Father/Land: A Personal Search for the New Germanyby Frederick Kempe
For decades as a foreign correspondent, first for Newsweek, and then for The Wall Street Journal, Frederick Kempe felt more comfortable writing about Poland, Israel, the Soviet Union, or Panama than the Germany from which he was only one generation removed. Germany was his father's land, his father's identity, not his. But then a reunified Germany emerged as Europe's… See more details below
For decades as a foreign correspondent, first for Newsweek, and then for The Wall Street Journal, Frederick Kempe felt more comfortable writing about Poland, Israel, the Soviet Union, or Panama than the Germany from which he was only one generation removed. Germany was his father's land, his father's identity, not his. But then a reunified Germany emerged as Europe's dominant force, and it became very important to know: Was the nation ready? Could it escape the ghosts of the past? To find out, Kempe, traveled across the country, talking to students, teachers, pensioners, emigres, soldiers, professionals, Holocaust survivors, cutting-edge diplomats, rural pastors, "normal Germans," and the radical fringe. At the same time, he began to explore his own German roots, to seek out the family members and documents that would illuminate his own soul. The result, in Father/Land, is a work of observation, insight and commentary, a provocative book that will become required reading for anyone seeking to understand modern Germany. And it is something more. For in researching the past, Kempe discovered that the ghosts were not limited to others, that the contradictory threads of good and evil wove through his own family as well. After years of denying his Germanness, he would have to confront it at last.
The New York Times Book Review
- Penguin Group (USA)
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My father, as I told my childhood friends in Utah, was an American war hero. Though he was born in Germany, he fought for Uncle Sam at the Battle of the Bulge, where he was injured and decorated for his bravery.
My mother gave me a photo of him, in his U.S. Army uniform with the sergeant's stripes. That was evidence enough that my father, despite his thick German accent and birthplace in Dresden, had fought against the German pest.
There was only one problem: The story was a lie.
My father never fought in Europe with the Americans. The closest he ever came to the war was as a cook at the U.S. Army base in Richmond, Va. He only saw the whites of the enemies' eyes in Laramie, Wyo., where he was posted as a guard at a prisoner-of-war camp in the final weeks of World War II.
So why didn't I tell my childhood friends the truth? Because the truth wasn't powerful enough to neutralize my father's thick accent. The truth wasn't dramatic enough to separate me from my German roots. My father hadn't bee heroic enough to protect me from the bullies who labeled me as an alien child.
Germany was never my land.
It was my father's land.
It was "the old country," a musty and outdated place. My parents' families abandoned Germany for a better life in America, their land of opportunity, so I could only reason that the country was an undesirable place. It was the home of unknown relatives, who sent indecipherable letters in thin blue envelopes bearing exotic stamps. It was the past. Not the future.
I grew closer to my father in his last years, as is often the case between father and son. It was appropriate that it was Germany and my study of his mother tongue that finally allowed us to understand each other better. In 1985, we traveled to his home state of Saxony, which fate had placed in the Soviet bloc's East Germany. What remains most in my mind was an elementary-school class reunion staged for his visit, attended by the remnants _ almost exclusively female _ of his lost generation of Germans. Most of the men had already died, either during the war or in Soviet prison camps thereafter. Those few who survived World War II rarely had the energy or health to live into their 70s, as my father had done. The old women flirted with my father, who was full of mirth and life.
As we began to drive away from Dresden at the end of our trip, my father said: "Do you remember the needlework on your grandmother's wall?"
I did. The letter read: "East or West, home is best."
"Well, this is the closest thing to home for me. I understand the people here. I think they understand me. Did you see how much we laughed together? Didn't you feel their basic goodness?"
I did. That, I told my father, was the mystery. How could good people with such a rich cultural history have done such evil things? My father couldn't explain it any better than the army of historians before him. At the end of that trip, he told me he wished I would someday write a book that would help him grasp modern Germany.
Nine more years would pass before I did. By then, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the unification of Germany made it, once again, Europe's determining force. But was Germany ready? The central question was whether the famously tortured and talented Germans were likely to find some sort of redemption now that merciful fate had provided them a new chance, perhaps the best chance in their history to do well and good.
Yet even as I dwelled upon the German future, it was inevitable that I, like the country I was investigating, would be haunted by ghosts of its past. After years of denying my own Germanness, I would have to confront it.
I wait but briefly at the unguarded gate that stands between me and my family's darkest secrets. The compound behind it is engirded by 10-foot high chain-link fences and reinforced by a crown of concertina wire. It is as if someone is warning me not to enter.
Yet the physical security is all that remains of the building's past residents, the East German foreign-intelligence operation known as the Stasi. The building is now a library and archive of sorts, housing files of information collected by the Stasi on a miscellany of subjects, including what had lured me, documents that East Germany collected on Nazi pasts of thousand of Germans, east and west.
The hallways are still painted in unnatural peach and green pastels, the scent of socialism rises from dull linoleum floors _ the odor of cheap detergent hanging in stale air unperturbed by ventilation.
Near the end of a long hallway, I find the office of the archivist. Months after I had almost by chance launched an investigation of my family's past, I received notice that Stasi files contained information on my great-uncle Erich. And that is what has led me to this curious complex in the far outskirts of eastern Berlin. The archivist, a bookish woman with thick-rimmed glasses and a gray pallor to match her surroundings, has been expecting me.
Reprinted from Father/Land by Frederick Kempe by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright ã 1999 by Frederick Kempe.
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