In Essays/ Europe/ There Must Be Order

Heimat: There’s No Place Like Home

Hiking In Germany Neckarsteig

The following is a chapter from an upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany. Read more here.

German is known for its long, confusing string of nouns mashed together like some kind of fusion dish gone wrong. Things start to click as you get on with the language, like a novice palate learning to appreciate the flavors of the aforementioned dish. But upon initial observation, it looks like nonsensical garble. An orgy of vowels and consonants pronounced like Hitler in the middle of one of his spasmodic speeches, his arms flailing about like a Looney Tunes villain.

I quickly learned that among the very many things Hitler spoiled, a minor element (which of course pales greatly in comparison to his genocidal crimes in the Holocaust) was the impression he left on the German language throughout the world. Yes, German sounds pretty awful when you shout, as does, I suspect, most every language. I’ve yet to find a language that left me feeling like a million bucks post-scolding. Confused, yes. But never great.

In reality there are a great many of sweet, sentimental German words that briskly encapsulate an emotion which would require several words or sentences in another language. One of those words is Heimat. A loose definition is ‘homeland,’ but it’s more than that. It’s feeling an inherent connection to a place deep within your bones. For most Germans, this does refer to wherever they grew up. And of course, the Nazis did manipulate the phrase in their propaganda, pleading with their followers to protect their Heimat. Such is the power of this word that it could be used in propaganda to drive millions of people to support an evil regime.

The word has been making a comeback as of late. There are still those who use it to manipulate voters toward far-right policies, especially when it comes to the ever-popular talking point of far-right politicians–refugees. Their twisted logic being that groups of people who have fled dangerous, far away lands with nothing but their families and a suitcase have come to forever alter the Heimat.

More often than not, based on my wholly anecdotal research, I’d say the term has a positive sentiment. Germans use it to explain why they eventually moved back to the Dorf or village they grew up in. Immigrants, especially those married to a German, use it to properly convey what they’re giving up by living abroad. (German being German, there is of course a word to describe the pain of being away from one’s HeimatHeimweh.)

As much as I’ve grown fond of this word, part of me feels guilty because I simply cannot relate. I miss my parents, yes. I miss the way my mother’s cheeky smile turns to uproarious, snortled laughter when someone lands a solid poop joke. I miss the way she briefly rests her head against my chest and squeezes me whenever she sees me for the first time after months away from home. It reminds me of my maternal grandfather who was just as much the quiet type. He’d greet me with the chuckle of a content old man before wrapping his arms around me, showing me that he could still squeeze me into a can of sardines if he wanted.

Then there’s my father, who I used to meet at least once a week for breakfast when I lived in Cleveland. A lifelong coach, he’d always come prepared with some high school or college sports update that I’d struggle to wrap my head around. Something about someone doing something on the Lake Erie women’s basketball team… or something. It’s not that I was disinterested, but it’s a tall order to keep up with my father’s encyclopedic sports knowledge. He’s the guy who can rattle off college sports mascots like a chess player does attack strategies. I’m not talking about the obvious–Buckeyes, Gators, or any number of Wildcats. I’m talking everything from Division 1 through regional Division 3. As if that’s not enough, he can throw an army of minor league baseball mascots at you for good measure. This is why I’ll always have the image of the Lansing Lugnut–its frowning expression on the side of a screw as if to say, “WHY AM I A SPORTS MASCOT!? KILL ME, PLEASE!–stuck in my head.

But Heimat isn’t just about the people. It’s the place. Something about it burrows its way into your heart, your soul (metaphorical or otherwise depending on your leanings) that tells you that you simply cannot do without this place. Heimat is stronger than love. I know this because I truly do love Ohio and I do love Cleveland. Ohio and Cleveland are like family to me. There are more than a fair number of things about each that frustrate and piss me off to no end, but as family, only I can say what disappoints me about where I’m from. If you parachute in for a weekend and talk trash, I will defend Cleveland beyond all rationality. Yet at the same time, I don’t feel that burning urge to live there.

