holocaust denial, freedom of speech, and my German grandmother
Some phrases are highly charged, evoking instant feelings of revulsion, incredulity, or both. ‘Holocaust denier’ is one such phrase.
Who on Earth could be so uneducated, so ill-informed, so egregious as to deny that something so horrific and impactful ever happened…?
It’s in our textbooks, it’s on the History channel. All American adults today grew up learning about the atrocities of Hitler and the Nazi regime … right?
Ok - but what if ‘Holocaust deniers’ have been around since the time of the Holocaust?
And - what if … in some cases … it’s not as simple as that?
Fear not - this isn’t a story in defense of assholes - or anyone, really.
It’s just a story of my evolving perspective, as I try to understand my ancestors...
Okay, so - my dad immigrated to the USA from Germany with his mother after WWII. My mother was a child of immigrants. Neither of them experienced the prosperity and ease of post-war America that we often see portrayed in Norman Rockwell Christmas scenes.
By the time I was born, my parents were in their 40s, and shared a lot of stories with me about their past. As a child, my mom could go to the movies downtown and get penny candy for 35 cents. However - her family lived in a relative’s attic, and she shared a twin-size bed with her mother - who worked in a factory.
I know my mom had a more stable childhood than my dad.
He remembers raiding dumps for used coffee grounds, and scraping the insides of banana peels for extra calories. My father was sent to live with his grandparents in the German countryside during the war. Later in his childhood, he played games in the ruins of bombed out building.
So - my dad's always been fiercely proud to be an American.
His mother married an American when he was a boy, and his biological father had been reported MIA before he was born. (Yes, my biological grandfather disappeared in the battle of Stalingrad.)
My father was able to be offically adopted around age 10, and even changed his name. At 18, he jumped at the chance to join the American Army, became a naturalized citizen, and later, volunteered for Vietnam not once, but twice.
However, his mother - my Oma - was a different story. She came to this country in her 30s, learned English somewhat grudgingly, and retained her thick German accent into my childhood, peppering her speech with various German words amongst the English.
I wanted to learn to speak German, and she would often chide my father for not teaching me. His reasoning? We were Americans first, and Texans, specifically - so if I was going to learn a foreign language it would be Spanish, dammit.
My Oma was a fierce, proud, and formidable woman, with a booming voice, perfectly coiffed silver hair and pearl-painted nails.
When I was a kid, we saw her every week, and I used a rotary phone to call her up almost daily and talk about nothing in particular.
She smoked slims and kept them in a metallic gold mesh cigarette case that I used to play with. She often drank and gambled at bingo halls, and went to the hairdressers every week religiously.
Then, she’d come back with juicy tales of gossip from the other German women who made up her rich social life. She would delight in re-telling these stories to my mother over kaffee und kuchen.
My Oma had a big personality, and a bigger temper. She passed on when I was just 13, and despite seeing her frequently, my father didn’t have a great bond with her, and simply doesn’t talk about the rest of his family.
He left the lot of them in Germany long ago, and I never understood why he did that, as a kid.
As an adult, I have wondered if this was my father’s way of protecting us from that unsavory legacy … because his mother seemed to be a ‘Holocaust denier’.
When I was 11, I heard her say that Hitler was a good man and a wonderful leader, and that all the stories of gas chambers and concentration camps were just made-up propaganda to discredit him.
I was utterly shocked.
I couldn’t believe the words she was saying, and was annoyed that my parents were only trying to quell the conversaton and change topics - instead of contradicting her! Never one to miss an opportunity where I could prove myself intellectually, I instantly pulled out my history book to show her photos, astounded that she had somehow made it to adulthood without knowing the truth about Hitler and WWII.
As a book-smart kid, it simply didn’t occur to me that she was anything other than misinformed - so I thought it would be easy to correct her with facts.
…but no. She flatly refused to accept any of it.
She waived my objections away with contempt, said the pictures were doctored up, or else, from some other country or time period. She said my schoolbook was wrong, and even went on to rant about the American school system.
Books were my holy grail of infalliable truth, and this was an anomaly I had never encountered before: Someone who disagreed with a book?
I vaguely recall my mother having a conversation with me later that day. She validated that I was right and Oma was wrong - and tried to explain to me that proof and clever arguments won’t always make a difference when people have a strong attachment to being right. My mama was smart.
Eventually, as I got older - I thought I understood the paradox:
My Oma’s perspective, as a tall, blonde, blue-eyed German woman, was that before Hitler came into power, they were eating from the dump. Afterward, she held an important job as a train conductress (which she still liked to brag about, even in her old age). She had enough money to send some to her parents, who lived on a farm and raised my dad while she worked.
Life was better for her, specifically, myopically - and so maybe that was all she had the bandwidth (or luxury?) to understand?
That experience had a big impact on me, and stayed in my psyche for a long time.
Why share this highly personal story?
Because context and perspective are massively important.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE…
So - I started writing about this a few months ago … and it stuck in my craw.
Finally, I asked my father directly if whether he remembers his mother saying those things, and in answer, he told me a story.
When he was a boy, he remembers his grandfather being “roughed up” and almost being dragged off to a “work camp” … because he had been overheard at a bar, speaking against the German government—!
“But I thought maybe … our family back then were supportive of—”
And he cut me off and said,
“OF COURSE NOT, not REALLY - but back then, EVERYBODY had to toe the line. If you weren’t enthusiastically supportive of the government and the army, you were in danger, period. You might get stolen out of your warm bed at night for shooting off your mouth around the wrong people.”
As he talked, I finally understood:
There’s no way to know what my Oma REALLY thought, felt, or even understood about the Holocaust - because in 1940s Germany, there was no freedom of speech.
Maybe the propaganda was so insidious, so complete, that even 50 years later in a new country, her mind still wasn’t safe or clear…
For years - I’ve wondered about the type of people my ancestors really were - and it’s deeply unsettling to think that maybe, they weren’t even sure themselves.
Maybe they were kept so busy staying vigilant, careful, alive, that they weren’t able to be the resistance, as I’d prefer to imagine..
My dad said that when he was a boy, they had signs up in every shop and on the streets that said things like, “the walls have eyes” and “the enemy is listening”.
Of course they meant, enemies of the state … but even German citizens were themselves enemies of the state if they publicly disagreed with anything the state was doing—!
The posters were a warning TO the German people just as much as “for” them.
The result of this was widespread suspicion, confusion, and a control that ran so deep, you literally didn’t know who you could speak freely to without fear of repercussion - including death.
When we say 1940s Germany had no freedom of speech, I think most folks now can’t fully comprehend the depth of that reality.
If people couldn’t speak freely, they couldn’t even THINK without censoring themselves mentally, lest their words slip and reflect their true thoughts.
This is something we largely take for granted today - and must stay vigilant to keep.
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