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.
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 married to her first husband, and when my grandmother left him to live with my grandfather, she did not take my mother with her, so it was assumed by everyone that my mother was the first husband’s child.
The first husband was well off and had maids who spoiled my mother, taking her for cakes at Demel’s and to the Stadtpark puppet shows, so my mother preferred living with him and dreaded having to return to my grandparents’ cold and dreary apartment, where the sheets smelled of mothballs and my grandmother was often depressed and not able to find the energy to bathe or cook at all, let alone prepare elaborate meals or take my mother on outings for cakes and to watch puppet shows. At some point long before he met my grandmother, the first husband had converted to Catholicism, and, though he had done so for purely practical reasons and celebrated neither Jewish nor Christian holidays, he had my mother baptized, largely, according to my grandmother, to get back at her for leaving him. Still, for my mother, though she did not understand its significance at the time, her baptism was to become a defining moment that eventually would lead to her own conversion.
Then, in 1938, everything changed. The Austrians welcomed Hitler with open arms. My mother claims that it was my grandmother’s paranoid tendencies that saved the family. While many of their friends and relatives could not begin to imagine how bad things would become, she operated under the assumption that things could always get worse. She became obsessed with leaving, and within a few weeks, they—my grandmother and grandfather, my mother and the baby, my uncle George—were boarding a ship to Panama. Never again would my mother see my grandmother’s first husband, the man she believed to be her father.
My grandfather found work in Bolivia serving as a doctor to the workers building the railroad through the jungle. It was there, once they were far away from the complications of Vienna, that my grandmother told my mother that it was my grandfather who was her real father. So, at the age of twelve, my mother had to face a new reality: her country was not her country; her city—with the old woman selling roasted chestnuts in the park, the parfait glasses filled to the brim with whipped cream, the bells of the Stephansdom—was not her city; and her father, who kissed her on the forehead every night before she went to sleep, was not her father. Though German remained the language that the four of them spoke at home, it was Spanish that became the language of her new life.
After the war, when my mother and her family had left Bolivia and settled in New York, she began receiving letters from the man she had believed was her father. How he tracked her down, she never knew, for she did not ask my grandmother whether they had been in touch all along. It is possible that he engaged someone to find her. In any case, by this time my mother had come to accept being my grandfather’s daughter. She told me that she was simply not able to deal with the complexities of accepting and loving two fathers, so she did not respond to her first father’s letters. A few years later, he died.
Although there were certainly other Holocaust refugees who passed German on to their children, most of them, I suspect, were more like the Wollenbergers, the parents of my oldest friend, Laurie, who lived around the corner from me in Tenafly, New Jersey. The Wollenbergers met in New York, but they were both from Germany and had escaped with their families in their late teens. Though they had spoken German into their adulthood, the Wollenbergers quickly learned English and then refused to speak German from then on, resorting to their native tongue only with Laurie’s grandmother, whose English was rudimentary. In fact, they did not allow anything German-made into the house, not even a piece of marzipan or a kitchen knife. I sometimes wondered whether, in the midst of their most intimate moments, they unconsciously slipped into German, but I doubt it. I think that for them German was no longer their native tongue. It was as though they had ripped their German tongues out of their mouths and replaced them with a suitable prosthesis.
As a result, while I was reading German children’s books and writing book reports in German—which my father meticulously corrected and which I had to copy carefully into a notebook reserved for clean final drafts—the Wollenbergers’ children were attending Hebrew School, participating in fundraisers for Israeli orphans, and going to Jewish summer camp, where they sang Israeli songs and the food was kosher. We were raised not on lessons from the Torah but instead on the gruesome Struwwelpeter stories of disobedient children such as Paulinchen, who burned to death because she did not heed her parents’ warnings about playing with matches, and the Suppen-Kaspar, who died of starvation because he refused to eat his soup. Rather than Hebrew prayers, we memorized my father’s favorite lines from Goethe: “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.” (Who rides so late through night and wind? It is the father with his child.)
