On Being German
I have chosen not to use my family's last names in effort to respect their privacy. You may think, Haha! I know it, it's Einarson! It's on your profile! Well, yes, but that is our Icelandic family name. Good try though :)
My father's family emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s, escaping political persecution and searching for religious freedom. My great grandfather Henry left Philippsburg, Karlsruhe in Baden-Württemberg and arrived in America in 1865. He later moved to Montana and, upon marrying Elizabeth also from Philippsburg, they began a family. They had 14 children, of which several did not make it past childhood. My grandfather Joseph was born and had my father. I don't know much about my father's family. My mother's family, hailing from Iceland and Sweden, has done extensive research on their genealogy. Thanks to a beloved family genealogist in North Dakota, we have been able to trace our Icelandic heritage to the year 900. Finding any records of my German cousins still in Germany has proven to be far more difficult.
We have much of my family mapped out once they moved to the United States. We have all of our direct cousins, great aunts and uncles, and only brief information on Henry and Elizabeth. We even have a copy of Henry's form where he had to denounce the "Emperor of Germany" in order to become a citizen. Other than this, we had little information.
In my Icelandic and Swedish family, we have gladly connected with our second, third, and fourth cousins, my first cousins once, twice, three times removed. I can't begin to explain their hospitality and love, even after just knowing them for a small amount of time. I feel very lucky. I would like to know more about my German family, and hopefully one day, meet them. I took it upon myself to do a bit of research.
It was at this point I became grateful for my fluency (or at least NEAR fluency) in German. Most records of Germans are, naturally, in German and I spent hours searching through the online Bundesarchiv. I had only the birth date and place of birth of Henry and Elizabeth. Using these dates and location, I was able to find their siblings and their nieces and nephews.
If I am honest, I have had to take a break from my research. I enjoy learning about history, especially in Germany, and feel a bit like an investigator. I wasn't sure what I would find but I had an idea and it proved to be correct. This has been difficult for me to write.
The people I found are not related directly to me, I am not their descendant. These people would be my grandfather's cousins, and therefore my first cousins twice removed. It may sound ridiculous that I look these people up but family is family. My cousins that I spent so much time with, cried and laughed with in Iceland and Sweden are first cousins twice removed as well. Even in the US, I am surrounded by first, second, and third cousins. I grew up with them. I love them.
In 1848-1849, Germany underwent a significant revolution. During this time, some fought for the unification of the 39+ separate German states, while others argued their autonomy. The First Schleswig War began in 1848, the Frankfurt Parliament was moved to Stuttgart where it was then occupied by the Württemberg army. Those in favor of the reunification were exiled and the war ended in 1852. The first Worker's Party was created in 1863 and later became the German socialist party. In 1864, the Second Schleswig War began, and in 1866 the Austro-Prussian war began.
When Henry was growing up, it was a tumultuous time in Germany's history. He was a Catholic and during this time, they did experience some religious persecution and intimidation. I don't blame him for wanting to leave.
Searching for my cousins in military records
Henry and Elizabeth left at separate times. Some of their siblings followed them to the United States, while many of them remained in Germany. I have access to the history of my family after they came to America, but not those that stayed. Using Henry and Elizabeth's information, I was able to find their siblings and some of their nieces and nephews, their birth places, birth dates, and time and place of death. I think that my interest in understanding my family's involvement in World War I and World War II are obvious.
I was able to cross reference their family members, our family names, and I can't tell you how many records I dug through. These are the people that I was able to verify, there may be more, or I could be incorrect.
Henry's Family WWI and Earlier:
Born: ?, Philippsburg
Died: Sometime in the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War
Born: ? Philippsburg
Died: 1918 in Belgium (Buried at the WWI Graveyard in Menen, Belgium)
Born: ? Philippsburg
Died ? (he was convicted of high treason in 1849-1850)
Henry's Family during WW2:
Born: 1919 in Mannheim (close to Philippsburg)
Died: Kharkiv, Ukraine May 1942
Rank: Sturmmann (paramilitary police/military service of Nazi government)
Born: 1925 in Schönau
Died: Feldlaz/Modlin in September 1944
Rank: Obergefreiter (Army, senior lance corporal, enlisted)
Born: January 1910
Died: ? Buried in Futa-Pass graveyard
The members of Henry's family that I could find seemed to be mostly enlisted and low ranking members of the armed forces with the exception of Albert. Sturmmann were like the storm troopers of the SS and the SA.
