It's really been great having my mom's sister, Wilhelmina, here this week. She's been going through boxes of my mom's photos and telling us lots of fun stories. The kind every family has in its background.
Last night, however, the stories turned to World War II and the holocaust. I had heard some of these stories before, but I was interested in hearing them again.
As you might know, my mom is German. She was born in 1940 and lived near the Black Forest in southwestern Germany near the Swiss border.
My mom's sister (we call her Purzel, which is a nickname she received from her father who called her "my little Purzelie" — it stands for doing a summersault, she had tumbled and was laughing instead of crying) told us about how her mom (my grandmother) had stood up to the Nazis and had faced scorn from her family. How did she do that?
Well, every German family who had four or more children was given a medal for bearing children for the "fatherland."
My mom's mom publicly denied that medal several times telling officials "I bear my children for God, not for Hitler." Purzel told us that my grandmother even forced the mayor of her town to come to her home and offer the medal to her, and further rebuffed his attempts. By then she had added an economic component onto her denials, pointing to the small pile of coal she, and other families in their communities, had to heat her home and said something like "when you get all of us enough coal to heat our homes then you can come back here and offer that medal to me again."
Now, in today's world that doesn't seem to be very dangerous speech, but then Purzel added some context to the story.
My grandfather was one of the first in his communities to witness the atrocities personally. He told my grandmother that he had seen Jewish people being forced to dig their own graves and then being forced to shoot each other. Long before those stories were officially known.
He was later arrested for speaking out about this in Switzerland (he was released because not every Nazi was a bad Nazi, Purzel told us, and one of the nice ones stood up for my grandfather saying "Mr. Bolanz would never say such things" and released him).
So, telling the mayor of your town (among other officials) to go pound sand was very dangerous and could have caused grave consequences to come down on the family.
Her decision caused a split in the family and in the community that never was healed. Some family members never forgave her for putting them in danger. Community friends never talked with her again after that.
Last night we talked with Purzel about how that experience had changed her outlook (she and my mom were only a few years old during the war, but what happened then has caused deep beliefs in both of them, which today get passed along to the next generations as stories). She is very anti-military. She told when she visited Israel that she wouldn't even go into a military elevator, which astonished her hosts. She also has very little national pride.
She said my grandfather would never speak with her about the war because she said he had been heartbroken. He saw his country do horrible things.
Purzel didn't know I was going to blog these stories. We were just talking as a family. She wanted to make sure we never forgot and was pleading with us to fight against misuse of power, particularly military power, and particularly against minorities.
She can't understand why these kinds of human atrocities still go on even to this day.
Me neither, Purzel, me neither.