clare burson

silver and ash

germany

in my family, we did not wax nostalgic about things german. case in point, my grandmother, helga. she has spent the past 70 years downplaying the fact that she was even born in germany – not to mention the fact that she lived there until she was 19. when asked where she’s from, she replies, without a second thought, “memphis.”

of course, certain things were unavoidable growing up. my great aunt rita, for instance. married to helga’s brother, axel, she never missed an opportunity to romanticize her german heritage. (she was born in the united states and grew up in a jewish household, so her attachment to germany still flumoxes me – despite the fact that she’s from missouri.)

and certain things were undeniable, like my grandfather eric’s german accent.

one of my earliest memories of him is of his coming to speak to my violin class about one of the pieces we were learning – the two grenediers, which was based on a heinrich heine poem. (granddaddy loved heinrich heine – a jewish german poet from the early 19th century, heine’s lyrical poetry was often set to music by composers like strauss, brahms, schubert, mendelssohn, and even wagner.

he sounded so different from my teachers with their thick southern drawls. my classmates didn’t know what to make of him. “what is he saying?” they asked repeatedly.

i loved it. i loved the gutteral sounds of his ‘r’s. i loved to hear him pronounce the names of german composers. i loved his handwriting.

i loved that it was different, that he was different. this difference represented a lost world to me. and granddaddy was my link to this lost, magical place – strange for a school kid to think of pre-war, weimar berlin as a glittering fantasy world, but that’s what it was for me. his germany was so storied and full of music and thought and word. perhaps most compelling for me was that it was a place and time impossible to recover.

when i was 13 and he was 84, he died of bone cancer. his last words were from the robert frost poem, stopping by woods on a snowy evening:

and miles to go before i sleep . . .

*******

what i know of my grandfather’s life in germany comes from black and white photos of a young leder-hosen-clad boy posing with his zuckertuete (the candy filled cone that german children receive on the first day of school) and long dead austere-looking 19th century relatives, stories filtered through my aunt and my mother, a handwritten poem from 1928 on the occasion of eric’s older sister hella’s marriage, and his memoir, entitled, the lord is my shepherd. (a highly assimilated german jew from berlin, granddaddy changed his last name from cohen to cornell when he settled in the united states. that said, the great appreciation he had for life here eventually led him to a deep attachment to his judaism. for as long as i knew him, he was the loudest voice in the temple choir, a friend of the rabbi, and quick to quote psalms whenever the opportunity arose.)

i know that eric’s family had been in germany for generations – from the northwestern region of the country, if i’m remembering correctly. his father, levi/ leo, was a banker who died in 1932 and is buried in the weisensee friedhof (cemetery) on the outskirts of berlin. granddaddy had a little boat named ping-pong that he sailed along berlin’s river spree. he always regretted not having had a proper education, as his school days were interruped by the first world war, when all of his teachers left for the front.

when my grandfather was old enough, he began to work as a salesman. clothes, i think. this was an occupation that ended up facilitating his escape from nazi germany. on a buying trip in switzerland in the mid-thirties, he was able to view the goings-on in his country from a different vantage point. he surmised correctly that the situation in his beloved homeland was only worsening, so he began making plans to leave.

he took the train to rotterdam and back again to berlin countless times, on ‘buying’ trips. (incidentally, my cousin does a hilarious impersonation of granddaddy saying, ‘i took ze train to rotterdam.’ emphasis on the ‘r’s, of course.) on weekends, eric carted luggage full of his belongings to holland, where he left the contents with friends. he then would return to germany with empty suitcases. a dangerous proposition, what with nazi soldiers monitoring travel. these trips stopped when he was approached by a hostile officer inquiring as to why he was returning to berlin with an empty suitcase. somehow, granddaddy talked his way out of a potentially damning situation and decided to get out while he still could.

of course, there were complications with obtaining a visa. there was waiting. but eventually, in 1938, he made it out. and from new york, where his sister hella and her family had settled in kew gardens, he was able to arrange for his mother’s escape as well.

He would have been 105 years old today, April 13, 2008.

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