“Hey, Jew Nose, what’s up?” said the boy, one of the Teasers.
I pressed my non-Jewish face into the green vinyl of the school bus seat, which smelled like melted crayons. Maybe I said, “Shut up!” But I’m almost positive I laughed, the nervous, cornered laugh of a nerdy eighth-grader with a home perm, braces, and apparently, a nose with its own religion.
I do remember turning sideways later in the bathroom, holding the mirror of my powder compact to one side as I studied my profile reflected in the large mirror above the sink. I pulled my lips closed over the tangled wires of my braces. What did a Jew’s nose look like?
I had a nose, that much was sure, a nose emphatic and bumped with a strange ridge of bone at the midpoint. I don’t remember complaining about the teasing to my mother, but I must have, because I remember her comforting response, a disparagement of the upturned, thin-tipped Midwestern blond. “Who wants a ski slope for a nose?” she asked.
The German language meant “mother,” my mom with her long black hair and dark eyes. It meant trips to see all her relatives, to a land where the buildings were old and covered with layer after layer of paint like cake batter. The windows opened sideways to cold, wet air. The keys were heavy and worn. The rolls were warm from the bakery every morning, and the chicken soup was homemade with thick noodles. Behind my Uncle’s house there was a cherry tree and a pond with fat orange goldfish. All the people waved their hands when they talked, struck a fist to emphasize a point, pounded the table in the garden at night, and let loose into the air the howling giggle I also inherited.
On trips to Germany, I played with Legos on the floor with my younger brother and sister. We ate gummy bears—rubbery, tough, and slippery like the language I barely understood. The adults talked, and I heard raised voices and the occasional arguments and shouts—about something. As each evening deepened, empty wine and schnapps bottles lined up on the table and yells and even tears exploded around the adults’ table.
I am not sure when the trouble about being German first crept into my head, but I know that it came imperceptibly, as though the connotations of each word—heavy and gray as the weather—suggested tension. Visits to American family picnics did not have the weeping, the yelling about the dead, the periodic silent treatments and the liquid, lost look in the eyes of loved ones, as if they could only stare from the other side of an expanse without explanation.
I once pulled at my mother’s sleeve and pointed at the moss-covered concrete domes that sat like massive mushrooms in front of my Aunt Inga’s building and at regular intervals down the block.
“Those are where people would go to hide from the bombs, during the war,” my mom explained, leaning so close as to almost touch her lips to my hair.
The War, which must have explained all the dead people—the names of my mother’s missing siblings, the reason why I never knew my grandparents. I imagined that it was a very old war, like the Civil War in the U.S., something you learned about in history class and then imagined always in textbook-style illustrations.
I thought there were several German nations, as if the East and West divided by the Wall, by the Reichs, and the "never again"s could be endlessly divided and refracted. The Germany of Postcards is blond girls and lederhosen, green mountains and castles. The Germany I knew could not be the same place. My Germany smelled of chemicals and tailings from old coal mines, hills dotted with smokestacks and mine tipples. The kitsch of The Germany of Postcards refused to overlap with the grit of My Germany, the sobbing of broken people and the silences, the shush-shush of the language as mazes of dead-ends presented themselves, the stink of the chemical plant in Marl, the town where my mother was born.
The Chemische Werke Hüls—Hüls Chemical Plant, the Bunawerk—is as deeply connected to my memories of Germany as are the faces of my relatives. The initials CWH in German are pronounced “say-vay-hah.” When we went to visit my relatives, I looked out the car window and searched for the huge smokestacks with their delicate red necklaces of lights to deter airplanes. When I saw them, I knew we were in our Germany.
This industrial complex still exists today. Even though it has branched out to fabricate paints and solvents and a thousand other chemicals, people in Marl still call it the Bunawerk. Getting a whiff of a certain type of exhaust from a diesel bus gives me a rush of emotional warmth, an almost teary nostalgia. At the expense of a few brain cells, I have stood behind a bus as it took off from a stop to inhale instead of holding my breath. If there’s a family member around, I will say, “Doesn’t that smell like Germany?”
