Translated by Jake Schneider
Alfred Neumann originally came from the far south of Silesia, from the Snowy Mountains of Glatz, an enchanted stretch of land at the crossroads of Silesia, Bohemia, and Moravia that lies today mostly within Poland. His favorite song was “Und in dem Schneegebirge” (“And in the Snowy Mountains”). As a little boy, I felt a deep sorrow inside whenever he or anyone else sang it, a sorrow whose source I couldn’t place. My grandfather knew lots of songs. He worked with his hands; he made music. My first guitar, which I wrote my own tunes on and later sang along with, came from him. Most of the songs I still sing to my daughters came from him. His wife, my grandmother Elisabeth “Lisbeth” Metzner, was originally from Naumburg am Queis. At their wedding, in 1936, my grandfather seated his best friend Bernhard next to Lisbeth’s sister Gretel, and the pair of them married two years later. My mother was born in 1939 in Lauban, Lower Silesia, 24 kilometers east of Görlitz.
Both my father’s father, Albert Jankowski, and his wife, Rosalie Stephan, also came from Silesia. Albert was born in Gramschütz, near Namslau, in 1898; Rosalie, too, was born in Gramschütz in 1903, and they knew each other as children. They married in Namslau, the town—a city in their eyes—between Breslau and Oppeln. That was where my father was born in 1938. Although I, the offspring of two refugees, was born on the Baltic coast twenty years after the war, by ancestry I’m Silesian—a statement that rings unreal and unsettling even to myself at the moment I write this.
Born in East Germany, in what was called the “first workers’ and farmers’ state on German soil” a few years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, I was entirely unaware of this fact, even though Silesian dialects, songs, and customs, not to mention Silesian folk religion, existentially shaped my childhood and by extension who I am. That I am now taken for a Westerner wherever I go, as a man with a German passport, erases and nullifies my twice-over background as an Eastern European. So much so that I often forget it myself.
Yet my Grandpa Alfred—who lived with his wife, children, and small livestock between two cowsheds on a big collectivized farm that had once been a feudal manor—was, until Honecker’s downfall, at least as amenable to socialism as he was culturally Catholic. The little people deserved a fair shake; war and exploitation ought to be made a thing of the past. Under socialism, any talk of Silesia counted as a mark of revanchism, as living in yesterday’s yesterday, but this attitude did not stretch into his private thoughts. Which is not to say he wanted to return, let alone claim Silesia back. It was simply his Heimat, the native place of his childhood and adolescence, and a Heimat is something you never lose. But bygones were bygones. The past was officially over, and the present was a completely different story, or so they said. The revanchists were those old racist ethnopopulist speechifiers in West Germany, members of folkloristic landsmen’s clubs and leagues of expellees over there who liked to parade around in what he saw as a relentless gesture of political bluster toward the East. No, he had nothing to do with all that. He bought himself a Tesla tape recorder, the latest in Czech recording technology, and taped hours of folk songs and Heimat music, which he used to play time and again whenever he found a quiet hour. And at the end, as death approached, he sang them with the old ladies at the nursing home, those songs from the Heimat. Who knows why this never struck me as stuffy or revanchist when it came from him.
I’ve never been to Silesia. To be sure, on vacation as a child in the seventies, I did go hiking with my parents on the Schneekoppe (we sang songs about Rübezahl, the mythical wild man of the Giant Mountains), passed through Grünberg, and stopped in Gablonz to buy crystal glasses, but it never occurred to me that we were in Lower Silesia, in the Heimat. Was I oblivious? Or did I already have a sense that Heimat came down to much more than location? Mounted above my bed were the gnarled, whittled faces of mountain creatures, bought at the arts-and-crafts market in Hirschberg.
Grandpa Alfred from Neschwitz certainly left an impression on me, and shaped my childhood more than just about anyone. Years after his death, I rarely go a day without mentioning him. He was always telling stories “from the Heimat,” but not always specifying where that was exactly. On his coffee table (with its eternal clear plastic cover protecting the “good tablecloth”) lay an open atlas with a magnifying glass, and whenever I peered inside, I’d see maps of eastern Europe, which he used to study in the evenings before nodding off, invariably, to official East German television.
