Dan Lieberman: Das Ist Normal

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Language, family and history weigh on Dan Lieberman as he contemplates the potential of a new year.

“Das ist normal,” my language app barks. “That is normal,” I translate, lying through my thumbs. Nothing is normal these days, as evidenced by the very fact that I’m learning German.

Both of my maternal grandparents were native German speakers. They were Jews. They fled the Nazis from Austria in 1938 to New York City while pregnant with my mom.

My grandparents’ experience was impressed upon me, and with it came life lessons about being frugal, mindful, prepared and never taking anything for granted. They also transferred a considerable dose of paranoia and general prejudice about anything German or Austrian. I never once heard them speak German, and they vowed, in thick German accents, to never return there. I associated German language with their oppressors, not them.

Then in 1990, fresh out of college, I traveled to central Europe, including Austria. Upon returning home, I visited with my grandmother. “How was the trip, Daniel Deary?” It was a loaded question, and I knew it, but still I gave the straight answer: I had a wonderful time. I told her of my travels, visiting her old apartment, eating her favorite foods, meeting gracious people.

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She stared blankly at me and said, “They’re Nazis, they’re horrible, even now they voted for Kurt Waldheim.” In her experience, she was right.

A few months ago, an unexpected thing happened. The Austrian government started offering citizenship to the descendants of Jews who fled the Nazis. I could become a dual citizen.

Dual citizenship now has a special appeal. It’s a geographic safety net, an escape hatch out of American dysfunction. But dare I submit an application to return to the scene of the crime? Dare I submit my fingerprints, my FBI records, my passport to the very people who expelled my family for being Jews?

Submitting that application has all the 2020 feels: unsafe, ominous, forced, wrong. And yet, it also seems like the potential for a new beginning in 2021. Acceptance, forgiveness, moving on. As they say in German: Ende gut, alles gut.

With a Perspective, I’m Dan Lieberman.

Dan Lieberman lives in Albany and works for a regional community energy service.