My father came to Vermont in the 1960s. He was an immigrant from Germany. In one year, he landed a job at a Catholic high school, a new wife, and soon a new son and a new house. If his early life consisted largely of departures, in Vermont he put down roots. Our family grew to six, and we moved from Essex to Burlington and Burlington to Underhill, expanding our acreage each time. He and my mother cultivated enormous gardens. They planted Scotch pines and willows in the back lot. My father hung suet in a red mesh bag for the winter birds and watched them peck while he read his students’ papers.
Mine was a peaceful childhood, biking through Victorian neighborhoods with my brothers, blackberry-picking, swimming in Lake Champlain. My father’s had been the opposite. He was nine when the Third Reich ended, and in his formative years he lost his father for long stretches to deployment and a POW camp. His mother died during the childbirth of his youngest brother. His hometown was bombed, and he starved under strict post-war aid laws.
One night, when I was a UVM student living on South Willard Street, a weasel slunk out from my parents’ woodpile and scaled their lilac tree to reach a robin’s nest. It savaged the nest and ate the baby birds. The mother bird cried all night.
My father told me the story over the phone, in a stricken voice. “It was over by the time I got there.” He kept coming back to the raw, repeating call of the mother robin. “The night of the long knives,” he called it.
The name sounded familiar to me, but only years later, when I was writing a novel based on my father’s Third Reich childhood, did I realize it was a reference. “The Night of the Long Knives” is associated with a series of political murders in 1934 that sealed Hitler’s absolute power. Hitler himself used the term in a speech to squelch any further challenges to his authority. Any resistance, Hitler threatened, would be met with swift, brutal violence. With long knives.
Even if I had recognized the phrase, I couldn’t have felt what my father had felt. The weasel would have remained a weasel, a bloodthirsty animal, terrifying but small. I had grown up in Vermont, with its lively town meetings, with the governor’s number listed in the phone book, and where my mother, a homemaker, eventually became a state legislator and voted for civil unions. I had grown up safe. My lifelong freedom became painfully clear to me as I began to read and write about the Nazi state.
No century in human history witnessed as much change as the twentieth, with its two world wars, the end of colonial power, the automobile, the computer, the nuclear bomb, the Holocaust, My Lai. We tend to remember those decades for their sorrows, but my father’s life also reminds me of their grace and expanding liberties.
Once he was a child of war. He grew to a man and left his country. In distant green fields, he raised his children. One night, after all of them had left home, a dark creature destroyed a nest outside his window. My father chased the animal away, but the violent act haunted him, stirring terrible memories.
Then it was summer, and leaves and blossoms grew into the gap where the nest had been. Eventually the scar remained only in his mind. The lilac’s purple flowers hummed with bees. He gave the tree a wide berth, so as not to disturb the insects’ work, gathering sweetness.
Maria Hummel’s new novel, Motherland, was recently published by Counterpoint Press. Her recent poetry volume, House and Fire, won the 2013 APR/Honickman Prize. Hummel teaches writing at Stanford University.