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And You, Where Are You From?

By Harry Markowicz

In August 1972, I moved from British Columbia to Washington, DC, to pursue my graduate studies in linguistics at Georgetown University. It was a last-minute decision following a phone call from the chairman of the Georgetown French department offering me a position as a lecturer. However, classes were starting just six days later, and I had 24 hours to decide whether to accept or turn down the position. It was one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make. It started my life on a new course, one I could not have imagined back then. 

At the time, I knew only one person in the DC area, Donna. She and I had met at a linguistics conference in Buffalo, New York, the previous summer. She started her graduate studies in linguistics at Georgetown University that fall. Following my decision to make the move, I called Donna, who kindly offered to let me stay with her until I could find a place of my own. 

A short time later, in a seminar in which we were both enrolled, Donna pointed to an elegantly dressed woman. Donna thought that, like me, this student was a native speaker of French. During a break I walked up to the Francophone woman and asked her where she was from. Like me and most students in the program, she was in her mid-thirties, and like me, she spoke English fluently, without an accent, yet with a difficult-to-identify foreign intonation. Her response was somewhat tentative: “France . . . Switzerland . . .” After a long pause she added, “Israel.” She followed this with her own question: “And you, where are you from?” 

I was unprepared for her inquiry: I had guessed she was French, based on her attire and bearing, but I had not anticipated the possibility she might be Jewish, like me. In those days when I was asked where I was from, I would reply, “Seattle” to avoid having to give complicated and embarrassing lengthy explanations. By the age of 13, I had lived in three different countries and three more by the time of this encounter, so my answers were always guarded and really depended on the circumstances and who was asking the question. 

I hesitated before replying while processing what this stranger had just told me. I was afraid of making a mistake based on a misunderstanding. Should I mention my childhood in Antwerp, then Brussels, or that I was born in Berlin? Before I could respond, her next statement caught me off guard and still makes my eyes well up with tears: “You don’t have to say anything . . . I understand.”

No further questions or explanations followed, or were necessary, for us to know that both our lives had been marked by living as children under Nazi occupation. 

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