September 29, 2020

Musing on Family History and Our Current National Disasters

I posted a few days ago about how about a quilt made in Iowa 1910 is connected to my ancestors and family members.  At one point in my writing, it occurred to me how many people whose names are on that quilt soon were to experience the 1918 pandemic.  In fact Etta Flexner, whose is one of the people I was researching, died in 1919.  I haven’t been able to find a death certificate for her (yet), but who knows - the timing is right for her to have been a flu victim.  She was 40 years old at her death, so she certainly didn't die due to old age.

So, since my mind has been on the ancestors, here is our family story about that pandemic.

My mom was born in 1916.  When she was 2, my grandma got sick with “the flu”.  She experienced super high fevers and probably nearly died, though no one ever actually said the word “death” in my presence.  As a result, my mom said she was “emotionally unstable” for the rest of her life. 

My mom and grandma, 1916

I only heard the story in euphemisms, so I don’t know anything with any certainty or in any detail.  Perhaps there was brain damage from the fevers.  I’ve also heard it postulated by a therapist that sometimes high fevers like that can unlock memories and emotions that have been long suppressed as a means of self-protection.  (And there is other circumstantial evidence of some sort of abuse in her childhood home.)

In any case, she was “fragile”, couldn’t handle any noise, and had terrible nightmares for the rest of her life, often waking in the middle of the night screaming.  I don’t think she’s actually smiling in any of the photos of her after than time.  In other words, my mom never experienced her as a healthy woman, and her childhood and much of the family life were curtailed because of my grandma’s fragile state.  My mom never could have more that one friend in the apartment at a time.  She just generally couldn’t make any noise.  And no one ever came and comforted her at night or even the next morning when my grandma woke screaming.  The thought of that now, seeing it as an adult and parent, makes me cringe.

My mom and grandma, 1927
I can tell you that the fallout from that has traveled from my mom to me, and as much as I tried to stop it, to my kids as well.  

So to me, this pandemic raises all those memories, and I’m sure that is part of why I am so scared of it, and have been staying home and avoiding even the things that are now considered pretty safe.  I just want to hide.  

And it makes me even more adamant about how dangerous and terrible our country’s handling of the whole situation has been.

To take all that and add it to the current rise in racial violence and hatred, including anti-Semitism, and I find myself also reliving the terrors that my father and his family suffered in Germany in the 1930s.  That, too, has come down to me as a deep emotional legacy.  I’ve long been aware of the similarities between the 1930s and the 2010s - the rhetoric, the creeping lock down of political systems, the lies, the fanning of prejudicial flames…on and on….

The Wassermann family c.1913
My grandmother, my dad, uncle, and grandfather
Bamberg, Bavaria

My grandfather’s farm supply business collapsed in 1935 because his customers were afraid to frequent a Jewish business.  My grandfather was overwhelmed with grief and then came down with pneumonia and died.  My uncle escaped to England, and then spent several years in an enemy alien camp.  He said it was fairly comfortable, but underneath it all, they were all still locked up, their lives on hold.  My father escaped on a British ship which was torpedoed at sea when England declared war on Germany in Sept 1939.  He saw people drown. He suffered nightmares the rest of his life.  They both suffered deep guilt for not having been settled enough soon enough to get their relatives out of Germany.  My grandmother and all her sibs save one were captured in Jan 1940 and killed in the camps.  The sib who survived apparently was saved by having married a gentile widower.  They survived due to the kindness of one of his daughters.  His other daughter was frightened and disowned them.

My grandmother Martha and grandfather Karl
My dad Heinz and uncle Kurt
When I think of how much my ancestors suffered, how many were killed in horrible ways….  

It’s not always fun inside my brain and heart, that’s for sure.  I was told from childhood that my parents had given me my grandmother’s name as my middle name so that some part of her made it out of Germany.  I can tell you that I am always aware of carrying her pain and living for her as well as for myself.

I often think about all the genocide in the world, and about how the pain and loss is carried by multiple generations.  And I wonder, given the ugly histories in pretty much every part of the world, if there are any people anywhere who have come through this all without such inherited emotional pain.  My heart cries out for the imprisoned children at our border.  I know they will, at best, have a lifelong struggle to regain their equilibrium.  The same can be said for survivors of friends and family who have met with horrible and wrongful deaths on our streets.

It seems like these times are all about suffering through the same things yet again.  Why?  It seems so futile to me that we could be repeating both these histories even after we’ve had so much time to learn from previous mistakes and regroup and make better plans and systems.  

Well, thanks for listening.  And please….vote!!!!  Vote!!!  As they say, vote like your life depends on it, because it does.  And I have the family history to prove it.  

My father Henry Wasserman and mother Adelaide (nee Flexner) Wasserman
about 1947-8

1 comment:

  1. A friend of mine emailed this very informative response to my post. With her permission, and a big thank you, I am copying it in here.

    "What a touching and important blog you posted yesterday. Thank you for speaking out with your story and the direction our country is heading. Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here" is coming true - only our votes will stop it.

    But I thought I'd share a bit about the 1918 pandemic. First, my family story. My grandmother was 8 when the pandemic hit New Orleans. She had long ringlets - I have a picture of her with her doll and those LONG ringlets - good lord! Everyone in the family got sick when the flu hit except her, and when her stepfather died she was the only one well enough to walk behind the horse-drawn wagon with his coffin to the cemetery. And when her mother was well enough to tend her again, the ringlets were cut off because of course they couldn't be combed out. BTW Grandma never got the flu her entire life - she died at 92.

    And I just read John Barry's book "The Great Influenza" - if you haven't read it you might find it helpful to understand what happened to your grandmother. He talks about the lingering psychological effects of the epidemic on its victims who survived - definitely possible that her problems stem from the flu. He also talked about how very few fiction books were written about that time period - people just wanted to forget that it ever happened. But Katherine Anne Porter wrote the novella "Pale Horse Pale Rider" after she nearly died from it, and I tracked that down and read it. It's semi-autobiographical and she captures the brain fog and other mental problems that a victim experienced during and after the flu.

    And another thing that I didn't know ... when Wilson was in Europe negotiating the peace after WWI he wanted a moderate stance toward Germany - France wanted a hard line. Then, during the talks, Wilson got sick, and when he was finally able to return to the discussions he caved in to France. And thus the punitive sanctions on Germany. And thus Hitler. So perhaps your family members in Europe were also long term victims of the epidemic."