Female prisoners react to my memoir, MOTHERLAND

  • December 26, 2022
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A Wisconsin women’s prison selected my memoir, MOTHERLAND, for its book club, and then invited me to speak to readers. The women related to my mother’s story in a way I never could have predicted.
My grandparents sent my 12-year-old mother as an unaccompanied minor from Nazi Germany to America to save her life in 1938. My grandparents never explained to my mother why they felt they had to take this drastic measure. Young and confused, my mother didn’t understand her parent’s sacrifice; instead, stuck in a 12-year-old’s broken heart, she believed her parents had rejected her, having sent her away because they didn’t love her. She carried this erroneous belief for decades.
“How could they send me away?” my 65-year-old mother repeatedly asked in the memoir that captures our return trips to the small German town she fled. “How could she stand there and watch me go?”
The educational director at the prison explained that since the women are incarcerated, many have had to place their young children with relatives. “That way, the children are raised in a more stable environment,” she said. “They identify with your grandmother’s painful choice to send your mother to America alone.”
After reading MOTHERLAND, the prisoners considered how their silence about their incarceration might be misinterpreted by their children. Some wrote letters to their young sons and daughters to explain their circumstances. One prisoner sent these words to her daughter:
“You are truly a gift from God, and I do want you in my life. I want to be a mother, but I know I am not ready at this time and would not be able to provide you with the lessons you need because there are so many things I do not know myself. I am giving you up for adoption because I love you and want you to have the very things I cannot provide for you. Please remember always I love you very much, and that is why I did this.
“With love – and regret,
“Your Birth Mother”
Photo of my mother (hands on her head) with other unaccompanied minors on the ship that brought them to America in 1938.

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