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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Making peace with fear

Lately, I have been thinking of emotions as messengers. I’ve welcomed many of them–even negative ones.  So far, fear is the only messenger that I’ve wanted to kill. It’s the emotion that I’ve had the most difficulty sitting with and listening to. And as luck would have it, it has been pulling up a chair at my kitchen table often, lately.

What?!” I say impatiently. “Why do you keep coming back?”

“I have a gift for you,” Fear replies.

“A gift? From you?”

“Yes. I will sit here until you respond to me.”

“Well, I’m talking to you. Isn’t that enough?”

“No, you must act.”

I am not in the mood to engage in a dialog with Fear. But I want him out of my kitchen in the worst way, so I decide to humor him and think about all the ways I could act.

“OK,” I say. “I guess I could run away from what I fear.”

“True,” Fear says. “You could literally abandon it, or you could withdraw from it emotionally.”

“I could get drunk.”

“You wouldn’t feel the fear so much then. You could also engage in activities that distract you from what you fear.”

“I could deny that what I fear exists,” I say.

“True. But are those your only choices?”

“No,” I say. “I could attack what I fear.”

“How would you do that?”

“I’d come up with ideas for overcoming what I fear and decide which idea is best.”

“And then?”

“Then I’d implement my idea.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“A little more empowered. I feel less like a victim of fate. By taking matters in hand, I feel more like I’m the master of my own destiny.”

“Are those the ony feelings that come up for you?”

“No. I like brainstorming, coming up with new ideas, and solving problems. It makes me feel creative.”

“That,” says Fear, “Is my gift to you.” He pushes back his chair and gets up to leave.

“Wait,” I say. “Would you like some coffee?”

Afraid Creative

The illustrations, by Kris Wiltse, are from the “Afraid,” “Empowered,” and “Creative” cards, which are part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.