08 November 2018

Slow boat to Japan (PS)

Children line up for photos at the Atomic Dome, Hiroshima.
It's been exactly a month today since we returned from Japan. I have already written about my two visits to Kobe (my mother's school and the search for her home address); now I'm adding a couple of final highlights.

First, as background, here are two more links to earlier blog posts. In 2014, at Judy's urging, I made my first visit back to Stuttgart, Germany, since 1966, when I was a teenager and my mother's parents were both still alive. There, among other things, I saw the high school my mother attended after she and her family were deported from Japan in 1948, and I saw the location of the home I lived in as a toddler in my grandparents' care as my parents finished grad school in Chicago. Fast-forwarding to this summer, after our retirement from teaching at the New Humanities Institute in Elektrostal, we took the opportunity to make my first-ever visit to Japan, where my mother was born and raised.

(In passing, I have a few important comments to make below about the Institute in Elektrostal.)

Hiroshima. We made a far-too-brief visit to Hiroshima on October 4. It had been rescheduled to that day because of a typhoon earlier in the week, and it was cut short by another typhoon that threatened to disrupt rail travel back to our host's home in Osaka. We ended up having just four hours, all of which we spent at the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, easily accessible from the train station on a convenient streetcar line.

Examining the Dome's scars.
I've explained before why I avoid indulging in emotionalism over the events of August 6, 1945, but (whatever the chain of evil decisions leading to that awful moment) at Hiroshima it is impossible to avoid the evidence of the high cost that tens of thousands of ordinary people paid for those decisions. My eyes simply had to examine obsessively every visible surface of the iconic Atomic Dome building to see the scars left by the bomb's destructiveness.

The most moving exhibits within the museum were the clothing and personal effects of those caught within the zone of greatest destruction, along with the letters and diaries documenting the final hours of loved ones. We can argue endlessly about the scientists and politicians who set up that destruction, and who were themselves trapped in the supposed logic of total war. It's much harder to justify the suffering of innocent people who were seared, irradiated, and in some cases vaporized by what really amounted to a weapons test made on human subjects.

It was inspiring to see the crowds of children visiting the Peace Memorial Park. I hope that each one of them will be part of a new generation worldwide who have no illusions about the capacity of warfare to resolve conflict.

Osaka Friends Meeting. Our last full day in Japan was Sunday, October 7. It was a great joy to attend meeting for worship with local Friends, some of whom we already knew from their kind attendance at the lecture I gave at Osaka University a few days earlier. That Sunday happened to coincide with World Quaker Day, so before our meeting for worship began, we were all part of an online video meeting with Friends in other parts of Friends World Committee's Asia and West Pacific Section.

After the exchanges of video greetings, our meeting for worship began. We centered ourselves in the welcoming silence. Almost immediately I knew that, for all the distances we'd traveled, all the newness of the location, we were in an utterly familiar place.

I remembered one of my favorite short prayers, "Lord, I want to dwell in you," and understood that once again that this prayer, this dwelling place, is real everywhere. It was also true that the scale of our gathering -- there were ten of us, including Judy and me -- was achingly familiar from our years at Moscow Meeting. I'm sure that the friendly facilities, a room in a Catholic retreat house, also contributed to the impression. But I arrived with a brain bubbling with clashing impressions and family mysteries, so these congenial outward factors don't tell the full story. There's nothing that equals the comfort of bringing these unsettling items into the meetingplace of the family of faith, and placing them at Jesus' feet.

Johan Fredrik Maurer's
descendants (pdf; as of 1948).
Family quest, recap. One advantage of moving back from Russia to our Portland home was to be back in possession of our old papers and photos. With fresh eagerness, I looked at my family records. Once again the contrast is startling: for my Maurer family tree, I have abundant records going back to Johannes Maurer, who left Ulm for Copenhagen toward the end of the 1700's, and whose son Johan Fredrik Maurer emigrated from Denmark to Norway. Thanks to the Internet, I also know a lot about my grandmother Gerd's family. But I still know very little about the history of my mother's family.

