When the Russians had fully occupied what became East Germany, my mother found the Communist propaganda in school unbearable—so much so that in 1951, at age 17, she and a friend took the great risk of leaving their families to attempt crossing the border into the West. She succeeded, but not without some trials, and two years later was joined by my grandmother and aunt. When in 1953 Tante Ella visited West Germany, she asked my mother whether she wanted to come to New York. And months later my mother did just that, boarding the MS Stockholm in August 1954. Upon arriving in New York she stayed with Tante Ella and days later joined the ranks of the immigrant domestic help, taking a kitchen job in the magnificent townhouse of the Whiteman family on East 65th Street.
My father also lived in Manhattan in the '50s, working as a busboy at Neptune’s Corner on Broadway, and then as a waiter at Howard Johnson’s near Radio City while also taking English classes. If this weren’t enough, he was also for two and a half years enrolled at RCA Institutes, taking classes in the mornings and hoping for a job in the burgeoning field of electronics. He often told us of his struggle to get ahead, sometimes carrying home huge jars of cold coffee from the restaurant so he could stay up through the night to study for a morning exam. And he recalled with laughter the small humiliations of being new to the language, as when—at Howard Johnson’s—he delivered a Scotch on the rocks to the perplexed customer who had ordered a butterscotch sundae. He also said it was his duty to return the live lobsters displayed on ice in the window at Neptune’s Corner to their tank at the end of the night, placing them on a vast tray that he carried at shoulder level, and recalled that one Houdini among them one night, having slipped its rubberized bonds, promptly seized his nearby ear, causing such pain that he dropped the entire tray.
It was in the fall of 1956 that these two fatherless immigrants met in an evening English class on First Avenue, in what was then the Julia Richman High School. And that December they had their first date, visiting Teddy Roosevelt’s birthplace on East 20th Street, which patriotic fact I will always treasure, the star-spangled specific that swathes the first happy moments of my origins.
Just as my parents had created a home that was Greek and German, Tante Eleonore and Uncle Joe, whose surname was Sarrantonio and who was Italian—had a similarly mixed home. But just as marrying a Greek essentially meant becoming Greek, marrying an Italian from Astoria essentially meant becoming Italian. My aunt and uncle—and our two cousins Eleanor and Marion—lived in the apartment above Uncle Joe’s parents, “Nanny” and “Pop,” and just across the alley from my uncle’s brother’s family. So the world in which they lived seemed a hermetically sealed Italo-American universe in which all the pasta and wine were homemade and most of the boys were named Joe or Frank. The atmosphere was something out of Goodfellas, with beehive hairdos and Jerry Vale on the stereo singing “Non Dimenticar.” My Tante Eleonore swooned over him and—sounding remarkably like Marlene Dietrich—often said: “I love Jeh-wee Vale!”
[In 1971, when I was 7, I learned that my mother and brother and I—along with my aunt and cousins—were all going to East Germany to visit our relatives.] None of us cousins had ever been out of the country or on a plane. Wasn’t flying something rich people did? But the idea of entering that mythical world of the German relations about which my mother had told me my whole life seemed more amazing still. I generally felt more connected to my Greek side, going to Greek parochial school and having nearly all Greek family friends. I often observe that if you are raised by a Greek and a German, you will be raised Greek. Greeks have the stronger ethnic identity, so much so that for many of them “being Greek” is like a serious hobby, or even like a religion, and sometimes the Greek church is almost a part of that larger religion; and we weekly attended the Greek church, to which my mother “converted” before marriage.
My mother always said she was raised Lutheran, but there was little church attendance or serious attention to faith in her childhood. Everyone was baptized and confirmed and married in the church, but no one went on Sundays. Since the German state then required 14-year-olds to attend Confirmation classes, my mother did so, but only remembers the priest as “a beast” who rode a motorcycle. But her family’s indifference to church didn’t mean they didn’t believe in the God of the Bible—only that they knew little about him.
I remember that after we arrived in Frankfurt at what was then for me the middle of the night, I was so tired I could barely walk, but we all made our way to the cavernous train station, built at the beginning of the century, being the largest in Europe at that time. It was right out of a film from the '30s, with innumerable platforms and a vast ironwork and dirty glass ceiling so far above us it seemed like an indoor sky. I remember groggily eating frankfurters before boarding our train, but the appropriateness of this was likely lost on me. The train would take us behind the Iron Curtain and into the Communist world, which even then I knew was essentially the largest prison in the history of the world.
When some hours later we crossed the border into die Ostzone I saw it all: the guard towers and barbed wire and the machine gun-toting soldiers and vicious-looking German shepherds. All to keep people from leaving. When guards came through the train to check passports and visas my mother and aunt were tense, knowing that even though they were American citizens, they had “illegally” escaped from this very place not so many years before.
From Leipzig we went to Altenburg, and then continued on the train straight into the past, to Gross-stoebnitz, the tiny fabled village whose paeans my mother had ever and always sung. I was sure in going there we really were returning to my mother’s childhood, and because of the poverty endemic to Communism, virtually nothing had changed since my mother left. Even the train to Gross-stoebnitz was pulled by a black steam locomotive, like something from the 1880s. And when we arrived at the place my mother had spent most of her childhood—Tante Walli’s house—we saw there was no working bathroom, just the same exotic outhouse in the barn as had been there since forever.
Our weeks there were life-changing: I was for the first time in my life connected to that world from which part of me had come. This was the soil from which my mother and family had sprung, and I soon saw that our relatives’ sense of humor and outlook were so similar to my grandmother’s that it was as though I had always known these people, as though part of me belonged here infinitely more than it belonged in New York.
Americans hardly expect Germans to be jokey, but those from Saxony are, the most famous Saxon of all, Martin Luther, being infamous for his jesting, often of the earthy barnyard variety.
See how this story ends. You can pre-order a copy of Fish Out of Water: A Search of the Meaning of Life (Salem Books) here. Eric Metaxas is New York Times #1 bestselling author. He is the host of the Eric Metaxas Radio Show, a nationally syndicated radio program heard in more than 120 cities around the U.S. Learn more at www.ericmetaxas.com.