Monday, August 11, 2008

Thou Shalt Not Study War

Surprisingly there are no thick and musty Bibles documenting my family's past printed in English or any other of the family tongues, at least, not that I have seen. While I am not sure in which German plain or valley my father's paternal line had endured the centuries, it's clear that when the Empress Catherine of All The Russias sent out word that fields of brambles and black earth in the southern part of her realm would be opened to development by peasants less barbarous than those currently calling themselves her subjects, my ancestors packed their belongings into wagons and fled the scene of their medieval serfdom for parts eastward.

I'm sure they had family Bibles, since the Horsts were, if nothing else, deeply committed to their obscure rebelliously ultra-Protestant ways. They were all about the swords into plowshares and the not killing and venerating no kingdom but the kingdom of heaven. These were difficult beliefs to hold in central Europe in the centuries when crosses were battle standards and religious sermons were exhortations to go out and kill people who believed differently. These Horsts were not princes nor barons nor generals but simple people who wanted to stay close to God and close to their own.

So they left all that behind, seduced by this German-speaking Empress in a far-off realm who promised them something that sounded an awfully lot like what passed in the eighteenth century for freedom. They would not have to speak Russian. They could build communities around churches of their own choosing, and hold plots of rich land with moderate taxation as long as they promised to plow and till and harvest. And most attractively they would not have to serve in the Empress's army.

But as the years passed Catherine's heirs were definitely not of a mind to emulate that great empress. The Russian people were wondering who the hell these foreigners were in their midst to be given such special rights. The Tsars cried out for allegiance. The Horsts had dodged marching to serve or fight Napoleon. They had dodged the Franco Prussian war. They had dodged being cannonfodder in Crimea. They had dodged a dozen conflicts great and small. But by decree of the Tsar, they would not dodge the next one, and oh yes it was near.

But all good things come to an end and as they sat in that train, crossing in reverse all the frontiers their own forbears had passed not a hundred and fifty years before, travelling from Saratow to Hamburg to board a ship for an ocean voyage they knew, surely as the prophets in their Bible, that it was time to go.

On that train ride they dodged two world wars. The cousins who might have stood in the fields, waving goodbye as they passed, were not seeing that prophecy clearly enough. The wrath of dictators of left and right, the brutal caldron of the first world war and its revolutions, the apocalyptic tide of the second world war, these the cousins would suffer until the world remembered them no more. If the fields and cities of America swallowed the memories of the old world among the generations begat by the travellers, the fire of war and the ice of Siberia would erase the cousins completely leaving neither ruins nor orphans behind.

And so the train reached the docks. If the Babel of Saratow had intimidated them, the crowds in this ancient city girt against the sea must have been beyond the imagination of those Horstsl. Up the gangplank they trudged into the iron belly of a ship far larger than anything they had seen before. From that moment on there would be no looking back. My grandfather's family put their faith in the waves, the children screaming against the bellow of the ship's horns and the clank of chains and thuds of cargo and sweat of their shipmates.

Amen, they must have muttered, Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment