BY: NICK JAEGER
When I was first told to interview a refugee or war veteran, I thought of my paternal grandfather, whom I call Opa. I paused. My grandfather, born and raised in Germany, fought for his native country in World War II. When people think of German soldiers during that era, neither respect nor compassion come immediately to mind. I am proud of my grandfather; I am proud of his life, his legacy, and how hard he toiled to get to where he did. He has worked hard consistently trying improve life for himself and his family. He never let what he was forced to go through hold him back. He dreamed of success, and he refused to let his dreams be pushed aside by Hitler’s regime. When people talk about what their grandparents endured, I often remain quiet. Most people are not sympathetic towards someone whom they assume was a Nazi. Believing that all German soldiers were Nazis is at best uninformed, and at worst an insulting stereotype. As much as I questioned, even worried, whether I should interview Opa for my report, I developed a conviction. I knew that I had to interview him. My grandfather was not a Nazi. He was a boy, forced against his will to fight for a cause he did not believe in. It was a cause that he had no desire to be a part of, fought by people he believed he “had nothing to do with.”
My interview was prefaced by a remark from my dad. He said, “Opa doesn’t like to talk about his war experiences, but he would likely be willing to do it for you.” My mom informed me that in the decades that she has known my grandfather, he had spoken about World War II just once. It was “unprompted, completely out of the blue.”
I sat down at my father’s desk. As I began to prepare for the discussion with my grandfather regarding his recollections and views, I could see the sun setting through the window to my left. The small, quiet, wood framed library that serves as my father’s den somehow has always satisfied my need for privacy and thought. It was really the perfect place to talk to his dad and was symbolically apt. On the wall next to the windows is a sketch of an old man on a ladder reaching for a book, or as my dad has said, reaching for knowledge. The room has so many histories that I have yet to learn. Opa’s history, not found in any of these books, has an undeniable significance. It shaped my grandfather, who is one of the people I look to for motivation. Many of the characteristics I admire in my father, and aspire to for myself, come from Opa. I had of course managed to print out my questions with space for answers in time to place the call. I could not help but think of the contrast between my modern computer and printer and what his home must have looked like before he went off to fight. I prepared myself to dial, remembering how Opa has such a powerful presence. For a man who is almost 90 years old, he walks athletically and speaks directly, without hesitation. We joke that Opa’s genes will keep us alive forever.
I called my grandfather with a list of deep and powerful questions. Though now significantly hard of hearing, and never a man who cared for formalities, we got right to the point. I sensed Opa’s reservations immediately. The phone call started more abruptly than it usually did. He opened our call by saying “Right, your interview,” in broken English. German is clearly his first language. He first tried to answer many of my questions with a yes or a no. However, I brought myself to push and probe beyond that. Regardless of how insightful and sensitive I believed my questions to be, I soon realized that it was going to take some effort to penetrate my grandfather’s protective shield. I had sent him a list of questions so he could prepare the thoughts that he wished to share. At the outset, he warned me that his answers might be brief. I thanked him for his willingness to share his views with me. As my father had forewarned me that Opa did not enjoy recollecting his war experiences, I understood it would require persistence if I wished to have him relinquish the more personal details. Caught between being grateful for the fact that he was even on the phone with me, and wanting all the intimate details, I asked my first question.
I started by asking what his life was like before the war. He had yet to warm up, and responded by saying, “I studied engineering.” I asked how old he was when he was drafted. He told me we would get back to that. I could sense hesitancy and haste in his responses. He was ready to get this over with. He was not letting me easily pry into his war memories. I now realize that when he recounts his story, he is forced to relive it. At this point he told me I was going to have to fix his grammar when I wrote. As a proud man, I think it hurt him that he did not believe he was going to be able to perfectly shape sentences that would describe the horrors he witnessed. As if anyone could.
I asked how the war had changed his life. He added more color to this response, saying that he “was drafted not willingly to participate in training as an artillery soldier,” and “after training [he] was sent to Western Front in 1944.” I asked for more detail on what that meant. The Western Front apparently had a high concentration of “Americans, English and French.” He said, “The war affected me very much… I had nothing to do with the [people fighting].”
I asked what his age was. He was 17. We both paused. I was not sure what to say. I could not help thinking that I would turn 17 in just a few months. I ultimately said, “That is young.”
He said, “Yes.”
