My German Lutheran grandparents cringed at my Irish Catholic ones. When I was 6 or 7, I actually believed that if my devout Aunt Mary touched me I would turn into a Catholic, the worst possible thing! Needless to say, in the next generation, the two Protestant brothers married Catholics, and the four Catholic siblings married Protestants. Were they rebelling? Trying to reconcile the absurdity of prejudice? Whatever. Both camps couldn't tolerate Jews.
In my circle, Christians dated and married Jews. In my daughter's, there is every conceivable cross-pollination of couples: black-white, black-Asian, white-Asian. Is this commonplace? It is now in the patchwork quilt of metropolitan areas like New York, adjacent to where I was raised. I have come to regard this as a gift -- our ability to acknowledge every race, religion and nationality.
In crafting my novel, "Siegfried Follies," I explored the roots of anti-Semitism, ablaze in the Holocaust 2,000 years after Jews were butchered as Christ-killers. When I was 12 -- in a New York suburb then rife with anti-Semitism -- I did a color drawing of the brash, abstract stained glass window in the new synagogue, so cheerful compared to the staid Bible scenes of my church. Shortly after, rocks smashed it to pieces. I learned that one of my pals was Jewish, his father a surgeon, his car a Cadillac, with the only swimming pool in town, much to my family's contempt. At Cornell University, where I attended in the early 1960s, fraternities and sororities were strictly segregated; my house pledged a Jew and was put on probation by its national council. In history class at first I found details of the Holocaust unthinkable. Could there be such barbarity in the 20th century?
In my day, half of the student body of The College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell, was Jewish. Scholastically, they were tops, but not necessarily smarter. Their families in Scarsdale, N.Y., or Winnetka, Ill., placed highest value on education and culture. They were far better prepared than preppies and kids like me from sports-minded high schools. All this fueled my interest in why their faith or ethnicity led to such mind-boggling persecution in the form of Hitler. Was there precedence for this horror?
Searching for answers, I became immersed in German and Jewish history, folklore and culture. I found no simple answers, but I do believe good-minded people can light sparks of hope, and that friendships can transcend prejudice, which resulted in my novel.
It presents two boys, both 8-year-old orphans. Franz is a blond, blue-eyed Hitler youth living in a Lebensborn, a birthing home for beautiful German girls who serviced Nazi officers to produce ideal children for the Reich. (These actually existed!) On an errand, Franz rescues a filthy, speechless boy hurled from a passing train. Unbeknownst to Franz, the child, J, is Jewish and headed to an extermination camp. They make a home in the bombed ruins of Munich, forging a difficult brotherhood but bonding for life, on very separate journeys to find their missing parts.
J pursues what it means to be a Jew, disenchanted in communities too secular, from an Israeli kibbutz to a rollicking, all-American, in-name-only Reformed Jewish family. Perhaps religion isn't the defining aspect to being Jewish? He studies the Talmud, "Mein Kampf," much of history to learn the depth of hatred against his people, burned at the stake for poisoning wells, causing the Plague or the Empress' miscarriage. Jews worshipped the same God but were vilified for their differing rituals and laws.
Franz seeks the American dream -- wealth/power/polish/perfect family -- but he, too, without a faith, must still confront demons from his past as a Christian German instigating such national, global disgrace.
Does such intolerance still exist today? Last week, I saw a news photo of Swat Valley Pakistani soldiers lining up suspected Afghan Taliban in front a ditch before their machine-gunning. This image for me was identical to the infamous, searing photo of Jewish women in ragged underwear hugging each other before the same ditch: The same murder for the same reasons.
Also last week, the NAACP acknowledged well-meaning folks in the Tea Party with legitimate economic concerns. But, to the purpose of their report, they condemned those pre-Tea Party strands -- white supremacists, anti-Semites, racists of all stripes, climbing aboard the Tea Party with their bigotry.
But a ray of hope. An article in The New York Times about centenarians: How do they make it to 100? Pastrami on rye. Needlepoint. Cocktails, Abstaining. Anything in common? Not really. The common thread: Don't hold a grudge, they say. Live and let live!
No need to slander others in order to affirm ourselves.
Richard Alther was raised as a Lutheran German-American in a small New York City suburb, rife with anti-Semitism. After graduating as an English major from Cornell University, he pursued twin careers as a writer and painter. Fueled by his ongoing search into the roots of Naziism, he studied German and Jewish history, folklore and culture. "Siegfried Follies" approaches the aftermath and legacy of the Holocaust from a perspective coequally gentile and Jewish. This is his second novel. Alther has been an exhibiting painter for many years. In addition, he trains and competes nationally as a masters swimmer. He lives in Vermont and California.