My 92 year old mother- in- law Lotte has been watching the political events unfolding in the United States for well over a year with a wary eye. “Don’t Americans understand,” she has asked my husband and me many times over the months “That we have heard this all before? This is how it started.”
“This” is Hitler’s rise to power. Lotte, or Lislelotte as her Catholic parents christened her, has a unique perspective on this. She was born in 1925 in Garmisch, Germany, very near the Bavarian town where Hitler was born and raised.
Lotte very rarely speaks about her youth in Germany. We know that her only brother was killed during WWII and that she and my late father-in-law met cute after the war ended. Family legend has it that Jerry, a U.S. military ski instructor, ran my petite future mother-in-law down on the ski slope. I am not sure if it was love at first sight, but he certainly did a good job of getting her attention!
This past December we ate Christmas Eve dinner with Lotte in her small apartment. While the rest of the family was off getting the food ready, I found myself in the living room with Lotte and my 20-something year old nephew Alex. I can’t remember now exactly what Alex said, but for the first time Lotte spontaneously began to tell Alex and me about early her life in Germany.
Alex and I were spellbound, hesitant to say anything that would disrupt the flow of her words as Lotte told us about how gradually her world changed when Hitler and his party came to power. How innocent it all seemed at first. Until it wasn’t.
She told Alex and me about having no choice but to participate in the Hitler Youth. There was no room for a polite “no thank you.” The threat for not being complicit did not need to be directly articulated– the threat to self and loved ones for noncompliance was implicitly understood.
Garmisch is a popular tourist area and Lotte told us that even in the 1930s it had an unusually diverse and international population. She told us of waking in the morning to discover that lifelong friends and neighbors had disappeared overnight, never to be seen or heard from again.
It is possible that a lucky few managed to escape from the Gestapo and successfully emigrated to other, safer shores. My sense however is that Lotte has always believed that they met with a far grimmer fate, families ripped apart, starvation, hard labor, vile science experiments, gas chambers. I tried to imagine what it was like to carry these memories, this legacy of guilt and loss for over 60 years and it almost inconceivable to me to picture the weight of that.
Of course it is inconceivable to me that Holocaust deniers exist and are given any credibility. It is inconceivable to me that the events of the last week have actually transpired. I have been hearing lately that I am overly concerned, overly paranoid about what the events of the last week mean. And then I think about what Lotte shared with Alex and me on Christmas Eve, the stories and anxiety I am hearing from my friends of color, my friends who are Muslim, my friends who are Jewish, my friends of color, my LBGTQ friends and family and I don’t think as a country that we are NEARLY concerned enough.
We MUST not be silent. We MUST not be complacent. We MUST not be complicit.
We MUST all be prepared to fight in the way that is authentic to us. I offer my voice and my truth and commitment to free speech and social justice. I know that more will be demanded of me. But its a start.