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Reclaiming one’s German heritage

in Philosophies/Society by

Historically, Germany as one country is a very new concept. Prior to 1989, it never existed as one country in all its many forms. Germanic people were considered an ethnic group identified by language and culture. I am one of them, but did not get in touch with my heritage until adulthood.

My mother’s family is German, but neither my mother nor I had been born or lived in Germany. However, as ethnic Germans in post-World War II USA, we experienced many similar identity issues to those of Germans in Germany. She was similarly ashamed of her heritage.

Our journeys with our heritage through the past century have not been that different.

My grandfather’s parents came from both sides of what is now Germany. His paternal side was native to the Rhine-Hesse, from Mainz to Worms. His maternal side, however, came from Saxony, when it was still a kingdom in its own right.

As a child, when my mother asked her mother about their origins, she was told “Prussia,” because it did not have the stigma that “Germany” did in the USA after the war. Something similar would later happen to me.

After hearing about my father’s many cousins and family history, I would ask my mother for similar stories. She would tell me that her family was not important, and that I should ask my father about his family again. She would never talk about anything related to growing up or having German heritage.

I only got one story about her experience in Germany: in the 1970s as a single woman running out of gas on the Autobahn in the middle of East Germany, on her way from Berlin to Munich (I imagine somewhere near Leipzig). Being called a stupid American by all of the kind Germans who stopped to help her. Not being held by the police as a possible spy as many Americans were during that time, for ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time in East Germany.

Even as an adult, when I registered for an ancestral membership on my paternal side, my mother lashed out at me that being German would never mean anything or have any advantages for me.

It was not until I moved to Germany and reconnected with relatives I had never met that I understood the origins of my values and personality.

I watched my cousins eat Handkäse mit Musik heartily and finally understood why my mother spent her whole life eating cheese and onion sandwiches.

In 1989, I rejoiced when the wall dividing the two halves of my family heritage was demolished. But it took my parents more than a decade to finally make their way to the Rhineland – in the early 2000s – for my mother to reconnect with her relatives.

Some of my cousins were there also, and then I heard stories about people in my generation being elated that the football team was doing so well, and finally feeling like it was time to put the shame behind them and be proud of their nationality. That was something which made sense to me, finally.

Where I live now, I do not see East and West. I see a unified Germany for the first time in history: a country whose economy is strong based on values I understand, with its people under one banner and government; protected and allowed to flourish without hosting the battleground of European countries.

On a personal level, I can now feel the profound healing of knowing and owning my identity, as well as not having any divisions of our homeland coming in between the sides of my family. It is something that no previous generation ever experienced in this land.

To me, it is a unique opportunity for not just myself, but also every member of my generation, to see what potential can be reached in a country united.

By Elizabeth Ferguson

Elizabeth’s mother Susan Schembs (“Schömbs”) passed away in 2014, her dying wish for Elizabeth being to follow her dreams. She is the inspiration for her daughter’s company. Elizabeth was named after her great-grandmother, Elisabeth Schoembs, originally Piella, born in… Saxony! “This makes Leipzigers very excited,” she says.

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