Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Dawn; Eighty Years On The Planet

Eighty years ago, April 21, 1930, my mother was born in Eger.  You will not find Eger on the map.  It is still there, but the current name on the map is Cheb.  Eger is a Bohemian border town that has been claimed by either Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Austria, and Czechoslovakia all though out its history and now it is on the Czech side of the border. Cheb is the Czech name.  Eger is the German name.

     Although my mother's birth records record her as a Czech, she grew up speaking a dialect of German. Not the dialect spoken in Germany,  but Sudeten. There was a dream held by Germans living in that region of a independent homeland, Sudeten land, and this I believe was a dream that my grandfather, Opa, held on to.  It was a dream that both Jews and non-Jews had for the region.  He must have forgotten that there was a difference between Sudeten Germans and Sudeten Jewish Germans.  I am only guessing, but this may have been the dream that kept Opa stubbornly in Eger when many Jewish friends and relatives sold out and left for England and America with their finances in order and the chance for a new start.  I have been confused about this for most of my life, but I think I may now understand that piece of the puzzle.  On the dawn of her eightieth year on this planet, my mother may have finally understood it too.

     When family history is not shared, when it is hidden, so much is lost. For all of my life, my mother and my grandmother, Oma, were mortal enemies.  At least in the version of the story that my mother recited over and over again.  And, yes, my Oma was a difficult person, demanding, cold, and aloof.  I know why Oma was the person that she became.  Or at least I think I know, because I am only guessing what the puzzle looked like before all of the pieces were scattered.
     Secrets cripple, knowledge is power.  My grandmother, Oma, hid the whole time she lived in this country.  She hid from who she was.  Every knock on the door could have been the Gestapo.  That is what my mother now says in her eightieth year.  Of course, we didn’t know that growing up.  We just knew that she was strange, bitter, controlling woman who still wore her hair in a 1930 hairstyle until just before she passed away in the 1970’s.

     I regret not knowing the stories of my Bohemian, Jewish culture. My ancestors may have settled in that area hundreds of years before the middle ages.  I have read stories about Native American children being torn away from their homes, their culture, their language, and raised in boarding schools so that they can blend into the European culture that dominated this country.  We know what that toll had taken on them.  In Europe, the same genocide of culture has taken place throughout history, I am thinking of the gypsies as one example.  We are better people when we know the stories, by knowing the stories we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future. By knowing the stories and embracing our culture, we can create a better future.

     My mother’s future changed when she was a little girl.  Only eight years old, I think she may have been at home, in the house overlooking the town square in Eger, when Kristallnacht, "the Night of Broken Glass" happened. In Germany, on November 9 and 10 of 1938, gangs of Nazi youth roamed through Jewish neighborhoods breaking windows of Jewish businesses and homes, burning synagogues and looting.  I am sure, even though she has no memories of it, that her life as a German speaking Jew living in a border town, on that night, changed forever.  From the few pieces of the puzzle that I can find, it was during this time that the family left their business and home and fled deeper into Czechoslovakia to Prague.  The majority of the Czech people had little sympathy for Jews; Czech or German.  But especially for those from Sudeten.  A life of privilege ended for my mother, but she only remembers that her parents took her away from her home and a nanny who she thought of as more of a mother than my grandmother, Oma.  For the rest of her eighty years my mother’s anger, the anger of an eight year old girl, was directed at her mother, and indirectly to her father.

     So, on her eightieth birthday, she tells me that she had been thinking about her mother.  My mother says that Oma only interacted with her on weekends when the staff was off.  My own mother's nanny, on her own, made it to the United States.  Mother used to tell me that she met her in California when I was little.  In my mother's story, the one she told us over and over again, the nanny was willing to move in help to raise us correctly and she adamantly refused, the anger of an eight year old girl that was deserted by the one person she adored and spent more time with than her own mother. 