Yet I now believe that my parents’ decision to raise us as German speakers was as much an act of defiance as the Wollenbergers’ refusal to speak German. My parents had chosen German not only because it was the other language they shared but because—even though the Germans had tried to annihilate their people, had murdered their families and deprived them of their nationalities and homes—they refused to give up the language of Schiller and Goethe, of Mozart and Beethoven.
I suppose they could have turned to Judaism as their cultural heritage, but neither of them had been raised with Jewish traditions. My father was brought up and always remained an atheist, while my mother, perhaps filled with guilt at abandoning her first father, had ultimately converted to Catholicism, finding comfort in the Catholic rituals and the assurances of salvation that she remembered from her childhood. Thus, it was the language of Germany, not Judaism, that became our inheritance, this language of the people and country that had, in a pogrom to end all pogroms, finally succeeded in ripping my parents from the familiar bosom of Europe and catapulted them into what to them were the safe and to me were the insipid New Jersey suburbs. What the Wollenbergers called “the language of the Nazis” was, for my parents, a bond to the past. It was what was left of where they had come from, what remained after all that had been taken from them. In their new country, it was German, ironically, that kept them together, kept us all together, despite my mother’s increasingly extreme religious tendencies, which included joining the ultraconservative organization Opus Dei.
By the time my mother became an official Catholic, I was twelve and a fully conscious and practicing atheist, so she made no attempt to pull me into the fold. Whether this was an agreement she and my father had come to or whether she just knew that I was too stubborn to be swayed, I do not know. In any case, I was spared; but my sister, who was six years younger, was not. She went to church regularly with my mother, though, in the end, none of the religious practice stuck, and by the time she graduated from high school, she too was an atheist.
Even my mother’s Christmas celebrations were German. The Christmas tree was decorated with handmade ornaments that we bought at the Bremen Haus in New York, and we were probably the only family in New Jersey with real candles on our Christmas tree. We all liked the tree—the smell of pine needles, the flickering candles, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion playing in the background. In this way my father and I had a way of celebrating Christmas without entering into the religious realm.
When I was eight, we all spent the summer in Germany visiting my father’s colleagues as well as many castles, churches, and museums. This was, in part, because my father was a Russian historian. He wrote scholarly works in all four of his languages—English, French, Russian, and German—and thus had close ties to other Russian scholars around Europe, including Germany. Near the end of the summer, we spent a week in the Black Forest, experiencing what seemed to me a typical and idyllic German country life. Every morning my father sent me off to the village center to mail his letters, and then he and I would take a hike through the forest, leaving my mother and my two-year-old sister in the hotel. We brought our lunch with us—dark rye, cheese, and cold cuts. When we were tired of walking, we sat on a log and whittled animals and boats out of soft pine with my father’s pocketknife. In the evenings we ate hearty, meat-and-potato German dinners.
I remember, in particular, one of my father’s colleagues, Mr. Scheibert, who captured my attention for several reasons. He wore bowties and purported to speak thirteen languages. He was a good ten years older than my parents, and my father was fairly sure that he had been a member of the Nazi party because during the war he had had a cushy position in the Vatican, cataloguing artwork that was to be shipped to Germany. Years later, when my parents visited him at his summer house in the countryside, he said to my mother, while they were in the kitchen preparing dinner together, “Die Nazis haben uns um unsere Heimat gebracht.” (The Nazis took our homelands away from both of us). I don’t think that the Wollenbergers and the other Jewish refugees with whom I had grown up would have accepted his right to make such a statement, but my mother took his words as a confession of sorts, an oblique admission of guilt. (In this regard, it occurs to me that another one of the German Russian historians would later suffer from dementia and spent the last few years of his life believing that he had died and was living in hell with Hitler.)
When I was fifteen, while my friend Laurie Wollenberger was in Israel working on a kibbutz, my parents sent me to spend the summer with friends in Tübingen, a university town near Stuttgart. Mr. Geyer was one of my father’s colleagues, and he and his wife were modern and open-minded. My parents, though they were not closed-minded, had a very formal, Old World way about them, even though they had been in the United States for nearly thirty years by then.
