We never know what a new day will bring—each and every one a gift in and of itself. On one day, my brothers and I were trudging up and down the narrow steps of our upper duplex in snow boots. On the next, running in our Sunday shoes up and down the wide open stairway of a big ship on the ocean. That is, until a crewman in an austere looking uniform, sternly told us to stop. We did. I thought he was the captain of the ship.
We arrived in Germany in 1958. Dad would spend the next six months studying European Architecture—following the itinerary he had submitted to the University of Illinois.
Dad, Ed, John, me, Mom in front
Dad’s relatives in back
After Dad shared the experience of meeting our German relatives in Spaichingen with me, I had to set my notes aside for a while. My thoughts were mixed as I listened—I felt disturbed, disillusioned, and then saddened hearing about them in post-World War II. The realities and atrocities of the war, so removed from me personally, were suddenly connected to me by lineage. Being mostly German and hearing that members of my family lived in Nazi, Germany made me ashamed. It’s one of those things I had separated myself from–by an ocean and by decades–never asked about. I didn’t want to know how the battle to survive became a morsel of life—similar to animals in the wild surrounded by horror, but these were human beings. What values does one abandon in order to protect those one loves? When does a heart become hardened—numbed in order to remain beating? –Debbie
“My Grandfather had come from Germany to America when he was 16 years old, which was around the time of the Civil War. My family members had been sending care packages to our relatives in Germany after the war when things were very difficult.
As Dolores and I discussed our trip, we thought one possibility would be to go to Spaichingen, in Southern Germany, where some of my relatives lived. We thought perhaps Dolores could stay there with the kids while I’d make excursions out to cover my scholarship requirements. I contacted some relatives, two sisters, who we had been sending our packages to. They lived in Balgheim, just outside of Spaichingen, and I asked them to suggest a hotel we might stay at. They gave me the name, Hotel Osswald–Alte Post. I wrote to the hotel and made our arrangements.
Our hotel in Spaiichingen, 1958
We arranged to take the M.S. Berlin which would land in Bremerhaven and then take a train down through Germany to Spaichingen. I gave the hotel our arrival date so they’d know when to expect us. On the way across the ocean, there were quite a few German women who had married American servicemen and were returning to visit their homeland. They said to me, “You mean you’re the first one to return from your Grandfather?”
“Yes.” I replied.
“Why, you’ll have a royal reception with a band to greet you!”
We landed and took the train to Spaichingen. I will never forget our reception. We got off the train and there was a wagon pulled by two horses with its driver. No band. No crowd of people. We loaded the suitcases on the wagon which the driver took to our hotel and we followed along behind on foot. At that time, Ed had just turned 4, Debbie was 2 ½, and John 1 ½ years old.
We got to the hotel and met Frau Klein, the owner and manager. She took us up to the third floor, otherwise known as the garret. We were there a very short time when we heard a knock on our door. I opened it and there was a messenger who handed me a letter. It had been written by the two sisters to whom we had been sending the care packages. The letter had been translated into English by someone and it said,
“We are very grateful for the help you were to us after the war. We never told you about the other relatives in town because we didn’t want to be a burden. We would appreciate it if you would not mention anything about the care packages you sent.”
The next day there was another knock on the door and we were asked to come down to the dining room. We all went down together and there was a roomful of people—none of whom spoke English—and we knew very little German. The group, however, had an interpreter available for us. Their first question was, “Why didn’t you help us after the war?”
My mind immediately flashed to the letter “We would appreciate it if you do not mention anything about the care packages.”
“We didn’t know about you,” I said.
There was a lot of talk in German right then. It was very clear they didn’t believe us. After much discussion on their part, they went on with their second question. “Why didn’t America join Germany against Russia?”
“Because there were things going on in Germany that we could not accept.”
Further talk in German, then another question, “What things?”
“Well, the killing of six million Jews in concentration camps.”
Further talk in German. They said they didn’t know about concentration camps.
I didn’t want to get into a big discussion on their concentration camps so we didn’t discuss it further.
About this time, they got out a little book, handed it to me, pointed to a place in the book and said, “Großvater.” (Grandfather)
I looked over the book, trying to understand it, and finally had to ask what it was.
There was further discussion in German. Then the interpreter told us that everybody had to have the record of their ancestors for five generations in order to show that there were no Jews in the family. Small talk followed but that was the essence of our meeting.
We went back up to our garret and after I closed the door, Dolores said, “You’re not leaving me here with your relatives. Wherever you go, we’re going with you!”
Mom, Dad, Ed, John and I did end up visiting the two sisters who kept the care packages for themselves at their home in Balgheim. The first floor was a barn-like space for the animals. Their living quarters was above the barn and was kept warm by the heat the animals created. There were a lot of wool sweaters around. The smell from beneath, permeated the air above, soaking into their clothes, handmade bedding and braided rugs but the heat rose and kept them warm. The sisters served Mom a cup of tea in a china cup. Mom complimented them on its beauty.
John on the first floor of the sisters’ home.
I wonder what shame, guilt, or both they must have felt when they were faced with our arrival and showed up at our hotel that day along with their other relatives. What did they feel when their eyes darted between us and those from Schpaichingen who had called us down from the garret to confront my parents on their lack of care? What the sisters didn’t know at the time was that Dad’s parents and brother were sending care packages to the others. None of them knew who was getting what. The support that could have brought them more closely together, further divided them.
How often do we excuse ourselves from the simple act of caring for others because we can justify to ourselves that we somehow deserve it, or that we have a unique situation with a special privilege? And how often do we end up with less because we were trying to get more? I certainly can’t judge my relatives for the things I know I am guilty of myself in a different context.
When we were preparing to leave Spaichingen, a small box arrived at the Alte Post for our family. It was the tea cup along with a matching saucer and plate. The most beautiful possessions the sisters owned.
I never knew about the cup but it sits on a shelf in Mom’s china cabinet. When Dad told me that part of the story, emotion washed over his face, slightly changing its color. “It was all they had,” he said–his eyes intensity piercing through my own.
Dad and I sat together quietly for a while. I had said harsh words about our relatives. I wanted to take the words back, but I couldn’t.
I wished I would have remembered that it’s simply not my place to judge someone else. Hopefully, next time I will. In the end, the best we can do for our own hearts and for others, is to forgive.