I loved my Grandmother. But she was a Nazi – Article in the New York Times

Image result for sued tirol black and white

“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.

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22 thoughts on “I loved my Grandmother. But she was a Nazi – Article in the New York Times

  1. Wooow! This is eerily scary, actually. Whenever I find out that someone voted for our president and ask them why, they never have a clear cut answer. Whenever I ask them how they were able to ignore all of the hateful rhetoric during the campaign and all of his executive orders now, they never have a clear cut answer. I think it’s this willful ignorance that will keep society at a very specific level, doomed to repeat history.

  2. I know several people here in the US who have stories similar to the one you mentioned from the NY Times and that of your friend. I see them going through the same mental emotional struggle. You and I, who have more personal and/or direct experience of results the actions taken (or not taken) by “ordinary Germans” during that time of course have a much different perspective. That’s why I am a big believer of trying to “walk a mile in the other person’s moccasin”, to at least make an attempt see any issue from their side.

  3. Excellent post… I have recently watched a documentary called “What our Parents did: A nazi Legacy” (available on Netflix)… Curiously enough, there were multiple perspectives, going from blaming them for the curse and actions… to saying that the Holocaust wasn´t real!. I recommend you to watch it if you can….
    Also love the quote you have included at the end. You are definitely right when you say:
    “For the first time I understand; it’s not just about knowledge and knowing, it’s about knowing better”. (Knowledge will set us free, I´d add) 🙂 Love & best wishes to you

  4. It remains, and always will, difficult to understand. In the last months I have been reading and proof-reading my husband’s forthcoming book about travels by British bankers between 1904 and 1963. They visited worldwide, but their reports on the financial and political trends in Germany and Austria and Argentina in the 1930s all mention antisemitism and mistreatment of Jews. In 1935, my father was on a language exchange visit with a Jewish family in Stettin, the family were dealing stoically with many restrictions always hoping they would be temporary. No one quite believed it could go on getting worse. The immediate family (mother, father, son and daughter) did get to England, but many of their relatives, that my father met, died. It is difficult to believe that, in towns at any rate, they did not know.

  5. Despite what we know now, I can see why people joined the Nazi party back then. Germany was struggling so hard after the post-WW1 reparations and Hitler seemed to offer hope. Don’t we all want hope in the midst of struggle? And how many of us analyse a message of hope with the intellectual precision necessary to detect its flaws when we need it so badly?
    My father always cautioned me against the idea that hindsight had 20/20 vision. The facts are one thing, he said, but you can never recapture the emotional overtones/turmoil/shades of grey that influenced your decision. You can only do what seems right at the time.
    As for knowing better – we only know better by learning from past mistakes and the human race is apparently too stupid to even learn that they need to learn. And then you get the Trumps of this world who learn the methodology all too well but don’t have the conscience to accept it as a mistake.

    • Helen,
      thank you for your comment. Your father was a very smart man.

      I think we, the human race, we are not capable of learning from past mistakes. Every generation seems to think that they know it better. I scares me.

  6. I read the article yesterday. All I could think is how one dimensional and unthinking people are. How they blindly go along, accepting without questioning, not doing the right thing. Thank you for sharing your personal experience and having the gumption to turn that photo around.

  7. I see parallels too, Bridget. It’s frightening and overwhelming. Thanks for sharing the article and offering your reflection. I heard a poll yesterday that only 3% of Trump voters regret their votes. To me, that’s so sad. They must see what’s at stake and what’s happening to people. They either don’t care or ideology indeed blinds them until their own family is affected.

  8. I have at least two relatives who voted for and still support Lord Dampnut. When asked why, they say that they simply do. When people point out all of the atrocities that are going with this administration, they turn a blind eye. They honestly believe it is “business as usual” for this country. They’ve told me so with sincerity in their hearts. Neither of them are horrible people, and one of them believes himself to be a true Christian in every sense of the word. I don’t hate either of them and I don’t “blame” them for Lord Dampnut’s rise to power. They are doing what they believe to be right. What’s the saying? There are none so blind as those who will not see.

    • I love your last line. “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

      I am not sure if you read the article or not. The resemblance to today (not just here but also in Europe) are terrifying. The same slogans, same promises, same response.

      My neighbor, who wears a cross around her neck, voted for him too. She goes to church on Sunday and Monday she refused to be helped by a Muslim pharmacist.

      It’s too much for me to understand. I don’t hate them, but I don’t excuse it either.

  9. To the eternal question , you got the right answer : they ought to have known better than they did….
    That’s all.
    Love this article and agree when you see the same problem in today’ politics …..

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