The Things We Carry

There was a game we used to play with my father, called "themilitary." He'd yell like a Prussian drill sergeant and we'd snapto attention, drop, crawl, jump. We asked to play it a lot, andhe rarely consented; it was years before I learned how much hehated that game, and anything that reminded him of soldiers,uniforms, and war. He was drafted in March of '45, when he turned16; Hitler was throwing brigades of children and old men into thelast offensive. The war ended on the day his unit was to leaveboot camp. He made it home walking, showed up at his parents'door in a tattered uniform with the Nazi insignia torn out of thesleeves. That was the end. What came after is the only world mygeneration has ever known. What was before lives only in memory--strange, fading memories with a sudden bite, like old teddybearsthat suddenly reveal teeth. It's a history we remember at ourperil, and that repeats itself only in ways we don't notice. I'm German. I'm a German. I'm a German who's lived inAmerica for some years, as well as a few other places beforethat. I've never felt strongly about my "nation," a word whosemeaning I don't really understand. I've felt obligated, burdened,and sometimes grateful; I've felt like any heir, somehow stuckwith things strange, familiar, and irrevocably mine. My father has only childhood memories of the war and thetime before; my mother none. By the time I'm their age, it willbe me--with my hand-me-down stories, my post-boom birthdate, andmy sensibilities shaped by an era that's already looking likeit's coming to an end--who keeps the memories. Why that seemsimportant I don't know. But it does, desperately. ****I remember when I first saw the pictures--the gold teeth inbuckets, the lampshades made of skin, the bodies dumped in piles,the smokestacks. It was in the video room at school, a basementenclosure with windows to the yard, around eighth grade. Some ofthe students left the room, holding their mouths. I thought,arrogantly, how dishonest it was to want not to watch. Much later I read an article by a Jewish writer, describingthe nightmares that wake her up after midnight; the frantic phonecalls from her mother when she disappears even for a few days;the way her relatives carefully avoid stepping outside a Germanairport when they happen to come through. I've talked to some ofmy Jewish friends about this; they've been careful, tentativeconversations, gingerly stepping through mined territory. Therewas never a hint of accusation; yet I've wondered about theburden they carry, the fears they know, the horror they may seein my face. Sometimes, we've found a sense of something incommon--a shared memory, a shared confusion. My historical nightmares don't concern attacks from theoutside: the thud at the door, the train ride, the end. They'reabout the evil within. No one in my family was SS, that I know of, though mygrandfather was in the Party; I knew him as a kind, honorableman, formed under an only mildly explosive set of historiccircumstances. He could have been your uncle in St. Cloud or yourcousin in New Orleans. Or me, or you, or the guy across thestreet. They'll tell you this about mental illness: There's no oneline you cross going from sane to crazy. Obsessive, manic,schizophrenic traits are part of our lives; most of the time wechug along without attracting attention. The dark side ofnormalcy is obvious only in extremis. ***It's not the brutality of the concentration camps that giveswords like Auschwitz their terrible, lingering ring. People haveinvented hideous ways of hurting each other for a long time. It'snot even the number of people killed: Between 12 and 20 millionRussians died in various ways from World War II, and more haveelsewhere. It's the way they did it, cataloguing, inventorying,sorting, and disposing of human beings, extracting everything ofvalue along the way. First people's livelihoods: jobs, stockholdings, land. Then most of their possessions--the deportationswith no more than a suitcase. Then the suitcases, once theyarrived at camp. Then the gold teeth, the hair, the clothes. Thentheir labor--building roads, making munitions, digging graves.The last step was disposal of excess inventory. It was exactly like a business; it was a business, with the required permits at each step of the way. "The more things are wrong," as E.L. Stevenson wrote in The Body Snatchers, "the more we must do everything right." *** Ever since I was old enough to notice, I knew that German wasn't a very popular thing to be. I lived in Italy as a child; when the Holocaust series premiered on TV, the German school shut down for three days because of bomb threats. In everyday life, it helped not to have an accent or especially Nordic features; blending in spared you the occasional Hitler salute perfect strangers would snap into (whether as an insult or, worse, a compliment was never clear) and the quiet withdrawal in the faces of older people. Not that any of this was especially tragic; in fact, if anything bothers me more than being told that "you have nothing to feel bad about," it's being asked whether it isn't "terribly hard to have to live with all that." It's nothing beside the prospect of, say, being black in America; I've never feared being killed, or even refused an apartment, because of how I was born. And under the circumstances, a little awareness of history seems hardly misplaced. Yet--and this is something I don't like to admit even to myself--I've never regretted it when people didn't know I was German. Some of this, no doubt, is because I grew up in more than one country; "home" is a series of fragments--the smell of weeds, the way the light slants, the sound of people's voices. Not a place to go back to; not a passport. Germany hasn't been a nation for very long, just over a century, and I don't know how well the concept ever took. Webster's translates the German word Heimat as "home; hometown; homeland." Most people are somewhere in between those words--bound to the regions, valleys, rivers that were there long before "Germany." I was once involved with a youth camp where kids from the north and south, after