Saturday, April 21, 2012

Black and White

Noah has his feet solidly planted in the world of black and white, good and bad, right or wrong, either-or.  Noah tells you that the goods guys are police and fire fighters; the bad guys are robbers. He has elaborate plans on how he will catch the bad guys and what will happen to them. He is the age when kids discover superheroes, when they like to tell you the rules, when they think they've got everything all figured out. It's developmental, I tell myself.

And I'm really uncomfortable with it.

Both Noah and Mattias have a dual citizenship. They are both American and German. They have one parent of each nationality. Until, maybe, about ten years ago, one nationality was openly proud to be and the other nationality, not. When I moved to Germany, most Germans still didn't fly German flags, they certainly didn't salut anything, they avoided the (then-mandatory) military draft by doing 2 years of social service, the German army still refused to engage in active combat, and any Germans would be very wary of forming any group based on nationality. Cultural norms are different when you collectively did evil and are collectively held accountable for your actions.

Here in Denver, Noah has a neighborhood friend. The mother warned me when we moved in: "My husband plays a game - regularly.  It's based on WWII, so he (the neighbor's boy) hears a lot about WWII. He knows a lot of history."

Last summer, the friend was over. He and Noah were busy painting rocks and Fritz briefly interrupted, speaking to Noah in German, as he normally does. And normally, it's the type of thing that goes unnoticed by other children.

But, this time, the German-speaking was noticed and the friend called out,  "Hey! I don't speak Spanish!"

And I, either being still the obnoxious know-it-all I was at age 4, or/and being an over-correcting prideful mother, said, "Actually, that was German, Noah and his daddy speak German."

I might have kept my mouth shut...

"But Germans are The Bad Guys!"

Noah, who had been engaged his rock painting, looked up at me.

The friend was looking up at me, too. And I could see that he was processing information very quickly. He was frowning, words forming behind his furloughed brow...

"Germans did some very bad things..." I nodded slowly as I began.

"But that was a long time ago and now Germans are our friends!" the neighborhood boy interrupted. It made me smile because I could imagine his mother sighing in relief. As would I. I thought about saying more. But really, where was the conversation going to go? Do you intentionally frighten and confuse four-year-olds by trying to explain more to them? I decided to leave it at that, and let Noah and his friend continue to paint.

But Noah remembered and told me later, "I don't want to speak German anymore. I don't want to be A Bad Guy."

By all accounts, we don't have dramatic stories about World War II in our family. I write this disclaimer, because I feel the need to frame what I am about to share as simultaneously noteworthy for consideration today and, yet, unremarkable for it's time.

I have german ancestry. But my American great uncle was a bomber for the American army over the north of Germany. He dropped bombs on-the-cities by-the-villages by-the-farms where his grandparents still lived. For many of us, it might sound familiar. Most of us had grandparents or great parents who served the war effort somehow. But to this day, my grandmother refuses to talk about what he did.

Noah's German Oma, born in Germany in the midst of the Allied bombing campaign was chased by a small, low flying plane as Uroma (Great Grandmother) ran with Oma in a stroller across the fields near their hometown. The men in the town were gone. Uropa (Great Grandfather) was fighting in Russia with the German ground troops. Oma's uncle was already a prisoner of war, taken to Kentucky by the Americans.

Eight years ago, cleaning out Uroma's house after she passed away, we found Uropa's army hat, complete with the insignia that has come to stand for the most horrific side of humankind. I nearly threw up. It makes me feel sick to even type about it, and I thought long and hard before sharing this fact with you. I wanted to burn the hat immediately. But such decisions were not - and still are not - mine alone to make. Also, this IS  the history of almost all German nationals. Just like my army-serving great uncle is the history of many Americans.

