Memories, a broken shoe, and the horrors of mankind
Thank you for another beautiful poignant observation Chris. You bring a unique perspective to our world and our history, e.g. linking Vietnam with Germany. I say this with every reading: I look forward to your book.
Thanks for sharing this interesting meditation. I see it has sparked meditations in your readers too. Well done.
It's interesting that none of these Stolpersteins have yet been placed in the Channel Islands, the only part of the UK to have been occupied by the Nazis.
Since the end of the War, the British government has systematically repressed information about what happened there -- on the not entirely unsensible grounds that public knowledge about who collaborated and who did not would lead to a culture of reprisals amongst the tight-knit families living there.
This policy (possibly not coincidentally?) appears to have given at least one very prominent political figure in the Islands a free pass.
This odd silence encapsulates entirely the tension between Forgetting and Remembering. The wartime generation were in some ways very big on forgetting and moving on. When they remembered, they mostly celebrated -- the courage, the sacrifice, the sense of a shared struggle. It was an attitude perpetuated by the deeply selfish Boomers.
It falls to our X generation and later to remember in a more complicated way. And a kind of 'reverse flip' (European history = all bad) isn't good enough. I guess the struggle to find an adjustment that both honours the past and is something that allows us to live in sanity, on good terms with ourselves, will continue to generate some excellent writing though.
I'm so sorry this part of your travels was sad for you. Please accept your feelings - they are legitimate! - and carry on. This trip had to be good for something; it just might not be apparent yet. Celebrate the fact that your immediate family saved themselves. That took courage, wisdom, determination and OPTIMISM. That's your heritage and it's something to be proud of.
And please continue your travels! You make foreign places and people come to life, and it makes my life better.
In 1985, when Josef Mengele was found to have died of natural causes while swimming, people were distressed that it hadn't been possible to end his life through execution. When Adolf Eichmann was executed some years earlier, his victims and their descendants had experienced anguish from the need to accept that it had only been possible to execute him once. I have come to believe that "closure" is a fiction. There is no way a wrong can be undone, no matter how monstrous it was; that in fact could only mean it was caused not to have happened, and we as mortals are incapable of turning back time. What I have found helpful in my own life has been rather to ask what would make life bearable again--since revenge won't achieve that end--and to seek comfort in acceptance of the fact that I lost something irreplaceable. When that acceptance has been achieved, it becomes possible to mourn that loss. The only real goal of mourning, in turn, can be peace of mind; and that can come only from remembering what existed before it was lost, to savor the memories, and to be thankful for the ability to do this. Honor the memory of your great-aunt and -uncle--not the unbearable knowledge of what was done to them but memories of them themselves, of the people who brought life and joy to the others in their lives and to succeeding generations, down to you. Become a family historian yourself, perhaps through an online genealogy portal; learn about the relatives whose existence you uncover, and seek them out. Compare notes with your brother and other relatives you encounter in the process. And don't omit to grieve for your loss of innocence.
I had to travel to London a few years ago, and I had a similar (but not as dark) feeling. I thought it looked like a sterile museum of absolutely spic and span quaint buildings, interspersed with awful modernist s**t that looks like an Ikea store. I was mostly in Wimbledon.
Beautiful essay, Chris. And I feel like I can see the glumness in your photos. Hey, that's how it is sometimes. I've been there, too. Also loved the sandal. Made me laugh in the middle of a mostly bummed-out essay. You captured it all here, and it looks like it was as simple as just saying it -- as it usually is. Thanks.
Absolutely amazing story. You were spot on about how the reality of your trip didn't live up to the fantasy that you had in mind. We often project our desires onto things and people when the reality is that they exist independently of what we want them to be.
Brilliant piece of writing, Chris.
It just goes to show what a lazy aphorism “history is written by the victors” is.
I can't wait to see your novel about banking. Some stories are much better told as fiction.
And I understand why you want to avoid politics on substack, but I wish there was a place to engage with you on that. Your piece on covid theater was somewhat scattered but that is the way many of us felt, especially if we knew a lot more about covid. The amount of misinformation in the US was distressing. I felt much safer here in Vietnam.
I have followed you for a few years and recently subscribed to read over your back posts and the comments.
I did not realize that I had seen your stuff for longer, the Guardian articles, the Atlantic piece and other things on Trump voters.
You have a distinct advantage since you can communicate better with people which can be hard for me in noisy places like bars since I lost most of my hearing when I was a kid, Ironically, that also has adapted me to places where I cannot talk with people and being in foreign places comes easier to me than some other travelers. I usually manage to connect well enough as you do.
I have spent most of the last 9 years in Vietnam. It was the people who kept me here.
Thank you for sharing this.
All of your feelings and impressions are valid. If those who have passed are in your memory, then that is enough
I grew up about 2 1/2 west of Görlitz in a small town near Halle, Germany and was there when the Wall fell. I recently read an interesting article about German guilt and how the atrocities of the Holocaust are affecting the generations born after WWII. There is a collective guilt, something I feel and am affected by more so living here in the US. I’m sorry your visit wasn’t more enlightening!
Reading this reminded me of how complicated...everything is. As you note, grudges can't be held forever. Which you saw yourself in Vietnam.
I'm not surprised you couldn't find what you were looking for. How could you? What was done was son monstrous it can ever be redressed. But as you also note, history is littered with horrible events. I'm reading this and part of me is thinking, "At least Germany has genuinely tried. America hasn't even started trying to come to terms with genocide against the indigenous peoples of America."
Which isn't to diminish your feelings at all. This, of course, is personal to you and I don't see how the loss of your family is over gotten over. Instead, I imagine it's just part of you, something to be lived with as best as possible. Something you never forget.
Was your grandfather in Nanjing during the rape of Nanjing? if so, then perhaps he may have joined forces with John Heinrich Detlef Rabe (The Good Man of Nanking), a rather odd member of the Nazi Party who apparently never clued into the racist elements.
My great Grandfather was born in Regensburg, Germany.
Story is: his father was such strict and tyrannical rabbi - that he fled to Poland - or maybe it was Romania - as a young teen, and ended up, being taken in by sympathetic catholic widow on an estate in the Carpathian mountains.
He stayed and ended up getting control of the estate as an adult - getting married young to another Jew, in what was an arranged marriage, by the Catholic widow, then when that widow died he promptly divorced this first wife, and married another much younger woman - from which sprung my grandfather (around 1890) and his two older brothers - all three took off for America as young men - to avoid military service - or for adventure - or to get away from my great grandfather - who also had tyrannical tendencies.
I don't know the fates of my Jewish relatives who remained in Europe. I can guess.
I once visited Germany in the late 70's. People were quite polite. Great beer. Visited Dachau, noticed the tourist graffiti - the towns around it were quiet. I have German friends met in the US. Good people.
The German Nazi era seemed like an evil fairy tale to me as child, but a tale that one could not shoo away as just a evil fairy tale - as unbelievable as I wanted it to be. time passing has not erased that from my mind.