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My grandpa and World War Two
US-History II, Chapter 17: World War II. My favorite subject in history. Nothing against the Civil War and all that, but there’s nothing in the history of this planet that will ever fascinate me as much as World War II. Why? Well, first of all, probably because my home country, Austria, was very much involved in it. And second of all, because there are a few things about it that I just can’t explain to myself. Like the Holocaust. How could so many people simply look away and let this happen? Why are some people still trying to deny it has ever happened? And also, what made millions of people look up to Hitler as the “Fuehrer”, the “leader? I mean, I’m sorry, but he really wasn’t someone to look up to; at least from what I know, saw and heard of him; was he?
Well, there are about a thousand questions rushing through my head every time the topic of WWII is brought up somehow so there’s no sense in listing them all. But there’s one question my teacher asked me that baffled me: “So Stefanie, since you’re from Austria, do you have any relatives that lived during the war and have shared any experiences with you?”
Now, I can imagine that this isn’t quite the most petrifying question you’ve ever heard. But for me it was, because something pretty significant dawned on me in that moment. My grandpa, Karl, lived in the time of WWII; and despite my infinite interest in the war I’ve never even thought about asking him about his personal story. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that I actually have a living proof, as weird as this might sound, of the war. Being a little bit embarrassed about this, and the embarrassment sort of showed in my “well, I’m not so sure…I mean, I haven’t really asked, you know.” type of answer, I decided to interview my grandpa about his experiences the next time I’d get together with him.
Fortunately, he came to visit me in Iowa City in Spring Break, so I had an opportunity to do my inquiry. I was very anxious because I had no idea what to expect. I suddenly realized that he had never shared anything about his past with me, only some plain, historical facts but never anything personal; and at first he listed some events that were important for Austria and their year, sometimes even the exact date. His memory is just incredible, but that was not what I had wanted to hear; so I interrupted him: “Ohm, grandpa, all that is really interesting; but I don’t want to hear about Austria, I want to hear about you.”
This startled him. And he startled me by being startled. Did I actually have a reason to be nervous about this?
After about a minute of awkwardness, he finally began. The look in his eyes made me know that my anxiety was there for a reason. What he was about to tell me was more than just a few war-time impressions; it was the story of his life.
During WWII, many men were recruited for the war whether they wanted it or not. Refusal could mean the end of your life. And acceptance might as well. This is what my grandfather experienced when he was just a child: “For my family the war had the effect that my father was recruited for the German army and had to serve first in France, then in Russia and at the end, in 1944, in Poland where he was killed in an attack by Polish partisans on the German post. My uncle was also recruited and sent to Stalingrad, where we lost trace of him. So my mother had to take care of myself and my two younger sisters, who were about 6 and 4 years old at that time, and also of my old grandmother.”
He also told me that in his young adulthood he had traveled far to find his father’s grave but without success. He never had a chance to say good-bye.
This brought tears into my eyes and into his as well. I had no idea that he had lost his father when he was just about twelve years old. I suddenly regretted to ever bring this up; I blamed myself for being too curious. I thought if he had wanted me to know all this, he would’ve told me a long time ago.
But he kept strong and moved on to another chapter of his story.
Under the Nazi- Regime, anyone who didn’t fit into the Nazis’ pattern of the ‘perfect’ person was to be extinguished. Jews, Romas and Sintis (Gipsies), homosexuals, etc. were considered inferior and therefore did not have the “right to live”; but there was also another group of people who were an eyesore in the Nazis’ philosophy: “The physically and mentally ill were also better off dead in their view because no one was supposed to be alive who wasn’t “of use”; I remember a family who had a physically and mentally handicapped son who couldn’t walk nor speak. They hid him in the house because they didn’t want him to be sent to treatment; because treatment meant either being used for gruesome tests and then being killed or being killed right away. Protests against such treatment were either ignored or answered by imprisonment for working against the integrity of the Reich.”
For not being “of use”? Better off dead? “Treatment”? How could some people be so manipulated as to think and act according to these unethical- well, unethical is most certainly an understatement-principles? How were even young people, those who are assumed to be more liberal, open and tolerant, being trapped in this attitude?
“How did ‘they’ brainwash them, grandpa? What was their method? Did they try to brainwash you, too?”
Yes, they did. “I was recruited for the ‘Hitler Jugend’; an educational institution established by Nazis, or in other words a brainwashing center, for young people. There I had one experience that has been stuck in my mind ever since and will probably never fade. There was a “trial” they made against an older boy, who was – like myself – a mass servant in the Convent’s parish church; he was accused not to believe in the final victory of Germany and to be a “Papist”, and the other students and me had to listen; I, for a moment, had the intention to shout, that I am like him, but did not –now, I can’t say whether I was being a coward, or if my consideration of how it would not help the other boy but bring my mother into danger justified my silence? I do not know yet, but it still hurts.”