At home in Illinois, I had a prize German toy: a wicker baby carriage with a rounded canopy and a wooden bottom. It also had thin wooden wheels that shook when you pushed it. Inside would lay only the luckiest blue-eyed dolls. You couldn’t put a plastic doll in this carriage, I felt, so I only pushed the German dolls with porcelain heads and faces that refused to smile. This carriage was old, twenty or thirty years at least, and it had been played with by children, my relatives, in Germany. It was originally some cold color, maybe grayish blue, and then someone painted it a depressing blood red. Then it emigrated and was painted white. It was thickly painted, over and over, like everything in Germany, so the stories wouldn’t seep out. But it was a reminder, to me, of a place where even the toys seemed touched and beaten by time.
The Germany I knew from family visits had little to do with history—on the surface. But the surface was present, it seemed, merely to hold the history in place, to keep it from erupting. And then there was the other Germany, separated from the place, formed from grainy black-and-white images in a Time Life picture book on the Holocaust, the bone-white limbs and faces, the bodies, twig-thin and lifeless, piled up before the shovel of a bulldozer, the mug shots of Jewish men and women of all ages still alive when the flashbulb popped. Those faces made you spin stories: What happened to that particularly pretty dark-haired girl, and to that freckled boy with the half-smile? Did they fall in love, and did she break his heart? Oh, of course—they are all dead.
“Jewish Nazi! Hey!”
I turned around in my seat in math class to glare at the boys in the back row. I felt time unhinge, as something about my face pulled me back into a history I might have understood in abstraction but was not able to map onto myself.
The boys knew I went to Germany every few summers. Despite my frustration, I knew the Nazi epithet would stick on any German. It was something every German had to personally address.
It made me worry, still does, that the boys, in learning about the Holocaust in history class, learned only enough to pick up exactly the wrong lesson, a few diagrams about Hitler’s theories of racial purity tucked into their back pockets. And of course: How could you not look at my face and put me on that list?
I knew my face: a heavy nose, olive skin, and sleepy-looking eyes. When I was younger, adults approached my mother in restaurants and shopping malls to guess what I was. Greek? Mexican? Lebanese-Italian-Cherokee-Jewish? I was often pleased, took the questions as a sign of being mysterious, exotic, a promise that I might grow up and fit in anywhere. But it also made me feel strangely guilty, as if I were lying without meaning to.
I didn’t know that I was part Polish, or that Germans had not just a simple hatred of Jews but also a complex classification system for everyone in Europe, that Poles had persecuted Jews, that Russians had killed Ukrainians, Ukrainians had killed Jews, that the lines on a map meant a Pole could be Russian-Prussian-Ukranian-Lithuanian-Jewish-Spanish. I wish we’d learned in our Midwestern eighth grade history class about Europe, not as a picture postcard tourist destination but as a roiling pit of violence that spit most of our extended families out and away.
In the ’60s and ’70s, the Bunawerk plant distributed toys bearing its logo, a two-inch rubber man wearing a white top hat. The letters C, W, and H were each printed on a separate sphere, and three stacked spheres formed his body. The red, blue, and yellow body of the smiling CWH-man appeared in our toy box at home in Illinois, and was perched on the key rack at my Aunt Inge’s house in Germany. I didn’t know the little man stood for a specific company; I thought he just stood for being German.
I wasn’t aware until I’d traveled in Europe that all of Germany isn’t like Marl, isn’t ringed with a web of industry. I also wasn’t aware until I was in my 20s that the name Hüls was a neighborhood before it was the nickname of the rubber plant. Growing up, I had an awed gratitude for the never-sleeping, twisting maze of stacks, piping, and warehouses with their nighttime plumes of smoke. I think, too, that I am drawn to the images of science fiction films, the shots of nighttime lights across a complex of silver pipes out into the horizon and beyond, because they remind me of CWH at night.
