'As I worked my way through the diaries, an abbreviation kept appearing more and more frequently. They were two letters: "Pg". From dim memories I recalled that this may, no, must mean "Parteigenossen", "Party members". Surely, not my grandfather? Then I made my second discovery. Api had been a Pg: a member of the Nazi Party. I had not known this. It had never been mentioned in my family. I sat there with a pounding heart saying to myself over and over in the crudest and most shocking terms: "Oh, my God, Api was a Nazi!"'
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The Reluctant Nazi
Searching for my Grandfather
By Gabrielle Robinson
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Gabrielle Robinson
All rights reserved.
Oh, My God!
Corpses lie in a chapel of the Ziegelstrasse Clinic, for the most part without clothes, men and women together in layers.
I never wanted to write this memoir. As a child growing up in Germany in the 1950s, I heard a few family stories about the war, but mainly there was silence. We did not talk or ask about the recent past. We wanted to forget it. The stories I did hear merge in my imagination with transient memories like half-remembered dreams. I see my mother and myself on a crowded railroad station platform, jostled by hundreds of people. I am 2½ years old, hardly able to walk, wrapped in a brown double-breasted coat against the winter cold, my hands dug deep in its big pockets. From my child's-eye view I see only a wall of bags and suitcases pressing around me and more feet than I had ever noticed before. I am scared by the shrieks, sobs and shouts that fill the air. I do not understand why my mother repeats constantly, sometimes shouting above the noise all around, 'Don't let go of the suitcase handle. Never let go. Keep your little hand tightly on the handle.' She herself is loaded down with luggage and has no hand free to hold on to me. It was February 1945. We were fleeing from Berlin, having been bombed out of our apartment for the second time in two years.
Another much clearer memory comes from the winter after the war. We lived in one and a half rooms of a tiny thatched and half-timbered farmhouse in Suderburg, Lower Saxony, where my mother, grandmother and I were evacuated in 1945. The cottage did not have indoor plumbing. I remember not so much the cold and hunger of that time as the delight when farmer Ohlde, who owned the cottage, dug into the pig trough to fish out a moist morsel of a potato for me. Even better, sometimes his old mother got up from her spinning wheel to dip the potato in salt. Whenever Herr Ohlde had no handouts for me, my grandmother – I always called her Nyussi for reasons I can't remember – took me outside, past the compost heap on the right and the pigs on the left, to look for the beavers under the wood pile. Somehow we always just missed them. So Nyussi told me stories about their lives. I can still hear her melodious slightly accented German – she was a native Hungarian – and see her lively dark eyes as she began her story: 'You see, Brielchen,' a pet name invented by my grandfather, 'the beavers are just beneath where we stand now and they have warm and cosy burrows and a big larder stuffed with good things to eat.' I wondered whether perhaps they, too, enjoyed potatoes with salt. As I looked all around the wood pile for the sight of a beaver, Nyussi went on: 'The beavers do not care how cold the winter gets for they always have this cosy hide away.' I stared at the wood pile until my eyes hurt but I never spotted a single beaver. When I got too chilly, Nyussi took me back inside and I crawled under the table pretending it to be in a beaver burrow. I loved the beavers and their adventures underground. Nyussi's stories always delighted me and made me forget that I was hungry and cold. It was only much later when I was in my forties that my mother mentioned casually in a conversation that Nyussi had made up the beaver stories. There never were any beavers there at all. Even after so many years I felt a pang of sadness and loss that has not entirely left me even now.
Apart from such occasional memories, the Second World War was not part of my world and I was not bothered by the silence about it. We were all looking forward, not thinking backward. As a child I did not ask questions about the war. As an adult I realised that my mother, my only surviving relative, did not want that subject brought up. Then, sixty years after the end of the war, I made two discoveries that reawakened the past and changed everything. The first brought the war back into my world in terrifying detail; the second opened the floodgates to a torrent of questions about my grandfather, the Nazi era and my national origin.
In the summer of 2005, after my mother's death, my husband Mike and I were holidaying in her Vienna apartment. We had returned from a hike in the hills above the city, stopping at vineyards along the way. I was pleasantly tired and just wanted to relax with a book before going to bed. As I plucked Effie Briest, my favourite Theodor Fontane novel, from high up on the shelf of a bookcase, two small objects tumbled to the floor. I picked them up and saw that they were two notebooks bound in faded green cloth with 'AGENDA' stamped in gold at the top of each. Curious, I flipped through the pages. They were covered from top to bottom in small, pencilled writing. I immediately recognised it. It was my grandfather's hand.
