I have a very unique last name. So unique, in fact, that only 3 people in the United States have it. The two others, my uncle and aunt, are in their late 70’s, so eventually I will be the only one. I’m past child bearing age, so once I’m gone, unless my cousins in Canada or Europe move here, there will be no one with my last name left in this country. (And don’t bother asking. With a name this rare I’m way too easy to find.)
For most of my life I didn’t have any contact with my father’s side of the family, never having met him, so I did not know the family history. I always assumed that I was of German descent. Therein lies the problem. In my early teens, like many young girls, I read the story of Anne Frank, and then moved on to other substantive books about World War II and its global consequences, and assumed that my family must have played a part in that atrocity in one way or another. I bore that guilt and shame for decades.
I know that probably sounds overly dramatic, but this reaction really isn’t unusual for Germans of my generation. (There is even a really good movie about it called “The Reader” starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. I highly recommend it.) It’s got to be hard to have parents or older relatives whom you love very much, and yet you know, or at least suspect, that they were part of the Nazi party. Reconciling that in your mind must cause a great deal of inner turmoil. I have read somewhere that over 8000 Nazis worked in Auschwitz alone, and yet no German of that generation seems to be willing to admit to knowing anything. Some had to know. And knowing that your loved ones had to know has got to affect who you are, whom you trust and how you love. It is a mistake to think that we’re past World War II. I think the scar tissue it has produced will last for generations.
Having said all that, a few years ago I was released from my own personal hell. First of all, I discovered that my family was French, not German. They come from the Alsace Lorraine region, which has been passed back and forth so much throughout the centuries that many French speaking people have German last names. But that didn’t necessarily absolve them in my mind. Atrocities know no boarders. So I contacted the Elie Wiesel Foundation (http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org/ ). They have a list of everyone who was ever a member of the Nazi party. Imagine my joy when they informed me that no one with my last name was ever a member! It took me a while to get used to this concept, but it sort of feels like a get out of jail free card. And since then, I’ve met a great deal of my father’s side of the family, and have come to know that they’re wonderful people. Had I known them all along, I probably wouldn’t have had these concerns in the first place.
In retrospect, though, I think that the human race in general must, by necessity, bear some residual guilt when any atrocity is committed, even those of us who had no direct participation in the act. That guilt and shame is what keeps us human. It’s what keeps us in the light. And it is therefore a cross that I’m willing to bear.