The President’s trip to Israel a couple of weeks ago reminded me of my own visit in 1984. I also traveled to Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, observing several of the same historically-and-politically significant sites. The most memorable recollection of my trip, however, did not involve sightseeing excursions.
I accompanied Ingrid and her school choir on their concert tour, part of a sister-city exchange between Springe in Germany and Kiryat Motzkin in Israel. We celebrated the conclusion of our three weeks at an evening program of music and speeches for everyone involved, including families who had hosted the young German singers.
Ingrid’s husband Hubert was to deliver an official farewell in English, the second language for most Israelis and Germans. When he asked that I translate his speech, I spent several hours working to appropriately transcribe his sentiments. I struggled to choose just the right English words with proper connotation.
As Hubert spoke that night, however, I realized that my carefully-nuanced translation was practically all for naught. As the only native English speaker in the audience, only I would appreciate one synonym over another; only my ears were sensitive to diction and syntax. The Germans and the Israelis in the room probably understood just the basics of Hubert’s message – as expressed in a language not really their own.
I thought about language again when I heard German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks in Brussels several days ago during the dedication of a piece of steel recovered from the World Trade Center, signifying the only time in NATO history when Article 5 was invoked – considering an attack on one member nation an attack on them all. Also dedicated was a section of the Berlin Wall to which the chancellor referred: “I lived on the eastern side of the wall…the division of Berlin is an expression that if we stand firm as did NATO… we can bring down a wall…our alliance is united in the trust that it is not isolation and the building of walls that make us successful but open societies that share the same values.”
That piece of concrete representing the barricade my students and I observed in the 70’s and 80’s reminded me of our first trip after the fall of the Wall. Sections still stood in June of 1990, but they no longer impeded travel between the two sides of Berlin.
In contrast to our previous visits to Germany’s famous divided city, there was an air of jubilation and movement that summer. Also new were legions of tour busses from the East transporting passengers who had come to shop.
Finally able to purchase what they had only been able to see while illegally watching West German television, folks from the East were snapping up goods unavailable under Communist rule. There were long lines at Radio Shack as VCR’s and other technological merchandise practically flew out the doors.
Communism continued to lose its grip at that time, enabling Eastern Europeans to travel to U.S. cities. I read about two women on such a trip who were shopping for hand soap in an American supermarket. Accustomed to spotty availability and lack of competing brands, they were astonished by shelves fully stocked with seemingly-limitless options. They held and smelled each bar before carefully returning it to its place. Overwhelmed, the ladies decided to return another day to make their purchase – after further contemplation.
During the week of the President’s trip, I was also reading Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. The well-researched historical novel memorably recounted the story of young Polish girls subjected to maniacal experimental surgeries at Ravensbrück, an all-women’s concentration camp.
Their story reminded me of another Polish girl who lived through those unspeakable years and later wrote about her dear friend who did not survive the camps and death marches. Gerda Weissman Klein, Holocaust-survivor-turned-author, spoke to Champaign County audiences in 2007, describing her former self as the camps were liberated in 1945: “…a mere 68 pounds…dressed in rags…had not bathed in three years.”
I similarly recalled a long-ago interview of Elie Wiesel, another renowned Holocaust survivor, who fought tirelessly against persecution and for global peace. Oprah Winfrey posed a rambling question about Wiesel’s thoughts during his imprisonment in Auschwitz, with his freedom restricted by barb wire and armed guards. He quietly replied that his only thoughts concerned how big his piece of bread at the next meal would be.
Those two realities, situations we take for granted – a daily bath and a slice of bread – have ever since represented, for me, comprehensible measures of the inhumanities heaped upon concentration camp prisoners. The intentional deprivation of life’s most basic necessities seems somehow even crueler than other treatment too horrible even to imagine.
Now, some seventy years later, I am more convinced than ever that we must face the present and the future with a clear understanding of the past. It is incumbent upon us Baby Boomers to pay particular heed to the lessons of the historical era from which our births stemmed. We cannot allow the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation to be diminished or defied, nor can we afford to set aside important partnerships that united so many across the globe in standing strong during the challenging years that followed. In these concerning, perplexing times, it is our responsibility to remain carefully observant, always contemplative – and ever vigilant.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.