Ingrid Wecker The Spirit

History took hold of me
and never let me go thereafter.
--Simone de Beauvoir

Growing up, I myself do not remember ever feeling like anything but an "outsider." Something deep in my stomach told me, somewhere stretched across the ocean was a piece of myself. I do not remember the exact moment that my family's history began to untangle. People always asked me if I was related to this Crane or that one, and I would smile and say No.

As I grew older, it became more irritating, "No, none of my relatives live near here," I would all but shout to the inquisitor. I wondered where all of my relatives were. I always knew my name was different from my grandmother's, but I did not know why. Something was amiss, but when I attempted to ask my father, his face paled and I retreated. My paternal descendants, I discerned, were twilight zone people. I always felt as if I belonged in another place, that there was a dormant world embedded in me via my grandparents and father.

Shreds of stories leaked out in whispers when I was young, until my grandmother started to toss out one story at a time, until she broke down and confessed to me that she had written a book. It took me some time to persuade her to retrieve the manuscript out of her basement, where it had been hidden away. Through her stories, I allowed my grandmother to reweave my life, to put back in the original stitches.

But not until I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Hamburg, Germany, and was sitting in the Hamburg State Archives (after having waited weeks for my file requests to be fulfilled, and now having all eyes upon me as I checked out the folders) looking through my family's immigration files, housing inane letters my grandmother had to write to the Gestapo (secret state police) just to keep her husband's stethoscope and lists of all the beautiful family heirlooms the Nazis would "pick up," as well as the Aryanization of the company Arndt and Cohn, owned by my great-grandfather and great-uncle, did I realize the enormity of what had been missing from my identity, a history that, once seemingly daunting, vivified me the longer I stayed in Germany.

My father and his family, like the women in this book, survived the Third Reich. They are here to talk about it, but millions of others are not. My own family's experiences parallel many of the women's stories recounted here, and because of my relatives' persecution, the women felt a kinship to me and I to them.

The subject matter is not only tragic but also reaffirming of the human spirit and its ability to persevere. I have attempted to illuminate for all readers universal stories of human strength and weakness, of hope and survival, that transcend time, race, religion, class, and gender.

My father called Germany his "graveyard," pondering why he should return for a visit. He readily recalled how he was beaten by Herr Stolt--day in and day out--as an example to the other school children of an "inferior." Did these children not understand, as my father did not? He just wanted to wear a uniform (forbidden to him) like all the other boys--to belong to whatever they belonged to. He was an outsider but he did not understand why.

My father reluctantly came back to Hamburg when I was living there. One day, as we walked down Rotenbaumchaussee, a long street in Hamburg, he turned to me and said, "I feel afraid." He also was consternated when we went by his former house in Fuhlsbüttel and he noticed the name plate on his neighbor's home: The same family who had "spied" on his family, offering reportage about his family's comings and goings to the Gestapo, still lived next door.

As he was waiting at the airport to return to the United States, three hours before his departure, his name was called over the loudspeaker. His face blanched, his breathing slowed, and his eyes appeared distant, "Now what could they want with me? Are they going to keep me here?" I too felt alarmed. It was an anachronistic moment; both of us, for our own reasons, were thrown back in time.

Slowly, he walked down the stairs to the appropriate counter and, of course, it was merely a mix-up with his bags. He explained to me that when they tried to leave Germany in 1939, he and his siblings sat on trains, ready to board a boat to leave the country, only to find out they needed newly required papers. According to my grandmother, the ante was always upped. Just when she thought she had all the papers, the government changed the laws. In order to leave Germany, my grandmother needed approximately twelve official documents. On and off the trains, waiting and waiting, week after week, my father feared they would never get to the United States. Would they always watch the boats leaving without them?

To this day, he has fears about missing flights, and if you travel with my father, you are guaranteed a long airport wait.

The Law

You shall know them by their fruits.
-- Matthew 8:16

Today you wake up and you are told you are not who you thought you were. You are young and have been happily leading a carefree life, heading into a promising future. You sit down in the living room and your mother or father reveals one secret in your family that will change your life from this day forward, forever.

The government has changed cleverly and insidiously from a democracy into a dictatorship, one built on hatred and fear. And you are the scapegoat. You no longer have the right kind of blood, the right name, the right family background, the right physical features to be considered a member of your society, city, or state. Blue eyes and blond hair are favored, and you have neither.

According to new laws, you had better be "Aryan," but by definition, you no longer are. You have always been an insider, but you are now an outsider. You have never been a victim, but now you are victimized. You can no longer attend school, see your familiar friends, have a profession, or marry anyone of your choosing. Nothing and no one is to be trusted.

The world you’ve been living in has metamorphosed into an incomprehensible labyrinth. What goes through your mind? Why is this happening to me? Is this true? I want to die. By degrees, your family is torn apart in ways that are irreparable and irreversible. Like having a love, a passion, the likes of which you will never again see, once you have passed through it, your identity is altered.

As with a broken heart, some healed, and some did not. You cannot explain to others how your soul and heart have been defiled; the nails have left invisible marks that only God can see, although you try to show the marks when someone you trust asks. But there is always a sense that another breach of faith or of confidence will follow, that someone will pick up the hammer again and hit the nails.

This is not make-believe, but happened in this century to people in this book. When we hear someone talk about a divided life these days, it usually refers to a division between work and family, or work and social life, or children and spouse. It does not readily conjure up images of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, of people who were torn between a German and a Jewish identity.

Through the ten stories of women’s voices, we receive a clearer picture of Mischlinge and what they endured under Hitler’s laws. In the Luebeck memorial chapel, iron bells had fallen in 1942 during the Allied bombings and they lay still where they had dropped, badly broken and melted on the floor. It was astonishing to see. Later these bells haunted me and became a symbol of the Mischling women: A witness, a survivor, something left behind, but no longer in its original form.

And the fall itself had altered the piece forever.

Click here for the excerpt from Wecker's Story

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