icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Two

Two German-speaking Viennese women. My mother is on the left, our cousin, Fritzi Burger, the Olympic ice skating champion, on the right. The Kindle edition of "Searching for Fritzi" is available on Amazon.


Studying German in a Plague Year



History exists in a constant state of revision as we learn more about the present and the world that preceded it.


                             -Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker



I was listening to a NY Times Daily podcast by a Berlin based reporter who spoke perfect English, but I also was understanding all the background German before it was translated. I know that we've all changed immeasurably during this past year, but I could not account for this epiphany, if that is what it was. I took a deep breath. It was hard to believe what was happening. What was happening?


There was a time when my brain and my heart would have shut down at the sound of German, or a German accent. I wrote about this sensory/cognitive dissonance in my 1999 memoir, Searching for Fritzi. As I was working on that book, I took a German language course at NYU because I truly wanted to "get over" this block, especially when encountering a young German or a young Austrian.


On the first day of class, when everyone stated why they wanted to learn German, I was mesmerized by everyone's stability and common sense. One person was an opera singer, another a business woman traveling frequently to Germany, another had a German boyfriend. My blood pressure was rising as I anticipated what I could say: "Most of my family were murdered in the Holocaust and I have a block…" My voice trailed away. The class and the professor went quiet. No euphemisms such as "perished" in that sentence; I'd long before abandoned any softening words. Then, at the break—it was summer, I remember—the professor, aus Salzburg, came up to me as I was munching on a peach and perusing a bulletin board. I was in a fugue state, very distressed, not really concentrating on the notices. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, ever so gently, "Are you okay?" and I answered, "No, absolutely not, but I will try to stay." And that's what I did: I stayed. When the draft of my memoir was finished, I sent it to this wonderful woman and we met for lunch. But I haven't studied German since.


Then came Covid, a surfeit of time, classes online, apps, more French, my second language since High School, amplified when I was living in London and traveling to France. I had never thought about German, or wanted to think about German and when I traveled to Germany I often wanted to leave as soon as I got there.


And then, suddenly, years later, in the midst of a plague year—is there a connection I wonder—I decide to study German, my parents' Mother Tongue. They spoke it all the time to each other, but never to their children, not unusual in an immigrant or refugee family.  


I remember my erudite lawyer stepfather trying to convince me that Goethe, Heine, and Kafka should be read in the original. He had these books on his shelf if I ever wanted to study German and borrow them, he said. I never paid attention though I did read those classics in translation.


So, it's time, perhaps even past time, to take advantage of this gift: German is in my ear, it belongs to me and my heritage as much as the genocide.


A couple of terms ago, I had a young German in my NYU class. He traveled back to Germany to be with his family during the pandemic, but we've kept in touch. I can't wait to tell him my good news, to greet him in German, and perhaps generate a sentence or two.


Be the first to comment

Spielberg Tells a Story

And it’s a good one, “Bridge of Spies.” I won’t reiterate the plot here as I am sure, dear reader, you will see it soon enough or have already read the euphoric reviews. Steven Spielberg rarely disappoints, he has the clout to hire the best actors, the best screenwriters (the Coen brothers share the credit with Matt Charman), the best of everything. Tom Hanks, in one of the most resonant performances of his career, has the stature of Bogart. Mark Rylance is Mark Rylance. And as my husband said as we walked out: “This is an old-fashioned Hollywood movie. Spielberg’s a great cinematic story-teller.”

We had been to a screening at the Director’s Guild with directors, screenwriters and actors. No food, no drinks allowed, no advertisements before the movie begins, no cell phones on, please. There is security to make sure no one is filming the film and—a final rule—stay in your seat until the last credit rolls.

In other words, the all-professional audience is paying attention—to the script, to the acting, to the cinematography, everything. We are not just there to be entertained, but to study how a film is made and whether or not it has been made well. There is usually some applause at the end, or not. Spielberg: applause. Discussion afterward on the long line to the restroom—it was a long film: So, what did you think? And off we go.

I was a lone dissenter because I do feel—dare I say it—that Spielberg sometimes indulges a sentimental weakness. And maybe if I had a net worth of 3.6 billion dollars, I would do the same. And he doesn’t always do it—certainly not in “Schindler’s List.”

I remembered my disappointment when I went to see “The Color Purple.” It was made in 1985 and starred Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover, two good actors. Adapted from Alice Walker’s masterpiece, the adaption was mostly okay until the very end. Spielberg changed the ending into a kind of happier ending with a parade of dancing and singing people rolling down the street. I was mortified.

