Lessons from the Ancestors

My grandmother lived in Nazi Germany when she was a young woman. My grandfather met her because he was an American soldier stationed there after Germany was defeated by the Allies. My mother was born in Germany, and her father brought her and my grandmother to the United States in the early 1950’s.

I barely remember my grandmother, because she died when I was only four years old. I did know some of her German immigrant friends for longer. My mother forgot how to speak German because as a young child she was forced to speak English and assimilate as quickly as possible because of the anti-German sentiment in the United States after the war. Despite that, she has always been proud of her heritage and talked about it a lot to me and my sisters.

As I got older and learned more about the Nazis, I became more and more curious about that period in German history. It hangs like a dark shadow over my family’s Wyrd, because I have this close ancestor who witnessed it firsthand. We learned about it in school. We went to the Holocaust museum in Dallas and listened to a Holocaust survivor tell her story. We read The Diary of Anne Frank and watched a movie called Escape from Sobibor, but none of those lessons ever told me what I really wanted to know. What was it like to be an ordinary German, like my grandmother, living in Germany at the time? The Holocaust museum trip actually gave me a few nightmares.

If my grandmother had lived longer, I could have asked her about it. Other family members have told me she didn’t talk about it much, but that “she hated what happened to her country.”

I got a bit angry when we learned about the Holocaust in school, and the kids started to act like all Germans supported the Nazis. I knew my grandmother didn’t. I once spoke up in class and said as much, even though I was ordinarily a very shy kid. And it’s not just in school. Most portrayals of this period in history depict Germans in general as being synonymous with the Nazis. Then here comes the heroic Americans to save the Jews from the Holocaust and kill those terrible Nazis.

I worried that my classmates got the impression that Germans are especially violent people, and that Americans would never do something like that. After all, we’re the good guys, right? Ever since I’ve been old enough to understand these things, I’ve told myself that something like that could happen anywhere, even America, that Germans were just ordinary people like us, and the worst thing we could do would be to tell ourselves that something like that could never happen again, or could never happen here. (And of course it wouldn’t happen exactly the same way here. It would happen in an American kind of way, which could also throw us off because it wouldn’t look exactly the same as what happened in Germany.)

But before this past year, I didn’t give it much more thought than that, because I still thought it probably wouldn’t happen here in my lifetime.

By last month, I thought we were about to have a close call, but by Thanksgiving we’d be able to be thankful that it was not more than that, and we’d be thinking about how to make sure we don’t have such a close call again.

But as of two weeks ago…

I know some people say that any comparisons with 1930’s Germany is an exaggeration. It’s not that bad. Quit being so dramatic. This is all normal. Everything is business as usual.

I just can’t help but keep feeling that’s the exact same kinds of things people were saying in 1930’s Germany. For all I know my grandmother could have told herself that. “Everything is fine. This is just politics as usual.” It’s very comforting to tell yourself that.

I’m not doing that. I’m not relaxing. Maybe it will be a false alarm. Maybe everything will turn out OK. That would be great.

It just seems to me like I’d be doing great dishonor to my ancestors to not be alarmed right now.

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One thought on “Lessons from the Ancestors

  1. Agreed. I have often wondered about the general population of Germany as it all turned towards a Nazi government. I have a lot of German Ancestry. It deeply saddens me that Nazis so successfully stained a beautiful and rich cultural history. There are many who assume I mean Nazi when I say Heathenry is a Germanic religion. So you’re correct. I would rather act now in a fight against the worst before it has a chance to gain momentum. Hoping for the best without action isn’t our way. Excellent post!

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