Seeing his tiny, precise lettering after so many years brought back a flood of memories. I had spent the happiest years, all too few, of my childhood with him until his death in 1955. Api, as I affectionately called him, took me in when my mother could not look after me any more. My father had been killed in the war, shot down over England in 1943 in his single-engine fighter plane, and my mother worked full time in Vienna. I had been passed around, staying with an aunt, with my father's parents and, finally, in an Ursuline boarding school in Vienna where I fell ill with scarlet fever. Even though at the age of 61 he himself still was struggling to rebuild an existence in the villages and small towns of northern Germany, Api gave me a loving home and, for the rest of his life, was both father and grandfather to me.
Seeing his familiar writing again after many years, I remembered the poems he had written for me to recite and the corrections he had made on my Latin grammar. I pictured Api as I remembered him, a thin and tall man with cropped white hair who walked with a slight stoop. His bright blue eyes always seemed to be laughing. He had a fine, narrow nose and his thin lips echoed the smile in his eyes. I do not remember that Api ever raised his voice against me in anger. He invented all sorts of affectionate names for me, calling me Gabruschken, Brielchen, or his little sunshine. When we had nothing after the war, he built me a doll's house out of matchboxes with tiny doll figures made of bits of silver paper he had saved. It had a hospital where we looked after the 'sick'. Of course, I was his head nurse. I was always happy when he joined Nyussi and me for 'the length of a cigar', wearing his white doctor's coat and filling the room with laughter and good spirits.
However much he surrounded us all with laughter and play, Api's chief concern was to teach me to become disciplined and conscientious, and to give my whole attention to whatever I was doing whether it was work or play. He had been brought up in the Prussian tradition of work and discipline, and he tried to instil these values in me as well. The only time he chastised me was when I was doing nothing, wasting time without thought or feeling. I remember one summer Sunday afternoon outside our apartment in Bevensen. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. I felt hot and lazy and none of my friends were around, so I picked up a stick and dragged it along our dark brown slatted fence listening to the rat-tat-tat it made against the wood. When Api saw this he was upset. He scolded me, not for playing or for damaging the fence, but for doing something without engagement. And then he offered to build a kite with me.
Caught up in memories, I was not tired any more. I sat down on the couch Api had bought for my mother when she got married in 1941, which somehow had survived the war, and started to read.
The diary began on 21 April 1945 in Berlin where Api, aged 57, was serving as a military doctor with the rank of major. He was stationed in the central district, what the Nazis called the Citadel, near the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Hitler's bunker. Reading the diary, the enjoyable nostalgia of life with my grandfather was almost instantly engulfed by the terror he faced day by day. He lived under the constant howling of bombs and the heavy rain of grenade splinters. Hardly a building was left standing. The familiar streets lay buried under mountains of rubble, twisted wires, burnt-out streetcars and bomb craters. Acrid smoke and dust made it impossible to breathe and transformed day into night. Together with other grey and emaciated survivors, many of them refugees from the East, Api tried to forge a path through this wilderness.
As a doctor he felt almost totally helpless to assist the wounded, sick and dying all around him. Without sanitation, and without water after they had drained the last drops from the heaters, he could not do much for them. The only light came from a few Hindenburg candles, bits of tallow in cardboard, and everyone took care to scoop up and reuse every fallen drop. Over all hung the stench of decaying bodies and excrement. Unimaginable. He wrote:
Just now I have been looking for spaces where one can at least have the sick sit down or lay them on the ground for the night, without doors or windows, but at least protected from rain and safe from grenade splinters, although cold without padding. Corpses lie in a chapel of the Ziegelstrasse Clinic, for the most part without clothes, men and women together in layers.
Reading late into the night I felt as if, years after his death in 1955 when I was 13, Api was there speaking directly to me, and helping me understand him much more intimately. I saw him at his most desperate, when his existence had shrunk down to paralysing anxiety with only the slenderest ray of hope to keep him going. On almost every page I also saw his love for me, his 2-year-old fatherless granddaughter, and I anxiously followed his mental and physical deterioration. Witness to daily horrors, he was driven to the point of collapse. He felt so desperately alone, unable to communicate with us where we had been evacuated. His best company was the swifts and swallows he watched circling over the ruins. They, too, had become homeless.