It’s been a while, and I may not be remembering this particular movie correctly, but I have experienced other mortified moments like this watching a Spielberg film, and I had at least one last night.

(No spoilers, don’t worry.)

Consider this scene: a GDR attorney general, obviously a former Nazi, takes a phone call during his conversation with lawyer/negotiator Donovan (Hanks), and before we know it, we are witnessing a Peter Sellers caricature of a Nazi. It mars the scene—a dead serious scene—because it made me laugh. It was indulgent, over the top, and this is not the actor’s responsibility, it’s the director’s. We know that Spielberg cares a lot about Jewish Holocaust history (The Shoah Project) so what was he trying to say here? And what was in the original script before it became a shooting script? I’m curious.

I know that when an artist becomes rich and famous, those close to him—editors , for example, in the case of a writer—don’t have the courage to speak up. I wish that a colleague of Spielberg would tell him about this creative tic so that he could eliminate it from his cinematic vocabulary. I am always grateful when someone tells me about my tics. We all have them.  Read More 
Be the first to comment

A Book With Legs

My mother had not wanted me to write the book; she was frightened. Frightened we would be sued, or threatened, or embarrassed, or exposed. She had become as secretive about Fritzi Burger, the Olympic ice skating champion, as Fritzi was about herself. They were cousins and had grown up together in Vienna. Two years between them, related through their grandmother, they looked like twins. They ice skated together, attended family gatherings, giggled together.

By her early teens, Fritzi had become a competitive ice skater and traveled a lot. She fell in love with a German tobaggoner and then met and married a Japanese businessman, a grandson of the Mikimoto pearl family. She disappeared as WW II began.

When I started an oral history with my mother, Fritzi’s name came up, and I started to search for her. I found her in Maine living with her second husband who had met her at the Tokyo Tennis Club in the 1960's. Fritzi had spent the war years in Japan, secure and protected even after the American occupation began and those close to the Emperor and the military were indicted for war crimes. The Mikimoto/Ishikawa clan were interviewed, but not indicted, probably because they were close to the Emperor. Fritzi’s collaboration with America’s enemies was amplified by her connection to the Reich; she entertained German officers when they came to visit the Japanese High Command to discuss armaments and strategies of global conquest. Had she dared, she might have been in a position to save some of our family, but there is no evidence that she revealed her Jewish ancestry, or mentioned the slaughter of her family. Did she know about it? Most certainly.

I didn't know all of Fritzi's story by the time I published “Searching for Fritzi” in 1999; there were many open questions about her. But some years later, thanks to the internet, I began receiving intriguing emails from Michael Ramsey, a former soldier in General MacArthur's occupation army. He had met Fritzi in Tokyo in 1947 and wondered about her. Why was she there? Why was her Japanese family immune to prosecution? Trolling the internet, Michael found my book and we became collaborators of a different sort. Together, we pieced together more details , and I hired a researcher in Tokyo. I wrote an addendum to the book, republished it as an e-book, and placed an article in a magazine in Austria published by the U. of Salzburg. After that, I began getting queries from German and Austrian historians. They still arrive, the most recent just a couple of weeks ago from a historian based in Berlin who lived in Japan for many years and can therefore make good use of the archives there. He told me that his quest began when he found “Searching for Fritzi" in his university library in Berlin. That surprised and pleased me.

In the journalism trade, we say that this has been a project “with legs.” One modest book, an attempt to trace a family story, and years later, I am still fielding emails, and meeting scholars and faraway relations for lunch when they travel to New York. Last week I met Fritzi Burger’s step-daughter, an interesting encounter. Working on her own memoirs, she had found the book on amazon and read it with interest, and astonishment. She had had no idea about Fritzi’s “Jewish” ancestry. What a surprise! How awful that she never even mentioned this, she said.


Sometimes a German academic is puzzled by my "friendliness," though we are colleagues, and so many years have passed. Perhaps there is guilt at their own family's actions during the war. I am not interested. What's important is what they are doing now, all of it in the spirit of historical accuracy, and reconciliation.

I think my mother would be pleased that "Searching for Fritzi" has done so well. Despite her initial resistance, she was proud of my accomplishment and relieved that we had exposed Fritzi Burger. What she anticipated did come to pass: I was threatened with legal action by Fritzi, but it came to nothing, and for good reason: I had written the truth.

 Read More 
Post a comment