Oma left this world at 7:40 am on a cold and snowy morning in March.
But that’s where the story ends.
Even though it begins earlier than 1938, her story really starts, for me, on the cold and rainy day Oma left Germany from the harbor in Hamburg, Germany.
Oma likely stood in the same spot before leaving Germany in 1938, as I stood at 63 years later (in 2001) when I lived in Germany as an exchange student.
She landed in New York on April 1, 1938.
Oma said that some of her earliest memories in Germany including playing with her cousins, Charlie and Lillian, picking fruit in her grandmother’s garden in Twistringen, Running around with her brothers Walter and Hans and visiting the Westfalia Kaufhaus, a department store which her Dad and Uncle owned, and were forced to sell at a loss to a member of the Nazi party.
I’m of the impression that her father and uncle were very hard-working, fleissig (industrious) individuals throughout their lives, regardless of the circumstances that they found themselves in.
Oma said she also remembered a torch lit Nazi parade marching by their home and that even as a very young little girl, it made quite an impression on her.
Because of the pressure and impossibility of staying in Germany as a Jew, their family moved to Hamburg to make preparations to get out of the country. When they did leave, they were just days away from not being allowed to leave. And no doubt, I would have not been here to tell you this story as Oma likely would have not lived through the wars as a Jewish little girl. Dad would have never been born, my parents would have never met and I would never have stood in the same spot at Hamburg harbor over sixty years later.
Sometimes I simultaneously realize the contradictory thoughts; how small I really am and just how important my life really is.
Your life too, no doubt.
Oma always had the feeling that the stress of everything that happened to them during World War II was the cause of her parent’s divorce. I don’t know what happened to Oma’s grandparents on her mom’s side, my great-great grandparents. But Oma once told me when I asked for her opinion about the September 11th attacks, “I’ve seen it all before. It’s better not to talk about the details.” Es ist zu deprimiert.
Even though Oma came from affluence, she was never too good or too old or to knowledgeable to try something new.
She told me how she had learned to vaccinate a cow on a ranch in Wyoming. While I don’t think she enjoyed vaccinating cattle or ranch life or Wyoming in general, there was a certain degree of pride in how she said it which showed she was excited to have been strong enough to overcome her fears and how proud she was of overcoming that struggle so that she could learn something new.
Learning something new was a theme of Oma’s life.
At seventy, with just a very little bit of coaxing, she got set up with a dial-up AOL account and we all started communicating with her via email. Whenever she didn’t understand something, she would ask and Dad, Brian, Adam or I would sit at her computer with her. Adam and Dad spending into the hundreds of hours because Oma really wanted to understand it and to learn what was “out there.”
Though she wasn’t particularly religious, Oma was a rather spiritual person. I was always surprised whenever she would say, “well, thank the good lord for that;” which usually followed some concession statement by someone else. I know we would say something like, “I can’t fix your computer completely at the moment, but at least you’ve got access to email” and Oma would respond, “well, thank the good lord for that!”
Carrie reminded me that when we told Oma we were thinking of getting married outside in the mountains and that some people we know had objected to it; Oma said, “well, what’s the matter with that? Outside is God’s greatest church!”
That was Oma’s spirit and her spiritual rather than religious approach to matters of the soul.
Oma loved to travel. One time we were talking with her after dinner, right before we left to go to Africa. She pulled out her photos of her travels through Africa and told us that we should stay away from baboons and monkeys. “Stay away from the baboons because they are ferocious and mean, and stay away from the monkeys” because one time a monkey crawled up on her head and peed on her.
I believe her words about that experience were, “it only takes one time to learn that lesson!”
It’s easy to imagine Oma traveling at a game park in Africa, or standing next to a pyramid in Egypt, hiking a mountain in Hawaii, or taking a Caribbean cruise.
She also went to Haiti and enjoyed several trips back to Germany and Europe, and enjoyed time in California visiting family and friends.
“Traveling with Walter (*her brother) is an adventure in itself,” she said. “You should try riding in a rental car in Germany or Austria with my brother sometime!”
Oma loved her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren; her nieces and their husbands and their children. I remember how excited Oma was after five grandsons, to have a granddaughter and how special it was that that granddaughter shared the same birthday as Claire (her mom).
She loved being a great-grandparent as well.
For someone who took a lot of flak for being a stubborn German, Oma really did a lot of things in her life to expand her mind and her views and seems to have adapted to change as readily as anyone I know.
I got to spend a lot of time with Oma. For a while, I was her massage therapist and I learned a lot about Oma in our massage sessions; both in what she said and in where she carried her pain.
When I got back from Germany, for a long time Oma and I talked almost exclusively in German. It felt to me like “coming home;” like some deep part of me had been born in Germany long before I was even a thought. I imagine that it must have been a little bittersweet for Oma to hear me speaking in the language of her childhood and hearing her grandson speaking the language of the country her family had to leave for fear of certain death. However, I know it gave her a lot of pleasure and joy to know that that heritage continued on.
The things I will miss most about my Oma are so many, but include her quips and quotes and idiomatic expressions. There were a lot of older Yiddish words I knew before knowing German because of her; schlep, kitsch, rutsch, schmuck, mensch, just being a few of these words.
I’ll also miss her knowledge of jewelry and how much she enjoyed fine things. How she would kiss me on the cheek and then wipe the lipstick off. And yes, even her strong perfume!
Oma may have left Germany on a dreary day and she may have left America and this life on a cold and snowy day, but her legacy, the stories she shared, the life she lived, her “tough old bird” attitude and her unbreakable spirit, these things leave behind a sunshine and a warmth in our hearts.
We will miss you Oma, but you live on in the things you shared and put into all of us.
Adam made a really great video capturing Oma’s life and spirit. It’s posted below.
If you would like to have a copy of the video on your computer, there are links you can use to do so below the video.
Once you click play, the video may take a moment to start. It’s a big file, so give it some time to download.
Click to download the video (HIGH RES: 340 MB) (LOW RES: 35 MB)