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Leaving Your Country

Last night we watched "Nowhere in Africa" (2001)." It's  a German movie (subtitles) about a Jewish family who picks up and leaves Germany just as the Nazis were getting nasty. With nothing in their pockets, they become tenant farmers in Kenya. The husband Walter is first to go, spending 6 months learning the land and the language and getting the paperwork settled to send for his wife Jettel and daughter Regina.

Walter is the one with foresight. He's the one who sees the terrible darkness ahead and is willing to give up his law practice and his comfortable life in the short term to invest in his family's future. I guess you'd have to say he was a pessimist who turned out to be correct. Jettel was not a bit happy and has a terrible time adjusting to poverty, farm life, and native culture. It is only gradually that they learn the relatives they leave behind are exterminated.

But in the end, it is the husband who want to return to post-War Germany and his wife and daughter who have found home in Kenya.

Where is "home," after all?

It makes you think about the emigrant experience in general and the decision to expatriate. When is it time to go? How do you decide it's time to go "home"? Where is "home," after all?

Jim's family apparently hightailed it out of the Old World as soon as there was someplace else to go. Most of them were living in New York by the time of the American Revolution in the 18th century. They were the risk-takers. Perhaps they were religious refugees, but more likely they were gutsy poor people who recognized a good deal from afar. They bought land from the Indians and settled in. His ancestors fought on both sides of the Revolution, so apparently they were in conflict over which direction future prosperity would lie. But even the Tories chose to stay once the colonies became independent.

My relatives were slower to make the crossing. Even when the Great Hunger descended upon Ireland, only the Barrett-Gardiner line on my maternal grandfather's side left.

In our movie, Walter is an idealist who decides it's his patriotic duty to rebuild his homeland after the war. Jettel and Regina would have been happy to stay in their adopted home, even though, as Jewish Germans, they would always be outsiders.

I think our ancestors were more like Jettel and Regina. They were not patriotic idealists -- they saw no nobility in "going back." Their virtues were homelier -- the commitment to stick it out in the uncharted territory of a new world, to create "home" wherever they found themselves.


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