Words: Paulina Thillmann

Images: Yanjun Yu

“Dearest Maria. I am sending you my heartfelt wishes as a Russian war prisoner that I have been since the defeat of the capital, on the second of May in 1945. I am sharing my destiny with many other close companions and I am still doing well. Please do not worry about me. Often, my thoughts are with you and the little darling. Hopefully the both of you are always fine, the same as I am expecting from the other relatives, whom you need to inform, especially father. And now, my beloved Maria, my dearest wishes again and kisses. With health and loyalty, your Clemens”.

My grandfather’s words are scribbled down on the little piece of paper that I am holding in my hands. It is a letter he wrote to my grandmother on January 12, 1947. It confirms the fate of many soldiers of the Third Reich: with the end of the Second World War, he is now a prisoner of war in Russia.

There are many stories told in my family about what happened to him. But this is the first time I read about it in my grandfather’s own words. It is the summer of 2016 and I have found a little box in my mother’s room. The carton is worn and faded pink and smells like old books. On the top is the name of my grandfather. Inside are 95 cards from my grandfather to my grandmother. 1932, 1938, 1940… On and on until 1949. The cards cover 17 years. The last one was written four years after the end of the war.

With the end of the Second World War, the story of my grandfather’s letters began. On the May 8, 1945, at 11:01pm, Germany surrendered. During the years that the Second World War lasted, over 65 million people died in total. Led by Adolf Hitler, Germany’s nationalism caused the death of more than 6 million Jews. The country was responsible for one of the most horrible crimes in human history: The Holocaust.

Before he signed up to become a soldier for Germany, my grandfather had been a primary school teacher. He studied in the west of Germany, in a small city called Bonn, which became the capital of West Germany after the war. Born in 1912 in the north of Germany, he grew up on a farm together with his parents, seven brothers and one sister. After joining Regiment 225 in 1939, my grandfather was trained in how to become a sharpshooter in preparation for the war.

The training camps were located in several towns across Germany. During these few months of travelling around the country and preparing for the war, my grandfather met my grandmother Maria at a dance in Koblenz. By the time they were married in 1942, my grandfather was a trained soldier and part of the “Heeresgruppe Nord”, a regiment from the north of Germany.

Throughout the six war years, he fought in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Russia and Latvia. With Germany’s defeat, the “Heeresgruppe Nord”, which was based in Latvia at that time, surrendered on May 8 too. Boats were prepared for the soldiers to return home to Germany, but not all of them were able to do so. Amongst many other soldiers, my grandfather was taken to a camp in Telšiai, a town in the West of Lithuania. He became a prisoner of war, along with 11 million soldiers of the German “Wehrmacht”. More than 3 million were held in prisons in Russia and used for forced labour, rebuilding the country’s destroyed cities and landscapes. Over 1 million of them died.

Meanwhile, my grandfather’s wife and their son were waiting in Germany for him to return. She had only been married to my grandfather for a few years. My grandfather had not met his son, who was born in 1943 , by which time he was in Russia, fighting in the battle of Volkhov.

I never met my grandfather. By the time I was born, he had already passed away. There are, of course, stories I know about him. Whether these stories are true or not, I am never quite sure. They are memories, sometimes memories of someone else’s memories. Now, suddenly, I am holding his own words in my hands. For the first time, I can imagine the sound of his voice, what kind of words he used when he wrote to my grandmother. For the first time, I can base their relationship on some proven facts. But there’s something I still know very little about; my grandfather’s time as a soldier. This is my family’s history and its relationship to the German Nazi regime. Holding the little pink box in my hands, I am slowly understanding what I have found. I am about to find out about who my grandfather, Clemens Lamping, really was.

It’s a sunny afternoon in late August. My uncle Ludger is squinting against the sun. We are sitting on the balcony of his family house, a three-storey building in a small village called Nordborchen. Since I was a baby, I have spent a lot of time in this house. Ludger inherited it from his parents, my grandfather Clemens and his wife Maria.

This is the house where my grandparents brought up most of their children when they moved from north Germany to west Germany in the 1950s. Ludger was born in 1956, he is the second youngest of their five children. “Your grandfather would have never signed up to a political party or the army. What he wanted to do was teach. They drafted him for military service in 1940. Before that, he worked as a teacher.”

