What did your grandparents do

Grandparents in World War II: The Nazis, that's us


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Whenever Grandma talked about the war, she sat in her armchair and I on the sofa. She cried often; I struggled with the tiredness in her room, which was much too warm. Sometimes the TV was on, Grandma liked to watch Bingo!. She told of bombs, of the escape, of the fact that her father was a railroad worker and was missing for days and they already thought he was dead. The closer it came to their own death, the more often these memories determined our meetings.

For Grandma, the Second World War began in 1944. In Crailsheim, the small town in northeast Baden-W├╝rttemberg where she grew up, there was an Air Force airport and an important train station. A year before the end of the war, both were targeted by Allied air raids. On April 20, 1945, just under three weeks before the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht, Crailsheim was almost completely destroyed by US bombers. Grandma and her sisters took shelter in the basement, then they fled the city. First their father hid them in the forest, later they found shelter on the farm of relatives. It was difficult for her to talk about this time. My parents grew up on farms in W├╝rttemberg. There wasn't much talk at all, especially not about the war, there was always something to do.

Hannes Leitlein

Editor in the Politics, Economy and Society department, ZEIT ONLINE

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My grandmother was born in 1936. When Crailsheim was destroyed she was only eight years old. She died in 2015. I can't ask her any more. My other grandparents are dead too, I never asked them about their memories either, and certainly not about our family's involvement in German Nazi history. You could say that's the way it is, chance missed. But my silence annoys me, especially on May 8th, the day of the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces. My failure to act feels as if I haven't done enough to make amends and have thus continued the German guilt.

I only asked Grandma once if she would like to tell a little more. That was some time after Grandpa's death, when I realized I couldn't ask him anymore. But again she only talked about her suffering of the last days of the war - and I didn't have the guts to follow up despite her tears. What did grandpa do in the war? Did your father, my great grandpa, as a railroad worker know nothing about the deportations? According to the Federal Archives, Crailsheim had at least 53 Jewish residents. Have you, Grandma, even met the Jews in your city? Would you have liked to have gone to the Hitler Youth?

53 percent of German citizens prefer to draw a line under the Nazi past 75 years after the end of the war. That was the result of a recent ZEIT survey. 53 percent agree with this statement: "The majority of Germans were not to blame, it was only a few criminals who started the war and killed the Jews." A clear majority thinks that constant remembering prevents "a healthy national consciousness". Whatever that is supposed to be. After all, 77 percent of those surveyed are in favor of remembering and commemorating. But do you mean real dealing with your own history of guilt, the deeds and at least the letting happen to your own family? How serious are we descendants with the processing? And isn't my omission also implicitly a kind of drawdown? What distinguishes me, who preferred to leave my grandparents alone, from those who prefer not to be bothered by German history?

Just a man of conviction

I could speak of luck: my family is not particularly burdened. Everything I have learned so far suggests that they were all either too young or that they were needed more urgently as millers, farmers and foresters elsewhere. However, it is hard to imagine that my great grandpa as a railroad worker did not notice anything of the deportations of the Crailsheim Jews to Dachau, Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and the Warsaw Ghetto. Did he never talk about it?

My grandfather on my mother's side was in Oberstaufen in 1944 to prepare for the war against Russia, when he was 16. But he (and me?) Was spared the front. The courier with the position order was killed on the way. I don't know whether he would have defended Nazi Germany, how he felt about Hitler. I can only hope that my fond memories of him match reality. Grandma would have liked to go to the Hitler Youth, but she wasn't allowed. Every helping hand was needed on the farm. My mother calls it: "the luck not to have been there everywhere".

Only one brother of my great-grandfather joined the NSDAP at the age of 19, his pedigree documents that. It says "Activities in public life: NSDAP since October 1, 1931, cell leader". In the party structure he was six ranks below the Fiihrer, he had four to eight blocks to administer and the corresponding block attendants under himself. My mother says a picture of Uncle Emil hung in the grandmother's room for a long time, and the family tree was hidden on the back. Emil fell in Russia. What was it like to have a staunch Nazi for an uncle? And was he the only one who committed convictions, or just the only one in the party?

On the father's side, there was even less to be found out. There was even less talk here, although this side of the family struck me as more authoritarian and somehow suspicious even as a child. The sayings at birthdays were coarse, there was sometimes harassment against foreigners, and the family rifts are more open. Perhaps the silence about the Nazi years only points to greater guilt. I'll have to keep looking.