Somewhere in central Europe, on the banks of the Oder River, there is a farm, with a pretty pond in the middle of it, that belongs to us, “no matter what anyone says,” I remember my German grandfather telling me that repeatedly and with emphasis. That particular piece of ground is now in Poland, but it was once part of Germany, and, before that, it was part of Russia. The ground didn’t move, the borders did, and through all that back and forth, for over four hundred years, my German-speaking ancestors worked the land, lived in the same small village, and paid taxes to whatever government claimed sovereignty at the time. Likewise, they sent their sons to serve as soldiers in different armies during different eras. To them it was all the same as long as they got to keep working their farm and swimming in their pond. My German Grandfather used to wake early, climb out his bedroom window, and swim before anyone else in his family was up. He swam well enough to win bets. As a kid, that’s how he kept himself in spending money.
All that changed after World War I. When Germany lost that war, my grandfather, a veteran of the German army, came home and watched helplessly as his whole family was uprooted. All German-speaking people were expelled from Poland. His family was forced to leave their home and their history on the banks of the Oder River and travel westward with thousands of other refugees.
I can hear him, even now, telling the story . . .
“At the border they took everything from us,” he always said. “Everything,” he repeated with emphasis. “They even took the false teeth from the old ones’ mouths and the eyeglasses from off our noses. They left us nothing—nothing but the clothes on our backs and few enough of those.”
I must confess that as a child I was morbidly curious about why anyone would steal someone else’s false teeth. As a grown-up, I know that I’m supposed to be impressed with the unfairness. I am supposed to never forget, because forgetting would be the equivalent of letting “them,” whoever “they” are, get away with it.
My grandfather’s grandfather was ninety-one years old when they were ordered to leave their farm with the pretty pond. He refused to go. He’d never lived anywhere else. His whole life, he’d hardly been outside their village. Besides, in his lifetime, and in the stories he’d heard all his life, the border had moved back and forth more times than anyone could remember, and that had never affected how they planted their fields or milked their cows. No one would make a ninety-one year old man leave his home, the place where he was born, he believed. He would stay, and, maybe, he would still be there when they returned.
Faced with such stubbornness, the family reluctantly left him behind. However, somewhere along the westward road, before they actually crossed the border, the family realized how deeply the world had changed. Sensing the seriousness of their situation, my grandfather’s brother was sent back to get their grandfather. He was too late. When he got to the old family home, he found the old man lying dead on the front porch.
“Shot like a stray dog,” is the phrase that is always attached to this part of the story. “They shot him like a stray dog that had no business being there,” my grandfather used to say of his grandfather.
I’m supposed to remember that, too. I am supposed to hate the Poles who did this to us. Story is how hate is handed down.
Only I’ve never seen the Oder River. I don’t know if it runs fast or slow or the color of the water. I grew up on a ranch in the western part of America–a place my grandfather never thought was particularly pretty. “Too dry. No trees,” he complained. He may be right. If all the creeks that cross my mother’s ranch were combined, they wouldn’t make a river, but I know those steams—Horse Creek, Taylor Creek, Henry’s Creek, Birch Creek, Willow Creek. In all the ways that keep us rooted, I am as much a part of the ranch as my grandfather’s grandfather was of his four hundred-year-old farm.
Yes, but how did my mother’s family get that ranch? We purchased it from the first settlers who received it as a homestead deed from the US Government, who may or may not have gotten it fairly from the Blackfeet and Shoshone. In fact, there is no record of the Shoshone having ever signed a treaty giving up their part of the land. Push anyone’s history hard enough, and you will discover that we are all sinners as well as having been sinned against.
We need to examine our stories if we want to understand how hate gets handed down. Or why we might be the objects of hatred. And if we examine our stories, we may find new ways to tell them.