Monday, June 10, 2013

Looking in the Rear-View Mirror Again

On my recent trip to Germany I was part of a class reunion with men and women from my Elementary School.  Since I was the one who came the furthest way, they ask me to give a short account of what happened to me since I had left my hometown.

Here I was enjoying my homecoming and suddenly, I felt like looking into the rear-view mirror again.  In my younger years I had pretty much lived looking in the rear-view mirror (fortunately, I was not driving then). Have you ever wished you could have been born in another century?  I always desired I had been born in the 19th century remembering my grandmother telling me about the ‘good old days’ before WWI.  She painted her younger days in such a serene and peaceful way.

I was born in Nordhausen/Thüringen after WWII as the second of four children.  My parents
had been ‘matched’ by their mothers since my dad was a soldier and didn’t really know many girls.  He was 10 years older than my mother.  The mothers were part of a women’s group who used to meet regularly at the popular local Café Dietze.  My parents were married during the war on one of my father’s furloughs.  While my dad was away, our 1,000 year old home-town was almost completely destroyed.  Within two days of allied raids, the proud “Freie Reichstadt” was 85% destroyed, leaving homes, businesses and factories leveled to the ground.  When my dad returned after the German surrender, he found his parents business in rubbles.  To the credit of their undying spirit, he set up his tools and started repairing watches and jewelry in an old garage. 

Soon after that, the Russian troops moved in and my home town came under their occupation.  I grew up in East Germany until I was 12 years-old.  Even at that young age I understood that I was dealing with different ideological opinions: I was going to religious classes at the church, at school we were indoctrinated with the socialistic ideology, and at home my parents would express their opinion in a hushed voice.  By that time they had moved out of the garage and build up a pretty nice retail store with watches, jewelry and porcelain.  At one point my parents traveled to Prague for a brief holiday, and learned that in Czechoslovakia many private businesses were already socialized and taken over by the government.  Based on that experience and some other tell-tale-signs, they decided shortly after that, to flee from East Germany.  That was in 1961 when thousands of refugees escaped every day.  My parents had laid out a cleaver plan.  They had booked a vacation north of Berlin, where we stayed for a few days, and then instead of returning to our hometown, we went to register at the refugee camp in West Berlin.  For a few months we went from one camp to another, finally ending up in Southern Germany.  My father was to work there in a factory using his watch maker’s skills.  It was a strange environment for us, mainly because in that area people spoke a different dialect and the kids made fun of me in school.  They wondered if I was ‘a spy’ from the other side.  From then on I pretty much kept to myself, mainly reading books.

The next big event in my life was that when I turned 21, I thought, now I am grown up, I
want to see the world.  After I finished my education at a local savings bank, I had a chance to become a staggiere (apprentice) at a bank in Zurich, Switzerland.  Switzerland has very strict immigration laws and the only way I could enter the country was that I became an apprentice again.  For 1 ½ years I traveled all over that beautiful country and spend the small salary they paid me on travel and fun.  When my time was up, I realized that I was on some kind of a quest, seeking out seminars and books to find a deeper meaning in my life.  After I had returned home, I secured an exchange program in France.  Because Germany and France had been at war for many Centuries, the government gave young people an opportunity to study and work abroad.  My destination was Avignon in Southern France where I worked at a bank to exchange foreign currencies into francs.  During that time, it was the early 1970s, I met many young people there who were hitchhiking around with just a back pack and no particular goal.  I guess they were the European hippies. Conversations with them only reinforced my own internal search.
When I look back today, I feel grateful, that I never lost my internal drive forward.  What I didn’t realize is that I felt a lot of guilt for my past, not so much for what I did but for what my country did.  I know we can say, I didn’t do anything wrong, but I also am pretty sure that we carry our ancestors offences and one way or the other, we are responsible for them. 

How can you tell about a life-time in a few minutes?  Therefore, I leave the rest of the story for another time.

I use the rear-view mirror as an analogy to driving a car.  We have to focus on where we are going, with our eyes looking forward on the road ahead.  Yet we have to look into the rear-view mirror to see what’s going on back there, for our own safety.  When we know where we are coming from, we can orient ourselves better to where we are and most of all where we want to go. 


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