Wordsanctuary Revisited

Musings of a writer-teacher-counselor.

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Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

I am inquisitive and have worked in writing, editing, and teaching. I am a citizen of the USA and also concerned about the world. This is an addendum to my original blog, Wordsanctuary. That's at www.wordsanctuary.blogspot.com Please check out my column at www.insidehighered.com, "A Kinder Campus." Click on Career Advice to find it. Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year 2008

January 1, 2008, marks the 130th birthday of my maternal grandfather, Georg Viernekas. He was the oldest of nine born on a farm in the German countryside, sent early to the city of Karlsruhe to earn his keep and help support his family. Catholic and eventually marrying a Lutheran woman thirteen years his junior, Hedwig Giess, Georg worked for years as a porter at Hotel Germania.

The bridge separating the two faiths was not a small one to span at the time.

Hedwig was a maid and helper at a neighboring hotel. She caught his eye; in order to take an uninterrupted walk with him, she gave a bribe of chocolate to children she needed to watch at the same time. The children later revealed to their parents that they had been given some chocolate to eat--"and it's a secret!"

These are the types of family stories that kids half-listen to, a little bored. They are the same stories that--as we grow older--we wish we had taken time to absorb more carefully.

My grandfather served in the Bavarian regiment before World War I, gaining officer status. He voluntarily gave this up to be a cook in the German army when he was called again to serve in World War I. Hedwig found in Georg maturity, a strong work ethic, and gentleness.

By the time World War I demanded his service, Georg and Hedwig were married, my aunt (also named Hedwig) had been born, and my mom was on the way. My father felt that working as a cook might allow him to occasionally send a little food back home, helping the family survive. My grandmother had rejoined her mother in the countryside where "at least we'll have potatoes to eat" was (and still is) the family mantra. Georg also knew that surrendering his officer status meant he would not have to shoot.

I have my grandfather's pewter ration box and cup, and I share the green of his eyes though with a touch of hazel at the center ...

My mother tells me that whereas Georg was quiet and reflective with a dry sense of humor, her mother was livelier and more expressive. But the worries of living in a land at war twice in her lifetime would eventually etch worry lines into her beautiful face.

When Georg was called to serve in the Army, a relative of my grandmother’s (her godmother, in fact) was distressed that she had married a Catholic. She asked her: “What will you do with those Catholic children if he does not return?" My grandmother had promised to raise the children Catholic--though she maintained her Lutheran faith. My grandmother’s mother (my maternal great-grandmother), Katharina Henriette Giess--Lutheran herself and deeply spiritual--put a stop to such talk.

She said: "A promise to G-d on the altar is not to be broken.” I have seen a letter that Katharina wrote on the occasion of my mother's birth, full of joy and spirit. Her graceful handwriting reveals another era, when each word, each thought, was expressed on paper with a measured grace. Could she have imagined that her great-great-grandchildren--my son, my niece, my nephew--would live in a time when words flash across the world in an instant? Would she have changed her view that cars are "Teufelsmaschinen" (Devil's machines)? When I was hurt in an auto accident, I thought of that phrase often. And when she looked into the eyes of my mother, who born after a ten-month gestation, she said definitively: "Zu gut fur diese Welt" (Too good for this world.)

My grandfather enjoyed feeding birds; when he drove the luggage cart for the hotel back and forth to the train station, birds would descend upon it to retrieve crumbs he left on top. Even from a distance, when the birds saw the cart coming, they would flock toward it. My mom recalls that they always had a canary, "Hansel." (The name was passed on to several canaries.) Upon hearing my grandfather's key in the door, Hansie would go straight to his feeding dish. Imagining Georg as a boy raised on a farm--conscripted by circumstance and necessity for service to hotel and army--I feel that his taking precious minutes to tend a small creature is deeply revealing of his character.

And Georg loved music. The waltzes on TV this time of year transport my mom into the world of memory, and I used to not "get it." I do now. She could play the piano energetically in her youth, and still plays favorite tunes by ear though her eyesight has dimmed. In my mother's piano bench is music her father purchased for her to play at family gatherings; it's yellowing, taped together to ensure its survival by my late father, but still legible. A violin that Georg bought for his youngest daughter (my late Aunt Hannelore) made its way to the U.S.A. in 2002, nearly one hundred years after it was crafted. When Hannelore was dying, she worried where the violin would go. (She had no children.) A first cousin (now deceased) insisted that my oldest sister and my mother--who flew to Germany to attend Hannelore's final hours--would take it back home.

A neglected violin in a dusty case? As it turns out, it has joined a quartet of instruments (piano, guitar, accordion) and the affinity for nature (flowers, birds) that carries the spirit of hope in our family. As fate would have it, my son began to play violin. Through music, I sense: Universal love. Sacred memory. Enduring joy. And pain.

Circa 1879 or 1880, just a year or two after my grandfather Georg was born, my father’s mother—Sura Rojsa (surname: Koppel, Kopel, Kopla) was born in Kalisz Gubernia, Posnan Province and entered a world of European Jewry that was to be decimated during World War II. She had long, wavy, dark hair and dark eyes; one strand of her family’s path goes back to Spain and the Inquisition. They were either expelled or chose to leave; I don't know. There were roots and branches of her family in lands including Poland and France. They journeyed in search of work, acceptance, survival.

Sura had a lively intellectual life, even reading philosophy--especially Spinoza. Though as the mother of a large brood (and bearing her first child perhaps as early as age sixteen), she carried many daily responsibilities: she made time to read. As my father entered dating years, I’m told that she’d stay up to hear "how it went"... and then he would ask her what she had been reading. This was before the horrors of the Third Reich--

I know little of my beloved grandmother Sura Rojsa, who died at Stutthof concentration camp in December 1944 after being interred in Lodz ghetto with other family members and "shipped" through Auschwitz. She knew my father's first wife, Silvia, and helped care for Eugenia, his daughter (my half-sister) born in 1935. I am still seeking verification of where and how Silvia and Eugenia died. Was it Stutthof? Was it Auschwitz? Their fate haunted my father his entire life.

Sura's three sons--including my father--and one of her daughters were sent for slave labor in Dresden in the final months of the war. One of the three sons, my uncle Leo, later disappeared.

Sura survived probably longer than the odds for a woman over 60. But by that point, her youngest grandchildren had been killed; wives of two of her sons had been killed; one of her daughters was killed; her husband had died in Warsaw; another daughter (Regina) was in hiding, we suspect.

What happens to a grandmother when she sees her kin disappear one by one? A family story tells of the time she protested and was beaten up in Stutthof, a hellish labor camp that also was used for annihilation. This story paradoxically gives me strength because, though defeated, her words ring through history. When asked "why didn't more Jews resist?" I can know in my heart that my grandmother, widowed, over 60 years old, tried. Perhaps the anguish and outrage of her shouts pierced the soul of the person(s) taking the children and/or grandchildren away. I know this story from a first cousin, a survivor, and the rare testimony of my father.

In recent years I have learned through web resources, the names of first cousins who perished: Mayer, Isak, Abram Josef, Maxy, Bella, Gitla, and a little older: Moritz, Milli, Benjamin...there are others, all of whom I hope to someday commemorate.
If a world leader--supported by willing believers of a rabid ideology--asserts that a group is subhuman, such a belief can destroy three generations of the same family. That is genocide. Hate paired with a technology of annihilation devours young, old, strong, weak, pious, secular: anyone deemed unsuitable. I cannot even imagine the size of my family had these cherished young ones survived.

I have not recovered from this terrible knowledge of human possibility, and I never will. It cannot be expressed in words--though I occasionally try. I sense positive potential for humans, of course--or I could not go on. Regrettably, the world has not abandoned hate.

As this new year opens, hushed by a blanket of snow here in Cleveland, I wonder: What would Georg and Sura say to each other if they could meet? Could they even speak? Would they, in the reverberations of that epidemic of horror known as the Third Reich, maintain mutual, conditioned suspicion? Or would their loves of music, nature, cooking, and reading spawn curiosity and rapport? Would they be surprised at the twists and turns that brought my father and mother together, in post-war Europe.

In another dimension, can my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather see their unlikely grandchildren--my two sisters and me...? In such a place, can family trees truncated by war and tragedy grow again, sheltering ancestors like mine who emerged from disparate worlds? Are the souls whose lives were cut short still grieving? Can they--or the world that failed them--heal?