The Geyers were ten years younger than my parents and had been too young to be actively involved in the atrocities of the war, though Mr. Geyer was conscripted at the end of the war, when he was fourteen, to fight the last, hopeless battle against the Allies. The couple had three children, a daughter who was ten and two boys who were slightly older than I was and were off motorcycling around Europe. Before they left, they introduced me to their friends, with whom I spent the summer hanging out. The Geyer boys, it turned out, ran with a cool crowd, but unlike the cool kids at my high school, they welcomed me, even with my not-so-cool clothes and frizzy hair. They taught me how to smoke cigarettes and took me to parties, where we drank beer and I experienced my first kiss while dancing to “Angie”by the Rolling Stones.
This was in 1974. Our conversations revolved mostly around music. Though they were more familiar with the latest rock albums than I was, I was the one who actually understood the words and could explain to them the fine points of the lyrics, though it took me years before I finally understood the exact words to “Jumping Jack Flash.” I was not generally comfortable with my peers, but I was comfortable with this particular cohort, just talking about music and hanging out. I do not remember talking with them about the war or my own family history. Perhaps if I had stayed there longer, I would have gotten to that point. Perhaps I would have asked them whether they knew what their parents had done during the war. But for that summer I was just satisfied with being accepted.
With Mrs. Geyer, it was different. When I came home after midnight, smelling of smoke and beer, Mrs. Geyer was often waiting for me with a cup of herbal tea and something sweet. Once, she told me about the terrible dead quiet in the bomb shelters, and about how hard it was for Mr. Geyer to have his mother stuck in East Germany. “If he hadn’t been conscripted, he would be in East Germany, too, and I never would have met him,” she said. We talked about my mother’s Catholicism and how strange it was to believe in God after all that had happened, after what Germany had done.
Back in high school in my suburban New Jersey town, things were as they had always been. I kept to myself, stuck to my books. I was never invited to parties and no one ever offered me a cigarette or knew that I had memorized the lyrics to all the songs on Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2). In Tenafly, New Jersey, I could go for days without speaking a full sentence, but in Germany—in German—for that brief time, the words had exploded in my mouth like the red currants that Mrs. Geyer served for breakfast each morning.
The following year, in 1975, when I was in the eleventh grade, we lived for a year in Vienna so that my father, who was on sabbatical, could do research at the library there. I was thrilled to be leaving the suburbs and looked forward to life in a city. For years I had been begging my parents to move to New York City, and at one point I almost convinced them to let me live with my grandparents in Washington Heights so that I could attend a school in the city, but somehow that never worked out.
In Vienna we rented a rather large sixth-floor apartment in the ninth district, along streetcar line #38. I fell asleep each night and awoke every morning to the sounds of the streetcar and to the sound of trucks pulling up to the market across the street. My room opened onto a balcony, and my sister and I could spend hours out there, looking down at the street, making up stories about the passersby.
In Vienna there were more old people than young people, and I found myself, more than I had in Germany, wondering what they had all been up to during the war. I found myself wondering this about the nice woman who sold spit-roasted chickens and about the streetcar driver and the ladies in the park with their poodles. Perhaps this was because Vienna—with its old ladies weighed down by fur coats and the Yugoslavs and Turks who stood all day in the gray cold selling newspapers, wearing only thin corduroy jackets—seemed so much more entrenched in the past. Perhaps it was because the city was filled with disabled veterans—from both wars—with missing arms and legs and pirate-patches over their eyes, and because the girls at the Billroth Gymnasium, where I attended school, practiced waltzing during recess and did not listen to the Rolling Stones. Was it because the Austrians were not even able to acknowledge their role in what had happened? Was it because my mother was from there? Was it just that I was older and less willing to forgive?
Ironically, it was in Vienna that our family stopped speaking German, although since middle school I had already been feeling the limitations of my German and struggling to find the German words to express myself as my thoughts became more complicated. Gradually English had been taking over as the language we used together, but in Austria we abandoned German for good. Shortly after we arrived, my mother, who had not been back to Austria since her family had fled, fell into a depression, so anything that was an effort for her was now eliminated from our daily life. My parents hardly cooked. We ate cold cuts and bread or roasted paprika chicken from the shop across the street.
