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.
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.
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….
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.
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