I’m a student,” is how I usually introduce myself when people ask. “What do you study?” is typically the question that follows; to which I respond “German-Jewish studies, mostly German- and Jewish literature.”
I receive mixed reactions to this statement. Some people think that it seems a natural pair – because of historical events, and some people think it is the most unlikely pair – also because of historical events. I guess neither opinion is inherently right or wrong, but I always find it interesting to see which of these two viewpoints people have.
After I explain what it is I study, people are always curious why I chose to study German and then Jewish studies. I’d like to think that I fell into both fields coincidentally; however, I chose to study German partly because of heritage reasons. In contrast, I didn’t learn of my Jewish heritage until after I had already begun pursuing scholarship in Jewish studies.
Last fall, I enrolled in the Senior Project Seminar (or senior thesis) required for students of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota. My project was an in-depth examination of a literary correspondence between Austrian poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. Bachmann, the daughter of a Nazi officer, and Celan, the son of Jewish parents killed in concentration camps, seemed the most unlikely pair. Nonetheless, they had an on-again off-again relationship for about a decade.
My senior project served as an introduction to German-Jewish literary studies which sparked my interest in taking another Jewish literature course during the spring. In this course, I worked closely with the Director for the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota to further explore my Jewish literary interests.
Roughly half-way through the semester, I felt the desire to reach out to my grandmother – from whom I hadn’t heard anything from in years. For some reason, I sensed that there was something Jewish about my family and about me. I wanted to dig a little deeper and see if I couldn’t uncover some lost family history. I’m glad I was curious enough to ask.
My grandmother provided me not only with this picture of my great-great-grandmother, Lena Estine Kittler, but also with her immigration documentation from 1890. At five years of age, Lena left Prussia (present day Poland, but then technically a German state) and traveled to the United States before settling in northern Wisconsin. She was Jewish.
Lena is my grandmother’s grandmother on my mother’s side. Sounds like a foolproof path to Jewishness, right? But it gets tricky because there is one link between myself and Lena that disconnects the maternal lineage, my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather was the son of Lena which means that it is not a complete maternal descent to me. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about my family to know if he and his wife were Jewish or not. I guess I’ll have to keep digging.