Up until recently, when someone asked me what my heritage was, I’d flippantly say, “I’m the female version of Hitler in a kilt.” My mother was born in Germany, and my father is of Scot descent (his grandparents on his father’s side were born in Scotland). The term used to fit as I could handle my alcohol as well as any Scot, and I wanted things my way. I don’t say that anymore as I think most people seem to have lost their sense of humor as well as the ability to understand satire (I also rarely drink and have learned to be more flexible and forgiving, but that’s a different story).
Americans now live in a polarized political divide. We live in a society where many folks are again ostracizing ethnicities; many social media accounts are perpetuating an Us versus Them mentality that is feeding the fires of the disenfranchised, and neighbors, friends, and families are fighting about political stances often destroying and ignoring basic human connections and similarities. Friends who went to school together suddenly threaten each other with violence for protesting police brutality. People are beating each other up on airplanes for not wearing a mask. Neo-nazi white supremacists have taken a brighter spotlight recently as many folks are either forgetting or misinterpreting events that led up to the Holocaust. I’ve heard some crazy conspiracy theorists espouse that the Holocaust never existed. (Seriously, what kind of person actually thinks this??).
Can a polarized society ever come back together? I think so. I think we need to look at history- from all different perspectives- in order to have a full view of where we all came from in order to find a path towards a better future. Finding stories of connections from our own ancestors can provide illuminating guidance.
Sometimes, looking to the past, to my past, I can find hope for the future. You see, my grandmother, my Oma, was a Nazi. Her best friend, my Tante Hanna, was a Jew. You can’t get much more divided than that, yet they formed a bond that lasted for over sixty years.
My grandmother would often tell the story of how she came to this country with a small daughter, not speaking the language and with two dollars in her wallet on Valentine’s Day in 1954. “In fact,” she would say, “I owed money.” She was sponsored by her friend, Nadia, a Russian pianist and femme fatale. Oma hinted that Nadia was a double spy (Russian and German) which is why she emigrated to the United States before her. My grandmother and mother stayed with Nadia for a little while, and my grandmother got a job as a waitress at Kleine Konditerei, a restaurant on East 86th Street, at the time, the German section of New York City.
She and Hanna met within a few years of them both coming to this country. To hear them tell the tale, they didn’t like each other much at first, but as time went by and their paths crossed more often, they realized they had more in common than not. They both came from Germany with very little money, did not know English, and had to find work. They were both also very hard-headed and opinionated. Yet they enjoyed each other’s company, they visited each other often, they traveled together, and they eventually retired to Florida together, buying condos three doors down from each other. Their friendship would last until Hanna’s death.
As most grandmothers do, Oma Eva doted on her three grandchildren.. She called me “Meine Suesse ganz alleine” (“my only sweetie”). When my sister came along, she was “Meine Suesse zwei alleine” (“my sweetie two alone”), and when my brother was born 14 years after me he was “Mein Suess drei allein” (“my sweet three alone”). Her favorite story of me that she would tell again and again was of how, when I was just two years old, we were crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, I looked out one window declaring “Look Oma! Wasser!” Then looking out the other window, I excitedly exclaimed “Look, Oma! Zwei Wasser!” She wanted to make sure we learned about our German heritage. She would tell us stories of the many adventures of her family and and friends from Germany. She taught us children’s German songs like “Auf einem Baum ein Kuckuck” and listened to German music – I remember listening to Heintje sing “Oma so Lieb” often, singing along in my not-so-in-tune tiny voice.
At her house in Bedford Hills, my sister and I would do typical kid things. We made mudpies and pretended we ran a restaurant “cooking” up mud-hamburgers, mud-pancakes, and mud-soup while Oma tended her multi-colored garden of pansies and petunias. On rainy days, we would concoct “soup” with an array of household spices Oma gave us, along with pots, pans, spoons, and measuring cups. At night, she would play games with us. Sometimes a card game, “Tausendundeins,” sometimes a board game, “Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht,” and sometimes, when my parents and company were over, a made up game “Arschful” (which literally means “assful”)-in which my sister and I would close our eyes and bend over, and then one of the adults in the room would spank us, and we’d have to guess which adult did the spanking. We’d have homefries and eggs for breakfast, German potato salad with lunch, and boiled potatoes and gravy with every dinner. She loved potatoes. I loved going to visit Oma.