I am looking at a document lying in front of me. It’s from the German Bureau of Information on the deceased soldiers of the Wehrmacht. In detail, the document explains which regiment my grandfather was fighting for, where he was fighting at what point in time and for how long. On this document, it says that my grandfather signed up voluntarily to become a soldier for the Third Reich army; on August 31, 1939. Ludger disagrees. “He didn’t sign up to be a soldier voluntarily. But at one point, there was no other choice for him than joining the army. He had to do it.” I am only at the beginning of retracing my grandfather’s history as a soldier and I am already encountering different versions of the truth.

I believe the official statement. My grandfather didn’t wait until he was drafted. Maybe because he believed that Germany would win the war. Maybe because he thought he would have to join the army sooner or later anyway. Most importantly, I am beginning to understand that my grandfather’s children might only know a modified version of the truth.

The next day, I am walking down the road of my uncle’s house. The streets are as quiet as I remember them from my childhood. The school that my grandfather was the head teacher of still exists. It’s on the same street his own house was and where my uncle Ludger lives with his family now. My aunt Mechthild’s house is two minutes away. She was born one year after my grandfather had returned home and is the second eldest of his children. Now she runs the village pharmacy. I am hoping that she can remember more about the time of the war or stories my grandfather told her. I am curious about her version of the truth. “As a teenager I asked him why he never did anything. Millions of Jews were killed in front of his eyes; hundreds were deported in trains. ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’, I asked him. ‘You must have known what was going on.’” Mechthild remembers confronting her father. “Again and again, he would say: ‘We didn’t know what exactly was happening’. So, I just believed him. I don’t think he would have lied to me.” Is that possible? For her to really believe that an intelligent man of 27 would not have been capable of understanding what was really going on during the Hitler regime? Yet, they were the words of her father. So, she trusted him.

“I can ́t assess whether he was serious about it or whether he was just trying to suppress the harshness of reality. But I know that he would have never supported Nazi beliefs. There was absolutely nothing he had against Jewish people. Never would he have said: ‘We are Arians and we have to kill Jewish people just because they aren’t’. I remember him saying that he found Jewish people highly intelligent, good conversation partners and very business savvy. He wasn’t a fanatic supporter of Hitler. He was a follower.”

Operation Barbarossa –  the invasion of the Soviet Union – began on June 22, 1941. Around 4 million soldiers from the German, Italian and Japanese military took part. More than 1 million Soviet Jews were murdered and 5 million Soviets were taken as prisoners of war, of whom 3 million were starved to death.

It ended with the Battle of Moscow, and Germany’s defeat in December 1941. Around 75 per cent of the German military took part in Operation Barbarossa. My grandfather was one of them. Despite the fact that he seemingly didn’t talk much about his experiences during the war, he shared some information with his children. During the conversation with my aunt Mechthild, she tries to remember. “To some respect he was lucky during his time as a soldier. He never had to shoot anyone, you know. He never fought frontline. His role was an observational one.” Her memories mirror those of Ludger’s, her younger brother: “Your grandfather’s job was to measure flight paths as part of the artillery. So instead of shooting soldiers, his main occupation was to strategically help the movement of the regiment by calculating distances. That is why, often, he had to ride ahead of the other soldiers. They assigned him that task because he was a clever guy with mathematical skills and he also knew how to handle horses growing up on a farm. I guess he must have been lucky many times, riding in front of everyone.”

Operation Barbarossa was only able to be implemented if the residents of the Soviet Union were deprived of their food. If Germany was to win the war, according to the 15 senior German officials who met on May 2, 1941, to discuss the Barbarossa’s implementation, the German soldiers had to survive on the food of the Soviet people. The aim of the operation was thus to starve the inhabitants of Leningrad to death by systematically destroying factories that were producing or storing food. That way not only the Soviet people would die, but the German soldiers were also able to survive without food supply by Germany. In addition to that, the industrial infrastructure of the Soviet Union was to be destroyed, except in the areas German troops were dependent on the Soviet transport. The general aim however, was for the Soviet Union to return to its agricultural state.

I am sitting in the back of my parents’ car. We are leaving Nordborchen, the place my grandfather lived most of his life. My mother is driving. “Did you never ask yourself what was he actually doing as a soldier?”, I say to her. “Not until you started this project. But since reading his letters and finding out things I didn’t know before, I am slowly realising that he did’t tell us everything.” She remains silent for a little while after I ask her whether she ever wondered if he killed someone. “No, actually. But I don’t know why I didn’t. I just never imagined him in the role of someone who killed someone else. To be honest, maybe he did. Maybe he did murder someone. I think we did at some point maybe talk about it with my siblings, but never dug deeper. We always came to the conclusion that he would have been way too sensitive to do something like that.”

