I interviewed Heidi last week, a 75 year old woman who was born in 1944 and had lived until age nine in a small town on the France/Germany border in Alsace. Heidi and her family immigrated to the U.S. in 1953. A question that I often pose to myself is: what did they do during the war?
For Heidi, whose birth father was killed on the Russian front when she was three months old, unraveling the complicated feelings around being German has taken a life time to reconcile, but for the most part she has.
Her mother gave birth to her when she was 20. Her soldier-boyfriend had a 'leave' from fighting and it was then that Heidi was conceived. Her parents did marry the next time he had 'leave' when Heidi was three months old, but he was killed upon his return to the front.
Through food rationing, a collapsing economy, and a country now defeated, her mother took care of Heidi as best she could. Together with her grandmother on her mother's side Heidi has some recollection of the difficult times back then.
After her mother met another man when Heidi was seven, they followed him two years later to upstate New York in 1953. Heidi's half-brother was born that same year. A couple of years later they moved to New Rochelle, New York. where her step-father, who was very handy, was caregiver for an estate where they lived in a small cottage. At age thirteen Heidi started to wonder about the holocaust and her German heritage.
She started reading about it and watching old newsreels. It was a time for her where she began to feel shame for being German. She also cringed at the atrocities that were wrought against the Jews and others deemed less-than-human by the Nazis. She tried to deny her heritage. As her teen years moved forward her brother would be taunted for being German by others in the neighborhood, which was primarily Jewish. A swastika was painted on their driveway once. "Poor boy," Heidi remarked, "he was born here and didn't really have a clue why he was targeted."
When she asked her mother why no one did anything about Hitler she responded that as outspoken as she was, speaking up would have been pointless and gotten them all arrested, jailed, or worse. She also told Heidi that survival was all they could focus on during the war.
Throughout the years Heidi has had many Jewish friends, and recalled that the first time she attended a bar mitzvah she was overwhelmed by the sense of tradition and community. She has read much, and learned much about Judaism. In fact, she's been married to a Jewish man for the past 35 years.
My own upbringing included hate for the Nazis (obviously), but also a wariness of all Germans. In 1979 I ended my month-long trek through Europe flying from Frankfurt. I remember feeling very uncomfortable as a Jew being on the grounds where just 35 or so years earlier atrocities of a magnitude unknown before had been spawned. I couldn't wait to leave.
More recently, my daughter met a friend, Teresa, from Bavaria while she was traveling through Europe. Teresa is a wonderful young woman in her mid-twenties who joined us in
my wife, Pina's hometown of San Donato Val di Comino, Italy in 2016. As we were showing Teresa the town Pina's older brother would stop at various places pointing out where "the Nazis had destroyed this, or how the Nazis had overrun that." Clearly Teresa was feeling very uncomfortable. When I asked her later what was going on she told me that a rush of shame spiked through her. She told me that Germany has not forgotten and that shame and guilt still resonate, particularly among those born post-war. She also described to me that symbolically the German flag is never raised in triumph whether victorious in world cup soccer, or the Olympics due to that shame.
It is easy for us humans to judge a whole group of people because of the actions of those few, or even many. Though Heidi had struggled with her "German-ness" I have also struggled with my condemnation of a country, it's citizens, and even those I've known who were born here in the U.S. until my mid-adulthood.
Heidi's lesson is one for all us. She embodies kindness, empathy, caring, and a sense of humanity that came out of the darkness she was born into. As citizens of the world we need to remember our humanness.