Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past


One woman's moving story of her journey with her mother to find their past and the tragedy that haunts it

In 1937, Edith Westerfeld's parents--before being killed by the Nazis--sent her from Germany to live with relatives in America. Fifty-four years later, Edith decided that it was time to, with her grown daughter Fern, revisit the town she had left so many years before. For Edith the trip was a chance to reconnect and reconcile with her past; for Fern it was a chance to learn ...

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Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past

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One woman's moving story of her journey with her mother to find their past and the tragedy that haunts it

In 1937, Edith Westerfeld's parents--before being killed by the Nazis--sent her from Germany to live with relatives in America. Fifty-four years later, Edith decided that it was time to, with her grown daughter Fern, revisit the town she had left so many years before. For Edith the trip was a chance to reconnect and reconcile with her past; for Fern it was a chance to learn what lay behind her mother's silent grief. On their journey, Fern and her mother shared many extraordinary encounters with the townspeople and--more importantly--with one another, closing the divide that had long stood between them.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With precise and often moving prose, [Chapman] discovers truths about her mother's past." --Chicago Tribune

"Measured and mesmerizing, Chapman's account...constitutes a new and profound perspective on the legacy of the Holocaust." --Booklist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140286236
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 789,702
  • Product dimensions: 5.39 (w) x 8.13 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Fern Schumer Chapman, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, has taught at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and written for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes magazine, U.S. News & World Report, and many other publications. She lives in the Chicago area.
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Read an Excerpt


Beyond the Holocaust: A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past
By Fern Schumer Chapman

Penguin Books

Copyright © 2001 Fern Schumer Chapman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0140286233

Chapter One

The plane blazes toward the breaking horizon, though my mother still isn't convinced she wants to go on this trip. Sitting next to me in the window seat, she keeps shifting uncomfortably, fidgeting with the pages of a paperback romance novel and sliding her pearl ring back and forth over the knuckles of her right ring finger. She gazes out the window at her reflection superimposed upon Magritte-like clouds, and I know she wonders whether she wants to unlock the memories of her childhood, to unleash a beast that has haunted her for half a century. She fears it may control her again, just when she was beginning to feel she controlled it. But another part of her wants to confront the past, to revisit the Motherland, hoping that going home will free her at last.

    Each of us is all the places we have been, especially the place of our childhood. My mother says she is drawn back to her place. This journey was her idea. She insisted she needed to go, I supposed, to search for meaning in her aborted past. Or maybe just to see from where she came, to complete the circle, to round out her life. In her usual taciturn manner, she simply said, after fifty-two years: "It's time."

    I try to distract her by pointing out the window—past her reflection, a self-portrait on glass—to the occasional white clouds that dot the darkness beneath us. Even farther ahead is a spectacular light show featuring the dark colors of the rainbow, violet, magenta, grays, and blues. Here, where time and space are distorted, turned inside out, I'm already in a land as foreign as Oz. Like Dorothy, I hope to learn here who I always have been.

    My mother finds no solace in the colors of daybreak; she says they are ominous. I tell her I find them compelling, almost magical. We sit with our shoulders brushing, uncomfortable in our polarized perceptions. We are like two dangling magnets, alternately attracting and repelling one another. Without conversation, the plane's engines ring in our ears; suddenly, they're deafening. She shudders, shaking off her anxiety, and again fixes her gaze on her own image.

The village of Stockstadt am Rhein, Germany, is an ocean and half a continent away from my home near Chicago. When my mother came to this country in 1938, the five-thousand-mile crossing on the ship took nine days, after a year-long wait to get a passport. Today, the flight will take seven and a half hours with a strong tailwind and, as she noted when she first mentioned the trip, she can accumulate frequent-flyer miles getting there. Though we made our airline reservations weeks ago, my mother got her passport photo on a rush order just a few days ago at one of those while-you-wait places.

    For as long as I can remember, the village itself has been nothing more than a dot on a map, and a small one at that. In fact, it's not even on most maps, and I can hardly remember how to say its name. Stockstadt—the place where Mom was born and the place she fled. But what happened between those two events is unknown to me. If, as someone once said, facts are the individual dots in a Pointillist painting, then this canvas is nearly blank.

