*Note: For certain reasons, the name of the person in question has been changed to “Ralph.”
Place of residence has also not been specified.
It is a cold winter morning, the sun is barely seen beyond the horizon. The purple curtains in the room slowly begin to light up and I am forced to leave the warmth of my bed. The day begins as any other, nothing to remotely suggest that anything unusual is to happen. I say my morning prayers, dress and eat breakfast. My mother calls down the hall to check that I am ready to brace another day. Finally, we are off. We chat about what the new term, a Holocaust movie I watched and then I find myself moaning to her about the long, tiresome day a head. As we pull into the main entrance, she swipes the card and drives up the hill. As the traffic-light turns red, I jump out and make my way down the long, bricked pathway into the University.
The day gradually becomes fast-paced. I jump from a double History class to a double English and then to Psychology. The lesson drags and suddenly…the class start to fidget. They become increasingly rowdy, “well this noise tells me that it’s time for me to shut-up and for you to go. Tomorrow, don’t forget, our afternoon lecture is still on!” The entire class groans. “It’s the first week of the semester, can’t they give us a break?” a girl says loudly.
Finally, it’s lunch! I speed off to the Cafeteria determined to get a table. My favourite one is free. I set my things down and go to buy a glass of hot water. I pour it into my Israeli pre-packed pasta and wait five minutes. It is ready and I sit down, hungrily digging into this ‘delightful’ meal. While reading my set-work, Northanger Abbey, an elderly man in his early sixties asks if he can sit at my table. It’s the only table in the room not packed to the brim. I happily agree. Little do I know what is to come.
We begin to talk about my degree. While we chat, I notice that he has a strong European accent. I ask curiously where he is from, he is definitely not local. He tells me that he is originally from Germany but his family moved to South-West Africa after World War Two. I find this intriguing and the subject drastically changes to tolerance and religion. He states very carefully, “you are a Jew.” Very confidently say “Yes, how did you know?” He tells me bashfully that I have what they call “the look”.
I begin to feel mildly anxious at this response. He looks at me nervously and states that he rarely tells people this frightening fact: His father and his fathers brothers were all Nazi’s under Hitler during the War.
As I hear this, a great part of me wants to run away swiftly, but common courtesy holds me back. I am surprised and even mortified at the fact that he has shared this information with me, a Jew. Awkwardly, I nod my head and stutter a startled response. He proceeds to make the point that he is nothing like his father or his family. He is very ashamed of the terrible things that they did to so many innocent people.
I know that I am treading on shaky ground and very cautiously I ask if he is willing to tell me his story. He readily agrees.
He was born in 1947 in South-West Africa. He was the fourth of six children in a home which primarily spoke German – hence his strong accent. He knew that his entire family had left Germany immediately after the end of World War Two. Although, he was never told the reasoning for this. If he ever asked, he would be roughly handled by his father for even mentioning it. As he grew up, a strong stigma began to develop. He was ashamed of being German, he had known what Germany had done in the war and even more so, knew the destruction that they had caused. Yet his father, his uncle’s and at times, strange visitors would never mention anything about their actions or placement during the war. Ralph* proceeds to tell me how it was always covered up, “nobody was allowed to ask questions. My father would say that we are here now, we are to only focus on the present and our future.”
He tells me of the the many times when odd characters’ would come to his family home at unusual hours. “They would knock on the door, my father would open, they would be bustled into the house and go strait into my fathers study. They would talk for hours as if they were having an important business meeting. Afterward they would stay for a quick meal and my father would then take them to the harbour to catch a boat. I would sometimes join him.” Ralph* tells me that many of the boats were heading toward South America.
At times these men would even stay in the area for days, weeks and in one case, a man named “Uncle Jose” stayed in a small apartment nearby Ralphs* home for just under a year.
Uncle Jose, would come over to the house for supper twice a week. It became a customary ritual. Ralph* was about six or seven at the time. ‘Uncle Jose’ seemed nice and kind. He would always bring them presents like chocolate and other delicious treats… It is later discovered by Ralph* that this man was none other than the notorious Dr Josef Mengele – Commando of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the well-known mass murderer of Jews and Gypsies alike.
One morning at about four or five, a loud commotion is heard from down-stairs. It was ‘Uncle Jose,’ he and Ralph’s* father were arguing loudly about something. Then, they both just took him to the harbour. It seemed to be a matter of urgency. After that he was gone and Ralphs* family never heard from him again. As a teenager, Ralph* distinctly remembered that his father would sometimes have violent nightmares late into the night. He would sometimes scream so loudly that the children would be woken. Ralph* was never told the reasons behind this and when he would ask his mother, he would be scolded for bringing it up, she would act as if she did not know what they were talking about. To Ralph*, this all seemed very strange.