Writing these words isn’t something I do lightly. It pains me not to be head-over-heels in love with where I’m from, like so many are. Once while home for the holidays, I caught up with an older, distant cousin who was the janitor at my junior high school when both my brother and I attended there. He has one of the brightest smiles in the family and always seemed to be in great spirits even if life would say otherwise. My visit was no different even though an illness had rendered him less mobile and increasingly relying on his wife and his brother who lived across the street.

I was in town from Germany and he knew about my living in Costa Rica as well. We chatted in generalities about life in Germany–You like it? That’s good.–and he shared some stories about his time in the military I’d never heard.

“We traveled all over Europe,” he said. “It was great!” He started listing off places he’d been, ending on Barcelona. “What an incredible city. The architecture is just amazing.”

Here was the kicker. After all his travels, after raving about Barcelona, he finished, “But there’s just no place I’d rather be than right here in Mentor, Ohio.”

I thought that was a wonderful sentiment. Heinrich Heine, a nineteenth-century writer and poet from where I now live in Düsseldorf, shared a similar disposition. His childhood home turned bookstore in the city’s Altstadt or Old Town is an obvious stop whenever I give visitors a tour. Outside of the bright white Heine Haus, with its invitingly open windows layered with book jackets, is a quote that reads:

“The city of Düsseldorf is very beautiful, and when one is far away and thinks of the city and is also by chance born there, it’s a strange feeling. I was born there and it feels like I have to go home right away. And when I say ‘go home,’ I’m referring to the Bolkerstraße and the home where I was born.”

That, to me, is Heimat; a feeling so palpable that it pulls at you until you’re back where you belong. The longer you’re away, the more you start to develop symptoms of Heimweh; symptoms that the pharmaceutical industry might describe as depression and drowsiness (but thankfully not anal leakage).

I don’t feel that same connection to where I’m from. I don’t feel strange being away and I don’t have an ever-aching feeling that I must go back like Heine did Düsseldorf, or indeed, how my cousin feels about Mentor. The best thing about the place, in my mind, is a Mexican restaurant by the name of Don Tequila. I was probably a teenager when Antonio opened the place up, having recently immigrated to the United States from Mexico. He treated regulars like family friends, always making time to catch up with my parents when they came in, sharing updates about his wife and children. It’s the thing we’re probably most excited to do as a family whenever I come back.

I thought of him the day Trump was elected, the relative discomfort I have about where I grew up, and how angry I get with myself for having those feelings considering it’s still a place my cousin loves dearly and a place Antonio moved to for a better life. How snobby am I to feel so flippant about the place where my parents spent the latter half of their lives? A place where people like Antonio have presumably fought like hell to make their dreams reality? Nevermind just Mentor, but the whole of the United States. The mere thought of moving back fills me with anxiety; the societal pressure of owning a car to be taken as a serious person, losing the ease of access to nature I’ve found here in Germany.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of people who have or would risk their life to move to just about anywhere in the United States –Mentor included. It all makes me feel like a glutton complaining that my four course meal at a five-star restaurant skimped on the dessert. Then again, another voice in my head is berating me for equating a glutton eating dessert with feeling comfortable living without a car.

See who I have to deal with here?

None of this solved my Heimat issue, and it’s a bit strange to live in a country of Heimat, not feeling like I have a Heimat of my own. The results of my 23andMe DNA test complicated things even further.

The test had been a Christmas gift and something I had long been interested in doing. I decided to finally make it a priority after a friend showed off his results at a dinner party, noting that you could refresh the results every now and again for more accurate updates.

I duly packaged my test tube full of spit Christmas morning and delivered it the next day. Months later, back in my office, an alert popped up on my phone notifying me that the results were in.

First, the obvious. I’m one hundred percent European. Put me on stage, saw me in half, and you’ll see that half of me comes from the British Isles (the specificity of which changes depending on the degree of scientific certainty).