days of valiantly trying to communicate in their dialects, finally resolved to speak English. But there's more to it--now anyway--than that. A visiting U.S. scholar recently tried to interview people about what "German identity" meant to them. "There's no such thing," they'd say. "Next question?" It's the same sharp response I remember from my eighth-grade teacher, the time I tried to offer the "final solution" to some particularly complicated problem. "Don't ever use that word," she said, and told me why. I haven't come to a lot of answers to the questions that started then. What I do know is that what happened to the German "nation" is worth remembering. Not only because it's my duty (which I believe, never mind the reason), but because something of the revulsion my father feels lingers in my bones--like an extra nerve, raw to a particular kind of reality. *** Germany wasn't comfortable when it elected itself a Nazi government. Hadn't been for years; a hundred years' worth of industrial revolution had left a lot of people desperate, working in factories for wages that didn't pay the rent. Then World War I came, and thousands went to be gassed in trenches; halfway through the Russian soldiers marched home and made revolution. Germans were set to do the same, and my hometown of Munich became a "workers' and soldiers' republic" for a short three weeks in 1918. The rebellion was beaten down, bloodily; a constitution was written, and the country became a democracy. Politically, anyway. Economically, a few halfway decent years followed, during which lots of people made their way into at least the lower middle class. War reparations, corporate profit-taking, and global economic restructuring soon made a mess of the economy; by the early 1920s Germany was already well into a depression featuring triple-digit inflation. Money for a day's shopping came in suitcases, and people's life savings were worth about the price of a pound of butter. The money eventually rebounded, but the economy didn't, and in '29 Black Friday came to finish it off. People started marching in the streets, carrying red banners and singing the Internationale. It was the middle class that slowly, and explosively, started to panic. The German word is Kleinburger, petits bourgeois, the little people. Those who were closest to poverty, and most terrified of it. They stopped believing in The System--one which, after all, they hadn't made--because they were working hard and still falling behind. Because their values--the things they believed in, the ways they had ordered their lives--had been overthrown. The Nazis first showed up in Munich beer halls, led by an art school reject with a military background and offering an ideological hodgepodge that mirrored the Little People's resentments. Like the Communists they talked about economics--railing against "interest slavery" and vowing to expropriate multinationals--but their targets were more specific. Jews were doubly suspect, both for being different (even though they were, as far as most people could tell, more German than the other Germans) and as stand-ins for "international capital," a financial sector about which most people didn't know anything except that it could destroy livelihoods in a second. And there were separate categories for others: "Life not worth living," "perverts," traitors, and just plain Enemies. Germany's always been a place that valued authority; most Americans I know think of German as a language in which you shout commands. One of the things authority gives you is order--knowing your rank, your place in the world, yourself. Order, of the paramilitary variety, was one of the cornerstones of National Socialism, a structure replete with hierarchies from the block club on up, uniforms, and rituals. My father remembers a contest he had with his buddies to see who could grow their hair the longest; it meant you'd been able to elude the Gestapo, who would haul inappropriately coiffed boys to the barbershop or, rumor had it, worse. At first, those disappearing were said to be going to prison. Then they were being reeducated; then relocated. Something about how "it was better for them this way, and for us all." Not that many people had close contact with Jews, or gays, or gypsies; those who did knew better than to speak up. You wouldn't want to think about something like that. A friend of my father's, a doctor, tells of an SS man he treated in the final months of the war. "You can't help me," he said. The doc examined him and found his illness not to be particularly dangerous. "No," the man said, "that's not what I mean. I will die because I participated in something that cannot be atoned for." This, the doctor says, is when he heard that there were death camps in Poland. Another story comes from an American who helped liberate a death camp. "Didn't you smell it?" they asked the villagers. No, they said. The Allies took the mayor and his wife through the concentration camp, and all the other townsfolk the next day. That night they found the mayor and his wife hanging. *** I don't know whether I'll ever believe that they didn't know. I don't know if I'll ever be able to believe that they did. Maybe it's that you wouldn't want to; maybe you'd be capable, somehow, of going through the motions, overlooking some parts and adjusting to others--making your own ethics as you went along. And it would all come crashing down once someone walked in from the outside and looked at it all. There's a debate in Germany today, over how to celebrate the end of the war--as a day of national liberation, or national shame, or national mourning. "Most people my generation and on down," my father said when he told me about it, "think it's liberation. Just because something ended that we didn't know how to end otherwise. And the suffering that had to follow just had to be dealt with." It sounded as if he was saying, "We had it coming." I've wondered about that. It's why I don't tell the stories about the time after the war, the famine that had my grandparents dishing up impossibly huge servings for the rest of their lives. There's no way of telling