Germany – 2009
I was still a small child during the years of the Second World War. At some point, a heavy book appeared on our coffee table comprised mainly of pictures taken in concentration camps of dead and dying Jewish prisoners. It did not require much prompting for me to develop a well justified fear and hatred of all things German including the country’s entire population. Those feelings remained intact well into adulthood.
In 1992 I finally accepted an invitation to appear at a Star Trek Convention in the city of Augsburg near Munich. Once there, I made it a point to announce my heritage. If there was going to be a problem I wanted to confront it immediately. No one blinked. The people who came to the con were very enthusiastic, extremely supportive and, if I may indulge a weakness for sentimentality, really quite loving.
I’ve been back six times since then to conventions in Bonn, Berlin, Bremen, Darmstadt, Fulda and most recently Munster.
Each time the experience was overwhelmingly positive. The twenty five years of appearing in a country before a people I had despised for the first forty five years of my life has taught me two very important truths: If there is such a thing as a genetic predilection for evil then it is a heritage all of us, all mankind, must carry. History shows us that genocidal atrocities are not the province of one nation, one culture but are a burden that we must live with. China, Russia, The Sudan, Burma, South America, Great Britain, the United States – you could go on and on listing the guilty pasts (and presents) of societies throughout the ages. In fact, blaming one group of people as being inherently bad as opposed to the rest of us, is simply deflecting the responsibility we all must share.
The other thing I learned was that human beings, along with a predisposition to destroy each other, have inherited the gift of doing good. It is not always about survival of the individual and the concomitant aggression that leads to the devastation we have known but it’s also about the survival of the species and the humanitarian efforts that have been performed on its behalf. As much blame as we shoulder for what has gone wrong during our stay on this planet there is also much to rejoice in. There is an amazing number of good people performing acts of kindness and philanthropy everywhere in the world.
My most recent experience involving pride in the human race came while I was in Germany and asked to attend a ceremony heralding the opening of a new building on a school campus. The town was Bottrop and the institution was the Hauptschule Welheim. I met students from the ages of about twelve to seventeen in the auditorium. There was a Q&A period during which I was asked questions that ranged from my Star Trek experiences to what I had encountered at the Thailand – Burmese border two summers before.
After that we were all escorted to the newly erected lunch room building. The staff and the administration of the school had determined that it would be called “Cafe Terra”. It was not hard to see why. The student body is composed of the children of immigrants from more than fifty countries. Over time, these families had come to Bottrop from the Middle East and the Far East, from Africa, from Eastern Europe, from almost every conceivable point on the globe. This truth was evident in the distinctively different faces of the youngsters I met. After the ceremony I signed autographs. I stood there scribbling my name and reflecting on both the terrible history this nation had endured during the first half of the twentieth century but also on the grace and beauty with which it’s people now appear to have been imbued. Yeah, there are skinheads in Germany just as there are skinheads in the U.S. That will probably never change. But there is also an African American president in Washington and there is a multinational, multicultural, multiracial Hauptschule Welheim in a small city in the country of Germany. Star Trek foretold a time when we could all live together. I’m betting that we’re on our way there.
Russia – 2010
I received a note few days ago from an actor who, having received an inquiry about going there next year, wanted to know about my trip to Russia. My first reflex was to alert them to any problems they might encounter but I quickly realized that there simply wasn’t anything of a negative nature that I could think of. My wife and I had a terrific time in Russia. The people who hosted us, Tanya, Anastasia, Olga, Galina and all the others were solicitous – looking out for our welfare the whole time – warm and very friendly. They truly went far beyond whatever responsibilities they thought they might have as hosts. It was really quite amazing!
Although both my parents were born in Lithuania, my father in particular thought of himself as Russian clear through. So much so, in fact, that back in the fifties when the Cold War was rampant, our family was investigated by the FBI. Growing up with my father then, I had divided loyalties. I could never get with communism as more than a kind of romantic ideological belief system which was, ultimately, impractical, but I did come to favor Russian athletes. During the Olympic Games, for example, after the Americans, I rooted for the Russians next. It was a way of honoring my dad’s passion for Russia without being taken away in handcuffs.
Visiting Russia, then, was a way of walking in his footprints. I wanted to see if I could capture for myself what it was that so enthralled him. Perhaps I talked myself into something since my time there was so short but I did come away with a sense that I did indeed have roots there. That even though I was born in Chicago, went to school in New York, Iowa and Los Angeles, that Russia was still part of my heritage. It was a good feeling. It’s nice to feel that you are part of a history with a direct lineage that can be traced back hundreds of years. I had not known that feeling before. Being Jewish did not mitigate these feelings. I’ve discovered that I can be American, Russian, Jewish and a New York Yankee fan all at the same time.
I’ve been to Italy, I’ve been to Spain, I’ve been to Brazil, I’ve been to Australia, I’ve been to Germany. In each country I’ve met extraordinarily nice people who have treated me with uncommon kindness. I’ve loved my visits. I’ve felt very close to the people I’ve met there and looked forward to the time I might return but being in Russia, the home of my ancestors, was something quite else again. These feelings could not have been as intense if the people I had met in Moscow and St. Petersburg had not embraced me so uniquivocally.
I’m a long way into my life and, at this point, to still have experiences that revitalize my soul and give my heart fresh enthusiasm makes me feel very grateful.
To all the comrades (as my father would have said) at Stella RUS 2010, I offer my gratitude.
For additional information about Walter’s visit to Russia for StellaRUS 2010: