Seeking closure

My Oma’s beliefs in Nazi rule were so deep that she thought Germany was winning the war even as her village burned. For 80 years, she has tried to make sense of it. Now, we will need to do the same for this acutely terrible phase of history.

BRATTLEBORO — A thought I have not been able to shake for the past week has been the culmination of stories my Oma has told me many times, since I was very young in fact, about what it was like to live in Germany through the rise of Hitler, and the collapse that followed WWII.

She was 17 in 1945 when her village of Hanau was bombed and the Americans marched through. She was 5 when Hitler came to power, and Nazi rule was all she had ever known. She and everyone in her village believed that Germany was winning the war up until the day they were bombed. The Americans gave her starving family food, which she threw into the river because she was convinced it was poison.

Her own father tried to tell her the truth and she didn't believe him. He was a political prisoner at Saschenhausen-Oranienberg, he had been turned in by a neighbor who reported to the Gestapo that he was feeding Russian prisoners of war from his garden in the nearby labor camp. The only reason he was able to survive, and eventually escape, was because he had been a war hero in the early years on the French Maginot line, decorated with the Iron Cross by Hitler himself. So he was spared the random daily killings. He told my Oma about what was happening at the camps - the gas chambers, the torture, the medical experimentations. She didn't believe him, convinced he had gone mad, and that he must have done something to deserve being in the camp.

You can talk to her now about that time, she's read voraciously on the subject for 80 years, and she will tell you facts and dates and how she was brainwashed from age 5, how she herself was almost buried in an unmarked grave when the SS doctor who was supposed to treat her lame leg from polio said she had a brain tumor that was to be operated on....she was spared that horror as her father learned what was to happen to her and broke her out of that hospital before it was too late....and yet she still did not believe him.

I can not shake her stories from my mind these days. How her beliefs were so deep that she could not wrap her mind around the truth even as her village burned. How she recovered from that and dedicated her life to trying to figure out how it happened. And how she will never get closure. No one will, no one can. It was a horrific phenomenon that left millions and millions of people dead. And we know of it vaguely from history books, but the stories are fading...

I feel myself changing. I sense that we are going through an acutely terrible phase in history that we will not understand for many years to come, and we may also never gain closure on. I don't share this to add more depression to our circumstance, but I can't help but feel that we need to be talking about what we are going through. The stories of our generation, of our family, our past and present - the good and the evil that exists in human nature. So that hopefully we will be able to look back and say “ah, that's what happened.....” and maybe it won't happen again.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates