| This story was shared with Our Life Logs by Evelyn McCord |
With politics dividing this country, and “Nazi” being used on both sides of the divide, I often wonder how people can come back together. Sometimes, looking to the past, to my past, I can find hope for the future. You see, my grandmother was a Nazi. Her best friend was a Jew. You can’t get much more divided than that, yet they formed a bond that lasted for over 50 years.
Like most grandmothers, Oma Eva doted on my siblings and me. She called me “Meine Suesse ganz alleine” (“my sweet all alone”). When my sister came along, she was “Meine Suesse zwei alleine” (“my sweet two alone”), and when my brother was born 14 years after me, he was “Mein Suess drei allein” (“my sweet three alone”). She loved to teach me German. Her favorite story of me that she would tell me again and again was of how, when I was just two years old, we were crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge. I looked out one window declaring “Look Oma! Wasser!” Then looking out the other window, “Look, Oma! Zwei Wasser!” She wanted to make sure I learned about my German heritage. She would tell me stories of her and her family and friends from Germany. She taught us children’s German songs like “Auf einem Baum ein Kuckuck” and listened to German music – I remember listening to Heintje sing “Oma so Lieb” (https://youtu.be/oF5tp0xOjzs) often, singing along in my not-so-in-tune tiny voice.
At her house in Bedford Hills, my sister and I would do typical kid things. We made mud pies and pretended we ran a restaurant, “cooking” up mud-hamburgers, mud-pancakes, and mud-soup while Oma tended her multi-colored garden of pansies and petunias. On rainy days, we would concoct “soup” with an array of household spices Oma gave us, along with pots, pans, spoons, and measuring cups. At night, she would play games with us. Sometimes a card game, “Tausendundeins,” sometimes a board game, “Mensch Aergere Dich Nicht,” and sometimes, when my parents and company were over, a made-up game “Arschful” (which literally means “assful”)-in which my sister and I would close our eyes and bend over, and then one of the adults in the room would spank us, and we’d have to guess which adult did the spanking. We’d have homefries and eggs for breakfast, German potato salad with lunch, and boiled potatoes and gravy with every dinner. She loved potatoes. I loved going to visit Oma.
I always looked forward to when Tante (German for “aunt”) Hanna would come over. When I was a child, she was the only adult I ever knew who could swear and get away with it. The F-bomb was as much of an accessory as was the gold Star of David, and the golden Scrabble tiles, H and K, she wore proudly around her neck. She was funny. She was a professional nanny to Jewish families in Tarrytown. She would tell me tales of “Little Blue Riding Hood because Red Riding Hood was too conventional and boring.” She would have me straighten crooked imaginary pictures on walls. Tante Hanna was also a chain smoker who loved Scrabble. She taught me how to play and gave me my first “cheat sheet” of two and three letter words. She would give me an advantage of being able to use the “cheat sheet” and a dictionary, but if she could beat me, she would. “You, you little shit, will learn how to beat me fair and square,” she’d lovingly swear. Tante Hanna beat me every single game until I was in my mid-twenties.
Over the years, I heard Tante Hanna call my grandmother a “fucking Nazi,” and Oma would call her a “dirty Jew,” and afterwards I’d hear the clink of wine glasses and laughter. I didn’t really know what those terms meant, nor the implications of the words, I just knew that Oma and Tante Hanna were best friends. (For the longest time, I thought they were sisters, hence the “Tante” part, but along the way, someone corrected me).
Don’t most childhood memories make you feel all warm and fuzzy?
Fast forward to 1977. At 11 years old and in sixth grade, I loved reading. That year, my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Santiago, introduced her students to George Orwell, Esther Hautzig, and Anne Frank. We read Animal Farm, The Endless Steppe, and Diary of Anne Frank. Vocabulary terms included fascism, totalitarianism, and altruism. School stuff which I took with an indifferent and moody grain of sand. To my 11-year-old self, Animal Farm was a bunch of crazy animals, some nasty pigs, a poor workhorse I felt sorry for, and a stupid horse named Mollie, who reminded me of some of the vain girls in my class. No big deal. Then came the tale of ten-year-old Esther whose family was sent to Siberia because they were Jewish. Okay, that was a sad story, and I was very cold when I read it, but Esther lived to tell the tale, so I was okay with that. What’s World War II? Why do people want to kill other people? Kill children? What’s wrong with being Jewish? Is Jewish a religion or people from a country I haven’t learned about yet? So far, the books just left me with questions.
