A Personal Journey into a Xenophobia-Torn Past

By Erika Martin

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Erika Martin, March 2002

A Senior Essay

Submitted to the Interdisciplinary Studies Program

College of Lifelong Learning

Wayne State University

Detroit, Michigan

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of


March 7, 2002


Approved by:

      _______________________________________                    ____________

                          (Senior Essay Examiner: Rainelle Burton)                                                                    (Date)

     _______________________________________                    ____________

                   (Senior Essay Advisor: Moti Nissani)                                                         (Date)

      _______________________________________                    ____________

                         (Senior Essay Examiner: Roslyn Schindler)                                                                (Date)   

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This essay is dedicated to my parents,

Thomas Strupp & Elsa Chubiniak,

—with love and gratitude.

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For many years, I have had a recurring dream in which I returned to my homeland, Germany. In each dream I almost arrive at my destination, meet with some type of disaster and then suddenly wake up. I have often wondered what these dreams mean. Realizing that dreams are manifestations of a wish to have something happen and also our mind’s way of going over conflicts and issues we are grappling with during our waking hours, I decided to pay attention to what these dreams were telling me.

Besides dreaming of returning to my homeland, my son David, who was twelve years old at the time, and I went back to Germany to visit my relatives and friends in 1989. Yet going back home did not put the dreams to rest. So I decided to take another journey, a journey which would involve going back as far into the past as I can, to when I was born on January 25, 1944, when the fires of WWII were raging. This journey, however, was neither a journey of dreams nor a journey of actuality. It involved, rather, the mental exploration of my first eleven years of life, which was the time I lived in post-war Germany. In this journey, I would dig deep into the soil of my childhood to find the missing pieces of a child born in the cradle of war.

In addition, this is a writing journey. In writing about my experiences and researching events that gave my experiences a context, I have been able to discover the truth of those painful years and make a connection between what happened during the war to what happened after, i.e., how the German people coped with the war and its aftereffects—most specifically the people of my own village. However, most importantly, I wanted to discover what impact these people had on me during my formative years, years that were fraught with alienation, illness, and self-doubt.

I have also discovered that at the root of my childhood difficulties was an insidious enemy, an enemy that almost brought me to the edge of madness. Furthermore, this enemy is stalking the globe and affecting countless people in every country. As of this writing, war is raging in Afghanistan. It is a war driven by the same ancient enemy. Oh, on the surface the enemy could be said to be the Muslims, determined to fight a Jihad against their archenemy, the United States. However, what is beneath the surface of all wars, whether they are between two people or two countries, is that same ancient enemy who stalked my childhood and exterminated millions of innocent human beings in WWII.

This enemy is xenophobia. It comes in many guises such as fear of strangers and fear of others who are different. It wears the mask of discrimination, prejudice, intolerance, and hate. Sadly, those most often victimized by this enemy are women and children who are helpless to escape its ravages.

The method I used in this work consists primarily in piecing together my own childhood memories and researching how the sociopolitical climate of the time impacted my personal life. In my research, I have provided as many primary sources as possible to strengthen my argument.

I thank my mother and stepfather, Elsa and Michael Chubiniak, for helping me piece my memories together and relating to me crucial details of their lives.

Erika Martin

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CONTENTS (page numbers are of hard copy version)

Dedication ii

Preface iii









EPILOGUE: Xenophobia,, the Greater Picture 95

Works Cited 114

Figure Legends

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Chapter One

Back to my Childhood in Germany

Fig.1. My hometown, the small village of Aulhausen, circa 1982. The village is on a hilltop in the Middle-Rhine region. In the valley below Aulhausen you will find Rüdesheim, nestled along the banks of the Rhine River and mostly noted for its tourism and wine industries.


Fig. 2. The Main Road to Aulhausen


Fig.3. Rüdesheim

It is 1985. I am sitting in a plane on a transatlantic flight bound for Frankfurt Germany. Everything goes smoothly, the plane’s engines purr. The fuselage is peaceful and cozy. The flight is ahead of schedule, the landing in the Rhine-Main Airport uneventful. It is eight o’clock in the evening by the time I deplane and take the train to Rüdesheim. It is already growing dark. After stepping off the train, I walk the rest of the way up Rüdesheimer Weg (a steep but paved road) to my father’s house on Röderweg 4, Aulhausen, the small village I lived in as a child. My heart beats faster as I run the last stretch of the journey. Soon I will be in my father’s embrace. Suddenly a bomb explodes in front of me, tongues of fire igniting the darkened sky. Sirens pierce the air. People are running into ditches and makeshift shelters wherever they can find them. My hometown is burning. I wake up and realize it was just another dream.

Although I am proud to be a naturalized American citizen, my country of origin is Germany. I have lived in the United States since I was twelve years old, almost half of a century. I speak, read, and write English more fluently than German. My thoughts and dreams are in English. Many of my life-changing events took place in this land. The only external sign that I am not a native-born American is the slight telltale accent that shapes my words.

Ever since I left Germany, I have been plagued with a recurring dream, like the one that opened this chapter. In one of these typical dreams, I am sitting in a plane, or ship, bound for my former homeland. In each dream I almost arrive at my destination and even see my father’s house, nestled in the lush highland of the middle Rhine. I might be walking along the footpath through the woods of the Niederwald, enchanted by the scent of pines. Once out of the woods, I may see the old shepherd, with his dog, herding his sheep back home at day’s end as the sun sinks behind the horizon’s edge, casting long lazy shadows across the fields. I might even get as far as to the door of Röderweg 4. But always I wake up before quite making it.

In other dreams, the plane crashes, the ocean-liner sinks or some other catastrophe strikes before I reach my childhood home. Something inevitably goes wrong. I wake up puzzled and contemplate the significance of these persistent ill-fated dream-journeys.

What does this recurring dream-motif mean? I am not a dream analyst. But I see the persistence of this same dream with variations as a sign of an unresolved issue, a desire unfulfilled, a wound needing to be healed, a yearning for closure and tying up of loose ends. An interesting book entitled Your Dreams and What They Mean, written by the well-known dream analyst, Clement Wood, states, "The motive behind every dream is a wish . . . Thus every dream may be spoken of as a wish-fulfillment. There can be no dreams except wish dreams" (3).

Realizing that the oft-aborted journeys of my dreams have impacted me as much as my real waking experiences, I have decided to travel back to my first eleven years of life in Germany. This time I will take the journey with the deliberate clarity of my waking state, keeping in mind that my dreams have paralleled my more lucid state of consciousness and have been trying to give me clues to my unresolved wishes. One affects the other. It is up to me to make the connection and see the relationship.

As a rule, it is true that what we experience in real life is often echoed in our dreams, and what we dream affects our waking consciousness so that we can say that in reality there are two distinct states of consciousness: dreaming and waking. In fact, sometimes the distinction blurs. Eastern philosophers, in particular, recognize this phenomenon and explain the merging of dreams and waking-states in ways that are sometimes difficult for the western mind to comprehend.

In the journal, The Philosopher, C. W. Chan wrote a persuasive article, "The Butterfly Dream." Here Chuang Tzu, who is universally recognized as the greatest Taoist after Lao Tsu, tells how he was dreaming he was a butterfly but when he suddenly awoke he was Chuang Tzu again, thus posing a paradox: Was it Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly or was it the butterfly dreaming it was Chuang Tzu? (19).

I ask myself, how does this apply to my own dream experience? I’ve come to realize that I must take my dream states as seriously as my waking states. I must not overlook the importance of what my dreams reveal, nor dismiss my dreams as incoherent ramblings of my sleeping mind. To dualize waking and dreaming into two distinct entities would overlook the effect each of these states of consciousness has on the other. I would like to think of consciousness as a continuum. Although there are varying degrees of awareness, wherever we may find ourselves on the consciousness-continuum, all awareness is in fact relevant to the experience we call life.

Accordingly, when I apply that principle to my recurring dreams of attempting to get back to the land of my childhood, I must conclude the journey had already begun with the first of the series of these dreams even though the journey back had begun in the second sense as well when I took a trip to Germany in 1988 with my, then, ten-year-old son, David, a two-week trip I thought would finally put these dreams to rest once and for all. Of course it didn’t. After returning to the U.S., the dreams kept recurring. Consequently, I have come to realize that my dream-trips back home were practice runs, and that I would need to take the journey back in earnest in some other way if I was going to unravel the mystery of my dreams.

That journey back will be by way of this essay. I hope the trip I am about to undertake now will be one of deeper insight into my past. I hope that this journey will take me deep into the dark times of my life, into partially remembered events, and I hope that I will have the courage to face the past no matter what it may reveal.

The key point of my essay can be stated thus. Many of my childhood memories of Post-WWII Germany are fragmented. This coupled with of my repetitive dreams of attempting to go back to my homeland made me realize the importance of revisiting the past. I must discover the missing parts of my life if I am ever to understand my alienation during the first eleven years of my existence and what that alienation meant. To that end, I will dig deep in the soil of my childhood and exhume its skeletons and retrieve the missing pieces. I am going to explore the trauma of WWII and its consequences from a German child’s perspective, a child born in the cradle of war.

Right from the start, this journey back has been fraught with stumbling blocks. One problem I have is that those members of my family who were adults during 1944-1945 (the last two years of the war) and the immediate post-war years in Germany are not willing to say much. I’ve run into considerable resistance. Questions such as, "Why do you want to dig up the past?" have not been uncommon. One thing is clear, my family members do not want to be reminded. As a result, I must fit the pieces together as best I can.

However, before examining my WWII and post-war experiences, I must stress one point which will help clarify why it has been, and continues to be, so difficult for Germans to openly speak about that dark time in their country. This hesitancy to speak about the Holocaust and the post-holocaust years from a German perspective does not surprise me. It appears that national guilt and shame has sewn up the lips of many German citizens. At the same time, we must remember that the German people suffered a great deal themselves, and who wants to be reminded of some of the darkest times of their life? People naturally have a need to forget—it’s a matter of survival, of burying the past, of going on with life.

Furthermore, many Germans were kept in the dark about the Nazi atrocities and did not find out, until after their Führer’s Reich crumbled miserably, about the slaughter of the Jews and other unfortunate victims. Paul Johnson, in his exhaustive and well-researched work, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, notes:

The notion of destroying huge categories of people whose existence imperiled his, Hitler’s historic mission was to him, as to them, Germans (italics mine), entirely acceptable. The only thing he feared was the publicity and opposition, which might prevent him from carrying through his necessary task . . . The war, therefore, had the great convenience of plunging Germany into silence and darkness (413).

Likewise, Johnson sheds further light on why Germans, even after WWII ended, were reluctant to speak about the atrocities committed by their country-folk. He quotes Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer-SS (SS Leader) and a consummate hater of Jews, whose diabolic passion it was to annihilate Jews from the Reich. Speaking to other SS Generals on October 4, 1943, Himmler said, "Among ourselves it should be mentioned quite frankly—but we will never speak of it publicly," and he went on to say that before the end of the year (1944), every Jew’s life would be snuffed out:

You know all about it now, and you had better keep it all to yourselves. Perhaps at some later, some very much later period we might consider whether to tell the German people a little more about this. But I think we had better not! It is we here who have shouldered the responsibility, for action as well as for an idea, and I think we had better take this secret with us into our graves (Johnson 419).

Again, we must remember that the Nazis were not only savage executioners, but took away people’s right to think. In fact, they stripped the entire German nation of its freedom. How easy it was, and still is, to eliminate freedom of thought in a whole country by knowing how to manipulate the masses with propaganda and mind control as Hitler did? Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World Revisited, talks about how far Hitler controlled the masses: "Hitler’s dictatorship was the first in modern technical history to use all technical means to dominate his own people. Through radio and loudspeakers, he deprived 80 million people of independent thought, thus subjecting them to the will of one man" (47).

In addition, Hitler believed that the masses of people he affected were utterly contemptible, incapable of abstract thinking, uninterested in facts outside their immediate experiences, and driven by unconscious drives. The masses of whom he spoke were millions of anxious, bewildered, and frustrated Germans. To make them more mass-like, more subhuman, Hitler assembled them by the thousands and tens of thousands, in vast halls and arenas where they would lose all sense of individuality, their power of reasoning, and a will of their own (52,53). Hitler believed the masses should be attacked, shouted down, or if they become too much of a nuisance, liquidated (55).

So then the questions of how much the ordinary German citizen really knew about Hitler’s mission to summarily exterminate Jews, Gypsies, German intellectuals, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, as well as other undesirables, still today remains unanswered. His mission to enslave even his own people, perhaps, may never be known. So far in my research and interviews with my mother and my stepfather, I have come to realize that the question of how much they knew is a loaded question, one which appears to trigger guilt, shame, and silence, more so in my mother than my stepfather, which in itself is somewhat revealing since my mother is German and my stepfather is Ukrainian. However, it is clear that many Germans were confused and afraid. Although it is difficult to put an exact number on how many knew about the violence of their Führer, there were clearly those who did not know. One thing we can say with certainty: At war’s end, most Germans were bewildered, dehumanized, and defeated. Under Hitler, they were willing to give up their freedom for food, jobs, and national pride. In the end they had nothing.

Literature often teaches us lessons of real life. For example, Huxley in his A Brave New World Revisited quotes from the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, "In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, make us your slaves, but feed us," and when Alyosha Karamazov asks his brother, Ivan, the teller of the story, if the Grand Inquisitor is speaking ironically, Ivan answers, "Not a bit of it." He claims it is a merit for himself and his Church that freedom has been vanquished and done so to "make men happy; for nothing," the Inquisitor insists, "has ever been more insupportable for a man or a human society than freedom" (145).

Similarly, as in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, Hitler stripped the German people of their freedom, and they were willing to exchange their freedom for food and other comforts; but ironically, in the end the Germans had neither food nor freedom. All that remained were masses of stunned and confused people. Perhaps there will never be any conclusive answers to the question of how much they knew about what was going on in their own country. And, although I was born in 1944, while the hatred of WWII was still raging, I will probably never find out what part my parents and relatives played in it.

What is conclusive, however, is that WWII was idealized in Nazi Germany, and that propaganda replaced rational discourse. Hitler was not only guilty of murdering people he did not like, but of totalitarianism. He thrived on war. His propaganda clouded the minds of people, and those not specifically trained in critical thinking, such as the common German Bürgern (citizens), who were particularly susceptible to him, offering no opposition or dissent to his dictatorship. In addition, it is important to underscore that, if for instance Germany had won the war, its citizens would probably be proud and not ashamed of their accomplishments. Although Hitler is the personification of evil, we know that history is replete with tales of horror and genocide.

Our own beloved United States of America is not exempt from war crimes. We need only examine how we summarily destroyed the Native American peoples to realize that our history is stained with the blood of those from whom we stole the land. David E. Stannard in his American Holocaust, chronicles a chilling account of four hundred years of European and American settlers decimating native-Americans, unquestionably one of the greatest acts of genocide, and right now we are responsible for millions of Afghan refugees. But we control the media and the history books, so we can justify such conduct to ourselves. It is precisely because we won most battles we have been engaged in, that we get to write and rewrite the history books according to our interpretation. Yet, one must admit that nothing can compare to Hitler’s despotic rule, in which he murdered not only the bodies of millions but assassinated the free minds of millions as well.

On the other hand, although most of Germany idolized Hitler, just as many Russians idolized Stalin, for instance, in Germany there were those who opposed Hitler, who, indeed, fled the country, people like Willy Brandt, who in 1969 was elected chancellor of Germany and also was awarded the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize. In addition, there were clergymen and many lay people who were against Hitler’s regime and died resisting it.

Of course, at the time of WWII, I was an infant. The only tangible item that still directly connects me to the war is my birth certificate, which states that I was born on January 25, 1944, in Bingen on the Rhine to Thomas Rudolf Strupp and Elizabeth Else Siebig. Bingen is located directly across the Rhine River from Rüdesheim, the town which is nestled in the valley near Aulhausen. To get to the hospital, my mother told me that after being in labor for several hours, she had to travel by ferryboat across the Rhine River. There were no bridges. Had the ride across the turbulent Rhine on that cold day in January taken any longer, we would have never made it to the hospital and she would have given birth to me on the ferry.

My birth certificate looks ordinary enough except for one distinct difference. It is stamped with the Nazi Seal, proving that I was a child of the Reich. Had Hitler won the war, he would have been proud of my blue eyes and blonde hair. But considering the overwhelming condemnation of the Third Reich from the international community, my ownership of this Nazi birth certificate is a tremendous source of shame. It is not the kind of document I pull out with pride to show folks that I was given life in a time when millions of people were exterminated in places like Auschwitz and Buchenwald. My birth certificate is a reminder that I was born in a time when freedom of speech, and the very idea that peace is preferrable to war, were given up and systematically suppressed.

Fig. 4. My German Birth Certificate (note the swastika of the seal).

Chapter Two

Early Years In Germany

At this point in my journey back I will explore what it was that connected me to the "Third Reich." Obviously, at my birth, it was wartime in Germany, and I was born in the midst of violence. I wonder, how many others were born that day? How many died? Clearly, those of us "pure Aryans" born in Hitler’s Germany came into the world happy to be clothed and protected in spite of the rain of allied bombs descending on us. Yet what about the so called damned—the demonized—who were forced to leave the same world we were born into, stripped of their clothes, their dignity, and thrown, with all their naked vulnerability and shame, into gas chambers? Who protected them, covered them? What was my relationship to them? Is grief and shame enough to compensate for millions of lives lost?

Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Price, in Night, remembers the "others" who were condemned to die. He himself was an "other." Yet he miraclously survived to tell about it. After being taken to Auschwitz in 1944 with his father, he remembers a particular dark night. At fifteen, he was still a child himself. He remembers someone saying to him, "Do you see that chimney over there? See it? Do you see those flames over there . . . that’s where you’re going to be burned. Frizzled away. Turned into ashes (speaking about the Jews)." Wiesel remembers how the person speaking was "growing hysterical in his fury," and how, "we stayed motionless, petrified. Surely it was all a nightmare? An unimaginable nightmare?" (28). Fortunately Elie Wiesel was one of the survivors, but others, not so lucky, never made it out of the camps alive. For example in the summer of 1944, in just one day, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, over 9000 people were gassed and burned (The History Place: Holocaust Timeline).

I was only about six months old at the time, living with my mother in her hometown, Schriesheim (near Heidelberg), where she hid me from the allied bombing.

Fig. 5. One of pits used to burn the cremated victims of Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, when the rate of extermination exceeded the capcity of the furnaces to handle corpses (Holocaust Pictures Exhibition, poster 29).

Realizing that I was just a baby during the holocaust’s horror and that the only early memory I have of that time was when my mother carried me into a bunker during an air-raid over Schriesheim, I felt compelled to question her, to make certain that I didn’t imagine the faint memory that still stalks my mind today and that has left me with an aversion to going into dark musty places. Other than remembering being swooped up into adult arms, which carried me into a dark, moldy place and hearing frightening loud noises outside, my memory is blank. I wondered how much my mother remembered and what details she could provide me with to round out my own recollection?

So I drove to Howell, Michigan, to speak to her specifically about the past. Mother is 77 years old. Her health is failing. It was difficult for her to open up and fill in the blanks that riddled my mind like moth-holes. She had a definite aversion to remember the war as well as the postwar years. However, after much prodding, she began to speak. What follows is her account of that time, with my own memories superimposed on hers. You might call this a blending of broken memories to make an almost whole memory, a search for truth between oceans of time.

As my birth certificate states, my mother’s name is Elizabeth (Else) Siebig. After she and my father divorced, when I was two, she met Michael Chubiniak, who had come from the Ukraine to Germany during the war to find work. He enlisted in the Soviet Army in Berlin in 1945 in non-combative duty. This was after Germany had already surrendered to "General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) at Reims, France, on May 7 and to Marshal Zhukov at Berlin on May 8" (Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment 1056).

My stepfather had no trouble chiming in to mother’s account, making sure she wouldn’t leave his side of the story out. He recalled, "I wanted to have enough bread to eat so I worked in a bakery making bread for Russian soldiers. I became chief baker. Everyone liked my bread" Eventually, he defected from the Russians in Berlin and made his way to West Germany where he found work in construction. In time, he met mother, who was divorced from my father, at a dance in 1947. My stepfather smiled while he recalled that fateful moment. He said, "I looked around and saw a pretty girl and asked her to dance . . . I loved her ever since."

Not surprisingly, my parents, like most other German adults who were deeply scarred by Hitler’s dictatorship, found themselves trapped in a country that had been utterly devastated. Most of the country was in ruins, and there was a desperate food shortage. Three years after the war ended, the same people who had welcomed the rule of the tyrannical dictator were trying to rebuild their lives and economy. As Peter Calvocoressi, in Fall Out: World War II and the Shaping of Postwar Europe, argues: "The Russians wanted to neuter Germany and to take for themselves what they could in reparations--promises of cash and speedy removal of plants, equipment and other material valuables – but the Americans, having flirted with a similar policy, perceived that if they impoverished Germany they would then have to succour it" (23). This succoring did not begin until the Marshall plan, which was to pour aid from American surplus into the now destitute Germany; and although the plan was first drafted by General George Marshall in 1947, in reality it did not commence until July 1948 and then would continue for three years, costing the American government $10.2 billion (Johnson 440).

Yet, we cannot forget the wretched condition that was extant in Germany before the Marshall Plan was implemented. That once-proud country was now a wasteland, suffocating in the wreckage of bombed buildings, poverty, and disease. There wasn’t enough work or food. This was true of most people in Germany. My stepfather was no exception. He was so extremely undernourished, he contracted life-threatening jaundice and ended up getting hospitalized in Etlingen on the outskirts of Karlsruhe, near Heidelberg, a city near mother’s hometown, Schriesheim.

After his release from the hospital, he found work as a roofer in Herr Zeitvogel’s roofing business in Etlingen. He continued seeing my mother. For this, she was strongly censured by her townspeople, because they frowned upon a German woman dating a foreigner.

It soon became apparent to mother that we needed to pack our meager belongings and move back to Aulhausen where, hopefully, we could have a fresh start. Mother was still on friendly terms with some of the residents of Aulhausen, and she had a glimmer of hope that folks would be more understanding. Yet, she found out that there was nothing more terrible than life in the run-down upper flat in the town where my father and his side of my family lived. As strange as her move back to her ex-husband’s village may seem, there simply was no other place for us to go.

Yet soon her hopes were crushed. As it turned out, once folks in Aulhausen discovered she was seeing a "foreigner," they were even less accepting than the people in her hometown of Schriesheim. People wasted no time letting her know exactly how they felt. We lived in the suffocating shadow of hatred, while, at the same time, the villagers cemented their alliances to my father, viewing him as a good and noble man who was lucky to be rid of my mother. In tears, she revealed to me that some of the more brazen hatemongers would often gather at the bottom of our second-story window and call her "Drecksau," (dirty pig) and a "Ukrainian-loving whore."

My own recollections of that time in the dingy upper flat are of laughter mingled with tears. I recall the merriment and music every time Uncle Karl, a friend of mother’s, visited and played his Schifferklavier. Uncle Karl was one of the few people who still bothered coming to see us. He was the sunshine in our otherwise dreary existence. He knew how to make mother laugh, sing, and get up to dance to her favorite song, Schütt die Sorgen in ein Gläschen Wein, [Pour Your Sorrow in a Glass of Wine] gliding across the planks of the old creaky kitchen floor. He somehow managed to bring rare treats like chocolate, oranges, and walnuts. But I also remember hunger pains, times with nothing to eat, except the same old thin potato, oatmeal, or leftover pancake broth. By and by, mother had become the quintessential soup-maker using scraps of whatever meager foodstuffs we had. Somehow everything we’d eat one day, would find its way into a soup the next; and so even though we didn’t have enough food, we always had enough watery soup.

Unfortunately, my father, who lived just a few streets over, was not able to provide much support for me; like many other men of the village, he was struggling to get by. It wasn’t only mother and I who were poor. Most other people found themselves in the same situation. There was simply nothing left. The war had desolated the country. Many people were thin, malnourished, and sick, and it was not until 1950 that the German economy began its spectacular resurgence. It was only in 1965, according to Terence Prittie’s Germany, that Germany would become Europe’s biggest auto producer as well as the third largest steel-producing country in the world (71).

But that was in the future and of no consolation in the meager times when we had nothing in our small flat except rodents and bugs. Those were plentiful. I remember seeing gaunt mice scurrying across the kitchen floor and disappearing into wall cracks or the bare kitchen cupboard. On the other hand, the ants were not shy about making themselves very visible, often trailing off, proudly, with grains of sugar or other crumbs they were able to forage from our meager food supply. This was fine with me as long as they refrained from biting me. But they often crawled up my legs anyway, leaving behind trails of burning skin. My immediate impulse was to run away, but since that was no option at the age of three, I ran to mother, buried my face in her apron and cried, while she flicked the ants off my body and applied powder and soothing words.

When I questioned mother further about that time in the flat and how it was that we didn’t starve, she confessed in German, which she at times reverts back to, even though she speaks English most of the time, "Ich musste stehlen gehen." [I had to go stealing.]  She elaborated, "I had no other way. So that we could survive, I stole from local farmers—potatoes, carrots, and sometimes when I was lucky, I caught a rabbit or chicken." So this is how we survived, on stolen food. Mother said that had she gotten caught she would have surely been thrown in jail. But when times are hard, survival comes first.

At the same time, while mother and I tried to survive in the two-room flat, another enemy, perhaps more insidious than our poverty, began stalking my thin body. I developed an unexplainable cough, lost weight, and grew steadily weaker. Suddenly, walking up the same staircase which until then I climbed in a flash, left me breathless and sweaty. Every activity became an effort. Mother said that by the time she took me to the local doctor, chills, fever, and uncontrollable sweating disrupted my sleep. At last we discovered what was wrong with me. However, it was no consolation to be told by the good doctor that I, like many other German children and adults, had come down with the dreaded disease of pulmonary tuberculosis and that I would have to be sent away to a sanitarium.

According to Funk & Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia, tuberculosis is a disease caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which although it affects other body parts, mainly lodges in the lungs where it causes major cellular damage. If not treated appropriately, TB is often fatal; and although the first cure, streptomycin, became available in 1944, more effective drugs such as PAS (paraaminosalicyclic acid) and later isoniazid were not introduced until after 1948 (74). So when I became ill, treatment consisted mainly of the less effective streptomycin, accompanied with compulsory confinement to a sanitarium.

After I was installed in the sanitarium, I went through a sort of reverse metamorphosis—a butterfly turned into a cocoon. My life took on a surreal nature, so much so that my memory of the sanitarium is sketchy at best. Mother tells me I was four years old at the time. Two things, however, I do remember with great clarity: I felt completely abandoned, and it took months to get my illness under control. To a little girl months are an eternity, long enough, surely to cocoon herself from the real world. Perhaps that cocooning was a blessing, because once I would be released, the stigma of my illness would follow me wherever I went.

I likewise vivivdly remember the rows of little white metal beds, with scratchy wool blankets covered with white sheets. I remember trying to get used to institutional life, like having to get up at the same time every morning to wash up and brush my teeth with other sick kids, and being put out on cots on a veranda to bask in the fresh air and sun. I remember befriending Krista, a little girl from Berlin. I admired her Berlin accent so much that I began using it in my own speech. She was extremely thin but always had a smile and a special sheen in her blue eyes. Her long blonde braids and fair complexion could have easily made her a poster-girl for the Third Reich, although the "Führer" would not have been proud of her TB. The fact, however, that she survived WWII didn’t matter, because in the end the disease ravaged her little body. Krista died in the sanitarium.

In the evenings, before going to sleep, I would often wonder what it was I did wrong that made mother put me in this place, which, although in the Rhineland, was too far to walk to from our flat in Aulhausen. Of course, I was too young to realize that it was nothing I did—it was just that I was very ill. In addition, Krista’s death mystified me. I wanted desperately to understand what death was. Was it a place you went to when you were especially bad? But I couldn’t imagine anything about my little friend that was bad. Nevertheless, I felt I was bad somehow; perhaps so bad that I made Krista die. Yet, at four years of age, one doesn’t have any context in which to place death, or words to attach to it, just an uneasy, suffocating feeling that somehow death is all wrong, breaking people and taking them away for good. You couldn’t find them in closets or behind trees like when you’re playing hide and seek with friends. You couldn’t find them tucked between the covers at night, knowing they would wake up in the morning and be where you always expected them to be. All you knew is that death hid loved ones forever; and I was afraid the same would happen to me.

The joy I felt upon finally being released from the sanitarium, after ten long months, was overwhelming. I didn’t have to die after all. Mother informed me many years later about my recovery, "The Herr Doktor said you had such a good appetite that you ate yourself healthy and the holes in your lungs closed up." Yet when I left the sanitarium, it wasn’t my mother who picked me up. It was my grandmother who took me back to Aulhausen to live in her house with my father, because after marrying my stepfather, Michael, mother was forced to leave the flat. By now, people had become so openly hostile to her for marrying a Ukrainian that she felt the best course for me, for the time being, would be to stay with my father in my grandparents’ house until she could take me back again.

Since her husband still worked for Herr Zeitvogel in Etlingen by Karlsruhe, about nine km from Heidelberg, they decided to live in the camp for displaced persons (D.P. camp) with other Ukrainians until they could get the necessary papers to immigrate to Canada and take me with them as well. The camp was divided into rooms, two families to a room. Mother tells me, in contrast to how her own people treated her, that she was well received by the Ukrainians at the camp. The only problem was that the camp was so overcrowded that she had no choice but to let me live with my father in Aulhausen until we were given permission to immigrate to Canada. However, she would pick me up regularly to spend time with her and my stepfather.

In fact, the camp is another one of my early memories of the then-fallen Reich. Some things are difficult for me to articulate. However, the truth has a way surfacing in me despite what I may attempt to do to silence it. So when I took a mental journey into the past, several years ago, the truth about my experience in the Karlsruhe D.P. Camp came out in a poem.

DP Camp

The little makeshift bed—two chairs

pushed together. You stretched a sheet

over the cushions, tucked in edges

and corners carefully.

You gave me a small pillow. You covered me

with a blanket, kissed me and said, "Gute Nacht."

You shut the light and laid down

in the big bed with your husband.

In the dark silence I sucked my thumb

to help me sleep, but sleep opened lids

of nightmares: giant grasshoppers

with razor teeth bit holes out of my arms and legs.

Monster Ants tore chunks from my chest

and throat. I wanted to scream, to wake up,

but sleep silenced my voice, kept me hostage

to monster bugs and paralyzed my body

between crumpled sheets until you shook me

awake, and I noticed the black cat

purring on the window ledge,

warmed by the first rays of the sun,

while you sprinkled me with powder

from head to toe and made sure

you didn’t miss any part where fleas

bit me during my sleep and left big red bumps

that made my body itch and burn

as though I was on fire.

You kissed my head, patted my cheek,

and whispered like a soft morning breeze

cooling the welts on my body, "Ach mein

armes Kindchen . . . Ach mein

armes . . ." Your tears

washed my face like cool rain.

What was it about that experience with the fleas in the D.P. camp that made it so painful to me? Was it only the fleas that bit me all night, or are there more uncovered layers of my childhood of the vanquished Reich? And what impact did that had on my body, soul, and spirit? To be sure, other children, especially those who have dogs or cats for pets, are familiar with fleabites as well. This is usually not a big life-changing event. The difference, however, is the context in which I was bitten. The multiple skin lesions over most of my body magnified the event.

The context, of course, was that I was only two years old when my parents were divorced. Now that I was four, mother was remarried, but there was so much I didn’t understand. For example, why was there so much suffering and loneliness in my life? Why were my real parents not together? Who were we all as a family? And most importantly, who did I belong to? I didn’t understand why I had to live with my father in my grandparents’ house in Aulhausen.

The house had four rooms downstairs, three small rooms upstairs, and an outhouse in the backyard. There was no central heat, and no hot water. When my father remarried, our small house became smaller. My stepmother soon had her first child, my little brother Heinz, and my Aunt Gerda and Uncle Hans lived in the three small rooms upstairs with their four children. Suddenly, the walls appeared even smaller and more confining. Not only were there five children, six adults, a dog, and several cats, now there was a crying, demanding infant who kept us up all night, night after night. What I learned quickly was that with my brother’s first cry, he had become the center of the universe, and my grief at him getting my father’s and stepmother’s undivided attention was inconsolable. And although I looked forward to mother picking me up to spend time with her and my stepfather in Karlsruhe, I knew that I would be merely going from one overcrowded house to another overcrowded, and flea-infested, room. But I also knew that I would be the only child there and that I would be bathed in mother’s affection.

For me this was a time of shuttling between two inhospitable worlds. At the camp,   food was always scarce. According to mother, her soup-making became more creative all the time, and she would surprise us with rare pieces of beef or pork showing up in her brew. Back in Aulhausen with my father and stepmother, we had an interesting tradition. Once a week, on Thursdays, my stepmother would go to the butcher shop to buy a quarter pound bologna, a quarter pound liver sausage, and some ham-hocks, which she would serve with boiled potatoes. Some Sundays we had a real Sauerbraten with potato dumplings and sweet-and-sour red cabbage. Our staple, however, consisted of "heaven and earth," my stepmother’s metaphor for applesauce and mashed potatoes, apples, of course, coming from heaven (trees) and potatoes from the earth.

