Disturbing family stories

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.

82 thoughts on “Disturbing family stories

  1. Hey that was a really great story. To think that you had a treasure like that just locked up in a box is amazing. I have never heard a story that was a somewhat rebbutle to the whole WWII story. You always here from the prisoners perspective but never from someone that was actually German and lived there at that time. I am so glad that your grandmother had that strength and was able to be the Rosa Parks of WWII. Thank you so much. I plan on spreading this story by sharing it in one of my college classes.

  2. Hey that was a really great story. To think that you had a treasure like that just locked up in a box is amazing. I have never heard a story that was a somewhat rebbutle to the whole WWII story. You always here from the prisoners perspective but never from someone that was actually German and lived there at that time. I am so glad that your grandmother had that strength and was able to be the Rosa Parks of WWII. Thank you so much. I plan on spreading this story by sharing it in one of my college classes.

  3. Well Robert, I’ve heard you were an excellent blogger … no … I don’t remember where … but today I found out it’s true … because …

    I followed http://del.icio.us/mojodenbow (who happened to pop up on the front page) to http://www.micropersuasion.com/2006/05/itunes_offers_p.html and yes I followed the link because I’m familiar with MicroPersuasion already … and he had in his faves …

    http://www.adrants.com/2006/05/gm-honors-veterans-with-memorial-day-dona.php which I followed and only paid attention the ad to by wondering how my own veteran is doing in his job interview in NYC at this second … and wondered if he’s becoming jaded like his wife (me) re advertisers using veterans as gimmicks or if he sees it the same way … i’ll ask if he ever calls … geeze it’s been a four hr interview already! … sigh … breathe … pray … ok and so …

    then i scrollllled down the page and stopped to gawk at a little ad for huge at http://www.gapingvoid.com … and this i had to go see … cartoons on the back of business cards … and English humor too! … except it stopped being funny right here: http://www.gapingvoid.com/Moveable_Type/archives/002851.html

    and I wanted to write you about something … but first i wanted to see if you had already discovered it … and I see you have …

    When people don’t just POOF on us, they provide us with a very unique blessing … a prolonged time to visit at new and deeper levels with those who we will get to know in life a little longer.

    It happens some when people just poof … but when they linger about a little while … i think sometimes they do it just so the ones they love will talk a little longer to each other.

    Sometimes I write … sometimes I think I will write consistently … sometimes I just want to find a little bit of a consistent pattern to my whole life … something outside of “the only thing inevitable is change.”

    but anyway … i have a longer take on storytelling in families in times like this … (yes Imagine, longer … ) you can read “A Storyteller’s Story about Storytelling” at http://www.MarillaAnne.com

    I know you know … but i’m going to tell you anyway … you will never be the same … don’t look for “getting back to normal” … but you will be okay in new ways you never expected.

    find the joy in your day,
    pamElise

  4. Well Robert, I’ve heard you were an excellent blogger … no … I don’t remember where … but today I found out it’s true … because …

    I followed http://del.icio.us/mojodenbow (who happened to pop up on the front page) to http://www.micropersuasion.com/2006/05/itunes_offers_p.html and yes I followed the link because I’m familiar with MicroPersuasion already … and he had in his faves …

    http://www.adrants.com/2006/05/gm-honors-veterans-with-memorial-day-dona.php which I followed and only paid attention the ad to by wondering how my own veteran is doing in his job interview in NYC at this second … and wondered if he’s becoming jaded like his wife (me) re advertisers using veterans as gimmicks or if he sees it the same way … i’ll ask if he ever calls … geeze it’s been a four hr interview already! … sigh … breathe … pray … ok and so …

    then i scrollllled down the page and stopped to gawk at a little ad for huge at http://www.gapingvoid.com … and this i had to go see … cartoons on the back of business cards … and English humor too! … except it stopped being funny right here: http://www.gapingvoid.com/Moveable_Type/archives/002851.html

    and I wanted to write you about something … but first i wanted to see if you had already discovered it … and I see you have …

    When people don’t just POOF on us, they provide us with a very unique blessing … a prolonged time to visit at new and deeper levels with those who we will get to know in life a little longer.

    It happens some when people just poof … but when they linger about a little while … i think sometimes they do it just so the ones they love will talk a little longer to each other.

    Sometimes I write … sometimes I think I will write consistently … sometimes I just want to find a little bit of a consistent pattern to my whole life … something outside of “the only thing inevitable is change.”

    but anyway … i have a longer take on storytelling in families in times like this … (yes Imagine, longer … ) you can read “A Storyteller’s Story about Storytelling” at http://www.MarillaAnne.com

    I know you know … but i’m going to tell you anyway … you will never be the same … don’t look for “getting back to normal” … but you will be okay in new ways you never expected.

    find the joy in your day,
    pamElise

  5. To truly understand how slow the changes that took place in Germany during the 30′s & 40′s I suggest reading a fantastic diary collection by Victor Klemperer called “I Will Bear Witness”. It is a two volume set (1933-1941 & 1942-1945) that gives a visceral account of what it was like as a German Jew to live through Nazi Germany & the firestorm in Dresden.

  6. To truly understand how slow the changes that took place in Germany during the 30′s & 40′s I suggest reading a fantastic diary collection by Victor Klemperer called “I Will Bear Witness”. It is a two volume set (1933-1941 & 1942-1945) that gives a visceral account of what it was like as a German Jew to live through Nazi Germany & the firestorm in Dresden.

  7. Bob, as a USAF vet, I can tell you exactly why. It’s not a slam on the people, but on the organization. When you have stories coming out of California of Guardsmen being assigned to monitor peace groups, Abu Ghirab, some of the problems at Guantanamo, and the rest, one thing is clear.

    While it’s not easy to get people to do wrong things, it is VERY easy to pervert an organization. The larger the organization, the easier it is, because you then have the contradictory aims of doing right and preserving the group’s “Good Name”. The child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church is a perfect example. They knew what had happened was wrong, but protecting the Church became more important than doing the right thing.

    When you have a group like the military, and people who have a lot of time, and in many cases, money vested in that group, they will do anything to protect that investment. While I was doing my final outprocessing from the Air Force, there was an E-7 that got busted for molesting his daughter for years. His big regret? that he was losing his retirement pay and VA benefits.

    I completely understand the mistrust the military engenders, and I was in it.

  8. Bob, as a USAF vet, I can tell you exactly why. It’s not a slam on the people, but on the organization. When you have stories coming out of California of Guardsmen being assigned to monitor peace groups, Abu Ghirab, some of the problems at Guantanamo, and the rest, one thing is clear.

    While it’s not easy to get people to do wrong things, it is VERY easy to pervert an organization. The larger the organization, the easier it is, because you then have the contradictory aims of doing right and preserving the group’s “Good Name”. The child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church is a perfect example. They knew what had happened was wrong, but protecting the Church became more important than doing the right thing.

    When you have a group like the military, and people who have a lot of time, and in many cases, money vested in that group, they will do anything to protect that investment. While I was doing my final outprocessing from the Air Force, there was an E-7 that got busted for molesting his daughter for years. His big regret? that he was losing his retirement pay and VA benefits.

    I completely understand the mistrust the military engenders, and I was in it.

  9. Robert thanks for sharing such a compelling story. As a retired US Army officer I don’t understand why so many people are anti-military. There are some great benefits from having a military and it is a necessary evil. Also, the misuse and abuse of power can happen at any institution or organization it is only as good as its people. Thanks for making us think.

  10. Robert thanks for sharing such a compelling story. As a retired US Army officer I don’t understand why so many people are anti-military. There are some great benefits from having a military and it is a necessary evil. Also, the misuse and abuse of power can happen at any institution or organization it is only as good as its people. Thanks for making us think.

  11. Thank you Robert for sharing this story. It was very touching. Having seen the courage it takes to stand up to the misuse of power on a smaller scale and the health impact it has on people who do it, when the worst that can happen to them is something as relatively minor as losing a job. I can only imagine the stress your grandmother must have gone through taking such a courageous stand knowing it not only put her life and welfare at risk, but that of her family and friends as well.

  12. Thank you Robert for sharing this story. It was very touching. Having seen the courage it takes to stand up to the misuse of power on a smaller scale and the health impact it has on people who do it, when the worst that can happen to them is something as relatively minor as losing a job. I can only imagine the stress your grandmother must have gone through taking such a courageous stand knowing it not only put her life and welfare at risk, but that of her family and friends as well.

