Questions and Topics for Discussion
What does it mean when you cannot go home again—when you cannot face the past that has rendered you homeless? In 1938, with the threat of World War II forcing them out of their homes, Frieda and Siegmund Westerfeld placed their twelve-year-old daughter Edith on an ocean liner bound from Germany to America, with several other Jewish children destined to become orphaned refugees. Edith never saw her parents again. They both died in Nazi death camps before the war was over.
Edith’s life in America was shaped by loss. Without homeland or family, she lacked proof, and witness, of her childhood. At the age of sixty-five, long after her parents would have died of old age had they not perished in the war, she finally agreed to revisit her small hometown of Stockstadt, Germany. Her daughter, journalist Fern Schumer Chapman, accompanied her.
This story—the one that Chapman has been waiting her entire life to write—shows how memories can build an identity, as well as set a life adrift. As an adult, Chapman’s mother had locked her childhood memories away—remembering was too painful. Edith believed that Fern would be able to transcend the past, while she herself felt she did not deserve true happiness.
The return to Edith’s homeland, or “motherland,” is both a physical and metaphorical journey. The “motherland” is a country of the heart, the landscape of a universal maternal love. In one riveting conversation, Fern asks her mother: Had Edith been in her parents’ place, would she, too, be able to perform the ultimate sacrifice—sending Fern away forever, orphaning a child to save her life? Is wanting, at any cost, a better life for your children selfless or selfish?
Chapman’s memoir evokes the legacy of war, passed down unknowingly through generations. Parenting, she writes, is an opportunity for redepemtion. Pregnant with her third child at the time of the trip, she hopes to repair the mistakes of other generations and provide her children with a life “free of war.” Returning to Germany, then, is a repossession of the past, reincarnating it on new terms. Going “beyond” the Holocaust is moving beyond death in order to reclaim a sense of memory and self. For Fern and Edith, the trip is also a chance for their own redemption. By finding out more about her mother’s hidden and powerful past, Fern slowly begins to understand her mother’s silence and to rebuild their relationship.
The townspeople of Stockstadt stared at Edith as if they were seeing a ghost. In over fifty years, nobody had left the town except for its two Jewish families: Edith’s and her cousin’s, pushed out during the Nazi reign. At an organized reunion of Edith’s elementary class, taut with high emotion and trepidation, the attendees include the sons and daughters of some of the town’s most notorious Nazis—those dubbed the “lucky late-born” because they were not old enough to personally participate in the crimes themselves. Yet “luck” here is a superficial and loaded term. Neither Edith, nor Fern, nor the residents of Stockstadt have escaped the war’s effects. There are no more “good Germans;” stewing in collective guilt, everyone has been tainted with the horrors of the past. Many classmates do not show up to the reunion, and people turn away when Edith asks for directions to the town’s Jewish cemetery. “We didn’t know,” her former classmates say. “We were only children.” By not confronting the past, they avoid remembering a painful time; rebuff any complicity in the Westerfelds’ fate. Perhaps it is denial. Or perhaps it is impossible to separate the true collaborators from the unknowing conformists.
Mina, the Westerfelds’ young live-in housekeeper during Edith’s childhood, is one German who refused to forget. When Edith visits her, now an old woman living in a dilapidated mountain house, for the first time since the war, it is Edith’s turn to say that she “did not know” what life was really like for Mina. Continuing to work for the Westerfelds long after it was acceptable in Germany for non-Jews to associate with Jewish families, Mina’s anti-Nazi leanings branded her for life: scorned during the war as a Jewish sympathizer, and later, for being a voice of courage in a country deep in denial.
At her cluttered kitchen table, Mina delivers details from nearly a half-century ago as if they happened yesterday, pulling out yellowed papers to pass onto Fern and her children. She—like Edith and Fern and their tour guide, Stockstadt’s local historian, Hans Herrmann—never truly let go of the past. For decades, haunted by his own part in the war, Hans had replayed a similar mental reel of his mistakes. His obsession with the past impeded his own ability to live in the present.
