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It was hanging in our front parlor, a huge picture showing a man in uniform. His face had a stern faraway look, his dark hair was parted on the right side of his head and he wore a little mustache. I looked at him every day and when I asked my mother who he might be she said that he was my Hitler Papa. This was a good thing. Guenter, my friend, had a small photo of his Papa on the sideboard of his living room, I only had this picture of Hitler Papa, but it was very big and important. Guenter’s Papa was a soldier in the war. He wore a uniform, as did my Hitler Papa.
Everyone was afraid. So many houses had been bombed and we spent a lot of time in our coal cellar. I hated the high-pitched swishing sound the bombs made, a sound worse than the wailing of the sirens signaling the onset or the end of an air raid. This had been going on for some time, only now it was worse. Everything was changing. My mother went out with “the girls” and they all came home carrying many good things to eat. There were cigars and liqueurs, there was even a box of colored plasticine for me to play with. My mother said that, since it was the end of the war, the provisions stored in the big warehouses would soon be taken by foreign soldiers. So people living in the neighborhood had broken down the doors and everyone had taken as much as they could carry. Battles were now fought very close to our city. The grownups talked about the Russians taking over. Those soldiers, they said, were brutal. My mother and the other women in our house were very scared. Indeed, at war’s end the Russian sector was only 10 km east of our city. But in the end it was the Americans who came.
Preparations were frantic. After sampling our spoils we quickly hid everything in the cellar. We buried boxes and bottles under mountains of coal, cherished valuables were secreted under heaps of turnips and cabbages. I helped.
Upstairs we searched the house for anything we thought unacceptable to invading troops. There was, of course, the portrait. It was taken down in haste and everyone pitched in smashing the frame and cutting the picture into little pieces. Overcoming my initial astonishment I helped. It was fun. When finished we carried all the little pieces to the back of the house and buried them deep in the vegetable garden. My Hitler Papa had been done away with, he was gone.
Two days later we all stood in the front parlor holding white dinner napkins. My mother had explained that this was done to show we surrendered. I was hopping mad because I wanted to surrender on my very own, holding my own white piece of cloth. There weren’t enough napkins and I was forced to hold on to my mother’s.
Soon soldiers came into the house; one of them smiled at me and I wasn’t angry anymore.
(for more writing by Renata Bernal, please visit renatabernal.com)
Early autumn 1945, West Germany, the American sector: Hof an der Saale.
Again there was no school. The reason for this - all Nazi propaganda had to be removed from textbooks and all teachers had to be retrained. Once more, Guenter and I were free to play and to explore, within limits. Usually we went to an open area near our homes, because this was where the “GIs” played football. What a colorful game! The players wore outfits with huge shoulder pads and very solid looking helmets. Under spectator benches we often found cigarette butts, a great treasure. The tobacco freed from its casing and fluffed up would, when traded, earn us respect and also small rewards from older boys.
I was eight years old and Guenter was seven.
This time we went to a park, also close to home. We loved finding things and, as luck would have it, amongst the bushes and trees we found a scattering of balloons. Pure joy! After much debate we blew one up, the others we pocketed. Back home we carefully arranged our treasure on a low bench, then we blew up a few more. Filled with water, they became weapons we used against each other. We knotted the ends and played catch. What a wonderful time! But then, out of nowhere , my mother appeared. Her demeanor was glacial. She walked over to me and slapped my face hard, both cheeks. Guenter was sent home and I had to go inside as well. For a long time I was puzzled. I did not ask my mother anything - she was too angry.
(excerpt from an unpublished “flash” memoir, Shame, by Renata Bernal, 2008)
Renata wrote the poem “It will not go away” in 2008, about some of her experiences being a German immigrant who came to the United States as a young child after World War II, and the way it has resonated throughout her life since. It could certainly be seen as controversial. It begins:
Today I am German with a vengeance.
If you get in my way I’ll stomp on you!
My heavy boots will crush you.
You have hurt me.
All those of my generation
once victims, then sometime friends.
No more ! (view the rest of the poem here)
It is a deeply personal poem, and she has offered this comment about how the poem came to be, and what it means to her.
I was born in 1937, was eight years old in 1945 when World War II ended. In 1950 my mother and myself came to this country, my aunt and my uncle (who was Jewish) sponsored us. I had no English and I was enrolled in middle school in Kew Gardens, NYC, an almost exclusively Jewish neighborhood. As you can imagine, I was viewed as “the enemy” and I had no way of defending myself. I went back to Germany in early 1960 and attended a German university in Tuebingen (near Stuttgart). This was the time during which the Nuremberg trials took place. I was deeply moved and I also vowed to personally make amends and never to forget. Most of my friends in the USA were, and are still, Jewish. Many other incidents such as a Jewish friend and neighbor, (who was suddenly divorced by her husband and therefore devastated) turning severely orthodox and accusing me of being a Nazi in hiding. Absurd, of course; the situation understandable, but nonetheless hurtful. She moved away from the area and came back two years later and visited me. All was forgiven.
More painful. A woman who came from Paris every year to teach African culture and history at BU for a few weeks became a good friend. One day we were hiking with the UW hiking group and this is the first time that I told her I was German. We had been walking side-by-side and all of a sudden she was on the other side of the road. Of course we talked after the hike, at lunch, and she told me her experiences. She is about two years older than I am and her mother had to farm her and her sister out to other people, who hid their Jewish identity, in order for the girls not to be deported into a concentration camp. I told her about my childhood experiences around 1945. We are still friends. And she was one person who understood perfectly what national guilt meant and how it can never be erased.
Yet, finally, something in me just gave way. As the saying goes there’s always a “straw” that breaks the camel’s back. For me it was the experience described below.
I went to the Jerusalem Symphony orchestra performance on Tuesday night. Leon Botstein, the music director and conductor, a very articulate, well educated and highly opinionated man, took something very precious away from me. He gave a lecture in which he stated that the reason he was an artist and conductor, was because he felt that to be the one vocation where he would not be typed politically. However, he then proceeded to be very political. Not only was he a very nationalistic Israelite, but he was also stuck in time… in the 40s. He said that Orff’s “Carmina Burana” was a Nazi piece of music. I guess that has been said before, but it was the first time that I have ever heard it. I have always loved that piece of music and was proud that someone of my heritage had written it. During the question and answer sessions someone in the audience, who must’ve felt puzzled like I did, asked whether Botstein thought it was political that the “Carmina Burana” was labeled thus. Botstein replied that, no, it was the music alone and he said just think of a large group of Nazis being aroused by that music… scary. Well, that seemed a lousy reason to me. John Philip Sousa’s music is rousing, does that make it “Nazi”?
Anyhow, the next day was book group. Sunny Kessler was late, so were some of the other people, and I started to meeting at 10:30 a.m… Sunny was eating a piece of cake and she said “give me another five minutes — — do you have to be so on-time?”. I jokingly replied “I’m German”. And she came back with “let’s not go there”.
Well, she may have the choice of not “going there”, but I am there all the time. I am German. And I have carried that national guilt for over 50 years now and I guess I’m a little tired. The “never forget” slogan may be good in the abstract, but personal needling is unnecessary and hurtful. I’ve had my full share of that as well. And I am tired. Almost every book we read this session was by a Jewish author or dealt with the issue of the Holocaust or discrimination against Jews in some way. “Three Junes”, recommended by me, was the exception. And I am tired.
I composed the poem, “It will not go away.” It is a good poem I think, and I believe that it may speak for some other people who might feel similarly. I’m not sure that it is a welcome poem at this time, the 50 year commemoration of the Holocaust. But it is just another voice and I believe all of us who have been hurt should be able to speak out and be heard.