In 1937, my grandfather was traveling on a train from Germany to Switzerland. Next to him sat an officer in the SS. The officer recognized my grandfather, as the two had fought together in the trenches for Germany during World War I, where my grandfather was awarded the prestigious Iron Cross for bravery.
During that train ride the officer, who knew my grandfather was Jewish, convinced him that Hitler’s Final Solution was indeed going to happen. Based on that conversation, my grandfather got exit visas and papers for his entire family to leave Germany and go to a relatively new British colony in Africa called Rhodesia — known today as Zimbabwe. All but three family members left Germany. Those that didn’t ended up on the ship, the Saint Louis, and were ultimately murdered in Auschwitz.
Stefanie Zweig, author of Nowhere in Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, paper, translated from the German by Marlies Comjean) tells a fictionalized version of her own personal story of leaving Germany for Kenya at a young age. She poignantly describes how she fell in love with the mysteries of Africa while vividly showing the intricacies of her family’s relationship with one another during a time of struggle, hopelessness, beauty and growth.
The novel begins when Jettel Redlich and her daughter Regina flee Nazi Germany to join Jettel’s husband Walter on a farm in Kenya. Upon arrival to Africa, Jettel struggles with adjusting to her new life. Prior to coming she had no understanding how vastly different her life in rural Kenya would be compared to Germany. She doesn’t bring a much-needed icebox, but instead makes sure to bring an evening gown.
In contrast to her parents, Regina adapts readily to the untamed beauty of Africa. She also builds a strong relationship with her father’s cook, an African named Owuor who over time becomes almost a member of the family.
Regina easily picks up the English language, as well as a few African dialects. I asked my Aunt Marion if she remembers learning English, as she also was 6 years old when she left Germany,
“Kids everywhere, if you take them to a different country, they learn the language,” Marion told me. “The German I speak is simple, that of a young child. I consider English my mother language.”
In Nowhere in Africa, Zweig masterfully portrays how exceptionally difficult it is for immigrants to find their place in the world. She balances the challenges by also depicting the advantages and shows, through hard work and ingenuity, the positive ability to be a part of a variety of worlds. Zweig also clearly defines traditional Jewish values of education — Regina’s parents spend almost their entire monthly salary on making sure she attends school. This in turn places pressure on Regina to succeed, as all her parents’ hopes fall on her.
Throughout the novel, Regina’s parents are always looking backward and lamenting leaving Germany and their former lives, while Regina always looks forward.
I asked Aunt Marion if she thought my grandparents had as challenging of a time adapting to Africa.
“I don’t think my father felt that way,” she said. “There were other German Jews in our town, Bulawayo. 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.”
Were my grandparents nostalgic of Germany, I wondered. After all, they were well-established, and the family had lived there for generations.
Marion shook her head. “I don’t ever remember my father wanting to be back in Germany. They were glad to be alive and chances are if we stayed in Germany, we would not have survived.”
Throughout the story, the family is constantly uprooted. This instability creates an atmosphere where they are always re-evaluating their lives and questioning where they belong. Away from Germany, where they met and courted, Walter and Jettel find they have little in common. Their isolation from family and from one another at certain times makes the reader ache with their pain. However, under tremendously tumultuous circumstances, they manage to rebuild their marriage.
One of the amazing parts of Nowhere in Africa is the way Zweig is able to combine the different worlds — Judaism and German culture — and mix it in with the magic of Africa. The writing is so beautiful and the imagery so vivid, I found myself often with tears in my eyes.
“As kids, we all loved Africa, we had a lot of freedom,” my Aunt Marion explained. “If I wanted to go somewhere, I got on my bike and went. Africa was lovely, a wonderful place to grow up.”
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.”
Masada Siegel, otherwise known as Fun Girl Correspondent, is a freelance writer in Scottsdale, Arizona and can be reached at email@example.com