In Vienna, unlike in Germany, I did not find it easy to make friends. Instead of listening to the Rolling Stones and smoking, at the insistence of my mother I went to dancing school, where the boys wore white gloves while we waltzed and the girls’ dresses fell way below the knee. At the Billroth Gymnasium, we were taught history by a tiny woman with a loud voice, who looked seventy to me but was probably not even fifty. The class began every day with an oral quiz. She sat in the front of the room, clutching her pocket book to her chest, and during each class called on two or three students to answer questions. When you were called on, you had to stand up, and if you answered the question correctly, she wrote your name down in a notebook. If you didn’t know the answer, she would shake her head and tell you to go back to your notes. “Tomorrow I will call on you again,” she would warn.
Every day I studied my notes and was prepared to answer questions, but I was in the last group to be asked. I suppose she was being kind, giving me a chance to settle in, to get the hang of things, since I was not used to the Austrian system. We started the year with a unit on anthropology. On the day that she finally did call on me, she began by asking a girl to define taboo, which she did successfully. The next question was to give an example of a taboo. She called on a plump, not very bright girl who sat in the back of the room. “Incest,” said the girl.
“Richtig,” our teacher said, writing the girl’s name down in her notebook.
“Fräulein Raeff,” she turned to me. I stood up. “Can you give another example of a taboo?” I suppose again that she was trying to go easy on me, but, because I was slightly annoyed that she didn’t think I could handle a more difficult question and because my response was accurate, I replied, “An example of a taboo in Austria would be talking about the Holocaust.”
Hearing this answer, she did not smile and say, “Richtig.” She did not write my name down in her book. She did not tell me that I needed to go back to my notes or to study harder. She simply sat down and was silent.
Someone—I think it was the plump girl—giggled, and someone else said, “Shhh.” Then it was so quiet that I could hear my heart pound.
I lowered my eyes and looked down at my notebook, though not because I regretted what I had said or because I was ashamed. Later I wondered what I would have seen had I looked up. I hope I would have seen them all looking down at their notebooks, too, or at their hands, thinking about what they had been taught not to think about.
Finally, when my heart had slowed to a normal rhythm, someone coughed. The teacher stood up again, moved to the blackboard, and erased the board. When she was finished she turned to us and smiled. “Let us go on to another topic,” she said. “Let us turn to the origins of agriculture.”
I stopped going to school, not necessarily because of the “taboo” incident but because I discovered, after I had been sick for several days and was not required to bring in a note to explain my absence, that I was only a guest student and no one cared whether I showed up or not. At this point, I took my education into my own hands. I stopped attending school and spent my days visiting Vienna’s numerous museums, walking around the city, and reading at the American library, where I worked my way through the classics of American literature. If the librarians at the American Library found it strange that I was not in school, they never mentioned it. I guess they figured I could come to no harm there with them, reading. It was in Vienna that I first began writing—poetry, mainly. I bought a hardbound notebook and copied the final versions of my poems into it with the Mont Blanc fountain pen that my father had given me. Most of my poems were bad imitations of T. S. Eliot and e. e. cummings. At night my ten-year-old sister and I ate chocolate and I read her what I had written.
As for my parents, they had no idea that I was no longer going to school. Only my sister was in on the secret, and every morning she and I left together on the 38 trolley, but I got off after a couple of stops and took the trolley in the opposite direction back to the center of the city, while my sister continued on to the Billroth Gymnasium alone. After the initial thrill of freedom and intrigue wore off, however, I started to feel trapped. Vienna with its gray skies and faded yellow buildings and old people who never smiled had become my cage, one in which I paced back and forth for hours, stopping only when I was too tired and too cold to keep moving. Only then would I go home, where my mother lay on the living room couch crying because everything in the world was ugly, including me: the clothes I wore, how I sat and walked, the tone of my voice. The moment I walked into the room, she would start sobbing, becoming increasingly hysterical as the months went by. She bathed infrequently and hardly ate, and the room where she lay became filled with the smell of her, of her depression.