Nobody, as Mina’s son Jurgen notes, “comes out of this clean . . . not even the children.” But providing her children with a clean slate is exactly what Chapman strives to do. Standing in the basement of her childhood home, now a storefront, Edith hears her own mother calling her, a voice traveling across generations and across time. In Germany, Fern learns that the past had always been alive within her mother, right under the surface of the present. Fern’s grandparents had lived on, preserved in her memory.
Motherland teaches that remembering can be a burden or a blessing: the past can tear people apart, stunt them with regret, paralyze them with pain. However, it also demonstrates that each generation has a responsibility to remember, to reshape wounding memories into redemption and knowledge.
ABOUT FERN SCHUMER CHAPMAN
Fern Schumer Chapman, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, has taught at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and written for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, and many other publications. She lives in the Chicago area.
A CONVERSATION WITH FERN SCHUMER CHAPMAN
When did you become aware that your life—and that of your mother and grandparents—was a viable subject matter for a book, and why was this the right time to write it? Was the trip to Germany taken with a book in mind, and if so, how did this goal affect the trip?
I always knew this was a story that ought to be told, but I waited until I was ready emotionally, and as a writer. I went on the first trip with the hope of finding whatever was left in Germany of my family. On my second trip, accompanied by my husband and children as well as my mother, I began to realize that I should write a book. With three generations together in my mother’s little town, I saw the larger story.
How did your training as a journalist affect your writing of this memoir? What were the advantages and disadvantages of writing Motherland as autobiographical narrative, versus a journalistic piece that is more “distanced”?
Good storytelling is good storytelling in any medium. Every writer uses the same elements: good quotes become dialogue; a magazine’s narrative drive becomes the book’s story arc. I didn’t see how I could write the book journalistically. I have no emotional distance from this experience, and I could not introduce distance without corrupting the story.
How do you place your work within the genre of Holocaust literature?
I wrote the book as a personal story without considering it as Holocaust literature. Clearly, it fits into a genre of second-generation voices. This is a new kind of nonfiction that examines historical forces through intensely personal experience, using the techniques of fiction to tell a factual story; in other words, a literature of ordinary perspective on extraordinary times. Even when a story is not one’s personal experience, its telling can illuminate something in one’s own truths. While I was writing Motherland, an Irish Catholic friend often laughed with me about how you don’t have to be Jewish to identify with my story. “This book,” my friend would say, “is for everyone who ever had a mother!” So often, readers who know little of the Holocaust experience discover that my world looks a lot like theirs.
What do you hope will be accomplished through publication of a seemingly private history? What would you wish for readers to take away from this story?
First, I hoped to discover and comprehend enough of a family history to offer to my children. Second, I wanted to show how a cataclysmic event such as World War II reaches beyond its participants and continues to shape future generations. I want readers to see how the past defines the present.
Much is made in the book about the relationship between generations: mother and daughter, grandparents, a family legacy. How has writing this book and telling the story of your family affected your children and your mother? How can you offer children a life “free of war” without erasing their awareness of history?
The lesson I hope my children have taken is that we need to be aware of the forces that shape us and our reaction to them. We must be able to discuss these things. I’m happy and grateful to say that, since the publication of the book, my mother is much more comfortable with her past. The reactions of readers to the book have shown my mother and me that we are not alone in our experience. I can’t offer my children a life free of war, but I can help them understand its ravages and its lingering effects.
You refer to the Germans as Fatherland-less, homeless, as contrasted with the Motherland, a seemingly warm and universal place. How would you define this concept of the Motherland, and what place does it hold within the book?
“Motherland,” for me, has many meanings, and I’m touched and thrilled when readers suggest their own. For me, “motherland” is of course one’s homeland. It is also an emotional terrain where identity takes root, as well as a foundation upon which we build our selves. And it is the place in our hearts that springs into being when we become mothers.