Then came Diary of Anne Frank. She was about my age when she wrote it. I liked her. I liked how she viewed the world and she had issues like me—problems with her sister, Margot (my sister has a similar name), liking a boy, and well, I just liked her attitude. But, there were those words again: “Nazi” and “Jew.” And she died because of the Nazis, and because she was a Jew. Her story resonated with me. I couldn’t let thoughts go.
I learned, through these stories, that Nazis, Hitler, and Nazi-ism was bad. Hitler caused a world war. He and his regime murdered innocent Jewish children. Kids my age. I was livid. How could anyone do that to another human being? In my pre-adolescent rage, I vowed that I would have helped Anne Frank and others like her if I were alive at that time. Innocent, armchair, vicarious, impotent altruism.
In my mind I was thinking of all the ways I could have and would have helped. I would have…wait. Oma is German. Tante Hanna called her a “Nazi.” Tante Hanna is German and a Jew who wears the Star of David around her neck. What did Oma do to help the Jews? Did she help any? Was she really a Nazi? No way my sweet Oma could not be like the horrible Nazis I read about. Boy, did I have a lot of questions. So, I asked her.
• • •
“Was, Meine Süße?”
“Were you a Nazi?”
Oma stopped peeling potatoes in her immaculate kitchen. Her house always smelled a combination of onions, potatoes, baby powder and freshly cut flowers. We were sitting at the round, marbled-grey formica table in her kitchen. I remember looking up at the round florescent light, thinking it was bright and kind of ugly. She put down her paring knife and looked at me with soft, clear blue eyes.
“I mean, in school, we’ve been reading lots of books about World War II, and learning about Hitler and concentration camps, and, like, you weren’t part of all that, were you?”
“Everyone was a Nazi in Germany at the time. You had to be. The government required it. Children were part of the German Youth Group, and it’s just the way it was.”
“Did you know Jews were being sent to concentration camps to be murdered, like Anne Frank?”
“What do you mean, ‘No’? Weren’t there Jewish families in your neighborhood?”
“Most people didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, what was happening. All most of us knew was that we had jobs again. We had food in our bellies. We weren’t starving. The economy was getting better.
Some families disappeared overnight, but we were told that they had gone on holiday. There were rumors of something more sinister, but who believed rumors? We thought those rumors were told by people who were against all the good that was happening for the German economy. I didn’t know what was going on until after the war ended.”
That day I learned a little about my grandmother’s life as a Nazi. Then, she told me “watered-down” stories of Nazi Germany to protect my innocence. My grandfather was a Nazi and was in the German Army (not SS soldier, but a Nazi soldier nonetheless). Her brother was a Nazi soldier. Most German men were enlisted in the German army.
I was quite upset. How could my Oma be part of the kind of people who killed Anne Frank? How could she not know what was happening to those Jewish families? How could she be a member of the party that killed all those in concentration camps? I didn’t visit her for a few months. I didn’t want to see her. I was horrified. And, I was young and ignorant. I wanted my family to be good, and I didn’t quite understand how good people could be blind to something so evil.
I learned a lot about German history through the eyes of my relatives. Oma and I had many conversations about her life in Germany. I also talked with my grandfather and his wife, Oma Gerda, and Oma Eva’s brother, Uncle Heinz about their lives in Nazi Germany. Over the years, I collected stories from my mother, my mother’s family and Tante Hanna. I wanted to know, I guess, if I was part evil.
Oma Eva was born in 1922 in Malchin, a small town in eastern Germany, a little after the Treaty of Versaille, a peace agreement that ended the World War I. This treaty demanded that Germany pay reparations (I’m not sure, but I think Germany had to pay the United States, France, Italy, and England). The reparations were intended to make sure that Germany never had the finances, nor the military resources, to start another World War. Germany paid out so much money, that no money was left to take care of German citizens. The economy took a nosedive. There were few jobs to be had, very little food, and much anger and unrest in the populace. This treaty created economic havoc in Germany and enabled a dictator to be welcomed into power, and primarily caused the Second World War.
