Missing the Boat

I wonder if my grandmother and I missed the boat. Did we share some kind of outsider status?
Jenna Gruen. Courtesy photo

Growing up, I was always a little scared of my paternal grandmother. She often tested my knowledge on certain subjects and constantly corrected my spelling. By junior high, she was writing letters to me in French, even though her native tongue was German, and English was her second language. She had a PhD in History from the University of Vienna. She was opinionated. I was unsure I measured up to my Ivy League cousin or valedictorian brother.

My grandmother never spoke of her former home in Vienna. She died more than 25 years ago. The last time I saw her was one visit while in college.

My brother saw her more often. They even traveled together once. He told me that she inquired about my “distance.” I figured out later that it was a coded word for my sexuality. I thought I could hear her judgment through my brother’s voice. I never came out to her, nor did I give her a chance to ask.

Her hand-written memoir has been sitting around my house for 20 years, but I only recently read it. It is a copy from my father’s original, densely lined 160 pages, in cursive and hard to read. Despite this, its content is a clear, factual chronicle of her childhood and adult years in Austria.

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She was 10 years old when Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated. “We all knew it meant war.” Four brothers fought in World War I and one never returned. They resented the Jewish refugees that were pouring in from Russia.

“To us they were an aggravation to our already very precarious food situation. … Years later in the U.S., after we had to leave behind everything and run when Hitler came, I often thought of those refugees and how shamefully we treated them. Jewish Americans looked at us askew. We were different, poor, and a menace to their own precarious position in society. Nobody wanted to hear or believe the gruesome truth that a planned extermination had started to take place.”

Descriptions of her married life mirrored those of many others. “Karl and I lived happily and occasionally unhappy together.” Much to my surprise, and during what must have been an “occasionally unhappy” time, my grandmother met the psychotherapist Alfred Adler and they became lovers “for a short time.” She does not explain how they met, but she describes his influence over her, his opposition to Freud, and the rise of his school of individual psychology.

In the early 1930s, he begged my grandmother to leave Europe and join him in the U.S. “Karl was much more important to me, so I declined. We never thought the world would permit an obvious lunatic like Hitler to stay in power. … Adler laughed in my face and said nobody will lift a finger to rescue us. The Austrians themselves will welcome Hitler.”

As she describes the Anschluss, the tone and pace of her writing changes. I can feel the desperate fear she must have felt during those months in 1938 as Hitler occupied Austria. “The occupation went smoothly. … All of a sudden, we woke up from a stupid dream. We knew we had to get out as soon as we could.”

Shortly after the occupation, my grandfather’s license to practice medicine was revoked, and they received that frightening knock on their apartment door when a Nazi told them to vacate within the week. She witnessed others who were dragged out of their homes and beaten. Food and consumer goods disappeared. Cars owned by Jews disappeared. The public parks in which she played as a child were now closed to Jews.

As the story progressed, her handwriting digressed. I was able to glean that her youngest brother was picked up on Kristallnacht and sent to Dachau. After they were forced out of their apartment, they squeezed into a smaller place with my grandfather’s mother until they were all able to leave. Himmler banned Jewish emigration altogether in October 1941. My grandparents were lucky to acquire an exit permit and fled to Argentina with my very young aunt and my father in utero.

It was heartbreaking to read about the disbursement of her siblings, some of whom fled to Paris. To this day, I am unsure of their fate.

I did not know any of this history as a child. I found out my father was Jewish through his best friend. After his third gin and tonic, he started explaining, loudly, why my parents did not belong to the golf club like everyone else.

My friend down the street told me a story of someone who threw pennies at her. She said it was anti-Semitic. I had to ask her what that word meant.

After reading my grandmother’s papers, I realized that the absence of her story filled me with a hole in my identity. It was hard for me to accept that my failure to come out to my grandmother left her with a hollow understanding of me.

My fear of her judgment exceeded that of others in my family. Today, my sexuality feels as mundane as being middle-aged.

Throughout the years with friends, I have felt both connected and disconnected to the Jewish community — a feeling of common history, but at a loss and almost embarrassed over my lack of language, tradition, and ritual.

I wonder if my grandmother and I missed the boat. Did we share some kind of outsider status? We were both hiding something from each other. What I found in her memoir, however, was a closet full of vulnerability, ambition, compassion, fear, and bravery. She also was not perfect, which was a relief to discover.

Her writing was given to me after her death. I am not sure if she planned to do anything with it. I am thankful that it has provided me with a deeper understanding. I can not help but think that maybe her intent was for me to simply read it.


Jenna Gruen (she/her) lives in St. Paul where she and her wife raised two children. She is a graduate of both Macalester College and Hamline University School of Law, and currently works as a marketing director for a law firm in Minneapolis. In her free time, Jenna enjoys hiking, cooking, writing, and playing with her artwork.

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