But that’s not what I shipped my spit off to find out. I wanted a surprise, like one of those ancestry commercials that films a British guy saying, “I really hate Italians” before revealing, “MAMMA MIA! You’re Italian!” Except cultured, tolerant man-of-the-world I am, I’d welcome any results with Hakuna Matata-open arms. (Though I suspect the spirit of Melanie’s Yiayia-–grandmother-–would really rather I not be Turkish given the Ottoman Empire’s history in Greece.)

My eyes strained with curiosity over a quarter of my ancestry. “Ashkenazi Jewish.” I knew I had Jewish ancestry thanks to my one hundred percent Jewish grandmother. In fact, whenever kids or a teacher would ask my religion, my knockout joke as a child was to say that I’m a quarter Jewish. I never thought it would mathematically check out. (I’d later regret openly sharing my Jewish ancestry in college when my roommates thought it’d be funny to sketch a swastika into a cake for me after seeing the Borat movie.)

For the annals of history, I feel I should share that my other knockout joke as a kid was to tell people prodding about my religion that I’m a follower of Joedaism. The logic being; I wasn’t religiously Jewish and knew next to nothing of my Jewish family, so I wasn’t about to pretend there was a Bar Mitzvah in my future. But what did make sense was Joedaism. It acknowledged that I am both Joe and that I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

In retrospect, this joke sounds painfully narcissistic. All I can do is promise that it was neither intended or carried out that way. I didn’t flaunt my Joedaism, but rather used it to break the constraints of being pressured to choose a traditional religion as my own-–or any religion period.

DNA results don’t have a witty punchline, though they do tell you how much Neanderthal you are compared to others (I’m above average, which explains my preference for grunting over talking about feelings). All they could confirm was that a solid chunk of me is Ashkenazi Jewish.

I must admit it was welcomed news. Part of me always felt drawn to being Jewish. Out of all my religious phases, dabbling with Bahaism (too homophobic) and Buddhism (too patient) in different collegiate periods, it’s in Judaism that I’ve always felt a sense of wanting to belong. At least culturally. Perhaps it’s the branding-–“The Chosen People.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of that club? Imagine flipping through the pamphlets.

Let’s see… a fraternity, mathletes, the chosen people. Gee, what shall I pick?

It’s the chosen people all the way, especially in our comparatively tame times in terms of Semitic persecution. (I’m measuring this with a barometer of slavery, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust as the lowest of lows. Sure, anti-Semitism is rapidly growing alongside the drumbeat of nationalist populism, but at least we’re not waiting around on Charlton Heston to show up and split a sea so we can escape tanned Eastern Europeans dressed as pharaohs.)

At the same time, being Jewish in Germany is not something anyone can take lightly, no matter how much I just tried to. There will always be anti-Semites and Neo-Nazis here, but now there’s even a political party, Alternativ Für Deutschland, with seats in the Bundestag despite rubbing shoulders with actual, self-avowed Neo-Nazis and publicly sharing thoughts like, “If the French are rightly proud of their emperor and the Britons of Nelson and Churchill, we have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.”

Once on a walk home from work, strolling about a narrow pedestrian street in the city’s ritzy Medienhafen, lined with rehabilitated warehouses, tall glass buildings, and a couple of Frank Gehry buildings with their signature intriguing weirdness, I stopped at a historical marker telling the story of Julo Levin. Julo was an artist born and raised in Düsseldorf, studying at the renowned Kunstakademie (Art Academy). His political sympathies were on the left side of the spectrum, as artists tend to find themselves, and that’s precisely why he was arrested in June of 1933.

That wasn’t the end of Julo’s story, but it was the end of his professional career as the Nazis denied him membership in the Reichskulturkammer (an arm of Goebbels propaganda machine) due to his Jewish ancestry and thus future employment worthy of his résumé.

Back in Düsseldorf, Julo took up teaching art at the Jüdischen Volksschule Düsseldorf (Jewish elementary school). During his time at the school, he collected significant drawings from the students and hid them from the Nazis with the assistance of Mieke Monjau, wife of the painter Franz Monjau. The drawings were snuck out of the country and exhibited across the globe under the title “Verjagt, ermodet.” Chased, murdered.