Oma said that she remembered her childhood as being difficult. Her family had chickens and a garden for food. She would chop heads off chickens for dinner. Her mother’s family had come from the aristocracy, so her mother had jewelry and relatives who had money and helped out the family. But, clothes, shoes, and other amenities were hard to come by. Oma went to school and had an internship in a warehouse in Malchin that supplied a department store in Lubeck. She made little money, but occasionally, the owner of the warehouse would give her leftovers of items they transported. Pre-World War II Germany, in an effort to curb inflation, had apparently started printing so much money, that the paper the money was printed on was worth more than the marks. She told me a loaf of bread would cost a wheelbarrow filled with worthless marks. She told me about how most needed items, like sugar and flour, were gotten through trading cigarettes on the black market. Most families bartered for their needs.
• • •
I learned how the Nazis partly ensured their “true German” race. In order to marry during WWII, and if asked on the street, the government had to see papers that proved the parties’ German lineage could be traced back at least three generations. Citizens had to prove that they had no “Jewish” or foreign blood in them. My grandfather, Opa Otto, was born October 11, 1920 in Stettin on the Polish border. The border of Germany and Poland changed several times due to different wars. My grandmother always said my grandfather was part Jew (his last name ended in “-ski” which some family members changed to “-ske” and was pronounced “ska,” not “ski”) all because of World War II. Her statement an obvious ingrained bias.
Oma and my family also told me their own postwar explanations of the concentration camps. They claimed that the focus on Jews in Germany was motivated by money and the economy. Many Jewish people were the merchants, the bankers, the business owners. They owned real estate. Hitler realized that if the government took over their houses, their businesses, took their money, the economy would be better. The media blitzed against the Jews. Hungry, struggling, out-of-work Germans believed thinly woven lies so as long as they could improve their own living conditions. Desperate people will believe anything if it makes living easier.
Towards the end of the war, the Russians invaded Germany. The soldiers rolled into towns and cities and burned them down. Hitler was hiding in Berlin, in a bunker with Eva Braun. He knew the Russians were coming and he didn’t want to become a spectacle for the Russians to display to the world, so he poisoned himself and Eva Braun and had his henchmen burn their bodies until there was nothing left but bones.
• • •
My grandmother wasn’t so lucky. She told me the story one night when I was visiting her after she had triple bypass surgery and had a pacemaker inserted in her heart in 1999. Some Russian soldiers found her and her girlfriend walking along a quiet street and the soldiers raped them. Her friend ended up in the hospital for a very long time, and Oma managed to live and move past the pain, burying the event deep in her memory. Flickering hope of a better life and sheer refusal to be beaten into submission fed my grandmother’s will to survive.
Post-war Germany was worse than pre-war Germany. At some point during the war, my grandmother moved to Lubeck to work in a department store. There, she met my grandfather. He was a soldier, and after the war ended, for a short while he was a police officer. She told me of their wedding carriage ride through town. It was all very romantic, until my grandfather decided he wanted a wife and a girlfriend. His girlfriend was well connected in town, and somehow once she and my grandfather had a falling out, the relationship cost him his job.
Oma told me about the postwar housing shortages. Many houses were destroyed by bombings. Finding a place to live was difficult, and basic food supplies were limited. German citizens were given ration cards to buy food. Children and pregnant mothers were given extra food rations. My grandmother and mother were in this category. My grandparents divorced when my mother was very young, yet because of the housing shortage, my grandfather still lived with them. Oma told me he used to bring his girlfriends to their house. During this time, my grandmother contracted typhoid fever. The doctors didn’t think she would live. She weighed little more than 80 pounds and she lost all her hair. Oma lay on the couch, in and out of consciousness, semi-aware of her daughter who was in her crib eating her own feces out of hunger. As she told the tale, the motherly instinct to care for her daughter and the anger towards her ex-husband gave her the will to live. She willed herself to survive.
