Alan Cheuse International Writers Center
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Interview with Cheuse Center Grant Recipient Liesel Hamilton

Thumbnail liesel hamilton

Liesel Hamilton currently lives in Northern Virginia where she is completing her M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction at George Mason University. She is currently abroad in Germany to research a project about familial and cultural history and memory.

What have you been up to?

I’ve been in Germany for about eight and a half weeks by now, so I’ve been doing a lot! I came to Germany to better understand my grandmother’s past as well as the circumstances surrounding World War II, where most of her stories originate from. (After borders were redrawn post-WWII, my Oma’s homeland, Silesia—a fertile crescent then part of eastern Germany—became part of Poland. After this, she became a refugee for several years, changing cities and houses frequently.)

I visited two of the houses that she lived in on her journey as a refugee post-WWII; I saw many of the monuments in Berlin that pay tribute to that time, including the remnants of the Berlin Wall; I stayed several weeks in the city that most of her stories originate from—Görlitz, which is the easternmost city in Germany that now shares a twin city with Poland; I visited a concentration camp; I hiked in the Riesengebirge—the mountain range that Oma remembered seeing from her childhood home; I attended a conference on Silesian cultural identity—the cultural identity of the German region Oma was born in that now belongs to Poland; I visited Strasbourg, France and learned about Alsatian culture—another cultural identity that was in danger of being wiped out by nationalism in WWII, I met and stayed with my grandmother’s  younger brother, Uwe, in Bavaria and saw an old cuckoo clock in his home that my grandmother illegally crossed a border to retrieve from her family’s old house, and I have eaten a lot of versions of Mohnkuchen, German poppyseed cake.

 

What do you want to learn by the end of your time abroad?

When I started this journey I had many goals in mind. I wanted to see and experience the places that are so important to my grandmother and her stories. I wanted to understand the current state of Silesian cultural identity and how it is being preserved and how it is being lost. I wanted to get to know my Great Uncle Uwe. As my trip is coming to a close, I have started to learn and understand these things, but I think it will take coming home and writing about and processing them until I really learn what I wanted to learn.

 

What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about your grandmother’s life during your time abroad?

I have learned so many things about my grandmother’s life, many things from my Great Uncle Uwe. Uwe told me how strong my grandmother was after the war, helping to keep the family alive. This was something my grandmother had said about herself, but it was interesting to hear stories from Uwe and to hear him verify her role for the family. At the end of the war, Uwe was very small, about four years old and my grandmother was ten. He said his mom would not go into empty houses and take bread or supplies, but my grandmother was tough and knew they had to scavenge to survive. He said that she was always in charge: “Uta was the chief.” He told me many stories of her making boys cry and how her friendship with the Russian soldiers allowed her to get their older brother, Eckehardt, out of jail. The most interesting thing Uwe gave me, however is an image:

When the family lived in Görlitz as refugees, my grandmother would illegally cross the border, which was drawn by the Neisse River, by paddling across in a bathtub. I love to imagine my little grandmother, just ten years old, finding a bathtub to paddle across the river with.

 

What have you learned about the town your grandmother grew up in?

When I attended the Silesian Conference in Hannover, I met a man whose family was also from Lomnitz, Germany—now Łomnica, Poland. He sold me two books on the city, one which he created himself that consists of a photo of every house in the small village and a corresponding map in the back that shows where each house is located. The houses and factory that belonged to my Oma’s family are in the book. The man was so passionate about preserving the history of this town and knew more about my family than I did. I had read about people who were incredibly zealous about preserving Silesian history and the history of the small towns they or their family are from, and it was interesting to meet one such person from the town my grandmother was from. There was an urgency to the man, an urgency because an interest in Lomnitz and Silesia is dying out as all of the Germans who ever lived in that region are now in their eighties. I was one of the few people at the conference without grey hair. The urgency was palpable.

I am sure I will learn a good deal more about my Oma’s town since he sold me another book, published in the 1970s that records the history of Lomnitz, even mentioning my great-great-grandfather, Paul Freudiger, and how his lumber factory contributed to the town’s economic situation. As the book is in German, I am waiting to read it with my father, who was born in Germany and is fluent in the language, instead of trying to utilize my very poor German that is mostly restricted to cake vocabulary.

 

Has your trip impacted the way you are thinking (and soon to be writing about) the loss of cultural memory and/or physical memory?

In my travels, I had a very concrete example of the shortcomings and complexity of memory. My dad joined me for the first ten days of my travels and we visited many of the sites that were important to the family. We visited Łomnica without an address or an idea of where my grandmother’s first house was. The only thing she could tell us was that it was on the main road. Our plan was to drive through the tiny town, with a population of about 2,000, and try to find the house based on the old photos that my grandmother gave us. Before we left in the morning, we studied the photos on my computer and then drove the twenty minutes from where we were staying to Łomnica. After driving through the town, we stopped several times, pointing out various attributes of different houses that were similar to the photo. Yet, we had not brought the photo with us. We were relying solely on our memory of a physical object, which even though we had studied twenty minutes ago, had manifested itself differently in each of our brains. When we failed to find the house, we were also looking for a house that resembled the old house, yet had been updated. It took us driving out of town to retrieve the old photos for us to be able to find the house. It was amazing how the photos looked so different than they did in our memories. Finally, with the pictures in our hands, we drove back through the town and were miraculously able to find the house—which amazingly had not changed at all. It looked identical to the photo. Of course the house had changed in nonphysical ways. A Polish family now lived there. It was someone else’s home. For me and my family, memory is tied up in this house in so many ways.

I have never taken a trip where I have had a strong lens, as I had on this trip. Every place I went, I was thinking about memory. When I stayed in Görlitz, I took photos and recorded videos of me walking through town to bring back to my grandmother to ask her what looked familiar to her. I journaled every day. I used old photographs that my family had to try to find the buildings that were important to my family.  Essentially, I was trying very hard to preserve memory to make up for my grandmother’s declining memory, caused by her struggles with dementia.

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