When I was much older, my stepmother told me that the winter when I turned five years old was so cold that she used to heat a brick every evening in her wood-burning stove, wrap it in newspaper and place it between the sheets on my cot by the kitchen table. She said this was the only way she could keep my feet warm. She also informed me that it wasn’t unusual for me to wet the bed at night, because it was so cold I would wait until the last moment to use the outhouse, but often by then this was too late.

By the time I entered the first grade, my mother and stepfather arranged to immigrate to Canada, taking a ship from Bremen to Halifax. The plan was for me to go with them; however, when I was given the required physical, I was told that there was a reactivation of my tuberculosis and that I needed to go to the sanitarium a second time. Mother and my stepfather left for Canada, assuring me that as soon as I was sufficiently healed they would send for me.

Being a young child, all I understood was that a new journey began for them, and that my old tuberculosis flared up again and would prevent me from being with them. I spent several more months in the sanitarium before I was well enough to be discharged. My father and grandmother brought me back home to our little house in Aulhausen. By this time I was ready for the second grade. The nightmare, however, continued to engulf me.

Suddenly, with the birth of my second half-brother, Hans, our house became even smaller. Now the two rooms had to be shared by five people: my father, my stepmother, my two brothers, and myself; and still we had no central heat or an indoor bathroom. In addition, my grandparents, Aunt Gerda, Uncle Hans, and their four children continued living upstairs. What I didn’t realize until much later is that tuberculosis had made its way through several of our family members, even before it struck me.

In fact, mother told me that my father was unable to serve in the Nazi military because he was the first one in our house to come down with the disease and was sent to a sanitarium himself soon after I was born. A few of my adult family members died of the illness, and several of my cousins tested positive. Some had to be sent away to the sanitarium, others, although testing positive, had no active infection. What this means is that they had been exposed to be bacillus but not gotten ill from it due to their own immunity overcoming active TB early enough.

Another aspect of my early childhood nightmare was my longing for my mother. It seemed as though I had been separated from her forever. There were times I even forgot how much I missed and grieved for her. Other times, I imagined she was dead. But the many letters she wrote dispelled that fantasy and brought the loneliness I buried to the surface. In addition to the letters, she used to send me big parcels from Canada, bursting with goodies like cookies, cocoa, chocolate, frilly dresses, sweaters, hats, beautiful dolls, bars of Palmolive soap, Breck Shampoo, and other lovely, fragrant gifts.

Yet, nothing in the parcel could make up for the loneliness I felt when I remembered how beautiful her blue eyes were, how soft her lap was when she’d rock me and sing the Brahms lullaby  before tucking me into bed, and how her chestnut-colored hair smelled like the meadow she’d laid the white sheets on, to be bleached by the sun, or the sweetness of her breath when she kissed my cheeks and call me her "Kleines Engelchen."

In retrospect, I have great compassion for my stepmother, who passed away fifteen years ago; I often think what a difficult task she had taking care of me and trying her best to be an adequate substitute for my own mother. She must have known, no matter how hard she tried, that she couldn’t fill the void left in my heart by my mother’s absence. My stepmother, however, always made sure that I answered every one of mother’s letters, and that I sent special thank-you notes for mother’s generous gifts. I credit my stepmother for my gift of good penmanship—well, perhaps for having had good penmanship when I was a little younger. She used to guide my hand to make sure my writing was perfectly legible, and answering all of mother’s letters gave me much practice in writing.

Many years later, these letter-writing sessions led to another poem. I remember my stepmother literally holding my hand with hers to guide my words, thus insuring that my writing would be legible and neat. She told me what to write; and although everything in the letter was true, it was only the superficial truth of how much I was growing, how well I was doing at home and in school. However, the letters hid from my mother how terribly I missed her. Thus, I learned early in life the value of hiding my feelings to protect others from the truth. In addition, I realized that the nice life my stepmother wanted me to portray to my mother was nothing but a fairytale.



Sun-bleached sheets rustled on Mutti’s line

over sweet white clover and wind-whipped beds of grass.

A flurry of flutter beneath fierce gale.

Flannel and linen’s frantic efforts to escape,

straining and stretching toward the western horizon,

hissing and whizzing like furious ghosts.

Sheets have always swished on Mutti’s lines

while I sat at her kitchen table

drawing lines on crisp white paper and

smudging the words with upwellings of tears,

words my soul threw up in painful fits because

you were gone, while I tried to charm you back

with sheets of carefully phrased lies; yet my

cursive deceptions did not bring you back.

You were gone and . . . too many miles across

the turbulent tide rushing to shore,

heaving waves washing away

evidence of betrayal in rippled

sheets of white sand—on the beach,

transformed by time to sheets of ice

on the water’s edge and the edge of

my sorrow while navigating slippery

ice-sheets over winter ponds and lakes,

falling through thin cracks of frozen fate,

like your image frozen forever in

the frame of my recollection,

untouched by sheets of melting rain

of many springs, untouched by sheets

of steaming cakes from Mutti’s oven,

while her washed linens would flap on the line,

while empty sheets of the calendar became the pages

of my life’s long, disjointed anthology

of hours spent playing alone in fields of grass

beneath Mutti’s sheets whipped with God’s wrath,

because you were gone and sheets of tears

covered my cheeks in dark nights of childhood.

Slowly, and imperceptibly, my loneliness, swallowed into the deep recesses of my soul, became a barely conscious part of myself. What remained was alienation. Suddenly, after months of feeling abandoned, going to sleep at night became easier; I forgot how I missed mother. She was quickly becoming a faint memory. During the day, however, this new alienation was my constant shadow, particularly now that I was well enough to attend school regularly.

School by then had become anathema to me. My stepmother always tried her best to get me off to a good start every morning. She helped me get dressed, braided my hair, and prepared a modest breakfast of warm milk and Brötchen with butter and honey, now that, in 1952, we had a little more food. But I knew the moment I stepped out of our small house, my schoolmates would have nothing to do with me, obeying their parents' instructions (their parents were afraid that my TB was contagious).  The children’s rejection was unbearable. Consequently, for me schooldays translated into days of is interminablye isolation, name-calling, ostracism, and stone throwing.

The good people of Aulhausen had their minds made up that TB was contagious. They failed to understand that I had healed and no longer posed a threat to their health. And, regardless of infectiousness, they were oblivious to the cruelty of the taunting, name-calling, and physical attacks. I thus became infected with the hate of my townspeople, turning this hatred into self-loathing, guilt, and shame. Hate turned inward has a way of stripping the good out of a person’s soul. It makes a person not trust herself/himself and look at others as hostile foes. It makes one believe in the stigma of "otherness," of being an "outsider," indeed, of being the willing scapegoat for those who are not capable of looking at their own evil thoughts.

Robert S. Wistrich, in his Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism, and Xenophobia, states, "To demonize a human is to strip a person or a group of persons of moral pulchritude entirely, ascribing to them all immoral and evil attributes existing in society . . . In demonizing the innocent Other immorality is further perpetrated by punishing or destroying the victim as if it were a morally justified action" (26). Although the author applies the demonization of others mainly to Jews, being a tuberculin German child, in post-war Germany, made me feel the sting of being demonized just the same as if I had been a Jew during the war years. Discrimination is discrimination no matter which group it is directed against—indeed, in my case, it was my own townspeople who demonized me. In their defense, I must plead ignorance, provinciality, and gullibility. This, however, is as far as I am willing to go to exonerate them. Even unsophisticated people ought to know right from wrong. Clearly, someone in the town should have spoken out against this cruelty. I still ask myself today: where was our priest while all of this was going on? Since, ostensibly he was the spiritual leader of Aulhausen, why did he not shout from the pulpit—you don’t treat a child that way?

So, while I was a social outcast, life went on as if everything was as peaceful and calm as the sheep in pasture. Yet, to me, discrimination was like a subtext. Even at the tender age of eight, I was able to read it beneath every word, discern it behind each incongruous smile, and recognize it in every phony gesture. I had been sensitized, and I was on guard.

Consequently, for my survival, I became skilled at dodging the malicious actions of people, especially my peers who always seemed to come up with new ways of persecuting me. I shudder at the memory of being pushed into Höllenbach, a narrow stream by our village. Interestingly, the stream's name itself, translated into English, means "hell-stream." Fortunately for me, since I didn’t know how to swim, the part of the stream they pushed me into was shallow enough for me to scramble back out without being hurt—not counting though the wetness, mud, scratches, and deep humiliation. Once I got back on dry land, I ran, blinded by tears, past the laughing group of children, all the way home into my sympathetic grandmother's arms.

In retrospect, I wonder whether it was by happenstance they chose Höllenbach to push me into or whether it was calculated; for isn’t it rather peculiar that one who is demonized should end up being thrown in the stream of Hell? What a fitting place for the little devil-like me who had the dread disease of tuberculosis, also known in German as Schwindsucht, which essentially means consumption. Perhaps the hope was that Höllenbach would consume me along with the disease that might still be lurking in me. And the exclamation mark of this subtext was, of course, that I was a daughter of a good-for-nothing whore who abandoned me to live with her foreign husband in Canada.

Thus it was that I lived my days feeling abandoned by my mother, alienated from my schoolmates, and looked down upon by the adults of the village. As a young child (of eight), I was unable to analyze the dynamics of being an outcast. Yet, today, I realize the adults themselves were like children in the sense that they too didn’t have the capacity to analyze the reasons of their actions. One can safely say that they were like unaware children at the time, with no guiding light as to what kind of behavior was appropriately nurturing to themselves as well as to the children in their charge. So the whole village lost its innocence and the ability to accept one of its own; and, thus, it became stuck in the mud of senseless hate, fear, and distrust. It is as if the whole community became severely myopic with a vision so narrow they could not see that they might find themselves one day walking in my shoes. The truth of course was (and still is), simply stated: difference bred contempt, and I was different.

This brings up an interesting point, which I want to stress. My experience of being discriminated against, although personally very painful, was not unique in any sense. This kind of abuse has played itself out over and over again throughout the ages. Whatever label we choose to use to identify it, whether xenophobia, stranger fear, prejudice, discrimination, etc., it is an innate human quality, one which reflects, as some suggest, our darker nature, while others say it is merely an integral part of survival. For example: In David Allen’s book, Fear of Strangers: and Its Consequences, we get an in-depth understanding of the universality of why people treat other people as outcasts. Xenophobia, what Allen prefers calling stranger-fear (Allen’s spelling of the word), is synonymous with fear of aliens, foreigners, newcomers, outsiders, immigrants, trespassers, invaders, nomads, travelers, refugees, squatters, stowaways, etc—merely different names for the same phenomenon. Allen states that stranger-fear means that "not only humans and all other creatures have an innate fear and hostility to strangers, but that "strangerfear is the mysterious mechanism that creates in- and out-groups," and that this same fear leads to a "primordial tidal force that causes holocausts of human suffering and pain" (2,3).

In addition, xenophobia, or stranger-fear, begins with differences of appearance or behavior. These differences may be based on race, language, dress, body movement, and behavior. Some examples are: homosexuality, old age, poverty, and sickness. (8); although moral directives attempt to censure "discrimination by banning rejection," what must be recognized is, as Allen puts it, "banning rejection while glorifying acceptance is like trying to ban exhaling while encouraging inhaling. The two go together inseparably"(9).

On the other hand, many, while agreeing with Allen’s thesis that stranger-fear is the root of discrimination and xenophobia, would argue that we must love our neighbor as ourselves and, indeed, as the Christian model, for example, teaches, to turn the other cheek. Most spiritual traditions teach benevolence and compassion to strangers. In fact, democracy itself is built upon the ideal of all people being equal. So, then, this poses a paradox. On the one hand, we know that stranger-fear is basic to human nature and, on the other, we realize that in order for us to get along peaceably and not destroy each other, we must rise above our basic human nature and become compassionate, with the ability to tolerate differences in groups as well as individuals. Otherwise what we end up with is not a civilized society but a chaotic one.

An example of this kind of chaos is well-illustrated in William Golding’s classical novel, Lord of the Flies. The novel’s obvious theme is that society is the glue that holds our ideals and beliefs of right and wrong together. Without this glue, anarchy results. In addition, Golding shows that our darker animal side has the potential of turning into mass hysteria, resulting in people becoming ruthless savages.

Yet, interestingly, when I analyze my personal experience in light of the universal phenomena of xenophobia, I realize that at the time, Germans were endeavoring to reestablish an orderly society, following Hitler’s Third Reich chaos. They desired a society that would regain for the German people the respect of the international community. Although, while many Germans were attempting to play down their fascist identity, redefine who they were, and decide the global role they would play now that WWII was well behind them, many undoubtedly felt the sting of the Nazi stigma others imposed on them. So one could easily conclude that at that particular time the Zeitgeist in Germany was struggling to free itself from the fetters of fascist identification. It is fair to say that few were proud to be identified as such; and so shouldn’t they have been in the forefront of fighting prejudice and discrimination?

The actions of my townspeople could be said to have been simply just one more example of the same kind of hatred and discrimination that we find in historical texts and literature. To cite another example from contemporary literature, in her moving debut novel, The Root Worker, Rainelle Burton tells the story of Ellen, an eleven-year-old African-American girl living in Detroit in the 1960s. In it, the main character’s own voice reveals how she is trapped in a life of abuse, poverty, and shame. Ellen’s world consists of a mentally deranged mother who believes her daughter is wicked, an older brother who sexually abuses her, and a philandering father who does nothing to protect his daughter. Oh, yes, and there is also St. Agnes parish where Ellen goes to school and church, but the church offers her no solace. Ellen feels the pain of being an outcast, so much so that she’s not even sure whether God is there for her. In speaking to her alter-ego, Clarissa, she says:

I don’t know if I really believe in God. It’s a sin not to believe in Him, I know. I do believe in sin. And heaven and hell too. But I don’t know if I believe in God. Sometimes I believe and other times I don’t. When I don’t I don’t want to admit it. I don’t want to go to hell and I don’t want God to strike me down . . .You need to have a soul so you can pray. They say that God steps in and saves you when you do. I don’t know about that either. The martyrs prayed and they were killed (9-10).

Burton’s, The Root Worker, is a poignant example of the universality of scapegoating, discrimination, and abuse, one which was particularly significant to me because of my own childhood experiences. In fact, in The Root Worker, Ellen’s mother was an unstable woman who saw her daughter through the lenses of her own derangement. Likewise, on a larger scale, I believe that during the first few years of post-war Germany, my country people were suffering from a collective case of split personality in a schizophrenic time in which they were attempting to find their way back to sanity. It is, therefore, not surprising that the village I lived in was caught up in the same phenomenon, and my sufferings were a direct reflection of that.

In fact, it was during that particular period of my life that some Germans began to find their way back, to question their raison d’etre; although, in a small village, such as mine, this was generally not the case. Yet for some others, mostly cosmopolitan Germans, a new movement came into vogue from the late forties to the fifties. The movement was Existentialism. It had an immediate and strong impact on German culture; and no wonder, the Germans needed to get a new identity. Who were they now that Hitler had defamed them? Existentialism was a movement that explored "what it means to be a human being in a world cast adrift from its cultural moorings, with no mutually accepted guideposts, standards, and values" (Western Civilization. Nobel 1075).

Existentialism had many voices, but originally grew out of the treatise of the German thinker, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Yet the general consensus was that man was responsible for his own actions as well as responsible to treat others as he would treat himself. The French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre stated: "And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. . . . [N]othing can be better for us unless it is better for all . . . in fashioning myself I fashion man . . . ." (Nobel 1076).

Unfortunately,  this new and popular existential discourse could not wind its way up the hills of the Rhineland to our small village of Aulhausen, where most people were out of touch with the current cultural movement. With this in mind, we can see why they remained stuck in the narrow views which were coursing through the constricted arteries of their biased existence. For them, I represented a disease that would infect them and their children. So I became the enemy. What they did not realize is that they, too, lost their cultural moorings and values, like many Germans had, because of the disruptive nature of the war. Sadly, however, they were unaware of this.  They could not see that if they didn’t understand and accept themselves fully, they could not understand and accept a child who was "different." And in turn, how could that child, who was "different," understand herself? Thus the viciousness of discrimination cast its dark shadow on everyone.

This goes hand in hand with the xenophobia Germans had been afflicted with during WWII, under Hitler’s totalitarian rule, and hadn’t overcome yet. Of course, during the war the "other" they feared  happened to be, for the most part, non-German (except for Jehovah’s Witnesses, lovers of freedom, pacifists, dissidents, or other potential threats to Hitler’s regime). Likewise, xenophobia was not peculiar to Nazi Germany but has been around since the beginning of humanity. It is part of the human condition, albeit the darker side thereof. It is played out in some way globally, although it may wear different masks.