    What I know is that Stockstadt is, was, a pastoral farming village with cobblestone streets and bicyclists crowding out the few cars. The houses resemble each other—A-framed, three-story structures built centuries ago. About two thousand people live there, or at least that was so when Mom left. Beyond that, I can't even imagine.

    My mother's house is as vivid to me as a house described in a novel. Like Thornfield in Jane Eyre, it is almost its own character. Somehow, the house is distinct in my mother's fragile memory, more than the people she lived with. The house was a safe, unthreatening subject from her past, so we talked about its appearance and I hoarded her descriptions. Built from local stone and wood more than two hundred fifty years ago, it looks like many Tudor-styled farmhouses on German travel posters. Everything built to last—the walls that are a couple of feet thick, the slabs of stone in the cellar—solid. I know its layout and quirks, its garden and cellars, so well that I can conjure up an image in my mind of my grandmother's house. Oddly enough, I even know some details. The mattress in Mom's room, for example, was too small for the frame, so small that a child could slip through the opening and go underneath the bed to play in a dusty den.

    I know little about the people who lived in the house. Mom can see the walls that surrounded her for twelve years, but she can't exactly remember what made her father smile, or the melody of his laughter.

    Beyond the house, I know only a few facts. The family had helped settle the village hundreds of years earlier, before Germany was Germany. Like all of her paternal relatives, Mom was born in that house, sixty-five years ago; most of them died in that house, too. My grandparents lived in the original house with my maternal great-grandmother, a stern guardian to my mother and her sister. They formed the land for decades, my grandfather making his living as a wholesaler who became something of a village leader after introducing dill, for pickling, to the area as a rotation crop.

    I think of the house and the farm as solid, still standing, the only continuity in the lives of my predecessors, whom I will never know. Stockstadt is the place where the memory, or at least the family name, lives on. That, I suppose, is why I left my two small sons with my husband in a suburb of Chicago and boarded this plane—to see the place, to get a sense of my past.

Turbulence rocks the plane. With each bump, color drains from Mom's cheeks. She rings for the flight attendant and asks her for a Tom Collins, the only alcoholic drink she says is palatable. Then she asks if I would like one, though she knows I'm not drinking because I'm five months pregnant.

    "I had an occasional drink when I was pregnant with you," she snorts, "and it doesn't seem to have done you any harm."

    I laugh to myself, thinking that Mom probably had her annual drink the evening that I was conceived. Back home, I might have teased her or taken issue, dragging out pregnancy books to prove my point. But here, I'm not about to argue. She seems to need the victory.

I ask myself what I can realistically expect from this trip. Like an explorer rummaging through the Titanic's wreckage, I'm looking for clues to who was on board, who they were, how they lived and died. But my guide, the last survivor, has tried desperately to forget. She's not even sure it happened to her. "Maybe I imagined it all," she once said. "Maybe it has all been a dream."

    Will there be any physical evidence of my mother's past? What can remain of the original village, which probably was bombed during the war? What could remain, even if the village had been spared? It has been a half-century since the war; places age and evolve as people do. My college town, which I recently visited after fifteen years, looked to me like a handsome woman wearing too much makeup, its dignified old buildings renovated to house the trendy stores of the nineties. In the process, the town's character was so altered that I hardly recognized it. I felt as if I were looking at my memories through rippled water or in a distorted mirror. Of course, European towns are less inclined to change than American ones. An older friend who revisited her hometown in France after several decades reported that "no stone had been turned" during her absence.

    Even so, what can remain of a family destroyed fifty-two years ago? What can remain of the people? Of, say, my grandmother, who was killed at the age of forty-three, robbed of her home and every other possession? She left nothing, maybe not even a burial site. Now my mother is the only witness I know who can testify to my grandmother's existence. My mother remembers my grandmother through the mind's eye of a child. I think of myself at twelve—seeing so much, understanding so little.

    Yet the past has strange ways of inserting itself into the present. About a month ago, a relic of my grandmother's existence arrived in the mail. Some distant cousins who fled Germany for South America sent a letter that my grandmother had written to them on December 18, 1940. Scrawled above the date in old, even German script is the word "Darmstadt"—the town where my grandmother lived after her children had gone to America and my grandfather was taken to the concentration camp. In the letter, she desperately pleads for help, for someone to find a way to get her and her husband out of Germany. In a voice I will know only from this letter, she describes the anguish of being alone, of losing her entire family. "A divided life is only half a life," she wrote. "I open the door and no one is there."

    My grandmother's loss became her legacy; it is now my loss, a hole in my history. As a child, I couldn't accept that I would never meet my grandparents. They existed for my mother; how could they not exist for me? To reconcile myself to their absence, I devised the absurd fantasy that they had been reincarnated in our German-shepherd dog, Queenie. It comforted me to know that Queenie's death would be bittersweet; though I would lose my beloved pet, the company of my new grandparents would console me, since they would then come to life.

    But one cold, gray Thanksgiving day when I was ten years old, the dog died. My grandparents never appeared. I mourned Queenie's death with a deeper pain than my mother could ever understand.

* * *

The drink doesn't seem to have helped much. Usually, one drink makes my mother giddy and then sleepy, but now she seems to have plunged deeper into her reverie. I feel as if I'm sitting on a boat holding the tether to a deep-sea diver, off somewhere in the dark depths. My mother hasn't tugged in a long while; this makes me feel agitated.

    Nothing seems to hold my attention. I try reading the novel I brought along—one of those best-selling sagas of three generations of women—but that's too demanding right now. I scan the pictures in a woman's magazine, just to appear occupied. But mostly, I'm fretting over my mother as if she were my child. "Where is she?" I ask myself.

    Suddenly a camera flashes, and dots of light blind my eyes. After a moment, I see a man standing before us, an acquaintance of Mom's, grinning and holding a Polaroid in his hands. While waiting to board the plane at the gate, she chatted with him about her trip and introduced me to him. When he walked away, she said she knew him through one of her singles groups.

    My parents, who had been married twenty-seven years, separated a year after I finished college and divorced a few years later. Unlike most escapees who find a partner in another refugee, my mother had married an American, alienating her not only from her past but from the community of escapees as well. She would not fraternize with those who shared her immigration experience; but she never felt entirely comfortable among Americans either ... even my father. She needed more from him than he could give. Ultimately, her insatiable needs and his boundless ambition proved incompatible in their marriage. With the divorce, she shifted some needs and expectations she had placed on my father to me.

    "Sid, what did you do that for?" Mom asks suspiciously.

    "For posterity," he says, pulling the tab on the Polaroid film to remove the picture.

    The flash has brought her out of her reverie like the snap of a hypnotist's fingers. I focus on Mom's face through hot spots; she looks as if she has returned from a distant place, glassy-eyed and disoriented. Then I notice her teeth are set, her jaw is slightly unaligned, and her penetrating eyes are darting around the plane. I know the expression—she looks that way sometimes when I pry about her past. It's an annoyed, defensive look, telling me I've overstepped her boundaries, and usually I back off.

    "Why did that bother you?" I ask, though at home I would never have the nerve.

    "I don't know," she says. "I wasn't ready for it. I guess I feel exposed."

Trying to understand my mother is like picking up a book and starting in the middle, with very few pictures for cues. All children have a narrow angle on who their parents are; after all, they come to us with a life half lived. My mother shrouded her family, her homeland, the first twelve years of her life. Then her immigration blurred and blotted out her first years in America, from the time she was twelve until she married, at twenty-four.

    Even as a young child, I sensed that what had come before was as off-limits as a busy intersection. I couldn't bring myself to ask the questions that hammered at my consciousness and occasionally threatened to slip through my lips: Where did you come from? What happened to you? When was the last time you saw your parents? What was it like to say goodbye forever? How do you live each day without them?

