Tuesday, May 05, 2015

When tolerance fails, can hearts prevail? An essay by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Novelist Pamela Schoenewaldt is here today with a post about her latest novel's historical backdrop, and the subject is very relevant for today as well. 


When tolerance fails, can hearts prevail? 
By Pamela Schoenewaldt

My research for Under the Same Blue Sky opened for me a fascinating look at my own German-American heritage, our national immigration debate, and a sobering reminder of how thin the veil of tolerance can be. A few facts. German-Americans are, even today, our largest self-reported minority. Between 1820 and World War I, six million Germans came to America, entering every profession and social strata, profoundly shaping our culture. By 1900, cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Hoboken were more than 40% German-American.

Many came to escape the draft (terms up to 25 years were common), poverty, and crushing debt. For my great-grandmother, Germany was a door that closed behind her. She learned English quickly and never looked back. Another ancestor, a cabinetmaker, found his place in a cozy German enclave of Manhattan called Harlem.

Other immigrants, like Johannes Renner of my novel, lived with the ache of loss, a deep well of memories and constant communication with friends and family back home. The stunning scale of horrors in World War I, both civilian and military, plunged him into what now would be diagnosed as “vicarious trauma,” a crippling manifestation of PTSD.

As America inched towards war, the predicament of German-Americans grew more complex and anguished. In fact, public suspicion and media railings against all “hyphenates” intensified. German-Americans, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, and Russian-Americans were suspect. Scrambling, German-Americans invented a pacifying phrase: "Germany our Mother, Columbia [America] Our Bride." Pretty words, said “real” Americans. But what happens when the mother and wife take up arms?

That day came, of course, on April 6, 1917. “Once lead this people into war,” President Woodrow Wilson warned, “and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.” He was right. Overnight, as soldiers were rapidly enlisted, another army was being created of graphic artists, cartoonists, musicians, speechwriters, journalists, and teachers. Their job was to whip up hatred against the Kaiser. Naturally there was spill-over. Suddenly, long-time neighbors, friends, and colleagues were suspect. English itself must be purged of “Hun” words like hamburger, sauerkraut, frankfurters, dachshund, German Shepherd. Speaking German in public was forbidden. Books were burned. Freedom of speech, press, and assembly were choked off. German-Americans were forced to buy war bonds in great quantities to “prove” loyalty. Jobs were lost, homes destroyed, thousands imprisoned on suspect charges. Employees in some factories were forced to crawl across the floor and kiss the American flag. There were lynchings.

So quickly all this happened. That was the stunner for me. Communities shredded. Tolerance forgotten. This has happened over and over in history, and often, of course, on a hugely larger scale. Yet within the madness, there were those who struggled for understanding, for separating politics from people, weaving hearts together despite differences and the deep wounds of war. That’s what Under the Same Blue Sky is about.


Pamela Schoenewaldt's Under the Same Blue Sky is published today in trade paperback by William Morrow (318pp, $14.99/Can$18.50).

credit: Kelly Norrell
Pamela’s first novel, When We Were Strangers (HarperCollins, 2011), was a USA Today Bestseller, a major book club pick, a Barnes & Noble Great Discovery, short-listed for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and has been translated into Polish, Dutch, and Russian. Swimming in the Moon (HarperCollins, 2013) was cited by the Pittsburgh Examiner as a “a must read for anyone who enjoys beautiful, richly drawn characters, and a historical setting so realistic that one would believe they had been transported to another time. A glorious, unforgettable novel, A+.” It was a runner-up for the Langum Prize and connects powerfully with those who struggle with the impacts of mental illness in their families.

Pamela lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy and the United States. Her play, “Espresso con mia madre” (Espresso with my mother) was performed at Teatro Cilea in Naples. She taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division and the University of Tennessee. Her interactive writing workshops inspire writers of all genre and stages. She now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband, Maurizio Conti, a medical physicist, and their dog Jesse, a philosopher.

1 comment:

  1. At an AAUW discussion prompted by Woman In Gold, I also heard several women with German parents talk about how their parents suddenly became silent about their heritage once war started.

    That silence is also a burden.