It’s no secret that I love anthropology. Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading about different people and places, and, at the University of St Andrews, my Social Anthropology degree irrevocably changed how I think. But a recent visit with Oma–my German grandmother–reminded me of one of the most crucial lessons I learned throughout my whole degree.
It seems that every time I see my oma, I hear another part of family history for which I’d previously been a little too young. Germany during and after World War II was, of course, a very complicated place, a place whose figments often resurface in my mind and challenge my sense of identity.
I wonder what my great-grandparents thought about the war. I wonder which prejudices they carried, which dear friends they lost, which homes were bombed and burnt around them. The potential for baffled complicity with genuine evil terrifies me just as much as my sympathy for indescribable loss moves me.
Thus, the stories my oma tells me of her own small family during that time strike me hard. Recently, she told me the story of her biological father.
The man and soon-to-be father was taken prisoner by the Russians at the Eastern Front and spent five years in a Siberian gulag. My oma’s mother assumed he was dead. When her biological father finally came back, he found that his former best friend had divorced his own wife after falling hard for my oma’s mother so they, in turn, could be married. My oma only found out that the man she grew up knowing as her dad wasn’t, in fact, her father, when she was in her thirties. This, of course, was long after she had crossed the Atlantic and had two children of her own.
My oma has only one memory of her biological father–that of a sad man sitting across from her and her mother at a restaurant. My oma was three years old, and she remembers the thin and weary man signing papers. He pushed these papers back to her mother one by one and with a sigh.
Oma and I were bent over a sewing project as she told me this. My hands looked so long and clumsy next to her compact and quick fingers.
“I would never condone their actions. I can’t say I understand why they did what they did, and I would never do it myself, Schatzi,” she said, bending over me. “Hold that cloth tighter. There you go. You need to keep the tightness same.” She paused. “But Em, you also cannot understand what they went through. You did not see the darkness they did. You can talk about it for as long as you want, but you never really hear what they were thinking. I think about this from time to time.”
There was nothing to say after that; her words sunk deep into my head as my fingers worked.
My oma and I spent hours and hours talking about everything and nothing. She gives me a very deep sense of home; her accent makes me feel safe and her still-broken grammar carries the same mistakes my mother sometimes makes when she’s not careful, that sometimes even I make when I’m a bit spacy. We watched travel shows in German together and talked about people we trust, people we love, hiking trips we’ve enjoyed, and about how to best plan for traveling. We talked about traveling to St Petersburg together in a year or two, and we agreed to do our separate research.
When she left, I cried for a good half hour because I hadn’t been able to be a child with her and play with her and know more about her. Maybe I’m a total dork, but it struck me that this is the challenge with almost every relationship and in nearly any culture. You want to know a person, yet, at some point, it comes down to words. It comes down to a thin bridge made of sentences and memories. Sometimes, this seems just as implausible as following a rainbow to a crock of gold.
Making space in my life for these small stories continuously strikes me in a way I never anticipate. The words my oma and I spin together create a place where we can understand each other while knowing that, as she says, “One can never know what goes on behind the forehead of another person.” Our listening makes me keenly aware of the places words can never bridge, no matter what I wish, while also making me wish and work harder for the bridges I can build.
I believe this “making space”, this affirmation of the humanity of those who we will never understand, is anthropology at its best. How can I ever claim to understand or to study something or someone I do not first listen to out of love?