While there are volumes of texts written on xenophobia, for the purposes of this essay I will cite Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which, succinctly, defines xenophobia as fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign. With this definition in mind, it becomes clear why mother was rebuffed for marrying a foreigner and why that led to her being dubbed a foreigner as well, which in turn, alongside the deviation of my health from normal (TB), led the way to my being stigmatized and treated as an outcast. The pattern becomes fully visible when one recognizes the components of xenophobia, which involve being identified by the group as foreign," or the acquisition of foreign status through association with foreigners.   Looking back, I can see clearly how my mother, stepfather, and I were an unholy alien trinity.

But a child has no faculty to wax philosophical about hate.  So for me, one dreary day followed another, although there were some happy times of playing catch or jump-rope with my cousins, days that broke up the heaviness of my being and made me light with laughter. Yet, whether I was laughing at play or crying myself to sleep in the evenings, I always had an unyielding hope of soon being reunited with my mother. But this hope did not keep me from being lonely and not having any friends to walk to school with except for Herr Dinkler’s big yellow-footed cackling geese that would often chase after me.

At the same time, there was another battle that kept me isolated within my family in Aulhausen until the age of eleven in 1955, which amounted to another long three years of not having any real friends other than my two brothers and four cousins. I soon discovered that the enemy consisted of my own parents. The problem was, by this time my father didn’t want me to leave Germany to live with my mother in Canada. It seems that my father had increasingly become accustomed to me living with him and his new family. After all, he often exclaimed, "Na Kindchen, Du bist mein einziges Mädchen!" [Well my little one, you are my only girl.]  Being the only girl, with two brothers, gave me a certain kind of comfort of knowing, yes, there was something special in me after all, and it was my father who recognized it in me. But mother saw things differently, or perhaps the same, because, evidently to her I was just as special as I had become to my father.

This led to a bitter custody battle, with me in the middle. Although I loved my family in Germany and was at home there, I still hadn’t gotten over missing mother, even if I pretended otherwise. At the same time, I questioned her departure during my illness. Yet no matter what the truth of her leaving Germany was, I had a need in my heart that only she could fill. It is the bond that held tight even when my immature mind forgot that bond in my nightmare of feeling abandoned. It is the mother and daughter relationship, so unique that the daughter can only discover her true feminine nurturing side by finding her way back to her mother’s embrace. When daughters do not have a means to make this connection, perhaps due to a mother’s untimely death, they are left standing outside of themselves and must achieve womanhood via the surrogate embrace of another woman taking on the role of the mother.

Fig. 6. My three cousins and my brother Heinz (kneeling in front).


Brothers, Cousins, and American Soldiers

But before I would finally be reunited with mother, my brothers and cousins were always available to cushion the blow of rejection from the village-people. They were there to fill in for the friends I wished I had. And what I would have given to have a best friend like most girls my age had. Often, I’d see other girls run hand-in-hand through the meadow, stopping now and then to pick daisies for necklaces and wreaths for their heads and then disappear in the lush Niederwald Forest, usually on their way to the massive 37.6 m high Niederwald Monument, erected between 1877-83 to commemorate the reestablishment of the German Empire.

I remember the time I was there while taking a Sunday stroll with my father and grandparents. I gazed at the massive bronze and mortar monument with life-size figures of Kaiser Wilhelm I on horseback, Bismarck, the German Princes, the sovereigns with their commanders-in-chief, and an army of soldiers. At each side of the monument stood an angel named, "War" and "Peace," respectively, measuring 2.8 m in length with wings that ascended into the blue German sky. But most impressive was the main statue, the majestic "Germania" in all her grandeur bearing the Imperial sword with her left hand, and with her right holding up the German Emperor’s crown. This huge monument was within walking distance from my house and loomed at the edge of Niederwald Forest on top of a hill overlooking Rüdesheim, the quaint little wine-town which nestled lazily at the foot of the valley by the Rhine River.



Fig. 7 The Niederwald Monument up the footpaths of Rüdesheim, on the edge of the Niederwald Forest, located a short walking distance from my hometown, Aulhausen. The 37.6 meters high monument was erected in 1877-83 to commemorate the unification of Germany.

While there, I noticed two American soldiers taking pictures.  To my amazement, they were actually laughing while talking to each other. In my family, people hardly ever laughed, and laughing with so much gusto was particularly foreign to a child like myself who had seen more scowls and tears than laughter. As a young girl, living in a basically inhospitable milieu, I was mostly a stranger to laughter and wondered what these Americans were so happy about.

To my surprise, the soldiers approached me. One of them bent down and asked in broken German, "Schokolade, Fräulein?" and handed me a big chunky chocolate bar, some candy, and some brightly-colored crepe-paper flowers. My grandmother was close behind me and ordered me to say, "Danke schön" to the nice "Ammi."

After returning home that day, my stepmother prepared our evening meal, which, at that time, usually consisted of dark rye bread, pumpernickel, and, when we could afford them, an assortment of sausages and cheeses. 

When I went to sleep that evening, I thought about the American soldiers, how pleasant they were, and how I wished to see them again. I knew, the next morning, my stepmother would send me to the dairy, as usual before school, to get our empty container filled with fresh milk. This is what I would bring back home for breakfast, for my stepmother to heat up on her wood-burning stove and add some honey and butter into it to keep me as, she put it, "healthy, strong, and safe from another relapse of tuberculosis."

Yet for all the love and attention I received from my father and stepmother, I still longed for mother, perhaps not always consciously. Beneath the surface I wore this longing like a secret gown; like a slip, which sometimes shows below the hem of a dress, my secret longing would surface below the edge of my denial. Father was often away for extended periods of time working at the "Hotel Deutscher Hof" in Rüdesheim where he was a chauffeur, driving guests to various destinations. Whenever he’d finally come home, he would come bearing gifts of chocolates and candy. Naturally, my brothers and I climbed all over him, vying for his attention and some of the goods. Usually my brothers won out because they were still small and Papa would pat me on the back and say, "Na Erika, du bist doch schon ein grosses Mädchen, ja?" [Well my little one, you are my only girl?].  So I would walk away scheming how I will get even with my little brothers as soon as the opportunity arose, which was usually when my stepmother left them in my care while she worked for the nuns at the Cloister, Marienthal, as a cleaning woman.

The remainder of my time in Germany consisted of living life as most families in our village did. With one exception, I felt more and more like an outsider, even though by now some of the people had seemingly decided to not stigmatize me any longer for having had tuberculosis and for being a foreigner’s stepdaughter. However, the wound of being shunned never completely healed. It is a wound that still bleeds today. But when it was first inflicted, I had begun to feel so badly about myself that as I went through my childhood years in Aulhausen, I automatically avoided contact with the other children of the village. This was even reflected in group-activities in school, such as gym in the outdoors. I hated to participate and would always look for excuses not to. It pained me to be part of the group, because deep down I was always afraid of rejection. It was easier wearing the dejected face of an outsider than risk wearing a face of hopeful anticipation of being drawn into their circle, just to have that hope dashed. Not trusting my own feelings, I began to withdraw from them, and as a result, became a stranger to myself.

At home, life went on as usual. Mother’s letters and big parcels with gifts for birthdays, Christmas, and Easter came regularly. My brothers were getting bigger and asked why they didn’t get nice things too, even though mother always included something for them. Most of Aunt Gerda’s children were older than me and although we all still lived in the same little house, I suddenly noticed that my cousins were not that interested in me any longer. Instead, they began going their own way, which included the serious business of finding work or an apprenticeship of some kind. In addition, now that they were on the brink of adulthood, they suddenly had romantic interests. At the age of ten I was still very much a child, but I often enved my cousin Edith, who had grown into a beautiful young woman with long silky brown hair, brown almond eyes, and a lean tall willowy body. At the time, I thought her to be as beautiful as a model on the cover of a magazine. Just a couple of years back, we bounced balls together; now she walked around as though she was the village queen and all the young men were her willing subjects. The magic she wielded was incomprehensible to me, and I remember thinking if only I had some of it.

During 1955, my last year in Germany, things began to unravel quickly in our little Aulhausen house on Röderweg 4. My grandparents were getting older and frailer. That spring, my grandfather put in his vegetable garden as always. He had rows of beans, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, cabbages and whatever else the typical garden in our village had. In addition, our cherry tree was white with blossoms and promised to yield a plentiful crop. As spring grew into summer, my grandmother often sent my brothers and me into the woods to pick blueberries, which she turned into delicious jam. Often she went with us into the fields and woods to pick mushrooms, blackberries, boysenberries, and other wild berries. My grandmother was a consummate nature-woman. She knew every edible plant in the woods and fields. Perhaps that was one of the reasons we never starved, although there were so many of us in one little house.

That summer, during school vacation, my stepmother sent me across the Rhine River to her folks in Rümmelsheim. I was to stay with her brother and sister-in-law, Uncle Werner and Aunt Elizabeth, on their small farm. They had only one child, Peter, a sweet little five-year-old—clearly the pride of his parents. I was enchanted by my little cousin. His favorite activity was playing in the sandbox. At times his face was covered with so much sand and dirt that only his two blue eyes and pink smiling lips and glistening white teeth showed through. There never was any automotive traffic, except for an occasional horse-drawn buggy or a herd of dusty sheep passing by at day’s end. So it was safe watching Peter from the kitchen window cover himself from head to toe with sand.

This was life in the country at its best, safe for children and pets—until that fateful day when I happened to be in Aunt Elizabeth’s kitchen peeling potatoes for our midday meal. Out of the blue, I heard the drone of an engine, a loud screech, and what sounded like a thud. I ran to the window. Outside, on the road in front of the house, I saw a black motorcycle lying on its side, a ball still rolling down the street, and little Peter lying motionless a short distance behind.

What followed was a nightmare too difficult to recount, even now. Aunt Elizabeth screamed uncontrollably as she ran out to her only child. Someone summoned Uncle Werner home from the field where he was harvesting wheat. By that time, Peter had been brought into the house. A doctor was called, a death certificate was signed, and the only child my Aunt and Uncle would ever have was properly washed, dressed, and laid out in an upstairs bedroom. The whole house took on the odor of death. The smell of flowers, incense, and candles mixed with the odor of otherness, the kind of otherness only death reveals. Peter no longer belonged to us. Aunt Elizabeth was inconsolable and I was sent back home to my father and stepmother.

After that accident, I had recurrent nightmares in which I reenacted Peter’s accident and relived my guilt for not having been outside with him to prevent him from running after his ball. Night after night, I’d wake up in a cold sweat with Peter’s lifeless face staring at me and wordlessly asking me why. Often, I forced myself to sit up straight in bed, trembling, until daylight, because I was too afraid to dream.

Food began to nauseate me. Just the smallest amount felt like a heavy mass threatening to take my breath away. I stopped eating and began losing weight. I imagined death followed me wherever I went. At bedtime, the moment my stepmother turned off the lights, I began being plagued by panic attacks, imagining that common household items were turning into monsters and living corpses. I heard ghosts thumping through the darkness, coming to get me, to punish me. When it became unbearable to stay in bed, I would sneak quietly to my stepmother’s and father’s room, where my brothers also slept, and slip into my parent’s big feather bed hoping not to awaken them.

These sleepless nights, filled with horror, became for me a terra incognita in which I was held hostage to unknown forces of the universe. This surreal land affected my days as well. In school, it was getting more difficult all the time to concentrate. My grades suffered. I was unable to shake the torpor that hung over me like death’s shroud. The kids took no time noticing how thin and sluggish I had become. All at once, I became "Die dofe, kranke Erika." ["The stupid, sick Erika"]   To them, I became the village idiot who let her little cousin die. I wondered how they knew. Who told them? Of course, I didn’t realize that small villages have big ears, sharp eyes, and even sharper tongues.

One angst-filled day, when I felt as though all the adults, including the ones in my house, were closing in on me, blaming me for Peter’s death, I ran away to the woods where I made myself a makeshift tent. Did I run away because I was guilty of the accusations and didn’t want to shame my family? Maybe that was part of it and more than likely that’s what my family thought. But the truth was, that besides Peter’s death, my wound, inflicted from being shunned, was so deep, it felt as if I my life was bleeding into a lonely death. Running away was the only language I had to convey the alienation that was threatening to destroy me in the same way that the motorcycle had destroyed Peter. I wanted my family to find me, to embrace me, to tell me they loved me in spite of what I allowed to happen to Peter, in spite of having had tuberculosis, in spite of being a daughter whose mother was a "damnable whore" who abandoned her sick child. In fact, deep down, I wanted my real mother and father to be together again, to embrace me and put back together again the family we once were, back when WWII was still raging, before my parents lost their own private war with each other.

But my fantasies were short-lived, for when my stepmother found me, crouching in the crude shelter of branches and leaves, she pulled me out and gave me the beating of my lifetime: "Wie kannst Du so etwas zu uns tun? Wir haben überall für Dich gesucht. Was ein undankbares, böses Kind! So untauglich" ["How could you do something like that to us? We looked for you all over. What an ungrateful, bad child! So unworthy."]

After the thrashing, she took me home and immediately ordered me to bed.  She then disappeared in the bedroom where I overheard her and my father whisper how things were getting out of hand, how something simply had to be done before it was too late, and that, perhaps, the time has come for them to let me live with my mother and her husband in Canada.

Shortly after that, I was summoned to a court hearing. The judge asked me how I felt about leaving Germany and living with my real mother. In retrospect, the decision had already been made, and my appearance in court was merely a formality—something necessary for the court records so that the legal process could be completed. Of course, when I faced the judge, I didn’t know how I felt about anything. Being asked which one of my parents I wished to live with, was equivalent to asking me what did I wanted more, chocolate or candy? What a question! I loved both, I wanted both, and I did not want to be without either.

The short court hearing settled the matter of custody expediently. Settling it in my mind was altogether another matter!  I remember listening to the voices in my head, persuading me this way or that way, and understanding nothing except that, now, I was confronted with having to leave Germany. I was old enough, almost eleven, to realize that all the wheels had been already set in motion. There was no going back. In just a matter of weeks, I would say goodbye to Aulhausen to go live with mother in a strange and faraway land. Yet, magically, my feelings suddenly shifted.

Although I missed mother terribly, I now did not want to leave my family or homeland. This is what was familiar, and although things weren’t going well for me, I was used to my angst, this free-floating anxiety that accompanied me days and nights like my dingy one-eyed teddy bear. I still remember that as often as my stepmother tried to convince me to give this bear up, suggesting that the broken old bear had seen better days, I refused to let go of it. Likewise with the emotional pain I carried around. It too had had its day. It no longer served a purpose, except to prevent me from moving ahead. But I clung to it just as I had clung to the bear.

I often wonder what I could have done to change people’s reactions to me. Perhaps in the beginning when I was old enough to speak up for myself, I could have said something about how it hurt me to be labeled as an outsider. In fact, by confronting my townspeople, I might have been able to make them aware of how their xenophobic views blinded them to the truth that I too had value, that I wasn’t defined by my illness or choice my mother made in marrying a foreigner and moving away, but that I was a human being with all the rights and privileges that go along with being human. But how does a child with so few of life’s experiences even begin to understand that? Now, that suddenly the time was quickly approaching for my departure, I understood only one thing. I did not want to leave, yet at other times I wanted to go—what a paradox.

And so, I vacillated between the desire to be with my mother and the desire to stay with my father. Suddenly, familiarity won over. I wanted to stay in Germany. I would have rather not have traded the pain I intimately knew for the strangeness of living in a brand new world even though this new world held out a promise of new beginnings. Yet the decision was out of my hands. What is the sum of a child’s life anyway but the absorption of its family values, decisions, and actions, all of which condition the child into becoming an adult, who in turn mirrors the family that reared him—for better or worse? Indeed, it is deeply ingrained in our human nature to cling to "family," the "fam-i-liar," no matter how painful or destructive the family may be. Sometimes we go so far as to disown the promise of new life for the "fam-i-liar," even though the familiar may bring our own demise. Is it not surprising, then, that what I wanted was my old family in the little house on Röderweg 4; that, indeed, I wanted the family of Aulhausen itself. These were the people I knew. This was "fam-i-liar." This was home.