  13. Badges for Jews and Christians be the Iranian President’s proposal, it still goes on. But ripped from yeaterday’s headlines.

  14. Badges for Jews and Christians be the Iranian President’s proposal, it still goes on. But ripped from yeaterday’s headlines.

  15. I have many similar pacifist relatives. God Bless your Great Aunt. This is why I’m so independent (and difficult).

    My prayers are with you all.

  16. I have many similar pacifist relatives. God Bless your Great Aunt. This is why I’m so independent (and difficult).

    My prayers are with you all.

  17. Great story! A couple of people commented on other stories of Germans who resisted the Nazi movement, and there was also the mention that not all Nazis were “bad” (which I agree with – many were forced into it). Anyway, I remember seeing an *excellent* movie recently called “Amen” which tells the true story of a German officer in the SS, who was also a practicing Christian, and he was involved with supplying the death camps with the deadly zyklon B gas. He was told it was for rodents, not Jews, so he had no idea what was going on until he actually witnessed a gas chamber “in progress”. So he then risked his life to get the information out to the allies about what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. Fascinating story, I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280653/

  18. Great story! A couple of people commented on other stories of Germans who resisted the Nazi movement, and there was also the mention that not all Nazis were “bad” (which I agree with – many were forced into it). Anyway, I remember seeing an *excellent* movie recently called “Amen” which tells the true story of a German officer in the SS, who was also a practicing Christian, and he was involved with supplying the death camps with the deadly zyklon B gas. He was told it was for rodents, not Jews, so he had no idea what was going on until he actually witnessed a gas chamber “in progress”. So he then risked his life to get the information out to the allies about what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. Fascinating story, I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280653/

  19. You’ve written a touching and sentimental essay worth archiving and I hope you don’t mind us folding it into a freshman English course we teach in Ireland.

  20. You’ve written a touching and sentimental essay worth archiving and I hope you don’t mind us folding it into a freshman English course we teach in Ireland.

  21. Robert,

    Thanks for posting this story. It’s nice to hear about non-Jewish families who stood up for what’s right. I don’t have a very big family becuase of the Holocaust, but I thank G-d for families like yours, because at least I have *some* family left because of people like them!

    Regards,
    Mark Richman

  22. Robert,

    Thanks for posting this story. It’s nice to hear about non-Jewish families who stood up for what’s right. I don’t have a very big family becuase of the Holocaust, but I thank G-d for families like yours, because at least I have *some* family left because of people like them!

    Regards,
    Mark Richman

  23. If we all believe in the same God and we know he put us in this world what does it matter what we look like or who we are .We are only here a couple of days just enjoy what you have or it may be already too late .

  24. If we all believe in the same God and we know he put us in this world what does it matter what we look like or who we are .We are only here a couple of days just enjoy what you have or it may be already too late .

  25. Robert,

    Thanks for sharing this intereting anecdote.

    “was pleading with us to fight against misuse of power, particularly military power, and particularly against minorities.”

    Should have told her that this is America. Folks have two great choices: Republicans and Democrats just like Pepsi and Coke. Huge freedom of choices!!!!!

  26. Robert,

    Thanks for sharing this intereting anecdote.

    “was pleading with us to fight against misuse of power, particularly military power, and particularly against minorities.”

    Should have told her that this is America. Folks have two great choices: Republicans and Democrats just like Pepsi and Coke. Huge freedom of choices!!!!!

  27. Interesting! It’s sad the things that have gone on and I just see it getting worse and not better with some of the tension that is going on in the world right now.

    I just found out recently that my grandfather was one of the first guys who stormed the beaches at Normandy. He was actually part of an experiment to get the regular soldiers off the boats quicker so they wouldn’t get shot. He had to lead them off the boat.

    Also on my mother’s side, they were all put into the Japanese internment camps during the war. Some later served in the US military.

    All kinds of stories there too…

  28. Interesting! It’s sad the things that have gone on and I just see it getting worse and not better with some of the tension that is going on in the world right now.

    I just found out recently that my grandfather was one of the first guys who stormed the beaches at Normandy. He was actually part of an experiment to get the regular soldiers off the boats quicker so they wouldn’t get shot. He had to lead them off the boat.

    Also on my mother’s side, they were all put into the Japanese internment camps during the war. Some later served in the US military.

    All kinds of stories there too…

Comments are closed.