Monday, November 11, 2019

Stories I Inherited

Children playing in the rubble, Hamburg, Germany, WWII

For most of my life, there was only one time I can remember my Opa speak about World War II. We were watching television, some program on the Discovery Channel, and from the silence, he said in his thick German accent, “I have seen a plane wing falling from the sky in Bavaria.” I turned and looked at him. He lifted his hand and let it drift, floating towards his knee, demonstrating the path the wing he saw followed.

“When was that?” I asked.

“I was a boy,” is all the detail he gave.

Opa’s father lost his arm during World War I. Ferdinand Wolff. When Hitler called men up to march, I’m told that Ferdinand sat behind a desk. Oma’s father, he was a soldier, too. Friedrich Flack’s military records no longer exist, but I know that I am descended from men who wore swastikas on their arms. Oma was ten when World War II ended, twelve when her father returned from a Russian prison camp, 90 pounds, tuberculosis-ridden. It’s difficult to untangle the war from the Holocaust. They aren’t exactly the same thing.

I know my great grandfathers weren’t tried at Nuremburg. Neither of them were not Goethe, or Hoesse, or Himmler, or Mengele. I’ve heard other stories, the thoughts of the men and women who knew their ancestors were the architects of the “final solution.” Monika Goethe, whose father ran the work camp Plaszow. Rainer Hoess, whose grandfather was in charge of Auschwitz. His grandmother used to tell the children to be sure and wash the strawberries they brought in from the garden; they always “tasted of ashes.” Niklas Frank, who executes his father anew every time he speaks at a school or a community center.

The Nazis I come from do not have stories that are published and dramatized and studied. I do not have that weight to carry. I have the weight of an ordinary man. A man from Hamburg, father of four, who smoked a pipe and got tuberculosis during his stay in a Russian prison camp, and returned years later to the ivy-covered house a few blocks from the harbor. I have the weight of a man whose son and daughter were sent to live in the country for protection, while he sat behind a desk and went home to a freezing house.

Over the years, I’ve heard excuses made for the SS. They were just doing what they were told, Stanley Milgram-style obedience. They didn’t know what Hitler was really doing. They were poor and starving and just trying to survive. And I’ve heard that every single German is culpable for the millions of lives lost in those dark years. My grandparents have stories of homes being destroyed, of eating turnips fried in coffee grounds, of winters so cold and no coal for heat. And I carry the stories of the people who hid, who were taken, who were murdered.

I do not want my feelings about World War II to be complicated. Hitler was wrong, and those who supported him were wrong, too. But I love my Oma and Opa. I love the stories of their fathers, and their families. My compassion for my family feels like betrayal. I am not a Nazi sympathizer. But I sympathize for my family.

There are white supremacists and Neo-Nazis among us still. Skinheads who run poorly designed websites about the “white genocide.” (Which, for the record, is not a thing that is happening.) For years, I thought they were too isolated to do much more than talk, but the last few years have shown me how many have been in the shadows. A tire iron swung behind a bar. An arm raised in an SS style salute. Hiel Hitler. Men with rifles and tattoos, who walk in parades, glowering. Women who cook meals for them and bear them blonde children.

These men, and Hitler, propped an entire movement up on a belief that the worst of humanity must be “bred out.” In 1922, Hitler said to a friend: “We must try to bring to the surface the valuable traits of the people… to cultivate and to develop them, and we must find ways and means to prevent the propagation of all the bad, inferior, criminal and decadent tendencies and all the congenital diseases so damaging to the Volk.”

When I first learned about World War II, there was a part of me that ached. I felt guilt for my family’s part in the story. I feared what I had within me. I feared there was an evil in my heritage. I was born of the “bad guys.” I’ve dealt with this fear in different ways over the years—making jokes, ignoring it, playing devil’s advocate. Writing about it.

But perhaps this fear of what I carry is the very fear at the heart of Nazi thought. I fear “the bad, inferior, criminal tendencies” that may have somehow made their way into my blood. But no doubt all of us carry darkness in our family trees. And if I’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that fear should not rule us. Fear can lead us to betray ourselves and each other.

So if I have darkness in my blood, I will carry it. But it’s not all I will carry. I will carry with me the story of Oma and Opa meeting at a dance hall and spending all night in one another’s arms before they knew each other’s names. I will carry the story of Oma’s mother pulling down the picket fence to burn, rail by rail, to keep her children warm. I will carry Ur-Opa’s pipe and Ur-Tante Maren’s red socks mended with white yarn and Ur-Onkel’s car-tracks in the backyard. And I will give these things to my own children someday. Every story—the aching ones and the shining ones—and they can carry those, too.

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