    In time, like any child of a Holocaust survivor or escapee, I learned not even to think of asking, because I couldn't be the one to inflict more pain. Looming over every conversation, every interaction, was her anguish. Her past minimized, even negated, my own emotional life. As an adolescent, I couldn't challenge her; she had suffered enough. Rebellion was a luxury—a right for other American teenagers, but not for me. From the perspective of her loss, no minor problem I might present would matter.

    In fact, from the perspective of her loss, little in her past life had value; no event, no material possession, no pictures bore genuine significance. Nothing could replace her parents, her home, her sense of place. Records of her German life weren't worth keeping; she probably threw out most of her immigration papers, letters, maybe even photographs and old family recipes.

    Those few things she chose to save, the only physical evidence of her past, she kept in a tattered eleven-by-fourteen-inch yellow envelope, safely tucked away on a shelf in her closet. She never told me, but somehow I always knew, that it contained all that was left of her former life. A gray dust discolored the top of the torn envelope; the address, written in neat German script with a black pen, was so faded that even if I could read German I wouldn't be able to make it out.

    One day, the unanswered questions echoed fiercely in my nine-year-old mind, driving me to push a kitchen chair into my mother's bedroom and stand on it so I could reach the envelope and enter my mother's private world. In it, I found several letters from Germany, a few photographs of people I had never seen before, and a few pieces of old jewelry, including an old rose-gold ring with two tiny pearls framing a small ruby. When my mother presented it to me after the birth of my first child, I acted as if I had never seen it before. At that time, she said the ring belonged to her mother, who had sewn it into the hem of my mother's dress before she left Germany. (The Nazis confiscated all jewelry at customs, allowing Jewish refugees to leave with only 10 marks or $2.50.) On the day my son was born, I slipped it on my right ring finger, and I haven't taken it off since then.

    The pictures in the envelope, I suspect, were stuffed in the bottom of her suitcase before leaving Germany. But now she would never even look at them; maybe she's forgotten they're there. For her, these pictures were not life, only details in light and shade. Without life, she didn't want details. My mother wouldn't revisit the past. Not even in an image.

    Now that I think of it, my mother had little use for any pictures. She kept them hidden, never framing or displaying them, or even assembling a photo album of our family. Long stretches of my childhood passed unrecorded. A couple of pictures capture me as an infant; one as a three-year-old commissioned by my father's mother; and then a shot of me at five, documenting my first day of school. Next I am twelve, then sixteen, only one picture each; finally, I am eighteen on my high-school graduation day. There is almost as little photographic testament of my youth as there is of hers.

    Pictures spark memory, but for my mother, the past was not a place to find refuge; it was a place from which she was a refugee. She was safe as long as her memory didn't drop in like an unwelcome visitor. Pictures and relics only extended an invitation.

    But I was not my mother. For me, the pictures I found in the envelope offered a thrilling if sketchy tour of her place, a moment in which to glimpse her people. One, dated December 1937, is a portrait of a woman who I eventually realized was my grandmother. She looked just like my mother, with deepset brown eyes, a high forehead, leathery skin pulled tautly over high cheekbones, hollowed cheeks, a long nose with a small bump in the bridge, and full lips. Her hair, slightly frizzy and pulled in a bun, looked like the brown of tree bark.

    The woman appears in another dog-eared picture I found in one of the letters. On the back of it, someone had written "9 Okt. [October in German], 1939." The woman is standing, slightly hunched, looking much older than she was in the other picture, with one hand on her matronly hip, and her other arm around a girl of about ten. The little girl looks the way my mother must have as a child. But it couldn't be my mother, since the picture was taken after she had left for America. This must be someone else's little girl. A slight camera smile contrasts with the woman's dark-brown eyes, which look dazed and dispirited. Her small frame leans on the girl, as if she couldn't stand without the child's support. She looks slightly confused, somewhat forlorn; she had lost her guiding light, her sense of purpose.

