THE EVENING WHEN I CAME TO this world, on 10 April 1945, they took off Hitler’s portraits in the Überlingen hospital, on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany. Not far from the city, one could hear the shelling. The French troops were approaching.
As my mother recalled, I came with my hand first. “He’s not making ‘Heil Hitler!’, I hope” my mother told the nurse. “No, ‘Heil Moskau!’, the nurse answered. I think that making a fist, my first gesture, somehow determined my whole life. I started to learn Russian at the age of sixteen. We had moved from Germany to Lausanne, in the French part of Switzerland, six years before. Beautiful Switzerland turned out to be a bit boring, perhaps that’s why I decided to apply for a scholarship that nobody wanted, because it was for Poland, a country behind the “iron curtain.” So after two years of studying Russian and other things at the University of Lausanne, I went to Warsaw in the fall of 1968. I stayed four years.
These were exciting times, when History was on the daily agenda. The most memorable day was chancellor Willy Brandt’s kneefall during his visit to the monument of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on 7 December 1970. Back in Lausanne, I graduated in 1974 and got my Ph.D. in 1982. But the “East” never ceased to be a magnet: China (where I taught for a year in the early 1980s, and where I returned many times), Russia, and, more recently Kyrgyzstan. Not that the “West” was absent… I got my first “serious” job at Duke University in 1988.
I remember the letter that Toby’s father sent me after my arrival in North Carolina. He welcomed me to this country “where it doesn’t make a difference where you’re from and what religion you practice.” I published articles and books about the “East”—a mix of literature and history—and started to make documentary films.
In 2001, I got a new job at the University of Toronto, where I am until the present day. It is a good city and good country. Here, it does make a difference where you’re from, in a positive way. I guess that’s the difference between “melting pot” and “multiculturalism.”
SO IT IS OK that I still feel European. The Grey Folder and the film about Freudental, that I plan to make with Toby and Steffen Pross, are both about Europe, and all of us.