In the sole picture I have of Sura Rojsa (taken at my Tante [Aunt] Regina’s wedding...her oldest child who was on the run during the Third Reich...there is sadness in her dark eyes. How this picture was preserved, I don't know.

In pictures of my grandfather Georg with his wife Hedwig and three beautiful daughters, I see a tender smile despite harsh realities that became even harsher as the Third Reich raged. In Hedwig's eyes, the sadness grows deeper with each picture. Let no one underestimate the power of political extremism and economic adversity to shatter lives. Georg had saved enough money to open his own hotel; with the depression that hit Germany, the money lost its value entirely. But there were other challenges. Georg's eldest daughter had a chronic illness; the family was strongly Catholic. Two black marks…or, in someone else's mind...two distinguishing factors that would guarantee that our family would be different, outsiders whose home was not entirely safe from Nazi poison. Work was thus not easy for Georg to get once the Nazis were in power. There were struggles for many years.

My grandfather accepted my father, without question or hesitation, when he fell in love with my mother.

As Georg aged, his final joy was to tend a small garden despite serious back problems incurred in a bombing of a hotel near the end of the war.

The woman that my mother became--a woman brave enough to marry a Holocaust survivor who had lost his wife, his daughter, and others ... a woman daring enough to accept differences of faith, age, and personality ... a woman bold enough to cross the ocean with my father and my cherished sisters (age 3-1/2 and 2 years old) to embrace a new land, a new language....a woman gentle enough to just keep loving us all through many family struggles... carried the legacy of her own courageous ancestors within.
These loving hearts included: a bright, sensitive Lutheran grandmother who said we don't revoke promises to G-d and tutored kids discreetly so that their teachers didn't know they were getting help; her Catholic father who chose to cook rather than shoot, and who loved birds and boxing, and who founded a community soccer team that (I'm told) still exists in Germany. And other relatives of both faiths who lived on farms, close to the earth, and maintained rugged independence of thought despite an evil ideology ravaging Europe.
My mother embraced Judaism.

If families can blossom with members of different faiths, why can’t nations? Will there be a day when most can accept religious differences as naturally as varieties of plants, languages, colors in the rainbow? Not a patronizing or suspicious acceptance, nor one with an ulterior motive (as in: "Let me get your trust, and then I'll convert you"). Rather, a genuine affirmation: "Yes, there is room for both you and for me on this planet."

Forcing religion into narrower and narrower chutes may seem on the surface to perpetuate traditions and create close-knit communities, but it leads to most of the world being labeled “outsider.” I do not believe that the world can afford that anymore, if it ever could. Either we are all kin, or none of is connected. Either we acknowledge our interdependence, or we each must ultimately go it alone.

With love and appreciation to (Oma) Grandma Sura and (Opa) Grandpa Georg for the gift of life. May your memories be preserved. May your scattered descendents serve truth and promote healing of this troubled world.

Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


Blogger Rosa S. Raskin said...

This is a beautiful tribute to your grandparents and parents. I share them with you as we do with the world.

I met our maternal grandparents before you were born. How I wish you could have met them too!

They gave me the warmest sense of security that one can imagine. Our maternal grandfather inspired me in the sciences and nature as did our mother's youngest sister.

Our maternal grandmother cooking in the kitchen is my first memory of anyone cooking a meal for me.

All was shattered by the necessity of entering a D.P. camp at the age of 3 1/2 years old before a voyage on a USS naval troop carrier to the U.S.A. where our late father held me up to see the Statue of Liberty.

Perhaps together we will learn what happened to our "oldest" sister, the blond-haired angelic child, first-born daughter of our late father. Our oldest sister had loving parents, grandparents and a warm cozy home, until forced into a Ghetto and concentration camps.

What horrors our sister might have had to endure as a young child, I shudder to think about the probabilities. No child in our world should suffer, we must learn from history.

Our oldest sister was most precious to her father and remains a most special child to our mother.

We are blessed to have a mother of 91 years that has an incredible memory, spent years with Holocaust
survivors, and wants us to continue to document the experiences of our family.

Your older sister, Rosa

March 27, 2008 at 11:54 PM  

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