Family History - Epilogue
What strikes me as the most amazing detail to come forth from these stories is that it was possible to not be part of the Nazi ideology. While it was most certainly a totalitarian regime that required full submission to the party cause, there always seemed to be exceptions. I was very surprised by how Urli faced no repercussions for resigning her position as district overseer and melting back into civilian life. I was also surprised that Traude and Franz were not denounced for their small acts of resistance.
Of course, you couldn’t just do it out in the open. Actively distributing pamphlets critical of the regime or outright defiance would surely be met with swift reprisal. However, it seemed that those of my relatives that did not just “go along” were helped a bit by the ‘fair-weather’ mentality of their fellow Austrians. By 1942 most Austrians were done with the Nazi cause and appeared to be heavily regretting their initial embrace of the annexation. Denouncements and complaints dropped substantially and those who were still loyal party members were mostly shunned and (privately) ridiculed. Opportunistic as they were in the beginning (including my beloved Urli), many soon saw the writing on the wall once the bombs started dropping.
I wish I could write about some glorious escapade that one of my relatives had engaged in; maybe a saga of outright defiance that would make a great Hollywood movie. Instead, all I have is the buying of produce, the hiding of suitcases, and the “just not going along with it quite as much as others”. There was no grandiose hiding of those persecuted. There were no pamphlets printed. But I think that my family acted like most humans would during such a terrible time, looking out for their self-interests and maximizing their chance of self-preservation. Thinking about it more, I believe that Traude and Franz’s decision to store the suitcases of what were deemed ‘enemies of the state’ took a great deal of courage. It showed they were willing to actively resist in their own way, knowing that, if the tides turned against them, and they were ever outed, that their daughter, Hilde, would not be spared any repercussions.
Another thing that sticks with me is how profoundly this era shaped my grandmother and grandfather. Both were in their formative years when all of this happened. You could tell that my grandfather, Fritz, was still very bitter about it all. He seemed to have the feeling that he had been used. My grandmother, Hilde, would always say how she never really had a childhood. She said that there was no time to be a child, that you had to grow up quickly. When you are faced with the worst of humanity it is difficult not to have it affect you. She says that the fear she felt whilst sitting in a cellar hearing the bombs drop above her is indescribable. She would slam her hand down on the kitchen table and make this “whomb!!!” noise to emphasize the point. The whole earth would shake, and she would live in terror that she would be buried beneath it all. She said one of the worst parts was coming back up. She learned not to look out into the street anymore. The street would be littered with the bodies and body parts of those who had come up too soon. Imagine being a teenage girl and seeing that. These weren’t just some nameless faces; these were the people you would see every day. Torn limb from limb, lying in front of you in a mass of mutilated meat.
The hardest part of this whole narrative was writing about my great-grandmother Urli. I dearly loved her. She was always such a kind, loving person. She always had so many friends. She was smart, strong-willed, a leader and a protector. She was funny and could be silly with her great-grandson. She would sing to me and stroke my head. But she had also been an ardent Nazi. A supporter of the cause. That is until she finally saw the evil, or maybe could no longer deny the evil. It is incredibly difficult to reconcile that someone you love and admire could ever have been capable of going along with such a vile ideology. I took some solace in the fact that she receded, but I wonder if that wasn’t just self-preservation. A very smart person seeing the end game far before anyone else. And she did suffer for what she did. Having embraced the cause, she was then confronted with a son that she was afraid she would never get back. The only time I really ever saw Urli choke up was when she spoke of how she thought that Fritz would run away and join the military rather than go with them to Carinthia.
So that is my family history. No overt acts of defiance, but clandestine resistance. No sheltering of the persecuted beneath floorboards, but storage of belongings in the upper shelves of closets. Practical acts of self-preservation coupled with brief moments of bravery, clarity, and prescient retreats into obscurity.
I was reminded of the menorah I had found so long ago when I was living in Austria the past four years. One day, I was over at my grandmother Hilde’s apartment and found that she had it sitting in her display case. I asked her if it was the same one that I had found so many years ago in her parents’ closet. She sighed, looked at it for a long time and responded with a nod. As we both stood staring at it, she said:
“I wish I didn’t have it.”
“Because it reminds me of those who never came back.”
“So why do you have it?”
“I just told you why I have it.”
And with that, she took one last look at the reminder of her past and went to go make us some coffee.