When I recommended this book lately to a friend it hit me:
I finished it just before I left for the US and with all the travel blogging I almost forgot to write my review. Shame on me - it's a great book and defnitely deserves full attention.
Before I start I need to tell you how awesome my friends - in this case my friend, travel buddy and photographer Gabrijela - are. This book was a gift I got from her for no special reason ... no birthday, no other gift event ... she just said "I really want you to read this one because it's great and so I got you a copy." Wow - awesome & thanks so much!
This book ... is plumbum on wings. Weird, I know.
The outline - the history of the Altaras family - is so overloaded with burden that it would have been easy to write the most depressing book ever, but Adriana Altaras went the other way and wrote a book that at several points makes you smile or even laugh, but never slips into slapstick or sillyness.
To give you an overview: Adriana Altaras lives in Berlin and works as stage director and actress. She was born 1960 in the former Yugoslavia (Dalmatia to be exact) and is Jewish. The story about a Jewish family in Germany usually has already enough weight to fill a book. But if you put in the complicated history of the Jews in Yugoslavia, where they first were celebrated Partisans in the fight against the USTAŠA just to find themselves not much later bullied out the socialist Yugoslavia and later neglected by the newly reborn Croatia that has so many problems to solve that it struggles for economical and political reasons with this multidimensionally unpleasant and complicated chapter of Yugoslavian history, then you have enough dynamite for a really huge bomb. And when you put in some Dalmatian sense for drama the bomb is ready to explode any time.
And if that would not be enough Adriana Altaras writes about about death. She loses both of her parents in a short period of time and has to deal the grief and the effect that beeing an "orphan" has on her identity and how to deal with all what is left behind while being a busy working mom in a German-Jewish-Croatian family.
And ALL THIS is supposed to be fun to read? I know - it does not sound like it, but it really is because Adriana Altaras writes with her dry sense of humor and is often (but not all the time) keeping an ironic distance to her family's story. This is the strength and the weakness of the book at the same time. It makes the reading experience very enjoyable but at some points you feel like you do not get the whole picture, the whole scope of emotions, but who could blame her? It is a very well justified level of self-protection.
Let's put up some aspects I really liked or that made me think in particular:
- I am very familiar with the Gastarbeiter (guest worker) migration from Yugoslavia to Germany since lots of my friends have their roots in families who came to Germany in the 60ies and 70ies mostly for economical reasons. This story of a Jewish, academic family that left for political reason is fundamentally different from the average story of a Croatian family in Germany.
- I lately heard a quote and after reading this book it finally makes totally sense to me. It said "Anti-Semites are always looking for the Jews and they find them." That seems to be true because Adriana Altaras describes several encounters with anti-Semites even in the high culture circles of Berlin, which left me speechless. I'm borne in 1973 and basically grew up in a Germany without Jews. I never thought about avoiding any encounter with Jews or Jewish culture - it just never really happened ... as a simple matter of statistic likeliness. And the same way I pratically almost never meet Jews I never meet German anti-Semites - except scary stupid demonstrations of baldheaded Neonazis. But they obviously exist and seem to love to spend their life close to the few Jews in Germany to insult them ... wow. Emberrassing.
- Every time I walk the streets of New York, where Jewish culture is everywhere, I wonder how Germany would look like if the Holocaust never happened. How would it be to get a decent bagel at every street corner (I'd love it!)? How it would be to have one more religion being as present as the Christian and the Muslim and what effect would it have on our society? How the German language would sound? My grandma had lots of Jiddish-German words in her normal vocabulary and my sister and I still use lots of them mostly because we love old fashioned German. We for example regulary use: Bammel (fear), Bohai (chaos, loud noise), Kaff (village), Maloche (hard work), meschugge (crazy), schicker (drunk), Schmonzette (cheesy drama), Schlamassel (trouble), Stuss (nonsense), schofel (bad), Tinnef (useless stuff) to name a few.
- Although the relationship to her parents and the whole family background was very different, I could strongly identify with the emotions Adriana Altaras describes when her parents die. She is grown up, has her own life and family but there is still a kid inside that suddenly is an orphan. I guess that feeling sticks with you even if yo are lucky and your 90-something-year-old parents die when you are 70. And I can tell you that eliminating your parents household after over 30 years of living in the same place is physically and emotionally exhausting even if they collected less stuff than the parents of Adriana Altaras did.
- There is also one scene where she passes by her parents apartment a couple of months after she her mother's death. That is something I never had the guts for. My sister did it ones and looked at the strange new curtains in our windows. Disturbing. I prefer not to go back there.
- One of my favorite "characters" in the book are the Dibbuks - The Ghosts. It's the dead Adriana Altaras can feel and hear. I love when people talk about ghosts without esotheric drama around it, because that is not the way it is. This is more about the fact that you lose people you know perfectly well. You just know what they would recommend in a certain situation, what they would approve and not approve, how they would comment (and not just the nice stuff) things and decisions. You keep hearing them. It's perfectly normal and not scary at all - just a bit annoying every now and then.
I know that several of my regular readers are American and might wonder how I personally feel about the German history. The history of my nation, that managed to kill millions of Jews and other people. They wonder if I still feel guilty - especially since I studied political science and history and graduated with a Master degree. So I might know even more about it than the average citizen altough nobody can pretend to not know about it - it is too much part of every school curriculum.
And I will answer your question: I do not feel guilty. I do not because I personally did nothing - I am simply too young, which is in this case a blessing. But what I feel is responsibility. I am responsible to make sure that nobody forgets what human beings can do to others, how a political system can get out of control, how fragile democracy is. I am responsible to do all I can to make sure that something like this never happens again around me - and that is much more difficult than it looks on the first sight.
But there is one really easy thing everybody can do: If there is an election in your country, appreciate that you are allowed to vote and to vote what you want to. Make sure that you really think through your choice. And then live your freedom, live & protect your democracy ... and VOTE.