The evolution and writing of American Shoestook nearly eight years, a wild, enlightening, gut-wrenching, and unexpected journey into my mother’s past. It was a venture that began rather innocently in 2012, when I flew to Germany to meet up with a German friend I had met in the States. Mapping out what I thought was a vacation from inside her Munich apartment, we would travel to five countries over the course of a month, visiting Germany, Poland, Austria, Italy, and the Czech Republic. For me, the most important site we would visit was my mother’s childhood home of Breslau, now Wroclaw, Poland. From there, we would travel to the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, just outside of modern-day Krakow.
Heading northeast from Munich, my “vacation” soon took an unexpected turn, becoming more like a pilgrimage of sorts. I cannot easily express how our trip through eastern Europe affected me. Driving through the flowering, early summer landscape, I could feel the ghosts of my mother’s past. Burned out vestiges of the war were still strewn about the countryside. Machinery, vehicles, discarded weaponry, and abandoned buildings had been left as haunting reminders, frozen in time. In Auschwitz, the bizarre and sadistic inventions of murder and genocide that had left over one million dead were still covered with grime and soot. For days, the air felt heavy. It was not that long ago.
In the winter of 2015–2016, after three years of grappling with the often painful insights of my trip, I assigned my next mission: Mom, I am going to take some of these demons from you; I will battle them alongside you. My 85-year-old mother, silent about the war for her entire life, started talking of her childhood being trapped with her family inside Nazi Germany. Spurred on by the stories and photographs of my trip, little by little her memories began to unlock from the mental boxes that had held them in check, unable to be contained any longer.
A skinny fifteen-year-old who looked more like an eleven or twelve year-old the day she arrived in New York Harbor, alone without her family, my mother has fought the enduring grip of perhaps the world’s most heinous war her entire life. Grappling with not only the suppressed horror of the war’s atrocities, for eight decades she struggled with feelings of abandonment, insecurity, self-doubt, and an inability to cry and grieve. She never gave up faith, however, telling me that one day she would overcome the darkness, find her way out of the maze of traumatic memories, and in that quest, step out into the light.
After reading American Shoes, many people have wanted to discuss, with so much positive intention, all the perceived blessings Mom and I received for taking such a brave journey through her trauma-filled early life. Fashioning my mother as some sort of folk hero, I am often asked how proud I must be for championing her quest for freedom and her relentless struggle to overcome one of the worst periods in our collective human history. Many would like to see my mom finally healed by the writing of our book—cleansed of childhood wounds left by war, genocidal hatred, and homelessness. What I can tell you, with no disrespect to anyone, is that such a sentiments are no more than fairy tales. Even post American Shoes, a good part of my mother remains shackled by the trauma of war, as if still back in Nazi Germany.
They say that we all need heroes, not just those we invent but ones that tell real life stories that teach us to be better. They also say that history repeats itself, that we must heed and learn from the lessons of the past, lest we fall prey to our transgressions all over again. While one could debate that either one of these lofty ideals are the underlying purpose for the writing of American Shoes, my mother will tell you that all she ever wanted was to finally cry, be at peace once again, and know that indeed, her life did matter.