I always looked forward to when Tante Hanna would come over. When I was a child, she was the only adult I ever knew who could swear and get away with it. The F-bomb was as much of her accessory as was the gold Star of David and golden Scrabble tiles H and K she wore proudly around her neck. And she was funny. She was a professional nanny to well-off Jewish families in New York City. She would tell me tales of “Little Blue Riding Hood -because Red Riding Hood was too conventional and boring.” She would have me straighten crooked imaginary pictures on walls. She was also a chain smoker who loved Scrabble. She taught me how to play and gave me my first “cheat sheet” of two and three letter words. She would give me an advantage of being able to use the “cheat sheet” and a dictionary, but if she could beat me, she would. “You, you little shit, will learn how to beat me fair and square,” she’d flatly state. And, she beat me every single game until I was in my mid-twenties.
Over the years, I heard Tante Hanna call my grandmother a “Nazi,” and Oma would call her a “Jew,” and afterwards I’d hear the clink of wine glasses and laughter. I didn’t really know what those terms meant, nor the implications of the words, I just knew that Oma and Tante Hanna were best friends. (For the longest time, I thought they were sisters, hence the “Tante” part, but along the way, someone corrected me.).
Don’t most childhood memories make you feel all warm and fuzzy?
Fast forward to 1977. I’m 11 years old and in sixth grade. I loved reading and my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Santiago, introduced her students to George Orwell, Esther Hautzig, and Anne Frank. We read Animal Farm, The Endless Steppe, and Diary of Anne Frank. Vocabulary terms included fascism, totalitarianism, and altruism. School stuff I took with a pre-teenage moody grain of sand. To my 11-year-old self, Animal Farm was a bunch of crazy animals, some nasty pigs, a poor workhorse I felt sorry for, and a stupid horse named Mollie, who reminded me of some of the vain girls in my class. No big deal. Then came the tale of ten-year-old Esther, a well-off Jewish Polish girl who was sent to Siberia after being rounded up by Russians. Okay, that was a sad story, and I was very cold when I read it, but Esther lived to tell the tale, so I was okay with that. In both books, the people (and animals in the allegory) from Russia weren’t very nice. That’s okay, though, as I didn’t know anyone from Russia. But then I started realizing that these books were based on history. History I didn’t know yet. What’s World War 2? Why did the Russians take families out of their homes? Why were the Russians in Poland anyway? Why do people want to kill other people? Kill children? What’s wrong with being Jewish? Is Jewish a religion or people from a country I haven’t learned about yet? So far, the books just left me with questions; questions about human motivations, about history, and about religion, but questions that didn’t personally affect me.
The next book on our reading list, Diary of Anne Frank, did personally affect me. She was about my age when she wrote it. I liked her. I liked how she viewed the world and she wrote about issues I was currently struggling with too- problems with her sister, Margot (my sister has a similar name), liking a boy, and well, I just liked her attitude. But, there were those words again “Nazi” and “Jew”. And she and her family died because of the Nazis, and because she was a Jew. Her story resonated with me. I wanted her story to have a happy ending. Why did she have to die? I couldn’t let the nagging thoughts go.
I learned, through these stories, that Nazis, Hitler, Nazi-ism was bad. Hitler caused a world war. He and his regime murdered innocent Jewish children. Kids my age. I was livid. How could anyone do that to another human being? In my pre-adolescent self-righteous anger, I vowed that I would have helped Anne Frank and others like her if I were alive at that time. Innocent, armchair, vicarious, impotent altruism.
In my mind I was thinking of all the ways I could have and would have helped. I would have……..wait. I’m German. My mother is German. My Oma is German. Tante Hanna called her a “Nazi.” Is Nazi-ism a religion? Was I part of that group that committed atrocities against other humans? Then, I thought about Tante Hanna. She is German, isn’t she? She and Oma speak German, and something called Plattdeutsch, together. Yet, she’s a Jew who wears the Star of David around her neck. Oma didn’t wear any religious symbol around her neck. What religion was she? What did Oma do to help the Jews? Did she help any? Was she really a Nazi? No way, my sweet Oma could not be like the horrible Nazis I read about. If she were a Nazi, what about me? Boy, did I have a lot of questions. So, I gathered up some pre-pubescent courage and asked.
“Was, meine Süße?”
“Were you a Nazi?” Even as a kid, I was straight-to-the-point.
Oma stopped peeling potatoes in her immaculate kitchen. Her house always smelled a combination of onions, potatoes, baby powder, and freshly cut flowers. We were sitting at the round, marbled-grey formica table in her kitchen. I remember looking up at the round florescent light, thinking it was bright and kind of ugly. She put down her paring knife and looked at me with soft, clear blue eyes.
“I mean, in school, we’ve been reading lots of books about World War 2, and learning about Hitler and concentration camps, and, like, you weren’t part of all that, were you?”
“Everyone was a Nazi in Germany once Hitler came into power. You had to be. The government required it. Children were part of the German Youth Group, and it’s just the way it was.”
“Did you know Jews were being sent to concentration camps to be murdered, like Anne Frank?”
“What do you mean, ‘No’? Weren’t there Jewish families in your neighborhood?”
“Most people didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, what was happening. All most of us knew was that we had jobs again. We had food in our bellies. We weren’t starving. The economy was getting better. Some families disappeared overnight, but we were told that they had gone on holiday. There were rumors of something more sinister, but who believed rumors? We thought those rumors were told by people who were against all the good that was happening for the German economy. I didn’t know what was going on until after the war ended.”
“How could you not know when those families didn’t return?”
“Hand me that potato and then go check on your sister. We’ll eat soon.”
“But, what about-?”
“Go now.” She smiled at me, somewhat sadly, and I knew to go check on my sister.
That day I learned a little about my grandmother’s life as a Nazi. Later that night, she told me “watered-down” stories of Nazi Germany to protect my innocence. My grandfather was a Nazi and was in the German Army (not SS soldier, but a Nazi soldier nonetheless). Her brother was a Nazi soldier, who was wounded in a battle and captured by the Russians. All Germans including children were Nazis.
I was quite upset. How could my Oma be part of the kind of people who killed Anne Frank? How could she not know what was happening to those Jewish families? How could she be a member of the party that killed all those in concentration camps? I didn’t visit her for a few months. I didn’t want to see her. I was horrified. And, I was young and ignorant. I wanted my family to be good, and I didn’t quite understand how good people could be blind to something so evil.
Over the next few years, I learned a lot about German history through the eyes of my relatives. Oma and I had many conversations about her life in Germany. I also talked with my maternal grandfather and his second wife, Oma Gerda, and Oma Eva’s brother, Uncle Heinz, about their lives in Nazi Germany. I collected stories from my mother, my mother’s family, and Tante Hanna. I wanted to know, I guess, if I was part evil. I also felt guilty.
Oma Eva was born in 1922 in Malchin, a small town in eastern Germany, a little after the Treaty of Versaille, a peace agreement that ended the First World War. This treaty demanded that Germany pay reparations (I’m not sure, but I think Germany had to pay the United States, France, Italy, and England). The reparations were intended to make sure that Germany never had the finances, nor the military resources, to start another World War. Germany paid out so much money, that no money was left to take care of German citizens. The economy took a nosedive. There were few jobs to be had, very little food, and much anger and unrest in the populace. This treaty created economic havoc in Germany and enabled a dictator, Hitler, to manipulate his way into power, and primarily caused the Second World War.
Oma said that she remembered her childhood as being difficult. She was the middle child of three. She had an older brother, Heinz, and a sister, Thea, who was 10 years younger than Oma. Their mother had come from money, but as Oma’s father was a gambler, her family had very little money. The family had chickens and a garden for food. As a teenager, Oma would chop heads off chickens and then pluck them herself for dinner. Clothes, shoes, and other amenities were hard to come by. I also learned, that at one point, the family was so poor that my grandmother and her siblings were put into foster care for a little while.