    For years, when no one was home, I would take down the old yellow envelope to look at that picture of my grandmother and her little friend. I imagined that the people in the pictures actually came to life when the envelope was closed. Their world burst into being when I wasn't looking. But when I opened the envelope, they snapped back into two-dimensional stillness, like a child's game of freeze-tag. Though I couldn't experience their world, the pictures took me on a kind of tour of how they lived. And, more important, the pictures gave me a way to connect with my grandmother. I would try to imagine who she was beyond the frozen image—how the sunlight caught her eye, how the muscles in her face tightened when she was angry or loosened when she cried, how the skin on her throat folded when she looked down.

    I would fantasize our life together—the times she would have read to me when I was younger, me sitting on her lap and taking in the smells that were hers only, the times when she would sing me a German folk tune and clap my small hands together to the beat of her song. As I got older, I imagined the quiet conversations we would have had over coffee, when she would tell me how she had gotten the cups we were using and laugh about things that happened fifty years ago.

    I continued to sneak the envelope even after I had moved out of my mother's house. But it wasn't until after I gave birth to my first child and knew something about mothering that I finally understood the picture of my grandmother and the little girl. When her children left, my grandmother embraced another child. Like a female dog carrying a sock, she redirected the maternal instincts that would not be denied.

We have been flying for hours. Mom never touched her dinner; the cold food sat before her all night. Though the flight attendant asked several times if she was finished, Mom kept saying, "No." When I woke up this morning and smelled the cold, soupy chicken, nausea swelled beneath my tongue and in my throat. It hasn't gone away, either. All my pregnant mind can think of is the slimy, goosebumped skin covering a part of a carcass. I seal my lips to conceal my retching.

    I turn my head away from Mom and her tray and instead watch a young woman across the aisle wrestle with a screaming toddler whose ears hurt from the air pressure. The child's wails make me ache for my two boys. What if one is screaming and I am not there?

    I swallow hard, dissolving the lump in my throat, and hold my head still, like a horse in blinders; I don't want to see the wailing child or get another whiff of Mom's tray. My stomach churns and contracts. Finally, the flight attendant removes it so she can serve Mom breakfast. I tell her I don't want any. But now that meal sits and Mom hasn't even noticed it. My mind fixates on her cold, runny scrambled eggs, and I swallow hard to keep my stomach in check.

    The plane's wings angle sharply. Through the opposite window, I see an orderly, beautiful patchwork of farmland in greens, browns, and yellows—the earth colors are far more familiar to me than those I watched like fireworks last night. A river in blue thread quilts the squares. The engines whine in a higher pitch as the plane descends and Mom shifts awkwardly in her seat.

    "Did you sleep?" she asks, already knowing the answer. I turn toward her. The eggs still smell, but I try not to look at them.

    "Yeah, a little. Did you?" I ask, though I know that she never even took a pillow.

    "I may have dozed off for a while." She looks disheveled, defenseless, and weary from travel; her bloodshot eyes map the private roads she took during the night.

    She peers through the window at the farmland below. I search her face, somehow expecting her to recognize her homeland from this bird's-eye view of five thousand feet. She knows what I am thinking. "We could be anywhere," she says, raising both eyebrows.

    "It's partly cloudy and a chilly forty degrees in Frankfurt," the flight attendant's voice blares over the intercom. "Please fasten your seatbelts and prepare for landing...."


Excerpted from Motherland by Fern Schumer Chapman Copyright © 2001 by Fern Schumer Chapman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What does it mean when you cannot go home again—when you cannot face the past that has rendered you homeless? In 1938, with the threat of World War II forcing them out of their homes, Frieda and Siegmund Westerfeld placed their twelve-year-old daughter Edith on an ocean liner bound from Germany to America, with several other Jewish children destined to become orphaned refugees. Edith never saw her parents again. They both died in Nazi death camps before the war was over.

Edith's life in America was shaped by loss. Without homeland or family, she lacked proof, and witness, of her childhood. At the age of sixty-five, long after her parents would have died of old age had they not perished in the war, she finally agreed to revisit her small hometown of Stockstadt, Germany. Her daughter, journalist Fern Schumer Chapman, accompanied her.

This story—the one that Chapman has been waiting her entire life to write—shows how memories can build an identity, as well as set a life adrift. As an adult, Chapman's mother had locked her childhood memories away—remembering was too painful. Edith believed that Fern would be able to transcend the past, while she herself felt she did not deserve true happiness.

The return to Edith's homeland, or "motherland," is both a physical and metaphorical journey. The "motherland" is a country of the heart, the landscape of a universal maternal love. In one riveting conversation, Fern asks her mother: Had Edith been in her parents' place, would she, too, be able to perform the ultimate sacrifice—sending Fern away forever, orphaning a child to save her life? Is wanting, at any cost, a better life for your children selfless or selfish?

Chapman's memoir evokes the legacy of war, passed down unknowingly through generations. Parenting, she writes, is an opportunity for redepemtion. Pregnant with her third child at the time of the trip, she hopes to repair the mistakes of other generations and provide her children with a life "free of war." Returning to Germany, then, is a repossession of the past, reincarnating it on new terms. Going "beyond" the Holocaust is moving beyond death in order to reclaim a sense of memory and self. For Fern and Edith, the trip is also a chance for their own redemption. By finding out more about her mother's hidden and powerful past, Fern slowly begins to understand her mother's silence and to rebuild their relationship.

The townspeople of Stockstadt stared at Edith as if they were seeing a ghost. In over fifty years, nobody had left the town except for its two Jewish families: Edith's and her cousin's, pushed out during the Nazi reign. At an organized reunion of Edith's elementary class, taut with high emotion and trepidation, the attendees include the sons and daughters of some of the town's most notorious Nazis—those dubbed the "lucky late-born" because they were not old enough to personally participate in the crimes themselves. Yet "luck" here is a superficial and loaded term. Neither Edith, nor Fern, nor the residents of Stockstadt have escaped the war's effects. There are no more "good Germans;" stewing in collective guilt, everyone has been tainted with the horrors of the past. Many classmates do not show up to the reunion, and people turn away when Edith asks for directions to the town's Jewish cemetery. "We didn't know," her former classmates say. "We were only children." By not confronting the past, they avoid remembering a painful time; rebuff any complicity in the Westerfelds' fate. Perhaps it is denial. Or perhaps it is impossible to separate the true collaborators from the unknowing conformists.

Mina, the Westerfelds' young live-in housekeeper during Edith's childhood, is one German who refused to forget. When Edith visits her, now an old woman living in a dilapidated mountain house, for the first time since the war, it is Edith's turn to say that she "did not know" what life was really like for Mina. Continuing to work for the Westerfelds long after it was acceptable in Germany for non-Jews to associate with Jewish families, Mina's anti-Nazi leanings branded her for life: scorned during the war as a Jewish sympathizer, and later, for being a voice of courage in a country deep in denial.

At her cluttered kitchen table, Mina delivers details from nearly a half-century ago as if they happened yesterday, pulling out yellowed papers to pass onto Fern and her children. She—like Edith and Fern and their tour guide, Stockstadt's local historian, Hans Herrmann—never truly let go of the past. For decades, haunted by his own part in the war, Hans had replayed a similar mental reel of his mistakes. His obsession with the past impeded his own ability to live in the present.

Nobody, as Mina's son Jurgen notes, "comes out of this clean . . . not even the children." But providing her children with a clean slate is exactly what Chapman strives to do. Standing in the basement of her childhood home, now a storefront, Edith hears her own mother calling her, a voice traveling across generations and across time. In Germany, Fern learns that the past had always been alive within her mother, right under the surface of the present. Fern's grandparents had lived on, preserved in her memory.

Motherland teaches that remembering can be a burden or a blessing: the past can tear people apart, stunt them with regret, paralyze them with pain. However, it also demonstrates that each generation has a responsibility to remember, to reshape wounding memories into redemption and knowledge.


Fern Schumer Chapman, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, has taught at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and written for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, and many other publications. She lives in the Chicago area.


When did you become aware that your life—and that of your mother and grandparents—was a viable subject matter for a book, and why was this the right time to write it? Was the trip to Germany taken with a book in mind, and if so, how did this goal affect the trip?

I always knew this was a story that ought to be told, but I waited until I was ready emotionally, and as a writer. I went on the first trip with the hope of finding whatever was left in Germany of my family. On my second trip, accompanied by my husband and children as well as my mother, I began to realize that I should write a book. With three generations together in my mother's little town, I saw the larger story.

How did your training as a journalist affect your writing of this memoir? What were the advantages and disadvantages of writing Motherland as autobiographical narrative, versus a journalistic piece that is more "distanced"?

Good storytelling is good storytelling in any medium. Every writer uses the same elements: good quotes become dialogue; a magazine's narrative drive becomes the book's story arc. I didn't see how I could write the book journalistically. I have no emotional distance from this experience, and I could not introduce distance without corrupting the story.

How do you place your work within the genre of Holocaust literature?

I wrote the book as a personal story without considering it as Holocaust literature. Clearly, it fits into a genre of second-generation voices. This is a new kind of nonfiction that examines historical forces through intensely personal experience, using the techniques of fiction to tell a factual story; in other words, a literature of ordinary perspective on extraordinary times. Even when a story is not one's personal experience, its telling can illuminate something in one's own truths. While I was writing Motherland, an Irish Catholic friend often laughed with me about how you don't have to be Jewish to identify with my story. "This book," my friend would say, "is for everyone who ever had a mother!" So often, readers who know little of the Holocaust experience discover that my world looks a lot like theirs.

What do you hope will be accomplished through publication of a seemingly private history? What would you wish for readers to take away from this story?

First, I hoped to discover and comprehend enough of a family history to offer to my children. Second, I wanted to show how a cataclysmic event such as World War II reaches beyond its participants and continues to shape future generations. I want readers to see how the past defines the present.

Much is made in the book about the relationship between generations: mother and daughter, grandparents, a family legacy. How has writing this book and telling the story of your family affected your children and your mother? How can you offer children a life "free of war" without erasing their awareness of history?

The lesson I hope my children have taken is that we need to be aware of the forces that shape us and our reaction to them. We must be able to discuss these things. I'm happy and grateful to say that, since the publication of the book, my mother is much more comfortable with her past. The reactions of readers to the book have shown my mother and me that we are not alone in our experience. I can't offer my children a life free of war, but I can help them understand its ravages and its lingering effects.

You refer to the Germans as Fatherland-less, homeless, as contrasted with the Motherland, a seemingly warm and universal place. How would you define this concept of the Motherland, and what place does it hold within the book?

"Motherland," for me, has many meanings, and I'm touched and thrilled when readers suggest their own. For me, "motherland" is of course one's homeland. It is also an emotional terrain where identity takes root, as well as a foundation upon which we build our selves. And it is the place in our hearts that springs into being when we become mothers.


  • Motherland is more than a war memoir—it's also a story of mothers and daughters, of parenting and children. How does Fern Schumer Chapman compare as well as contrast her own parenting techniques and desires to her mother's and grandmother's? What does the book imply about mother-daughter relationships? How does Chapman use the concept of the "motherland" to mean more than just a geographical place, and why?
  • In healing the rift between Edith and herself, Fern hopes that future generations will be able to escape "the matrix of the family's maternal line." Is there is a way to ensure that future generations will be aware of family histories and legacies without scarring them? Is there a happy medium between not remembering at all and remembering "too much"?
  • Chapman reflects on the Liesl Muller quote "we sentimentalize the people we injured" in regards to Hans's complicity in her family's fate, as well as that of other Stockstadt residents, such as Frey, whom she views as being "tainted" by his father's doings. Do you think that Edith is as skeptical as Fern? Why or why not?
  • As a former member of the German Marines, Hans has spent his life coming to terms with his own culpability in the war. How does his admittal of complicity to Edith affect Fern's struggle to see Germans as humans? What do Hans, Edith, and Mina have in common in the ways that they deal with the past?
  • After her reunion with her former classmates, Edith mentions that she "paid a terrible price for a better life." While the German villagers seem older and more parochial than the Americans, how do you think that Edith's life in the postwar U.S. translates into a "better life"?
  • Mina and Edith refer to each other as "sisters" because their shared past experiences have made them so close. Yet Edith was unable to be close with her real sister, Betty, after her arrival in America—each sister's presence reminded the other of the family members they had lost. Why do you think the war and the emotions surrounding it drew Mina and Edith closer together, while it drove Betty and Edith apart?
  • At the reunion, some of the Stockstadt residents claim that since they were "just children" during the war, they could not know better and therefore could not be blamed for anything. During Edith and Fern's time in Stockstadt, the idea of forgiveness resonates, as well as that of collaboration. Who, then, can be blamed for Edith and her family's fates? Is it even necessary to fault, or to cause shame—or does this dwelling prevent reconciliation? How important are reconciliation and forgiveness for Edith? For Fern? For Mina? For Hans?
  • Edith's former classmate, Karl, says that he and the other townspeople were victims as well, "in a different way." Is there such a thing as different kinds of victimhood, or a hierarchy of experience? How does the town's collective victimhood compare to that of Fern's, Edith's, Hans's, and Mina's?
  • Similarly, Germany's burden is that of being unable to truly forgive or forget what they themselves have done. Do you feel that it is necessary to forget in order to heal? How did Mina and Hans's attachments to the past ultimately help as well as harm them? On the other hand, how did Edith's need to forget—and Fern's resistance of this—affect their lives?
  • The German concept of the "lucky late born"—those born too late to be held accountable for Nazi crimes—is revealed in this book to be a false one, as Fern shows that the war's legacies echo in future generations. Do you think Fern's desire to provide her unborn daughter with a way to "escape the past" is possible? To what extent is this freedom from the past truly "lucky"?
  • We are bound to Edith's family's fate, Hans says, because of the crime of "doing nothing." More than half a century after World War II and the Holocaust, how can we prevent such future atrocities, and what responsibilities do we have? How does Fern's book contribute to "doing something"?
  • How does Fern's relationship with her mother illuminate your own relationship with your mother?
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2009

    Motherland (Central)

    A story about a mom uncovering her memories of the Holocaust and her childhood, and the journey that her daughter takes with her. Motherland, written by Fern Schumer Chapman, pulls you in. Once you pick it up, you are intrigued by the story.
    Fern and her mother Edith travel to Germany, back to Edith's childhood town. Upon their arrival, a welcoming committee basically awaits her, excited that she has finally come back. As Edith is uncovering her past, the people of the town uncover their past as well, which they are ashamed of. Fern slowly finds out more and more about her mother, therefore finding out a part of herself that she did not know. This story reminds us that remembering your past can either be a blessing or a burden.
    This historical fiction story rolls along very nicely. It flows. The way the author writes makes you want to keep reading. Her colorful and descriptive language paints the picture for you. Although at times the author describes unnecessary things, and these parts drag on, making you want to put the book down.
    Fern Schumer Chapman, a former reporter for The Chicago Tribune, has written a work of art. She taught at Northwestern University and has written for many famous publications. Some of her other accomplishments are winning Illinois Author of the Year in 2004 and her book was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards.
    I would give this book four stars. Although this wonderfully written book has a great plot and interesting and unique theme, parts of it can grow boring with unnecessary detail. This book is very creative and brings an idea that not many people think about: how much their past and the past of their relatives affect them.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2005

    A beautiful and necessary story

    Our book club selected this book and I really enjoyed it. It gave me a personal perspective on the war and the holocaust that I hadn't considered. The healing in the characters was wonderful to witness. Having lost my parents in a tragedy, I feel like an orphan even as an adult and can relate to Fern wanting the history she lacks in her own life story. I often thought of the bible saying the sins of a father will last for generations...this book showed how generations are affected by an event, a choice, a tragedy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2002

    Great book,touching novel

    Outstanding book. Pulled me in right away with subject and characters that were so real and interesting. I could definitely identify with having a very private mother who did not share her life and history with her children willingly. Hearing about Fern's mother made me see the many layers to a persons life that can create this hesitantcy to share.

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