You can guess where this is heading.

Eventually in Berlin, working among the Jewish community at the behest of the SS, Julo cleaned freight trains returning from the eastern concentration camps. It wasn’t lost on him that the trains leaving full of Jews always returned empty. He did this until May 17, 1943 when he was deported himself to Auschwitz and killed.

What especially stuck out on the historical marker was the note, or at least insinuation, that Julo wasn’t particularly Jewish, at least in the religious sense. His Judaism was merely his ancestry. He was first and foremost an artist with left-leaning political sympathies who happened to have Jewish ancestry. I couldn’t help but see flashes of myself in him as I started to confront my own Jewish heritage beyond a statistical estimation. It was the first time that I was faced with what was apparently so obvious to my peers in history class all those years ago who kindly informed me whilst learning about the Holocaust that I was Jewish enough to have been killed in Nazi Germany. Apparently, they were right. But by luck of the birth lottery, I’m here, hammering away these words on a MacBook with perfectly comfortable shelter, a fridge full of food, clean water, a working toilet, and good health.

These thoughts whirling around my head left me especially curious about this “Ashkenazi” business. What is that, and more importantly, why is the word “Nazi” very noticeably at the end of this apparent flavor of Judaism?

I asked my colleagues if they had ever heard of Ashkenazi Judaism and they answered in an obvious affirmative, as if I asked, “Hey, ever hear of The Flintstones? Cartoon about a prehistoric Jackie Gleason? Pet dinosaur? Ring a bell?”

Quick research gave me the punchline to this story. Here’s the entry from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

“Ashkenazi, plural Ashkenazim, from Hebrew Ashkenaz (“Germany”), member of the Jews who lived in the Rhineland valley and in neighboring France before their migration eastward to Slavic lands after the Crusades (11th-13th century) and their descendants.”

After reading this, I turned left and look out the office window over the Rhine. I saw the Rhine most everyday; running alongside it on one of the crushed gravel paths in the adjacent Rhine Park; cycling next to and over it on the weekends; hiking one of the multi-stage trails between Bonn and Wiesbaden with ruins, castles, and fairytale towns in between; and on the train whether I’m just heading down to Cologne or waking up on the sleeper train from Vienna, pulling the window shade up to see the Rhine glistening under the sunrise.

There had been times in which I found myself thinking, “Hey, maybe this is my Heimat.” Needless to say, this thought grew considerably since science confirmed that I’ve returned to the very land I’m originally from (at least a quarter of me). I can find myself in Paris (a place that I’m establishing in this book as inferior to Germany) or Rome, cities that Americans have romanticized far beyond anything in Germany, and still feel a pull back to Düsseldorf, to the Rhine.

Is that Heimat? I don’t know. Perhaps not, because I’ve met plenty of people who would be certain about their Heimat. And certainty is not my strong suit. There’s my buddy Jarret back in the States who once told me during a hike, “When people ask me what I am, I say I’m American.” This wasn’t some nationalistic declaration with tinges of xenophobia. It was a simple acknowledgment of the reality that his family had been in the United States for as long as he could trace back. He doesn’t carry on traditions from the old country. He drinks beer, goes to metal concerts, and sneaks in the occasional medicinal marijuana brownie. (Not the American Dream we’re indoctrinated with, but arguably better because it’s his.)

I’ve seen this sentiment shared in people I’ve met from El Salvador to Japan. Crete sticks out especially. Everyone who spoke with me, without exaggeration, wore their Cretan identity on their sleeve. Even a woman with German and Greek parents knew she felt Cretan in her soul. I left the island envious of their certainty.

I don’t suspect I’ll know if this city on the banks of the Rhine is my Heimat until I inevitably move away. There are still other places in the world in which I’d like to experience living in-–even if just for months or a year at a time. Perhaps one needs to first experience the pain of Heimweh to know where their Heimat is.

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in GermanyGerman language tips, and how to ride the German train system.

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