By January 1942, the German army had built up a defence line along the Volkhov river, which had become part of the German blockade of Leningrad. Snow made things difficult and the Soviet troops only moved forwards very slowly to attack the German defence line at the river. My grandfather’s regiment was sent for support. Regiment 225 hadn’t been in the Soviet Union long. Since summer 1940, its soldiers had mainly been stationed in France and the order to move came without much warning. From Amiens, Regiment 225 took the train to Danzig. By ship, they arrived in Riga on December 24, 1942. Still wearing their summer uniforms, the soldiers of Regiment 225 had to face temperatures of -30 degrees. By 1943, 46 of their soldiers had died, 152 were wounded and one was missing. 87 were suffering from third-degree frostbite. The battle of Volkhov battle didn’t last long; the Soviet army lost around 95,000 soldiers.

My grandfather survived the battle of Volkhov. A year after, his first son Alfons was born, but he was already back East. Meanwhile, his wife Maria was left alone with their child. There are more battles; Demyansk, Volkhov again, Ladoga lake, Leningrad, and then finally, Courland in Latvia. That’s where, with the defeat of Germany on May 2, 1945, he became a prisoner of war.

“’God help us if we lose the war’, your grandfather thought when he realised how the Russian soldiers were treated by the Germans”, Ludger tells me during our conversation in the summer. “He admitted to me that he was very scared.”

I’m back in Cologne, going through the box of letters. I haven’t read all of them yet. Some of them, the early ones, go back to the 1930s. There’s one that makes me cry. It’s a letter addressed to my grandfather, from his younger brother Alfons. In July 1937, Alfons is writing from Görlitz, a city in the very east of Germany. At that point, he’s being trained as a military pilot. After describing his training in detail, he mentions the Czech Republic; the country has been defeated by the Germans. He can’t talk in detail but it “once again has been a triumph of our Führer”. Alfons didn’t see the need to hide his support for the Nazi Regime in front of my grandfather. The letter is evidence of a very common way of thinking amongst Germans during the rise of Adolf Hitler. They would willingly call him “Der Führer”, believing that his agenda would enrich the lives of many people in Germany. The promise of prosperity and power is a seductive argument but it’s not an excuse for blindness. It becomes clear to me now, that my grandfather might not have lived by this standard.

It’s October 20, and I am sitting on the plane to Moscow. It’s only the second time that I have travelled outside Europe. Even at the airport in Germany, my mother and I feel weirdly disconnected. The people queuing with us to get into the plane are mostly Russian and seem grumpy. The security guy is shouting at us but we can’t understand him.

“Your grandfather spoke quite a bit of Russian,” I remember Ludger telling me when I met him in August. He never heard his father complaining about the time in Russia. “With the aftermath of the war and the destruction of their country, the Russians were in despair just like your grandfather. They were all sharing a general feeling of pain and exhaustion.”

After my grandfather was taken prisoner in 1945, he was sent to a collection camp in the Latvian town of Telšiai and then from one prison to the next. At some he stayed for months, at others just for a couple of weeks. Most of them were in Russia.

My mother and I have made an impulsive decision. We’re going to visit Mozhaysk, a small town near Moscow. It’s the final place my grandfather spent time in as a prisoner of war. We want to see whether we can find the actual location of this prison. There’s no address, no picture, no description, but there are two people that might be able to help us: Leonid and Arseniy. A former business partner and now friend of my uncle, Leonid had been living in Moscow since he attended university as a young man. His son Arseniy and I have been in contact about the trip. Despite the fact that neither my mother nor I have ever met them, they are keen to help.

Two days before our arrival in Moscow, Arseniy sends a message that sounds hopeful. “Dear Paulina, I have managed to find a small memorial in Mozhajsk dedicated to the military prisoners of the prison point #465. Mainly it is dedicated to the Hungarian soldiers who were the majority there.

But according to some materials that I have found there is a lost German cemetery…no graves…nothing…really lost between old garages.”

It sounds like good news. War prison number 465 is the one my grandfather was held in.

 

03.03.1947
After an irresponsible betrayal, because of the biggest disappointments and mendacious promises, but also because of threats that have been explained in the past and need to be kept secret, we will walk into the future frankly and freely.

