Mary Relindes Ellis: Why the past is critical to understanding our present.

The original Washington Avenue Bridge spanning the Mississippi River
in Minneapolis, circa 1880, photographed from the north, showing the Bohemian Flats
neighborhood below the bridge. The area, which is now a park, is the setting for
Mary Relindes Ellis’s second novel, The Bohemian Flats.

Author of The Turtle Warrior

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

This quote from William Faulkner was intensely in my thoughts while I was doing research for my second novel, The Bohemian Flats. Although the novel is deemed historical, its many issues are very contemporary. One of the most prominent in the novel is intolerance.

Recently a colleague of mine, born of a Somali mother and a father from Mozambique, stated that it was critical for children to know their family and ancestral history. If you come from a people who had experienced intolerance and/or any kind of cultural hatred, she said, you must be mindful of it in your own interactions with people of different backgrounds. She felt, and I agreed, that if you come from a family who suffered prejudice, you needed to practice tolerance and develop an understanding of difference.

My novel focuses on three young German intellectuals who leave Germany for opportunity and freedom in the United States. The female of the group, Magdalena Richter Kaufmann, means to flee the assumptions drawn from her physical appearance. Magdalena has been told that her mother’s family were ethnic Hungarians who lived in Romania. Magdalena grows up surrounded by rumors and conjecture that her mother is either a Gypsy or Jewish, hiding as a Catholic. Her mother refuses to substantiate those rumors. This is the curse that Magdalena must bear as she inherits not only her mother’s olive-skinned, black-haired, dark-eyed beauty but also her ability to sense the unknown. Magdalena wants to be free, not only of her bourgeois background with its rules of social conformity, but she also wants to flee the constant suspicion and prejudice that her physical features elicit.

While this novel is not autobiographical, its beginnings stem from my knowledge of what happened on the maternal side of my family. My great-great-grandfather, Alexander, left Germany with his family in 1885 when my great-grandfather was fifteen. This move, I was told, was out of desperation because my great-grandfather was approaching the age of conscription into the Kaiser’s army. The family had no love for the Kaiser or the religious and cultural oppression of Germany. My maternal great-grandmother’s family had left a small town near Munich about that same time for similar reasons. I think one of the bonds of their marriage was their early experience of the cultural, ethnic, and religious intolerance in Germany, which left an indelible mark on their attitudes toward other people and cultures. They started out in life owning a farm just outside of Glidden, Wisconsin, and bearing twelve children there. My great-grandfather yearned to be a businessman rather than a farmer, so they bought a dry goods store in town in 1918 when their youngest was two years old. They moved into the spacious quarters above the store and expanded the business to include groceries.

The timing of this move coincided with the end of World War I. Their children, my great aunts and uncles, were banned from speaking or reading in German at school, and all books in the German language were burned. Although the family was buffered somewhat by living in a community that was three-fourths German in its makeup, they still felt the sting of being identified with a country that presented them with little opportunity and whose ruler they detested and left behind. Still, they preserved their German identity by speaking the language at home and by preserving German cultural and religious traditions, especially around the holidays.

Their devout Catholicism preached against intolerance, despite the intolerance shown to them during World War I. They survived the prejudice of that time by gaining painful knowledge of what it was like to be immigrants of a country then at war with Britain, France, and the United States. However, that knowledge did not turn them against their new homeland but instead, intensified their American patriotism. It also intensified their belief in and practice of what we now call social democracy. During the 1930s, they operated a “soup and sandwich” kitchen out of their store, paying for it with their own money. If a customer was in dire need of supplies during the night, they got up and opened the store for that customer, regardless of whether he or she could pay. They had been fortunate to homestead a tillable 40 acres, surrounded by other farms containing rocks and swamp, and they knew that. My great-grandparents also knew that it was good business to help your fellow human beings and the surrounding community, that your business could only exist because of the community and state. In later years when margarine was introduced and being peddled to my great-grandfather to sell in his store, he refused to buy it, saying, “We live in Wisconsin and we will support Wisconsin dairy farmers.”

My great-grandparents were horrified when Hitler rose to power, considering him a monster worse than the Kaiser in taking over Germany. Three of my uncles on the maternal side of the family, too young to serve in the First World War, enlisted to fight against Germany in the Second World War. Such was the need to prove themselves as loyal Americans and combat what they saw was an old enemy.

William Faulkner’s profound line should resonate with all of us. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s— a heady time of questioning what we had been taught— which resulted in a pushback to mainstream authority. Many Americans of my generation and before were taught a caramelized version of American history and nothing other than the conqueror’s version. My experience with many young Americans today is that they seem to believe that the past and/or history does not have anything to do with their present lives. They believe what mainstream media pumps out without questioning it.

The poet Charles Simic addressed this problem and others in his New York Review of Books blog, “Age of Ignorance.” Some of his frustration stems from teaching college students ignorant not only of their family histories, but of regional and national history as well. As he points out, “An educated, well-informed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country.” Simic states an overwhelming truth, that “a truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business.” He is not the first to issue these truths.

The concept that the “past is in the present” can be taught in homes through family narratives, and students can gain a greater understanding of it through a school curriculum that teaches all of the history. That kind of curriculum requires a strong base in critical thinking, world literature, human psychology, philosophy, and history, all disciplines that reside in the liberal arts. In the current national thinking, having an education in the liberal arts is not the easiest path to getting a job. The demand is to produce technocrats, engineers, economists, business majors, and health care professionals, etc., without a focus on understanding the cultural and spiritual needs of people.

But this isn’t a new idea. It has happened before, and it is through research that I was able to entwine in the novel the intolerance shown toward people of the Flats—the mill and factory workers who had come from Middle and Eastern Europe. This conflict between humanity and the economic gains of a city is extremely apparent in the battle to save or destroy the Bohemian Flats.


Mary Relindes Ellis is author of The Turtle Warrior and The Bohemian Flats: A Novel, forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press in April. She lives in St. Paul, MN.

The Bohemian Flats, bristling with historical detail, is a story about family members immigrating into the United State from Europe and settling in a unique district in Minneapolis.”
—David Rhodes, author of
Driftless and Jewelweed

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