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Thursday, October 15, 2020

Tour: Becoming American


BECOMING AMERICAN: A POLITICAL MEMOIR

Cary D. Lowe
Black Rose Press
Memoir

Becoming American is the inspiring story of the author’s transformation from a child of Holocaust survivors in post-war Europe to an American lawyer, academic, and activist associated with such famed political leaders as Robert Kennedy, George McGovern, Jerry Brown, and Tom Hayden.

Searching for his great-grandparents’ graves in a hidden cemetery outside Prague makes him recall his experiences of becoming American: listening to Army Counterintelligence agents gathered at his family home in Austria; a tense encounter with Russian soldiers during the post-war occupation; seeing Jim Crow racism in the South during his first visit to the United States; becoming an American citizen in his teens; having his citizenship challenged by border guards; fearing for his new country upon witnessing the Watts riots in Los Angeles; advancing the American dream as a real estate lawyer, helping develop entire new communities; and rising to leadership positions in organizations shaping government policies around some of the most important issues of our time.

Becoming American won the 2020 Discovery Award for best political writing from an independent publisher. It features a foreword by bestselling author Edith Eger.


REVIEW

4 out of 5

Becoming American is an engaging memoir. From a childhood in post-war Europe, to becoming a successful American lawyer, to seeking out his roots, Lowe's memoir is a story that spans decades and continents. It was fascinating to see how each experience shaped Lowe into who he is today. With no small amount of accomplishments under his belt this book is a chronicle of the inner changes and external influences that Lowe has experienced, the perfect mix for an enjoyable memoir.

 


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CHAPTER 1

THE SEARCH

 

Growing up in postwar Austria, my greatest hope was someday to become an American. A real American, like the khaki-clad soldiers occupying the country or the cowboys in the westerns at the local cinema. My father, a refugee from Vienna who worked on the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, promised me that hope would be fulfilled one day. What I didn’t realize then was that becoming American would cut me off from my roots. Many years later, after my parents and my brother had died, I resolved to restore that connection.

***

On a sunny autumn afternoon in 1997, I arrived with my nine-year-old daughter at the entrance of a long-closed Jewish cemetery outside Strakonice, in the countryside south of Prague. Thirty-five years after we had left Europe for America, a search worthy of Indiana Jones had brought me and Coralea here from our home in Los Angeles. Inside, I hoped to find the graves of my paternal great-grandparents.

Stepping out of the car into a light breeze, I felt the momentary burst of elation of a marathon runner crossing the finish line. Then reality interrupted. Pursing my lips, I turned to Coralea.

“I just hope this is the right cemetery,” I said. “Aunt Mimi told me only that it was near Strakonice, but she didn’t seem sure. It’s been a long time since she was here.”

“It has to be the right one,” Coralea responded with the certainty of youth.

Six-foot stucco-encased walls and eight-foot wrought-iron gates blocked our way. If I could get in, would I find the graves? How would I read Hebrew inscriptions on the headstones?

I felt as nervous as when I stood before a federal judge to take my oath of United States citizenship at the age of seventeen. I clasped Coralea’s left hand. She squeezed back. I took a step toward the gates, then another and another, with her in tow, until the gates loomed over us like sentinels. An ancient-looking lock the size of my fist secured chains wrapped around the innermost bars. I searched for a sign with information on how to gain entry. A musty smell, a combination of rust and fallen leaves, momentarily caught my attention. Trembling, I reached out with my left hand, grasped the rough bars, and shook them. I knew I would not be entering through those gates.

“We’ve come so far,” I said. “We’ve got to get in there.” Yet, the graves beyond the gates seemed impossibly out of reach.

I thought of the stories of my father’s narrow escape from Vienna on the eve of World War II, of my mother’s years in hiding during the war and her harrowing escape, and of their improbable return to Europe for the Nuremberg trials. I recalled the similarly amazing stories of survival told by nearly everyone I knew. As my father said, “If they didn’t have an amazing story, they wouldn’t be here to tell it.”

Turning to Coralea, I said, “I wish my parents could be here with us.”

“Especially grandma,” she replied with a sigh. “She wanted to bring me back here so much.”

Closing my eyes, I searched for an answer. My thoughts rushed back over the unlikely path that had led me to this time and place.

I recalled my childhood in Austria, just a few hours’ drive away. The Iron Curtain had blocked us off from our roots for years, just as the cemetery walls threatened to do now. Although the slaughter was over, the guns were silent, and the armies mostly had gone home, I lived amid the aftermath of the war -- the bombed cities being rebuilt, the Hitlerhaus that cast a cloud over my hometown, my refugee nanny Herma, displaced persons in squatters’ camps, and concentration camp survivors piecing their lives back together.

I remembered my first interactions with Americans -- the military occupiers, the intelligence agents that gathered at our home and told wild tales, and my childhood friends in Austria and later in Germany. And the combination of excitement and apprehension I felt later, realizing I was becoming gradually Americanized. I marveled at how immigrating and becoming an American citizen had launched me into a life of political involvement in my adopted country.

Most of all, I thought how much those experiences had changed my life. I had evolved from a German-speaking, Austrian-born child of war survivors into an English-speaking American, eagerly drawn into a new and exciting culture. What I experienced and witnessed in the years after the war had shaped how I viewed the world, how I interacted with people, and how I identified myself.

In becoming Americanized, however, I had lost much of my connection to those early years and to my family’s places of origin. They had receded behind the more recent people and places of my American experience.

I opened my eyes, bringing me back to the present. The gates seemed even more ominous. Still holding my hand, Coralea looked up at me expectantly. I peered between the bars at the rows of headstones. The closest ones looked ancient, like those in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, with weathered, barely legible Hebrew lettering. Behind them stood newer markers, taller and more ornate.

Weeds and grass had so overgrown much of the cemetery that I wondered when anyone had visited last and opened those gates. Whatever I might find inside, I could not imagine being denied after coming this far. I struggled to figure out our next step until Coralea interrupted my thoughts.

“You can do it, Dad,” she said. “You found this place. You can find a way in.”











Cary Lowe is the author of the award-winning book Becoming American: A Political Memoir. He has published over fifty essays on political and civic issues in major newspapers, as well as professional reports and articles in professional journals.

Mr. Lowe is a retired California land use lawyer with 45 years of experience representing public agencies, developers, Indian tribes, and non-profit organizations. He holds a law degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. He taught courses in law and urban planning at USC, UCLA, and UC San Diego, and he writes and lectures on land use and environmental issues. In addition to his legal experience, Mr. Lowe is a credentialed mediator affiliated with the Land Use & Environmental Mediation Group of the National Conflict Resolution Center.


Website:  https://carylowewriter.com/

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