This I Believe

Sonja - Hillsboro, Oregon
Entered on July 8, 2007

What I Believe

As a child, I believed I had to earn my mother’s love. I just knew if wrote about her life I would gain her approval. You see, my mother’s life wasn’t ordinary. She raised me and my five siblings in a small circus caravan in Germany. Mother hid from the Nazis in that same circus.

I grew up, married, and immigrated to the U.S. But I never lost my belief that I could make Mother love me by writing her story and letting the world know what she went through.

When she came to visit me from Germany, I started my project. I asked if she’d tell me about her youth. I listened, entranced, as Mother told the story of her life under the Nazi regime.

Her mother was Aryan, and her father Jewish. When I asked what happened to him, she wasn’t sure. He died when she was only five years old, before Hitler ascended to be Germany’s ruler.

Mother liked her Aryan step-dad. But when her mother had another daughter, this one with blond hair and blue eyes, things got bad.

“They were so proud of her,” she said. “But not of me.”

“How did you end up in the circus?” I asked.

Her Jewish boss in the fashion store she worked in disappeared one day. Mother realized things would not improve. She applied for a job with the circus and so got to leave Berlin and the Nazis.

At the end of the war, the circus had a Nazi manager who gave her a choice: either become his mistress or get send to the concentration camps. With courage and help from the circus people, she outwitted the man, stayed hidden in that circus for the rest of the war, and even found her true love, my father.

As the story spilled out, I saw more in my mother than I had ever seen before; I saw a young woman who struggled to stay alive and get a measure of joy from her life, who made the wrong decisions and still lived; a girl abandoned by her family, but a girl who never gave up.

As she finished telling her story, a strange thing happened. My belief changed.

I don’t believe in earning her approval anymore. Mother had done the best she could, even with me. Now I believe in approving of her because of what she has done with her life. I see her as a human being as well as my mother, a human being who also needs to be loved, just like I do.