Elizabeth's Family During WWII:
Born: Philippsburg, August 1916
Died: May 1945, buried in Hofkirchen
Rank: Unteroffizier (like a squad leader)
Born: Philippsburg, October 1923
Died: Johannesberg 1945, buried in Vienna
Rank: Gefreiter (experienced enlisted soldier)
Born: Mannheim 1923
Died: Kauen 1944
Rank: Obergefreiter (squad leader, commissioned officer)
Born: April 1921
Died: Potor, January 1945. Buried in Vazec
I encountered so many German soldiers in WWII that I was able to match to Elizabeth's side. Some I don't have all of the information but here are some of the other names I was able to find:
Ernst (d. 1945)
Josef (again) (d. 1945)
Karl (d. 1945)
Alfred (missing (1944)
Fritz (missing, 1942)
Karl (d. 1945)
Josef Albin (d. 1941)
Andreas (d. 1945)
The people above were all born in or around Philippsburg. Giving how large Elizabeth's family was to start, I would be surprised if they weren't in some way related to me. I noticed that, as a whole, the ranks of Elizabeth's family tended to be much higher and there were fewer enlisted members, meaning many of them joined voluntarily. Albert, a relative on Henry's side was a Sturmmann. In a part of my mind, I had always assumed that my family had served in Nazi Germany. While it isn't something I'm proud of or would comfortably go around telling people, I understand that there was a draft. Many young men were put into the military to fight a war that they did not necessarily understand or they believed it was for different reasons. I had figured-assumed, I guess- that my family had only been lowly infantry.
I also know about the atrocities committed at the hands of the Germans, big and small. I have always been very sensitive and empathetic with those that are suffering and the victims in World War II suffered badly. Crimes against Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, political opponents, and POWs were not just limited to the camps. There were the Einsatzgruppen-squads of soldiers that are now referred to as "death squads". Their objective? To kill Jews and any other people the Nazis considered undesirables. Einsatzgruppen were used especially before the large scale camps were constructed.
I would hope to think that my family did not play a large part in anyone's suffering. I'm not sure how I could know this. I do know that they contributed to one of the most horrifying wars and genocides in history, whether knowingly or unknowingly. They had to know something, of that I am sure.
I had resolved myself to finding this information, though the number of Elizabeth's family in the war was much more than I had thought it would be. This information wasn't the surprise.I began searching in a third database and that is when my feelings suddenly changed. I did not search Elizabeth's family in any WWI databases; it was after the following database I needed to stop.
Memorial Book: Victims of the Persecution of Jews under the National Socialist Tyranny in Germany 1933 - 1945 (Nazi Germany)
Born: 1890, resident of Ichenhausen
Deported: 1941 from Frankfurt
Destiny: Died November 1941 in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Name: Emilie (again)
Born: 1880, resident of Laudenbach
Deported: From Munich 3-4 April
Destiny: Sent to Piaski ghetto. Presumed dead
Born: 1909 in Laudenbach
Deported: From Stuttgart around 1941
Destiny: Sent to Riga ghetto in Latvia, unknown
Deported: From Kassel-Halle, 1 June 1942
Destiny: Sobibor Extermination Camp, died 3 June 1942
Born: 1912 in Hoof
Deported: From Kassel-Chemnitz around 1942
Destiny: Sent to 07th September 1942, Theresienstadt ghetto, 29th September 1944 to Auschwitz, 10th October 1944 to Dachau, 3rd December 1944 to Kaufering III, satellite camp Dachau. Died on 18 December 1944
Deported: From Kassel in 1941
Destiny: Riga ghetto, reported dead
Deported: From Kassel 01 June 1942
Died: Sobibor Extermination camp, 3 June 1942
Deported: From Münster-Osnabrück-Bielefeld in 1941
Destiny: Riga ghetto, unknown
I don't know what to do with this information. I don't know what happened, or how this happened. I've only included the names I could verify are related to Henry. Why would some be sent to extermination camps and ghettos while others had to serve as enlisted personnel? While some were Sturmmann?