I also hesitate to share these histories, because they seem insignificant relative to so many other histories. As an American, I grew up hearing and reading mostly the most dramatic and horrific recounts. Prior to meeting Fritz, most of the stories I knew about World War II revolved around whose great uncle/aunt/grandfather/ grandmother escaped from/died at/was sent to which concentration camp. But I think there are also many, many families who have small histories like ours, and often, in their relative insignificance they are not shared.  Nonetheless, each one has it's own heartbreak and shame, especially to those who were there, and I believe there are lessons even in these smaller memories.

The genocide of WWII was wrong. This is black and white.

But the blind eyes of ordinary Germans as to what was happening? The looking the other way? The mess of its accompanying war and sanctions? The denial? Complex. For those of us who were not there - which is most of us now - we can only wonder: were ordinary people so tired after years of recession that they chose to only see the positive in their government? Or were they simply too tired to pay attention to what was happening? Were they following thoughtlessly? Too complex for this blog post. But what I want to say is that: perhaps, today, our temporal distance from the events makes it easier for us to isolate, or simplify, or magnify those parts of the past which are most convenient. Perhaps today, it's easier to make things black and white.

I thought about all of this when I married a German. I thought about this before I got pregnant. There's always been - in my mind - some Highly Significant Very Important Conversations that we will have with the boys. Conversations in which we sit down and talk about all the details in Just The Right Way so that everyone understands the horribleness of the past and the extreme responsibility going forward.

But I forgot about how children go through developmental steps and how what they understand at 24 or 14 is beyond their grasp at 4. I didn't understand how soon this topic would arise, and I'm not very well prepared. Sometimes, I feel too trapped by my own upbringing (as the inherited victor) to see things very deeply.

"How did you talk about German history?" I've asked Fritz, more than once. And he has always given me a strange look. "Well, like, in what grade did you study World War II?" I've prompted, thinking perhaps I should be more specific.

But slowly I'm beginning to understand how na├»ve my questions were. There's nothing specific about it. World War II is everywhere and in everything if you are a German national. There's not one or two or – even a series – of conversations that we will have. This is something we will talk about everyday in little ways. I think that some aspects of parenting strike me as more important than they might if my children did not carry this dual citizenship. For example: learning to think critically about our actions is very important to me. Also: learning to take care of other people, learning that Doing Nothing can be complicity, learning to (yes!) question authority, learning to admit fault, and learning that life is full of both shame and pride. These are teachings I can put off for the perfect words at the perfect time; and these are teachings that seem to defy the simple dichotomy of black and white.


Susie said...

Wow. I imagine this was a hard one to write. Just thinking about this makes my head spin.

Swistle said...

The thing that always gets me when I think about it, is what could citizens have done about it? Like, I imagine if it happened in the U.S., and do I feel as if I could change what my government and my country's military was doing? Even enormous, extremely intense protests against the Vietnam War, in a country that prides itself on taking the citizens' views into account, didn't seem to make any difference at all: the government continued doing what it was doing; the military continued doing what it was doing.

Anonymous said...

Hugh, this was not the easily digested, thought-provoking early morning reading I expected today, but it kind of fits in with an article I just read about the new generation of Jews settling down in a Germany that they experience as very welcoming and liberal. At some point as a German high school student, you take a field trip to one or more concentration camps. There you get really hit by history. For my generation, most of our grandparents were young people during WWII, certainly not all of them happy about Hitler, but some also not that unhappy...
I am impressed that you are putting so many thoughts into this - should not be I the one as well?

Pregnantly Plump said...

I recently read an article about how cities in Germany are trying to look to the future while keeping the past in mind. I believe it was National Geographic.
I love historical fiction, and most of the books I read about Europe and Germany during WW2 insinuate that most regular citizens were scared of the government. They were too scared to speak up, because they were worried that the same thing might happen to them. I read a great book this fall about it. It's my mother's friend's book. I'll see if she can remember the title. It was a great book, and gives the perspective from regular Germans.

twisterfish said...

What a well written, thought provoking post.

When it is time for you to have those serious conversations with your boys, they'll be ready -- because it's very clear that you're setting the stage with the right attitude and age appropriate information now.