My Opa did not talk much about his birth town, but one story he was happy to tell was of his father’s chicanery with the local Nazis, his neighbors, that resulted in his release from a concentration camp.
He told me, with a sense of pride, that his father tricked his neighbors into releasing his sons from Nazi detention. The Nazis were taking over our family’s dry goods store in preparation for his deportation. My great grandfather told them that he was too old to explain how to them how to run the store. For that, he said, he would need his sons. So my great grandfather’s neighbors called up their friends and secured the release of my mother’s father and uncle to complete the takeover of their store.
In 1994, more than two generations after my family faced expulsion from their small village near the Danish border, we received an invitation back to Meppen, Germany. The government was trying to say sorry. They wanted to make up for stealing my family’s store, burning down our place of worship and murdering my great grandparents. And so we went.
We toured the town, consumed revised histories and were made to listen to speeches in German that only a few in our group understood. My mother rolled her eyes at the sanitized translations.
One evening, we sat with a large Christian youth group in the multipurpose room of a sprawling modern church building. They asked their measured questions and offered assurances that they were different — but my mom was having absolutely none of it.
She unleashed a calm and quiet rebuke of this charade. These youth were the same age as those who, decades ago in the very same town, burned the synagogue to the ground and forced my grandfather to clean it up. Her children were sitting next to her despite what their grandparents did, she explained through a slightly clenched jaw.
They promised to never let anything like it happen again. But my mother’s quiet, rage-fueled answers forced them to face an uncomfortable truth: These things happened within living memory, perpetrated in part by these youths’ own families.
Someday, when these kids tell their children about their loving grandparents, they’ll be talking about the same people who deported my family. You cannot tell one story without the other.
I remember this story on days when those within our community and those who claim to support it say my grandfather’s story and millions of stories like it are somehow exceptional among the many similar horrors in our world. They say that comparing his stay at a concentration camp to the experience of those detained in similar situations in the United States today is somehow worse than what is taking place. We are somehow disrespecting his suffering by learning from it, they say.
Years from now, it will be my grandchildren sitting with the children of one the people detained by our government, who will quietly remind my progeny that all of us did this to her family.
Without an understanding of our past, we allow it to happen to others. We have become the neighbors stealing the store.