For two years now, my grandfather has been writing to his wife back home, who’s waiting for him with their first child Alfons. During that time, something dramatic must have happened.

It sounds as if he has been forced to do something against his will, or as if he has been blackmailed about something. Yet, there isn’t a single word about it in his following letter, or the one after. All I know is that when he was writing this letter in 1947, my grandfather was captive in a prison in Tver, a city north-west from Moscow. It’s the third prison he’s stayed in since 1945, at least four more are yet to come.

Going through my grandfather’s letters is exhausting. His writing is scrawly, his tone is difficult for me to understand. It takes me a long time to go through every single letter he wrote to my grandmother. Many of them are less exciting than I thought. Until this one from March 1947. Something must have happened.

This city never ends. Its roads string together in countless lanes of stationary traffic. The cars that aren’t stationary, race along the streets at such speed, it’s impossible to understand how pedestrians are able to get around safely. For hours, it seems, the roads have swallowed us up in their net of junctions and spirals. Sometimes, it’s the city’s skyscrapers that menace us, sometimes there are lines of dilapidated huts. Moscow is one big splash of grey, broken by dashes of blue-black sky.

It’s a Saturday morning and we’re on our way chasing my grandfather’s trails in Russia. Once we managed to escape Moscow’s jungle, we are driving down the M1 motorway. Mozhaysk is a small town in the Oblast Moscow, a little over 100 kilometres South-West from the capital. Around 31,000 people live here. Because of its proximity to Moscow, Mozhaysk was the scene of much fighting during the War .“We have never been to this town before. I guess because there’s not that much here to see.” Arseniy and Leonid are sitting in the front of the car. They have fully planned this trip. 9:30am pick up at the hotel. Two hours drive. Spend some time in Mozhaysk, try and find the old prison and the cemetery. Go look at a monastery, have some lunch. Drive back.

One reason why my grandfather’s letters were less exciting than I had predicted was because he concealed the truth. He didn’t mention Mozhaysk in his letters once. In fact, he never really talked about the prisons. This seems to be a common pattern throughout his entire life; don’t talk about the bad stuff, keep positive. Ignore the unpleasant circumstances of the present. Look into the future. My grandmother had no real idea where he was during his imprisonment or how he truly was feeling. Everything was always fine. “Keeping up appearances”, my mother calls it.

When we enter Mozhaysk, the greyness of Moscow is replaced by muddy browns and khakis. The capital’s bustle is replaced by stillness. I am thinking about my grandfather and his time here in Mozhaysk. Five years of imprisonment and still no sign of getting back home. On top of that, he had to deal with the mysterious betrayal he mentioned in his letters. Was he forced to stay in Mozhaysk because someone was plotting against him? “He did tell me about some sort of betrayal.” It’s Ludger, who’s the first of the children that seems to remember something when I am interviewing him. “Another soldier falsely accused him of having done something terrible, which is why your grandfather got into a lot of trouble with the Russian soldiers. But apparently, it was all made up. The other soldier just told this lie so he could be released earlier than your grandfather.”

 

10.11.1947
Can’t be long until big reunion. Hoping for this to be the last card.

My grandfather had been away for nearly five years at this point. It was five years since he married my grandmother. Two years since the end of the war, two years as a prisoner of war. By now, his only child was almost four years old. There were yet three years to come in Russia. Still nothing about the betrayal, he mentioned in the letter in March 1947. Instead of explaining the situation, my grandfather became quiet. War imprisonment is the hardest and most difficult destiny a person can have, he wrote.

During our conversation, Ludger revealed more. “He did tell me about some sort of betrayal. Another soldier falsely accused him of having done something terrible, which is why your grandfather got into a lot of trouble with the Russian soldiers. But apparently, it was all made up. The other soldier just told this lie so he could be released earlier than your grandfather.”

“The soldier’s name was Hamacher I think. He was from Cologne and your grandfather met him at one of the camps. If I can remember right, he accused your grandfather of being heavily involved with the Nazis. He claimed that your grandfather was responsible for the calculated planning of killing Jewish people.”

Arseniy is driving us down a road past a grim-looking apartment building and an abandoned playground. He makes a left turn into a desolate courtyard. There’s a guy leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette and looking at us. Leonid jumps out of the car and walks towards him. Arseniy leaves the engine running. We can ́t hear what the two men are talking about. The stranger shakes his head before Leonid makes his way back to the car.

