By Madelaine Zadik
Year after year, my mother awaited those flaming red hues. The shrubs lining our rural road flaunted their fall glory in a dazzling foliage extravaganza. As we neared the scarlet hedge in the center of Goshen, Massachusetts, my mother gathered herself in anticipation. At the first glimpse, she would shout out, “Euonymus!” or something close to it. She was so proud of remembering the name. Sometimes she’d get only the first few syllables, and I’d help her with the rest. It was such a joy to her, both the fact that she knew the name and the experience of the color itself. She so loved the autumnal arboreal theatrics, marveling at one tree after another.
We’d been playing this game for a long time. I learned to enjoy the natural environment at an early age. We took regular walks in Fort Tryon Park, directly across the street from our northern Manhattan apartment building. Weekends, we escaped to the country, frequenting Bear Mountain State Park, just north of the city. We explored the breathtaking landscape of Acadia National Park in Maine, one of my mother’s favorite haunts, on its many mountain and seaside trails. She recalled how, when I started studying horticulture, I would constantly interrupt our nature hikes to identify some new (to me) plant. Mom didn’t complain about my slowing down our walks. She too was excited to learn the names of the plants, and for years would continue to ask, “What is that plant called?” Naming is a tool that helps us make sense of the world around us.
I had learned plant names from my mother as well, a lot of them in her native German. My German lexicon was limited, but words like Trauerweide—weeping willow—rolled readily off my tongue. Even today, whenever I visit Germany, friends there are impressed by my German tree vocabulary.
There was one tree, however, whose name I didn’t learn in German, the beech tree. Buchen. It jolted me when I discovered a lovely Klimt painting of a beech forest. A striking piece, it depicts columns of gray bark against an orange pattern formed by leaves on the ground. It reminded me of another Klimt painting called “The Park.” No visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art was ever complete for me without some time spent in front of that favorite work of art. A mosaic of emerald, teal, and lime green leaves fills the top four-fifths of the canvas, with tree trunks only visible in a small strip along the bottom. Although Klimt is best known for his portraits of women, he produced quite a number of landscapes. However, when I came across that beech forest portrait, I just froze.
The title was Buchenwald.
How could I not have realized that Buchenwald meant beech forest, the town named after a forest that grew there? The place where the Nazis took my father when they rounded up Jews on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass). He barely managed to get out with his life. What a lovely name for a place of horror. It could have been a vacation retreat. Who would guess its true purpose? And that term Kristallnacht, literally “crystal night,” conjures up a night of splendor. It veils the violent pogrom, giving no indication of the destruction of thousands of Jewish businesses, homes, schools, and synagogues, and the deportation of 30,000 Jewish men.
Language is such a powerful tool. Propaganda easily twists the truth with just a sleight of word. The deepest evil, portrayed as a serene sylvan scene. Words, those tools for understanding, manipulated to limit our ability to think. We have seen such misuse of language’s power, in the past and again now. Today’s outright lies and inversions of meaning are creating a new form of unreality.
Although I feel at a total loss for words, I refuse to surrender. We cannot let them steal our words from us or poison our minds with doublespeak. It is imperative that we work together to reclaim ownership of our sacred language, find our voices, speak out, articulate, enunciate, and pronounce every syllable in defiance. All of us need the good power of words, their healing power. We must remember the joy that words can bring us. Euonymus!
Copyright 2021 Zadik