At Easter dinner, I asked my Opa if he knew what a Saumensch was. He burst out laughing.
“Where’d you learn that?” he finally asked between fits of laughter.
“They’re teaching you all of the nice German words, aren’t they?” he added with a smile, and then leaned in closer, “Your Oma is a Saumensch, right Oma?”
My hard of hearing Oma just stared back at us with the biggest smile on her face and nodded. “Ja!”
Growing up, I was always told “We’re German,” and that was the end of the family history talk.
“What nationality are we?”
“What town did you grow up in?”
“How many cousins do I have?”
For the longest time, I could never get my Oma and Opa to break and actually tell me a worthy story, other than “We’re German.” I get it, we’re German.
I never understood why they were so hesitant every time I’d question for my pure interest or a school project. They didn’t really start talking until I really learned about the Holocaust.
Now, I know most states don’t mandate a Holocaust unit, but Illinois is one of the five states that do, and I’m glad that they do. For how German my grandparents profess us to be, I didn’t even know what the Holocaust was until middle school . . . that’s right, I was eleven years old. Ever since then, I had always been fascinated with World War II.
It actually wasn’t until college when I finally got the full story from Oma, and then a follow-up from Opa.
Oma was actually born in Poland, which I never knew, hence the “We’re German,” chant. She’s German and Polish, which makes me not only German, but Polish. How exciting! Anyways, her father had died from post-World War I complications and diseases, or whatever, and my great grandma had moved on and started dating a Nazi soldier. Oma’s uncle, who was more like a father figure to her than any other man, took her in, not wanting to expose my Oma to something he was highly against.
During this time, as WWII was boiling up, Oma had gotten very sick and had to drop out of school at the age of 11; she was devastated when her dreams of becoming a pediatric nurse were pretty much crushed, and, to this day, she wishes this life moment would’ve played out differently. She ended up having surgery to remove two of her ribs, and ended up living a very healthy life after that. Until, one fateful day, the Nazis were inspecting basements in her town, but they had an ulterior motive for her uncle’s house. The officer was one of her uncle’s old friends, and he pretty much told him to join the Nazi party or to flee. So, they fled and hid out in various towns across Germany. She met my Opa in the last town, Rosenheim.
Opa was born in Romania, which I knew, but he always said he was a German Romanian . . . not true. Opa is Romanian, Hungarian, and Kazakh, making me less German than I was told to believe. His family was very well-to-do and their farm was the biggest one in town!
Opa’s father, one day, managed to get a leaked list of names the Russians were capturing for their prisoner of war work camps. My Opa’s name was on the list. As soon as he got home, he told his son what he’d found out and instructed him to flee to Germany and to say he was German no matter what. Opa did so, and the Russian’s came within that week, angry that Opa wasn’t there, so they took his pregnant half-sister instead. My cousin was born in a Russian POW camp.
On his journey to Germany, Opa was captured twice, and managed to escape each and every time. Eventually, he made it to Rosenheim, where he met the love of his life.
I was ecstatic to find out the truth, but I never could feel the emotions, heartache, and pain both of my grandparents experienced during WWII, I could only immortalize it by keeping their courage as a memory and sharing their story with the world. It wasn’t until I recently watched The Book Thief that I finally and completely understood.
I remember when the book came out, my mother tried get me to read it, and I pooh-poohed it like a snob.
“I don’t feel comfortable reading a book narrated by the Grim Reaper,” was my excuse, every time.
Once the movie came out, my mother got it from Redbox and bribed me with cappuccino gelato . . . it’s like crack-cocaine to me. Happy as a clam, I ate my gelato as the movie started unknowing that I would be rocked to my very core. Liesel Meminger reminded me of a younger version of my Oma, strong, brave, but at the same time, shaking in her boots. Hans and Rosa Hubermann reminded me of my grandparents as a couple, the German Hausfrau wearing the pants–except Oma isn’t as tough as Rosa was–while the Mann just sits around as comic relief while playing the accordion. It was truly heartwarming.
In the movie–as I’m sure in the book, as well–Rosa and, Liesel’s best friend, Rudy Steiner referred to Liesel as Saumensch. I thought it was a term of endearment, which it came to be by the end, but, in reality, Saumensch means “pig girl.” On the offensive scale, I would put it just below, maybe even equal to, bastard or jackass.
Oma said, growing up, kids would call her a pig because word spreads like wildfire, and they all knew her mother was dating a Nazi. To them, Oma was a Saumensch.
In a weird way, with this all coming full circle, I finally can better understand my heritage, my family’s struggle, and, for that matter, every one involved’s struggle during WWII. I’m proud to be German . . . and Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, and Kazakh . . . and Mermaid. I’m honored to have the grandparents I have, and my respect for them is on a deeper level than it ever was before.
At the end of Easter dinner, Opa pointed at Oma and said to me, “That’s my Saumensch,” and it was the most touching and loving encounter I had ever witnessed.