“This is the wrong way”. A short discussion in Russian again. Arseniy drives down another cart track lined with old garages. There’s nobody around. I try to crack some jokes about the likeliness of finding a corpse in one of the garages but really, I am just thinking to myself how idiotic of me it was to believe I could possibly find anything here that stands in relation to my grandfather’s time in Mozhaysk. It’s too late.

 

Arseniy stops the car. Both men come to the back to open our doors. We walk around a group of trees and in front of us are two tombstones. One of them is black and lying on the floor. Fifteen Russian names are written on them, together with their year of birth and the day they died. Seven of them died in 1945, five one year later, three in 1947. Next to it is a stone plate with a gravestone standing on it horizontally. It says: “In memory of the soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the country of Russia. Your bravery will never be forgotten.” On top of the gravestone are two helmets. One is slightly rusted. The other one has lost some of its layers and turned green in some parts. Both helmets have big holes in them. “The one on the left is the helmet of a Russian soldier. The one on the right belonged to a German”. Arseniy sounds so convinced, I want to believe him and ignore the fact that they look the same to me. But maybe the helmet did belong to a German soldier. Maybe it belonged to someone from the German war prison in Mozhaysk.

“According to that soldier Hamacher, your grandfather worked at a concentration camp in the North of Germany, in Esterwegen.” After Ludger told me this, I looked up Esterwegen. It’s a town close to the Dutch border, near the North Sea, not far from the farm my grandfather grew up in.

 

07. 11.1948
Who of the both of us is having the more difficult time? Maybe it’s you. I might have encountered difficult moments, but they all pass and then you ask yourself why you took everything so seriously. All things considered, they are just moments. “I don’t know why we had to have such a tough destiny. Personally, I have not done anything wrong as you know. Yet I have been chosen to endure imprisonment until its very end.”

We are back in the car, leaving the path and garages behind. My mother seems composed. Maybe, like me, her curiosity is taking over. The fact that we found a memorial in honour of soldiers of the Second World War and thus my grandfather, in the outskirts of a small Russian town seems incredible. It takes less than a minute before we stop at a rectangular, quite shabby, white building, not surrounded by much except some bleak trees. Three different rows of fences encircle what is now a institution for youth offenders but was the prison where my grandfather spent the last eight months of his time as a prisoner of war. I glance over to my mum, still no tears.

“Of course he never worked at a concentration camp.” I wasn’t sure if I was going too far asking Ludger whether he believed the accusations or not. But he is sure of his father’s innocence. “How do you know, grandfather didn’t work at the concentration camp in Esterwegen?” “Because he told me so.”

 

19.07.1949
A long letter, folded into four pages, from my grandfather to his siblings. Finally, the case is explained in his own words. In 1947, the first time he talks about a betrayal to my grandmother and how he had to make a statement in Russia rebutting Hamacher’s claims that he had been a guard in Esterwegen, which had for a while been the second biggest concentration camp in Germany, after Dachau. In 1949, he was forced to give a second statement. He was supported by the testimony of another soldier and it seems this finally convinced the Soviet authorities. But it seems that, because of the accusations, my grandfather may have been a prisoner much longer than he was supposed to be.
Could it be true that my grandfather worked at a concentration camp? Before he signed up to become a member of the German army, he was a student and after finishing his degree, he started working as a teacher. Yet, there could have been a timeframe that would have allowed him to work at a concentration camp. There are no particular details about his first job as a teacher. I am checking his files of the German agency for soldiers of the former German Wehrmacht. There’s nothing. Not a word mentioned about a possible engagement with any concentration camp.

There must have been circumstances in which prisoners of war would say or do things in order to go back home again and perhaps my grandfather had been a victim of that. “This might also be a setup”, my grandfather suggests in his letter. Maybe it wasn’t Hamacher at all, maybe the whole scenario was constructed by Soviet soldiers, he writes. The intricacies of the case seem to have convinced my grandfather not to further dwell on it. “Why the many words my dearest. Only a few weeks and I will be there” he wrote in a letter to my grandmother in 1949. She seemed concerned. Many times, my grandmother wants to know more about the Hamacher case. Many times, my grandfather refuses. It’s late 1949 and all my grandfather can think about is his return home. Strangely my grandfather writes that he’s planning to invite Hamacher “as a friend” and help him to get a job as a plumber.