• • •
After the war, the famous Berlin Wall was beginning construction. Four countries, the United States, France, England, and the Soviet Union sectioned Berlin, and for its efforts in overthrowing Hitler, the Soviet Union took over half of Germany creating East Germany. Oma was born in East Germany. Her parents still lived in Malchin, and the wall separated her from her family. East Germany was very poor; they had even less money that West Germans. My grandmother, when she was able to visit her mother, would strap money to my mother’s infant body to smuggle to her parents. Although the soldiers would search Oma and the carriage, they never dared to search an infant. My grandmother was resourceful and determined to help those she loved.
My great-grandmother died of emphysema shortly after the war ended. With her mother gone, her marriage done, and very little opportunity to support herself, Oma decided to leave Germany with her daughter and set out for the unknown terrain of America.
My grandmother would often tell the story of how she came to this country with a small daughter, not speaking the language, and with only two dollars in her wallet on Valentine’s Day in 1954. “In fact,” she would say, “I owed money.” She was sponsored by her friend, Nadia, a Russian pianist and femme fatale.
Oma hinted that Nadia was a double spy (Russian and German), which is why she emigrated to the United States before her. My grandmother and mother stayed with Nadia for a little while, and my grandmother got a job as a waitress at Kleine Konditerei, a restaurant in the German section of New York City.
In America, my grandmother learned English, remarried, and my mother learned English by watching television. My grandmother also sponsored my grandfather and his new wife so that they could immigrate to America (this part of the story is a bit complicated and deserves its own separate story, but not now). Oma and Opa Gus (my grandmother’s second husband) bought a cable-car diner called The Bluebird Diner and were business owners for years. In this diner is where my father met my mother, and well, where my personal history began. My Oma was assimilating into American culture and living the American Dream.
At some point between 1954 and 1960, Oma and Tante Hanna met. They did not know each other in Germany, and too hear them tell the tale, they didn’t like each other much at first. But then, some event happened, and they realized they had more in common than not. They both came from Germany with very little money, did not know English, and had to find work. They were both also very hard-headed and opinionated. Yet they enjoyed each other’s company and visited each other often. Because the diner was so close to Tarrytown where Tante Hanna lived, the friendship between the two women flourished. Tante Hanna was invited to every family function Oma had, and became part of our family. The two women were quite similar in their outgoing personalities and what they valued in life. Their apartments were quite similar, and they kept house the same. Their everyday glasses were encased in plastic, fresh flowers were in a vase on the table, and feet were never to be put on sofas. “These things are expensive! They must be taken care of!” and “Get your feet off the couch!” were sayings they played on repeat. They were frugal, well, cheap was more like it, probably because they lived so many years with nothing.
I remember, as a teenager dreading going out to dinner with them, especially to “all-you-can-eat” buffets. When we would all go out to dinner, both women brought extra-large bags with them. Extra dinner rolls, desserts, any food that could carry well would be wrapped in napkins and disappear into these bags for “a snack for later.” If I happened to go to the ladies’ room after one of them, no paper towels or toilet paper would be found, and they never ran out of paper products in their apartments. One time, Tante Hanna’s iron stopped working, so she went to the store, purchased a new iron, removed the new iron, put the old one in its place, and promptly returned the “broken” new purchase for a refund. As a young adult, I was embarrassed to go anywhere with them in public.
Any time the women got together, they would have “kaffeeklatsch.” Tablecloths, linen napkins, homemade cakes, wine glasses, and fresh flowers were constant necessities. Once, when too much wine was served, the topic of German reparations to Jews came up. On this subject, the two women disagreed.
“You should not be taking money from the German government for lost Meissen dishes and golden silverware you never had. Your mother was a prostitute!”
“My mother may have been a whore, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have nice things, fucker!” came Tante’s quick reply.
“Oh! Your language makes my ears curl! Why must you be so uncivil at a nice kaffeeklatsch?”
Then my grandmother would laugh and change the subject.
Tante Hanna was mostly mute about her history before she came to the United States. She and her mother lived in Berlin during the war. At 12, Tante Hanna was rounded up with others and loaded into a train car bound for a concentration camp. Somehow, she escaped the train and underground. I don’t know how old she was when she came here with her mother. It was no secret that she had no love for her mother. When asked how her mother was doing, her pat reply was “the bitch is still alive.”
