As I wait to join a boat to Gaza with a group of European Jews, I am asked why? Trust me I say, I have to go, there is no choice. But why so adamant, what drives me? I have long pondered this question.
I was 18 months old on November 13, 1936 when I emigrated from Nazi Germany in the arms of my mother to sail on the SS Bremen to New York . Because of the ingenuity of my father, family money and contacts we were able to leave. You see, the United States had a strict quota system for refugees and before he was able to secure our visas, my father was required to have a sponsor who would provide him with a job. One was also required to have a place to live. When we came to America, my parents, near penniless, were severed from their beloved Germany, friends, family and affluence. Settling in New York with their little daughter, they found themselves at sea in a stranger’s land, unmoored from their station in life and terribly unhappy. They brought with them a darkness that became for me a personal symbol of the nightmare of Hitler’s Germany.
My exodus although not in my conscious memory is imprinted into my very being. It planted early in my childhood seeds of rootlessness, feeling disconnected, different and apart. The dark shadows of my refugee experience, reinforced by my parents’ unhappiness, my lonely and difficult childhood, makes clearer my passion and interest in breaking down barriers and fostering understanding between people. In addition, my empathy has always been with the underdog. This is no surprise for I felt like an underdog as a child.
Try to imagine a beautiful evening in the fall of 1934. My parents decide to take an after dinner stroll in the elegant neighborhood where they lived on Feuerbach Strasse in Frankfurt. Linden trees grew tall and the air was filled with blossoms. They walked along the quiet street when suddenly from nowhere out sprang a group of young men. “Brown Shirts “ they were called, a precursor to the SS, the feared Nazi police. That was how it began, the debauchery of Germany. The men marched up to my parents and simultaneously clicked their heels. They were no more than 18 years old, clean shaven angel faces hardly out of childhood indoctrinated with hate. Were they children once? Five brown shirts, high boots laced over brown pants, Nazi flags pinned on brown caps, swastika armbands in red white and black. In high spirits they were on a path to lunacy where linden trees would bloom no more.
One Brown Shirt stepped up close to my father, a finger on his nose. He laughed then circled about. “Come see the Jew nose,” he bellowed. The others cursed and mocked. My father, elegant in a tailored suit, silk tie and expensive overcoat wore fine black leather gloves. A small Florentine gold pin engraved with a diamond “L was visible on his tie. I would see it often as a child just as I had heard this story from my father so often. My mother pregnant with me wore a sable fur hat to match the collar and cuffs of her stylish coat. As I lay inside my mother, I became an unseen witness. Perhaps that can explain my lifelong vulnerability and sensitivity to racism and fascism.
Number two kicked, taunted, cursed, then punched my father in the face until he bled. The others kicked him onto the ground. The Brown Shirt angel faces in high spirits kicked some more and marched away. This episode was a deciding factor in my father’s decision to leave Germany. It took him two years to get us out.
My earliest memories are of a lonely child who did not know whether she was German or American. As much as I longed to be American, I felt different, sensitive to criticism from my parents who raised me in with a strong, critical hand. I tried to push the German part of me underground until I was ready many decades later to explore my history and roots. I cannot remember a time when I did not identify with the underdog, the oppressed and suffering. I learned oppression as a child and lived it through my parents. Who’s to say all the factors? I am a pacifist and believe that underneath the skin differences, cultural differences and past all the indoctrination and prejudice (more or less learned behavior,) we are all connected and long for dignity and personal freedom. We witness the generations of hate perpetuated between Israel and Palestine whereby the “other” is no longer human.
Is not my story everyone’s story? Am I different from a Palestinian or a Jew or Mexican? Am I different from a Syrian or African ? It is only the story that differs. Dig deeper and we find mirrors of ourselves in everyone. Now this elder hippy grandma shouts to all who will listen, NO MORE WARS, NO MORE GUNS, NO KILLING, NO BRUTALITY, NO OCCUPATIONS, NO MORE ORPHANS OR LANDMINES OR BATTLEFIELDS OR NAKED ROTTING CORPSES THAT HOLD SECRETS OF DREAMS SNUFFED OUT.