Reconciliation with Past

1968. I was thirteen and in grade eight at Ness Junior High here in Winnipeg.  Our music teacher, Mrs. Lohr, gave us an assignment: pick out a piece of music and share why you like it. It was a fun assignment for most of the class, but caused me a fair bit of anxiety. My church frowned upon rock and roll music and I’d had little exposure to it. So, while the other students were bringing in evil 45s like “Lady Willpower” by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap; the syrupy “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro or the angry political hit “Sky Pilot” by the Animals—I brought in the theme from “Born Free.” I was allowed to be in love with the baby lions . . . Little Elsa, Jespah and Gumpa, but I was not allowed to have crushes on any pop stars. 

1968. The year that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. I remember feeling that the world was a dangerous place. I remember thinking I didn’t want to be an adult.

1968. The year that Prague was repeatedly in the news, but I had little comprehension of where it was or what was happening.  For me, Eastern Europe was as far-away as the moon.

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

1968. The year of anti-Vietnam protests. Those made an impression in my young life. The hippies and the flower children strumming about peace . . . also taboo . . . as it was laced with drugs, long hair and free love.

1968. Student protests in West Germany that led to changes with how that country dealt with its Second World War history. Being a German-Canadian here in Winnipeg, I missed out on that history lesson. My parents didn’t talk about the war and at school they taught me nothing about Germany’s guilt and recovery. My parents taught me little. We might have spoken German in the house, but we didn’t discuss German guilt or the Holocaust. Maybe that’s why I’m still so fascinated with it. 

If I’d been living in Germany in 1968 as a teenager, I might have been more aware of  that country's student protests.  I might have become aware of the changes forced upon German institutions, as they reckoned with their war history and demanded that ex-Nazis be removed from positions of power.

1968. When German society began to face its past. Monuments were built, textbooks were re-written and Nazi crimes were confronted.  Meanwhile, over here, I focused on American protest movements about Vietnam and women’s lib. There was no re-education here for children of German immigrants. 

Remembering Stutthof Camp

The 1968 student protests in West Germany led to a wake-up call. While West Germany had prospered economically, there was more needed for that country to heal. Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The Germans love long words. It means, ‘coming to terms with their past.’ We Canadians are going through it right now with the ‘truth and reconciliation commission.’ German young people, born post-World War Two, were tired of the hypocrisy of their leaders . . . many with Nazi pasts still in power.  Now here, in present-day Canada, young Indigenous people question the colonial mindset that has named, honoured and controlled much of this country. 

It takes courage to admit guilt and silence doesn’t make the past go away. It just keeps festering, getting infected and causing problems. I think as Canadians, during this official week of Truth and Reconciliation, we’re trying to own up to the wrongs of the past. And I dare say, the Germans have tried, too. 

Ode to the Linden Tree

I noticed a social media post about it being National Tree Day yesterday, September 22,

(different day in every country) and thought I’d share, a day late, a bit about one of my favourite trees, the linden. 

Thirty years ago, I’d planted a linden tree in my garden because it reminded me of my mom. I remember a song she would sing about the linden tree and it seemed to me that my sparsely treed garden in suburbia wouldn’t be complete without the nostalgia of a linden tree. The sapling has grown big and strong. It’s graced my garden with spring blossoms, summer shade and amber fall colours. Squirrels, blue jays and various migrating birds seem to love it, too. It lends support to my summer clothesline and could have been a perfect hammock supporter if I’d been clever enough to space the trees properly. But that’s okay . . . the green ash and Manitoba maple have assumed that job. 

When I travelled through the former Volhynia in current-day Ukraine, our roots group was led to aging, broken lindens . . . damaged by war and by lightning strikes. Thick stumps stand as markers to past villages and lived lives. In The Kulak’s Daughter (aka Red Stone), it’s blossoms of the linden tree that help sustain the exiled family in Siberia by brewing linden tea.

In my own garden, the linden tree also stands as a measure of time. Three decades of raising three kids. . . weathering sunny days and storms, always growing . . . reaching up towards the light.

Famous lindens in German culture include the Berlin street known as “Unter den Linden,” and the linden tree that marks Werther’s grave after his suicide in Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (a novel which had a big impact on me back in university along with most everyone who's read it!)

But mostly, when I think of lindens, I think of my mom, softly singing. 

Vor dem Haus steht eine Linde/Sie weht ihr Äst im Winde/ Da sitzen davor ein altes Paar/Sie sitzen als waren sie schon immer da/ Sie denken zurücke/an Jugend und Glücke/Vorbei, vorbei/Mein Schatz vorbei.

Translated:  In front of the house stands a linden tree/It waves its limbs in the wind/There sit an old couple/They sit as if they’ve been there forever/They think back/on their youth and their joys/It’s over, it’s over/My love, it’s over.