“He did invite Hamacher to our house after he came back to Germany”, Ludger remembers. “Your grandmother wanted him to confront Hamacher about the horrible things he did to him. Apparently, at some point during the meet-up, they started talking about it. That’s when all the wives had to leave the room.” Ludger doesn’t know what the men talked about. “The fact that Hamacher made it all up really hit your grandfather. But there was nothing he could do really, back in Russia. Once he came back home, he was sick of talking about it. Things like that happen amongst war prisoners.”

After standing in front of the prison for a while, Arseniy, Leonid, my mother and I walk back to the car. I take some last pictures. This is my final chance to see this place. Physically, this is the closest I could get to understanding my grandfather’s life as a prisoner of war. It’s depressing that my capacity to soak it all in is limited. If I had only known more about it from my grandfather’s perspective. I take more pictures of the memorial, the two hats on top. I am sad because of the reasons my grandfather was imprisoned here. Sad about the pain he might have caused other families. Sad because I can never talk to him about it.

On April 23, 1950, my grandfather was finally allowed to return home. After seven years away from his family, he returned to Germany, to be reunited with a wife and a son he had never seen. Before he became imprisoned, he had known my grandmother for three years. The time spent apart was much longer than the time they had spent together.

“Everything was grey. His coat, his face, his hat, his suitcase.” By the time my grandfather returned, Alfons, his eldest son, was almost seven years old. “I remember your grandmother and I were standing at the train station waiting for him. When he got out of the train, I didn’t recognise him. I didn’t know what he looked like.”

“Once he returned home, his time as a war prisoner was a finished chapter, that’s it. You just wouldn’t talk about it.” It was a topic he wanted to avoid and to a certain extent, Alfons seems to understand. “When he first arrived back home, he probably didn’t have the strength to enjoy being home. He was just tired and run down.” It surely helped him to continue a life he had imagined in his head so often during his time at the prisons. But it meant his children came to only know a modified, simplified version of their father’s story.

It also means that his grandchildren will never be quite sure about their family history. I grew up knowing that my grandfather had been a prisoner of war after fighting for the German army during the Second World War. Yet before finding the letters I knew very little about him as a person, or what he was doing as a soldier and as a prisoner. I never asked questions.

When beginning this project, I wanted to know whether my grandfather had supported the Nazis. Whether he killed people. What his convictions were. After months of research, I still don’t have all the answers.

It was my hope to be able to say, after all of this, that my grandfather was too intelligent to be affiliated with Nazi ideologies, that he had no other choice but to submit and join the army. The truth looks much more complicated. He did join the army voluntarily, but he didn’t join the Nazi Party. He fought in the army, yet he didn’t strive for any military career during his years as a soldier. He was held as a prisoner in Russia under difficult circumstances, yet he always spoke very highly of the way people treated him during his five years of imprisonment.

My grandfather’s story is one that millions of other Germans share. It appears that he was another person who looked away from what was truly going on. Hopefully, he did so out of fear. Yet, it is difficult to believe he wasn’t aware what was happening. He was an intelligent person; he studied, he read. But I won’t ever know for sure.

Most of my friends have relatives who were in some way actively involved in the Second World War, most as soldiers. My own family history never felt special to me, it is one story among thousands. It hasn’t affected my family dramatically, I always thought. My grandfather didn’t die. Compared to the countless other, more tragic impacts families dealt with, my family’s history didn’t seem severe enough to need dealing with. Now, I understand its worth. I believe it has affected all of us; my grandmother, my mother, her siblings, my cousins, myself.

I would like to say that I understand what my grandfather did, but I can’t. It’s impossible to put myself into his situation. At the end of the day, he’s someone I have never met or had the chance to ask questions. Although he might have shaped me in positive ways, I do feel violated sometimes when I let his story become too much of my own. It’s a difficult state of being. I don’t feel responsibility for what has happened in the past, but I still feel ashamed.

If I don’t condemn my grandfather for what he might have done, I would be excusing the genocide of millions of people. Often, I forbid myself to feel sorry for him and his time as a prisoner of war. What he experienced was a logical consequence. If I show empathy with his actions, even if he didn’t have a choice, I carry on the guilt. I struggle to understand why my mother has never asked herself whether her father ever killed someone. I struggle to understand why my grandfather’s past hasn’t been much more discussed amongst my family. Could it be that I am the first one to ask whether my grandfather had been a Nazi? Maybe, now, my family can start to talk.