Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sharing Family Secrets

When Audrey accepted the invitation from Dr. Antje Strahl at the University of Rostock to come to Germany, she agreed to cross a divide more than 75 years old that separated her family from its German origins. She knew she was going to receive a group of books that had been lost to her family when they escaped the Nazi regime in 1939. In return, she was going to tell an audience of contemporary Germans about her family’s history both in Germany and in the U.S. It wasn’t easy deciding what to share and how to make a connection with a room full of strangers across the Atlantic Ocean.
Audrey wrote out a first draft of her remarks a few weeks before we traveled to Germany and asked me to look them over. This is a dangerous request since editors are known to—well—edit. So I made some suggestions, most of which she accepted, and she sent the draft along to our kids. Brett’s response was more enthusiastic than we are used to receiving from him:

“This is really fantastic! Wow, great work. Who knew that you were such an impactful writer?! :-) XOXO”
Amanda was also enthusiastic, but we are more used to that from her.

You can watch and listen to Audrey’s remarks here:

But first a little commentary. Audrey begins by explaining her connection to several small towns in the southern German region known as Lower Franconia. (We thought the region was Bavaria but were given a quick geography lesson by Dr. Strahl to set us straight.) Then she tells about her childhood in Washington Heights, where so many German Jewish Holocaust survivors settled during and after World War II. You cannot hear the audience’s response when Audrey speaks about the German foods she ate as a child, but I can tell you that they smiled and nodded appreciatively. You can’t underestimate the power of food to touch memories and link people together!
Audrey shares family history and secrets in Rostock
Then Audrey lets this room of strangers in on one of our great family secrets, which we might call the “Mürbeteig Mystery.” Mürbeteig is a type of shortcrust pastry dough that is common in German and Austrian homes, Jewish or non-Jewish. Audrey’s mother often made desserts featuring mürbeteig with fruit layered on top.
Our favorite cake of all had rhubarb piled on the dough with a layer of chocolate melted and hardened on top. Invariably, she would ask Audrey why she never made mürbeteig herself, all the while explaining how easy it was to make. She might even get in a little zing by noting how much our children liked the dough. After a few years, Brett and Amanda got into the act during family dinners in which a mürbeteig was part of the dessert. To get her goat, they would ask Audrey when she was finally going to follow in the family baking tradition. “It’s really easy,” they would add. Their wheedling always got a laugh, especially when it would prompt my mother-in-law to question her daughter’s reluctance in a serious tone. In her remarks, Audrey tells about how at age 12 Brett gave up on his mom and decided to make a mürbeteig himself. (By the way, in reviewing Audrey’s speech, Amanda noted that while Brett may have been the first to make the dough on his own, she wanted it on the record that she had been the first child to bake one with her grandmother. To be honest, neither Audrey nor I can recall which child was first. We do agree, however, that both children created a mürbeteig before their mother.)  
There was one more family secret that Audrey chose not to reveal to the audience in Rostock: When I looked up recipes for mürbeteig online, none of them indicated the value of adding a little white vinegar in the dough mixture. “That’s what gives it the mürb,” my mother-in-law would say. I think that meant flakiness.

After sharing the mürbeteig story, Audrey gets back to her family’s history, discussing why and how they left Germany to escape Nazi persecution and how they established new lives in New York.  She notes with satisfaction that “they started a new life with limited resources but the hope and dreams of living a normal, peaceful, and full family life” and accomplished their goals.

It was at about this point in her speaking that emotions began to surface, and Audrey had to take a deep breath to fight back tears. My wife knows how to make a dramatic exit!

After the book ceremony, Audrey was asked to retell parts of her story on TV and radio for Rostock audiences. Here she is on camera. The woman standing near her is her personal interpreter. It is nice to be a celebrity, if only for one day.
Audrey would have another tearful moment two days later when we visited her mother’s childhood home and looked out the same windows that a young Franzi Malzer had looked out 75 or even 85 years before. But that’s a story for another posting.

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