World War II, My Grandparents, And A Plea
How could two people from opposite sides of a horrendous conflict find common ground and build a life together? What caused them to leave everything familiar, and take a chance on a new life in America? Is there something I can learn from them?
I’ve recently found myself thinking about my grandparents, and contemplating these questions. You see, my German grandmother married my Circassian grandfather shortly after WWII, in Germany. While it’s interesting they would marry each other despite not sharing a culture, language, or even faith, that’s not what I found confusing. What confused me was prior to getting married, my grandparents found themselves on opposite sides of World War II. My grandfather fought against Germany, as a part of the Russian army, and spent the end of WWII in a POW camp, where he nearly died.
I can’t help but think that there’s something important that needs to be unearthed here. I remember a time when politicians had to gravitate towards the center to attract voters, and it was difficult to distinguish between them as election day drew close. Increasingly, as a society we are finding value at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. We judge each other based these political affiliations, and something as simple as a face mask has become an outward manifestation of these political leanings. My grandparents also grew up in contentions times, with extreme political ideas and outright war. So, how did they find common ground? And, why? And, is there a lesson in there for us today, so that we don’t repeat history?
My grandmother grew up in Germany, in the years between WWI and WWII. She grew up in a society that suffered a humiliating defeat, harsh conditions imposed by the Allies, and the resulting political and economic unrest.
It was in this backdrop that my grandmother saw her homeland look to the Nazi party to save them from economic and political turmoil. This party united the country, restored their pride, and promised to make them great again. While the Nazis saved her homeland from the threat of Communism, in the following years they would turn against their own citizens and neighbors, killing countless innocents. I can’t imagine the terror my grandmother experienced, in witnessing the actions of her government, and the subsequent war. Eventually the tide turned against Germany, and the people were again left defeated, hungry and in horror.
It was WWII, and my grandfather was helping to collect the dead bodies from the battlefield, when he saw someone moving at the corner of his eye, it was a German soldier. My grandfather quickly grabbed his gun and aimed it. The German soldier did the same. But then something happened, unexpectedly they both paused. We’ll never know for certain what happened in that moment, but following that pause they both lowered their weapons and walked away. I like to think that when their eyes met, they didn’t see an enemy, rather a fellow human being. They couldn’t bear the idea of taking an innocent life, as their humanity triumphed over mistrust, fear and hate. Unfortunately, my grandfather was eventually captured by the Germans and placed in a POW camp. At some point his captors stopped feeding the POWs, and so he and his fellow prisoners resorted to chewing on their leather boots for survival. Fortunately, the Allied forces liberated their camp, and saved them from an almost certain death. Despite all this, I never remember my grandfather saying anything negative about “the Germans”, “the Russians”, or any group.
Decades later, I found myself at my grandparents’ home, on their dairy farm in rural upstate New York. I was sitting at the dining room table with my grandfather, when he turned to me and said in his very broken English, “we must bring the people together”. This call stirred something in my heart, even as a kid. While I didn’t fully grasp his meaning or his motivation at the time, I knew these words held a deep meaning for him.
It was when I finally thought deeper about the horrors my grandparents witnessed, and the conscious choice they made to get married and move to the US, that I realized their hope, that the horrors of WWII would never be repeated. My grandfather’s words were meant to inspire me to do the hard work of breaking down the walls of fear and hatred. After all, if we can see the humanity in each other, we can avoid the web of lies, mistrust and hatred that he witnessed the politicians create leading up to WWII. More importantly, he hoped we wouldn’t have to suffer the violence and inhumanity he and many of his generation suffered through.
Looking back at World War II and the experiences of my grandparents, I’ve discovered a few truths that hold some relevancy today:
- Economic and political stability are not a given
- Peace and prosperity take a considerable amount of hard work
- What happened in Nazi Germany can happen anywhere, so never feel complacent
- Evil can appear as a savior, so look beyond the words of a politician … even a politician that doesn’t sound like one
- Look beyond the stereotype and discover the humanity in everyone
My grandparents left their homes, their families, and all that was comforting and familiar … in order to also leave behind the suspicion, hatred and violence. They wanted to start a new life, and new family, built on hope and peace. They immigrated to America, a country where people from around the world come together, united by principles and values rather than race and ethnicity.
I hope we can preserve that dream of my grandparents, of generations of immigrants, and of those who founded this country.
For that to happen, we have to speak … not at each other … but with each other. I’m not placing blame on any political party or supporters of any candidate. We’re all guilty of not respecting those with whom we disagree. The causes are numerous and complex, but the solution is simple, we need to speak to each other, with compassion and understanding. When we understand where those we disagree with are coming from, we can look for solutions that benefit everyone. My hope is we can each plant these seeds of civil discourse, and that they grow and ripple throughout our society.
So, who’s up for building that better future together? Let me know below.