Pride and Prejudice
Growing up in Germany, I was raised to be unpatriotic. But in multicultural New York City, where everyone loves a parade, ethnic celebration can also carry undercurrents of hatred.
The Upper East Side of Manhattan hosts a big German parade each summer, the Steuben Parade. In my 10 years here I had never gone. Last summer when Otto asked me if I wanted to join him and a German friend, I agreed. My mom had recently sent me her old, custom-made dirndl dress, and the prospect of wearing it in public made me giddy. It was 90 degrees and incredibly humid. My short hair stuck up in all directions.
I schlepped myself to the subway, a hybrid of Snow White and Nina Hagen. The dark blue skirt and its baby blue apron dragged on the ground. The dirndl’s dark red corset was so tight that my otherwise small chest pushed out over the top. Otto and his friend were in awe. Such a nice dress! And just for the parade!
Maybe I subconsciously tried to compensate for their praise by moving away from them once we got to the parade and spending most of my time talking to a black NYPD cop who was leisurely leaning against a Fifth Avenue lamp post. Officer Charlie told me that of all the parades in New York, he liked the German one the best. The Germans, he said, always start and end on time. Germans don’t litter, scream, fight, get drunk, or take off their clothes. There has never been any trouble at the German parade.
“You must be proud to be German today,” Charlie said. My level of discomfort began to rise. Then Dr. Ruth Westheimer, sex therapist and the Grand Marshal of last year’s parade, rode by on her float. For the briefest moment I felt a tiny bit proud to be German. I tried to explain to Charlie that Germans often have a difficult time with national pride—unless, of course, the parade organizers choose a C-list celebrity as their grand marshal. National pride has fueled too much horror. Charlie nodded, and I didn’t know whether he understood me or whether my speech about national pride was drowned out by the inappropriately named MC Digga, “Philadelphia’s Best German Rapper.”
From early childhood, my generation of Germans was trained to be unpatriotic. In first or second grade my class was led to our village’s Jewish cemetery and told about the horrors of Nazi Germany. After the visit we had to take a test. We were to draw and explain Jewish gravestone symbols. I failed the test because my Star of David had too many points. We never sang the national anthem; as far as I know, a pledge of allegiance doesn’t exist. I didn’t meet a Jew until I visited New York when I was 26. I assumed he must have hated me for being German.
In the distance I could see Otto and his friend waving their German paper flags vigorously. Otto had even bought a flag for me. I was reminded of my grandmother’s stories about the Nuremberg rallies. When asked about the Third Reich, she said, “It was the best time of my life.” She would recall the times when she rode to the rallies on the back of a horse-drawn cart. “We had so much fun,” she used to say.
My paternal grandmother was born and raised in Baiersdorf, a small Bavarian town 15 miles from Nuremberg. I grew up there too. She alternatively insisted that Baiersdorf never had any Jewish residents and that the Jews had left long before she was born. In fact, Baiersdorf has a big Jewish cemetery, and until Kristallnacht in 1938, when the Nazis ransacked Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues, Baiersdorf also had a mikvah and a synagogue.
As a child in the 1980s, I watched my mother, the daughter of self-proclaimed socialists, argue with my grandmother, her mother-in-law. When I was old enough to fight, I would participate. Eventually we stopped talking about the Third Reich. Partially because I felt I wasn’t an authority on the Holocaust, on what people knew and what they were in denial of, and partially because it is hard to question a shrunken, wrinkled 95-year-old woman who had long lost the ability to go to the bathroom by herself about the best time of her life. But still, her bigotry would often find its way into our conversation. Only now it was the Turks who were bad and should go back to where they came from. Again, we would fight. The fight usually ended with her saying, “I have to discuss this with my people. They’ll understand.”
I never knew who her people were, yet they concerned me. Apparently, there were more bigots, the only difference was that they weren’t as outspoken. Who, I wondered, were her people? The question continued to haunt me even as I made a new life 4,000 miles away. Surely, I thought, they aren’t in Sunnyside, Queens.
The misguided prophet Balaam—who knew that words have meanings and must be used judiciously—should be the patron saint of the Internet