Last night in my ethics class we spent two hours talking about war, primarily American: Revolutionary, Civil, Vietnam, Iraq. I did NOT tell the class that my Opa fought for the German army in World War II. It wasn’t a story I was prepared to tell.
Since I kept silent last night, now I have to tell you this story. The story of how my people are a warrior people, from our early days as “barbarian hordes” in northern Europe to the more “civilized” life of my grandparents, a tailor and a florist in Danzig/Gdansk, Poland.
When I talk to my ancestors in my dreams they insist that I not say the word Nazi. They did not approve of what happened to their Jewish neighbors, my ancestors tell me. But you didn’t DO anything! I say and usually that’s when they stop talking to me, shaking their heads. I don’t understand what it was like, how afraid they were. I don’t understand anything.
There are two stories in my family that I heard over and over as a child:
First, there is the story about how my Oma refused to display the Nazi flag above her florist shop. Her brother turned her in to the SS and they shut down her shop and refused to allow her to do business, putting the family into financial jeopardy. (Fortunately, Opa and his friends stole a pig – but that’s another story.) The moral of this story is: don’t trust your family.
Second, there is the story of my Opa, who was drafted into the German army and captured by the Russians. The Russians marched the POWs across the continent in the middle of winter. The journey was hard and so the Russians decided to execute and ditch the POWs. But one young Russian lieutenant stood in front of the German prisoners and threw out his hands. If you want to shoot them, you have to shoot me, he said. And so my Opa lived.
What a great model of non-violence, I think, except the story doesn’t end there.
Once they got to the POW camp, the prisoners were brought up for medical examination. There were two lines. Opa looked ahead and saw that the doctor in his line was a German ex-SS who had defected to the Russians. So he switched lines, into the line with the lady Russian doctor. She said he was too weak and sick to go to the gulag, the work camp, and so he lived. The ex-SS officer sent people stronger than my Opa off to the gulag. The moral of this story is: don’t trust your people.
I grew up in a warrior family. My father did not fight in Vietnam, exempted for medical reasons, but my father’s brother and both his sons were military — active duty, then National Guard. My father served the US Navy as a civil servant for decades, working on the navigation systems for missiles until he retired. (I worked for them, too — but how I did and why I left is another post.)
There was no talk of heroic battles around my kitchen table growing up, there was only this:
Life is dangerous. Trust no one.
My perfectionism, my compulsion to obtain the right answer, to do things correctly, comes out of this…the need to be safe. If you mess up, if you choose wrong, you die.
Yet the stories of my family could be understood in different ways. The moral could be different. It could be a moral about standing up to your family even when they side with the oppressors. It could be a moral about the miraculous grace of strangers. Or the provident hand of a loving God. Or the senselessness of war and the necessity for peace.
It helps me to tell these stories now. For I am a good granddaughter. I have long mistrusted the stories of my elders, questioned how much of the truth they told me. I am suspicious of stories people tell me. I am always looking for the underside, the underbelly of motivation.
Some of my suspicion is helpful, but some of it is damaging. It sometimes gets in the way of authentic relationships with others. It makes it difficult to assume good intentions and extend grace. And so it makes it hard for me to make peace, to be about peacemaking in my life, my community, my world.
Life is a battle — I have always believed that, always stood with my sword drawn, my shield ready. But now I am wondering, perhaps, if it isn’t always about a fight. If maybe life is about common work, common good, relationships, trusting. The thought makes me very nervous and I want to retreat. You, friend, can you encourage me to stay? Can we work together? Please tell me. I am listening.