Immigrant Freedoms

My grandmother, known to us all as Mutti, caught one of the last trains out of Gotenhafen before the Russians came in 1945. She carried in tow, in order of age, some of my uncles and aunts: Jens, eight years old, clever and restless, though behind in school; Inga, a tough kid, it seemed, who didn’t need much worrying over; Suse, a baby girl, her darling and the comfort of her bed; and Andreas, who was still being potty-trained. Inga is my mother. The train was so full they had to be hoisted in through a window. Mutti stood on her feet the whole 20-hour journey, her legs swelling under her like grilling sausages. By the time the train reached Berlin, she couldn’t walk and had to be hauled from the station in a handcart. My grandfather, Kaha, stayed behind to do his job: he was a naval engineer, working at the shipyard. He guessed that bad times were coming and sent his family as far from the advancing front as he could. It was not the last time his family would be separated, nor the last long journey they would make.


Kaha died ten years ago, and Jens, a retired lawyer living in Rome, did the duty of the oldest child and sorted through the family papers, which he sent me. They ‘should have been different,’ he told me last summer, unhappily but with a certain satisfaction. He meant in part my grandfather’s expressions of love: they struck him as cold, perhaps, or self-centred. And he may have traced to the paterfamilias some of the cracks that spread out and inwards in any large family over time – along geographical lines, as much any other. He had settled in Rome, married to a French woman; my mother had ventured still further afield. Her trips ‘home’ – to that trim post-war cottage built on a stretch of wooded shoreline running into Denmark, where our family eventually settled after Gotenhafen have always been fraught with the anxieties and pleasures of the prodigal returned. ‘Homecoming’ is a word with a fracture written into it: if it were really home, we wouldn’t have to come back to it. And my mother has spent, not only most of her adulthood, but at this point, more simply, the majority of her life, in America, married to my American father.

But Jens had something else in mind, too, when he said, ‘it should have been different’. In his introduction to this family album, he wrote: ‘perhaps I should have cut a little from Father’s letters – the odd word or phrase confounds us when we come upon it. But such were the times.’ What he meant was, we all lived under the Nazis then. We all shared in  the life they had made for the country. Most of these remarks appear as asides to the domestic gossip of their common life. He wrote to Mutti that he ‘does not believe we’ll win. Though I do whatever I can, towards victory. But if we don’t drive the Russians out of Oberschlesien by March, all kinds of materials will run out. We can hold out here that long. How will I see you again? The dinner-table is very jolly, since we’re all more optimistic, now things in our region are looking up. But I believe, as before, that the decisive stroke won’t fall here. Has it already fallen elsewhere? God grant the end is sufferable.’

Such remarks – innocent enough I suppose, though suggestive, too – made me think of my brother. As soon as he was old enough to know better, in the first dawn of his political and historical awareness, he used to work himself and my mother into terrible states discussing the part Kaha played in the Third Reich, his guilt or ignorance or innocence. Our grandfather built ships for the Nazis. Their arguments followed predictable patterns; were no doubt repeated, in one form or another, in countless households; to similar inconclusions. Kaha could have done more – he did what he could, my mother protested. (He insisted, for example, on better rations for the prisoners of war who worked under him, if only, as he explained the matter to his superiors, to ensure they were up to their jobs). Even if he didn’t want to risk his neck, my brother argued, there are little sabotages he might have performed – who knows he didn’t – he accommodated himself, as he always does, he went along with things. He didn’t understand what you now understand, my mother said. He didn’t know what we all know now.


The motive behind my mother’s apologies – though that is too strong a word, both ways, and perhaps ‘defence’ is better – is obvious enough; but my brother must have had his own, less righteous spurs. I remember mostly that I wanted the shouting to quiet down, I didn’t like to see either of them upset. The conviction was already forming within me that  to every moral question there is a personal element that defies reason and takes the air out of arguments over right and wrong. A pin-prick, if you like, through which the principles leak away. My brother even then believed that if you can’t discern the principles at stake in any argument you aren’t looking hard enough, and soon you won’t be trying hard enough to act on them. I thought rather fuzzily that if only you stare long enough, everything gives way to sympathy in the end.


Who knows, along those lines, exactly what drove my brother to pick these fights? Partly, no doubt, he was inspired by the teenager’s delight in taking the world on; and here he had first hand evidence, of a kind, on which to test his ideas about how to live. Partly the German half of our family always made him miserable. They treated us like the country cousins, the boorish Americans. He argued his way through most of our German holidays, and found (so alike were the two halves of our family, the landed northern Germans and the East coast Jews) uncles and aunts and cousins to take up the challenge. Woody Allen’s family in Radio Days used to disagree about whether the Atlantic or the Pacific was the better ocean. I found that particular brand of intellectualism, exhaustive and pernickety at once, common to Jews and Germans (and flourishing in the union of the two).


The argument over Kaha’s guilt was not just generational – a grandson free to question what a daughter couldn’t. It was a matter of culture, too, the split roots twisted together in my parents’ marriage. My mother came to Cornell on a Fulbright after law school in Berlin. She wept most of her first year, distrusted the money (certain any bill proclaiming In God We Trust must be a forgery, albeit a strange one), and met my father. Almost forty years later, she says the class of people she feels most comfortable with are American Jews. The ship that brought her to America for the wedding almost sank. Her future in-laws, hearing of their son’s engagement to a German Christian, tried to have my father committed to an insane asylum. My parents were married at the New Haven courthouse overlooking the town’s green; a janitor served as witness. No family attended, from either side. One of the compromises of their marriage was that they would live in Europe when they could; the other was that we would be raised as Jews.


