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

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

by Fern Schumer Chapman

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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


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.

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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Penguin Publishing Group
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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.

What People are Saying About This

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

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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