My German-American grandfather and his thoughts on Jews

A few years back, hubby and I visited Austria and Germany. We practiced the German language we remembered from high school and college, ate a lot of schnitzel, drank far more than our normal quota of dark beer, and even maneuvered the Munich subway one day—extraordinary for us since we live in the midwestern USA and we have no subway anywhere near.

I took the bus to Dachau one day while hubby bummed around in Munich. (He been there before and didn’t want to see it again. In retrospect, we must have also needed a break from each other.)  What I saw was shocking, but not surprising. A few barracks remain where prisoners stayed, but most were torn down after the war. The Germans couldn’t stand to see what they’d done, apparently.crematorium

Large ovens, built to accommodate human bodies, still stand. They don’t look very old.

A very well-done museum documents much of the carnage, and the systematic methods the Nazis used to keep track of all the people they imprisoned and killed.

Dachau isn’t even nearly the largest concentration camp in Europe (“only” about 30,000 people were killed there), but the iron gate still stands like those at other camps:

in English:  "Work will make you free"

in English: "Work will make you free"

Added to the grounds in the years since the war is a sculpture. I looked at it for a long time because it so brilliantly conjures such agony and cruelty:

sculpture

I’m not Jewish—in fact, I’m part German—and I don’t have anything to say about these images that hasn’t already been said much more effectively by many others (and by themselves). But I do want to say this:

My direct ancestors on my dad’s side came to the United States from Germany in the very early years of the 20th century. They settled in New York and became laborers, grocers, and artists. They enjoyed the freedoms of this country while the wars raged in Europe.

My grandpa, who was born in New York, hated Jews. He died before I could ask him why—I was just a kid—but through the years I have asked my dad and his siblings (my grandpa’s children) why Grandpa hated Jews. The simple answer is, they don’t know why. They don’t believe he even had any bad experiences with any Jews. “Germans of that era just didn’t like Jews,” my aunt told me. She said it in a puzzled way, as if she didn’t understand it herself, but just knew it to be true.

If he had lived in Germany in the 30s and 40s, my own paternal grandfather would most likely have been a willing, motivated member of the SS. He was a young, healthy, strong man during those years.

When people wonder, “how could the Nazis have committed these atrocities when they were also such a literate, cultured people?”, I don’t have an answer, but I remember that my grandpa was the same way. He loved reading and the arts. He didn’t finish high school, but he read books his entire life. He earned his living making signs for companies and governments. His artistic talent is still on display in my parents’ home in the form of paintings, sketches, wood carvings, and even pieces of furniture. He was interested in tools and how things worked.

As a widower, my grandpa also went through a phase where he enjoyed cooking new dishes. Imagine a guy in his early 70s having his young grandchildren over for dinner that was garnished with grated orange rind. This was a thinking man.

He wasn’t a churchgoer, but after he died, a minister from his town approached my family, and told us that my grandpa had been talking to this minister for some time, one on one, trying to find God and the truths within religion.

I don’t know if he ever realized that his anti-Semitism was a moral issue that he was on the wrong side of. Seriously, I don’t know if he knew he was a bigot. He reflected on many things as he grew older, and I like to think that he realized that he had merely been programmed by his parents to hate Jews, and not that he actually had any reason to hate them. I’ll never know.

It also really puzzles me how the world still holds people who seem to actually BELIEVE that the Holocaust never hapened. Fine, doubt what you HEAR because it seems impossible, but how can you rationally argue with photographs? And the relatively well-preserved remnants of concentration camps all over Europe?

How does Ahmadinejad explain this? Has anybody every asked him?

EG4

Shoes

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Maidan02

I’m not religious . . . . but God forgive us.

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