Grandpa Alfred rose with the chickens, who needed to be let out of their coop and fed, then spent the day at his “workstation,” an old barn with a stork’s nest on the roof, woodworking with his many machines. During his lunch break and after work he would cycle over to the garden, to his “plantings,” to his rabbits and the bees that spread his reputation as a beekeeper far past the village in Lusatia where he’d wound up after the war. But when he spoke of Heimat, he never meant that picturesque Saxon hamlet surrounded by forests of wild blueberries, the hamlet where he spent nearly two thirds of his life.
Did we ever talk about blame? About who fled—or “resettled”—where and why? No, never. It went unspoken. Implicitly, the Nazis were thugs, dangerous characters who had nothing in common with our family. They were the bad guys, the Others. My grandmother and my mother told stories about prisoners’ miserable treks, about death marches they had witnessed passing by. When he spoke of the Heimat, Grandpa Alfred usually included both place names, the old German one and the new Polish one.
Is it true, the family rumor that during his wanderings as a journeyman, Grandpa Albert of Weimar was conscripted to help clear the ground for the concentration camp in Buchenwald? Why all of this happened, why the Heimat was gone—that never came up at the family table, at least not around me. But no one from the various Silesian branches of my family wanted Silesia back. It was what it was: the Heimat was gone, and they took the new era in stride, seized it as an opportunity. As have-nots from impoverished families, they’d all fled in wartime with their individual bundles, fled into the certainty of uncertainty. Those bawling, snot-nosed toddlers who had once perched on suitcases in overflowing wagons now boasted university diplomas, respectable jobs, and houses of their own. The new era had not stayed outlandish for long.
Whole generations had to start from scratch in the aftermath of their expulsion, and this exerted a ripple effect on their families. They’d opened a new chapter with the frenzied energy of people who’d had next to nothing, had lost even that, and now spotted their lucky chance to make something of their lives. Socialism or not, here they came: in any case a new start was in order. And start afresh they did. By necessity, they built replacements for their missing furniture. They had Silesia in their bones, but their energies were focused elsewhere. Silesia was where they’d come from, not where they were going. Already it was a remote era, buried beneath the permafrost of war and collective deracination.
Still, on a rare windless day, when my Grandpa Alfred was standing in the garden by his beehives sharpening his scythe, he would pause and prick up his ears: out of nowhere, across the fields, from far beyond the village, he could hear the bells of the Heimat and thought for one moment he could smell the wind blowing from the Snowy Mountains of Glatz.
One day I recognized the strains of Silesian German in the work of the writer Arno Schmidt. In the 1980s, reading books like Die Umsiedler (The Resettlers), Das steinerne Herz (The Stone Heart), and his early short stories, I came across my grandmother’s rolled r (still heard in Görlitz or from Texan tourists), my mother’s snide sayings, my grandfather’s creaky voice, and my great-aunts’ kind, murmured greeting: nuwa? How did Schmidt, that cult West German author, know my family? The answer is simple: as a young man in Görlitz, Schmidt wanted to become a banker. In 1938, he left his hometown of Lauban for London to discover the great wide world (and to grow into a poet at Dickens’s grave). My mother was born the following year and grew up in that same town of Lauban—until her “resettlement” after the world war.
