Was Grandpa a Nazi?
Why we need to confront our own family histories

Illustration by Jens Bonnke

Our program director Steffen Jost writes in his article why it is worth taking a closer look at one's own family history during the Nazi period and how an update of remembrance culture can contribute to the strengthening of our democracy.

A few years ago, I sat with my mother. My grandmother had died the year before and we had just cleared out her house following its sale. We’d been able to sell one or two things, but a lot had landed in the rubbish pile. It had been a physically and emotionally demanding few days, having to decide over and over again what we should keep (little) and what had to go (almost everything). In what used to be my childhood room, surrounded by How and Why Wonder Books and adventure novels, I opened an old folder that my mother brought to me.

Reading through those fragile documents, it became clear that I knew less about my family than I’d thought; the findings told the story of a store that my great-grandparents had bought, as well as that of its previous owners: a Jewish merchant couple. It wasn’t a simple story. The contract for the sale of the business had already been signed before 1933; the couple wanted to secure themselves for old age and get things settled as early as possible. But then came January 30th 1933 and one antisemitic law after another was enacted. Eventually, even in the little town where this couple and my great-grandparents were living, the situation for Jews became unbearable. In 1938, prior to the November pogroms, the Jewish merchant couple left Germany and a final payment from my great-grandparents to them was frantically agreed. Then silence.

In the spring of 1945, the Allies gained control and took a particularly close look at all businesses with formerly Jewish owners. My great-grandparents too had to prove that they had legally acquired their store. Above all, the question that arose was whether their final payment in 1938 might have been too low. Until the situation could be clarified, my great-grandfather was forbidden to take out any loans and could only purchase new goods for his shop under difficult conditions. They had no contact with the former owners, who could perhaps have shed some light on the matter. It was only years later that the family could finally be located in the USA, where they had ended up following a long escape.

For my family, the story behind the purchase had always been clear: of course, everything had been done correctly. It was merely the conclusion of a sale that had been planned for so long. The fact that the merchants hadn’t fled voluntarily in 1938 played no role in my family’s story. I for one couldn’t perceive any hint of empathy for their Jewish neighbours from the documents in front of me - on the contrary, the letters in the file before me radiated a certain business-like coldness. At no point did any interest in the fate of their former neighbours shine through. In the end there was simply an agreement, but no understanding of how the situation was for the others.

For me, what I can reconstruct from these files and my mother's memories is ambiguous. And with that, in some sense, our case is also a very ordinary one.

For Germany is full of such stories.

Stories of Aryanization.

Stories of expulsion.

Stories of murder.

Stories of participation.

Stories of watching.

Stories of helping.

Stories of opportunists.

Stories of believers.

Stories of resistance.

Stories of victims.

Stories of perpetrators.

Stories from our neighbours.

Stories from our families.

Even in 2022, Germany is still a post-National Socialist society in which there are still many stories and entanglements to be revealed

As unexceptional as our family history may be in some way, it is remarkable that many of these stories are not known or we only know a glossed-over version. This is not down to the historians - National Socialism and the Holocaust have been researched in detail. The studies that ask how and why are now penetrating down to the lowest levels of decision-making. Although we would theoretically have access to all these facts, we descendants of the perpetrators only very rarely deal privately with the question of what exactly happened within our own families in the years before, during and after the Second World War.

In 2021, almost 70% of those surveyed in the MEMO-Study, which investigates the handling of Nazi history in Germany, stated that they did not count their ancestors among the perpetrators of National Socialism. In fact, 35% believed they were among the victims and 32% saw their ancestors as having helped the victims. However, these figures do not correspond to historical reality – perpetration in all its facets was a much more widespread phenomenon than today’s generations assume. These and other similar surveys prove that we still have a huge task ahead of us. Even in 2022, Germany is still a post-National Socialist society (Astrid Messerschmidt) in which there are still many stories and entanglements to be revealed, from the purchase of cheap furniture at property auctions of deported Jews or Sinti and Roma, to the exploitation and abuse of forced laborers on almost all farms across the country, to the role of hundreds of thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers in the war of extermination.

Distorted perceptions of one's own family history

It is all the more remarkable given that Germany likes to portray itself as a world champion of remembrance. I have often experienced this self-image mirrored from the outside, with admiration from colleagues from other countries with dictatorial and violent pasts for what Germany has managed to achieve. It is therefore not a question of belittling what has been achieved and of negating the work of countless committed people. However, it is clear to me that the end of this process of reappraisal is far from being reached - and probably never can be reached. The admission of unfinished business is crucial, because the feeling that the German culture of remembrance is doing everything right often obscures the view of the path that still needs to be taken.

With the assumption that one's own ancestors were completely innocent the following generations release themselves from the responsibility for the present. The fallacy that “we” have worked on everything – or, worse still, are in fact almost all the descendants of victims of National Socialism – is turning a blind eye to terrifying continuities. So, anyone who believes that antisemitism or antiziganism can no longer exist in the land of the World Champions of Processing the Past might learn otherwise by taking a look at the crime statistics. Worse still, Israel is increasingly accused of not being as successful in dealing with the Holocaust. Repressed guilt and repressed antisemitism then often manifest themselves in an irreconcilable “criticism of Israel”, as the Antisemitism Commissioner for the State of Berlin, Samuel Salzborn, writes.



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Research of your own environment

For all these reasons, digging into one's own family history or one's own environment is still worthwhile. Within the framework of a project funded by the Alfred Landecker Foundation, the Aktives Museum in Berlin is researching the history of the so-called "Jewish Houses", of which there were an unknown number in the city between 1939 and 1945. There, Jews were forcibly accommodated in cramped conditions before their deportation. Jewish property was also extensively expropriated. The traces of this history of violence, which took place in the heart of the city, are difficult to find today. Questions like these are worth asking: Who owned the house in which I live, or which once stood here? Was there perhaps a change of ownership? Who benefited from it?

Of course, it is unpleasant to consider what the history of dictatorship and genocide means for one’s own present, whether one's own prosperity is perhaps based on the exploitation of forced labourers. Or whether (great) grandparents, whom one would like to remember as loving people, might have been involved in the injustice. The historian Sarah Grandke is still investigating such questions(1). In 1942 or 1943, a Polish forced labourer was publicly hanged in her home village in Brandenburg. What was only mentioned in passing 15 years ago in an interview with her grandmother is now the focus of her interest. Grandke discovered this: The search for answers is difficult, the “stones” that she “throws into the water” lead to defensive attitudes and don’t ensure the necessary treatment of a crime that has remained unexplained for far too long.

Updating remembrance culture to strengthen democracy

From my personal family history, among other things, I can see that we are far from the end of the process of coming to terms with the past. Remembering and questioning must be understood as an ongoing process - in private as well as in the public sphere. In order that we don’t get tired of both, an update is urgently required for the culture of remembrance in Germany. We should dare to develop new formats, including digital ones, and break up the ritualized commemorative theatre and Sunday speeches on the relevant anniversaries. Instead of a catchphrase like “Never again”, which ultimately only serves to assure oneself, we need more knowledge about the conditions under which the Nazi dictatorship was able to hold out for twelve years. If we develop a better understanding of the complex forms of perpetrators and complicity and the resulting entanglements for one's own family, an important step would be taken. In this way, we all strengthen our sense of how fluid the boundaries between right and wrong can be, how difficult decisions of conscience can be when the pressure rises. We can learn not from the black and white, but from the shades of grey. This is true for my family – and probably for most others too.

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