Herba’s and Die Pö’s “Mach was” (“Do something”) challenge this time around is to do something with Germany. That topic is a personal one to me and I’ll gladly jump in. Be warned, this will be quite long…
When I was 10 years old, in 1980, my father, a Dutch protestant theologian, became the General Secretary of an international interfaith organization which had its head office in Heppenheim, situated in the southern tip of the German province of Hessen.
And so, at the very beginning of that summer, we packed up all our things from our house just outside Jerusalem in Israel, we piled into our VW van and with a caravan in tow we took a ferry from Haifa to Ancona in Italy and drove up to Germany.
We at first didn’t have a house yet when we arrived in Germany. When his appointment had come through my dad had been searching for suitable living quarters for us but we are a large family (8 kids as in the picture above) and it was difficult to find something affordable and big enough for all of us. So, we lived at a campsite for the first month until my father found a house large enough and affordable enough for us all to live in to the north of Frankfurt in a little village called Rosbach vor der Höhe. It did mean that he would have a daily 80 km commute to his new job in Heppenheim.
Last winter Mr Esther, mini-me and I spent New Year’s Eve in Frankfurt and while we were there we also drove by the houses I had lived in. Our first house in Germany was an empty “Pfarrhaus” (pastor’s house) next to the Nieder-Rosbach village church. My father would sometimes do guest preaching stints there. Now, in hindsight, I wonder if he was considered too liberal for such a small village church. Anyway, below is a picture of the street we lived in, in the first grey house on the right. Across the street (the yellow house) they kept a few pigs and on occasion slaughtered one which they’d hang in their yard for a little while, I guess to drain the blood. We could see that from my younger brother’s bedroom window and I remember it shocked us as kids.
The house was quite large and was surrounded by a walled garden. Looking through the gate last January, I could see that the swing set we had always used as kids was still up!
Moving to Germany from Israel was a huge change in my life. I had gone to an English language school in Jerusalem (I loved going to school there) and in Germany my younger brother, sister and I were to attend German schools while my five older brothers and sisters were to go to an international school north of Frankfurt in Oberursel. My younger siblings and I were young enough to learn the new language well enough to be successful in German school, that would have been harder for my older siblings to do, so my parents somehow (don’t ask me how) coughed up tuition for their international school. I desperately wanted to also go to the international school but there just wasn’t enough money. Rosbach was on the schoolbus route to Oberusel for my older siblings, my younger siblings went to the Grundschule (primary school) in our village and I went to a middle school in a neighbouring village called Rodheim (little red circle on the map above).
After two years my two eldest siblings (maybe three, not quite sure) had graduated the school in Oberursel and my father found us all a house much closer to his work in Bensheim. We moved there in 1982. We lived in the last house of a row of houses (the white one at the end) and had to descend quite a few stairs to get to our front door.
My older siblings commuted to schools and colleges by train. My younger siblings and I were now the most fluent German speakers at home due to our schooling and my younger brother went to a local school, while my younger sister and I attended an all-girls “Gymnasium” run by nuns in Bensheim.
My Chemistry teacher lived right next door to us with her husband and her spoilt brat of a son. We didn’t get along very well and that was tough in school as well, as she started picking on me until some classmates called her out on it. I quit Chemistry as soon as I could. For some reason, we were not very popular in the neighbourhood we lived in – they didn’t take that well to a large multi-coloured, foreign family. So, another two years later, in 1984, we moved again, this time to the neighbouring town of Heppenheim and there we stayed put. My room was to left of that little balcony at the back of the house.
Adjusting to life in small town Germany after having lived just outside a multicultural world city like Jerusalem was quite difficult. For the first two years I was quite miserable, I missed Jerusalem terribly. It got a bit better when we moved to Heppenheim but I just always felt like the odd one out, never quite fitting in and finding my place with the other kids. Also, I found the society and mentality quite rigid and inward looking (it took a while to get used to all the dubbing on German TV) compared to what I felt was a more open and worldly society in Jerusalem.
We did search out some international communities, like an English-speaking Anglican/Episcopalean church we’d go to in Frankfurt on Sundays. After church we’d visit the American Forces library there (on a library card lent to us by a church friend) and I was always happiest then. Also, my father’s work brought us in contact with some very interesting people. For instance, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, became a bit of a family friend. He was a darling man and used to call us kids his “scallywags”.
The head office of the international interfaith organization that my dad was the General Secretary of was situated in the Martin Buber House, where Martin Buber himself had lived in Heppenheim (Martin Buber was a renowned Jewish scholar and philosopher, my father had been a fan of his since university days and had even met him once then. Buber had lived in Heppenheim before he decided to leave the country in 1938 because of the Nazis).