Some of Elizabeth's family is higher in the ranks than I had expected. I've done a lot of research on this time period and I know far too well what happened to so many innocent people. I never thought that I was related to them. When I found that Henry was Catholic, or at least raised his kids as such, I didn't think the remainder of his family would be persecuted. I don't know.
I studied German intensively in college. My teacher was from the Westfallen region in Germany and when she spoke English, it was with a heavy accent. She expressed that Germans are not allowed to be proud. American's will say "I'm proud to be an American", she said Germans can't do that. Being proud of your German heritage would make others look at you suspiciously or jump to conclusions. My teacher confessed that when she first came to the US, she would say she was from the Netherlands.
I have, in a way, carried my own form of so-called German Guilt around. When teachers heard my last name (and I'm not talking about Einarson) they knew I was German. My fellow students would call me a Nazi and yell "Heil Hitler" and do the salute when I walked in to class or the lunchroom. It didn't help that I was blonde and blue eyed either. I went to a high school dance with a boy who was blonde. They called us the Nazi Couple, or Hitler's Dream Children.
People have asked if I hate Jews. I tell them no, of course not, and they laugh. I have never laughed at the Hitler or Holocaust jokes but people have trivialized it to my face. I felt guilty in a strange way because I was German, despite the fact that I had never been to Germany. I speak German. The Nazi salutes and "Sieg Heil" only got worse when I spoke it in public so I stopped.
Even now, I work in a professional office setting. Naturally, I put my fluency in German on my resume and upon hire, my new supervisor mentioned it. Proudly, I told him that I enjoy learning languages and yes, I do speak German fluently. Immediately, he said that German sounded scary and angry. Maybe he doesn't know this, but not all Germans yell all the time.
The years surrounding World War I and II have been of interest to me for some time. I read a lot of books, historical accounts, and works of fiction based in this time period. A cozy, rainy Saturday to me is loading up with documentaries and bundling up on the sofa for hours. For years, I have planned on going to the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the memorials for Sobibor and Treblinka as a way to ensure that these people were not forgotten. That even though they may have died alone, sick, wounded, or feeling like no one in the world cared about them, that so many people around the world carry their souls in their hearts. My own pitiful way of saying "never again".
I am conflicted.
For the reasons I listed above, I still want to see this memorials and historical sites. But now knowing that I had several Sturmmann in my family (men that served as shock troops, broke into Jew's homes and stores, and served at concentration camps), and many other officers and enlisted that served in various roles concerns me. No, I don't know what they did or the extent of their involvement, but it makes me feel guilty even thinking of visiting these sites. Members of my family could have sent some of the victims to their deaths here. Some of these victims are my family. Some of the perpetrators are my family.
I expected that in visiting these places I would be overcome with sorrow and pain for those that had suffered here, as well as a vague sense of guilt. Guilt as a German or a fellow human being, I'm not sure. But if I were to go to one of these sites after learning this information...I would have an increased sense of guilt and most likely sorrow that I can't even imagine yet.
Within Germany itself, it seems that there has been a large shift from "guilt" to "responsibility". We are getting further detached from not only this period in history but also in relation to those that were involved on either side. The younger generations are becoming proud of Germany, singing the national anthem and proudly displaying the flag.
I'm not trying to say that "all Germans feel guilty all the time and they SHOULD feel guilty!" or anything of the sort. This has been my personal realization and feelings of guilt from some of the Germans I have met in America.
This Vergangenheitsbewältigung (collective German guilt or responsibility) isn't felt like guilt that you would associate with doing something bad. We, logically, had nothing to do with what happened. This feeling is often explained by Germans as more a weight or a feeling of shame. But I feel that the responsibility of Germany is to never forget or minimize what happened.
In the end, I am not different from pretty much everyone else in the world; I have the ability to do good and bad. As did my family. Some of my family chose to do bad, even very bad things, but that has no bearing on myself as a person. I have my own, unique sense of Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
More posts on this journey of discovery: