Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America

Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America

by Ursula Hegi

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Ursula Hegi uses the art of the interview to see deeply into the personal histories of fifteen women and men as they confront at last the terrible and pervasive silence that made any mention of the Holocaust taboo in their homes and schools while they were growing up. For many of them this is the first time they've spoken of these memories and feelings. They share…  See more details below


Ursula Hegi uses the art of the interview to see deeply into the personal histories of fifteen women and men as they confront at last the terrible and pervasive silence that made any mention of the Holocaust taboo in their homes and schools while they were growing up. For many of them this is the first time they've spoken of these memories and feelings. They share their pain with us, their guilt, their anger, and their compassion as they take us into the world of their parents and try to sort out the impact of the war on their own lives. The more specific these life stories are, the more universal they become. Included in Tearing the Silence is Hegi's personal journey of leaving in Germany as an eighteen-year-old. She approaches the interviews as a novelist - not a historian - searching for the connecting themes within each story, and then lifting these themes to the surface by selecting significant material, much in the way she would write a story or novel. A huge difference, though, is that the words are entirely those of the women and men, who tell her about their lives with such amazing openness. A skillful interviewer, Ursula Hegi focuses on understanding the character and story of the individuals in all their complexity. While some genuinely attempt to understand their cultural heritage and feel a deep responsibility to be aware of the Holocaust and pass that awareness on to future generations, others have stayed within the familiar silence that manifests itself in denial, evasion, justification, and an inability to mourn - not all that different from the response of their parents' generation. Tearing the Silence contributes to a more complex picture of a time period weare still struggling to understand. It is a powerful and provocative account of post-Holocaust German immigrants in America, an important document of what it is like to grow up within the numbing silence of postwar Germany, a moving story of what it means to live between two cultures.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hegi (Stones from the River) interviewed 233 German-born Americans of varied backgrounds to speak about their lives in the U.S. Then she selected 15 of them as a cross section. These longtime U.S. citizens, children of Hitler-generation Germans, emigrated after WWII with their parents, with American husbands or alone. All were born between 1939 and 1949 and thus were aware of the war's effects, yet they often remembered happy childhoods. About the Holocaust, their parents almost universally maintained silence or, when questioned later, responded typically, "We suffered too." Almost all describe their shock after arriving in the U.S. at learning that being German meant they would be treated as pariahs and were assumed to be Nazis and Jew-killers. Although some excused themselves from any guilt thanks to "the grace of late birth," more often their reaction was one of horror and shame. Their parents' inability or unwillingness to discuss the war alienated many of these interviewees, but today some of them have salvaged pride in Germany's pre-Hitler culture; a few are unapologetic bigots. Many see a familiar repetition of indifference to genocide in the contemporary world. Hegi expresses an urgent need to confront realities and to not allow the Holocaust to be forgotten. These are powerful portraits of survivors of Hitler's legacy. (July)
Library Journal
Hegi's outstanding fictional accounts of life in World War II Germany (Floating in My Mother's Palm, LJ 3/1/90, and Stones from the River, LJ 1/94, an Oprah Book Club selection) were the catalysts for this powerful nonfiction collection of interviews of first-generation German Americans. Herself a German-born American, Hegi aims to shatter the reluctance, even refusal, of Germans to mention the Holocaust other than to say, "We suffered, too." The Germany Hegi grew up with and ultimately struggled against is reflected in the personal accounts by other Germans, now living in America, whom she interviewed informally. For example, there is Eva, who remarks, "Just because I'm German doesn't mean I am a Nazi," and Hans-Peter, who says, "It's my heritageyet I had no say in it." This singular work is an important addition to a greater understanding of the Holocaust and to giving credible cognizance to submerged feelings. Highly recommended for all libraries.Kay Meredith Dusheck, Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City
Sally Eckhoff
[T]he way most people see it, being part-German -- or, God forbid, all German -- is like having pit bulls in your ancestry: a misshapen talent for aggression precedes you, even if you're just a pup. German-born Americans are simply not at the top of the list of people we feel sorry for these days. But as Ursula Hegi proves in this earnest and dry book, probing the pain and confusion of Germans who were young when Hitler was in power can help distill a missing ingredient in our understanding of human tragedy.

In Tearing the Silence, Hegi, author of the acclaimed novel Stones From the River, flies coast-to-coast, gathering testimony from adults who were once connected with Hitler's legacy, however incidentally, through their parents. Each interviewee gets his or her own chapter. The stories differ from one another strikingly, but for the most part they share a common element: shame for the sins of their fathers. "It's my heritage, yet I had no say in it," says Hans-Peter, born in 1945 and living on American soil by the age of 8. No matter how early the transplanted vines were severed from the root of Germany, they sprout a foliage of guilt.

Some of Hegi's subjects had relatives who were captured by the Russians, men who ate poison ivy to kill their hunger. Some had fathers in the SS. Anneliese did -- and in her quiet way, she's proud. "I mean, they didn't take any old farm boy," she tells Hegi, continuing, "my mother says he never did anything bad." When Heinrich was little, the Nazis drafted his dog. "My parents got an official notification that he died with honors. I hate to think what that dog was being used for." Beate, born in 1942, asked her mother how she dealt with so many Jews being killed. "She just ignored it," the frustrated daughter comments, adding that "she must have known something" -- at the community showers, Mama was terrified that what came out of the spigots wouldn't be water.

Some of Hegi's subjects never knew their parents at all. Of the tolerant couple who adopted him, Jurgen marvels that they never complained about his difficulty adjusting, even when he took to bicycling around their little Wisconsin town wearing a German army helmet -- a real one. His story, and others like it, may not fully answer the question of what people knew and what they could have done. But it does add some lines to our incomplete diagram of the mechanics of this century, and that's something to be grateful for.Salon

Kirkus Reviews
Americans of German birth, children of the war and immediate postwar era, reflect on the experience and meaning of their split identity.

German-born novelist Hegi (Salt Dancers, 1995, etc.), who has herself wrestled with the meaning of her German identity, interviewed 15 fellow immigrants. All were born in Germany between 1939 and 1946. Some came to America as children, some came as late as the 1960s. The central issue, of course, is whether, or in what way, or to what degree this post-Auschwitz generation deals with German war guilt. Surprisingly, these people recognize in themselves what most people take for granted about Germans: that they are orderly, hardworking, sometimes cold, but above all efficient. "I did well in seminary," says one, "because I'm a German. You do well. You make the trains run on time." Some see these features as virtues, some see them as impediments to be overcome, but in the end these character traits set them apart from other Americans. Authoritarian, harsh parents are a motif among Hegi's interlocutors, as is a strong feeling of alienation and resentment among the children. They feel a natural affection toward their parents and elders (though not always), yet remain in a state of shock (again, not always) over the deeds of that generation. In general, any kind of talk about the Holocaust was forbidden in these homes on both sides of the Atlantic. Most learn about the Holocaust outside the home and are troubled by complex feelings of shame. It is the habit of silence about these feelings and about history that Hegi aims to shatter. She gathered her material in interviews but has rewritten the conversations as monologues. Her ventriloquist act works well, at least insofar as each of the voices is highly individual.

A somber, joyless book that does not lay claim to any catharsis. These personal narratives leave the impression of a "tremendous sense of loss" that is permanently yoked to moral bewilderment.

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