Grandpa’s role in history

Danny, my grandma, died in August–a few days after her 94th birthday. My grandfather died decades ago, but it wasn’t until Danny died that my uncles began sorting through the belongings they’d amassed over the years. That was when Dick discovered that Grandpa, an Army chaplain, had accompanied some of the defendants who were sentenced to death for war crimes at the Nüremberg trials to the gallows.

Grandpa with boxer

Grandpa in his “uniform” of engineer overalls and cap. He and Danny always had a boxer. Always.

Wait. What? The guy who looked like a train engineer because he always wore blue-and-white striped overalls and a matching cap? The guy who always had a toothpick in his mouth, looked a lot like his boxer, and could be counted on to have Coffee Nips on hand? That guy?

In addition to evidence of the role that Grandpa played at the Nüremberg trials, Dick found a hand-drawn map of the concentration camp in Dachau with Grandpa’s writing on it. We know Grandpa was at Dachau after it was liberated, but we’re not sure when.

Honestly, I don’t remember my grandfather as a kind man. Though he was a “man of God,” religion seemed to be largely an intellectual exercise for him—not something he put into practice in his daily life. He originally wanted to become a doctor, but World War II put an end to that, so he became a chaplain instead. I did not know him to be a spiritual man. He often insulted and demeaned Danny and my father, which made him hard to trust and still harder to like.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Gary W. Roush, Sr.

What’s interesting to me is that, in spite of his Nüremberg and Dachau experiences—which might’ve led most Americans to draw unfavorable conclusions about the German people—it was Grandpa who met my mother, a German citizen, and insisted on introducing her to his son.

My German grandparents were Methodist descendants of Huguenots who were convinced Hitler was the Antichrist. At the end of the war, when Hitler was running out of men of draftable age, my Opa (grandfather) was drafted in his 40s and served as a cook in the Navy. My uncle was drafted into the SS at 17, but Oma (my grandmother) worked diligently to change that and succeeded. He became a Gebirgsjäger (mountain infantryman) instead, and both my Opa and uncle survived the war without seeing combat. Onkel Walter became a Methodist minister and met Grandpa, a Methodist Army chaplain, which led to the introduction of Mom and Dad. Which led to me.

Danny, Grandpa, and Onkel Walter with my uncle  Bill

Danny, Grandpa, and Onkel Walter with my uncle Bill on Mom and Dad’s wedding day

I owe my existence to Grandpa. Somehow, what I learned about his involvement at Nüremberg and Dachau helped me see him in a different light. He didn’t judge Germans by the worst he’d seen of them. He saw what author and historian Robert Abzug says was “the trappedness of good people in the machinations of history at its most evil.” He saw the good in my mom, wanted that for his son, and it didn’t take long for Dad to realize he was right. I have rarely seen a man love a woman the way my dad loved my mom.

When I look at the following picture of Mom and Dad, whose people had been enemies little more than a decade before they met, I think of the song, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” I never viewed Grandpa as spiritual. But he held a practical vision of peace that enabled him to welcome a German woman into his American family. Peace began with him. And it led to me.

Mom and Dad on their wedding day

Irmgard and Gary Roush, Jr. on their wedding day

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My mother was in the Hitler Youth

By the time my mother turned 10 in 1939, it was compulsory for all German girls between the ages of 10 and 18 to join the female branch of the Hitler Youth, which was called the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel). Mom came from a Christian family that was convinced Adolf Hitler was the Antichrist, but no one could opt out of the Hitler Youth. The mission of the Hitler Youth was to prepare boys, such as my uncle, to serve in the military. The mission of the League of German Girls was to prepare girls to be better wives, mothers, and homemakers.

When the Nazis ran out of able-bodied soldiers, they started drafting older men, including my grandfather, who wound up in the navy. They also began drafting boys, and when mom’s brother saw the writing on the wall, he voluntarily joined the mountain infantry (Gebirgsjäger). In spite of that, he got drafted into the SS.

My grandmother went from one office in Ludwigsburg to another with the same message, “Walter can’t be drafted into the SS–he already joined the mountain infantry.” Finally somebody heard her and set things straight. Neither my grandfather (Opa) nor my uncle (Onkel Walter) saw much action during the war. Opa was a cook in the Navy and there wasn’t that much going on in the mountains where Onkel Walter was.

I have a copy of the official family tree that proves that my maternal grandmother’s family is of Aryan descent. I also have a silver coin with a swastika on it and a gold button from my grandfather’s Navy uniform. Why do I save that stuff? Because I believe, to the very marrow of my bones, that George Santayana was right when he said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

My unpleasant memorabelia forces me to remember–as did a visit with my friend Marcos to Dachau. My aunt Elfriede couldn’t understand why we wanted to go to Dachau–couldn’t we just forget about the past? For me the answer to that question is “Absolutely not.”

My life is enriched by Jewish and gay friends, as well as a niece with Down Syndrome. My son’s paternal grandmother comes from a family that is mainly Jahova’s Witness. Chances are good that none of them would have survived the Holocaust.

“It’s different today,” I’m tempted to say. “We know better. There’s no way we would ever let that happen again.” Right. Tell that to people in Rwanda and Darfur.

Not only is it possible to repeat the past, the potential for it is within me, genetically speaking. I’m more than half German, and the blood that is coursing through my veins is no different than that of the soldiers who gave and carried out orders to exterminate people because they’re different.

Eleven million Jews, Slavs, Roma, ethnic Poles, Soviet POWs, the disabled and mentally ill, gay men, freemasons, Jehova’s Witnesses, and political activists were killed during WWII. It’s hard to imagine how many people that is. It’s more than the entire population of metropolitan Chicago. It’s more than 190 Yankee stadiums* full of people. It means killing more than 30,000 people a day for an entire year.

As much as I want to deny it, somewhere deep within me must lie the potential for killing another human being because he or she is different. Not because of my German heritage, but because I am human.

I carry within me a deep sense of responsibility for what happened during WWII. Not because I was there. Not because I participated in it. But because I believe that the seeds of prejudice, hatred, and judgment lie within us all and, given the right conditions, could sprout and take root.

Do I dwell on the past? No. But every once in a while an opportunity comes along to accept or judge. That’s when I remember the past, and recommit myself not to repeat it.

Regretful Ashamed

Grief Guilty

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the Regretful, Ashamed, Grief, and Guilty cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

* Yes, I know the plural of stadium is stadia. But who says that?