Tearing the Silence –On Being German in America”, by Ursula Hegi, is not for everyone. I know from my family how difficult the subject of War is for Germans. The book is at times very personal, and often painful. Germans don’t generally do personal (at least, not with strangers). But that statement is also telling… Germans don’t do personal.
What does it mean to be German in America?
The book was written in order to understand her feelings about her birth country. Hegi, who ordinarily writes fiction, “Stones from the River” and “Floating in my Mother’s Palm”, interviewed a number of Germans living in America. She focuses on the generation who was born during or shortly after the war. Some had immigrated as children, others, like her, came as adults. What is it like to be German? What was it like to have this terrible legacy that no one talks about?
Because, it’s something we don’t talk about, is it?
As a child, I got bits and pieces of my parent’s stories from wartime … a dollhouse left behind, growing up hungry and being grateful for a slice of bread with sugar on it. These stories shaped me, even in America where we didn’t know hunger or want, we take care of the toys we have, and we eat everything on our plate. No one talked about the Holocaust, that wasn’t part of our story, was it?
My father and mother were born in 1939 and 1941. Too young to have any knowledge of war, other than the drastic effect it had on their family. They came to America in the late 1960s to start new lives, but they brought their German values, their culture, and their upbringing with them. I was born here… but raised like a German Girl.
What does it mean to be German in America, a land of freedom and informality? Hegi writes “We become representatives of ‘the German’. Every possible stereotype- efficiency, racism, obedience, punctuality, rigidity, loyalty, denial, cleanliness, arrogance, persistence, and responsibility- is measured on us, applied against us, searched for in us.”
I was taught to speak German, we celebrate Christmas like they do in Germany, we eat German foods, learn German songs. I was taught German Values. The result; my ex-husband’s favorite insult was to call me “too German” for desiring a clean house and punctuality. And in elementary school, a child who didn’t really know what he was saying, called me a Nazi.
Sadly, Germans will forever be linked to that terrible time.
Tearing the Silence :On Being German in America
Ursula Hegi makes no excuses, and she doesn’t need to. This is not a book about apologies. Her story, and the stories that she shares, are about what happened after. It’s about growing up with rigid German values in a very non-rigid America. How we come to grips with history, and how we move on. It’s about Tearing the Silence… that is, talking about events that we just don’t about.
Like I said, the book is not for everyone. I was brought to tears a few times… and some passages come back to haunt me still. But maybe, sharing the stories, and asking the questions, will help those of us from the generations who came after the war to come to grips with what it means to be German in America.
Some Fiction books by Ursula Hegi