I’ve searched the internet for this song and have still not found it. I only have the snippet of these words and melody . . . sourced from memory. But like the linden tree itself, it’s rooted deep into my life. 

The Great Purge

I missed out on having grandparents and as I got older that lack became a need to know WHY. Discovering my maternal grandfather’s signature on his interrogation papers back in the secret police files in Zhytomyr (now in Ukraine, in 1937 part of the

My mom, top right.
USSR) back in 2004 changed my world. It meant he was real . . . that he existed. 

September 19th continues to have a special meaning to me. The NKVD Troika found the former kulak guilty of counter-revolutionary activities under Article 58 (SFSR Penal Code) and in 1937, at 3:13 in the morning, Eduard Ristau was shot in the back of the head.  That was 84 Septembers ago during the Great Purge (aka The Great Terror). Why was he found guilty? He had letters from his children who were now in Germany . . . letters with money in them. He was obviously selling state secrets to the fascist enemy. 

Once, Eduard Ristau (called Franz Halter in my novels) was a husband, a father of several children, a farmer and a windmill owner. His wife died back in 1931, faraway in Siberian exile, his youngest son died enroute, but his older children made it to safety with relatives in another country.

My grandfather managed to survive the famine years of the Holodomor, hiding and always running, but in the end the NKVD got him. . . a penniless, persecuted man. Still, he tried his best and I wouldn’t be here, if he hadn’t found a way to send his children, and my future mother, to safety. Rest in peace, grandpa. And, thank you.

And thanks again to Don Miller, author of Under Arrest, who helped me find the files in the Zhytomyr archives. 

The Hyphenated Canadian

Just finished reading Being German Canadian, which was released this past May by the University of Manitoba Press. This collection of essays by various academics contains writing styles that vary from hard-to-digest to accessible. Writing style aside, I recognized a fair bit about my own experiences as part of the immigrant community.

I already knew that Canada's prime minister, Lyon Mackenzie King, had been a Hitler supporter . . . but reading it in this book underlined it for me. I was also fascinated with how one of the contributors connected the German intergenerational guilt with the contemporary Canadian reconciliation with its own blemished past . . . the treatment of Indigenous Peoples who lived here before the European invasion. 

I love when a book sends me off to research in another direction. This time, I want to look at the 1968 student riots in West Germany which became the turning point for that country's efforts to educate its own about the atrocities of the Holocaust. It's something that the immigrants to Canada missed out on. 

In spite of some essays with challenging/off-turning (to me) academic prose, I recommend this book to those interested in the German-Canadian experience. If you read only a part, then read the Afterword by Roger Frie.

This book reaffirms for me the power of novels and my favourite Kipling quote (sub-heading on my blog). Dry facts are fascinating, but on their own they lack the power of engagement that an empathetic character can provide. Some folks see fiction as untruths, I see fiction as a way to illustrate truths. 

Okay, now on to explore those 1968 German student riots. I’m glad somebody’s writing nonfiction. I guess we do need all kinds of writers . . . researchers, historians and novelists. . . to figure out who we are, where we came from, and where we might be going. 

Riga Hangars

It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since I visited the town market in Riga, Latvia. That had been the starting point for our 12 day cycling adventure along the Amber Coast. What made Riga’s central market so memorable was the huge former zeppelin hangars. When I think zeppelin, I think of the doomed Hindenburg that caught fire after crossing the Atlantic back in May, 1937. Before that, however, they were— for a short while at least—considered a viable way of air travel.

Riga's zeppelin hangars were built originally for German zeppelins but in the 1920s they were remodelled and incorporated into the city’s vision of having a Central Market place. By 1930, the Riga Central Market was considered the biggest and also the best market in all of Europe. After the Soviet takeover it was renamed the Central Kolkhoz Market. Kolkhoz is the Russian word for collective and the market sold meat, eggs, potatoes and vegetables, etc. produced by over sixty Soviet collectives. On weekends, more than a hundred thousand people would visit and shop for produce. 

In 1997, with Latvia once again an independent country, the Riga Central Market was named a Unesco World Heritage site.  

Only ten minutes from our hotel, the market was our first stop after a fifteen-hour plane ride. Hungry and curious, we got a great taste of an area overflowing with charm and history. Rather than tearing down structures no longer needed for out-dated zeppelins, these hangars are a striking reminder of the past. 

The city of Riga is a real treasure. There’s much to explore in this proud Latvian capital that’s seen plenty of struggle during the violent 20th century. I love how they embrace their history. When we visited, everyone was buying flowers. It's a Latvian tradition for students to bring their teachers bouquets for the start of the new school year. 

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