I spent more and more time away, wandering from the central districts to the outlying areas beyond the Ring. Once a Yugoslav man in his twenties asked me to join him for a drink. He took me to a pub, where we drank slivovitz and he held my hand. He told me how many brothers and sisters he had, and I told him about my sister. “I’ve never spoken to an American before,” he said, looking intently into my eyes. When it started to get dark, I said I had to go, and he walked me to the trolley stop and waited with me until the trolley came. When it pulled away, he was still there, waving, and I waved back.
One night when I was looking for stationery in my father’s desk drawer, I found our return airplane tickets and passports, and I started making a plan to escape altogether, to take my ticket and passport and go home. I wrote to my friend Laurie Wollenberger, in whose home German was not spoken, and she was sure that her parents would take me in. What could they do if you simply arrived at their doorstep? she wrote. Put you out on the street? But I didn’t have the nerve to go through with it, or perhaps I just knew it wouldn’t work, that someone at the airport would have the sense to stop me.
In the end, I appealed to my father, and he made arrangements for me to return to the United States. The Wollenbergers did, it turned out, agree to take me in, and I lived with them for two months until my parents and sister came home. During this time I spent hours at the kitchen table with Laurie’s mother, drinking cup after cup of strong coffee and telling her everything—about my mother lying on the couch for weeks on end, about how she stank from all that crying and not eating and not bathing, from all that sadness.
I also told her that my mother claimed that I was the cause of her unhappiness, but Mrs. Wollenberger assured me that my mother was not depressed because I refused to wear dresses and walked with my hands in my pockets. “How could something as insignificant as clothes cause such sadness?” she said. “It’s going back there that did it. I wouldn’t go back to Germany if you paid me a million dollars. I don’t know why your parents decided to go back there, how they possibly could have thought that was a good idea.”
I did not tell her what my father had told me one cold night in Vienna. He had finally broken down, finally had enough of sitting at my mother’s side, trying to convince her, in his logical way, that the world was more than ugliness and sadness, that there was so much to live for. On the night he broke down, he threw his hands up in the air and ran out onto the balcony, slamming the glass doors behind him. For hours he refused to come in, though it was winter and he was just in his shirtsleeves. My mother cried hysterically, and I tried to calm her down, which only made things worse, so my sister and I retreated to my room, where we ate chocolate and I read her my favorite poems, covering up the sound of my mother’s sobbing with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hand That Signed the Paper.”
At nine o’clock, my sister’s bedtime, I made sure that she brushed her teeth and went to bed. I stayed up, reading and waiting for the sound of the balcony doors, but I fell asleep. At three in the morning my father woke me up. He was sitting in the armchair facing my bed, crying.
“I’m so weak,” he said.
“No, you’re not,” I said, sitting up.
“I should be able to help her,” he said.
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
“My grandmother would have known what to do. She was so strong.”
“What would she have done?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”
We sat in the silence and semi-darkness of the room. I longed for the familiar sound of the trolley, but they would not start up again until five.
“A year after your mother and I were married, she developed a crush.” My father paused, looking down at the palms of his hands that lay open on his lap. “On a girl,” he said raising his hands to cover his eyes, then letting them drop to his lap again.
My heart started beating fast, as if someone had jumped out of the darkness. It would be years before I accepted my own lesbianism and decades before my mother and I discussed her crush, but I understood at that moment that what my father was telling me was going to be the key to understanding not only my mother but myself.
“She almost left me for her, but in the end . . . That’s the reason she is so worried about you, about your lack of”—he paused—“femininity. That’s why she gets so upset that you refuse to wear dresses.”
