Here’s a column of mine that appeared in the Washington Post on September 21, 2014, about the burdens and blessings of being part-German.
During the last month of her life, my mother traveled in time and space, finally disembarking in the land — and the language — of her childhood. “Meine Schwester,” she said to me one delirious afternoon. “Du bist so schön.”
Of course, I was not her sister, and my beauty is surely open to debate. But it seemed like the wrong moment to object. She switched over to German for hours at a time that summer, in between naps and lively conversations with my father, who had died 25 years before.
I loved listening to her. She didn’t use the language all that much when I was growing up, or really after she left Germany when she was 6. Her name, Hildegarde, was a tip-off to her origins. But if Mom spoke with any accent at all, it was that of south Jersey. She made exceptions only for the occasional declarative. You knew you were in trouble if she said, “Donner wetter!,” which officially means “thunder weather,” but when my mother said it, it implied something much darker.
As a child, I avoided my German heritage, too. I’d tell people I was Irish, like my father, although you’d have to go back four generations to find the Boylans who fled Dublin in the wake of the Great Hunger.
It felt noble to be Irish. The Irish are beloved, witty, melancholic, great craic all around. It was to all of this that I aspired.
Of course, when my great-grandfather arrived in this country in the 1850s, the Irish American experience was far from the adorable cliche it would become. And the Irishness of my father was far from simple. But, unlike the Germanness of my mother, I never felt I needed to apologize for it.
To be German seems to require living with the weight of history. This was clear at a Berlin rally against anti-Semitism last Sunday. From a podium at the Brandenberg Gate, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared: “That people in Germany are threatened and abused because of their Jewish appearance or their support for Israel is an outrageous scandal that we won’t accept.”
When I was a teenager, I grew curious enough about my family’s history to study German for four years in high school and another year in college. Should it have been a surprise that it came so easily to me, and that its weird word order and tongue-twisting verbs gave me delight?
In the summer of 1976, I traveled to West Germany, where I wandered around with a ridiculous backpack, from Füssen to Wilhelmshaven. I drank Löwenbräu and ate all sorts of sausages. I stayed up til midnight listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a friend’s great-aunt, a tiny woman who spoke no English. I sang Bob Dylan songs auf Deutsch with other young people in a circus tent that served as a hostel on the outskirts of Munich.
Then, one afternoon, I stared out a train window at a line of boxcars and felt my entire body turn cold with terror. It was impossible to look at that image in that land without thinking of the Holocaust. In one city — was it Frankfurt? — I descended from a plaza to find an underground memorial to German war dead. There I saw a statue of a slain solider lying on his back. On the side of the marble slab were the words “Unsere Gefallenen,” which means, Our Fallen. I stood there, horrified, wondering, Who’s this “our”? It could not possibly include me, could it?
I haven’t returned to Germany. In 1998, when I was a visiting professor at University College Cork, my family took trips to London, Venice and Amsterdam. But not Berlin. By the end of the year, my sons had developed soft Cork accents. Everyone back in the States thought they were adorable.
Like my mother, I haven’t spoken German much at home. In 2011, at a parents’ day at my sons’ school, I was introduced to some exchange students from Berlin and immediately launched into German with them. My son Zach looked at me with an expression of astonishment and fear. “I’ve never heard you talk like that!” he said. “It was kind of cool. And a little bit creepy.”
I told those students that I was German and that my mother had come from East Prussia. They looked at me curiously. “But East Prussia isn’t Germany,” they said, truly enough: The land that my mother’s family once fled is now carved up between Poland and Russia. I realized that if I’d been uncertain, all that time, about what it means to be German American, the notion of what it means to be German is uncertain as well.
Author Bernhard Schlink has talked about being German as both “a huge burden” and “an integral part of me . . . I wouldn’t want to escape.” In one of our last conversations, my mother looked at me and sang, “Du, du liegst mir im Herzen, du, du, liegst mir im Sinn! Du, du, machst mir veil Schmertzen, weißt nicht wie güt ich dir bin.” Which means, “You’re in my heart, you’re in my mind, you cause me such pain. You don’t know how good I am for you.” Which seems as good a way as any to sum up being German.
Over the years, I’ve tried to accept both the burden and the blessing. And I’ve come to understand that it’s not something I can or want to escape.
Once, while on assignment for a magazine, I found myself at the top of the Campanile di San Marco in Venice. It was late morning after a photo shoot, during which the photographer kept telling me how much he loved Irish women, leaping to a conclusion based on my surname.
In the tower, however, I encountered a beautiful Italian man, looking out over the city, smoking a cigarette. He looked me up and down, and then smiled a smile that suggested he’d seen straight into my core.
“Buongiorno,” he said. “Fräulein.”