The remainder of my time in Germany took on a dreamlike quality. Suddenly everything changed. Once people in Aulhausen got word of my imminent departure for Canada, they changed their attitude toward me and became kinder. All at once, as if a light had gone off in their hearts, word went around the village, "She must not be contagious any longer, because she is well enough to get an immigration visa." Other times, I would hear statements such as, "It is the best. . . . She will be better off with Else (my mother). . . . Every child should be with her mother. . . ." Children at school now acknowledged me, and some of the girls began engaging me in conversation. To my surprise, I was given going away presents from several folks. For example, the mother of my schoolmate, Inge, knitted a cute little powder blue dress, sweater, and a hat for my porcelain doll so she would be properly dressed for my trip to Canada. Children, mostly girls, wrote me sentimental little verses embellished with dainty drawings of flowers and butterflies in a notebook and signed their names so that I would remember them when I was in Canada. All of a sudden, I became the center of attention in the village. I had arrived. I was a celebrity. It wasn’t every day someone got to leave Germany and live in Canada or the United States. And back then, it was the dream of many to have the opportunity that now was mine.

At last, the time of my departure had arrived, rolling in like an avalanche in a dream. Somewhere within the hustle and bustle of my family planning for the day my father would drive me to the Rhine-Main Airport, I lost myself completely. I felt a stranger not only to myself but also to those I loved and now had to leave. It was as if suddenly one of my limbs got torn away, blood pooled on the floor, and death crawled up my spine. At the same time, what felt like a massive lump in my throat was so uncomfortable that it reminded me that I wasn’t dead after all, that, indeed, my miserable, painful life was still pulsing through my body.

Chapter Four

Leaving Germany

Early one cold snowy morning of December 1955, my father led me by the hand and helped me climb into the sidecar of his Triumpf motorcycle. He put the hood up to protect me from the wind, turned on the ignition, and revved up the engine. Before the first rays of sun bathed my village, we drove to Frankfurt. Trees alongside the Autobahn fled backwards.   It was the first indelible impression of my disappearing homeland. After arriving at the airport, my father walked me through the ticket counter, checked in my one and only suitcase, and led me to the waiting airplane. While holding on to his hand, I clutched my beautifully-clad doll close to my chest. The painful lump in my throat threatened to choke me or force its way out through a flood of tears.

In 1984, I tried to sort out this wrenching farewell in a poem.  Often before writing this essay I wondered what will befall my poems, and now it seems that they have found their rightful place, no matter how difficult it is to look at the past through the lens of truth. This poem retells my father and me saying goodbye to each other at the Rhine-Main Airport.

Goodbye Papa

From the airplane

I watch you fade away.

Like a seabird

I glide above clouds

across the Atlantic.

Goodbye Papa.

Just heartbeats ago,

you peeled my arms

from your neck.

I felt your discomfort.

You muttered,

"Auf Wiedersehen Liebchen . . .

Keine Angst haben" ["Goodbye my dear…don’t be afraid"}

My eyes drowned in tears.

my lips quivered,

but you didn’t see.

Just moments ago,

the stewardess,

speaking in English,

smiled and escorted me

up the steps to the

open door.

The only two English

words I knew were

water and thank you.

Remember Papa?

I learned them from you.

Now I’m suspended

in gossamer air, dizzy,

somewhere between

two continents

and this intractable

obelisk of fear.

A part of me is glad,


to leave for good—

the people of this

pelted land,

plowing through fields

still wet, still warm

with the blood

of the Jews

and others

whose only sin it was

to be different.


why should I not be

grateful to leave

the country that gave

us Auschwitz—Dachau,

the S.S., the Gestapo,

the Luftwaffe,

the Swastika,

the country that gave

us skeletons in trenches,

piles of wasted bodies

In gas chambers,

Stars of David

fallen in pits of hate,

a Diaspora

scattered in ashes?


were you a Nazi

even though you couldn’t fight

because you had TB?

Did you dream of the glory

of the Third Reich

when our family fell apart,

when you left my mother,

when I was coughing

up blood in the sanitarium?

And now, Papa,

why am I on this plane,

heading for Canada,

to be reunited with

the woman who is

my mother?

Why must I choose

you or her,

my country

or a foreign land?

And why when choosing

was impossible,

was the choice made for me?

Did I have to leave

because there wasn’t

enough room in the house,

a house bursting

with too many remains

of war,

too many people

trying to reconstruct

their lives?

Mama will be waiting

to greet me at the Toronto

airport; yet, this trajectory

takes me on a flight

from myself, from everything

I’ve known.

I’m afraid to look back, Papa,

and more afraid to look ahead.

I sit outside myself—a stranger

with no face.

I look at myself and ask,

why is this girl in the plane


All I have been, up to this point, all my experiences, thoughts, and feelings were tied to Germany, and no other place could ever replace my homeland: the Rhine River, its hills and valleys, its vineyards, the steep road leading up, past the cloister of Saint Hildegard, to Aulhausen, the town from whose clay I was molded, its surrounding forests, its green meadows, its golden fields. And now, taking my seat in the plane, I attempted to sort out and comprehend those ineffable events of the life I was leaving behind. What did they all mean? Much later, I discovered the power of poetry, how without it, the events of my life in Germany would remain unrecognizable parts of the larger picture. Writing poetry helped me see the larger picture of my past. Poetery helped fitting these parts gradually together, piece by piece like a complex jigsaw puzzle. In fact, poetry has been my vehicle for traveling back in time and unravling the meaning of my past. 

I was thus sitting in the dimly-lit fuselage, being carried to a new life. With my doll on my lap and the watchful eyes of the stewardess on me, I felt strange but safe. The only things I feared were the things I left behind and the things that were ahead of me. Here in the womb of the plane, it was warm and comfortable. After many hours across the Atlantic Ocean, we approached the North American Continent.


Fig. 8. My father circa 1956

Chapter Five

Arriving in Canada

Daylight was breaking, and, surprisingly, Canada appeared like a dream dressed in white splendor. It is amazing, how adaptable we are. Just hours ago I was mourning the loss of my homeland, and now I found myself looking down expectantly to a panoramic view of the North American Continent, a land I had heretofore only heard about. Most vivid was the vastness of this white expanse. Coming from a hilly terrain, the great flat landscape of Ontario forced me to think about the future. How would Canada continue to mold my life? Would these new people be different from the bigoted people of my hometown? Would I still continue to be a stranger to myself? Would Canada be more welcoming? As the plane descended, I was gripped by excitement and longing.

I first noticed houses and trees that appeared as big as match boxes. As we approached Toronto, the scenery below us burst into a snowy fairyland, and, suddenly, I could hardly wait to touch land. Soon I would be with Mother and my stepfather, after a lapse of six long years. I was curious about where they lived in this big city and supposed that the people would be as accepting and tolerant as the land, otherwise why would so many Europeans want to come here in the first place?

We landed at the Lester B. Pearson International Airport. Shortly after, a beautiful woman greeted me. Her blue coat matched her eyes. I quickly blinked away tears. It was my mother. At last we were reunited. Next to her was my stepfather. Mother wrapped me in her arms with, kisses, laughter, and tears mingling from both of our faces. Finally, we were together again. A new chapter in my life was about to start, a chapter whose pages had not been written yet, but a chapter, nevertheless, in which I knew my mother would be the key character. I was happy to finally be with her, yet sad to have had to recall my family in Germany. I was also overwhelmed with new emotions that kept bubbling up from the hidden places of my heart, emotions I had repressed for so long, they took me by surprise.

From the airport, we took a big city-bus back to Ossington Street where mother and my stepfather lived in an upper two-room flat that would now become my home. The flat consisted of a small kitchenette off a large living room area with a huge bay window, filled with houseplants, overlooking Ossington Street. Down the narrow hallway was their bedroom, and once again, like in Germany, my bed was placed next to the dining table that was just off the kitchenette in the living room.

I felt, at last, the poverty and pain of the post-war years in Germany was far behind me. My parents would make a good life for me. I wanted a happy-ever-after, no more wars, no more sickness, no more hunger. But what I didn’t realize then was that by this time, the world had been divided into the two superpowers that would largely determine the outcome of the planet’s future. Although WWII had ended in 1945 when Germany surrendered unconditionally to the United States and the Soviet Union, the world was far from being peaceful. For example, the United States and its allies were now in the icy grip of the Cold War, a war of a nuclear arms race as well as a war of nerves. In fact, south of the Canadian border, in the United States, in the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy spearheaded a crusade to go on a witch-hunt for communists and suspected communists in all of the states. Those alleged to be guilty were thrown in prison, deported, or executed. As far as popular opinion in the United States, as well as Canada, went, Nazi fascism finally had met its match. It was the evil embodied in communism, an evil that needed to be stopped with no expense spared. So, then, this was the political climate that welcomed me to the North American Continent.

However, arriving in Canada that year, I was protected from those harsh facts of life. In Toronto, the Christmas season was in full bloom, and I had the pleasure of experiencing many firsts. To name a few, it was the first time I got to use an indoor bathroom, my first real bath in a real porcelain bathtub, my first ice cream cone at a soda fountain in winter, my first television experience watching the "I Love Lucy Show," my first Christmas shopping trip with mother to Simpson Sears on Queen Street, riding up the escalator to the sounds of the McGuire Sisters harmoniously singing, "Sincerely," and my first big motion-picture experience.

It was Uncle Karl, mother’s brother, who took me to the movie theatre on the corner of Ossington and Bloor Street. Uncle Karl and Aunt Liesel, his wife, lived in an upper flat next door to us. The film we saw was a docudrama about the Holocaust. Uncle Karl had an obsession about WWII. He would talk about its horrors constantly, and felt that at eleven I was old enough to see a movie that depicted the truth about the war.

And so we were sitting in this dark auditorium (another first for me) with the big screen coming to life with larger-than-life images. Suddenly in the middle of the film, which showed scene after scene of Jews being exterminated in the death camps, people in the audience began rising from their seats in unison, cursing Hitler, cursing the Nazis, and cursing the German people in general. The voices waxed and waned like torrents of angry waves thundering to shore. I became frightened and asked Uncle Karl to leave. At first he was reluctant, and although I didn’t realize it then, I know now that his reluctance was caused by his own need to revisit the crime-scene vicariously. It was what he needed to come to grips with his own feelings. With the theatre still in an uproar, Uncle Karl led me by the hand up the darkened isle out through the nearest exit. It was the first time I had wished I wasn’t German, and although I didn’t understand much of the film’s English dialogue, the pictures said it all, a panoramic horror of suffering, death, and cruelty. I asked: how could my parents’ generation let this happen?

A week before Christmas my thoughts of the Holocaust movie were slowly being replaced by thoughts of presents, food, and fun. We placed a large Balsam Fir in the bay window of our living room. Mother and I decorated it with colorful electric lights and dazzling ornaments. Back in Germany, it was customary to have smaller trees, usually placed on low tables. My parents showered me with gifts—a bottle of Kölnisches Wasser (a German cologne which is still one of my favorites today), a soft cashmere sweater, and a purse. Other gifts consisted of items designed for a child, like the Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme book (which incidentally, due to the rhymes and accompanying pictures, was most helpful in teaching me the English language), a pretty new doll that smelled like everything new at Simpson’s Department Store and reminded me of one of the McGuire sisters. In addition, I got coloring books, crayons, and art supplies from Uncle Karl and Aunt Liesel.

That Christmas marked a special time for me, a time of transition into adulthood. January 25 would be my twelfth birthday, and in one more year I would join the ranks of a teenager. However much I dreamed about becoming a teenager who would hopefully be more popular than the child I was, I enjoyed that Christmas like no other. I was with my mother again, and more important than the colorfully wrapped gifts, the cookies, and Christmas songs was climbing on mother’s lap and hearing how happy she was to have her "Amelche" in her arms again this Christmas eve.

When it was time to go to sleep, mother tucked me into my bed and kissed me goodnight. Moments after she turned off the lights and left the room, I remembered Aulhausen. It was then that my thoughts drifted to Papa and the rest of my family in Germany, wondering if their Christmas was as joyous as mine. Before falling asleep, I was overcome with sadness, realizing that my father would not be able to afford to purchase as many wonderful gifts for my little brothers as mother and my stepfather could for me. Lucky for me, my stepfather had a good job with the Hydro Electric Company in Toronto and was very generous with me, not only this Christmas Eve but on ordinary days as well. Whatever I needed, I got. The only thing he and mother could not provide me with, regardless of how good they were to me, was the elimination of the loneliness that sometimes gripped my soul when I thought about those I loved and left behind.

After the Christmas holidays and the New Year, I began attending public school. My biggest job wasn’t learning English—that was easy—the real challenge was being a German girl in a Canadian school. At the time, Germans were certainly reminded constantly of Hitler’s atrocities—even by the kids. Although in this new land, no one knew of my bout with tuberculosis, a secret that was well encapsulated in my lungs, everyone knew I was German by my heavy accent, and again it was like being back home in Germany. I felt the sting of rejection when I looked into the faces of others, which to me became a collective face of hate, discrimination, and prejudice. This time I was the object of discrimination because I was German. Sometimes the intolerance was subtle, but not always. Still, I recall the pain I felt upon being accused by other kids of being a Nazi, or when mother had to answer all sorts of embarrassing questions by Jewish acquaintances about the part she played in Hitler’s war. It was as though we were constantly put on trial for being German.

I was most ashamed when Jewish acquaintances exposed the numbers branded in the concentration camps on their forearms. It was proof of their suffering and narrow escape. For me, it was also a silent accusation against all Germans: "See what you Germans did?" I showed these victims that I was truly sympathetic to their suffering yet, at the same time, felt terribly guilty for being German. After all, who could blame my new acquaintances, given the treatment they received at the hands of Germans, for seeing me, and my mother, as the demons of the Third Reich? It was, after all, their own suffering that prevented them from seeing that not all Germans were diabolical. I realized, ten years after the war, the ghosts were still very much alive. The way we lived now was a direct outgrowth of escaping the edge of insanity—the death-camps, the starvation, the sickness; and it was this sickness that left lingering symptoms of suspicion, fear, and a need for retribution.

So, when in March of 1956 my mother and stepfather announced that we had been granted immigration visas to the United States, my hope once again sprang up anew. It didn’t bother me one bit that I had only been in Toronto for six months before moving on again. By this time, I had already been accustomed to having been moved around in Germany, first to avoid the bombs of the allies when I was just an infant, then the moves back and forth between my father and mother due to their divorce, later the move to the sanitarium, and finally my transatlantic flight to Canada. These frequent moves became the transitional phases of my life, jolting on one hand but on the other helping me become accustomed to their changing patterns. I became accustomed to these transformations as though they had become old friends. I discovered, when things got bad in one place, you simply picked up and moved even if that meant leaving people and things you love behind. It was, after all, these changes that proved to be the only thing I could count on, these ephemeral moments here and there that, when looped together, formed the strands of my existence, giving it some illusion of permanence in my constantly changing life.

It was this leaving of things and people behind that gave me a spirit of adventure—of trying out new lifestyles as though I was stepping into new clothes. But it also left me with a yearning for roots—for moorings. You could say I was a child of my own Diaspora, cast out from my homeland to places unknown in the quest of a better life, for acceptance, and acknowledgement as a member of the human family. The alienation I experienced during the first eleven years of my life left indelible blemishes in my personality, sore spots that would open up and bleed profusely with a wrong word, a wrong look. I came to believe I was an outsider, always desiring to belong yet realizing that I didn’t. So it was easy enough to move on in the hope of one day finding my place at last.

Looking back on my life, I’m not surprised at the difficulties I had in maintaining relationships. In fact, the fear of being abandoned became so entrenched in my psyche that I would never allow myself to believe that people would stay with me, that as long as I expected them to abandon me, they would not disappoint me. Thus, often my fears became self-fulfilling prophesies. It is just in recent years that I have had the courage to face these fears and partially sweep them out of my consciousness.

When the day of our move to the United States of America came, I was elated. Our destination was Detroit, Michigan, the city by the Ambassador Bridge that was destined to become our new permanent home. I had read about Detroit, its large roads, big cars, and massive auto-industry that kept people in Detroit prosperous and happy—if they were willing to work.

Again, I marked this turning point with a poem. I was going to use one I wrote in 1994; however, in writing this essay, I felt I needed to write a new one after becoming aware of how much I have actually moved from place to place and what effect that had on me. I’ve come to realize that part of my journey back to my childhood, besides the repeated dreams of returning to my father’s house in Aulhausen but never quite making it, is the road of similes that poetry allows me to take. Remembering our trip from Toronto to the United States was an experience that shaped the following poem:

Coming To Detroit

The time had come again.

Papa and mama packed all our things

into two large wooden crates.

We closed the door to our flat on Ossington Street,

for the very last time, boarded a bus at the corner

of Queen Street, jumped on the streetcar

and headed for Union Station on Front Street,

Downtown Toronto.

The conductor ushered us up the steps

into the coach…we were off…destination: Detroit,

a new city, a new country.

Goodbye Toronto.

You had been my home for six short months

and my first Christmas in the new world.

At twelve, I moved more times than the years of my age.

Back in Germany, during the war, and after, mama moved me

to Oma Siebig’s house to get me away from father’s house

in Aulhausen in the middle of the Rhine

and falling bombs, then back to father’s house

after Germany surrendered, and from there to the sanitarium

after I coughed up blood and was told I had TB.