Finally, long after midnight, exhausted and worn out emotionally, I had to stop reading. But I resolved to translate the diaries and tell Api's story. Of course, I was aware that my grandfather was not an important historical figure, just an ordinary German who lived in central Berlin at a crucial time. Nevertheless, his experiences would, I hoped, add firsthand details to one of the most turbulent times of the twentieth century. So when we left Vienna, I carefully wrapped up the diaries and took them with me to South Bend, Indiana, where I would have time to read and transcribe them.
Back home, I set to work immediately, mostly in the evenings and on weekends for I still was Director of International Programs at Indiana University South Bend. Bit by bit I found out more about Api's life at that time. Always a writer, he had furnished an eloquent testimony of his experiences in 1945. I began to understand how his diary was an attempt to cope with the horror of war, and a refuge in the maelstrom of chaos and death. It served as a lifeline to a saner and more humane existence, a world that was all but lost. He clung to the hope that at some happier time in the future we would be able to read these notes, 'although', he admitted, 'they are paltry in relation to the shocking force of my inner experiences'.
I followed the days and weeks of Api's nightmare. The war finally ended on 9 May, but his situation did not improve. The Russians took over central Berlin and the misery, the fear and the starvation continued. The Russians, who had suffered so much at the hands of the Germans and were themselves destitute, plundered and raped their way through the ruin of a city. It was at this point, even more than during the inferno of the war, that Api was at his most desolate. Even his faith, which had always been strong, deserted him and he contemplated suicide. He was not alone in this hopelessness and despair. It got so bad that the newly installed gas lines in a suburb east of Tempelhof Airfield had to be shut down again because too many people used the gas to kill themselves.
As I worked my way through the diaries, an abbreviation kept appearing more and more frequently. They were two letters: 'Pg'. From dim memories I recalled that this may, no, must mean 'Parteigenossen', 'Party members'. Surely, not my grandfather? Then I made my second discovery. Api had been a Pg: a member of the Nazi Party, the National Socialist German Workers Party. I had not known this. It had never been mentioned in my family. I sat there with a pounding heart saying to myself over and over in the crudest and most shocking terms: 'Oh, my God, Api was a Nazi!'CHAPTER 2
You Made Soap out of my Aunt
To do this is to condemn your ancestors! You're going to dig up my grandfather and hang him.
I could not go on. In tears, I could not talk about it, not even with my husband, Mike, although he is one of the most open-minded people I know. Trained as a sociologist and with a positive and problem-solving disposition, he would have been the one person I could approach about this. Yet I could not do it. I hid the green notebooks again, burying them deep in the bottom drawer of my desk. I had wanted to tell the story of the diaries for their historical value and also as a tribute to my Api who loved me and played with me, who taught me Latin and showed me how to build a kite. I had not foreseen that this supposed tribute to him would lead to a painful re-evaluation of my family, my life and my nationality.
Until now I had thought of myself not so much as a victim of war than as a lucky survivor. I was not aware, consciously at least, of the traumas the twelve years of the 1,000-year empire brought for me personally. Although I had heard about the bombings where we lost everything and about the hunger in that cruel winter after the war, it was all mainly stories and dimmest memories for me. I have preserved from that time a love for potatoes with salt, but no scars. I never knew my father, but then almost all of my classmates were fatherless. There were 2 million of us half-orphans in Germany.
I grew up in convents, boarding houses, with one set of grandparents and then another, always moved from place to place until Api gave me a home. I was baptised and confirmed first Protestant, then Catholic, then Protestant again, according to where I happened to live. Out of necessity I learnt to fit in anywhere and our family's social standing gave me, despite initial poverty and hardship, a good start in life. Twice I travelled in a children's train with a cardboard sign around my neck on which someone had written the name and address of my destination. The first time I was sent south to Vienna to be with my mother and the second time I made the same trip back north to rejoin my grandparents. I dimly remember sitting on the straw-covered floor in the wagon of a goods train, which seemed to be forever shunted on one sideline or another. If the wait grew too long, the attendant who accompanied us would allow us to jump out and play. I often was scared to hurl myself down from the high wagon into the ditch below. On the second trip I somehow got lost until my grandfather finally found me in a children's bunker in Hanover. Once I saw him I did not let go of his hand until we were safely back in farmer Ohlde's cottage.
