April 18, 2012
On learning how to embrace my grandson and my ghosts
My first grandchild drew his first breath in a birthing clinic in Frankfurt, Germany. Just three weeks earlier, he had been on stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Chicago, turning somersaults in the womb to the thunderous applause greeting Richard Strauss’ wondrous opera “Ariadne auf Naxos.” He kicked when the tenor hit his upper reaches. But when his mom’s silver voice spun diamonds in the air with the German libretto, he settled in quietly. Strauss and Mozart were his evening bedfellows in his natural sound environment for months.
He entered the world on Jan. 3. We received the news of his imminent birth in a predawn phone call from Germany. My husband, a very pragmatic Israeli, hugged me, turned on his side and went back to sleep. “This could take a while,” he mumbled.
I couldn’t sleep. Like moms the world over whose daughters are giving birth for the first time, the images in my mind rotated like a kaleidoscope, magically chaotic, happy and bright. From across the ocean I imagined I could time my breath to hers as I remembered her entry into the world at the Sanz Medical Center-Laniado Hospital in Israel — then a small maternity hospital at the end of a dusty road near the cliffs of Netanya — whose founder from the Chasidic Sanz dynasty had lost his wife and children in the Holocaust.
My grandson waited patiently to be born after the Christmas and New Year’s rush in Frankfurt. I watched him open his eyes and heard one of his first cries of life via Skype. “Born on a Tuesday. Paamayim ki tov. He is doubly blessed,” I told my daughter.
He will be a German citizen. He will carry an American passport and an Israeli passport if he so chooses. His mom will sing him sweet Hebrew lullabies when her voice is not dancing up the scales in Italian, German or French. His dad will speak to him in the hushed tones of Hochdeutsch German, a language his great-grandfather David spoke and then discarded when he picked up his Borsalino felt hat and left Berlin in 1933. He sensed the incoming storm. He saw the writing on the walls. He returned to his shtetl in Poland, chose a bride and journeyed to Palestine. Never looked back. And then there was nothing to look back to. He never returned to Germany or Poland. But, a few years back, I had the chance to visit those places where the family had perished. I walked on that hallowed ground wearing a pair of black-and-pink Adidas running shoes I will never throw away. And I heard a story. When the death camp of Treblinka was turned into a memorial site in the early ’60s, one of its first visitors wrote an inscription in Hebrew in the memorial ledger. “Hazarnu,” it said. We have returned.
My grandson is born to two Jewish parents in Germany. Like a flower that grows in the desert, he will thrive. He will live in a Germany searching for its own identity in the sunlight of the 21st century. As a Jew, he will walk the alleyways and avenues shrouded by the shadows of a civilization gone monstrously mad. The ghosts of our people may cause him to wonder where the light ends and the shadows begin. He will grow up with children who have no shadows on their heels, who see only the light. But he will know who he is. And he will not be alone. He will carry with him the weight of our ancestral memory as well as a promise. A promise that is born to every Jewish child from a covenant delivered in a desert 4,000 years ago; a covenant that transformed us into a people. An entire generation was lost over the course of 40 years in that desert, but a young, new generation walked out with a mandate to exist, the promise of a homeland and a spiritual contract to build a more just civilization. He can lay claim to that new generation, in part, because, whether he realizes it or not, he stands on the shoulders of the Jewish state and a generation in Israel that made his life in Germany possible. His birth is more than a testament to our endurance. It is a testament to the strength of our people, a blessing and a harbinger of our future.
“What will you name him?” I asked my daughter. “You had so many beautiful names on your list — all the angels, Michael, Gabriel ...”
“We hope he’s an angel,” she said with a laugh. “But we are naming him Amiel. ‘People of God.’ ”
Somehow that seemed just right.
“Ring the bells that still can ring. ... There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Deborah Riemer is a former broadcast journalist who covered the Middle East. She now expects to be on a first-name basis with the flight crew flying the Newark-Frankfurt Lufthansa route.