Oma told me a portion of her story. “When Hanna was younger, she and her mother lived together. Hanna met a nice boy and they got engaged. Once day, Hanna came home from work early and found her mother in bed with her fiancé. She swore off men and her mother from that day on. Don’t ever tell her I told you the story.”
Tante Hanna and I talked about many things, but she would not discuss Germany. “I fucking left that hellhole, and I’ll never go back,” is all she would say. She avoided talking about politics, except to say, “I hope people remember history.”
In the condo complex where by grandmother and Hanna lived, the two women cultivated many friends. They had weekly Kaffeeklatsches and participated in social events of the complex. Hanna was also the caretaker to many of the residents in the retirement community. She would go shopping for a couple who didn’t have a car. She would do Nair facials on women and bring them small surprises to brighten their day. And every time I visited, she would make time to play Scrabble with me.
I would go down to visit Oma and Tante Hanna either for important birthdays like Oma’s 80th birthday when she invited her brother and his wife, her sister, and her cousin Sonja to help celebrate. I came down with my daughter, Anna, who was eighteen months, and we stayed with Tante Hanna. Tante Hanna set up a little table and chair for Anna and let her play with discarded egg cartons, spoons, and small lids to stack. There was no Playskool anything, no crayons, just odds and ends she found in her house, and Anna was quite content.
The last time Tante Hanna and I played Scrabble, I knew something was wrong. I beat her three out of the four games we played that day. We each had a glass of wine, but she had only one cigarette. “I have three cigarettes a day now. One in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. No more, no less.” Always thin, she seemed even thinner. “I lost ten pounds last month.”
She was dying. A few months later, she was in a nursing home, my grandmother her only visitor. My aunt never married and never had children. She was still close to the Jewish family she had raised years ago, but they were in NY, and not able to get to see her in time. Oma would visit her, bringing her fresh blueberries and cream, the only food she could get down. On the day she died, she told my grandmother, “I never realized how painful dying was.”
After Tante Hanna died, again Oma had no reason to stay in the country. Oma’s health was declining, and she had some choices to make. My mother was living in Weimar, Germany, and Oma wanted to go back home. She wanted to spend her last years with her daughter in her homeland. Once again, mother and daughter lived together and took care of each other.
The last time I saw Oma was in December 2008. She was in a nursing home near my mother’s apartment in Germany, and, for Christmas, Oma wanted to have kaffeeklatsch on her floor for the other residents. My mother put together cookie trays with chocolate and the nurses put on some coffee. Oma was at peace, at home, and lived a good life. She died like she lived her life, on her own terms, well, almost.
Remember how I said she had a pacemaker inserted in her heart? Well, her heart’s wiring was messed up, so the pacemaker would send out an electrical shock if her heart stopped beating. The pacemaker brought her back from the dead a few times. Germany has a law against euthanasia, or any assistance to help a chronically ill or elderly patient die, because of the holocaust. My mother and Oma wanted a doctor to remove the pacemaker, and no doctor in Germany would comply, even though Oma’s other organs were failing. Several times while in the nursing home, Oma’s heart stopped, and the pacemaker would jolt it back to life, lifting her body off the bed with each shock. Eventually, either Oma had enough pain, or the pacemaker’s battery finally died. Oma died on the same day Hitler did, April 30th.
“I don’t think you’d be able to survive what I lived through” is what my grandmother told me one time I was being a spoiled teenager. Looking back, I think she’s right. Her story, my family’s story, contained the best and worst of humanity in one lifetime. I’m not sure I would have survived what she, Tante Hanna, and my other ancestors did. I learned how sometimes good people are capable of living through evil, and how hope is the only thing that can keep people alive. I also learned that people who have differing political, religious, and social beliefs can still value and respect each other. My thoughts on the future? There is always hope.
This story was told by Evelyn McCord
Evelyn McCord recounts the convoluted relationship and deep history of her German grandmother and her grandmother’s Jewish best friend. Evelyn tells the story as it unfolded for her, first loving these two strong women in her life, then understanding the cruelties and injustice of World War II, and finally, learning to forgive and accept the realities of the human experience.
If you would like to read more of Evelyn’s work, kindly visit her blog at: https://evelynmccord.wordpress.com/
This story first touched our hearts on June 30, 2018.