them without complaining, and complaining seems impossible. Most of the war generation is gone now; in my family, the only one left is my mother's mother. Grandma's 82 and sharp as a whistle, a diminutive, elegant woman and one of the few people I know who can wear a hat anywhere. She grew up in a family that made money running the first movie houses, then lost everything during the Depression; she married a farmer's son, one of 17 children of whom 11 lived. They moved to a small town where he ran a brewery. It took a long time for me to get around to asking her what it was like during "that time," and I only recently realized why: What I was really asking was "How could you?" It's a question that's very hard to ask of people you love. It drove a huge wedge right through the middle of German society in the '60s, when a new generation grew up and started asking. Most of the answers were unsatisfactory; some were downright horrible. The protest movement that followed shaped the teachers and activists who shaped me. I know my grandparents' answers now. They did what they needed to do to maintain a normal life (job, house, relative peace of mind) and otherwise kept their heads down. They heard of Jews and others being deported, and about how there was "resettlement" going on. None of them were particularly fond of the Nazis; none of them were in the Resistance. There's a story of my father's grandmother, who went to the milk store (which, since you had to get fresh milk daily, was something like communication central) in her Munich neighborhood one day. Some guy started ranting about the Jews. "Well, I don't know if there are bad people among the Jews," great-grandma said; people in that part of the country have a penchant for philosophical statements. "But I do know that there are good and bad anywhere. Why, I know a doctor down the street, Dr. Rosenblum. In the old days [before national health insurance], he would treat poor people for free when they came to him, and get his money back from the rich." She was brought up on charges of treachery; but there was an in-law's cousin's husband who was somewhere in the middle rungs of the Party, and so she didn't go to prison. I grew up with a lot of theories about the Third Reich, from grade school on up. The theory of the Authoritarian Personality, fostered in Germans through centuries of Prussian drill. (Never mind that most of the country thought goose-stepping was ridiculous.) The theory of the Late-Born Nation, one that arrived late to the colonial bazaar and had to work furiously to catch up. The theory of efficacy: how a country that builds cars so well would naturally make a great killing machine. None of them give me any answers to The Question; nor do the stories from my family or other people's. And I'm starting to think there aren't any. A few months ago, when I was back visiting, we went out to dinner--Grandma, my mother, and me. There were lots of questions about what I do, where I live; I described my apartment, the house, the street. It's what they call a bad neighborhood, I explained to looks of incomprehension. I don't know how to describe it, I said. People just think it's very important. And they don't cross the lines if they can help it. "Oh, like the ghettos used to be," Grandma said. "People never used to go there." But she was talking about what she'd read in history books, not what she'd seen; there were no ghettos in Germany, which is just one thing that makes it so complicated. I told more stories of the States. They wanted to hear again about health insurance, about how--really?--a family could have their kid diagnosed with diabetes, and if the parents lost or changed their jobs, they might not be able to find health insurance covering the kid ever again. A lot of people were scared, I said. Somehow, we got to how Grandma first came to Munich in the early '30s; how the squares were black with people, sitting, standing, lying all over the place. They had nothing to do. There were so many people out of work. "What so many Americans find shocking about today's economy," Labor Secretary Robert Reich said in a speech that chilled my bones, "is the seeming randomness of their fates. In a recent national poll, 55 percent of American adults said they no longer believe that you can build a better life for yourself and your family by working hard and playing by the rules. Of those without college degrees, fully 68 percent no longer believe it. Because they have been working hard, and they are still falling behind. "Unlike more fatalistic cultures, Americans have always had a deep faith that effort will be rewarded, that you reap what you sow--in other words, that you earn your fate. If you work hard and play by the rules, you'll get ahead. For generations, Americans have believed in that bargain, guided their lives by it, passed it on to their children. It's woven deep into the fabric of our culture.... "In the years after World War II, America built the biggest middle class in history on the foundation of that bargain... But then something happened. Around 15 years ago, this American dream began to fade. And as it faded, middle class families tried every means of holding on: spouses went to work, both parents worked longer hours or took multiple jobs, they decided to have fewer kids and have them later, they drew down their savings. But... middle class families have pushed these coping mechanisms about as far as they can go. And they still feel they are losing the dream. "We are on the way to becoming a two-tiered society composed of a few winners and a larger group left behind... Today the targets of rage are immigrants, welfare mothers, government officials, gays, and an ill-defined 'counter-culture.' As the middle class continues to erode, who will be the targets tomorrow?" The most awful thing, I've always imagined, must have been noticing just when a peculiar social movement turned into horror. When you realized that Hitler really meant those things he wrote in Mein Kampf. When you understood that somehow, you'd gone from fascism--a very popular political movement all over Europe then, and in the States too--to raw horror. I'm sure there wasn't just one moment; it must have become apparent gradually, to some not at all until it was over. In fact, I don't know that it's apparent even now. The Question is, in large part, about just that. And so is the question I struggle with now: How can you tell? What are the signs? Are there any? *** While Bob and I were in Germany for Christmas, we went to see the new museum, dedicated to the history of West Germany--the country I grew up in, the country that no longer exists. The House of History is in Bonn, at the same subway station where you get off for most of the government offices, right next to the snazzy new art museum; the projects were planned before reunification and the moving of the capital to Berlin, and like government projects anywhere proceeded regardless. It was all very carefully, intelligently put together. Nazi-era pictures in a backlit tunnel. Shattered brick walls with signs "That's what Hitler took 12 years to do." Ration cards. Speeches of American presidents and German chancellors on tape, a desk from the first Parliament. And, of course, a copy of the Constitution, open to Article I: "Human dignity is sacrosanct. To respect and protect it is the duty of any government authority." Yet there was something uncomfortable about the place. Something too neat, too nice, too--over. As if now that we'd closed the book on the Cold War we could finally get things straight, get over the confusion that permeated West Germany. There is no Holocaust museum in Germany, a fact that's caused considerable international embarrassment. Some time later this year, it looks as if a private foundation will break ground for one; I'm anxious to see how they figure out what to put into it. But what sticks in my mind is the description I read about the D.C. Holocaust museum--how each visitor is assigned a number, and with it the life of an inmate. Eventually you find out whether you were gassed, burned, shot, dismembered, or survived. (There are only tags for victims, not perpetrators). Visitors leave the museum looking somber, but also somehow relieved--as if they'd been to a good therapy session. "It's easy," he concluded, "to hate evil past and far away." When I was in high school, one of the hottest ideas going among my buddies was to work in an Israeli kibbutz. Others performed civil service at Auschwitz. The motivations weren't clear; some of it was about seeking adventure, and a different sense of community. Much of it was about atonement, forgiveness, absolution. None of the people who went ever found that, but they did come back changed--most, perhaps, in that they were no longer looking for it. "It would be foolish for a Jewish person to tell me 'I forgive you'," one said to me. "It's something neither of us would have the power to give or receive." What they did find was what I stumbled into one night watching TV. German public broadcasting had just taken up playing the national anthem at midnight; I turned it off with a scornful grimace and a defiant look at my father. "Strange," he said. "Every time I hear that I get a chill down my spine, because I hear the Horst Wessel Lied in my head." That was a Nazi song, usually played right after the anthem. I think that's when something snapped, and something opened up. To know that my father--a gentle man, whom I have never seen express hate for anyone or anything--would shudder quietly gave me the connection I was missing despite all the history lessons. And this time it didn't have a moral maxim attached to it; just a profound sense of sadness, and at the same time gratitude. And, somehow, an obligation that didn't feel like a burden. *** I've talked to a lot of people since I started writing this. Usually it would spark long conversations, drawing on over several weeks. "You know," someone would say out of nowhere in particular, "I've been thinking about that story you're working on. It's funny, but I don't think anybody ever talked to me about that stuff." What--Germany? The war? "No. The past." In Germany, you couldn't admit in polite conversation that you didn't think about history--at least not in my generation, and the one before. You are expected to have thought about what happened, about how we must watch out for it not to happen again. There are those who say there has to be "an end to it now;" but their very insistence shows there can't and won't be. More common are the national rituals of regret and remembrance--the swastika and the raised right arm are banned, letter carriers refuse to deliver neo-Nazi propaganda. It looks good, like a daily affirmation, though I'm not sure it makes any difference. I don't think the Nazis will come back, in Germany or anywhere; but that fact offers no reassurance. Whatever the next atrocity is, it's taking place right under our noses; and it's not doing us the favor of looking familiar. It may not be as well organized as the Holocaust; it may not claim as many lives in as short a time (or then again, we may not be counting). It may not even be One Big Thing--just little, normal things that we can live with. Big horrors are usually made of lots of little ones. And knowing that we've met the enemy, and he was us, isn't the hardest part to remember. The hardest part is Willy Brandt, who died last year--a grizzled man with a warm smile who as chancellor told us to "dare more democracy." Who took up the fight at age 13, never stopped through exile and prison, and came back at the end of it all to serve. And all the others. The guys on the assembly line who refused to salute, the kids who wouldn't join the Hitler Youth, the people who printed fliers on basement presses, the officers who tried to kill the Fuhrer. All the people who in their own ways listened to Rosa Luxemburg when she said, "The most revolutionary thing is to always say, out loud, what is." This is the other reason, I believe, why we prefer not to listen to history: Because in retrospect, we see right and wrong, and we see people choosing. And we're terrified that we may have to. author

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