Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

German guilt was postwar burden

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In many ways, I was no different from all the other immigrant children flooding into Canada in the 1950s. I had only a smattering of English when I started school. I watched my parents scrabble for menial jobs and stretch the food dollar with the creative use of leftovers. And I understood my part in the immigrant bargain was to be on time and to do my homework.

However, I was German -- the one nationality against whom discrimination was tacitly sanctioned. A dozen years had not yet managed to erase the wartime view of "Krauts" as the enemy, and a particularly heinous one at that. In fact, German nationals had not been allowed into Canada before 1950.

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I can only guess what my father had to deal with in those early years in Manitoba; he was too young to have served in the war, but he was tall and blond and had an unmistakable German accent -- downright Aryan.

The German boys I knew were always recruited to be the evil losers in the war games that played out on the street.

As a girl, I was spared a lot of the direct playground bullying. But it was the whispers on the edge of schoolyard conversations and the unrelenting portrayal of buffoonish or evil Germans on the television that knit together to form a shroud that would hang over my entire life. I developed a shame of being German and a guilt for actions taken long before I was born.

There was one guiding principle that governed my life and that of many of my generation: "Don't mention the war." This was not just the stuff of Fawlty Towers. It was the rule in the German-Manitoban home. No explanations were offered by our parents about what had happened during the war, and no questions were asked. Did we really want to know?

The conspiracy of silence was complete. Saturday-morning "German school" classes at the German Society building in the North End were designed to re-inculcate German into those of us wayward children who would rather speak English. Teaching the history of Germany studiously skirted the war years. My German-language confirmation classes in the Lutheran church that has since become the West End Cultural Centre never explored the evils of the Holocaust. Much later, in a university course on German literature, I don't recall a single reference to Hitler and the Nazi movement.

Every German child I knew fantasized about discovering some family members in Germany had been resistance fighters who bravely harboured Jews in the attic. When my father told me long after my mother died she had probably been raped by Russian soldiers as they pushed westward into what is now Poland, I am embarrassed to admit savouring for a moment the thought that my mom was a "victim," not a perpetrator of evil.

My parents were economic immigrants who escaped a country struggling with broken cities, crushed spirits and a ruined financial system. They brought with them an idealized vision of Germany, a world of strong family values, neat-as-a-pin homes and polite and orderly children. There was much about this Germany we children adored: chocolate, whipping cream, feather beds, beer steins, salty licorice, Dr. Oetker pudding mixes, cheese that wasn't orange.

Christmas was a time all we German children stood tall. Who could argue that Germans didn't do Christmas well? There was that magical, lighted tree that presided over Christmas Eve gift-giving. Carols that really should be sung in German. The brown-paper wrapped bundle of linens and chocolates packed by my grandmother 7,000 kilometres away in time for the fall shipping deadline.

In their struggle to improve our lives, my father went back to school (at night, after work of course). And we moved from Elmwood and the cocoon of Winnipeg's German-speaking community to the south side of the city where we were definitely the only immigrants on the block. I must have answered some questions correctly in school because I found myself headed for a special Grade 4 class in a school in River Heights. In the Winnipeg of those days, River Heights was a very upscale area. It was where my mom had cleaned houses when she first arrived in Winnipeg. It was the area that was home to many of the city's affluent Jewish families.

But I didn't find myself the butt of schoolyard bullying because of my heritage. Rather it was my "differentness" that made me the focus of derision. I was poor. I took the city bus to school with my plaid tin lunch box under my arm. I wore homemade clothes made from cloth pulled from the "sale" bins at Mitchell Fabrics. If anyone had ever been to my home, they would have seen there was no stereo in the living room, no car in the garage.

I was so desperate to blend in, on the walk to the bus stop most mornings I undid the braids my mother had earlier lovingly plaited. On the walk home, I redid the braids to complete my transformation from German to Canadian to German again. Did my parents not notice my flyaway, dishevelled look? If so, they never said.

The years have made it easier to blend in. It is now decades since the Second World War. And there have been repugnant atrocities around the world that have deflected attention from us Germans. But German guilt still claws at my heart whenever I see Schindler's List or read Sarah's Key. A part of me perhaps irrationally believes the chronic illnesses that have plagued my family are payback for our German heritage, never mind what Susan Sontag might say in Illness as a Metaphor. And there are those who will never forget. Not long ago, when I visited a friend in Quebec, his mother was noticeably cool toward me. Philip later explained she suffered horribly in London during the wartime bombings and she hated Germans.

The postwar German immigrant community has dispersed across Winnipeg, eschewing the comfortable insulation of immigrant neighbourhoods. The Germans of my father's generation are slowing dying off, leaving us children, with our perfect, unaccented English, to blend into mainstream Canada. Our assimilation is so complete and we are so fearful of any hint of nationalism, there is only one German restaurant in town.

My German guilt will be with me until the day I die. But now -- when I have next to no one to talk to -- I'm trying to improve my language skills. And I'm delighted the house we bought a few years ago is just a stone's throw from the Portage Avenue German meat market. In just a few weeks, the store will glitter with the liquor-filled Winebrand Bohnen and Gingerbread Christmas cookies. A perfect incarnation of an idealized, innocent Germany, circa 1957.

Ingeborg Boyens is a Manitoba journalist, writer and editor. She is part-owner of Great Plains Publications. She got her professional start as a (very bad) clerk for the Der Courrier German newspaper.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J1

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