Late in her life, I got to know my biological grandmother. She had immigrated to the United States in the 1950s but grew up in Nazi Germany. When World War II ended, she was just about to leave high school.
Her family lived in a rural corner of Germany, far enough off from the major action of the war that she had a somewhat "normal" adolescence (whatever that can mean in this context), but close enough that she lost a few people she knew to Allied bombing runs. To hear her talk about World War II was to hear stories I had known my whole life flipped around to the other side, to hear stories where the fear was of American bombers descending from the sky to cast lives into the ash-heap.
My grandmother was no fan of the Nazis, either. I honestly don't know if this was a position she affected after moving to the US and needing to explain herself to anyone who heard her accent, calculated her rough age, and realized she was just old enough to have vivid enough memories of the war. But she framed it as her father, who had no longing for war and was suspicious of essentially all governments, growing more and more embittered toward yet another political party that didn't deliver strong enough results for his corner of the world. When I asked her if he had ever supported Hitler, she said, "No, he never voted for Hitler. They always said everybody voted for Hitler, but he knew that was a lie, because he never voted for him." And that was that.
The older she got, and the more I realized how little time I was going to have with her, the more I wanted to know, but the less I knew how to ask. Some things she said seemed to contradict essentially everything I've read about what it was like in Germany during the War. Some things were dead on.
She bitterly would comment on the irony of moving to the US, because she believed there would be little chance of her own children going off to war here, only to have one of her sons drafted in Vietnam. She would ramble on about how much she liked the Obama family, then immediately pivot toward her recriminations toward her mother-in-law, a woman who had been dead for decades. She knew she was old, and knew she would die soon, and she just wanted to get everything out there, in a torrent. When I would visit, she would start talking, and days later, when I left, she would still have new stories to share, new things she wanted to make sure I knew about.
But rarely about the war. She told me some of the darker things that happened to her, and she would repeat, again and again, that her father never voted for Hitler, but if I ever pushed for more, she would change the subject or go off to make coffee or grab a few cookies. (Like all good grandmothers, she both worried about my weight and stuffed me silly with sweets.)
The only time she really talked with me about the war was the last time I ever saw her, a few months before she passed. She said, again, that oh, her family never supported the Nazis, that her father hated them. And so on and so forth. So I asked, "So if you didn't like the Nazis, what did you do? How did you speak out against the war?"
She thought for a long time. Her father, she said, pushed back in his own way, by arguing with party loyalists and the like. But it was farm country. He had too much work, and they were too remote, and so on and so forth.
Then she said something that's hung with me ever since. "We weren't Nazis," she began. "We didn't believe in that. We didn't support that. But we lived there. So we were."
She smiled a little, and asked if I wanted more coffee. Just by being alive, she had been complicit. It's not fair, and she didn't ask for it, and she was just a kid. But that's life sometimes. Accidents of history leave you as an accessory to ideologies you never signed up for in the first place.
I left her that night, heading back to my hotel. It was October. The day had been warm, but the night was tilting toward frost. I flipped on the radio to listen to the news for a bit. Obama was regaining his lead in the polls, and I was hopeful for a new future.
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