Thursday, June 23, 2011

History


The Audible book I'm listening to right now is Eric Metaxas' biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's fascinating stuff. Among other things, two of the plots to assassinate Hitler failed only because of unforeseen flukes: in one case, a bomb planted in Hitler's private airplane didn't go off because of low temperatures in the cargo hold, and in another, a bomb planted in a conference room did go off, but didn't kill Hitler because of the unusual construction of the conference table. One has to wonder how history would have unfolded differently if the little man in the mustache had died earlier than he did.

For me, the most moving part of the book so far has been Metaxas' account of Bonhoeffer's brief trip to the United States in 1939. Friends on both sides of the Atlantic had gone to a great deal of effort to arrange a position for him at Union Theological Seminary in New York, so he'd be safely away from the Gestapo. But although he'd lived in New York before, he was desperately homesick and torn about being away from the struggle in Germany. To the astonishment of the people who'd worked so hard to assure his safety, he sailed back to Germany on July 7, 1939, after less than a month on American soil.

July 7, 1939 was the day after my mother's fourteenth birthday. In April of 1938, her mother died in a car crash that also put her father in the hospital for six months, and my mother and uncle went to live with relatives on Long Island. I don't know if, by July of the following year, they were still there, or had returned to live with their father and grandmother in northern New Jersey. Either way, they were living within fifty miles of Bonhoeffer as he struggled with his decision.

My mother knew nothing about Bonhoeffer, of course, and was caught up in her own struggles: adjusting to life without her mother, navigating adolescence, getting ready to start high school. But Metaxes, at about this point in the book, mentions that anti-Semitism was becoming more severe in places outside Germany, including the United States, and that made me remember a conversation I had with my aunt -- Mom's brother's wife -- after my grandfather died in 1987.

My grandfather's last name (and thus my mother's maiden name), was Rozen. To the best of my knowledge, no one in the family was Jewish, but when my grandfather died, the hospital sent his body to a Jewish funeral home, perhaps because the name sounds Jewish and there were a lot of Jewish people in the area. Since no one in our family at that point was religious one way or the other, I wouldn't have thought it would have mattered.

My mother, though, had a meltdown. She couldn't stand the idea of her father's remains going to a Jewish funeral home. She was very, very upset, almost hysterical, and I was completely mystified. Mom thought all religion was hogwash and didn't understand why anyone would be involved in it at all, but I'd never heard her say anything intolerant about any particular faith. What was this about?

My aunt took me aside. "Susan, you have to understand that when we were all in high school together, people thought your mother was Jewish because of her last name. There was a lot of anti-Jewish feeling then. It was very hard on her. Later, she couldn't wait to marry your father so she could get rid of her maiden name."

I'd never known about this. My mother had never talked about it, and I still don't know what happened. Name-calling? Exclusion from clubs and social circles? I'll never know, now, but whatever it was, it was traumatic enough to send Mom into a tailspin more than forty years later. And I'm guessing that whatever it was, not being able to talk to her own mother about it probably made it worse.

I'm fascinated by the intersections between private and public history: in this case, how the daily life of a little girl growing up in New Jersey indirectly reflected the issues that led to the very political death of a world-famous theologian in Germany. I also love to think about how individual histories merge into shared history. That's not well-put, so let me give you an example. Gary was born in 1951; I was born in 1960. The day I was born, he was nine years old. Where was he that day? What was he doing? He certainly had no idea that his future wife had just been born. Our two lives ran on very different tracks until November 11, 1989, the day we met and began our shared, joint history. On that same day the year before, what was each of us doing? If you could draw a map or a diagram of our lives over time, what would the map look like before those two points converged?

My old parish had a retreat once where people talked about their histories before they joined the church. Everyone had lived all over the place, doing all kinds of things, before they wound up at St. Stephen's. We drew the journeys on a map. The diagram of how everyone arrived at this one community in Reno was much more complicated than the one for me and Gary, a veritable galaxy of converging lines.

Thinking about all this fills me with a kind of wonder. How many people are alive now who'll be central to my life at some point in the future, but whom I don't even know yet? What are the unseen forces that draw lives together, or deflect people from one another in ways they'll never even know? How do these seemingly random and individual interactions shape larger, public history?

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating isn't it? I talked something of the sort through with my husband a while back...how our lives crisscrossed for years before me met and married.

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