However, thanks to our trip to Japan, and the advance research that our host Takayuki Yokota-Murakami had done for us, the Japanese gaps in that history are starting to be filled in. I visited my mother's school and learned a lot about its history. I learned that my family lived in Kobe since at least my mother's birth. I know where they lived, even though the house itself doesn't exist now. I know they had a summer house in the hills overlooking Kobe. My grandfather's engineering office was included in a list of German businesses in Osaka. I know a lot more about German-Japanese business and trade relationships in the years my grandparents lived there. I can guess that those relationships would help explain why my grandfather enrolled in the Nazi party in 1934, but I may never know the answer with certainty.

My mother was too young to enroll in the Nazi party, but I understand that she was in the German Girls' League. Her school's annual report for 1942 records total membership in the Hitler Youth and the Girls' League as 65 boys and girls. The Nazi party is also acknowledged in the report's section on contributors and collaborating organizations. Although I never caught any hint of Nazi ideology in my grandfather, my mother was another matter. However she may have conducted herself in her diverse workplace at Roosevelt University, at home she never hid her racist and anti-Semitic views from us. As I try to understand all this, I can't help wondering what kinds of Nazi influences reached her through school channels -- and at what age.

My grandmother wasn't on the Nazi membership list (and family lore says that she refused to join), so I don't have the details about her that the membership list gave me for my grandfather -- for example, I still don't know her birthdate and birthplace. I guess that research awaits my next trip to Germany. Also remaining in the realm of speculation: when and where my mother's parents got married; and when and why they moved to Japan.

Possibly in the "none of your business" category, except as social history, are questions about my German family's finances. I don't suppose everyone in Japan had a summer house. Having been deported to Germany in 1948, how did they come to have such a substantial home in Stuttgart by the time I was there in the mid-1950's? How did they come to be collectors of Japanese art? Even with all these remaining questions, pertinent and impertinent, I am grateful that the outlines of their lives, and of my mother's growing-up years, have become clearer.

Thank you, dear reader, for your patience with these family history posts. I'm not sure they're of any interest to anyone, but I personally love reading these kinds of stories on other people's blogs. I also have a certain amount of hope that someone somewhere with relevant experience or expertise will come across these stories and will help me fill in more of the gaps.

On Saturday, October 27, the New Humanities Institute (NGI) in Elektrostal, Russia, held its final classes. it formally closed its doors on October 30, when its official license expired. After a week-long re-accreditation audit, the Ministry of Education had refused to renew the Institute's accreditation, forcing all students to find new places in other colleges, and dispersing a truly remarkable faculty, some of whom had been teaching at NGI for its full quarter-century history.

In this public Web site, I will not potentially embarrass my wonderful former colleagues by speculating on the reasons for this sad development. I suspect that the Ministry examiners did not interview students or attend classes, and (as on the occasions when I was personally present during such audits) simply confined themselves to examining documents. I also know how carefully the institute prepared for such visits, going to great lengths to ensure that all papers, reports, and class journals were in correct order and conformed to the Ministry's expectations.

A business card I'll always cherish.
A previous Ministry order to close the institute had been successfully challenged in court, which secured a few more years' operation. Whatever the reality behind this most recent official decision, I grieve the outcome, but will be forever grateful for our years of working with those wonderful, curious, hardworking, creative, inspiring students, and for the rich collaboration we had with our dedicated colleagues.

The decision is all the more painful in that the last two years' recruitment had been on an upward trend. This followed years of declining enrollment linked partly to the low birthrate of the early post-Soviet period. Happily, the improving demographic situation will certainly help NGI's partner institution, the School of Foreign Languages (popularly known as the Kazantsev School), whose after-school language classes for schoolchildren, evening classes for adults, and preschool programs are thriving. N.B.! That school is not affected by the closure of the institute. Since I taught at both institutions during most of our years in Elektrostal, I take some comfort that half of this marvelous educational enterprise will continue.

Back in 2011, I began a blog, 32 Radio Street, for our students at both the school and the institute. I've not added much since we left, but I'm going to keep it online for old times' sake.

Saying goodbye to our conversation club at end of NGI's 2016-2017 academic year. Photo by Maria Kazantseva.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much. Fascinating!