I did not know how to continue the conversation without switching to the next question. He did not feel any need to add further detail or to help with the interview. I was having trouble, knowing he was being forced to suffer through all the memories again. He appeared to be as open now as he could be. I paused to appreciate that he was willing to elaborate on the most gruesome part of his life. My mom had informed me prior that she “had never seen him eat a potato with peel on it, because that is all he had to eat during the war.” He obviously relives the war enough without my questions. I sensed that he was only going to be as open as I could force him to be, so I decided to ask about his most vivid combat experience. He said, “I was involved in the Battle of Bulge,” a deadly attack where three German armies that contained more than 750,000 troops were neutralized when they attempted to attack the Allied armies. With haste, Opa added that he “was wounded there.” I knew he has always had shrapnel in his back. I never knew why. Before I could learn more about how he became injured, he asked that we move on to the next question. I obliged. He has spent his whole life fighting to move beyond these memories, and I began to realize how truly traumatic this part of his life had been. I had assumed that Opa had been able to handle almost anything. He always appears strong. He can still beat my dad in an arm wrestle. This only bolstered my appreciation of what he overcame.
It appears to be a common assumption that the German soldiers were fighting of their own will, motivated by their hatred for minorities such as Jews. It is clear that my grandfather had no control over where his life had gone at that point. I wanted to ask about his possible prejudices. I asked if he developed biases during the war, and if so, how they affected his life. At first he avoided the question, reiterating, “It affected me very much. I could not finish my engineering studies.” I brought up Jews. Opa said, “I grew up with Jewish people.” He said he had “lots of friends of them.” He then reminded me that my mom is Jewish. He explained that other Germans’ hatred had “no effect [for him] against Jews.” He did not care that others hated Jews. He had no biases. He continued, saying, “or else your Dad wouldn’t have married your mom.” For me his comment represents a different generation’s attitude towards love; however, it persuaded me to believe that he truly is not prejudiced.
I decided to shift towards the question of how he managed to escape his forced service. He said, “In April of ’45 I became prisoner of war to Americans till war ended in ‘45.” I noticed how he had no trouble recalling the dates of events that he rarely speaks of. I was not surprised that the days must be permanently etched in his mind. He said that after he was released at the end of the war, he was finally a “free man.” He must have thought that when he was conscripted, it was going to be the last time he could call himself that. I asked him what came next. He said, “After release of camp I went to Hanover and started apprenticeship as fur dresser,” but in “1953 decided to emigrate to Canada and work as fur dresser.” He still lives in Canada, so I asked him what was so appealing about the place. Opa said, “Because Canada is free country.” I realized that he had felt such a lack of freedom in Germany that he needed to be somewhere that he could feel truly free. He said in Germany “nothing worked, it was bad… Canada appealed to me very much.” He kept reiterating the fact that Canada was free. And in Canada, he was free. Opa was genuinely attached to the idea of a country where he could truly be a free man. He was just as much a captive of Hitler as many others in the war. However, it was not Germany directly trying to end his life; it was Germany forcing him to be in a position where his life could have easily been ended, fighting for a cause he was ardently against. I wanted to know what his first impression of Canada was. He simply said he needed “to decide what trade to go into.” I respect the courage that he showed in being able to move beyond his horrible experiences, and even though he made it to Canada with nothing, he worked his way to personal and financial success. He does not care to boast, but he started as night watchman for a factory owned by a Jewish family. He worked with his hands at a tannery. He dreamed of eventually being the manager of his own firm. He did not share this in his interview, but I recall how impactful some stories my dad has shared with me have been. My grandfather, after working at the tannery all day, would come home and work through the night in his basement, as my father studied. For years he would do this. He eventually built, by hand, all the machinery necessary to run his own tannery. From there he created the largest tanning company in Canada, having immigrated with nothing but a desire for freedom.
I asked my Opa how he felt regarding his overall experience, hoping for a reflection on the war. He decided to look more broadly. He said, “I felt good about my achievement of life.” He continued, “I raised two boys I proud of, three wonderful grandchildren.” I am proud of my grandfather’s dedication. He was not a Nazi. He was a boy who became a captive of Hitler’s horror. However, his desire for freedom after escaping the war and his work ethic enabled him to live a full life. He did not focus on his personal success, ascending from nothing. He spoke of what he is truly proud of: his sons and his grandchildren. Opa deserves empathy when he speaks of what he suffered and not spite. My conviction that I needed to conduct this interview was vindicated. My grandfather never speaks of the war. Let this be a record for me and my sister, and future generations.