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On Being German in America

by Ursula Hegi

Pub Date: July 2nd, 1997
ISBN: 0-684-82996-7
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

 Americans of German birth, children of the war and immediate postwar era, reflect on the experience and meaning of their split identity. German-born novelist Hegi (Salt Dancers, 1995, etc.), who has herself wrestled with the meaning of her German identity, interviewed 15 fellow immigrants. All were born in Germany between 1939 and 1946. Some came to America as children, some came as late as the 1960s. The central issue, of course, is whether, or in what way, or to what degree this post-Auschwitz generation deals with German war guilt. Surprisingly, these people recognize in themselves what most people take for granted about Germans: that they are orderly, hardworking, sometimes cold, but above all efficient. ``I did well in seminary,'' says one, ``because I'm a German. You do well. You make the trains run on time.'' Some see these features as virtues, some see them as impediments to be overcome, but in the end these character traits set them apart from other Americans. Authoritarian, harsh parents are a motif among Hegi's interlocutors, as is a strong feeling of alienation and resentment among the children. They feel a natural affection toward their parents and elders (though not always), yet remain in a state of shock (again, not always) over the deeds of that generation. In general, any kind of talk about the Holocaust was forbidden in these homes on both sides of the Atlantic. Most learn about the Holocaust outside the home and are troubled by complex feelings of shame. It is the habit of silence about these feelings and about history that Hegi aims to shatter. She gathered her material in interviews but has rewritten the conversations as monologues. Her ventriloquist act works well, at least insofar as each of the voices is highly individual. A somber, joyless book that does not lay claim to any catharsis. These personal narratives leave the impression of a ``tremendous sense of loss'' that is permanently yoked to moral bewilderment.