Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ich bin ein Berliner

A Berliner, much to the embarrassment of President John F. Kennedy, is what you might recognize from visiting your local Krispy Kreme as a jelly donut. (Yum!) Obviously, I'm not actually a delicious doughy pastry with sweet jelly inside and powdered sugar on the outside. But I've seen the promised land, and I must say, I can certainly see myself living there. So, I may not be any more ein Berliner than JFK, but I get his point. (Or as they say in German -- ich verstehe was er meint.)

I spent two full weeks drinking beer and homemade schnapps and eating wurst and schnitzel (and, oddly enough, a ton of Greek food). And though I do miss the charm and the history that most Americans will never know -- unless they or their loved ones suffered in the Holocaust or fought in World War II or lived in a Nazi-occupied country during the War -- I'm glad to be back in Brooklyn. But just what do I mean about that history comment? It's difficult to articulate.

When I first met my husband, born and raised in Germany by a German mother and Austrian father, I had all sorts of very clear ideas about what it meant to be someone with German and Austrian ancestry. First, let me dispell a few mistaken notions. Germans, if I may generalize here, do not hate black people. I may be alone here with this naked, wildly mistaken idea, but I was worried that this mostly white country with a history of race-based bigotry might not welcome a person such as myself with dark skin and African features. I was oh-so-wrong.

My in-laws love me, in fact, and the feeling is mutual. I remember my first trip to visit my mother-in-law in Hamburg. As I was flipping through the family photo album, I was surprised to find a yellowed newspaper clipping and photograph of Angela Davis awaiting trial among the photographs of my yellow-haired husband as a boy. On her bookshelves, I found perhaps a dozen German tranlsations of James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, and Alice Walker. While shopping in boutiques and markets, I never felt I had to make the affirmative efforts that I do in my local Gap or bookstore to reassure people that I'm not trying to steal something. No one followed me or watched me shop, no one did a double-take when I walked up to the checkout line in. I wasn't treated like I was unusual (as was the case in Russia, which some day I'll write about in detail). Except once. On Friday night, September 1, we ate dinner in a Greek restaurant in Hamburg. I can't remember the name, but it was delish. Anyway, I walked in with my husband and mother-in-law. The host seated us, and speaking in German he pegged my husband and I (or at least me -- could it be my height?) as being from America. My husband confirmed that we were, and the host gleefully informed us that Greece had just beaten the U.S. in the world basketball championship. "Ich liebe Amerika!" ("I love America!"), he exclaimed, and brought us a free round of ouzo. I'll take my lumps if they come with free ouzo, not a problem.

But it wasn't until I met my husband that I actually considered what life was like for Germans citizens during World War II. Millions of Jews and homosexuals and other innocent people died cruelly at the hand of an insane dictator. (That, in and of itself was horrifying, even if the masses went frightfully along with the program.) And while the Allied Forces fought to bring his evil regime to its knees, cities were bombed. I imagine it was something akin to the experience of the Iraqi people. Sadam Hussein's inhumane acts and his malignant leadership provoked action against his country and people died -- mothers, daughters, grandfathers died when the U.S. dropped bombs. The underlying acts of Hitler and Hussein are not of the same scale, but the nation of Iraq has suffered the incessant dropping of bombs on civilian people. In Germany, children were sent out of the cities and away from their families to live with farm families in the countryside where they were safe from the bombs. Infant children were taken from their mother's breasts. And they survived, not understanding fully why they had been sent away. To this day, families are in pain and even in my husband’s generation the pain is palpable. There is a sadness and a shame I perceive in Germany. Not a shame for the country as we know it today, but a shame for the unspeakable blemish put on it by Nazism. It's an unparalled shame for the tradegy and genocide of the Holocaust.

The cities are scarred, even to this day, with vivid reminders. Half bombed out buildings still stand, people distinguish the cities with descriptions of what was in a particular spot "before the war" and what is there now. Berlin, obviously, is one of those places. I had never heard of "checkpoint charlie" a spot that still stands, now just for history's sake, where the U.S. Army had an installation on one side and the Russian Army had one on the other where people moved between the East and the West. As my husband and I drove from Berlin back through the western region of the country, he pointed out to me where the border of East and West Germany used to be and what it was like passing through it as a child.

Do people who lived in Hawaii have similar memories of Pearl Harbor and Honolulu before and after? Hiroshima? Nagasaki? London? It's just not that way for most Americans. So when I travel to Germany, I learn. Sometimes I grieve. And always, I feel.

I had a friend who once asked me what it felt like to be a part of a race of people who were universally despised around the world. Her question caught me off guard, of course, not knowing whether she meant tall people or intelligent people or lawyers or . . . naw. She couldn't have had the audicity to think, formulate, and pose THAT question could she? She did. And she wasn't drunk. And she wasn't white either, you may be surprised to learn. Clearly, we're no longer friends, but her question harshly presumed that blacks are universally despised around the world. Hmmm.

I think my husband is sometimes concerned about how he will be received when he's abroad, whether here in New York or elsewhere in the world. Ironically, I know exactly how he feels.

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