But back then in the seventies, back there in our Thuringian town, in the midst of Honecker’s “actually existing socialism,” we Catholic youngsters nearly all had Silesian child refugees as parents! But we were oblivious, or at least, for the most part, ignorant: it was not a topic of conversation. We were wrestling with the limitations of real, day-to-day existence under socialism, marveling at the fantastically golden life over on the forbidden side of the planet as seen on TV, and discussing what we’d do if there was a nuclear war (sit in an armchair in the middle of the street with a nice filter-tip cigarette and a reserved bottle of Western whiskey to watch the mushroom cloud and the ensuing apocalypse, cool as cucumbers). If our heritage ever came up, it was in passing, when we looked at the photos or paintings hanging above the sofas in our friends’ living rooms. Every family came from somewhere. Home was almost always somewhere else: Silesia, Sudetenland, Pomerania, Poland, and so forth. In our socialist schools, we dutifully sang “Our Heimat,” the official song of the Young Pioneers; in Heimat Studies we learned “the ten commandments of socialist coexistence” (written by good old Walter Ulbricht), but for a laugh we all had the same unassuming little yellow Reclam paperback on our bookshelves, and reading its widely ridiculed passionate verses to each other—the poems of the “Silesian Nightingale”—was a source of endless amusement for us. I couldn’t say why, but in the late seventies and early eighties, Friederike Kempner’s poetry was a secret tip for us teens in rural East Germany; we discovered it through the grapevine, not in class; we could rave about it as often and as earnestly as we did about Otto Waalkes, that zany wisecracker from the West, or Emil Steinberger, the Swiss comic who performed in dialect. We must have sensed a certain link between Kempner’s rhymes and Ulbricht’s prose about human redemption, which we were steeped in daily at school and in the media. . .
Jedem Zwerg ist untertan die Erde,
Krüppelhaft gestaltet sich die Welt,
Riesen wurden eine staubge Herde,
Vor dem Fanatismus und dem Geld, –
Geist’gen Arme schüttelt eure Kette,
Und die Gnomen gleichen Brandesstätte!
Each dwarf is but a servant to the earth,
This world of ours is crippled by design,
The giants grew into a dusty herd,
From fanaticism and from money’s shine—
O poor of soul, do shake your shackles.
The gnomes: a heating hearth that crackles!
My father often told me that his great-grandfather was a horse dealer named Stojan. Around 1909 or 1910, the story goes, he was killed on Posen’s market square. Was it because he was Jewish, because of a horse deal gone sour, or both? No way to know. My father arrived in Weimar as the child of refugees, along with his family from Namslau, Silesia. One branch of his family, through one of the four brothers, had cast off their Slavic-sounding surname and taken their grandmother’s Teutonic maiden name instead. My father was part of the Polish-sounding branch, which, in the last days of the war, struck out on the refugee trail for a new future—in Weimar, the primordially German city of culture where Grandpa Albert had once stopped during his travels as a journeyman gardener.
Impressed by the lifestyle of the city’s educated middle class (and its hopefuls), my father’s family blended in quickly. The “resettlers” from Silesian lands remade themselves as eager small-town Thuringians with “culture”: my father learned the cello, aspired to be an actor, passed his Abitur exam, and called Weimar his Heimat. His parents had no objections. They too saw Weimar as an upgrade, as their new home. The Catholic community, begrudgingly tolerated in postwar Weimar, was a gathering place for the “resettled” and newcomers of any provenance, and it offered an abundance of new friends and acquaintances. After some years had passed, all my father’s side had left of their Silesian identity were a few of the old songs—and certainly the food: Grandma Rosalie had learned the art of cooking there, after all. Her soups and roasts were legendary. Fortunately, Weimar also had a butcher of Silesian extraction who knew its flavors and preparations. To this day, more than fifty years after relocating, my father continues to call Weimar home. But for Christmas dinner, he still insists on having Silesian-style white sausage. At Easter, bread soup (Good Friday) and poppyseed dumplings (Holy Saturday) are indispensable in his book. (A cultural mystery that the rest of us from later generations frankly find disturbing.)
Even as a university student, it would not have occurred to my Namslau-born father to call himself Silesian. Not that he was uninterested in his heritage—far from it. He studied history and knew all the details. But he identified with the new environment that surrounded and shaped him. As early as his school years, his Silesian dialect was overlaid by a distinct Thuringian twang. Maybe he is the reason I don’t connect with Silesia myself, even though my family’s roots are there. It always seemed to me like some unimaginable dreamtime that put everything in place, set it all in motion, long before my own reality started. But perhaps my friend, Wilfried N’Sonde, the Parisian-Congolese writer now living in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district, has it right when he answers the unrelenting question about his “roots” in his best Standard German. He doesn’t have roots, he says. He has two legs.
Excerpt from a novel-in-progress