“We didn’t know.” That’s the statement I often got when I asked about Hitler. Just the ones who had helped or resisted, those were the ones who apparently had known. People like my Grandfather, who was held as a political prisoner in a concentration camp, he knew, he had seen it.
All the others, how could they not have known I wondered when I was a teenager. Did they not notice all the missing people? Did they not hear the rumors?
I had walked into my neighbor’s pantry and there, in the very back of the farm, hidden right beside the door, there was a picture of Adolf Hitler. It was a cheap 10″ x 10″ metal print and I stared at it with horror.
I was not old enough, didn’t have the guts to say something, but I turned the picture around, made the “monster” face the wall, that’s all I could do. I didn’t say anything, just continued to help like nothing had happened.
A week later I came back and walked in the pantry. The picture was still there, again Hitler looked at me, again, I loosened the nail and turned the picture around. I was angry with our neighbor, didn’t understand how anybody after so many years, could still have his picture up.
20 years after the end of WWII a woman in Austria still had the picture of a man who had caused so much harm. We, in school, called him a murderer, a monster, we called him evil -still, she hung on to that small print.
I never told anybody about it. I instinctively knew that I wasn’t the only one who had seen the truth. This sweet old lady, who treated everybody so nicely, who went to church and spent hours praying, who gave everybody a helping hand, she had a past that I didn’t want to understand. What would my Grandmother do if she knew? Would it break her heart?
I had known my neighbor all my life, loved her like an aunt that I never had. I felt so much confusion, wanted to disrespect her. Still, I took the cookies she gave me for my help.
Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times that transported me back in time, and I saw myself standing in my neighbor’s pantry so many years ago.
My grandparents were Nazis. It took me until recently to be able to say — or write — this. I used to think of and refer to them as “ordinary Germans,” as if that was a distinct and morally neutral category. But like many “ordinary Germans,” they were members of the Nazi Party — they joined in 1937, before it was mandatory.
My grandmother, who lived to be almost 100, was not, as I knew her, xenophobic or anti-Semitic; she did not seem temperamentally suited to hate. Understanding why and how this woman I knew and loved was swept up in a movement that became synonymous with evil has been, for me, a lifelong question….
“We didn’t know” was a kind of mantra for her on the long walks we took when I visited her at the farm she lived on, not far from where she grew up. “But didn’t you hear what Hitler was saying?” I would ask, grappling with the moral paradox of a loving grandmother who had been a Nazi.
My grandmother would shrug and answer something like, “He said a lot of things — I didn’t listen to all of them.” Didn’t she see Jews being rounded up and taken away, or at a minimum, harassed by the police? No, she maintained, not in the countryside where she lived. And anyway, she was focused on her own problems, on making ends meet and, once the war began, protecting her children….
Please, read full article in the New York Times >>>here<<<.
The article took me back to my childhood, but I also saw parallels to today’s world. I see it in politics all over the world.
For the first time I understand; it’s not just about knowledge and knowing, it’s about knowing better.
I hope I didn’t offend anybody with this post. WWII, the Nazi regime, the concentration camp Auschwitz is part of my childhood. I have spent the last 40 years trying to make sense of it and I perhaps will continue to do so until the day I die.