The stories I’ve read stories of people’s view of themselves changing after researching their family history through an online service had a far-away feel to me. I couldn’t imagine how a piece of information could fundamentally shift your sense of yourself in relation to the world. Until it happened to me. Not through a website, but through the powerful new remake of the anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front. As an example of the way we can look at things and not see them, I read the book in high school but recalled nothing of the story.
The week before my husband and I watched the movie, I had visited my 99-year-old father in the assisted living facility where he and my 99-year-old mother now live. In a previous blog post I describe what turned out to be his last birthday celebration in his own home. That evening his typical silence on the subject of his history was broken with a dramatic story of his reunion with his parents whom he rescued from the concentration camp Theresienstadt. He had escaped Nazi Germany to come to the United States as a teenager, returning as a US soldier towards the end of the war. I first learned some of this story on the occasion of my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah 15 years earlier, when he began offering tiny glimpses into his family’s past. That Hitler’s rise to power coincided with my father’s childhood anchored the story, informing my narrative of who I am.
Now limited by poor vision and the effects of a stroke on his mobility, my father’s mind and memory remain sharper than ever. During that visit he pointed to the portrait of his father, a sketch that he asked me to take to his new apartment. It hangs on the wall across from the lazy boy chair where he now spends much of his day. I knew he could barely see it, yet he spoke of the comfort it brings him. I had been reading a biography of Harry Truman that I took from the shelf of their home, and I was up to the point where the Unites States entered World War I. I mentioned it to him. “You know,” he said, “my father spent four years in the trenches.”
I knew well the story of my grandfather losing his leg in that war. I attribute our grandparents’ survival to this event; he and my grandmother were taken not to Auschwitz but to the “model” concentration camp because of his heroism fighting for the Germans. But that was the whole story. I knew nothing else about my grandfather. When I told my husband about the “four years in the trenches” comment he said, “he must have gotten that wrong.” Then we watch the movie. Gripped by the horror of young Paul again and again marching into the line of fire, I wondered if in fact my father had spoken accurately. I had to know.
The next day I went to visit. I found him napping in his room. I sat with my mother in the small living room where generous light shines in the through window overlooking the snowy fields outside. While my mother’s mind is fading, she takes great joy in a vase of fresh flowers; we quietly gazed at them together while waiting for my father’s slow yet steady shuffle as he insisted on getting ready for our visit on his own.
Knowing that he has limited energy, once he was settled in his recliner beside my mother, I jumped right in. I asked if his father has in fact spent four years in the trenches. “Yes” he replied. He went on to explain that he only lost his leg in the last battle of the war .”The battle of Verdun” He spelled it out “V” “E” “R” ‘D” “U” “N.” Actually this battle, I have now learned, took place almost 2 years before the end of the war. So the four years were more likely 2. Still. Enough to forever change a man. I asked if his father ever spoke of his experience. “Never,” was my father’s first response. Then after a pause, he recalled his father telling him that others were scared but he was not. And one story about comforting a frightened soldier on the battlefield.
On the rare occasions when my father communicated any emotion about the Holocaust, his voice would crack as he recalled the shame of being rejected by his home country. I now understood for the first time what my father means when he describes his family identifying primarily as German. My father was born just seven years after his father spent those unimaginably brutal years fighting for his country. Before this conversation, my own identity had been shaped in large part by the descriptor “child of a Holocaust survivor.” My father has always railed against this identity, not wanting to be defined by that experience. Beginning my own and my children’s story with the Holocaust cut us off from history.
While I hadn’t yet mentioned the movie, he told me of the radio announcers’ frequent refrain of “all quiet on the Western front” while “hundreds young men were slaughtered every day.” His voice trembled: his face contorted in an effort to contain the flood of emotion. He repeated the phrase in the original German.”Im Westen Nichts Neues” or “Nothing new in the West.” When I shared that we had just seen the movie, tears ran down his cheek. He opened himself to expression of feelings so deeply hidden for so long.
We had traveled across time: to a time before everything about our family was defined by the Holocaust. Wanting to help ease his pain I said, “You are strong, just like your father.” “Yes,” he agreed. We sat quietly looking together at the portrait on the wall. As he collected himself, more stories about his father—who died before I was born—poured out. He spoke of walking for hours in New York where had brought his parents after the war. He described my grandfather’s enormous fortitude in adjusting to his artificial limb, never letting it slow him down.
My father was tired, and it was time for me to go to a work meeting. After leaving their apartment, I paused out in the hall. I heard him say to my mother with joy—perhaps even exhilaration— in his voice, “They saw the movie All Quiet on the Western Front!” I sensed the deep meaning to him that my husband and I had joined him in knowing this family history; history that was long buried but far from forgotten.
My father often speaks of the danger of certainty that characterized the rise of Naziism in Germany. He describes how Hitler preyed on the humiliation experienced by Germans in the wake of their defeat in the war. Economic hardship only heightened their vulnerability. When people feel anxious and overwhelmed, certainty can offer comfort and stability. It is from him that I have learned the power and value of what I call “playing in the uncertainty” to make space for growth and healing.
We both experienced a powerful dose of the joy that comes from moving through a moment of not-knowing, with a willingness to be surprised. I came to his room to listen. I had no idea of the meaning of the phrase “All Quiet on the Western Front.” My parents— with my mother taking the lead— in general followed the adage that it’s best not to talk about the past. But in that brief time when we looked right at the foundation of pain and loss on which our family is built, my father and I shared a profound moment of connection and healing. When the following week I tried to clarify the discrepancy between the “four years in the trenches” and the leg lost in battle of Verdun, I saw his face glaze over. “I don’t know,” he said. He could not go back again. That fleeting moment would have to suffice.
On my drive home, I thought of how my grandfather Karl Meininger lives on in me and in my children. I felt the past joined with the present and with the future.