After the holes in my lungs healed, I moved back to father’s house,

then to Canada, to join mama and her new husband.

I felt like a world traveler, one of those important people

with lots of money; but of course, the only thing I had lots of was imagination,

and you got to have imagination—to adjust to changes;

otherwise you’d lose yourself…get stuck somewhere

between dishes packed in newspaper and sweaters wrapped in mothballs.

Besides being a world traveler, I also had the distinction of being an immigrant.

Not everyone living in Canada or the United States can claim that.

There is a certain flair to being an immigrant,

and you’ve got to be adventurous like a gypsy, and not count your losses,

because with every move there are losses—but there are also gains:

People come and go.

Friends are short-time friends, but you pack a lot of intensity into them.

Possessions are lost and gained.

I learned how to appreciate what I had while I had it

and not shed too many tears when I lost it.

This coming and going, having and not having, became easier with time,

almost a game to be played:

I won. I lost.

After a while it didn’t matter anymore,

except for the excitement of chasing the change,

and chasing new dreams, hoping if I caught one, I wouldn’t wake up,

or if I did, the dream would go on . . .

Coming to Detroit was like that.

When we arrived at Grand Central Station,

we stepped into a dream.

Mama dreamed of the Promised Land:

our own little house, a kitchen full of the latest appliances,

a television set, an automatic washing machine,

and leafing through magazines to get ideas

of how to cook, bake, and clean more efficiently.

She dreamed of watching "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet"

to learn how American families lived.

But she found out it was hard to keep up

with all that suburban perfection,

and mama realized that Harriet didn’t have a German accent,

or her hair wound up in bobby-pins, or big hips,

and that Harriet never yelled, and her cakes always came out just right,

and she always looked like she just came from the beauty-shop

when she greeted Ozzie at the door, and her sons, Ricky and David

were good boys and never got into serious trouble.

It was hard keeping up with the Nelsons, but mama kept on trying.

Papa had his own dreams.

He dreamed of working at the Rouge Plant,

of joining the UAW to get better benefits and higher wages.

He dreamed of owning a family car

to drive us to the big new Northland Shopping Mall, or to Hudson’s downtown,

or on an outing to Dearborn Park or Rouge Park to picnic with others

who were like us—immigrants from the Ukraine and Germany.

He dreamed of coming home from work to a good dinner on the table

and drinking a few bottles of Strohs

while watching Matt Dillon get the bad guys on "Gunsmoke."

And me? I dreamed of being like the beautiful girls in school,

the ones who got music lessons, dance, and singing lessons.

I dreamed of being like the cheerleaders and baton-twirlers,

the girls with poodle-skirts, fluffy pink cashmere sweaters,

and shiny patent leather shoes, girls who spoke English

without an accent, girls who were admired by boys and went

to Sanders Ice Cream Parlor on Michigan Avenue with their friends

for banana splits and ice-cream sodas after school.

I wondered how long it would take for my dreams to come true,

or if they ever would.

But it was okay for I knew how to play the game.

I was a world traveler, never staying anywhere too long.

I was used to winning and losing

and not letting anything matter,

except for the excitement of chasing after changes.

Chapter Six

Detroit, Michigan

Once in Detroit, we were well received by Uncle Vladik and Aunt Maria. Uncle Vladik was my stepfather’s cousin, and it was thanks to his sponsorship that we were allowed to come to this country in the first place. It is the policy of the American Immigration and Naturalization Department to only let people immigrate to the U.S. if they either had a good trade, lots of money, and could prove that they could provide for themselves so that they wouldn’t be a burden on the taxpayers, or if they had a sponsor (or sponsors) who promised to take care of the newly immigrated family, financially, should they fall upon hard times.

We were lucky to have Uncle Vladik and Aunt Maria. Uncle Vladik worked for the Ford Rouge plant and had a house of his own, a car, and enough money to send his two daughters, Annie and Jenny to the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian parochial school, which was adjacent to the beautiful Ukrainian orthodox church directly across the street from their modest frame house in the, then, mostly Polish and Ukrainian neighborhood.

This, then, brings me to the last part of my journey into my childhood, the time I arrived in the United States of America. By now I should have realized, if history teaches us something, it’s that it tends to repeat itself. In fact, in looking back I see how my younger years in Germany, and my short stay in Canada, laid out the pattern of what would likely be repeated again, perhaps with a different twist, but, nevertheless, a pattern that would prove to be continuous. In addition, my experiences in post-war Germany were merely a reflection of what was, and is, going on globally all the time. Many people fail to see it. But we must be willing to look. It stalks innocent victims in many guises. Whether we recognize it as prejudice and discrimination or hatred, it is all the same and arises from xenophobic reactions steeped in fear.

Living in Detroit, Michigan, in the land of opportunity and freedom for all, one would expect less prejudice and discrimination than elsewhere. That is what I would have thought at the age of twelve when I first entered St. John the Baptist Parochial School, dressed in my brand new uniform, a navy blue jumper, white blouse, bobby socks, and white and black saddle-shoes.

This time the discrimination took on a new twist. Here I was, a girl from Germany, whose English vocabulary was still very limited, living in the United States, and attending a Ukrainian Orthodox school. Now I had to learn not only my official new language, English, but also Ukrainian. It is at this point I questioned my mother and stepfather whether they were sure if they knew what they were doing.

Besides that, I kept asking the same questions of myself over and over again. Who was I? Who were my mother and father? And who were we? I had an identity that was not mine. There were the Ukrainians, the Americans, the nuns in school, the priests in church, the people in the stores, in the neighborhood, and the folks next door. In their faces, I saw the inherent quality of acceptability, respectability, and equality. In my own face, I saw the outsider, the misfit circumambulating the outer fringe of the social circle I wanted so desperately to belong to.

Soon mother discovered that my attending St. John the Baptist Ukrainian school was not going well. In fact it was turning into a battle of the wills. For example, while she got up with me every morning to make sure I had a good breakfast and was appropriately dressed for school, I made plans to skip school. I remember one occasion, after mother had kissed me goodbye at the front door of the flat we rented on Martin Street, three blocks south of Edward where the W. Bozek Funeral Home was located. As always, she wished me a good day at school, admonishing me to apply myself and do well. I decided not to go to school that day and instead of taking the usual route, I cut through the alley behind our house and hid behind a wooden fence until I felt it was safe to wander the streets without being asked questions. But, oh, the shrewdness of my mother! It’s been said that mothers have a sixth sense. I discovered that mine invented the sixth sense. Unbeknownst to me, she saw the whole thing through her kitchen window and decided to come after me with a wooden cooking spoon. My surprise at being caught was so great that when she pulled me out from behind the fence, the beating she administered on my rear end, hardly phased me. Mother and I were at an impasse. This same scene replayed itself over and over in one form or another. I thought of more excuses not to attend school than there were hairs on my head. I hated it, dreading more of the same name-calling, bullying, and ridiculing because I was German and spoke with a heavy accent. No amount of scolding and punishing would change my attitude. Mother would constantly be contacted by the nuns or the priest.

Finally, completely frustrated, she decided to send me to public school, hoping things would improve. They did in the sense that I didn’t have to go to Mass every morning, didn’t have to learn Ukrainian, didn’t have to wear a school uniform, and mother didn’t have to worry about me skipping school any longer. It was a nice change being able to wear whatever I liked, even Levi jeans, poodle skirts, and sweaters. I believed dressing like other girls and wearing a little make-up, now that I was twelve, would make me blend in more. However, as before, the name-calling and shunning continued. As at the other school, I was tagged the "Nazi Scag."

But something happened that year. I entered an essay contest in the eighth grade. The topic was: "What Does Music Mean To Me?" Since I always loved to write, I decided to enter the contest. I spilled my heart out onto the paper, writing about the sad music of rejection, the music of war and death, the music of alienation—a sign of life and love gone askew. I also wrote about the harmony of life lived on higher ground, where people nurture each other and draw those on the outside into the inner circle. Mostly, I wrote about myself, a little lost girl, born in the cradle of war, trying to find her way home, wherever people would accept her and welcome her in the circle of humanity, for she was tired of being on the outside looking in.

When the winner was announced during assembly, I cried. Imagine me, a nobody from Germany, a person who couldn’t even speak English fluently yet, winning first place. The following week the school principal asked me to read the essay from the stage to the rest of the students and faculty, assembled in the auditorium. Afterward, I was awarded a beautiful pen set and a certificate of achievement.

But the real achievement was the personal triumph I felt when suddenly the kids became interested in me, Erika Strupp. Finally when I had the courage to break out of my own nightmare of isolation, I found others who were good and kind. And although it is true that others may have catapulted me into this nightmare, it was I who chose to stay in it, perhaps because I didn’t comprehend that I always had the option of opening my eyes wide to the truth that for every person who is hateful, there are others who are loving and accepting. No one has to suffer under the whip of constantly being shunned, abused, and cast out. The light that is within every human being has a way of coming out despite the efforts of others or oneself to hide it. When that light shines, darkness is cast out.

Born in the cradle of war was being born into darkness. During and after the war, people in Germany stumbled around in utter gloom. They too were the victims of war. They were the walking wounded. Only, they didn’t know it. Mostly, the darkness they stumbled around in was the darkness of their own fear, the darkness of their own ignorance. And perhaps because of this fear, they looked for a scapegoat. I was a likely target. This image of myself as "the other," the one in whom people saw all the qualities of the "bad" or the "demon," would accompany me for the rest of my life in one way or another. The problem was not only that people stereotyped me but that I accepted their labels.

I now realize that it is human nature to see the "demon" in others because one doesn’t want to recognize it in oneself. Indeed, it is safer to see it in the "other," for if the "other" is a "demon," then the self by comparison cannot be so bad. As a result, while the "other" is demonized, the self is vindicated.

In fact, it was my recurrent dream of going back to my childhood home that compelled me to take this journey back in earnest by writing this essay. And although this journey took me back to the trauma of the past, it now helps me look forward to a new path: a journey of compassion and forgiveness for all those who have wronged me, and to forgive myself as well for accepting the stereotype, for without forgiveness, there is no going forward. I am reminded of a quotation by Anton Checkov. He says: "Everything is beautiful in this world—except when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence." Yet the question remains, why do we forget?

Fig. 9. My mother and I in 1955

Chapter Seven

Visiting Germany, 1988

After a long eight-hour flight, we approached Germany. I grabbed the hand of my ten-year-old son, David, and pointed to the sun rising below the plane, bathing the sky spectacularly red. With a mixture of excitement and anticipation, I told him that soon he would meet all his German relatives I had been telling him about. However, I knew things would not be the same as when I had left Germany thirty-three years ago. For one thing, my grandparents died in the early seventies. My stepmother passed away in the eighties. After Aunt Gerda died, in the late eighties as well, her husband, Uncle Hans, moved out of the house, and their four children had left the family home as soon as each one of them either got married or went off to live on their own.

The Rheinisches Schiefergebirge came into full view. It was August and the vineyards on the terraced slopes were green and lush. The mountains were covered with dense forests. As the plane descended for the landing at the Rhine-Main Airport in Frankfurt, I cried. I realized that even at the age of forty-four, I still needed my father, but unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, missed his presence most of my life. It had been four long years since my father and my brother, Hans, came to spend some time with my family and me in my Warren, Michigan, home.

Shortly after deplaning, David and I were greeted by my father; we hugged, kissed, and he was pleased to see how much David had grown during the last four years. As soon as we picked up our baggage, we got into father’s Opel-Kadett and headed for the Autobahn in the direction of Aulhausen. Once we arrived in Rüdesheim, we would drive the last short stretch up the Rüdesheimerweg to my hometown where my father still lives in the same little house that once belonged to my grandparents. The only other remaining relative living there is my youngest brother Hans, who was born after I left Germany. My older Brother Heinz moved out fifteen years earlier when he got married. I was eager to meet his wife, Birgit, who is from Denmark, and their two children Lars and Simone. Up until now, I had only seen pictures of them. But before I would meet them, father stopped in a bakery shop to purchase one of the local specialties, Pflaumenkuchen, a plum cake my stepmother traditionally made when she was still alive.

While father was in the bakery, David and I waited in the car. I remember telling David that besides delectable cakes and pastries, Rüdesheim is famous for its wines and Asbach Uralt Brandy. While doing research for this essay, I ran across The Rhine From Mainz To Cologne, a tourist video I picked up in Germany during my visit. It states, as of its release date, that there are six million liters of Brandy stored in large oak casks in the town’s cellars for years until the brandy is old enough to be bottled and sold (video: The Rhine). I also told David that a well-known tourist attraction in Rüdesheim is the famous Drosselgasse, a street harking back to medieval ages with half-timbered buildings too narrow to accommodate cars and how there is always a traffic jam of tourists as well as locals visiting the taverns and gift shops.

Once father got back into the car with the sweet smelling cake, we were on our way up the steep Rüdesheimerweg to Aulhausen. We passed endless vineyards and the Cloister of St. Hildegard. Below us flowed the Rhine River, affectionately referred to by Germans as Vater Rhine, with its legendary castles and fortresses, which during the middle-ages functioned as places where tolls were extracted from ships that passed through the area. For example, Burg Reichenstein was a hideaway for the robber-knights who in 1282 met with the unfortunate fate of being beheaded. The years of the robber-knights preyed on captains and ship crews. These robber-knights were, clearly, not hospitable to those navigating the Rhine. Indeed, the journey up the Rhine was treacherous and often cost people their lives (video: The Rhine).

Today the merchant ships, small tankers, and cargo ships have a much friendlier time navigating the Rhine from Basel, Zwitzerland to Rotterdam, Holland, but people still recount many of the legends of the Rhine. One of these has to do with the Mäuseturm located on a small island in the Rhine between Rüdesheim and Bingen. As the legend goes, there was a cold-hearted Bishop who was very cruel to the commoners. He too, like the robber-knights, met with a terrible fate. Only instead of being beheaded, he was locked up in the Mäuseturm and eaten up by hundreds of very hungry mice (Rhine, the).

One of the most romantic symbols along the Rhine near my hometown is the Lorelei, a 132 meter high slate cliff. Until the nineteenth century, it was a very dangerous place for captains to sail around this haunted precipice. According to legend, the beautiful maiden, Lorelei, lured sailors with her song to their deaths against the cliff. In fact, the musical arrangement of Heinrich Heine’s poem, "Die Lorelei," composed in 1823, is still well known in Germany today. Below are both the German and English lyrics to this haunting melody:

Die Lorelei

Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten

Das ich so traurig bin,

Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten

Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

Die Luft is külhl und es dunkelt

Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein;

Der gipfel des Berges funkelt

Im Abendsonnenschein.

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet

Dort oben wunderbar,

Ihr Gold’nes Geschmeide blitzet,

Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar,

Sie kämmt es mit godenem Kamme,

Und singt ein Lied dabei;

Das hat eine wundersame,

Gewalt’ge Melodie.

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe,

Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;

Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,

Er schaut nicht hinauf auf die Höh’.

Ich glaube die Wellen verschlingen

Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn,

Und das hat mit ihrem Singen,

Die Lorelei getan.

I cannot determine the meaning

Of sorrow that fills my breast:

A fable of old, through it streaming,

Allows my mind not to rest.

The air is cool in the gloaming

And gently flows the Rhine.

The crest of the mountain is gleaming

In fading rays of sunshine.

The loveliest maiden is sitting

Up there, so wondrously fair:

Her golden jewelry is glist’ning’

She combs her golden hair.

She combs with a gilded comb,

And sings a song, passing time.

It has a most wondrous, appealing

And powerful melodic rhyme.

The boatman aboard his small skiff,

Enraptured with a wild ache,

Has no eye for the jagged cliff,

His thoughts on the heights fear forsake.

I think that the waves will devour

Both boat and man, by and by,

And that, with her dulcet-voice power

Was done by the Lorelei.


The "Lorelei" is one of the many legends I remember hearing in song from my childhood. Many songs as well as poems and stories have been written about this romantic area of the Rhine River. In this region, with quaint little towns nestled along the banks of the river, people make their living, besides making the world famous Asbach Uralt, mostly in the wine industry. In fact each year, approximately eight million hectoliters of wine are produced, much of which is imported to other countries. Life revolves around the production of wine, from growing the golden grapes on the mountains’ terraced slopes to harvesting them for the wine-making process. Traditionally, every town has a wine festival accompanied by much merriment, drinking, dancing and singing in celebration of the wine harvest.

