Homelands Lost?

NEW YORK: My father's tears as we left Breslau forever in 1938 are unforgettable. But as a 12 year old boy I was thrilled to be leaving the squalor of that time. Nowadays when asked what the word 'homeland' means to me, my answer surprises even myself -- "homeless." There are many ways to lose one's home. It can be, as mine was, expropriated in your own homeland. Exile that results is a condition endured by millions in this century.

Exile and loss; exile and longing; exile and banishment: frozen by tyrannical rule, these are memories abruptly released by the revolutions of 1989 and 1991. From Central Europe to Central Asia, long suppressed resentments and longings of this sort have clawed their way to the surface of the new world. This anguish reflects not only the loss of home, language, and livelihood. More deeply, its bitterness lays in human and spiritual loss. For home imprints identity; it is like the air we breathe; we become fully aware of it only when it is lost or poisoned.

Many people live entirely in this vanished past; their memories consumed by their tormentors of yesterday. We may hope that, as the years march on, such feelings will fade; but we also know that these emotions have uses that incite political opportunists to fan the dying embers. Mischief can always be made by those who want to gain political ground by picking at old wounds. Such bitterness spoils memories of the past and makes life in the present harder to endure. But homeland is no kitsch nostalgia. Home is a private possession. To pay it true homage demands knowledge, and the pain that comes with such knowledge.

Vaclav Havel has powerfully described this urge to live "in truth." Today's truth is that we must learn to live within a new understanding. What helps in this is the removal of old taboos and a confrontation with one's own complicated past. The Polish intellectual and Foreign Minister, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski put this well in his speech to the German Bundestag: "Since one is allowed now to speak about the fate of the refugees from Vilna and Lvov, it is also easier to see the dimension of the human drama of the refugees from Breslau or Stettin... We deplore the individual fate and the suffering of the innocent Germans who lost their homeland due to the war and its consequences." Wherever the resentments of homelands lost simmer, the cure can only come through acceptance by all that wrong has been done, that lost homelands impose pain not just on your people but on others. (Today's bitter diplomatic disputes between Germany and the Czech Republic over the Nazi wartime occupation and the expulsion of 3 million Sudeten Germans that followed in 1945 is emblematic of the price still to be paid by denial of history.)