I had the luxury, of course, of seeing CWH only intermittently, not having to breathe its foul air every day and worry about the effects of its byproducts on my body. The plant used to “flavor” its emissions with strawberry or banana scents to hide the stink of the chemical compounds created there, and Marl smelled on many days like embalmed fruit.
Most of my uncles and male cousins have moved through jobs in CWH. My uncle Günther, Inge’s husband, spent his entire career at CWH and lived in company-built housing a short walk from the plant. My cousin Jörg, Inge’s son, went to work at Hüls when he was out of high school, as his father had done. But Jörg was a rebel, and he did the unthinkable: he quit.
“The place smells like burnt bananas, or burnt strawberries. Did you ever notice that?” Jörg took us for a ride in his off-road jeep during one visit when I was probably 11 or 12. He cranked his rock band’s latest creation on the tape player and spun us through the mud as he tried to explain his hatred for Hüls. “The plants put out all kinds of terrible stuff into the air. Then they dump perfume out—that’s why the town smells like fruit!—so we can’t smell the really bad stuff. That’s why the whole town stinks the way it does.”
I idolized Jörg, with his shaggy haircut and his trips to Israel, his rock and roll and his rebellion. I didn’t know until then that it was possible for a chemical plant, for CWH, to do anything but pump out benevolence.
No one told me the uglier facts: IG-Farben, today a multinational conglomerate and once the founder and owner of CWH, had employed thousands of slave laborers and foreign POWs during World War II, both at work camps right in Marl and at one of its sister plants, just beyond the gates of Auschwitz.
In March of 1938, Germany invaded Austria, and CWH’s rubber was molded into tires and gas masks for the war machine. The smoky, gray skies of the Ruhr, already laced with a blanket of coal dust, seemed to hide a threat from above. Logically, anyone wanting to strike down Germany would choose the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany, to drop payloads of bombs.
The Bunawerk, my benevolent beast, was so critical to the war effort that if it had been bombed in ’41, Hitler’s drive to war would have been immediately ended. Reading the history now, I have a split desire, both urging the Allies to bomb the hell out of the plant, and knowing that the more they bomb, the more I decrease my own chances for existence.
My face makes promises I cannot keep. I once stood at a bar in the town of Halle near Marl, half-drunk and wanting to lose myself in spinning to the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” not understanding the head-shakes, the belligerent look and the hand gesture of the bartender who refused my money. I knew that my uncle drove past the mosques, shaking his head and blaming the Turks for Germany’s problems. And I never told my uncle that I’m more often taken to be a Turk than a German.
Once in Bonn, a Turkish man handed me a falafel and launched into an extended looping Turkish soliloquy.
I shook my head, held up my hand, smiled with confusion.
“Turkei?” he asked, the German work for Turkey.
I shook my head no. He waved his fingers in front of his face in a sweeping motion, a sad look to his face, said with this gesture, But you look so Turkish.
I said, “Nein, Polnisch.” I always say Polish in Europe because people know the genetic stew of Poland is thick with mystery, because that’s easier for people to understand.
He held my eyes and smiled sadly as if I was playing a trick on him.
Why didn’t I just say German, just let it be as it is? The desire to please, to make it simple. The desire to not have to claim it as mine.
Maybe I have clung to Germanness, the language and the place, to peel apart this confusion about whether I was German enough on the outside. It is often tempting to pretend to melt into another heritage; I felt misplaced because the truth of genetics—my dark features, my face the true mix of Europe—confounds the Aryan nightmare. Inside I am soaked in Germanness, the legacies of that old and lasting desire to write a genetic postcard with an illustration of racial kitsch, to claim what a German should look like.
In calling me a Jew, those Midwestern boys revealed with their tongues and mouths and sounds all of the tentacles and nerves that tied the malignant present to its cancerous past. Hearing "Jew" as a taunt ripped open something I had always known without thinking: my face bore the footprints and wheel-wagon ruts of history. My face made the simple, complicated.