Derailed by History | Shelley Motz

I had been uploading family photographs to my Facebook account. I leaned in to peer at my computer screen like a passenger pressing her face against the glass. Four girls smiled at me. Beside them, a bike was propped against a wooden fence. A bike bearing a swastika.

There had been a rhythm to my task. Open. Post. Open. Post. Open. Post. I was chugging along, eying the images with curiosity, as if I were staring out at my relatives—aunts and uncles, grandparents, even great-grandparents—from the window of a passing train.

I was following the tracks that had led them from Jargara, a small German village in Bessarabia, Romania, to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. For eight years they wandered, sometimes pausing to record a baptism or a funeral in one of the black-and-white photographs that Aunt Erna carefully gathered and preserved; images that were packed into hand-hewn wooden trunks and onto trains, horse-drawn wagons, steamships; images that survived the journey from Bessarabia to Bavaria, from Poland to Deutschland, from infirmary tents and refugee camps to BC’s bucolic orchards.

More than 70 years later, I too was driven to save these images. I was uploading them to my Facebook account—open, post, open, post, open, post—until the swastika flagged me down.

Call it my Ben Affleck moment. My mouse finger twitched and clicked “delete.”

When confronted with the news that one of his ancestors had been a slave owner in Savannah, Georgia, the left-leaning actor and director had trumpeted a Civil War hero from the annals of his family history and packed away evidence of this more controversial relative just as you might hide a Confederate flag in the attic. Much has been written about this event and about Affleck’s subsequent explanation. I will add only this: I understand.

When I was eight, I sat in the back of a Budget rental van. It was moving day and my parents were heaving cardboard boxes into our new home while I surveyed the neighbourhood. A teenage boy, peering into the back of the van, spied two wooden trunks marked with black ink: “Heinrich Motz, Otto Motz, Naramata, BC, Kanada.” Kanada, with a “k.” “You a Nazi?” he spat. I nodded, not knowing what a Nazi was, only that, like me, it bore a tenuous connection to Germany.

I did not know what that connection was—or was not—because my father and his brother and sisters never spoke to me about life before they came to Canada in 1948. It was as if we had sprouted out of Canadian soil like Athena emerging fully formed out of the head of Zeus. I was 17 years old when I first heard the word “Bessarabia.” I was even older when I learned that my father had been born in the back of a horse-drawn wagon while his family fled from the Red Army for the second time in five years. More recently I learned that he had been lost in the maelstrom at birth and fed a diet of mare’s milk by strangers until he was reunited with his family after 11 frantic days.

I know these things because Aunt Erna broke the family’s silence. Towards the end of the last century, my cousin Alan helped her record her memories before they were ransacked by Alzheimer’s disease. Because of her, I know how it feels to be a 12-year-old girl hiding in the bushes as the Red Army marches into town; I know how it feels to overhear the wife of one of the soldiers who has moved into your home refer to your cherry trees as her own; I know how it feels to choose which of your belongings to pack into the one suitcase you are permitted to take when German soldiers escort you to the Romanian border and then to Galatz.

These are the stories I longed—and still long—to hear. We were not German, we were Bessarabian. We were not Nazis, we were refugees. These stories, like that of Affleck’s Civil War hero, are true, but they do not tell the whole truth. They deny the complexity, perhaps even the complicity, of our ancestors’ lives.

The image of the swastika should not have derailed me when it did. By then, I knew my family was among the 93,000 Bessarabians who had escaped life behind the Iron Curtain thanks to their German pedigree. In 1939, in the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler ceded Bessarabia to Russia. In return, he demanded, among other things, that Stalin deport en masse the descendants of German settlers who lived there.

Because Johann Kasper Motz had been born in Wuerttemberg in 1758, his descendants—my aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents—were dispossessed of the houses they had built, the cherry trees they had planted, the pigs and chickens they had raised. Forced out of Bessarabia in 1940, they were to survive World War II by crisscrossing Europe under the direction of the Third Reich.

This is the awareness I tried to suppress by hitting “delete,” the awareness I tried to force back into the wooden trunk stored in the deepest recess of the crawlspace. Publishing the image of the four young girls—friends of Aunt Erna who also had been deported from Bessarabia—would lift the lid off that trunk to expose details of my family’s wartime journey that I would rather keep hidden.

It broadcasts an uncomfortable truth: the tracks that led so many to Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz led my own family to safety.

Shelley Marie Motz writes about culture, identity and the arts from Victoria, BC, where she lives on the traditional territory of the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations. Her work has recently been published in The Timberline Review and is forthcoming in the anthology Nuclear Impact: Broken Atoms in Our Hands. “Derailed by History” was published previously in the Globe & Mail.


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