Editor’s Pick
MAY 19, 2011 9:15AM

Growing Up German

Rate: 15 Flag

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.

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nazi, german identity

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Christine.. this is SO EP worthy.
Christine--such a touching and engrossing post, and so very, very well written, both forceful and elegant. Stereotypes are so easy, so convenient, and, as you so lucidly show, so hurtful. I suppose there is some evolutionary reason why we seem to cram people into narrow categories so quickly, so smugly. The failure to imagine others, to regard the contingencies and contexts that have brought them to the place they are, is disheartening. Thank you for this thoughtful post.
What a great post! I could feel your suffering.
Thankfully the new Germany is a thriving democracy that bans group hatred. A remarkable advance!
Great post.

A lot of people still haven't recovered from the memories, on all sides.

Rated and Tink Picked.
The "never forget" motto seems to be an unending haunting scream to people of German descent...Such an unfair echo.
This is a great essay. I've been apologized to by German immigrants of a certain age for the Holocaust when they realize that I'm a child of survivors, like I'm the representative of the Jewish people and they're the representative of the Nazis. It's an odd thing that doesn't compute for so many reasons. In your case, I'm sure there's always the longing for a mother lost too early, a mother no one wants to talk about, a mother with all her history. Thanks for this.
Such a beautiful, haunting piece. This will stay with me.
Excellent. I currently enjoy accurate histories of Europe in the period 1945-1950 which stimulate my thoughts on good and bad, right and wrong, resentment and forgiveness. I find it far more interesting than 1933-1945 which is just super-hero comic book stuff.
This is a wonderful piece that I can relate to on so many levels. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Holocaust and other WWII stories... (BTW, I'm German, and I was wondering if you meant Schnitzel and Spätzle in the paragraph before the last?)
I did thanks for the heads up. How do you get the umlaut on there?
My dear lady - you can forget any guilt about the war. This war was caused by God - people think that they can live anyway they want and there are no consequences. The war was one of the consequences.
The people of Germany were warned just like the people of the United States are being warned now. Live in harmony with those around you to the best of your ability.

Diogenes of fombell
Very poignant piece, thank you for sharing this. We should not feel the guilt of what our forefathers did, but rather try and learn from the pain they caused on humanity and do our best not to repeat it.
Yet it's easier said than done.
There is still so much ignorance left in the world........Those people were Nazis, you are German, there's a difference..........Thank you for this excellent piece ! Rated.
You show it's possible to be German, without being a Nazi.

It's a difficult balancing act; while I believe the Holocaust needs to be remembered to avoid another in the future, I can appreciate that it's a terrible shaming thing to have hitched to your ancestry--when you had no control over it and did not cause it to happen. As Jerry said, the human propensity to assume and to shove people into tidy little categories can really hurt.

This is so disturbing on so many levels. Christine, the premise that you, as "a German" (don't you live in Oklahoma?) bear some sort of responsibility for what the Nazi regime did to "the Jews" contains so many misconceptions and distortions that I don't know where to start straightening it out. It's identity politics on steroids - pure mind control - and it also shows a complete lack of empathy towards your ancestors (ever hear of the expression "there, but for the grace of God, go I?"). In fact, for someone trying to get away from Nazism, by thinking this way you are entirely swallowing the Nazis' own inhuman ideology, which divides people into neat categories, with "Germans" acting and believing in one way, and "Jews" etc. in another. They claimed that "Germans" and other "Aryans" were naturally aggressive, "Jews" and others naturally conniving, bla bla bla, because it suited them to claim so. But you know it isn't true. Been there, done that. Move along, folks, there's nothing to see here.

Full disclosure: I'm also "half German," as you put it, with my ancestors all reaching the US in the 19th century. It would never occur to me to feel anything but pride for this heritage, if I would bother to feel anything at all (my ancestors were simple peasant folk, anyway, absolutely nothing to get excited about). If I felt bad about the Germans, I would also have to lose sleep over other sinister races in my lineage, including English, Dutch, and French, who were some of the world's worst imperialists, massacring millions in Africa, India, and Indonesia. In any case, my father and my grandfather "paid our dues" for our "race" fighting for the US military in both world wars, a statement that feels as silly as it sounds.

You write "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." My Lord, that ought to be enough for you. Have you tried to put yourself in her position? As "a young girl" she's hardly likely to have voted for the Nazis in the 1933 election, which is the last time ordinary people were ever asked for their opinion on anything. I know lots of women from that generation, and believe me, they have paid their dues - just think of the thousands of rapes that occurred here in Berlin in 1945, and the starvation that set in afterwards. It's not as if the poor woman had been a guard at Bergen Belsen or something, and she was lucky to survive the Allied bombings, which cost some 600,00 civilian lives - mostly innocent people, by the way, including thousands of slave laborers and, yes, Jews, who were not allowed into the bomb shelters. That's how humane our air force was. "Kill them all and let God sort them out" isn't only the American way of war.

For the record, my girlfriend is German, my kids are German, hell, even my cat is German. They didn't "do anything," nor are they descended from anyone who "did anything" worth getting excited about in the year 2011. Their families went along to get along in those terrible times, and I myself don't claim to do anything different today. It wouldn't occur to me to blame them for somebody else's skewed notion of who they are or who they should be.

Yes, there were plenty of people back then who did lots of horrible things, more than anyone wants to imagine, but we're not talking about them here. As far as the notion that ALL Germans were somehow Nazis, I know plenty of former communists here in Berlin - themselves the children and grandchildren of former communists, many of whom did jail time under Hitler - who will soon disabuse you of that notion.

Let me suggest, however, that as an American citizen you are also complicit in millions of deaths and endless suffering - in the treatment of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of Africans, and brutal wars in the Philippines and Vietnam, let alone right this minute in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya. You support this behavior directly through your tax money and your silence. If you want to worry about your heritage, I think that would be a more sensible and above all constructive place to start.

Finally, consider the case of the German actor Christian Berkel (who played the role of the bald SS doctor in the WWII movie "Downfall"). His father had Nazi connections, whereas his Jewish mother escaped Germany in 1938 and returned after the war, meaning that his family includes both Nazis and death camp victims. For Berkel, this is a source of endless fascination - and profound insight into the human condition.