Near the Buber House there is now a lovely small statue of Martin Buber that wasn’t there when we lived there. I’m also including an old picture of my dad outside the Buber House.
My mother became the Buber House librarian (she worked part time) and there was some other staff as well (see the picture below on the left with them all standing on the balcony at the back of the Buber House). There were many lecture evenings like in this picture below, on the right. I’d sometimes also attend (and help serve drinks and play hostess) but as a young teenager often found the lectures very tedious. I’m thinking I’d find them more interesting nowadays.
We did have Richard von Weizsäcker visit once, though! We were fans. 🙂
Some pictures of Heppenheim’s lovely, historical town square…
I always felt very caught between two worlds when I lived in Germany. I think it took me about four years to finally feel somewhat at home. I tended to be social and talkative at home or when I was helping out at the Buber House, in school I was a withdrawn, quiet mouse, never quite able to feel comfortable enough to be myself. My parents saw that and were able to help me get a scholarship to an international school in 1986, which is when I left Germany to go to that international boarding school in The Netherlands. However, I did leave Germany on a high – that last year in German school was the most fun I’d had in all the years I had lived there. I finally came out of my shell and showed more of myself, maybe because I knew I would be leaving and I didn’t give a shit anymore what anyone thought. In hindsight, I think that may have been when I started learning that it pays off to just be yourself.
As all the kids were flying the coop, my parents didn’t need the more costly bigger house anymore and moved to an apartment in Heppenheim where they lived until 1997. They had two extra bedrooms so all kids could always visit (and yes, my mom had painted the kitchen pink for a while!).
Once I wasn’t actually living and going to school in Germany anymore I did love coming back. I kept in touch with a few German school friends who I liked to hang out with and I even went on a Holocaust study trip to the US, Berlin and Auschwitz in the summer of 1989 with German and American students and me the only Dutch student joining from the German side. That 1989 study trip made a huge impact on me and became extra memorable because I visited Berlin for the first time then, without knowing that a few months later the Berlin Wall would fall. I visited Berlin again soon after the wall fell and that was a very strange experience. I can’t believe it’s been 31 years.
During college I used to work in the Buber House library during my holidays to earn some extra money. When Mr. Esther and I finished college in 1995 our first job out of college was at the Buber House, where we were both hired together to implement a computer catalogue for the library collection. We lived at my parents then for some months, who by then were living in that flat with the pink kitchen. That time in Heppenheim did wonders for Mr. Esther’s German knowledge and, apart from the summer of 1987 when I had a blast with two German friends of mine, I think it was my favourite period of time I spent in Germany.
Being associated with Germany has sometimes also been problematic. When we first came to live in Germany, I remember my grandmother being scandalized that we’d move there. My grandfather had been in the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation and although he wasn’t alive anymore, the family was quite anti-Germany. I also later remember driving through The Netherlands with our German numberplate car once and a group in the street brought out a Nazi salute and jeered as we drove by. And then I remember when I went to school in The Netherlands, some kids at first thought I was German and not worth their time. They then went on to think I was a German Jew (not only is Esther a Jewish name, my surname could also be mistaken for Jewish and I was born in Jerusalem) and that meant I was OK in their eyes after all because of my ‘Jewishness’. It was always quite a surprise to explain that I was neither German nor Jewish. I always wonder how much anti-German sentiment Germans themselves must feel while abroad, when even I, as a non German, have felt some of that, I think my whole life. The Second World War is long over but not always forgiven, even not now, 75 years later.
There are many mixed feelings and memories I have about Germany. Some very good feelings and memories, some not so great. Really, those can be a whole post of their own but this one is long enough already. Suffice it to say that, in my experience, Germany is not the easiest of societies to grow into when you come from a Middle Eastern country, but when you finally do find your spot, it can be a very good place to be. Nowadays when I walk around towns here in The Netherlands and I hear and see Germans walking around, I always smile and feel a certain affinity, just like I always feel a special kind of affinity for my German blogger friends. By the way, I credit reading the German blogs and meeting a few German bloggers for helping me keep up with my German, which is not as fluent anymore as it used to be. Reading and commenting forces me to use my German more and that is a good thing.
For all the good and the bad, I am very grateful for my time in Germany, and especially in hindsight I see that it has given me so much that is valuable. I don’t think I could ever really live there again but I do like going back to Germany for visits. Auf Wiedersehen und bis bald, Deutschland! 🙂