I had no idea a simple “yes” would take me on adventures to faraway lands. The ticket is booked, to a country where I don’t speak the language and where I will no doubt shiver from the cold. But I am getting ahead of myself. The story twists and turns, and has no rhyme or reason, so perhaps I should start from the beginning.
The San Francisco sunlight was blinding, making me squint, but I liked what I was hearing. This paper’s editor, Joel Magalnick, peered into my face and said, “Are you interested?”
“Of course,” I responded, not thinking twice. “Sure I’ll write a book review for you.”
The re-released book, Nowhere in Africa, arrived on a warm summer day. The assignment was to review the story of a German Jewish family’s experience of fleeing Germany prior to World War II and landing in Kenya — similar to my own family’s history.
I had never read the book, but it had been made into a poignant film a few years earlier. Strangely enough, I had seen it, and remember silently wishing for it to win when it was up for an Academy award for Best Foreign Film, which it did.
Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel was filled with exquisite images and raw emotions; so much so, I often wiped tears from my face. The beauty and pain of life for Jewish refugees in rural Kenya, a land so rich with color and so foreign in nature to a German family fleeing for their lives from the Nazis, was intense.
Intrigued, I had called my Aunt Marion, who arrived to Rhodesia from Germany as a young girl. I wanted to hear about her experience. Hers was vastly different from Stefanie’s.
“There were other German Jews in our town, Bulawayo,” my aunt explained. “We were among the first in our families to come, but I don’t think you can compare our situation to the ones who were in Kenya, especially if they were living out in the country. It’s a whole different ballgame. We were in a town, paved streets, cars, bikes and stores.”
She further explained that Africa is a large continent, and depending upon where people lived, their experiences were varied. “The difference was they were truly nowhere in Africa and we were somewhere in Africa.”
The book review, titled Somewhere in Africa, was published by a few Jewish papers, and that was the end of the story. Or so I thought.
A few months later, I checked my e-mail and was quite surprised to find a message from the author, Stefanie Zweig. The European bestselling author, whose works have been translated into over 20 languages and read the world over, was contacting me! Nervous excitement swept through me, as I wondered what she had to say — and why she had gotten in touch.
Her e-mail was extremely formal, yet sweet and complimentary to my writing. It made me smile, for most writers spend hours alone, and it’s the rare occasion people write to them about a story.
I responded, and the timing was uncanny, as my father was going to Frankfurt, Germany on a business trip in a few weeks’ time. When I mentioned it to Stefanie, she was interested in meeting up with him. Stefanie, her partner Wolfgang, and my dad all went out to dinner.
Soon after, Stefanie e-mailed me, “After spending two hours with your father, it was as if we had known one another our entire lives,” she wrote.
Over the past year, Stefanie and I have become friends, pen pals. Our worldviews contrast, hers being more cautious, and mine throwing caution to the wind. Our lives vastly differ, yet we share a history of Germany and Africa in our DNA. I, the child of immigrants feel blessed daily that I am American, whereas Stefanie, who lives in Germany, feels no sense of national pride, but more a feeling of homelessness in her own land. She asked me in one e-mail, “Must everyone have a country?”
One message led to the next, and now Stefanie and I e-mail regularly. She’s become a friend and a confidant. Checking my mail each day now always has an added excitement, her wit makes me laugh, and her writing is sophisticated yet simple. Sometimes I feel like I am corresponding with Hemingway. It’s always a treat, but if I think too much about my own writing, it’s mildly intimidating.
So once again, as my dad prepares to go to Frankfurt for his annual trade show, this time I will be joining him, and my friend Stefanie awaits me. If you had told me on the bright summer day in San Francisco that I would be flying to Europe in the dead of winter, to meet my warm, lovely pen pal who is twice my age in years, and half my age in humor, I would have been speechless. Honestly, I already am.
Stefanie and I have decided to write a column together, comparing and contrasting the views of the wise and the wild, the North American spirit and the European way of life. We have different experiences, but share common values.
The adventure continues, or maybe just begins, as once you meet a person face to face, the story changes. I leave shortly, and unknown adventures await me in Europe. I couldn’t have dreamt up this friendship in my wildest dreams. Maybe the old Yiddish proverb is true: Man plans and God laughs!