When I was younger, I declared that I was never going to leave Britain. But somehow, at the age of 19 I found myself moving to a small village in southern Germany.
I was only going for six months – to help Anglo-German children speak English – but I didn’t speak the German and had only seen photographs of the family that was going to collect me from the airport. It was all rather scary.
So it came as quite a surprise that I actually rather liked living in rural Germany. It was peaceful, picturesque and the people lovely. Despite growing up with the chant ‘Two World Wars and one World Cup’ I loved both the place and the people.
A terrible legacy
Sadly, Germany’s history will always be tainted by the World Wars and it can be quite hard to get away from this. But with education and time I learned to separate the German people from the Nazi dictatorship.
I even travelled to Poland to visit the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. The horror that is evidenced there is beyond words. People need to visit, not to remember and celebrate but to remember and learn, and to make sure that the atrocities will never be repeated.
A recent national newspaper story made me question my understanding once again. A 91 year old German man was having his pension cut by £47 a month. The German government suggested that he had violated ‘principles of humanity’ during the Nazi regime.
Herr Jakob Wendel, a former a SS henchman at Auschwitz concentration camp, who has previously served five years imprisonment for his role in unloading passenger trains there, believes he was being punished again 70 years after the Holocaust.
What is the answer?
While campaigners from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish human rights organisation, called for his imprisonment suggesting that he should end his “miserable life in prison” I’m not sure that this is the answer in the 21st century. Not being German and/or Jewish I thought I’d ask a friend, Caroline, who could claim elements of both to share her views. Here’s what she had to say:
“As well as having a mostly British background I am a descendent of German Jews, but at 19 worked in southern Germany as a nanny. Mandy and I worked in the same village and met through my aunt.
I lived with another family and like many of the families around us they had been Nazis during the war. The loving care I received as a young English girl in the 1980s, and how I was accepted into their home and family and made one of their own, was just wonderful.
I was in a foreign country, unable to speak their language and they could not have been kinder. I wonder if we in the UK would be as kind to a foreigner coming here today not speaking English. Of course I was curious as to how it had been from their point of view during World War II. The grandfather told me his story.
He said that he had no choice but to join the Nazi party. He would have been shot dead at worst or locked up in terrible conditions at best. The grandfather was a very good man, a village teacher working hard to support his family in the dreadful conditions that Germany was in after the way the rest of Europe treated the country after WWI.
He was caught by the US Army and held prisoner of war in a US camp. He told me how they treated him. I was embarrassed by the language he used; that which they used on him.
He didn’t need to welcome me into his home, feed me or give me his car to drive, but he did. I was an English girl, a descendent of his enemy. But he was a gentleman and intelligent enough to know that life goes on.
Did he have anything to do directly with starting the war? No. Did he want the Nazis to come to power? No he didn’t. He was a good, normal person just like most of us and he had a job to do for people in power over him.
Many people died of starvation in Germany because of how they were treated by the rest of Europe. I wonder how we feel in ourselves about that?
We did nothing to stop the cruel behaviour of our leaders in the 1920s and 30s. They were normal people, families, and children. What happened to the German people was unacceptable and Hitler used that as a way to get his following.
I am embarrassed sometimes to call myself a European if we point fingers at each other and our behaviour. We need to look at our own history in the UK and discover the stuff we would rather not know.
Did you know that the awful stinking revolting concentration camps were designed by us? We used them first in wars in Africa. I am ashamed about that. Very ashamed.
I expect the soldiers we salute with Remembrance Sunday every year were not all perfect people, but we thank them as a group who saved us from being taken over by the Nazis. For giving their lives so we can have peace.
I worked in an old people’s home with many elderly people who had won medals in the war for saving us. They were gentle people and my job was to give them their supper and listen to their stories. I learned a lot from them. They were a generation scarred by the atrocities of what they were exposed to. Living life with memories no one should ever have to have had.
My GP was a trainee doctor in Bergen Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp where Anne Frank died. He wasn’t that sympathetic when we had a bad cold after what he had had to see and try to treat. The scars have run deep through many people and changed the lives of billions.
War is a game played by people in power, not the little people, the pawns and frontline soldiers. They are the cannon fodder, the disposables, the unlucky ones.
I do not like what the Nazi party did, and I never will. Hitler has a lot to answer for but knowing how vile it all was does not make an ‘eye for an eye’ acceptable. I believe that just makes us as savage as Hitler was.
On a visit to Prague I saw drawings from Jewish children decorating a synagogue. All of the children were killed by the Nazis. I cried at the pointless waste of life. It is horrifying. There are family members I never met who were gassed; Great Aunt Alice was one I remember my grandmother talking about when I was young.
But does punishing that old man Herr Wendel now for something that happened 70 years ago bring back Great Aunt Alice and her little boy? No. It just continues the awfulness they suffered. I strongly believe that it does no good at all for anyone.
The one thing I do not understand is with modern living, easy travel, cultural understanding, a global connection and a desire from most of us for peace, why on Earth are we still all fighting? Killing each other was never the answer and never will be.”
Time to let go of the past
I believe that Caroline has a point. It’s time to move forward. Contemporary Germany is a different place. German people are not our enemy. However, we must not forget the past.
As a poppy wearer, I regularly visit War Memorials and cemeteries to offer my thanks to the fallen that gave us the ultimate prize: our freedom. If aged battle-scarred former servicemen can stand united, shake hands and hug then so can I. There really is no need to withdraw Herr Wendel’s £47 a month.