“Does it bother you that my father is not coming to our wedding?” my husband-to-be Harry asked as we were picking out a tie for him to wear at our civil ceremony.
“No, it doesn’t,” I said. And that was the truth. I did not want someone who did not support our wedding to be present, to ruin the occasion with a long face and to mar the atmosphere with thoughts of tragedy.
Furthermore, I understood why my father-in-law was boycotting our wedding — he had survived the Holocaust, had managed to raise a Jewish family in post-World War II Germany and now his worst nightmare was coming true: His son was marrying not only a non-Jewish woman, but a German one.
The fact that all this was happening in Germany in 1988 put the horrible legacy of the Holocaust into sharp relief. No matter that I was planning to convert. The fact was, I was not Jewish at that point. Harry and I had decided to go ahead with a civil ceremony despite his family’s objections because we were about to move to the United States so I could attend graduate school at the University of Chicago, and it would be a lot easier to build a new life there as a married couple.
I did not, however, entirely get my wish of unconditional support from our wedding guests. Our witnesses, yes. My brother and sister, yes. Harry’s brother, yes.
Harry’s mother attended with a cheerful face — in that way, she was a wonderful actress. My grandmother, however, wore the sourest expression she could muster. She would never have committed the social affront of not attending. It was inconceivable to her that she should not be at her granddaughter’s wedding. No, she would keep with the social mores and be there, but she did say to my mother, as we were leaving the city hall, that this would not have happened had my father still been alive. This was as much a dig at the tragedy of my marrying a Jew as it was at my mother’s inability to keep her daughter in check. It was also typical of her to say this to my mother, who might pass it on, rather than tell me directly.
My grandmother did not object out of anti-Semitism but rather because she had experienced, during World War II, the persecution of the Jews. Her brother-in-law had been Jewish, and the families had been very close. That connection, once the Nazis took over their hometown in Czechoslovakia, put the entire family in mortal danger.
Incidentally, parents who boycott their children’s weddings run in the family, and oddly, to no ill effect. My father’s parents had not attended my parents’ wedding. Why, I could never quite figure out. It always struck me as odd because my father was their only surviving child. There were the travel costs, of course, as my grandparents lived in Germany and my dad was getting married in the U.S. Perhaps the language barrier was intimidating. But they could have afforded the trip, and they did like to travel.
Because no solid reason was ever put forth, I believe my grandparents’ reservations were the real reason they did not attend their son’s wedding. I still have a binder of my grandfather’s correspondence with my dad from that time — letters that bear witness to his severe opposition to his son’s choice, mainly on the grounds of culture and language. After he met my mom, on my parents’ honeymoon in Germany, my grandfather conceded to my dad that he could see why my dad had fallen in love with her.
Our wedding photos, taken on the front steps of the city hall, show my grandmother with a stone face. At the reception, after some wine, she loosened up. Later that year, when we were already living in the U.S. and my husband’s birthday rolled around, she sent him an envelope. It contained the same amount of money she customarily gave my siblings and me for our birthdays. When I asked her about it, she said, “Well, it’s only right. He’s my fourth grandchild now.”
My father-in-law, more reserved and more concerned with the family lineage, always seemed a little on the fence about me — even after I converted, after he attended our Jewish wedding a year later in Zurich, and when I was raising his Jewish grandkids.
But that, I think, had more to do with the fact that we came from such different worlds. Oddly enough, I could get him to do things nobody else could, such as when I persuaded him to book in advance a cruise to celebrate his and my mother-in-law’s 40th wedding anniversary — he never booked trips in advance.
In the grand scheme of life, the fact that he boycotted our civil wedding bore no ill effects on our subsequent relationship; on the contrary, it was a genuine manifestation of his values, and I respected him for it.
Annette Gendler is the author of “Jumping Over Shadows,” the true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burdens of the past.