These essays are first drafts for a book I am writing. I invite you to leave comments and ask questions. I would like to know what people are interested in learning more about so that I can include it in the book form. Please tell me about any good resources available to help me with my historical research.

I just recently read a book written by Sherman Alexie for a class that I took at UNI. It is called, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I know the title sounds a little funny. You are probably wondering why I would include a reference to a book written about life on an American Indian reservation while writing my German mother’s life history. Alexie wrote something in his book that made me think about my own views on the past. He said, “How much do we really remember of what hurts us the most? I’ve been thinking about pain, how each of us constructs our past to justify what we feel now” (196). I have decided to write about my mother’s life using her voice. My mother has been dead for over ten years now. I do not presume to know exactly what her thoughts or feelings were at the time she experienced these events. All I can do is try to put myself into her shoes and imagine what she might have felt. In many cases I am trying to resurrect her voice nearly seventy years after the events in this story have happened. Although I think that I have been able to capture my mother’s essence, I am still looking at it from my point of view that is tainted by all of my own life experiences.

Strength in the face of adversity is not just something we are born with; it is bred into us. Likewise we inherit many of our weaknesses from our progenitors. We are the sum total of those that have come before us. If we can get to know our ancestors, understand and love them; We can come to know, understand and love ourselves. We can’t change the past but we can move on to a better future if we learn from the past. For truly, “And he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (King James, Malachi. 4. 6). This scripture verse is the last verse in the Old Testament. Wouldn’t you save something important to say for the end?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Hitler Years

To our family and most other German families, Hitler seemed to be a Godsend. Before Hitler came into power we as a people were starving. It was difficult to find a decent job. The years immediately preceding the war were prosperous and happy. We were well taken care of by the Nazi regime. The first sign that something was wrong in Bielefeld came in 1938. The government officials burned down the Jewish synagogue. I was only five years old at the time. I really did not understand the impact of this action until later. I thought that it had nothing to do with us. The second sign that something was wrong hit much closer to home.
My family lived in a small apartment behind a storefront. Our apartment consisted of one bedroom to the back for my parents, a small kitchen to the side facing an alley and a middle room in which all of us children slept. The apartment was very dark and dreary. There was only one small window in my parent’s bedroom where light could shine through for our entire dwelling. Still to this day, I can’t stand working in a dark kitchen. This aversion must stem from my early childhood.
I used to play with two little girls from the Schlank family that lived in the apartment next to us within the same building. Mr. Schlank ran the store that occupied the front portion of our building. His daughters, my friends, were half Jewish. Their father was a Jew and their mother was Aryan. One night, there came horrific noises from the apartment next door. The next day I asked my mother what had happened. She said that the Schlank family had been taken away. She would not say anything more. Within the week, the government gave us the Schlank’s storefront and we used it as a living room. Finally we had sunshine beaming through those two large storefront windows warming our dwelling. But deep in my soul I still felt a chill. I would have much rather had my sweet friends back.
My mother worried that we might suffer the same fate than that of the Schlank family .We were Mormons. During Hitler’s reign, groups of people like the handicapped, Jehovah Witness and all others that were deemed destructive to the Third Reich, were being taken away to work camps just like the Jews. At our church meetings we always had men dressed in suits sitting in the back pews. These men pretended to be a part of the congregation but we all knew who they really were. They were S.S. officers looking to gather information on us. They were there to see if we were loyal to the Government. Our Congregation would continue on normally with our worship services but there was always an air of tension. Because of our church’s belief in supporting local government, we were spared being sent to concentration camps. The Nazis persecuted the members of the Jehovah Witness sect because they do not recognize any government authority outside of their own church. We were the lucky ones. Or so I thought in the beginning.
World War II began in 1939 when I was six years old. My two older cousins, Wilma and Herman were inseparable from my brother Harald and I. Wilma was more like a mother figure to me than a cousin. In 1942, my brother and I were sent away to Bavaria along with many other primary school age children so that our studies would not be interrupted by the constant blare of the air raid sirens. We had to walk a half an hour to school in the morning and back again in the afternoon. There were many times that air raid sirens went off while we were in route to school and there was no place to hide. We had a bomb shelter close to home but there was not another one anywhere near the school. If the air raid sirens went off during school, the head mistress just simply released the children out on the street to head home. Most children were like us. They had to walk alone because their fathers were serving in the war and their mothers worked in the factories. These conditions made it difficult to get any learning done; not to mention the many dangers involved. My two older cousins were of working age and had to stay in the city. I would remain in Bavaria for the next year and a half.
The third sign that there was something wrong going on in my homeland was the hardest one of all to take. The summer after I left for Bavaria my grandmother passed away. Later in the fall my dear cousin Wilma was involved in a streetcar accident. She was thrown from the vehicle and got caught up under the wheels, cutting off both her legs. She lived for a short amount of time after that but eventually died because of the loss of blood. Part of my heart died right there with her on the street. I loved my cousin Wilma so very much. She was always so kind to me.
By this time, Wilma’s brother Herman had been sent to the front as a common infantryman. The life expectancy was not very long for a soldier like him out there. With Wilma’s death, her widowed mother was left all alone. My Aunt Lieschen petitioned to have her son Herman pulled off of the front so that he would be safe and be able to take care of her. He was re-assigned to be an aid to one of the top ranking generals. For a time, Lieschen felt at peace knowing that her son was safely tucked away far from the enemies lines until the disturbing letters began to arrive. Herman wrote his mother that there were terrible things going on and that his conscience would not allow him to go along with it. Several weeks later, Tante Lieschen received a knock on her door. Two uniformed men stood before her holding a plain, brown wooden box. Without saying a word, they shoved the box into her anxious hands and walked away. Lieschen looked into the box finding her son’s dog tags, watch and ring. Along with his personal items came an official document stating that Herman had been listed as “Missing in Action”.
“MISSING IN ACTION!?” We exclaimed, “How can Herman be missing in action if they were able to return all of his personal effects to us?”
We know that Herman was a good boy and while working for that “verdammte” General; my beloved cousin gave his life to stand up for something he believed in.
The Nazi’s atrocities reached much further beyond the concentration camps. Hitler committed countless crimes against his own people. Anyone who openly tried to swim against the current of Nazi fascism was quickly drowned. Thousands upon thousands of other Germans died fighting a war that they did not want to fight. I often wonder, “What would the American people do if faced with the same situations?” If they were starving, downtrodden and hopeless, what would they do if a so-called savior came along? What if this savior committed horrible crimes in order to save you? Would the Americans go along with it? Would we Americans go along with it?