“The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Nov. 9 marks the 26th anniversary of an event that seemed to most of the world at that time beyond improbable: the relatively abrupt fall of the Berlin Wall and, a year later, the reunification of East and West Germany.
I think a lot about the fall of the Berlin Wall. I am not German nor did I have family from there. I am a Jew, born in the United Kingdom and raised in Canada. And as improbable as those events were in the course of history, I have my own improbable story – linked to that Wall.
In June 1983, I was backpacking my way through Europe. I began the year working on a kibbutz for several months before my European arrival. Having been a political science major, the possibility of visiting East Berlin exerted a gravitational pull on me that was irresistible. Curiosity came into play as well. Growing up in Toronto’s Bathurst Manor meant having friends whose parents were Holocaust survivors. None in our family were. Still, I developed a poisonous aversion to all things German. Years later I would refuse to allow my fiancé to consider registering for German-made cutlery. (I lost that battle.)
East Berlin was exactly as one would expect having read a John Le Carré novel. Crossing through Checkpoint Charlie with a couple of Americans, the world of colour suddenly seemed to turn to black and white. Nothing much had changed since World War II. I could still make out the strafing marks of artillery on the grey walls of many buildings I walked past.
We stopped at a small cafe and invited a couple of East Berliners our age to join us. They showed us around, and we talked about life behind the Iron Curtain. At the end of our day I suggested to my new Communist friend that we keep in touch. We exchanged addresses. A few months later and back in Israel, I received my first letter from Frank.
By the end of 1983, I returned to Toronto and Frank and I continued writing to each other. We talked about politics mostly, but our lives crept into the dialogue, too. Frank was absurdly worldly compared to me. He was intellectual and read widely. He played the saxophone and was addicted to American jazz. He loved everything from philosophy to movies. I confessed to him that he was the first German I knew. He confessed that I was the first Jew he had ever met.
But there was a question lodged in the back of my mind from the day I met him: “Frank, what did your father do in the war?” It took me almost three decades to finally ask him that question. It was that question and the test in the knowing that would be an indirect catalyst to my own reunification.
* * *
For 40 years, my father and I had been living on either side of our own Berlin Wall. A big-talking, charming, slap-on-the-back salesman, he was always “this close” to the Big Score. One day he never returned from a business trip to the Far East and our family now three of us (mom, myself and younger brother) was abandoned. Seven years later I found out he had a new family. I hated him.
In September of 2014, my father and I made one last attempt at reconciliation. I was tired of the hating, of the grip that my hate for him had on me. Being with him was at first awkward and uncomfortable. I refused to call him “Dad,” but we were making progress. Then in late December 2014 I found out that he had been hospitalized. The weeks passed and his condition continued to decline.
“I want to show you something,” said his third wife. It was a green military beret. “It belongs to your father.”
I said I had no idea what she was talking about. She gave me a puzzled look. “Stuart, has your father not told you what he did in the war?”
“No. What war?”
* * *
In one of his letters, Frank said that while the benefits of reunification were undeniable, for many East Germans the sudden and powerful inrushing of new freedoms and opportunities created a kind of anxiety. We fear what we do not know.
I was afraid of what I might come to know of my father. I was afraid that I might lose the moral clarity of seeing the world we shared as black and white.
It became clear that he was going to die. It would only be a matter of time. In the days that followed we talked in great detail about his experiences in the Korean War. I often sat on the edge of the bed beside him. He had been a member of an elite squad of Royal Marine commandos. I realized my father was someone I knew in an extremely limited way. In that role as father and husband I remembered him as an unmitigated disaster. But as a soldier my father had been a success. He revealed horrific and gruesome battle stories to me. I now know I am here because of his heroic actions.
He died on Feb. 11.
I am not ready to forgive my father particularly for abandoning my mother. But I no longer hate him. I understand that his life might have been more complicated than I was willing to allow. Maybe it’s because I was afraid of what I might find. It can be easier standing on one side of the wall talking about “them” while we comfort ourselves on our side talking about “us.”
At the end of the day, however, there is no “us” and “them.” Only “us.” Faulkner was right – up to a point. The past is never past. It will always be with us. He was wrong, however, to pretend that the past determines our future.
The ultimate lesson I learned at the Berlin Wall is that our biases and prejudices, our habits and predispositions – are not chosen for us. We choose them.
I never believed I could ever reunite with my estranged father. The hate was too real. I thought it was too late. But we made a choice and the wall between us came down. The past is a kind of wall.
Stuart Lewis blogs at Letters and Walls