunched back, a result of having his back broken by an artillery caisson. He survived that incident by crawling on his elbows back to his side of the battle lines, after having been left for dead by the enemy that over ran his position. (Select this link for a German Video on Verdun 1916) For all the horrors and pain he saw, he was awarded an Iron Cross Second Class and the Hindenburg Cross of Honor.
What does this all of this have to do with my problems, you might ask.
Well, my grandfather is the single most important role model in my life. He was a good, strong man. He lived a long life; he died in his 96th year. He left this world a lasting, albeit temporary, legacy, me.
Looking at this photo I was forced to ask myself, was this photo so different from me? From the circumstances I was facing? That’s when the thought occurred to me. We may not be able to control the circumstances around us, we may not be in control of fate, but we can control or choose how we react to our circumstances and challenges.
As I look at this postcard, I see a man who earned my undying respect and love. Here he was fighting a war, which was to later be lost; a war from which he would forever be scarred, physically. Those in the photo with him were, in all likelihood, killed in the many battles that followed. He was forced by his circumstances, and his service, to fire artillery shells at “the enemy” with the sole purpose of destroying their towns, villages, and country. How can this be?
As with many aspects of life, things become clearer in the fullness of time. The man I knew, was a product of the time and circumstances seen in the photo, but he was not the man in the photo itself. He had transcended that time and place, perhaps even grown because of it. The man I knew was kind, gentle, loving, quiet, and strong. He had chosen not to be victimized by his earlier circumstances. He had wrestled his demons and won.
September of my 50th year is when my life began to change. During a period of 12 short months, my quiet, complacent world would be shaken to its roots.
Business was going reasonably well, our son was ensconced in his masters degree program and our daughter was a senior in high school. I was on yet another business trip, this one to LA. I had flown out on 9/11/2002 (yes, one year after) when the first episode of my many recent encounters with life struck. My father had broken his hip. I suppose that this ought not have come as a total surprise, but as with most unwanted events, it was. With the advantage of twenty-twenty hindsight, the accident was easily explained. But nonetheless, it was, at that time, a surprise, a shock, and a panic. I was three thousand miles from my parents, one thousand miles from my wife, having to act the part of supporter and nurturer with all of the facilities that remoteness and technology would allow. More
All tales are true. Some are parables and some are fact. Every fact is interpreted and filtered with the perspective of the viewer. This story is no exception. There are facts; there are truths; there are aspirations; and there are interpretations. This story is intended to relate a very personal set of experiences and history. It is shared to honor my predecessors and successors. It is also shared in the hope of indicating that my story and yours are intertwined. More