Reunited with her family as an older teenager, around 17 years old, Oma went to school and had an internship in a warehouse in Malchin that supplied a department store in Lubeck. She made little money, but occasionally, the owner of the warehouse would give her leftovers of items they transported, such as linen napkins and bedding, some china, and clothing. Pre-World War 2 Germany, in an effort to curb inflation, had apparently started printing so much money, that the paper the money was printed on was worth more than the marks (German currency). She told me a loaf of bread would cost a wheelbarrow filled with worthless marks. She told me about how most needed items, like sugar and flour, were gotten through trading cigarettes on the black market. Most families bartered for their needs.
I learned how the Nazis partly ensured their “true German” race. Within a few decades of WW2, Germans who wished to be married had to show documentation that proved the parties’ German lineage could be traced back at least three generations, through the paternal lineage. Citizens had to prove that they had no “Jewish” or foreign blood in them, and had to prove they had no genetic defaults. My grandfather, Opa Otto, was born October 11, 1920 in Stettin, Germany, on the Polish border. This hamlet changed nationality changed due to different wars and the redraw of borderlines of treaties that ended wars. My grandmother always said my grandfather was a Polish Jew, an obvious ingrained bias on her part (perhaps enflamed due to his marital indiscretions). His last name ended in “-ski” which some family members changed to “-ske” and was pronounced “ska,” not “ski” all because of World War 2, and the fear of being ostracized by a last name that sounded too Jewish. There are many documents which show my grandfather’s last name ending in “sky”, “ski”, and “ske”.
Oma and my family also told me their own postwar explanations of the concentration camps. They claimed that the focus on Jews in Germany was motivated by money and the economy. Many Jewish people were the merchants, the bankers, the business owners. They owned real estate. Hitler realized that if the government took over their houses, their businesses, took their money, and incorporated the Jews’ wealth into the Third Reich, the government could better control the economy. The media blitzed against the Jews. Antisemitic, pro-Nazi propaganda appeared in movies, in newspapers, advertisements, and radio programs all aimed at hungry, struggling, out-of-work Germans who believed these thinly woven lies as long as their own living conditions improved. Desperate people will believe anything if it makes living easier. Hitler and Joseph Goebbels knew how to manipulate the media; they knew how to make rational people angry and build up political loyalty.
Towards the end of the war, the Russians invaded Germany. The soldiers rolled into towns and cities and burned them down. Hitler was hiding in Berlin, in a bunker with Eva Braun. He knew the Russians were coming and he didn’t want to become a spectacle for the Russians to display to the world, so he poisoned himself and Eva Braun and had his henchmen burn their bodies until there was nothing left but bones. Even in death, Hitler used media propaganda. He knew that if the Russians (the victors) used his hanged body as an image for the media, that he would lose his political base. By removing his own body, and Eva Braun’s body, from these images, he could maintain control of his most ardent base followers.
My grandmother was not left unscathed from the ramifications of the war. She told me the story in 1999 when I was visiting her after she had triple bypass surgery and had a pacemaker inserted in her heart. She told me of one night, right before the war ended, she and her girlfriend were walking home along a darkened, quiet street from a friends’ get-together. Some Russian soldiers were walking towards them. My grandmother and her friend kept their heads down and quickened their steps. To no avail. While my grandmother didn’t come out and clearly state what happened, “a lady doesn’t talk about those things”, she did say that her friend ended up in the hospital for a very long time, and was never the same after. Oma managed to live and move past the pain, burying the event deep in her memory. Flickering hope of a better life and sheer refusal to be beaten into submission fed my grandmother’s will to survive.
Post-war Germany was worse than pre-war Germany. At some point during the war, my grandmother moved to Lübeck to work in a department store. There, she met my grandfather. He was a soldier, and after the war ended, for a short while, he was a police officer. She told me of their wedding carriage ride through town. It was all very romantic, until my grandfather decided he wanted a wife and a girlfriend. His girlfriend was well connected in town, and somehow once she and my grandfather had a falling out, the relationship cost him his job in the police department.