     Mother says she now realizes how hard it must have been for Oma to leave behind a life of directing the household staff, to being the household staff.  A whole way of life buried in name changes and hiding ones identity.  Kosher meals are not part of the life of a Lutheran family.   "Why choose to call us Lutheran and have me be part of that community?" she asks.  Martin Luther, the founder, was a German, and maybe he was familiar to even a German Jew?  My mother's memories of 1938 are still buried, but she does know that there were two kitchens in their home and two cooks,  because of kosher meals. Even though mother says that Oma was a cold person with no personality, mother now thinks that it must have been hard and confusing for her parents to leave it all behind; the culture, the language, the friends, and the relatives.  In this country, in the hot dry climate of California, Oma had taken jobs cleaning houses and working in sewing sweatshops.  Opa was the gardener for people that were once his peers in Europe.  Mother is hinting that maybe she had been too bitter and too angry with her parents.  Eighty years is marking a time for reflection.  Perhaps her children, me included, would have had it easier if we had understood why she was the mother to us that she was.  We were raised by an angry eight year old girl.  From a life of privilege to a life of secrets, a new name, a new religion, and a little bungalow in West Los Angeles. 
     An interesting story in Google books:
Hanna's Diary, 1938-1941: Czechoslovakia to Canada  By Hanna Spencer
My mother’s REAL NAME was also Hanna.

Book overview from Google books:
Hanna Fischl, a Czech of Jewish descent, was a twenty-four-year-old teacher in a German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia when Hitler's shadow loomed over Europe in 1938. No longer able to associate openly with her lover, Hans Feiertag, the talented, Christian composer whom she had loved since her teens, she began writing a diary at his request so that, once they were reunited, he could learn about her life while they had been apart. Written in a touching and candid style, Hanna's Diary, 1938-1941 is the result of that request. Hanna's Diary, 1938-1941 offers an intimate view of sweeping historical events that engulfed Europe and the world, evoking the creeping fear, desperate hopes, desertion of friends, and sense of isolation that Hanna Spencer felt as Nazism spread. The diary follows Spencer to England - where she faced misery of a different kind - and then to Canada, where, as a young immigrant with a PhD, she worked in her uncle's glove-making factory before finally landing a teaching job in Ottawa. Spencer describes her experiences lecturing on Czechoslovaki's history and its takeover by the Nazis, and her resulting celebrity on the Ontario lecture circuit. Written with clear wit and a sharp eye for detail, Hanna's Diary, 1938-1941 is a must-read for anyone interested in the human side of the Second World War.

NO. 106
Arieh Stav
The first Czechoslovak Republic was established in 1918 after hundreds of years of Austrian (i.e., German) domination over the Czechs and Slovaks. The new state arose on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in a certain sense was a miniature heir to the Empire. As its name indicates, Czechoslovakia was made up of two Slavic nationalities, the Czechs and Slovaks, who together constituted 9.5 million out of a total population of 14.5 million people in the Republic. The largest minority, more than three million, were Germans, the 1.7 million remaining were Hungarians, Ruthenian Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews. The large German minority made up 23% of the whole population. They were a classic example of an irredentist ethnic group, a fifth column that rose up against their country and undermined it from within until it was totally destroyed. Nevertheless, the Germans and the other minorities enjoyed a generous system of national cultural rights and political equality.

     The Czech leaders, Masaryk and Benes, were alert to the danger from the German minority concentrated in the mountainous Sudetenland fringe of the country. They could not do much about this dangerous situation since the principles of the democratic system required them to bring the Sudeten Germans into the workings of government. As early as 1925, there were two Sudeten Germans in the cabinet and the strength of the German minority rose in direct relationship to the consolidation of Nazism in Germany. Autonomy under the guise of self determination became one of Hitler’s demands, and in 1938, the Sudeten German minority became Berlin’s agents in all respects.


  1. You are absolutely correct about how secrets cripple us and bind them to us even stronger by the self imposed silence. I happy that at least you are learning of your heritage now, not later. Good luck with your search as it progresses!

  2. What could have been? I wonder about all the conflicts and wars cemented in tribal rivalry. In the Middle East, people with the same religion, the same culture, the same language, are killing each other because their heritage traces its self to a different tribe. There was only one tribe to start with, and it was dominated by this male need to control and win. What could have been if women had been able to be the ones in charge?