When researching your family history, there is always a chance you will find a dark secret, or a skeleton in the closet, or the random tyrant or warlord. There is more of a chance you will discover your ancestors were honest hard-working people who got up in the morning, slogged away at whatever job they had, returned home in the evening and sank into bed to sleep peacefully until the next day. Of course, they most likely also looked after children because without your ancestors producing children, there is a good chance you wouldn’t exist. There are so many ordinary families out there, odds are most people will research their family tree and find more than one of them.
There is no reason to be ashamed of being part of an ordinary family and every reason to be proud. Ordinary families have helped build countries, ordinary people have changed the course of history. In many countries women would still not have the vote, but for the ordinary women who joined together to create an extraordinary movement. There would still be segregation if ordinary men and women hadn’t stood together and, in some cases, lost their lives because they strongly believed in equality.
For their time, place and circumstances, my father’s family were no different to other families around them. Because of our German ancestors who had invaded and settled in what is now known as Latvia some 700 years before, they were part of a minority ethnic group who just happened to hold most of the land and therefore the power. I would like to think they were benevolent to the peasants who worked their lands, but documentation specifically about my grandparents and great grandparents is difficult to find. History tells us most of the landowners treated their workers badly. That’s my first dark secret.
It was no wonder that eventually the masses would rise and throw these Baltic Germans out of the country. So, these fairly ordinary people suddenly became refugees. They lost their homes, their wealth and their country, because after your family has lived in a country for over 700 years, you consider you belong there. So, they muddled along as best they could with what they had left. Then came WWII.
I am confident my immediate family did not join the SS. I applied for and received the army records of my father which show him in the Wehrmacht (the German army) transferred from unit to unit, fighting on all the fronts. My uncle, also in the Wehrmacht, died on the Eastern Front. I don’t believe my grandfather was ever drafted.
But one of my father’s cousins did join the Nazi Party, became an Obersturmführer (senior assault leader) and was responsible for evacuating Jews and eventually non-Jewish Poles from Poland, in order to resettle Germans in the area. Definitely not a nice person and my second dark secret. I would be happier if I could claim someone like Hans or Sophie Scholl, of the White Rose resistance movement, as family members but, as the saying goes, we can choose our friends but not our family.
I hope I have now discovered the only dark secrets in my family’s history but I doubt it. Now I must wrestle with the guilt I feel for the crimes my ancestors might have committed. But that’s another post.