Oma told me about the postwar housing shortages. Many houses were destroyed by bombings. Finding a place to live was difficult, and basic food supplies were limited. German citizens were given ration cards to buy food. Children and pregnant mothers were given extra food rations. My grandmother and mother were in this category. My grandparents divorced when my mother was very young, yet because of the housing shortage, my grandfather still lived with them. Oma told me he used to bring his girlfriends to their house. During this time, my grandmother contracted typhoid fever. The doctors didn’t think she would live. She weighed little more than 80 pounds and she lost all her hair. Oma lay on the couch, in and out of consciousness, semi-aware of her daughter who was in her crib eating her own feces out of hunger. As she told the tale, the motherly instinct to care for her daughter and the anger towards her ex-husband gave her the will to live. She willed herself to survive.
My great-grandmother, Oma’s mother, still lived in Malchin which became part of East Germany after the war. While the wall was not built yet, it was still very difficult for family from the West to visit their family members in the East. Once again healthy, my grandmother would often make trips to visit her mother, who was addicted to cigarettes. Crossing the border, my grandmother would strap money to my mother’s toddler body, smuggling much needed funds to her family in the Communist East. A few years after the war ended, Oma’s mother died of emphysema. With her mother gone, her marriage done, and very little opportunity to support herself, Oma decided to leave Germany with her daughter and set out for the unknown terrain of America.
In America, my grandmother learned English, remarried, and my mother learned English by watching television and listening to the radio. My grandmother also sponsored my grandfather and his new wife so they could immigrate to America (this part of the story is a bit complicated and deserves its own separate story). Oma and Opa Gus (my grandmother’s second husband) bought a cable-car diner, The Bluebird Diner, and were business owners for years. In this diner is where my father met my mother, and well, where my personal history began. My Oma assimilated into American culture and was living the American Dream.
At some point between 1954 and 1960, Oma and Tante Hanna met. They did not know each other in Germany. Because the diner was so close to Tarrytown where Tante Hanna lived, the friendship between the two women flourished. Tante Hanna was invited to every family function Oma had, and became part of our family. The two women were quite similar in their outgoing personalities and what they valued in life. Their apartments were quite similar, and they kept house the same. Their everyday glasses were encased in plastic, fresh flowers were in a vase on the table, and feet were never to be put on sofas. “These things are expensive! They must be taken care of!” and “Get your feet off the couch!” were sayings they played on repeat. They were frugal, well, cheap was more like it, probably because they lived so many years with nothing.
I remember, as a teenager dreading going out to dinner with them, especially to “All you can eat” buffets. When we would all go out to dinner, both women brought extra-large bags with them. Extra dinner rolls, desserts, any food that could carry well would be wrapped in napkins and disappear into these bags for “a snack for later.” If I happened to go to the ladies’ room after one of them, no paper towels or toilet paper would be found, and they never ran out of paper products in their apartments. One time, Tante Hanna’s iron stopped working, so she went to the store, purchased a new iron, removed the new iron, put the old one in its place, and promptly returned the “broken” new purchase for a refund. Needless to say, as a young adult, I was embarrassed to go anywhere with them in public.
Any time the women got together, they would have “kaffeeklatsch.” Tablecloths, linen napkins, homemade cakes, wine glasses, and fresh flowers were constant necessities. Once, when too much wine was served, the topic of German reparations to Jews came up. On this subject, the two women disagreed.
“You should not be taking money from the German government for lost Meissen dishes and golden silverware you never had. Your mother was a prostitute!”
“My mother may have been a whore, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have nice things, fucker!” came the quick reply.
“Oh! Your language makes my ears curl! Why must you be so uncivil at a nice kaffeeklatsch?”
Then my grandmother would laugh and change the subject.Tante Hanna was mostly mute about her history before she came to the United States. She and her mother lived in Berlin during the war. At 12, Tante Hanna was rounded up with others and loaded into a train car bound for a concentration camp. Somehow, she escaped the train and lived underground Berlin. I don’t know how old she was when she came here with her mother, but it was no secret that she had no love for her mother. When asked how her mother was doing, her pat reply was “The bitch is still alive.” I never understood that, but I instinctively knew not to ask her.
Oma told me a portion of her story. “When Hanna was younger, she and her mother lived together. Hanna met a nice boy and they got engaged. Once day, Hanna came home from work early and found her mother in bed with her fiancé. She swore off men and her mother from that day on. Don’t ever tell her I told you the story.”
