Anyone who follows this blog knows that I have a tendency to quote Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He certainly had a way with words. For example, in an earlier post about my feelings on the William Faulkner estate’s legal crusade to narrow “fair use” under copyright law (which I should retitle to: When Someone Quotes You, Say Thank You, Not “F-You”), I ended with a provocative Vonnegut quote.
I thought the genealogical detectives who visited earlier this week might be interested in another Vonnegut quote from that same compilation of interviews published in The Paris Review — described as “an interview conducted with himself, by himself” because of Vonnegut’s involvement in revisions — in which the legendary author shared some of his World War II experiences:
Interviewer: Did you speak any German?
Vonnegut: I had heard my parents speak it a lot. They hadn’t taught me how to do it, since there had been such bitterness in America against all things German during the First World War. I tried a few words I know on our captors, and they asked me if I was of German ancestry, and I said, “Yes.” They wanted to know why I was making war against my brothers.
Interviewer: And you said–?
Vonnegut: I honestly found the question ignorant and comical. My parents had separated me so thoroughly from my Germanic past that my captors might as well have been Bolivians or Tibetans, for all they meant to me.
Based on this quote, it seems Vonnegut didn’t feel like his shared ancestry and DNA with the Germans meant much in the absence of the accompanying cultural traditions. The fascinating part, to me, is the extent to which Vonnegut implies he could have felt a connection with the Germans — despite the war — if he had been raised with more of an eye towards his Germanic past. Finally, it’s interesting to see Vonnegut’s parents as an example of ethnic minorities sharply breaking with their past, perhaps as a coping mechanism to deal with the nativism around them, or perhaps as a genuine belief that the current culture in their ancestral homeland is incompatible with their personal beliefs.