It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that the split halves of my parents’ marriage should have produced in their children unresolved and shifting allegiances: to Germanness, to Jewishness, whose uncertainties would be worked out against the symbols of each, my mother, my father. Who themselves inherited in a sense the split identities of their children: my mother’s uneasiness among Germans, her Americanisation, my father’s growing detachment from his religious youth. All of which meant that I read in the brief and anxious separation of my German grandparents an emblem of a broader family history: evidence of the fact that marriages were made across divides. We have learned our lesson well. There are five of us; the three who are married have all married Europeans; the women in my family have all fallen for Jews. I suppose that the best and the worst of an inheritance is the fact that you can’t escape from it. No child can ever have acquired a sense of nationality so strong and vital as our own resistance to it.


My parents settled in Texas, which is only to say, that we always came back to Texas between the bouts of restlessness that took us elsewhere: to London, to Oxford, to Berlin. For the first time in my life, I have spent three consecutive years in the same place: in London. My wife is English. If I have a hometown, I suppose London is it – on mathematical grounds, if no other; I’ve lived here perhaps a dozen years. A few months ago, I stood in the Camden town hall, in front of a portrait of the Queen, and took the oath that made me a British citizen. Afterwards, feeling suddenly an urgent desire to see a familiar face, I called up a friend who works at the British Library. On the way to meet him, I ran into another old friend. ‘How are you?’ she said, and for once I had a specific answer to that vague question. ‘I’ve become British,’ I said. ‘Do you know,’ she replied, cocking her head to look at me, ‘you really have.’ No, no, I wanted to protest, I really have – by which I meant, of course, that I really hadn’t.

Immigrants, wherever they go, tend to look out for each other, and the greater good we always answered to was our own – our family’s. Family in the narrowest sense, that is: we felt equally removed from the New York Jews among whom my father had grown up as the German cousins with whom my brother always fought. I’ve come to understand in time both the selfishness and the selflessness I learned from my parents’ isolation. Our culture was something we made ourselves, which had the great advantage that we could shape it to our liking. If Michael Jordan was one of our common idols, so were Philip Larkin, Friedrich Schiller, P.G. Wodehouse. No one has expressed better than Larkin the feeling of being out of place, its occasional charm. ‘Lonely in Ireland,’ he wrote, ‘strangeness made sense.’ The trouble with being at home, he added, was that ‘no elsewhere underwrites my existence.’


In that respect, at least, I am well-insured: Elsewhere has always supported me, adding to my phone bills, of course, but also detaching me a little from where I am. When my father first came to England he brought with him a one-gallon jar of Goulden’s spicy hot American mustard. My parents now have a flat in London, and whenever he goes back to Texas he takes with him a suitcase of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits and Branston Pickle. My wife could never understand why anyone would go to such trouble to transport a digestive biscuit: one of the ordinary forgettable pleasures of English life. In fact, he rarely gets through them; there’s a cupboard in our Texas kitchen stocked with several generations’ worth of biscuits and pickle. It seemed a little sad to her, always to be wanting, a little, another life, lived elsewhere; and it’s certainly true that I’ve never for a moment been able to reconcile all my distinct selves: German, Jewish, American, English. But I pick and choose: and there’s something wonderful, not only about having so wide a selection of identities to draw on, but just in the freedom of choosing. For our wedding, which was held in London at the house she grew up in, my father brought over from Texas (illegally, I’m almost sure) more than thirty pounds’ worth of smoked chopped beef.

Of course, it isn’t only an accumulation; some things get lost along the way. My American grandparents were right to worry over their son’s marriage: our children are unlikely to consider themselves Jews. The rules of transmitting German-ness are less strict: in fact, I have decided to speak German to my daughter, but I’ve only to look at my own shaky grasp of the language to see how things deteriorate. God knows how American she will feel herself to be. Enough, I hope, for her to treat the intricate laws of the English class system with an outsider’s indifference. Of course, there’s something about the immigrant condition that is both typically American and typically Jewish. Towards the end of the Passover service (itself a holiday commemorating immigration), we raise a toast to the words, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ It’s been a few years since I’ve celebrated Passover, but I remember that the toast used to be the subject of a certain kind of rabbinical debate among assimilated Jews. Should we really toast an ambition that some of us have long since abandoned? Why not? The idea of home matters especially to those who don’t plan to return to it. Austin, Texas, the town of my childhood, has become for me the symbol of that toast: next year, somewhere else. It’s a symbol I wouldn’t mind passing on to my daughter.


My bedtime stories were war stories. My mother sat at our feet in the heat of a Texan night and told us tales from her German youth. I can’t remember most of them and they tended to blur together, but I recall the air of childish discovery she conjured up and, it seemed, recaptured: the world had appeared to my mother, who was six years old at the end of the Second World War, in dramatic and surprising and not always unhappy ways. Not unhappy, at least, to a girl. There seemed so much to dig up or dust off: an unexploded bomb in the garden; a buried sausage left behind by an American soldier; a prized collection of the poet Schiller’s works. (I read what I could many years later on a summer holiday, picking my way through the spidery gothic script that entangled each word. Mutti, keeping her eye on the better times to come, had bought the volumes in exchange for a tin of pork-and-apple-sauce; and was roundly told off by her own mother for starving the children.) Most exciting of all: my great aunt, an unconventional and elegant woman who taught us mah jong when we were children, had kept a Jew hidden in her attic. There were more to come.


BENJAMIN MARKOVITS grew up in Texas, London and Berlin. He is the author of seven  novels: The Syme Papers, Either Side of Winter, Imposture, A Quiet Adjustment, Playing Days, Childish Loves and, most recently, You Don't Have to Live Like This. He has published essays, stories, poetry and reviews on subjects ranging from the Romantics to American sports in the Guardian, Granta, The Paris Review and The New York Times, among other publications. He lives in London and teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.



August 2013

The External World


November 2016



January 2016

Two New Poems