Yet even as we drove up to father’s house, I realized that I was never really a part of anyone’s celebration, except, of course, when I made my first Holy Communion at the age of eight. I remember that time so well, from the day my stepmother had me fitted at the local seamstress for my communion dress and veil to the day I knelt at the altar of St. Petronella Church while receiving this Catholic sacrament, as well as afterward when I was given a wonderful party to which many relatives and family friends came, bearing various gifts for the occasion. However, for the most part, most of my memories consist of being excluded from the social life of the townspeople.

Coming back to Germany for a visit, after having been away for thirty-three years, I wondered how I would be received this time, especially now that so many years had elapsed. It was with this anticipation that I walked into my father’s house. Although I realized the house would have gone through changes during all those years, I was surprised at how much it really had changed. It was like walking into a different place. No longer was it bursting with people. Now that there was only my father and brother left, it seemed strangely quiet, spacious, and clean—considering there was no woman around. I remembered my brother writing me several years before my visit that they closed down the outhouse in the backyard and now had a bathroom in the house. However, I was completely taken by surprise when I walked into my grandparents’ old bedroom, finding a full bathroom. In addition, the house now had central heat and hot water. It was carpeted throughout. The house had gone through a complete metamorphosis. Now there was enough room to breathe and be comfortable. Yet, at the same time, I was sad that I never had a chance to see my grandparents, aunt, and stepmother alive.

Our stay in Germany was pleasant for the most part. We were received with open arms by various family members, especially by my brother Heinz, his wife, Birgitt, and their two children. However, I knew we were visitors and were treated as such. They showered us with hospitality and gifts. They took us on sightseeing tours, wine-tasting parties, Rhine River cruises to view the spectacular medieval castles and fortresses, and lots of stories about what happened to various family members since I left Germany.

During one of our excursions, father was driving down a steep road in the direction of a little restaurant where we planned to have dinner. We were surrounded by some of the most magnificent forests I had seen in a long time. Suddenly, while looking out of the car window, I became lonely for the land of my birth. Without knowing quite why, I was overcome with such an affinity for this land that I began to cry profusely. My father seemed embarrassed, and of course, so was I. But sadly, at that moment, my father and I couldn’t recapture the closeness we once had when I was still a little girl. How could I articulate to him now that what I didn’t completely understand myself? I came back to my roots, and my roots beckoned me like a long-lost love dance. I was sure my father would think I had crossed the edge of sanity had I told him the secret of my heart, that I fell in love with the land I would soon have to part from once again.

Besides, there was too much time, too many miles between us, and too much of a financial burden, since none of us were rich, to visit each other more often. The fact was that a transatlantic flight was simply too expensive for us to use as a bridge back and forth to each other. In fact, it was the state of affairs of WWII and after, that forced many families apart, and I realized my family was no exception. Most probably if my mother and father had not gotten divorced, I would never have left my homeland. But even if my parents had stayed together in Germany, my situation would not have been much different: because I had TB as a child, people would in all likelihood still have shunned me, and I would still have reacted to that by feeling inferior, not worthy, and guilty somehow.

Although my father and brothers were Catholic, they did not believe in going to church. However, I had a need to visit the church where my stepmother and grandmother used to take me every Sunday. This proved to be a critical moment of my visit. It was like going back in time. I was stunned. Not one person greeted me, wanted to know who I was, or as much as smiled at me. Certainly, most of the adults who attended mass when I was a child, and who were still alive at the time of my visit, could not remember who this stranger in their midst was; but I figured, since word travels fast in a small village, most townspeople probably knew that Thomas Strupp’s daughter was there for a visit. Still, here in the "House of God" where one would expect to be welcomed warmly, I was greeted with cold blank stares. I remember thinking, was it the colorful skirt I wore, my makeup, or the way I fixed my hair? But regardless, whatever the reason, I felt the chill of being scrutinized and wondered what they would say to one another after Mass was over. It was one of the longest hours I spent in a church. I felt eyes drilling holes into me and couldn’t wait to get away. What I thought would have been a positive experience proved to be yet another affirmation that things hadn’t changed all that much in Aulhausen. Folks were still as provincial and narrow-minded as ever.

This was just another example of what Allen, whom I quoted earlier, refers to repeatedly as "strangerfear," but most commonly referred to as xenophobia. Allen argues, "Fear and hatred of strangers manifests itself in whatever thought-system prevails at a particular place and time. A religious thought system will express hostility to outsiders in religious terms; a democratic thought-system in democratic terms, a communist thought-system in communist terms…"(79). Granted, the discrimination I felt now was not as overt as the discrimination I felt as a child. Neither was it as severe as others’ experience of intolerance, but I felt its sting nevertheless.

After our two-week stay in Germany, David and I were happy to come home to the US again. It was nice visiting my family in Germany, but nicer to come back to where my heart was, my husband and other four children and also the parent with whom I had a closer bond, my mother, all of whom I knew would be anxiously awaiting to hear about our trip to Germany. When we stepped off the airplane at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I was so elated to be back home, I didn’t even mind the smog and intense humidity that we stepped into once we left the terminal. My husband, who was at work at the time, had arranged for our best friend, John Viola, to meet David and me at the airport. As soon as I saw him, I grabbed David’s hand and ran toward John, giving him a big hug, realizing how happy I was to be in America.

However, my 1988 trip to Germany did not put to rest the dreams I had of going back home. I realized that there were many unresolved issues I had to yet deal with; and believing, as Wood, in his book Your Dreams and What They Mean, states, that the motive behind every dream is a wish that the dreamer desires to have fulfilled (3); I knew even then that my wish was to find peace from the ghosts of the past that still haunted me. It would not be until the writing of this essay that I faced those ghosts that tormented me from the time I was born in the cradle of war until this present day. Yet only time will tell if these dreams of an ill-fated journey to Germany will stop. I believe this essay will be instrumental in putting the past to rest.

Chapter Eight

Life Today

Today, I live with my husband Tom in Warren, Michigan. Tom drives for a living. He drives sedans, limousines, buses, vans, and anything else that’s on wheels. I have been a full-time homemaker most of my life, raising my five children. However, when the youngest were old enough, I went back to school to become a medical assistant and later a medical transcriptionist. I have worked for a podiatrist, a family practice, and a dermatologist. I now do the bookkeeping for my husband.

But my real love has always been literature and learning. In 1997, I decided to attend college for the very first time at Macomb Community College, mostly to sharpen my creative writing skills. Once there, I realized that my love of learning has opened many doors of new understanding. I was hooked and decided to earn a college degree, realizing it was better late than never.

This was difficult for me at first, because when I was a youngster, I moved around so much that I never stayed in one school long enough to do particularly well. This, coupled with the feeling of being an outcast during most of my childhood and not having been encouraged by my parents to excel, ultimately led to an aversion of going to school. My parents were working class people and education was not as relevant to them as earning enough money to make ends meet. In fact, seeking a higher education was often scoffed at as something that has nothing to do with the "real world." Thus, it was difficult being excited over school subjects when I didn’t believe in myself enough to know that I had the ability to do well academically regardless of my circumstances.

While it is true that my parents wanted me to learn the basics, and perhaps later a trade, they never discussed the possibility of any of their children going to college. So by the time I came to this country, I had an aversion to school. Given the negative experience I had in my early school years in Aulhausen, I swore that I would never sit in a classroom with other students. Besides that, at the age of twelve, I was not sure who I was and how I would fit into this vast melting pot of America. One problem was that I was very self-conscious about being German and having a heavy German accent didn’t help. I was ashamed of myself and had the hardest time making eye contact with others, preferring to cast my glance down to the ground instead. Feeling flawed in some fundamental way, I avoided others as much as possible. Of course, having to go to school made my desire to avoid people difficult.

In addition, I was entering that critical phase of a young girl’s life called adolescence. I was on the threshold of being a teenager, and going to school while knowing how dissimilar I was from my American counterparts did not help; thus I preferred hiding in my room, whenever possible, daydreaming , listening to music, and reading most of the time to improve my English. Some of my favorites were: Emily Bronte’s, Wuthering Heights, Dostoevki’s, Brothers Karamazov, Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Tell-Tale-Heart, and of course, Charlotte Bronte’s, Jane Eyre. In addition I enjoyed reading works of Tolstoy, Hemingway, and the poetical works of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, and the bard of all bards, Shakespeare.

So I locked myself in my room, immersing myself in my favorite books, borrowed from the Edwin F. Conely Branch of the Detroit Public Library on Martin Street—the same street I lived on. As Morris Raphael Cohen, one of the most influential American philosophers since William James, said in A Dreamer’s Journey, "It is the appreciation of beauty and truth, the striving for knowledge, which makes life worth living" (New York Public Library Book of 20th-Century American Quotations 283). Although I may have not known it at the time, when I secluded myself in my room, the fact that I exposed myself to volumes of reading materials and read for hours is what gave me, as James said, an "appreciation of beauty and truth . . ." (283). In fact, this appreciation became addictive. I was what you might call library-dependent. I was so hooked on books that I checked out stacks of them on a regular basis.

Besides my love of reading, I enjoyed writing. I have written poetry and light verse most of my life, in German and in English, but it was not until my forties that I fell in love with the muse so much that I began writing in earnest—a commitment that has been with me ever since and continues to be an ongoing process. I won my first poetry contest in Las Vegas at the "World of Poetry Convention." Among 3000 contestants, I was one of the three winners for my poem, "Yesterday’s Child," and had the honor of being on stage at the Las Vegas Hilton with the actor, William Shatner, reciting my poem following the performance of his poetry. Until that time I didn’t realize that the actor who played Captain Kirk on Star Trek, also wrote compelling poetry. I received a proclamation for outstanding performance from Mayor Ronald Bonkowski, of the City of Warren, as the sole representative from the State of Michigan to receive the 1990 World of Poetry Award.

My winning poem, "Yesterday’s Child" was a turning point for me. It made me view myself as a committed writer whose main goal is to encourage others to develop a love for literature. I believe that it is in literature that human beings can express their deepest joys and sorrows. Literature tells our story and of those who came before us. It is the thread of carefully crafted words that are woven through history, connecting the past with the present, and the present with the future. Many of us may look back one day and recognize who the child of yesterday was and hopefully realize they didn’t have to lose the innocence of their own creativity, and the wonderment of a child’s mind. This is what the following poem speaks to:


I lost her back in early Spring,

When dreams were fresh as morning rain,

When rivers, cold and crystalline,

Cascaded down the green terrain.

When all the world in splendor, sweet,

Was once again with love replete.

Then Summer came, and life went on,

Beneath the sultry sun-drenched sky.

But, still the one I loved was gone,

My carefree little butterfly,

Who blithely danced in fields of green

Beside the placid gurgling stream.

Consumed with grief, my ruptured heart

Cried out with every aching beat.

What ruthless fate tore us apart,

When life . . . still young and incomplete.

Yet, oh, so happy were those days

Of unsophisticated grace.

How unencumbered life was then,

When joy was pure, and pain was true,

When she and I in pristine glen

Shared life's idyll beneath the blue,

For, she was young . . . without pretense,

And touched me with her innocence.

Now Autumn leaves have blown away,

And frosty Winter clouds hang low.

With eyes grown weak and hair, now gray,

I tremble; for, at last I know,

The one I lost, I clearly see,

None other than the child in me.

Having grown out of the mud of WWII, I lost that child much too early. Innocence doesn’t last long in an environment of destroyed buildings, destitute people roaming barren streets, and lack of food. Yet it is that "ruthless fate" which tore me away from my innocence, that allowed me to develop enough strength to survive even the times of my life that were the dark side of an idyllic childhood, teaching me a very important lesson—that no matter how beautiful we wish life to be, there is always its opposite, its shadow side. We cannot have one without the other; and yet how often do we expect to sail through life without any significant problems and suffering, only to discover that they are unavoidable and the best we can do is learn to flow with the stream of changes, even through rough waters.

If we walk down a country road and experience the extraordinary beauty of nature, its green fields, lush woods, and blue skies and hear children’s laughter while chasing butterflies in the meadow, we cannot help but realize, if we have any degree of consciousness, that this innocent laughter will soon be tarnished by some kind of distressing event in life and then to be followed by more of the same. As we mature, we can choose whether to run away from our problems or look at them as sources of inspiration. They are, after all, our greatest teachers. Any mathematician or scientist knows that without a problem there can be no solution. It took me many years to figure that out. For a great deal of my adult life, I felt that the world owed me something. I mistakenly believed that my childhood was ripped away from me too soon because of the war, my parents’ divorce, my illness, and my being treated as an outcast.

However, once I learned to put away such childish notions and realized that I was the mistress of my own fate, I grew up and realized that the world owed me nothing at all. Once I realized that it was I who owed the world something, I decided to put something more back into life than simply raising a family. In midlife, I chose to get a higher education. Usually the situation is reversed and it is one of the children who after graduating from high school goes away to college, especially in working-class families where there usually isn’t enough money for all kids to get a higher education. In my family, I am the first to earn a degree. My son, David, when interviewed by Jocelyn Marino of the Macomb Daily Newspaper said about me, "She has been an inspiration to everyone. . . . We were all surprised [that] at her age she wanted to go back to school to get a degree" (Section C, 1).

At this writing, I have one more semester to go before I earn my Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Degree from Wayne State University, where I currently attend on the Presidential Scholarship, granted to students with a 4.0 GPA.

During the two years I attended Macomb Community College, I have maintained a 4.0 GPA, have been on the Dean’s list for all semesters, and a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. I was granted the "Most Distinguished Graduate Award" and given the honor to represent the 1999 graduates and deliver the commencement speech. I graduated Summa Cum Laude. We were the last graduating class of the twentieth century, at the same time, incidentally, that the world population had just toppled over six billion.

In March of 2000, the same article in the Macomb Daily that my son, David, was interviewed for, had my picture on the front page of the Celebrations section. The headline reads, "From Overseas to Overachiever," and a smaller subheading, "As a teen-ager, Erika Martin emigrated to the United States, and the only English word she knew was ‘water.’ At 56 (they made a mistake with my age. I was only fifty-five at the time), she graduated from Macomb Community College with honors. It was a long voyage. . . ." (Section C, 1). What the paper failed to mention is that in reality I was an overachiever from overseas as much as an over-believer from overseas. Had I not believed that I could do what I thought for most of my lifetime would be impossible for me, I would have never believed that at the age of fifty-five, I would be graduating from a community college and then go on to earn my bachelor’s degree at Wayne State University, where I am a member of the Golden Key Honor Society and the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society. In addition, I’ve served on the Student Senate, and have been part of the "Talking Walls Project," a community of writers masterminded by the director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, Stuart Henry, and the author and creative writing teacher, Rainelle Burton. The Talking Walls writers have shared their experience of living, loving, and learning in Detroit and what this vast melting-pot city of diverse cultures has meant to us.

Recently, however, I’ve had to slow down my pace somewhat, because I’ve been spending more time with my mother whose health is failing. In addition, I was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis and ordered by my physician not to drive. Regrettably, this limits my ability to get around. However, for this past semester my husband, Tom, has been driving me to every class and made it possible for me to stay in school. He has already committed to continue driving me to classes next semester until I am able to drive myself again. I will forever be indebted to his patient and loving care during this time of need. He is my biggest advocate and continues to facilitate my academic goals as well as my creative writing.

My five children are grown. Ruth, my one and only daughter, is happily married and has given me two beautiful grandchildren, Gregory Samuel, who just turned three, and his little nine-month-old sister, Courtney Ruth. My daughter and her family live in Rochester Hills, Michigan. She is in the mortgage business and her husband is a real estate agent. Jeffrey, my first-born, lives in San Diego. He is still single and makes his living as a truck driver. Danny, my second-youngest son, is in the United States Coast Guard. He is currently on the USCG Polar Star on an assignment in Antarctica. He will be back home in June at which time he will wed his sweetheart, Sara, whom he first met in Gladstone, Michigan (near Escanaba) almost five years ago. Sara has lived with us for the last sixteen weeks during which time she attended Wayne State University full time. Although we both were in different programs, it was nice attending the same University and having her share our home with us. In addition, my third-youngest son, David, who went to Germany with me in 1988, still lives at home and works full-time for a professional fundraising company. My baby, James, who at 6’3’’, towers over me, just turned eighteen and is in his last year at Fitzgerald High School. He works part-time at Sorrento Pizzeria and plans to attend Macomb Community College to pursue a technical career.

In conclusion, having gone back to the fragments of my earliest childhood memories, I have pieced together a detailed and cohesive narrative. With the help of my mother’s and stepfather’s recollections, I have been able to exhume the skeletons of yesteryear and retrieve many missing pieces. WWII, and its aftereffects, without a doubt, have had a profound effect on me and shaped my life as an adult. Am I sorry to have been born during the period of the Holocaust? No, because, given a choice, I would not change a thing.