At age twenty-one, Ralph* was asked to help his family pack up and move into a smaller home as four of his six siblings had gotten married or had gone off to college. While sorting through boxes in the attic, he came across an old, medium sized box that was hidden in a corner behind a large cupboard. The cupboard itself had been purposely blocked by many other boxes in the past. Ralph* thought that this was strange and so he took the box out from its hiding place, behind the cupboard. He was not prepared for the horror of what he would find inside. As he slowly broke open the seal, he continued to find it odd how it had been hidden away so carefully for no one to find. Once opened, the blood from his faced drained very quickly. His worst nightmare had become a reality. Inside the box was a faded Nazi S.S. Uniform. There were medals, Swastika emblems, photo’s, fake passports and other Nazi memorabilia. Within the box there was a photo of his father with Josef Mengele and another unidentified Nazi official. I do not have the heart to actually asked Ralph* who the third man is.
Ralph* recalls how he frantically called down to my mother, and when she came up to the attic, he showed her his shameful discovery. He tells of how she looked mildly surprised and tells him very firmly to ask his father about it. Ralph* went down to his father’s study and barged into the room holding this uniform tightly in my hand. His father closed the door very calmly and told him to sit down. He explained to Ralph* that he had been quite a high-ranking Nazi Officer whom was involved in the running of the Camp: Auschwitz-Birkanau.
Ralph then talks of his fathers brothers, who had served at the front-lines for the Fuhrers army, they had served in the Luftwaffe and even at Dachau Camp in Germany, “my girl,” he cries to me, “I was disgusted and appalled at my family’s actions. I just wanted to leave this place and get as far away from my family as possible. I felt as if my entire life had been a lie.”
Upon hearing his father’s ‘testimony’, Ralph* left South-West Africa abruptly. He moved to South Africa and severed all contact with his father. He married a local girl, also of German decent and had four children. In the late 1980’s his father became desperately ill, “he was on his death-bed and I felt that I could not leave things as they were.” says Ralph*, “when I went back home, I begged him to tell me why he did what he did, I told him that he cannot claim to be a true Christian and then act so thoughtlessly by murdering so many innocent people who had done nothing to deserve their terrible fate.” His father just responded, as many other Nazi’s did, that he was just following orders. However, he voiced to Ralph* he knew what was coming to him. The words ‘I’m sorry’ never left his lips.
Ralph’s* father died a few days later on December 25th 1987. “A very ironic day for a Christian…”.
Many years later Ralph* decided to look his father up on Google, he read of many atrocities that his father had been involved in and discovered that he had been listed as missing as of 1950. No further inquiries had ever been made into his disappearance. The fake passports that he had found in the box that day were the reason behind how his father, his brothers and the rest of his family had evaded prosecution all these years.
Ralph* proceeds to ask if I have lost any family in the Holocaust. I tell him that much of my mothers family were killed in Auschwitz and Treblinka. That my grandparents had escaped to South Africa just before the war but the rest of the family were unfortunately not so lucky. I also continue to tell him something of my fathers family that we have recently discovered. I had a great-great Uncle, named Judel who had made it through the Lithuanian Forests, joined the Partisans, was captured, sent to Auschwitz and then moved to Dachau. He was liberated near Munich on a death-march in 1945 and survived to tell his tale. Much of my fathers family were also murdered, this included Judels entire family.
With tears in his eyes, he takes my hand gently, “My dear girl,” his voice is quivering, “can you ever forgive me? I am so sorry for what has been done… I am sorry for the terrible atrocities that my father and his family carried out on your family and your Jewish people. It was a crime beyond comprehension – no good deed in this world can ever take back what my father did… I am so sorry.”
He bows his head and droplets fall from his face. I look at him sadly and thank him for his comforting words. I firmly tell him that I cannot hold him responsible for crimes that he had no hand in committing. “You, sir, are not your father. You have done nothing wrong.” My heart aches. I cry.
We sit for what seems like hours, a deep silence between us. He later tells me that he keeps the photograph of his father and Mengele (from Auschwitz Camp) in his desk draw as a reminder of the person that he must never become. When he loses sight of things, he takes the photograph out of that draw and looks at it. It tells him to always accept all people for whom they are and what they are. That the human race have no right to judge or discriminate, that we are all the same, flesh and blood put on this Earth by God to do his work.
I look down at my watch, lunch break is almost over. I have to leave for my next class. We stand up, we shake hands. It turns into a hug, warm tears spill. I trudge off toward the lecture theater without looking back.
After this encounter I have very mixed feelings. There is shock, awe, pain and confusion. I am amazed; that of all the tables this man could have chosen, he chose to sit at mine – the table with the only Jew in the room. I know that this is something beyond co-incidence.
My shock gradually turns to fascination, this experience is truly enthralling. I abruptly remember: Poland… The places I have seen. The places where my people were brutally murdered – Auschwitz, Majadanek, Krakow, Treblinka, the Ghetto’s…. there I had been – sitting, talking, interacting with the son of a Nazi. A man, who’s father had most probably had a great hand in murdering so many of my relatives. And yet, unbelievably, there we were, together, having a civilized conversation – he the son of a Nazi and I the great-niece of a Holocaust survivor. This is the true meaning of tolerance. Acceptance is the key.