Listener Essay - Tongue-Tied

Jul 19, 2017

Sandra Capellaro wrote this story five years ago recently became an American citizen. She lives in New Paltz and works as a translator, administrator and writer.  

Tongue-Tied

When I am in elementary school we read a book called “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit”. It's about a Jewish girl in Germany, her non-Jewish friend and the painful truth they learn about the pre-war reality around them. And it's about the pink plush rabbit that one day disappears just as will the little Jewish girl.

About 45 minutes north of Hannover where I grew up, is Bergen-Belsen, the former concentration camp. It's here that Anne Frank perished. We read her diary in school, and one day my class goes on a field trip to Bergen-Belsen. My daughter goes on trips to the Bardavon Opera and the Mohonk Preserve, but growing up in Germany I'm on a bus to the grounds of a former concentration camp. The drive there leads through small towns and countryside. Birch trees and heather, lots of wild heather are the features I remember.

The grounds of the memorial site are extensive but since the buildings were destroyed after liberation, beyond a few stone ruins there’s nothing to help your imagination. It’s the emptiness that serves as a commemorative marker, like the absence of the Jews I grew up with.

The small exhibit in the visitor’s center is graphic and overwhelms me. I wish I could understand where I am, but I don’t. I look at the trees and heather and feel quiet, peace. But the photos on the wall are the most frightening thing I can imagine. It's not a monster out of a horror movie that you would run away from. No, it is a human thing that I haven’t yet met. Horror perpetrated by German men and women. For what reason?

How is this possible? How could people go this far and no one stop them? And: why did it have to be my country that perpetrated these crimes? That question comes later, when I would give a lot not to be blond and blue-eyed and want to pretend I’m from Sweden, when asked where I am from.

At 22 I leave Germany to make my life in a new language that isn’t burdened by shame. American English comforts me. Its sounds roll self-assuredly, leisurely, and promise freedom, humor, peace of mind. I move to Amherst, MA, where I study representations of the Holocaust with a Jewish professor. His letter of acceptance is my entry ticket to the land of my dreams. He is entirely too handsome – and Jewish – for me to feel comfortable around him. My need to impress hinders my ability to participate, and while I had great plans of bringing Jews and Germans together across the rupture created by the Holocaust my shame is too great.

While at UMass I befriend a lively Israeli woman who runs the Jewish community center. She tells me about devouring Nietzsche while training for the Army in the mountains of Israel. We share a love of poetry and nature. And for the first time I feel the warmth of truly being seen and accepted for who I am – by someone whose verdict matters most to me, a Jew.

I later move to NYC where, without vacation time, savings or even health insurance, my favorite thing becomes riding the ferry to Staten Island. After I get there I turn right around and ride back. It's the trip that matters, right past my favorite statue, Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles. I stand on the North side of the boat and gaze at her, just her and me, like mother and daughter. I whisper Emma Lazarus' poem, "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and feel the reality of my own dream.

I don't feel German anymore. I don't feel American either. After my daughter is born, I am unable to speak German to her. It's as if I'm learning English all over again with her. The nursery rhymes I didn't grow up with, the new and deeper meaning of "I love you". People remind me of how children who grow up bi-lingual have such an advantage, yet I can't do it. The language of my own childhood doesn't want to come out. I try to say "I love you" in German, ich liebe dich, but it feels strange. Not to mention my self-consciousness on the playground. So she and I stick to English and babbling. I'm a mother who speaks English and a daughter who speaks German.

I relish crossing the street when the light is red. Occasionally I need to be late to work or meetings because Germans are always on time. I forge expiration dates on student ID's and hiking passes just for the thrill of being a rebel. There are so many German stereotypes I'm trying to shed, although some of them - aloofness, lack of tact - stick like burrs even in my intimate relationships.

But there's one thing that I'll never shed, the fact that I don't like uniforms, flags or any display of patriotism. When my daughter has to recite the pledge of allegiance in school before she can even read, I bristle. It makes me uneasy to see people rise when the national anthem is played. I feel like I know where it can lead, feel the potential for danger, also in this country. Especially after 9/11 the jingoist rhetoric in the news is sickening. I think of how quickly virtue can become vice and pride become arrogance. In a powerful nation such as this one, with its halo of innocence...it can all happen again, can't it?