in november 1938 my maternal grandmother (in the leopard-y coat) and her brother (far right) left their home in leipzig, germany for the united states. after a presumably long journey, they arrived in new york city, spent a week in far rockaway with distant relatives, and boarded a train to memphis, tn.
in pictures of them from their trip across the ocean, they are young and smiling. my grandmother in particular looks to be quite the catch – impeccably stylish and constantly canoodling with one or another dapper looking fellow . . .
my great grandparents eventually left germany as well. however, as it was too late for them to escape to the west, they headed east to riga, latvia. in 1940 the soviet army invaded latvia. the wehrmacht followed one year later. my great grandparents did not survive the war.
my childhood was marked by an uneasy silence surrounding my grandmother’s escape. it was a silence that eventually led me to pick up and move to germany on two separate occasions in the late 1990s. while there, i lived in munich, frankfurt, berlin, and cologne. i did a lot of digging. i filled in the spaces as best i could.
my experiences from this time could constitute an entire blog’s worth of reflections on their own that aren’t worth going into now. however, i will mention, that while i was there, i had the opportunity to visit leipzig with my grandmother, mother, aunt, uncle and cousin. we walked through the market square and by the town hall. we stopped in the rain at the empty lot where the old synagogue had been. we found my grandmother’s old neighborhood, amazingly still intact. as was the apartment building where she had lived with her parents and brother. we rang the doorbell of the apartment, hoping for a glimpse inside. no one was home.
seven years later, in november 2003, 65 years after my grandmother left leipzig for the first time, i returned again. i was on a two week tour of germany, and one of my shows was at a club in leipzig. i remembered the address. i also remembered that the building was not too far from the train station. when i arrived, i asked my driver to take me there.
to make a longish story somewhat shorter, someone was home this time. a single mother with two daughters welcomed me into her home, where i spent close to an hour in the rooms my great grandparents had shared with their children generations ago.
the next day, i wrote the following song:
here where the cold wind blows across the fields and the magpies gather all that glitter – here where the old men speak of long lost things in a language that never seems to matter – i think of you – here where your white walls color in the past and the windows are looking in on yesterday – i hear your voices quiet like the night – i picture you in everything – i think of you – sometimes i think that you might have been something like rainbows on water – sometimes i think of how life must have been for you here – what life could have been like for you here – what life should have been like here with you