Family Ties




My grandfather was shot by an American.

My German grandfather was shot in the stomach by an American soldier during World War II.

 

Everyone hates World War II Germany. I did. When I think of my family heritage I always remember my grandfather first. He was a World War II German.

 

It is easy to hate a group of people or jump to the conclusion that they are cruel and vicious when everyone else has hammered that idea into your brain since your first day in history class. It is easy to hate the Germans and what they did when there is no face or family behind the story. However, my grandfather’s blood runs through my veins and his face is locked in my memory forever. This history lesson is personal. This history lesson is my family’s life.

 

Around April of last year we reached the chapter on World War II in my U.S. History class. The whole time I wondered whether any of my relatives were at that battle or if my extended family lived in one of the occupied cities or bombed regions. I kept waiting for the teacher to ask if anyone had any family that fought in the war. I wondered what I would say; would I deny my relationship to my family. I never learned what my answer would be. He never asked the question.

How can I take pride in being a German when I know what it means?

How can I not take pride in my heritage?

 

Sometimes I think of my Grandmother waiting quietly in angst in that cold frightening city; staring desperately into the icy waters of the Rhine River as she waited for her sister to swim to shore.  She had gone across the river to find her father and to make sure he was alive and alright. The Americans had closed the bridges to all citizens after they had occupied Düsseldorf leaving my grandmother and her sister separated from their father. All they wanted to know was if he was still alive.

 

Sometimes I think of my grandfather and the hardships he had to endure. He was only eighteen years old when the war hit and was immediately drafted into the army. The only choice he was given was to fight or flee for his life. I am eighteen.

 

My great grandfather was an officer in World War I.

 

My mother says my grandfather never talked about the war. It was a forbidden topic growing up, always pushed to side and hidden in the back closet. How much he knew about what was really going on shall forever remain a secret hidden on his silent lips under the ground.

 

I have never met my grandfather, he died years before I was born, but I know what I would say to him if he was suddenly resurrected from the grave. I can imagine our conversation right now as if he were sitting in front of me. We are at his house in the German countryside sitting on the back porch staring out over the fields and horses at the dense forest.

“Hallo Grossvater.”

“Hallo Enkelin.”

“Es tut mir ausserordentlich leid.”

 

We would catch each other’s eye then and he would know why I was sorry. Sorry that he had to fight, sorry that he was shot, sorry that he fought for a terrible cause but most of all sorry that he had to live with the guilt. Memories like that never fade.

 

My grandfather died of a brain tumor at the age of sixty.

 

People in Germany are still recovering from the humiliation. Almost everyone has a relative or friend who was involved in the war in some way. How can you take pride in your country when it has committed such atrocious crimes? The war ended but the worldwide beating of Germany’s pride lasts to this day.

 

I sometimes wonder if the soldier who shot my grandfather is still alive. If he ever speculated whether the man he shot survived. I have questioned before whether or not I could find this man and ask him about that time on the battlefield when his gun went off and the bullet whizzed through the air into another man’s stomach. This is what I would say.

“Hello soldier. I am the granddaughter of the German you shot. Why did you try to kill my grandfather?”

And I know in response he would say, “I was protecting our country. We were at war.”

It is funny how many things can be excused by the fact that one is at war.

 

I wonder how I would feel about Germany if I wasn’t a German and my opinions weren’t so intertwined with my family. Could I have just as easily reigned criticism on everything German?

 

I remember a guy drawing swastikas all over his papers in French class. He thought it was funny and would show them to me and the other kid sitting at the table. The other kid would laugh every time for some absurd reason like it was the funniest thing in the world. I would feign a smile and pretend to be amused but I really hated the kid and his drawings.

 

It was my grandmother who made me proud to be a German. She used to make my sister and I this delicious soup every time we visited her at her apartment in Germany. She would douse some Maggi on it, shake salt over the top and serve it in the old porcelain bowls. My Uncle would come up from his apartment downstairs and join us for lunch. During which we would sit around her small table and let family ties bind us together. On Sunday mornings she would always insist on walking to mass by herself even in her later years when her health was waning. She had been through more in her lifetime than every person I know combined. At the age of eight she watched and endured her parents’ separation and divorce; guarding her younger sister, who was still too small to understand the implications of a messy separation, from all hurtful and wounding feelings. Then in her teenage years the war struck, food soon became scarcer, Americans occupied the city and she was separated from her father. Nothing about a war is easy; not for the civilians or the soldiers. When the war was done she went through med school during which time she had to take care of her dying mother. The day my grandmother passed her exam to become a doctor her mother died.  After this her life became better; she opened a practice, got married and had three wonderful children, one of whom had me.

 

Every time I question my strength or dedication I remember my grandmother and what she endured. The same genes that ran through her are now in me. Being German is not about one war it is about the hundreds of years of history and the accomplishments the country has achieved.

 

My German heritage is now one of my most proud attributes. It took me years to come to grips with the history behind Germany but I realized that one war doesn’t define a country. Every nation has a part of their past that they wish they could wipe off the history books. Hurtful wounds will eventually scab over and goodness will grow back in its place.

 

Every couple of months my grandmother would send my family a box full of treats. My mother would get her favorite German magazine, my siblings and me all the Haribo candy we could eat and my dad his beloved marzipan cake. She would specially send me salted black licorice knowing it was my favorite. I would always bring the candy to school and share it with my friends but I never found a single person that liked it; giving me a subtle reminder that my family is different, that I am German.

 

Ich bin Deutscher