My Uncle Barry leads deep conversations at Passover seder and last year the topic was marrying within our faith. My opinion, I remember saying, is that we live in such an internationally woven culture that when our parents tell us to keep an open mind about people, it’s almost a double standard that we must find a Jewish spouse.
After growing up in Skokie and joining a Jewish sorority in college, I decided to step outside my comfort zone and move to Thailand. With my mother’s encouragement and support, I took a teaching job in Bangkok and made a whole new group of friends. My best friend was from Liverpool; my next-door neighbor was from Beijing. Across the hall was Alice from Adelaide.
When contemplating the move back home, Alice from Adelaide told me that I would only return to the States to plan my next trip back to Asia. She was right; the following July I went to Vietnam for a month vacation. A year later, I traveled to a yoga retreat in the southern province of Tamil Nadu, India. There I met my friend Nadine from Germany, who invited me to come visit her in Hamburg.
Germany was one place I had never gone to visit. I had passed through it on my way to Amsterdam when I was a student studying in Europe but I never spent a night there. As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Germany was one place I had never put on my list of places to visit. It wasn’t that I thought the country was still a war-torn landscape like the one my mother didn’t like to remember. Rather it was that I didn’t want to hurt her and I thought I might be by exploring that country.
The first time I actually thought about traveling to Germany was on that trip to India. Another idea I first contemplated at the retreat was bringing my mother on one of my travels. Nadine had experienced the yoga retreat with her mother and I felt my mom would benefit from traveling abroad as well.
I recommended India and the yoga retreat, but to my surprise, my mother suggested we travel to Germany. She had been born in the British and American sector of Austria after the war and wanted to return to her birthplace. She was born in the Maurice L. Tyler Displaced Persons Camp in Linz, Austria. When she was 4 years old, she took a boat from the Hamburg harbor to Ellis Island, New York. She was eager to retrace her steps to America and started researching the details. Sadly, we discovered that her DP camp had burned down about 50 years ago.
As a frequent world traveler, I was excited to show my mother what I do when I am away from Chicago. She would have the opportunity to meet my friends from around the world and drink a coffee in an international café. As I said, she always raised me to keep an open mind about people and cultures. I wanted her to see how I interpreted that piece of advice.
I know that my mom’s stomach didn’t stop churning on the plane over to Germany. We landed in Hamburg and our first meal was a German sausage and Swiss cheese sandwich. It was a bit of a shock that she was able to speak almost fluent German, but she knew the words as a Yiddish speaker. I didn’t like it that she and Nadine could converse without me understanding. She was stoic as we traveled around the country by train and didn’t tell me until later that the sirens from the German ambulance made her cry.
Before making our way to Austria, I had planned a trip to Berlin. Sightseeing in a foreign country with my mother was frustrating at times, but it was a brand-new experience for both of us. I don’t think she ever imagined touching what was left of the Berlin wall or sharing a table with a German couple at the restaurant Babel. The man, of the couple, was a journalist who gave me advice on writing and mentors. Having my mother translate the conversation was very enlightening for me.
I saw my mother in a whole new light. I had never acknowledged the fact that I was half Austrian except for looking at a map and mistakenly thinking that my mom was born in Vienna. That all changed when a French taxi driver took us 5 kilometers from the city center of Linz, Austria.
The morning was a mess from the minute we woke up. The hotel was under construction and the workers had accidentally hit a water pipe, preventing us from showering or using the restroom. The sky couldn’t decide if it wanted to snow or rain and we couldn’t stop arguing about what we wanted to do. Finally we found a cab to take us round trip to an intersection outside the city.
When we got to the intersection, my mother kept looking at the vast, empty field on the right-hand side of the street. I noticed the small stone memorial on the left and pointed to it. We knew that her camp wasn’t there anymore, but not having anything of where you were born hit my mother as she touched the memorial. Our cab driver translated the German words that my mother couldn’t read and we took a few pictures of the site. We both had tears in our eyes and felt overwhelmed. Afterwards my mother said she wished she had grabbed some dirt or grass, but she didn’t think about it at the time.
I can take a ride down Dempster Street in Park Ridge, Ill., and point out Lutheran General Hospital; the place I was born. In contrast, there is nothing left of my mother’s birthplace besides that memorial. If you didn’t know the history that took place on that plot of land, you might never know. While looking at that empty space, I felt blessed to see what wasn’t there anymore.
Upon our return to the States, I remembered that conversation at Passover seder. The discussion had concluded that today’s generation of Jews have so many more opportunities than our parents did. The trip I took with my mother solidified the fact that our minds have broader horizons; however, it is still up to us to keep Jewish traditions alive.
When I was reunited with my sister, I told her about the unfiltered stories I heard on the trip. My mother’s honesty had made me wonder: if she had had time to digest the memories she had suppressed; would she have told the same stories?
Traveling back to where my mother was born and researching the events that shaped her early childhood taught me a lot about her and about myself. Since we have been back, I have been remembering certain moments from Europe: the night we met the two Romanian students in Vienna, the Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and the wine bar in Hamburg where we ate our last dinner in Europe. I recognize that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I understand where I came from and why I’ve made certain decisions in my life. I have that history behind me; it acts as a force confidently pushing me forward.
Jessica Titlebaum is the public relations and events manager at the financial consulting firm Capital Markets Consulting. She is also a freelance writer earning her master’s degree in journalism at Roosevelt University.