Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Of memory and mincemeat

Today’s post is based on a true story from my grandmother, whom my siblings and cousins have always addressed as “Oma”, the German word for grandmother. I’m not sure how many times I have heard this particular story, but I do not remember appreciating it until only a few years ago. It is a story I hear every Thanksgiving over mincemeat pie.

The story is set in a far off land on the other side of the world where winter is summer, fall is spring, and supposedly sinks empty in the opposite direction. Uruguay is a small, South American country, only about the size of South Dakota, wedged between the regional powers Argentina and Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed like a very strange place for a group of German Mennonite refugees to settle, but that is indeed what happened. These Mennonite farmers had lived around the Free City of Danzig for many generations, and they considered themselves fully German, despite their minority religious affiliation. This being said, they were caught in the middle of the Second World War, supporting their homeland’s government just as any upstanding German citizen would do. They did not realize that they would not remain in Germany for much longer.

I do not know what all of these Mennonites who lived in Nazi ruled Germany thought about the authoritarian Third Reich, but I do know some illegally harbored fugitives who would have gone to some concentration camp, and I do know that some joined the German army. Most lived out their daily lives as best as they could in the midst of war, with the Polish border not far away. Most were not bothered by the Wehrmacht or the Gestapo. They were regular German folks. 

Oma does not defend what she learned later about her former homeland’s government. She herself came face to face with the barbed wire of some sort of prison camp. Yet it is not these days that still haunt her.
As the Nazi army retreated westward, stories came about the Red Army of the Soviet Union. Stories that quickly convinced my grandmother’s family and her neighbors to flee further west. I have heard Oma speak of this time of her life only a few times, but they included nightmarish scenes of cold winter nights with unidentified bombers flying overhead. They also included the humiliating experience of being a refugee within her own country. Dire poverty became daily life, and eventually the decision came that the people who made Danzig flourish would leave for this strange, little South American country, Uruguay.

As new immigrants, poverty traveled with my grandmother’s family and friends. They lived where the Uruguayan government allowed, often in tents in the middle of the vast, grassy pampas. This is where minced meat makes its appearance. With the end of the war, refugees spilled out from the tattered remains of Europe to every corner of the globe. Unlike the stereotype of SS fugitives hoarding Auschwitz gold, most of these refugees were desperately poor and displaced. People of faith in the United States recognized this need, and as their God had commanded them, they did their best to love their former enemies.

 I say they did their best. Their best was at times in the form a non-perishable can of mincemeat. Now mincemeat is something of a misnomer. It is not meat at all but pieces of fruit soaked in a heavy, syrup with a varity of spices and is most often used in pie. Evidently, mincemeat was not familiar with Oma’s family, nor were they familiar with mincemeat. However, having received the generous gifts of their American brothers and sisters, they were determined to eat it with pure graciousness. But how to prepare it? They had never seen or heard of anything like it. Well, it says “meat” on the label, so it must be all right in stew.

The way Oma tells the story, mincemeat is not all right in stew.

Having eaten my share of mincemeat at Thanksgivings past, I sometimes doubt that it is even all right in pie. However, we don’t eat mincemeat pie because we find it so terribly delicious. We eat mincemeat pie because we remember. We remember soldiers and friends, cold, awful winter nights, dirty refugee camps, crowded trans-Atlantic liners, and how the home of yesterday is not the home of today. We remember that sometimes we cannot make it on our own, and that the love, care, and generosity of others are what truly sustain us in times of need.

In America today, we have much to be thankful for, and we have many ways to express that thankfulness.

I, for one, will give thanks over mincemeat pie.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Joe-- had I read this before Thanksgiving, I'd have made mincemeat pie too! It is a family tradition on the Andreasen side-- but Steve and boys do not like it. I love it. And, for the record, My mother's recipe has meat in it as well as fruit.

    Peace on the journey! Sara