Party Like It’s 2012
Lots of talk lately about the end of the world. My son’s part of a reading group that’s emphasizing post-apocalypse books–reading one a month this year. My sister recently gave me all three volumes of THE HUNGER GAMES.
I assume the current end-of-world mood is related to the Mayan Calendar that ends December 21, 2012, likely because the creators couldn’t imagine a date farther into the future–BUT here we are!
Of course, the world as the Mayans knew it ended 500+ years ago with the coming of the Spanish–something the calendar creators also didn’t anticipate.
For my German grandfather, the world he knew ended with the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I.
I’m supposed to remember that somewhere in central Europe, on the banks of the Oder River, there is a farm with a pretty pond that still belongs to us, no matter what anyone says. That particular piece of ground is now in Poland. It was once part of Germany, before that Russia. The ground didn’t move; the borders did. Through all that history, back and forth for over four hundred years, my German-speaking ancestors worked the same farm, lived in the same village, and worshipped at the same church, sometimes as Catholics, other times as Lutherans. They sent sons to different armies and paid taxes to different governments, whichever one claimed sovereignty at the time. To them it was all the same as long as they got to keep working their farm and swimming in their pond.
Everything changed after World War I, when all German-speaking people were expelled from Poland. My grandfather, a veteran of the German army, came home and watched helplessly as his family was forced to leave their four-hundred-year-old home and travel westward with thousands of other refugees.
I can hear him, even now, telling the story . . .
“At the border they took everything from us. Everything!” he repeated with emphasis. “They took the false teeth from the old ones’ mouths and the eyeglasses off our noses. They left us nothing—nothing but the clothes on our backs and few enough of those.”
As a child I was morbidly curious about why anyone would steal false teeth. As a grown-up, I know that detail is supposed to impress me with the unfairness. I’m to never forget, because forgetting would be the equivalent of letting “them,” whoever “they” are, get away with it.
It gets worse.
My grandfather’s grandfather was ninety-one years old when they were ordered to leave their farm with the pretty pond. He refused to go. He’d never lived anywhere else. His whole life, he’d hardly been outside the village. Besides, in his lifetime, the border had moved back and forth more times than he cared to remember, and that had never affected how they planted their fields or milked their cows. No one would make a ninety-one year old man leave his home, the place where he was born. He would stay, and, maybe, he would still be there when the family returned.
Faced with such stubbornness, the family reluctantly left him behind. But then somewhere along the westward road, before they actually crossed the new border, the family realized how deeply the world had changed. Sensing the seriousness of their situation, my grandfather’s brother was sent back to get their grandfather. He was too late. When he got to the old family home, he found the old man lying dead on the front porch.
“Shot like a stray dog,” is the phrase that is attached to this part of the story. “They shot him like a stray dog that had no business being there,” my grandfather used to say of his grandfather. As with the false teeth, I know I’m to remember and be outraged, but I’ve never mustered the emotion. Maybe because I’ve never seen the Oder River. What happened there is long ago and far away–another world.
That’s typical of immigration stories. Almost nothing survives to be passed on to subsequent generations. Not my grandfather’s language. Not his food, music, or folktales. Not his hatred of the Poles. Which is a good thing because hatred is more likely to bring on the end of the world than Mayan calendars.
Here’s the question: what do we do with the family stories of old hurts? Do we forget them? Retell them? Remind ourselves that the world goes on even after the worst happens? I don’t think the world will end on December 21, 2010. Every one of the dozen post-apocolyse books my son is reading ARE POST-APOCOLYSE! The world goes on, and, maybe, that’s the lesson.