I go to Ingrid’s Kitchen, a local German restaurant and sit there like an odd girl out at my own prom. This is supposedly my place—my people but I sit there uncomfortably, desparately wishing someone would sit with me and clue me in. I am half German but this is not something I share. I ache to know about my heritage, but I’m shy to ask. Desire and shame encapsulate my German identity. It’s not easy being German-even now.
The Nazi Regime only lasted 12 years, a drop in the bucket of Germany’s past but it was such bloody drop that it causes tsunami of such magnitude that it’s infamy will last 1000 years. Just when the German identity tries to recreate itself in popular culture, Hitler is resurrected yet again and on The History Channel. There is Seinfeld's Soup Nazi and the hard-assed attending Nazi with a heart of gold on Grey's Anatomy and then of course the much awarded Christoph Waltz the delightfully cruel Nazi in Inglorious Bastards. Is there no escape?
The other day, I was sent a link to some Life photographs of the Nazis. These weren’t the usual black and white photos—these were in color. I looked at them for a long time and curiously. Not that I am a Nazi fanatic or not even the opposite that I have never seen pictures of Nazis before—believe me, I have. My father loved to read about the history of the second world war, the Nazis and the Holocaust--history’s greatest train wreck. You just can’t stop looking. Well, my Dad could not stop looking. He had old Time magazine retrospectives on the subject, replete with all those scary black and white photos that gave me nightmares. Most kids were scared of imaginary monsters and ghosts. My monsters had Nazi uniforms and the ghosts of hollow looking Jews stared back at me even when my eyes were closed.
What was it about these monsters and these ghosts that haunted me? I was not born then, I wasn’t Jewish…I was half German but my mother was not a Nazi-- just a young girl-- a victim of war and it’s aftermath of rubble, rape and refuge to a cold-shouldered America, led by the sainted Eleanor Roosvelt who said that GI’s shouldn’t bring German girls back home.
I never knew my mother, she died when I was four, so there was no stories about the war to which I’ve have always felt a part. When I was a young teen, I would go to the shed and flip through all the black and white photos until fear fluttered from my stomach to my thumping heart. And of course when I walked away, these images followed silently behind always a shadowy reminder that perhaps this was part of me. This all I knew of "being German." - Nazis and killing Jews.
In the 6th grade, I felt for the first time how German I really was when standing in a cafeteria line with a friend and the couple ahead of us were speaking the mother tongue of the Fatherland—I wanted to follow them home. I wanted them to adopt me. I wanted to live with them forever—just please don’t stop talking.
In the my junior year of high school, I took a German class. I secretly took pride in the fact that I could pronounce difficult sounds that 99 percent of the rest of the students couldn’t come close to saying. Finally, I let it out. German was actually my first language. My mother was German. My teacher was impressed that I would still be able to pronounce these words after so many years of silence. The rest of the class? All they wanted to know was: "Was your Mom a Nazi?" "Are you a Nazi?" There it was, the unwashable bloody stain on my hands like Lady MacBeth except I didn’t do anything. I didn’t starve, torture and gas 10 million people. But there it was an invisible Swastika on me as clear as any sewn on yellow Star of David just because I was half German and no one could see past that.
There was no one I could ask about my German side. Although my father was a World War II fanatic—about my German mother, he had very little to say. This of course left me with a million questions. What was the war like for her? My Dad said she was bombed out of her apartment three different times. And there was an old faded picture of her and her mother standing on a huge pile of rubble—apartment number three perhaps? Her face was stoic: defiant or defeated? I couldn’t tell and I would never know. I did ask her sister years later about the war and it seemed she didn’t want to talk about it either.
But there in my Aunt Eleanor's neat, nick-nacky house was a glimmer of what could have been: warm potato salad, schnitzel with spatzle and brown gravy and black forest chocolate cake all made from scratch. All served on a table with a big lazy susan in the middle that cradled all my aunt's psych meds. She kept a little timer and notebook to record when she took what. She never recovered from the war.
And that's what I've heard. That many German war brides who latched on to the life-perserving soldiers in order not to drown in the post war horror that was their lives--never saw the slow but healing rebuilding of their Germany--they couldn't psychologically bury the dead, take off the swastika and recreate a new life because they couldn't physically see it around them--so their geographic solution didn't work. Germany, for my mother and her sisters would be forever just grainy, grey memories captured on film--not the fresh, beautiful and peaceful country it is trying to be today. And for me as well. Unfortunately it does little good. Germany and I are stuck. For as much as we try blot out the N word, and try to re envison ourselves--the world will never let us forget.