Tante Hanna and I talked about many things, but she would not discuss Germany. “I left that hellhole, and I’ll never go back,” is all she would say. She avoided talking about politics, except to say, “I hope people remember history.”
In the Florida condo complex where by grandmother and Hanna lived, the two women cultivated many friends. They had weekly Kaffeeklatsches and participated in social events of the complex. Hanna was also the caretaker to many of the residents in the retirement community. She would go shopping for a couple who didn’t have a car. She would do Nair facials on women and bring them small surprises to brighten their day. And every time I visited, she would make time to play Scrabble with me.
Politically, Oma was a staunch Republican. She believed in traditional values and a strong economy. Money equaled choices, and without a strong economy, without jobs, there are no choices. A quick Google search of my grandmother’s name still shows that she is a registered Republican. My aunt, on the other hand, refused to get involved in politics. She would not “register” for anything. She said she’d been on one “registered list” too many times and stayed as far away from politics as she could. All her life, she worked for private families, paid cash for everything she owned, and did not owe anyone a cent. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she hid all her money under her mattress.
I would go down to visit Oma and Tante Hanna either for important birthdays like Oma’s 80th birthday when she invited her brother and his wife, her sister, and her cousin Sonja to help celebrate. I came down with my daughter, Anna, who was eighteen months, and we stayed with Tante Hanna. Tante Hanna set up a little table and chair for Anna and let her play with discarded egg cartons, spoons, and small lids to stack. There was no Playskool anything, no crayons, just odds and ends she found in her house, and Anna was quite content.
The last time Tante Hanna and I played Scrabble, I knew something was wrong. I beat her three out of the four games we played that day. We each had a glass of wine, but she had only one cigarette. “I have three cigarettes a day now. One in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. No more, no less.” Always thin, she seemed even thinner. “I lost ten pounds last month.”
She was dying. A few months later, she was in a nursing home, my grandmother her only visitor. My aunt never married and never had children. She was still close to the Jewish family she had raised years ago, but they were in NY, and not able to get to see her in time. Oma would visit her, bringing her fresh blueberries and cream, the only food she could get down. On the day she died, she told my grandmother, “I never realized how painful dying was.”
After Tante Hanna died, again Oma had no reason to stay in the country. Oma’s health was declining, and she had some choices to make. My mother was living in Weimar, Germany, and Oma wanted to go back home. She wanted to spend her last years with her daughter in her homeland. Once again, mother and daughter lived together and took care of each other.
The last time I saw Oma was in December 2008. She was in a nursing home near my mother’s apartment in Germany, and, for Christmas, Oma wanted to have kaffeeklatsch on her floor for the other residents. My mother put together cookie trays with chocolate and the nurses put on some coffee. Oma was at peace, at home, and lived a good life. She died like she lived her life, on her own terms, well, almost.
Remember how I said she had a pacemaker inserted in her heart? Well, her heart’s wiring was messed up, so the pacemaker would send out an electrical shock if her heart stopped beating. The pacemaker brought her back from the dead a few times. Germany has a law against euthanasia, or any assistance to help a chronically ill or elderly patient die, because of the holocaust. My mother and Oma wanted a doctor to remove the pacemaker, and no doctor in Germany would comply, even though Oma’s other organs were failing. Several times while in the nursing home, Oma’s heart stopped, and the pacemaker would jolt it back to life, lifting her body off the bed with each shock. Eventually, either Oma had enough pain, or the pacemaker’s battery finally died. Oma died on the same day Hitler did, April 30th, in 2008.
“I don’t think you’d be able to survive what I lived through” is what my grandmother told me one time I was being a spoiled teenager. Looking back, I think she’s right. Her story, my family’s story contained the best and worst of humanity in one lifetime. I’m not sure I would have survived what she, Tante Hanna, and my other ancestors did. I learned how sometimes good people are capable of living through evil, and how hope is the only thing that can keep people alive. I also learned that people who have differing political, religious, and social beliefs can still value and respect each other. My thoughts on the future? There is always hope.