I have recently fallen into an old obsession of mine……..One that I have had since I was very young. It is rather a macabre obsession and I have been wondering where it is coming from lately. The obsession that I am referring to is The Holocaust. I know- it’s probably not the healthiest of obsessions……
I have been obsessed with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust since I was a little girl, listening to my mother’s war stories. My parents both spent their formative years in the terror filled land of Nazi Germany. They came to America in the mid fifties. My father lost all of his immediate family during the war. His father was killed in action and his family was torn apart when the Russians invaded Germany. At the age of 15, my father was totally and utterly alone in the world- his father dead and his mother and three sisters trapped behind the Iron Curtain. My dad escaped from a Russian prison camp by gripping on to the bottom of a truck and escaping to the Allied occupied portion of Germany- at the age of 15- when most kids today are worrying about how to get a new IPad for Christmas……When he came to America, in the 50’s ,my dad wanted nothing of Germany. He wanted to eat American food, listen to American music and speak English. He was an American and wanted to immerse himself- no doubt to escape from the demons in his mind. I am convinced to this day that both of my parents suffered from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD and I can understand why. Today, people get therapy for this. In those days, you pulled yourselves up by your bootstraps and kept on going.
My mother never wanted to leave Germany. Her family remained intact after the war- something that was a rarity for that time. My mom did not want to leave her family but she was hopelessly in love with my dad so that is what she did. My mom was the opposite of my dad. She was a very reluctant American. She cooked German food, taught us German prayers and songs, celebrated German Christmas and listened to German top 40 folk songs in the house.
I’m not sure how the whole “war stories” thing started………
I know we always had that old, black and white documentary on in our house. The Time-Life one- I think it was called “The World at War”, if I remember correctly. I can remember seeing the footage of Adolf Hitler, preaching his crazy, hate-filled, manic view of the world. I could not understand his words but I knew that the man on the T.V was the most evil man who had ever lived. Nobody had to explain this to me. I could see it clearly in my four year old soul……..Maybe I asked my mom about that evil, mezmerizing man. Maybe that is how it all started. I have no recollection of the start of it but I grew up with my mother’s war stories. I could not get enough of them. I asked her to tell me them over and over again. You might think it odd- that my mother thought it appropriate to tell me these things- when I was just a little kid. Maybe it was her way of coming to grips with everything. I know that she suffered from violent nightmares for years after coming to America. Maybe telling her stories helped to keep the nightmares at bay.
One thing I know. The stories did not scare me. They did not give me nightmares but they gave me a strong appreciation for the family that I had been adopted into. The hero of these stories was my grandfather- my mother’s father- whom I called “Opa”. I loved my Opa with a fierce love. He was a hero. In the small, Bavarian village where my mother grew up, my Opa was a part of a group of Germans who fought against Hitler. My Opa hated Hitler. That was because my Opa loved everybody- (except Hitler). To this day, I can truly say that my Opa was the kindest, most loving and seriously joyful person I have ever known. He whistled while he worked. He smiled at everyone in the street and greeted them by name. He stopped to chat with people in the street about what was going on in their lives. Of course, a man like this could never have stood by and allowed the gospel of fear and hatred that the Nazis preached to go uncontested………..
My mother told of people who came to hide in their house in the middle of the night. People that my Opa was helping to escape from the Nazis. My mother and her brother could not know of the goings on in their house. My mother and her older brother were part of the “Hitlerjugend” – it was kind of like evil boy scouts and girl scouts. It was mandatory for every German child to belong to this group. My mother hated those meetings. In those meetings, the leaders tried to convince the children to inform the Nazis if anything strange was going on in their homes. My mother knew that there was a lot of strange activity going on in her home………She also knew that she would never inform on her family. She knew that her parents were doing the right thing and that this crazy government in charge of her country was wrong. One day, my Opa took my mother, her brother and my Oma (my grandmother) aside. He explained to them very calmly and rationally that, if the Nazis ever came for them, the best thing to do would be lock themselves in the cellar and take poison capsules. That way, they would all die together and no one in their family would be taken away by the Nazis. My mother was eight years old when my Opa proposed this plan to his family……….
One of the hardest things for my mom, when she and my dad came to America, was meeting new people. As soon as they found out she was German, the cold shoulder would come. The inappropriate comments would be made. My mother would be called a Nazi. “But mom!,” I would scream, filled with righteous indignation on her behalf, “why didn’t you tell them about Opa?!!!” My mother would explain that it was a waste of time to try to explain to these ignorant people that every German was not a Nazi- that indeed- some Germans (though certainly not nearly enough) tried to bring Hitler and his psychotic regime down.
As I got older, I became obsessed with reading about Germany and especially the Holocaust. Was this a way of feeling closer to my parents? To try to get my mind around something no American can really ever understand? What is it like to live in a country where children are encouraged to inform the government of their parent’s political crimes? Where people are simply taken away in the middle of the night with no explanation? Where you cannot freely express your political opinion? We Americans are totally ignorant of these things. We cannot even imagine. So in an effort to try to better understand my parents, I became a student of Germany. German language. German history. German culture. The Holocaust, of course, is a big part of all that. It made me feel closer to my parents – to try to imagine and understand their pain and their fear- How these events happened in their lives when they should have been playing on sports teams, and going to birthday parties and eating ice cream. My mother was so hungry during the war that for years, she only had one Christmas wish- a salami hanging on the Christmas tree.
So lately I have noticed that the obsession is back in full force and I have been wondering why. The other day, it finally occurred to me. My mother is fading away a little more each day. She can no longer tell me her war stories. She can barely tell me what she ate for lunch today. We cannot have conversations anymore and I am realizing that if I do not get all of these war stories out in the open…….they may die with her. Thinking about these stories, and burying myself in books about the Holocaust makes me feel closer to my mother- closer to both of my parents. I do not have children of my own. I want my niece and nephew to know their family history- the pain and trauma that their grandparents and great- grandparents endured- but also the victories. How my dad came to America as a totally self made young man and made a life here. How he fell in love with the music of Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. How he loved cooking burgers and steaks on the grill…….How my parents did the best they could to overcome the very hard start that they had in life. How they survived. I want my niece and nephew to know these things. I want them to know about my Opa. I want them to know that all Germans were not Nazis. I want them to know how the people who were kindest to my parents and became their best friends in America were Jews……….so much that I want them to know.
So I am going to begin to write down these stories that have been living inside my head since I was four years old…….
And I am going to feel closer to my mother as I watch her silently fade away……..