As genealogists, we are accustomed to hearing about the Loyalist (rather than Patriot) in someone’s Revolutionary War ancestry. There are countless examples of brother-versus-brother during the Civil War. Many researchers have discovered great grandfathers from different lines actually fought on opposite sides of various battles. None of those scenarios applies to me, as my ancestors were all way too recent. My conflict hit a little closer to home.
Growing up, I knew my dad and his brothers (and brothers-in-law) had fought in WWII. I was well aware of my predominantly German heritage, so even at a relatively young age I realized my dad and uncles had fought against the country their grandfathers had come from. Way back in my brain was the possibility that there could have been family still living in Germany. What did they do during the war?
When I started genealogy in earnest (Start), my parents arranged a visit to Uncle Syl and Aunt Stacia. He was my grandmother’s (Victoria) younger brother. It turned out he had dabbled a little with the family tree and had a treasure trove of information, mostly coming from Fr. Sylvester Hartman[n], an extended relation. The letter below accompanied several pages of Schweiger tree, reaching back to the 1630.
The letter was an eye opener!
It describes Uncle Syl’s 1st cousin, Anna (a 1st cousin twice removed to me), widowed, with two sons (first 3 lines of the letter). Then the kicker: “She obtained employment as a typist and stenographer in the German Labor Front, the official union of all the workmen of Germany, under Hitler.”
Oookayyy. Deep breaths. What was once only a possibility has quickly moved to a reality. Of course, Anna was merely office help—certainly not making decisions, formulating policy, or carrying out the resulting actions. She was simply a single mom, doing the best she could to put food on the table and a roof over the head of her family in a still-depressed German economy.
Still . . . she probably had brothers, and definitely a son who would soon be military age. Surely none of them escaped military service.
According to the Family History Center’s Wiki article on German compiled genealogies (Ancestor Certificates sub-heading), Ancestor Certificates didn’t seem to be a requirement until 1937. I’m not sure why Anna started doing genealogy before then. Maybe she was just interested, or maybe working within a pseudo-governmental position (even as office staff) she was asked to fill it out before the general population needed to? I don’t know. Our certificate was kept, however, and is still in the family.
The Schweigers were only one ancestral line. My maternal grandfather’s line (Meintzers) were in Alsace. They spent the war being German-occupied, probably trying to stay under the radar. That leaves two other lines—Harré (Harry) and Haase (Haws)—located in different parts of Germany. Were there still family members in those areas? How did they act during the war?
The questions spin around in my head endlessly:
- Did they participate?
- To what extent?
- Were they willing or reluctant?
- Did they leave or stay?
- Were they victims, themselves? Or potentially so, causing them to try to be as unnoticeable as possible?
- Did they realize what was happening in the work camps and concentration camps? Did that do anything to counteract? Or did they feel frustrated and helpless?
All of the questions leave me conflicted. It’s an uneasiness I can’t shrug off. It’s been years, and I still get a creepy feeling thinking about it.
They are questions I will never get answers to. The people involved are long since gone. Their reasons and rationals were buried with them.
Nor would I ask their descendants, if I located some. To what end? To make them feel bad about something they had no hand in, and may already feel bad about? To criticize and accuse the people they loved of doing something bad—or not doing enough to stop it? It hardly seems fair, or productive.
It’s very easy to look with the 20/20 vision of hindsight and say, “They should have done . . .” Or even better—to get on my self-righteous high horse, saying what I would have done in that situation.
You know what? I have no clue what I would have done. I’d like to think I’d have been that brave soul, smuggling Jews or downed Allied pilots to safety, or thwarting Nazi plans. Or maybe I would have simply tried to survive.
So I will live with this internal conflict. If one day I discover some distant relative was part of the atrocities—I’ll cope with that, then. In the meantime, I will hope for the best.