After Api's death in 1955 my transitory life began again: a boarding house on the Baltic, summers with an aunt in Munich or wherever Nyussi happened to be. When my mother remarried, I lived with her and my stepfather in Darmstadt, where I graduated from the gymnasium in 1962. Then we immigrated to the United States. All along, however, the silence about the war and the Nazi regime endured.
For over sixty years I had not felt implicated in any guilt. Of course, I was aware of the atrocities of the concentration camps. I had seen pictures and documentaries of the 6 million murdered Jews; the emaciated bodies; the heaps of bones, hair, teeth; men, women and children crowded into cattle cars and driven off to their deaths in gas chambers. I often could not bear to look at the images on the screen. It was all too horrible and I turned away. I have never visited any of the concentration camps. In my post-war world it was not only unimaginable but part of a history that seemed unrelated to me. In this escape from reality I was helped by the German mood of the 1950s, where everyone just wanted to forget this ever happened in our country. But I am afraid that to this day I have tried to avoid direct confrontation with the Holocaust. Even as recently as a few years ago I walked out on Roman Polanski's film The Pianist. Mike and I were watching the film together with a Polish couple, when I became ever more frantic at the powerful images of persecution and suffering in a concentration camp. Before I knew what I was doing, I had rushed out of the cinema. I could not bring myself to return and numbly waited in the lobby until the film was over.
Excerpted from The Reluctant Nazi by Gabrielle Robinson. Copyright © 2012 Gabrielle Robinson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Oh, My God! 7
2 You Made Soap out of my Aunt 13
3 A Clash of Memories 18
4 Growing Up Prussian 24
5 Seven Kilometres of Documents 30
6 The Shot Heard Around the World 36
7 Track 17 42
8 Better Times 47
9 May Day, May Day, May Day 55
10 Wedding Bells 60
11 Little Noodle 65
12 Christmas Trees 71
13 Unwelcome Guests 75
14 A Death in Prague 78
15 Leave 81
16 Russians at the Gates 85
17 Abyss between Then and Now 92
18 Blocked on All Sides 97
19 Wrapped Up in the Flag 103
20 Mood Reports 106
21 Humans are Fiercer 112
22 You Not Lie 115
23 My Painful Hour 121
24 Pentecost Sunday 129
25 A Little Light 133
26 Lead us not into Temptation 139
27 The Silence 145
28 Suicidal Thoughts 149
29 Professional Development 152
30 Nyussi's Birthday 157
31 Walking through a Nightmare 160
32 Living in Insecurity 165
33 Paradise Lost 170
34 The Little Swallows Play 176
35 Without the Faintest Guilt 180
36 The Allies are Coming 183
37 Another Dismissal 189
38 Homeless 193
39 I am at the End! 198
40 We'd be Lucky to get Ike Cleared 204
41 Aborted Journeys 207
42 Have I a Right? 212
43 Listen to the Grasshoppers 217
44 A Bad Christian 222
45 A Little Closer to Thee 225
46 Deus ex Machina 231
47 Zukunftsbang 235
48 Return to Blue Mountain 241
49 Theodor 246
50 Keep Your Ears Stiff 249
51 Kindertransport 253
52 De-Nazified 259
53 A Stable Home 261
54 Api and Me 266
55 Eckermannstrasse 19 272
56 A Visit to Bevensen 276
57 Gloves at the Bottom of the Stairs 280
58 Trying to Understand 285
59 And Yet… 288
60 Inner Emigration 293
61 A Wide Field 300
62 The Partiality of Everything 303
Source Notes 306
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this book. A beautifully written , well thought out, thoroughly researched courageous book about the complexities of war , the impact of ones political choices and who is ultimately responsible for a government that perpetrates horrendous crimes against humanity.It's the story of the love of family,endurance of the spirit ,and the will to survive against all odds. Gabrielle Robinson tells her beloved grandfathers story while asking tough non biased questions regarding the amount of his awareness and involvement in the nazi party.
An excellent read, and dealing with a difficult topic.