Brigid Grauman / Jan 2020
Europe is wrestling with the challenges of cultural adaptation as migrants from Afghanistan, Syria or Africa flee their home countries in search of better lives for their families and themselves. The difficult task of assimilating into a new culture covers everything from headscarves to not throwing one’s garbage in the streets.
A friend in Brussels teaches illiterate migrants how to read. A few of them are in their sixties, and struggle to make sense of the squiggles on a page. At first some don’t know which way is the right one to hold a notebook, and it’s a big victory when someone triumphantly recognises an individual letter of the alphabet. These are people who never went to school.
But cultural adaptation can also be about regaining former status that came with the profession once exercised at home. One thinks of Syrian doctors not allowed to practise in Europe because their qualifications are not recognised, and waiting in workless in limbo. Leaving one’s homeland is rarely an easy decision, and it often takes at least one lost generation before a foothold is established in the new country.
The perennial hardship of immigration was made achingly clear to me as I studied the seven memoirs I had inherited from my family. They now are the backbone of my book, Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre, a family saga that starts in the Jewish quarter of a small town in 19th-century Moravia and makes its difficult way to Britain and the United States, via Zurich, Brussels and Havana. The New York Sun review reads “Ms Grauman manages to capture the perpetual anxiety and wanderlust typical of many survivor families.”
This was of course another time and place, Austro-Hungary before and after World War Two. My Jewish grandfather, a lawyer in Vienna, reached the United States via a circuitous route, naively assuming that he would be able to resume a practice in the New World. But his qualifications meant nothing in America. He was a German-speaker in his fifties who spoke only passable English, while also attempting to come to terms with the news that his three siblings and three of his nephews had been murdered by the Nazis.
For a while, he packed crates in a New York bookshop, until with my grandmother they heard of a scheme for middle-aged Jewish refugees to run chicken farms in New Jersey. My more down-to-earth grandmother adapted to the new circumstances, but my grandfather just couldn’t. Once a well-paid international lawyer, he was nothing now, and had not even been able to save his younger siblings from the Nazis. Eventually he returned alone to Vienna, driven by nostalgia for the days when he was still a man of the world.
The other family members who started new lives abroad suffered similar disruption; painter Uncle Otto interrupted a portraitist’s career in Vienna to move to a precarious living in London, his playwright brother left the literary life in the Vienna he had loved, losing his language. “Safe in England, but never at home” was how they described their situation.
When writing this memoir, I knew how much my book resonated with what is going on around us today. My family’s story - their lives interrupted in childhood or mid-career, learning a new language but never being fluent, leaving familiar landscapes - this is still the lot of countless men and women today. So many people who are trying to make a fresh start, whether out of economic necessity or simply to save their own lives and those of their families, encounter that loss of familiarity and culture.
I too bear the marks of earlier generations’ displacement, and “never at home” rings very true. Born in Geneva to an Irish mother and American father, having spent my childhood in France, Israel and Belgium, I don’t quite belong either to the French or the English culture, and only have one foot in a Jewish identity.
If you don’t have roots in any one country, when your family is small and dispersed, you feel the evanescence of things. Trying to decipher the alphabet when you didn’t go to school in your native country can be a heroic undertaking. Emigration is usually braved in the hope of a better life or simply of survival, and increasing numbers of people are having to make that choice.