My grandpa didn’t know the response to my inquiry whether the ‘trial’ ended up for that boy or against him. The outcome of these ‘trials’, Karl told me, were unsure most of the time and kept secret even though you could just about guess what was going to happen.
Once, he was directly confronted with one of these possible, if not very likely, outcomes: “One day I had to serve in a funeral mass but the situation then was very different from the kind of funerals I was used to: there were only very few people present, policemen were standing there watching us all cautiously, and there was no sermon by the priest; afterwards my mother told me confidentially that it was the funeral of a man who had been executed for ‘betraying Germany’.”
There were innumerable things to deal with during World War II, far more than I could ever imagine myself being able to cope with. It just seems impossible to me to live in this constant fear; fear for your family, fear for not fitting into the Nazi’s philosophy, fear of speaking up for yourself, or just a basic fear of how each step you take might turn your fate against you.
When the war ended in 1945, agony seemed to be coming to an end. A sense of hope and a belief in a coming freedom spread among the people who had been struggling in their fight to survive for all these years under the Nazis’ rule; but one thing lead to another and suddenly there was another obstacle on the way to liberty: communistic Russia.
While Germany had invaded Austria in a manner that reminded more of a welcoming parade than of an overtake, the USSR came in with bombs, guns and without mercy. This is what my grandpa remembered of that time: “The town I was living in was not bombed, perhaps because there was nothing there of strategic interest; but on one occasion a bomber, hit by the anti-aircraft defense, unloaded its bombs over the town hitting several houses close to mine. A boy, a year younger than me, was killed. There wasn’t a whole lot of shooting going on, only a few, but nevertheless several German soldiers were lying dead in the streets, some giving the impression that they were not killed in a fight, but shot by the Russians not wanting to bother with prisoners. So, war-crime was committed not only on the side of the Germans. Luckily, my uncle had expected that the Russians would come with turmoil, so he had prepared a shelter for my family in his saw mill. We had to be extremely careful when we moved there, though, because in the first days of the Russians’ arrival they would shoot every time they sensed movement of any kind. As the situation improved we were able to move back to our house again, but we still weren’t safe. The Russians would break into houses, searching mostly
for food and money. Whenever a Russian appeared in our house, my mother assembled the three of us around her saying that if they wanted to kill any of us, they should kill all of us.”
One time, it got very close to that point for my grandpa: “I was in the bathroom and when I opened the door to the hallway I looked into the barrel of a pistol in the hand of a Russian officer. If he had been as shocked by my opening door as I was by the look into his gun, it would’ve undoubtedly been my end – and that at the age of less than twelve years.”
The last thing my grandpa told me was that during the Russian invasion, the murders committed by the Russians shared the amount of tragedy involved with another cause of death: suicide. Many of the former Nazis couldn’t see themselves living in a system so different from their own and saw no other way out of their misery but death: “We had a case in the house opposite of ours, where a school inspector shot his wife and then himself when the Russians arrived; since there was no funeral company available, the owner of the house and our neighbor, a retired policeman, wrapped the bodies in covers, loaded them on a wheelbarrow – we saw the feet looking out of the covers -, brought them to the cemetery and buried them.”
All these tragedies my grandpa told me about that he witnessed and lived through during and, which was a new surprise to me, after the war, now have a special and never fading place in my mind. Even though at some points it didn’t give the impression, I now know that having this interview was a wise decision since I finally got the very personal and detailed insight into WWII, the for me most interesting, fascinating and in some ways appalling subject I’ve ever been taught about, I’ve always pursued. This passage of our world’s history should have a special place in the mind of all of us; not only because of the knowledge we’d gain by learning about it, this sure is necessary, too, but because of how we can use the examples of WWII, especially personal examples such as my grandpa’s, to improve our world today.
This is how my grandpa taught me this lesson after telling me his story:
“For your personal life consider how far political failures or bad developments are comparable with such in the private field. Isn't exaggerated desire to gain power also possible in private life? Is the wish to dominate others not also a problem for living together in the private field? Perhaps you can work out other, personal issues from what I’ve just told you.”
And later on in an e-mail he sent me:
“For your life in a democratic political system you may give consideration to the question whether situations which lead to Nazism and World War II are really – as is often said - impossible in a rue and solid democracy, a system with not only the possibility to change the political direction through free elections, but also with individual and corporate respect of human rights by everybody for everybody; even for those, who do not understand your way of thinking and acting or whose way of thinking and acting you do not understand.”