German Guilt Was Postwar Burden

Winnipeg Free Press, October 27, 2012 | Go to article overview
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German Guilt Was Postwar Burden


In many ways, I was no different from all the other immigrant children flooding into Canada in the 1950s. I had only a smattering of English when I started school. I watched my parents scrabble for menial jobs and stretch the food dollar with the creative use of leftovers. And I understood my part in the immigrant bargain was to be on time and to do my homework.

However, I was German -- the one nationality against whom discrimination was tacitly sanctioned. A dozen years had not yet managed to erase the wartime view of "Krauts" as the enemy, and a particularly heinous one at that. In fact, German nationals had not been allowed into Canada before 1950.

I can only guess what my father had to deal with in those early years in Manitoba; he was too young to have served in the war, but he was tall and blond and had an unmistakable German accent -- downright Aryan.

The German boys I knew were always recruited to be the evil losers in the war games that played out on the street.

As a girl, I was spared a lot of the direct playground bullying. But it was the whispers on the edge of schoolyard conversations and the unrelenting portrayal of buffoonish or evil Germans on the television that knit together to form a shroud that would hang over my entire life. I developed a shame of being German and a guilt for actions taken long before I was born.

There was one guiding principle that governed my life and that of many of my generation: "Don't mention the war." This was not just the stuff of Fawlty Towers. It was the rule in the German-Manitoban home. No explanations were offered by our parents about what had happened during the war, and no questions were asked. Did we really want to know?

The conspiracy of silence was complete. Saturday-morning "German school" classes at the German Society building in the North End were designed to re-inculcate German into those of us wayward children who would rather speak English. Teaching the history of Germany studiously skirted the war years. My German-language confirmation classes in the Lutheran church that has since become the West End Cultural Centre never explored the evils of the Holocaust. Much later, in a university course on German literature, I don't recall a single reference to Hitler and the Nazi movement.

Every German child I knew fantasized about discovering some family members in Germany had been resistance fighters who bravely harboured Jews in the attic. When my father told me long after my mother died she had probably been raped by Russian soldiers as they pushed westward into what is now Poland, I am embarrassed to admit savouring for a moment the thought that my mom was a "victim," not a perpetrator of evil.

My parents were economic immigrants who escaped a country struggling with broken cities, crushed spirits and a ruined financial system. They brought with them an idealized vision of Germany, a world of strong family values, neat-as-a-pin homes and polite and orderly children. There was much about this Germany we children adored: chocolate, whipping cream, feather beds, beer steins, salty licorice, Dr. Oetker pudding mixes, cheese that wasn't orange.

Christmas was a time all we German children stood tall. Who could argue that Germans didn't do Christmas well? There was that magical, lighted tree that presided over Christmas Eve gift-giving. Carols that really should be sung in German.

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