catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 11 :: 2010.05.28 — 2010.06.10


The presence of the past

Last week, my husband Tim came home early from his regular Thursday pick-up game of basketball at the university sports center here in Gottingen, Germany. I was puzzled to see him; I’d expected him to be much later, and he explained the reason for his premature return: "They found a bomb from World War II near the sports center where they’re doing some construction, and everyone had to leave the building. This seemed bizarre; we hadn’t realized that thousands of leftover bombs still litter Germany — they’re usually found and deactivated without incident. I didn’t give it much further thought.

My father spent nearly three years as a “cold-warrior” at Hahn Air Force base in west-central Germany in the mid-1970s. As an MP (military police), he guarded bombs — lots of huge and potentially very destructive bombs. He never saw combat, spending most of his time in Germany living off the military base, learning German, disco dancing and flirting with German girls. At the same time, he became something of a military history buff, eagerly absorbing World War II history, and, being a guy with lots of Jewish girlfriends in his past and a fascination with Judaism, he also studied the Holocaust and visited former concentration camps. Later, back in the States, he re-met and married one of those former Jewish girlfriends, and they had me.

Though both of my parents are practicing Christians, they were eager for me to have a sense of Jewish identity. They taught me to say the Shema in Hebrew (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD is G-d; the LORD is One”). They had me baptized — but in Israel, in the Sea of Galilee. They dragged me to Schindler’s List when I was way too young to handle it  and I read and re-read my autographed copy of I am a Star until my mom brought me to work with her to meet Inge Auerbacher, the author. I had Hebrew lessons with the local rabbi when my dad was the pastor of the nearby Baptist church. He was Israeli, made great coffee, had a cat named Nefertiti and refused to eat anything imported from Germany.

My husband and I moved here, to Gottingen, Germany, last September. When we arrived on the train, I got off first with our two young sons; Tim headed back into the train to grab our suitcase. The train was running late and the engineer must have been trying to make up time, because the doors closed faster than usual.  I clapped my hands against the glass door, mouthing “goodbye” to my husband before he sped on to the next city. It was silly, but my mind kept remembering horrific scenes of separation taking place by trains — scenes culled from my overexposure to WORLD WAR II films.

But I work hard to live in the moment.  For me, this means I try to live here in Germany without forgetting what happened to people of my pedigree 70 years ago, but also realizing that those tragic events are over. When my dad visited me last year, he also returned to the Air Base. Delightfully, the old armory has been converted into a green energy plant with wind and water mills. We rhapsodized about “swords beaten into plowshares,” and I felt pretty comfortable leaving the past in the past, enjoying and admiring the peaceful and democratic culture of Germany.

But last night, I came home late from the saltwater pool, where I’d enjoyed a long swim to find my husband waiting up for me.  “I heard a loud explosion and then an hour’s worth of emergency sirens,” he said.  “I’m not sure what’s going on.” This morning, we learned another bomb had been discovered near a university building; just before it was to be deactivated, it detonated, killing three people, seriously injuring two others and blowing the fronts off of two nearby houses. One of Germany’s bomb disposal experts explained that the acetone detonators in these old bombs are deteriorating, meaning that as time goes on, these bombs will become increasingly fragile and essentially impossible to deactivate safely. Many of these bombs are buried well below the ground, covered by buildings erected in the post-war period.

The lady who lives next door is 84; her husband just died, and she lives alone. I bring her food now and then, as a way of letting her know I’m here if she needs me, and so that she’ll have something to eat beside the ready-made meals that are her usual diet. My German isn’t really good enough for serious conversation, and I’m wary of asking too many questions anyway, but sometimes I wonder what she and her husband were up to during the war. I wonder what kinds of things she remembers and what kinds of things she wishes she could forget. I wonder what she was thinking when the bomb went off.

I’m reminded of a well-known quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I’m not an expert in these things, but it certainly seems to me that armed and violent conflict, once begun, never ends. Even in Europe, whose medical systems and provisions for social welfare I admire as progressive and peace-promoting; where a “chunnel” connects the countries that were rivals in near-ancient times; where, for the most part, people of all faiths and colors and creeds can happily co-exist; where my children are safe to play; where organic gardening is as common, as, well, dirt; where bicycling everywhere is possible and encouraged and delightful — here, a bomb dropped more than 60 years ago can, and did, go off, taking lives with it.

More than 2,000 tons’ worth of bombs are found and safely deactivated in Germany every year; the three deaths yesterday are rare and tragic. It feels surreal, impossible, that here, now, in this sweet university town with its beautiful old buildings and posh modern shopping district, bombs from WORLD WAR II can still exercise their deadly power. Yet deaths from explosives left behind after the end of conflicts take many lives — not usually in places like this one, but every 22 minutes, worldwide, someone is killed or maimed by a “leftover” landmine. And most often, it’s not members of a bomb disposal crew who die or are wounded — it is those who, of all people, are most innocent and vulnerable: children. In Cambodia, it’s actually common to have had an amputation after a landmine injury; 85% of children wounded by landmines will die before they even receive treatment for their injuries. Why does the detonation of yesterday’s bomb seem so outrageous and bizarre, while statistics on landmines float by without much of a ripple? If the bomb expert is right, and more hidden World War II-era bombs become unstable, perhaps we’ll all have to open our eyes to the past that is still, actually, present.

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