I wanted to explain to my father why I resisted so, how I felt uncomfortable in my skin, how I didn’t know why I fought so hard against doing what my mother wanted me to do, why I couldn’t wear dresses and delight in waltzing and ballet to make her happy. All I knew was that her demands seemed so little, but they weren’t. We all knew that they weren’t. We sat in silence while I tried to think of a way to tell my father these things and what I was feeling, and then, when I could not, my father pushed himself up from the chair slowly like an old man and walked to the door.
“Thank you for telling me,” I said. “I wish I could have met your grandmother.”
“She would have liked you,” he said, and I felt myself on the verge of tears, but I didn’t want to break down like my mother, so I pushed the tears back. “Try to sleep now,” my father said. When he was gone, I lay awake, thinking of things that I wished I had asked, but by then it was too late. Soon, it was daylight again; my mother was still lying on the couch and my father still did not know what to do, and it was not the time to ask questions.
It is this moment of confidence that I value above everything else my father gave or taught me—more than the French and German lessons and the Saturday archeology lectures that he took me to at the Met, more than the walks in the woods and the times shoveling snow together and our talks when my mother and sister were at church. For though he was powerless to help my mother, he was able to help me understand my mother not as the enemy but as someone who was paralyzed by her own complexity and the complexity of the past. That night I began to recognize the need to embrace complexity rather than deny and fight against it. That night I understood that love can be enough and not enough at the same time.
Today, of course, we believe we understand the chemical roots of depression, and I often wonder whether it would have been easier for us if my mother had taken medication to help her through this difficult time when memory overshadowed the present. Probably; just as my mother probably would not have fallen apart so completely if she had not returned to Vienna, if we had stayed at home in the New Jersey suburbs in our post-World War II home where German could remain simply the language of Schiller and Schubert and Schlagobers, and not the language of everything that one wants to forget. But as my father, the historian, never hesitated to remind us, “Asking ‘if’ questions of history is always pointless.”
Years later Mrs. Wollenberger and her husband finally did go back to Germany, to Mr. Wollenberger’s hometown, Heilbronn. They, along with the other surviving Jews of Heilbronn, were invited by the mayor and other important burghers to attend a reconciliation ceremony. They accepted the invitation, they said, because they were curious, but also, I suspect, because they were ready to let go of some of their anger and bitterness, even if they could not go so far as to forgive.
No one in my family ever received such an invitation from Vienna. All they received was a monthly check—Wiedergutmachung,it is called, which translates as making good again, one of those typical, overly concrete German nouns that state exactly what a thing does, or is meant to do.
A few years ago, I found myself looking into what it would take to claim Austrian citizenship for myself. I had no interest in living in Austria but I wanted to have the option to live and work in Europe. One of my mother’s German Jewish friends had recently gotten her citizenship back and her children had also become German citizens, so I thought it wouldn’t be difficult for me to do the same. But it was. In fact, it was impossible. The law is as follows: If your mother is an Austrian citizen, or if she lost her citizenship due to persecution, you can claim citizenship, but only if you were born after 1983. To place this in context, my mother, who was just twelve when the family left Austria, was fifty-seven years old in 1983—well past her childbearing years. The law originally allowed only fathers to pass their citizenship on to their children, but realizing that this was sexist, the Austrian government amended the law in 1983 to include mothers; but the law was not retroactive, thus resulting in the absurdity exemplified by my mother’s case. It established a legal possibility that was in fact biologically impossible.
Last year, when my sister and I visited my mother, who is no longer a Catholic and has come to accept my sexual identity and no longer breaks into tears whenever I walk into the room, I suggested that we speak at least an hour of German every day of the visit. The first night we went out for Chinese food and managed to get through the whole meal in German, though we were all lazy about throwing in English words when the right German word didn’t come to mind. The second night, we all muddled through with the help of a little vodka. On the third night we gave up, not because we couldn’t do it or because it wasn’t amusing but because that’s all it was—amusing. German had finally become just a language, a rusty, old-fashioned tool that had been stored away in a box in the bowels of the basement for too long. Sure it worked, but it was best to leave it in the box, for we had an efficient, state-of-the-art, craftsman’s tool right at our fingertips—the English language, with which we now shape our experience.