Being a person born during WWII has taught me the lessons that only the darker and more sinister side of life can teach you. Although, at a very early age, I was surrounded by exploding bombs, hunger, TB, sanitarium life, and ostracism, I do not consider myself a victim. I’m a survivor. The victims were the millions who died during Hitler’s reign of terror. All of us who made it through the war, whether in the concentration camps or in the Nazis’ agony wretchedness, and death outside, are survivors.

Through the years, since WWII, many books have been written about the war, its criminals, and its survivors. In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, the Jewish survivor of the German death camps, and noted author, psychiatrist, and founder of Logotherapy, Victor Frankl, writes about discovering the meaning of life: "The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected. . . . What matters therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. . . . We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a value; and (3) by suffering" (157-176). Everyone alive suffers. We determine whether we are victims or survivors. The beauty of life is we get to choose.

In writing this essay, I have perused many books written about the Holocaust, but have not found much from the perspective of a German who was born during that dreadful time, not much about how many Germans were also victims who suffered because of the Nazi regime—and still suffer today due to inherited guilt. Even those of us who were mere infants when the war ended and those who were born after the war feel a great sense of responsibility and remorse for the crimes of our parents’ generation. Many of us have, needlessly, carried the yoke of shame, because we are German, for many years. I have chosen not to be ashamed any longer, but simply to tell my story, the story of a survivor born in the cradle of war.

I ran across a poem in Hilda Schiff’s Holocaust Poetry. It was taken from an unsigned inscription on a wall of a cave in Cologne where Jews had been hiding. It speaks for all, the dead and the living, the Jews and the Gentiles:

I Believe

I believe in the sun

though it is late

in rising.

I believe in love

though it is absent.

I believe in God

though He is

silent . . . (184).

These compelling lines speak to the human condition of being alone in one’s most agonizing moments. It appears to be a universal phenomenon. After all is said and done, in the end we are alone, and whether we believe in God or not, during life’s most traumatic times we are destined to be faced with overwhelming silence. When we listen intently for answers, the sound of silence deafens us. When we look for a guiding light, we are blinded. Even when smelling the scent of death, we taste our own tears of separation while groping to hold on to a hand of compassion and yet we stumble upon a stone and realize we’re thrown back onto ourselves. In the silence of an indifferent universe, we stand alone, and that’s when the miracle of belief happens. It is our belief in the face of suffering that opens up possibilities of life and joy.

Fig. 10. My mother, stepfather, and me.


This work was a personal passage into my past in which I uncovered painful memories and revisited  the guilt I felt for many years for being a daughter of the infamous Third Reich. Although the years of infamy ended fifty-seven years ago, the past continues to haunt many of us German survivors of the war. Over the past few months, I have come to realize what an aversion my mother and other Germans of her generation have to speaking about the war, which still weighs heavily on them as well as on the post-war young who, although completely innocent, are guilty, nevertheless, by association. In my personal journey back to the past, I have also discovered that my own experience with discrimination and xenophobia is not unique by any means.

As I have indicated before, whether we call it xenophobia, strangerfear, or discrimination, it is experienced globally and is as old as recorded history. The only difference is the degree of suffering that the victims endure. If we imagine xenophobic behavior, directed at others, to be a continuum, with one end representing minimal cruelty and the other severe cruelty, we will discover every degree of xenophobic victimization imaginable, from those who suffer only mild abuse to those who suffer torture and death, and everything in between. Clearly, the victims of the Holocaust who were sent to the crematoria were the recipients of the most savage acts of violence and were exterminated by the millions—an unthinkable number. Yet there are millions more who survived and are living testaments of escaping the death knell of xenophobia. Undoubtedly, to whatever degree they have been discriminated against, one thing is certain: they have all suffered and continue to suffer in proportion to the abuse they received.

So the question is: What can we, as a global community, do to mitigate xenophobia? How can we make the world community more tolerant? And where do we begin? With the world rapidly shrinking and the world population well over six billion, we must take action quickly before another holocaust wipes out millions of innocent lives through acts of genocide.

We must begin here and now to stamp out this malignancy that compromises our ability to be tolerant of all people, regardless of race, age, sex, social standing, sickness or disability. Although it is true that strangerfear, as Allen prefers to call xenophobia, has been documented in many species as well as in the human species, the hostility to strangers and to differentness in human society in the twentieth century is expressed differently than it has been in previous times. Allen states: ". . . for 99% of its existence as a distinct species humankind has lived in small groups. . . . Open space is and was the most effective deterrent to group hostility . . ." (12-13).

No longer can we live in small groups in open spaces. The world’s resources are dwindling. Six billion plus citizens are clamoring to get their share. Many of our cities are overpopulated with people of various ethnic backgrounds being forced to live eyeball to eyeball with no room to get away. Again, as Allen argues, we construct in-groups and out-groups, extending our rules of membership to out-groups, pretending the rules are working, while constantly rejecting the out-groups (14). The dominant group, or majority, discriminates against the minority, and usually it’s because of a perceived threat. This threat may be based on the out-group possessing various undesirable attributes. For example, as Robert Wistrich, in his work Demonizing the Other, noted, the Nazis viewed Jews as parasites and bacilli, which are among the "least anthropomorphous in the animal kingdom and which, moreover, belong to the ordinary Lebenswelt of domesticity" (227). Thus, the Nazis reduced Jews to organisms that were perceived as a threat to German hygiene, cleanliness and ultimately survival. They were like microbes that, unless not exterminated, would multiply exponentially and bring Germany to ruin.

Today, we must face the melting-pot phenomenon, not only in the United States, but in other western countries as well. For example, Germany has become a multiethnic society, and because of it, there is a rise of sinister xenophobic nationalism, which, in addition, has also extended to much of the remaining European continent. One of the reasons is given to us by the Council of Europe’s publication, Tackling Racism and Xenophobia. Michael Wieviorka, one of its contributing authors, states that there is a "perception of immigrants invading national territory, rejecting cultural integration and flaunting their differences primarily because the national identity is very much threatened by the Americanization of culture, the internationalization of the economy and European construction (45). This coupled with the threat of immigrants, or Fremdarbeiter, the term used in Germany to define foreign workers, taking away jobs from citizens makes a case for tolerance almost impossible.

A small book by Ulrike Holler and Anne Teuter, Wir Leben Hier! consists of first-hand accounts of immigrants’ and their childrens’ experiences living and working in Germany. Eleven-year-old Chantal, who lives in Frankfurt, reports:

Ich fand es sehr blöd das die Deutschen Ausländer nicht gut behandeln. Deutsche sind schließlich auch Ausländer, wenn sie in andere Länder gehen. Auserdem sind Türken, Marokkaner und Jugoslawen auch Menschen und keine Tiere, die man wie Dreck behandeln darf. Ich finde es blöd in Deutschland, weil so viele Deutsche Ausländer rauswerfen und ihnen keine Arbeit und Platz zu wohnen geben .I found it very stupid that Germans don’t treat foreigners well. Germans are naturally also foreigners when they move to other countries. Besides, Turks, Moroccans and Yugoslavians are also humans and not animals that we may treat like dirt. I find it stupid in Germany because so many Germans throw foreigners out and don’t give them a job and no place to live ( italics mine) (33).

Chantal’s father is from India, but she was born in Frankfurt and considers herself German. She has a great deal of sensitivity to the plight of foreigners in Germany, and her argument that Germans who move to other countries are also foreigners is quite compelling. My personal experience, after emigrating first to Canada and then the U.S., leaves no doubt in my mind about Chantal’s assertion. I have been told countless times that my family and I should "get the hell back to the country we came from." In addition when I visited Germany in 1989, I remember a conversation I had with my father while listening to American music on the radio. My father—and I’m sure he represents many traditional Germans—told me how upset he was with American music, American television programs, and American customs threatening to overrun Germany. He said he was afraid that Germany had lost its identity and that especially the young were becoming so Americanized that Germany was turning into another USA. What was most noteworthy to me during my visit was how many English words have crept into the German language. Most definitely, Germany is redefining itself more and more by embracing American culture. Paradoxically, American culture is a culture of ethnic diversity.

The reality we must face is that multiculturalism is here to stay. People attempting to cling to traditional ways can no more wish it away than they can resurrect the dead. For better or worse, tradition must acquiesce to the advancement of change. As a human community, we must develop a new paradigm if we are going to live in peace with one another. Indeed, our global society stands before an awesome decision with far-reaching consequences for ourselves and our children. Will we accept the strangers into our midst and offer them our hand of friendship, or will we turn our multicultural cities into battlefields with rivers of blood coursing their streets? Will we fear our differences or celebrate them? Whatever we, the world citizens, decide now is what will determine our future. The choice we face is fear or courage, hate or compassion. We must decide.

If we’re going to change our reactionary ways of dealing with our differences, we need a renewal of enlightenment . Being German, I have always loved the writings of Johann Wolfgan Von Goethe (1749-1832) and was delighted when I ran across Paul E. Kerry’s Enlightenment Throughout the Writings of Goethe, published in 2001. In the introduction Kerry states that Goethe should get the same recognition for being an exponent of enlightenment as John Locke, William Robertson, Christian-Gillaume Malsherbes, David Rittenhouse, Pietro Verri, and many others, and that he would be now in the forefront of the human rights movement. According to Kerry, had the German poet-philosopher, Goethe, "emigrated to Great Britain’s thirteen American colonies in 1775 as he thought to do, he might well have become, like Franklin whom he admired, one of the Founding Fathers" (1).

But what does Goethe have to do with the modern dilemma of xenophobia? How can this wise scholar help us find a better way? First, we can agree that the opposite of xenophobia or strangerfear is tolerance and acceptance. Goethe understood the "Enlightenment meaning of Toleranz (tolerance)." Throughout his life, he expanded and refined that meaning. According to Goethe, the word tolerance has a much narrower definition than toleration. Goethe attempted to improve societal conditions in Europe. He recognized that the European nations had "suffered through terrifying wars . . . and Goethe knew what the necessary catalyst had to be: ‘Tolerance is the only mediator of a peace that will free all our powers and potential’"(205). His writings lifted both spatial and temporal barriers as he attempted to clarify how despite foreign dress and distant heaven, the universally human repeats itself in all people. The question, "Can a foreign land become for us the fatherland?" is answered positively by Goethe: ‘The wide world, expansive as it is, is always only an extended fatherland’"(205).

Yet today, we know that the wide expansive world Goethe writes about, has become a shrunken world that must be shared by more people. Consequently, it is even more critical today to practice tolerance--between nations, states, cities, and families.

This we can accomplish by educating our young first in our homes before they attend formal schools, which means that mothers, fathers, and other primary caretakers must overcome their own prejudices and then role-model a tolerant, benevolent way of treating others, especially those who are different by virtue of appearance, social status, age, gender, or health status. We must teach our children to nurture the weak among us and to have profound respect for all living beings. This may mean monitoring more carefully what we allow our children to watch on TV, what kind of movies we let them go to, what kind of music we allow them to listen to, and most importantly, what we say about others (and how we treat others) in front of our children. Children are great imitators. They need good models. 

Antonio Perotti’s Action to combat Intolerance and Xenophobia and to promote an Intercultural Society . . . highlights the importance of education to combat xenophobia. He asserts: "When it comes to winning the struggle for respect for one’s fellow men, it is not a question of knowing which aspect of the problem . . . should be given priority: it is the overall approach on all fronts which counts." He further outlines three key fronts that, like human rights, are inseparable. These are (1) planning policies for educational institutions to prevent discrimination, prejudice, and intolerance; (2) teacher training to make teachers aware of the importance of their role in teaching tolerance; (3) revising textbooks and teaching materials that may contain stereotypes (6).

Hence, by the time we send our children off to school, we must assure them that we will place them in the care of a multicultural environment, one that is tolerant of all. Unfortunately, while multicultural societies have been growing, schools have not kept up with the pace and instead have remained rigid and continued to foster stereotyping and discrimination against minorities, or certain out-groups. According to Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to education…Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children (11).

So, again, what is the antidote for xenophobia? It is accepting each person for who he/she is, and as Perotti poignantly argues:

to enable him to settle in society and achieve his full affective and intellectual development and his personal fulfillment in the receiving country, with its own nationals, with the prospect of their dynamic mutual enrichment…to place value on his cultural identity and mother tongue as a necessary condition for his proper development…to offer him equal opportunities…to promote co-ordination of educational targets…to accept adults and children who return as thy are and to multiply efforts in the emigration countries to facilitate their resettlement in such a way as to make use of their special experience, which could also bring cultural enrichment to their own country (27).

Finally, overcoming xenophobia on a global level takes tremendous courage. We can accomplish it only one person at a time, one family at a time, and one day at a time. If we persist in our effort, we will slowly begin to realize a global transformation from distrust to trust, from discrimination to acceptance, from war to peace, and from death to life.

I started this essay with a dream that was representative of the dreams I had about returning to my childhood home in Germany. I will end the essay with another dream. It is a what-if kind of dream and could be dreamed by anyone. In fact, I believe it is necessary for all people alive today to imagine this dream together:

It is 2001. I am sitting in a plane, bound for my destination. It could be any destination in the world. Everything goes smoothly, the plane’s engines purr and the fuselage is peaceful and cozy. The flight is ahead of schedule. Sitting next to me is a Muslim woman. We strike up a conversation about what it means to be Muslim, what it means to be Christian. We are both surprised we have more in common than we thought. Across the isle is a young black married couple. The wife is pregnant. One of the two flight attendants, serving refreshments to the passengers, is Asian, with long black hair and almond eyes. The other is as American as apple pie, sparkling blue eyes, with wheat-colored hair done up in an elegant French twist. From some of the seats, I can hear the chatter of children. A young boy asks, "Daddy, how long before we get there?" An older gentleman is sitting in the middle isle across from the black couple. He has a hunched back and is wearing thick glasses. His gnarled hands hold the New York Times in his lap. I look forward to the landing. I fantasize about what I will do when I arrive at my destination.

Suddenly there is a commotion. Guns are drawn, and we are informed by four extreme right-winged militant highjackers that we are about to crash into a prominent building. It could be any building in any city of the world.

We, the passengers, have become the designated human bomb. We, the passengers, are the raw materials for mass destruction—we, the men, women, and children sitting in this plane. Yet, we had no choice in the matter. We were not asked. The terrorists are no respecters of race, age, sex, or social standing. Anyone will do to advance their cause.

Moments later, tongues of fire and a plume of death darkens the sky over the city’s skyline. Thousands are killed. More thousands are injured. The world is fractured. The world bleeds. Sirens pierce the air. People are running out of the collapsing buildings, while others run into the blaze of hell looking for survivors.

Clearly, this dream is a metaphor I made up with my eyes wide open. It is meant to be a wake-up call for us to remember what we have forgotten in the twilight of our consciousness, that we must not be strangers to one another anymore.

Because we are human beings, we must work hard to end all degrees of xenophobic reactions that too often end in hatred, violence, and death. Because we are human beings, we must cherish and celebrate our oneness and not allow any human to be alien to us; for the faces of others are the mirrored reflections of ourselves. Because we are human beings, we must rise to the challenge of being fully human—to find creative ways to deal with the problems of overpopulation, environmental decline, war, food shortages, illiteracy, sickness, and poverty. Because we are human beings, we must form a global alliance of peace and collaboration; and because we are humane beings, we must never forget the evil done when we were not fully human.

Fig. 11. My cousins, Annie and Jenny. I’m in the middle 1956.

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Johnson, Paul. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Kerry, Paul E. Enlightenment Thought in the Writings of Goethe: a Contribution to the History of Ideas. Rochester NY: Camden House, 2001.

Marino, Jocelyn. "From Overseas to Overachiever." Macomb Daily. (Mount Clemens, MI) 15 Mar. 2000: C1.

Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment. Second Edition. Noble, Thomas, F. X., et al.

NY: Houghton Mifflin Comp., 1998.

Perotti, Antonio. Action to Combat Intolerance and Xenophobia and to… Strasbourg: Council for Cultural Co-operation, 1985.

Prittie, Terence, and the Editors of Life. Germany. New York: Time Incorporated, 1965.

Rhine From Mainz To Cologne, The. Tourist Video Vertrieb. Wiesbaden, Germany: Dist. Heimo Breitenstein. Tel. (06121) 65717.

Holocaust Poetry. compiled by Schiff, Hilda. Great Britain: Harper & Collins, 1995.

Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford U P, 1992.

Tackling Racism and Xenophobia: Practical Action at the Local Level. Germany: Council of Europe, 1995.

Demonizing the Other: Anitsemitism, Racism and Xenophobia. Ed. Wistrich, Robert S. OPA (Overseas Publishing Association) N.V. Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999.

Wood, Clement. Your Dreams and What They Mean. Van Nuys, CA: Newcastle Publishing, 1997.

Student Papers


Interdisciplinary Studies Program  Wayne State  University