I believe in sharing histories before they vanish.
After I retired, I wrote a book of oral histories of American seamen who served in World War II. They helped save our country. Half a century later, they met as strangers in Baltimore and rescued a wartime Liberty ship to try to reduce the current ignorance about that war. I shared their stories.
Elsewhere, I just fulfilled an old dream of visiting my late mother’s home village of Boernecke near the Harz Mountains in the former East Germany. The best part was that I had this adventure with my eager 41-year-old daughter and oldest grandson who is 13.
My mother Martha was the youngest of five daughters of a Lutheran minister who as a young man had secretly wanted to be a scientist instead. In their modest parsonage, she grew up among chilly winter drafts and acts of love. She made Christmas presents out of odds and ends, helped younger children with homework and used her legs or a common bicycle to get anywhere. She left town as a muscular Christian in her twenties, “bored in Boernecke” she later wrote in a childhood memoir. She often talked about home. She came to the United States in 1929, married and became an American citizen.
Legend says Boernecke was so hidden that armies missed it when marauding in the Thirty Years’ War. I always wanted to see the place. This year it was time. By curious coincidence, the village is celebrating its 1,000th birthday.
We also saw the haunts of the poets Goethe, Schiller and Heine and we walked on the top of the Brocken, a famous local mountain.
We visited Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp with the terrible history on a wooded hill above Weimar. Today it is a memorial to more than 51,000 Jews and others murdered there. We tried to begin to absorb the horrors. We augmented that with glimpses of German Jewish history at Jewish museums in Frankfurt and Berlin.
There were no surprises or disappointments in Boernecke, population 600. It was good being there. The village matched mom’s memories and an old painting at home in which St. Petri’s Church rises above a wooded island of tightly packed houses arranged for protection in the Middle Ages. My cousin from north Germany and family friends were gracious guides. I sat at my grandfather’s desk in the old parsonage and we took communion in church. From the same pulpit as grandfather’s, the current pastor said being a Christian brought freedom to do Christ’s work. People said grandfather did do that.
My daughter knew the background of all this. My grandson was learning. If our trip held some dull moments for an American teenager, their meaning will emerge in time. We all gained.
In this life, I believe we are more than tourists. I hope I am a reporter for those who don’t know or who forget things that should be remembered.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.