- To Make Good Again
Buch (book) was my first word, according to my parents, though it probably was more like my first interesting word—third, at the earliest, after Mama and Papa. Whatever the first word, German was my first language, and I did not learn English until I went to preschool at the age of four. Still, I do not consider German my native tongue. English is the language I grew up in, went to school in; English is the language I write in.
Although my parents claim to have chosen German as our family language purely for practical reasons—it was the one language besides English that they had in common—they both had an attachment to it that went beyond practicality. It was my mother’s true native tongue and the language we all spoke with her parents, who were classic Viennese Jews in exile: they listened religiously to the Saturday opera on WQXR and had pastries and coffee every day at four, and my grandmother made the best Wienerschnitzel in New York. What this cultural background also meant was that although they never went to synagogue, one of my grandfather’s favorite topics of conversation was how the world’s most influential people—Einstein and Columbus, for example—had been Jewish. Of course most of my mother’s family was not in exile. Except for my grandparents, my mother, uncle, and two of my grandparents’ siblings, who also managed to leave Vienna in time, everyone else had died in Auschwitz.
As for my father, he was born in the Soviet Union. His father was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home but had gone to the university in Moscow and had become an engineer and a socialist. In 1926, when my father was three, my grandfather was sent to Berlin by the Soviet government to supervise the purchase of modern industrial equipment. My father and grandmother were allowed to go with him, largely because my father had been born with a harelip and cleft palate and the best plastic surgeons were in Berlin. When my grandfather was ordered to return to the Soviet Union a few years later, my grandparents decided to stay in Berlin rather than return to their country, where Stalin had already begun exterminating his political rivals, both real and imagined.
It was in Berlin that my father learned to read and write, and where he became a conscious being, but his ties to the German language went back further than that. His maternal grandmother, whom my father loved and admired for her quiet strength and guidance, was a German Lutheran from Latvia. Before she became the wife of my Jewish great-grandfather, she was the governess of his children, but when his first wife, an actress, died during an abortion and left his children motherless, he married the governess. Together, the two of them had a second set of children, including my grandmother. [End Page 80]
At that time in Russia, the law required children of mixed Jewish-Christian parentage to be raised as Christians, so my grandmother and her siblings were sent to the German Lutheran school in Kharkov, which was not only the best and most progressive school in town but also the only good school that accepted Jews. Accordingly, my grandmother’s schooling was in German, which she spoke flawlessly with the Slavic accent of a Baltic German. All her life she spoke of the German Lutheran school as having shaped her moral code, and this view was not altered by the fact that in 1933, when Hitler came to power, she, my grandfather, and my father, who was ten, had to flee Germany for France.
My mother’s story is more complicated. Her mother, who had grown up in a poor Polish Jewish family in Vienna, had met a man twenty years her senior on the streetcar and married him on the condition that he pay for her to go to medical school. In medical school she met and fell in love with a young doctor, my grandfather, who was also from a family of Polish Jews. My mother was born while my grandmother was still...