Place and Pandemic: Reading Note 24 and Observations 61

Here is another post I started writing last year in about August. I haven’t changed it too much but I have brought some of my thoughts into the present tense.

Reading note 24: A sense of place. Last year I read Nora Krug’s graphic novel memoir Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home. Krug moved from Germany to New York, married a Jewish man and starts exploring her self and her family history especially since her family did not engage in telling stories of their parents, grandparents and other family members. Krug goes on a search to understand what it meant to be German, and to find her family’s history, their role in World War II and what it means to her now living in America. At I was reading Krug’s memoir, I also viewed Unorthodox on Netflix. The mini-series is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir by the same name. The main character Esty has grown up in a Hasidic Jewish community in New York and escapes to Berlin, Germany is order to find her own place in the world, for Esty it was a need to escape the constraints of her family history, For Nora Krug, she wanted to know the constraints she was unaware of.. I really loved how these two stories are reflections of each other and how each person’s own life explorations can work at opposites so as to reach similar goals. However, it is Krug’s work which most keenly stays in my mind.

Krug talks about the concept of Heimat – which she describes as a small defined place where you feel comfortable. Having a sense of belonging to a place. This is a theme that I often read in interviews and biographies of people who return to an ancestral home or village. It is the whole premise of the show Who do you think you are?  It is like a return to a place they didn’t even know they were missing. “Heimat” seems to be slightly different in that Krug explores these feelings by finding photographs, visiting the plot of land that once was her father’s, and in delving into the uncomfortable truths of people who live through wars and autocracies. She asks her father on whether he feels guilty about Germany’s past and his answer really struck me. He says “No. I just felt terrified at the thought of what people are capable of doing to one another.” This is how I have been feeling for nearly five years. This sense of despair at the complicity, if not their endorsement, of authorities who enable so many individuals to feel comfortable in committing violences (physical, mental and symbolic). My worry is that somehow no one will ever hold them accountable to their actions. It all seems never-ending. Nora Krug learns some truths about her father that are uncomfortable yet not insurmountable and she finds her own way of making sense of his actions and their impact to others and their impact on her. Eventually, Krug ask a question that often turns over in my mind. The sliding doors question “who would we be as a family if the war had never happened”. Who would I be if my parents hadn’t been orphaned and impoverished by the consecutive wars in Greece during the 1940s. But even further back, who would I be if my grandmother had not been orphaned in 1918.

Observation 64: Pandemic. Just over 100 years, my grandmother, who was 17 years old at the time, lost her mother to the Spanish flu. Unfortunately, her father had died of appendicitis only a few months earlier, leaving her orphaned and with the care of her two younger sisters, a 4 year old and a 1 year old. My grandmother’s paternal uncle begrudgingly took in all three girls. The 4 year old he adopted out to a Romanian family living in Trikala, but no one would take the baby. He set my grandmother to work in his pig sty, where she cared for the pigs and for her baby sister. Meanwhile, my grandmother’s older sister was on a ship to the USA having left her family before either of her parents had died, and she expected them to follow her with her sisters in the months to come. My poor great-aunt. None of her family ever arrived. It wasn’t until three years later, possibly in 1921, that she heard that her parents had died. Though she instinctively knew something had gone wrong for her parents and sisters to not have arrived, she was devastated. My grandmother didn’t see her sister again until 1970. The pandemic was disastrous for my grandmother and all of her 3 sisters. They were impoverished and abandoned, growing up far from each other and in difficult circumstances.

My father too, had his life impacted by a pandemic. His parents would tell him that on the day he was born in 1928, he brought the curse with him. On that day, my grandparents lost all 500 sheep and goats to a plague. Overnight they went from comfortable farmers to being poverty stricken, being left with one goat, a newborn and their 3 older children.

It took two generations for my family to recover from these plagues and pandemics. Where Nora Krug asks “who would we be as a family if the war had never happened”, I also ask this question. Where would I be and had my grandmother not been orphaned? Had my grandparents not lost all their livelihood? Would I still be living in Greece? Would my grandmother have joined her sister in the United States? Would my father have remained on his remote mountain and continued farming sheep and goats? I certainly hope not.

I deeply feel for my parents who were so impacted by poverty and war that they could no longer stay in their homes but I am uncomfortably grateful that my parents had to migrate to Australia. It is a deeply faulted country but thankfully our pandemic response has, at this point anyway, kept the national death rate low by locking down, closing the borders, increasing contact tracing and requiring people who do arrive from overseas to quarantine for two weeks. But keeping the national borders shut to stave off the pandemic is not sustainable in the long term. I went and had my vaccination shot over two weeks ago as I truly feel that it is the only way forward. I want to be around for my (already adult) sons. I am so deeply saddened by those who have lost family and friends, and those who are only now starting to emerge from over a year long isolation in order to keep themselves safe. The grief and unsureness of emerging from their cocoons. My own family came out of lockdown by the end of last year – all of us quite changed. And  I cannot help but wonder how this is going to affect my sons and whether in the future they too will ask “who would we be as a family if this pandemic had never happened”.