Longtime Forest Park resident Trudy Roznos says she always gets nostalgic at Christmas time.
Although she has lived in the U.S. since 1951, the first four years of her life, spent in post-World War II Germany, put an indelible and definitive imprint on her mind of what it means to be home for the holidays.
She explained that Germans celebrate Christmas differently than Americans. For one thing, they don’t begin the holiday season the day after Thanksgiving. The commercialism we experience is much more muted in the land where she was born. As a child, she remembers putting up the tree and decorating it. They went to church on Christmas Eve, and when they returned home, lo and behold, Santa had placed a few gifts under the tree.
Before arriving in America, Trudy had never heard, “‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house …” Instead, German children heard the story of St. Nicholas and Krampus, a horned half-goat/half-demon who comes during the Christmas season to punish children who have misbehaved with the gift of coal whereas St. Nicholas rewards with gifts those who have been well-behaved.
And, of course, she fondly remembers the food. Because her mother had grown up in a German enclave in Poland, Christmas dinner was a combination of dishes, including a duck or pork roast, red cabbage, pierogis, pfeffernusse, lebkuchen, German chocolate and a cordial called goldwasser.
Although Trudy is pushing 70 and a grandmother herself now, those childhood memories still define what home for the holidays feels like, but it was being with her grandmother that made Christmas special.
“I was very close to my grandmother,” she explained. “We were walking distance from her house when we lived in Germany. She used to pray with me and tell me Bible stories. I had a very spiritual connection with my grandmother.”
For the most part, nostalgia has replaced grief over the sense of loss Trudy and her parents experienced when they left Germany in 1951. Both her father and mother had lived outside of Germany, her mother in Poland and her father in Romania, where they both grew up in prosperous families. They lost everything in the war and went to Germany as refugees, and then to America as immigrants. When they boarded the ship that would take them to America, they could only bring one suitcase.
When they arrived here, a Jewish family allowed them to rent a one-room apartment, and a Jewish neighbor made toys for Trudy, a kindness she has never forgotten. But other Chicagoans were not so welcoming.
It was not a good time to be German. A neighbor of theirs who was a veteran of the war even punched her father in the face.
“Even though we looked American, our accents always betrayed us,” Trudy said. Although her parents worked hard at reinventing themselves and assimilating, when they opened their mouths, they couldn’t hide the fact that they were different.
In their attempt to experience all things American, they had heard about this thing called a “pizza pie,” so one evening at dinner that’s what they had for dessert. It was quite a surprise when it wasn’t a sweet pie.
“It’s a kind of metaphor,” she said, “for us as immigrants attempting to embrace our new culture but being baffled and clueless much of the time.
“I always felt different,” she said. “To this day, I’m aware of not being exactly what I appear to be. Part of me will always be a foreigner. It’s part of my personality.”
Her sense of not being home hit her hard when her grandmother died many years ago. Although her “grossmutter” was still in Germany thousands of miles away, Trudy still felt connected to her. When she died, that was gone.
For many years she had the dream of going back to Germany and recapturing the childhood wonder she had experienced there, so a few years ago she went on one of those Christmas tours in Germany which stop at all the Christmas markets in small towns along the Danube. The disappointment came when she realized that those Christmas markets in late November were for tourists and not for everyday Germans.
Feeling like “she can never go home again” hasn’t caused Trudy to get depressed during the holidays. She doesn’t get into the shopping for presents and Santa thing at all, unlike her relatives who were born in the U.S. and have only that frame of reference.
The fact that she has always partly felt like an outsider has been a blessing in several ways. It has brought her closer to God, more independent and more sensitive to people like Muslim immigrants, i.e. “people who just need a little tender touch.”
She resonates deeply with the story of Mary and Joseph giving birth far from home in a stable.
“There’s always a sense of nostalgia that goes with Christmas that has nothing to do with gifts,” she said. “What I want is that sense of peace that comes with Christmas because of what it represents.”