by Clara Kraebber
When I was younger, I lived on 88th Street and West End Avenue. My apartment was between the Jewish school Heschel and a synagogue, and every single one of my friends was Jewish. So, naturally, when I was seven years old and my mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I replied: “can we celebrate Hanukkah instead?” Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to be Jewish like all of my friends. I wanted to go to Hebrew school and learn about my people, generations upon generations before I was born. Most of all, I wanted to be proud of my family history the way all of my friends were.
I think everyone wants some kind of a family history to hold onto. It’s something that you can identify with, that you can strive to live up to, and something that you can be proud of. But my family history has always been an awkward topic, namely because most of my family was German, Christian, and living in Germany during World War II.
It bothered me that we never really talked about it, but I let it slide and instead tried to identify with the side of my family from Arkansas. Predictably, they were not very interesting. When my family visited the Normandy beaches, I found a database naming every American soldier who had fought in World War II. I hoped beyond belief that my family had at least been great American war heroes, but somehow, amazingly, not a single one of my American relatives had even set foot in battle. Fantastic.
The final straw was in tenth grade when my global history class began to cover World War II. I marched home, and, determined to learn the truth, asked my father the question I had always been afraid of: “Were we Nazis?”
My dad subsequently turned a violent shade of purple and refused to talk to me for the rest of the evening, which I thought was answer enough.
But the questions wouldn’t stop poking around my brain. I became increasingly terrified of who I descended from. My grandmother was born in 1936, the year Hitler came to power. Could she have been a part of Hitler’s Youth? Had my grandfather fought for the German army? And, most of all, what did this mean for me? How could I ever possibly make up for the atrocities that had been committed under my family’s watch? And what did my family history say about me as a person? I let myself become consumed by this image of my family without considering the reality of their lives.
For a considerable part of my life, I didn’t take into account that morality is a series of shades of gray, not black and white. I convinced myself that my family fit into the category of ‘evil,’ and refused to see them as anything other than just that. I decided, definitively, that my family had been nothing more than Nazis. Evil, detestable, and unforgivable.
And then, one day, I sat down with my Oma to talk.
She told me that I had been named after her mother, Clara. She told me that during the war, Clara had stolen a radio. Stealing a radio was punishable by death. She told me that Clara had listened to the radio every night, and on February 14, 1945, she heard a report that Dresden would be bombed. She told her children to take cakes she had baked for them and one item and run. They ran, SS soldiers shooting at them as they went, out into the countryside where they hid for days.
She told me that she had many friends who were taken away mysteriously in the middle of the night and never heard from again. As a nine year old girl, she watched as the lovely lady who lived on the floor above them and sang opera slowly caught fire and burned to ash.
My great-grandfather was in his fifties during the war. He was a farmer, and stayed a farmer until the German army became so desperate for troops that they drafted fifty-year-olds. When he was drafted, he immediately surrendered to France to wait out the rest of the war as a POW rather than fight for a cause he didn’t believe in.
My family members were not heroes. They were people caught up the darkest part of human history, and I think they did everything they could to ride it out. And in my heart, I think that they were brave in the only way they could be.
I convinced myself that they had been evil, that there were only two types of people in history: bad and good. But history is so much more than it is in textbooks. I needed to listen rather than assume in order to learn that “good” and “bad” could not possibly describe my grandmother’s experience during World War II. History, and family history at that, is simply composed of humans doing the best they can to survive. I think that is something I can strive to do as well.