Last year, around Anzac Day, I discovered this article written by Minna Muhlen. As I read it I felt such relief, relief at finding someone else in Australia who is potentially struggling with the same emotions as I am. I debated with myself for quite a while, should I contact the author, or should I simply remain silent, empathising with her thoughts but fearful of putting mine into words? In the end I decided that this opportunity, to talk to someone with a similar experience and living in the same country, will not present itself very often and so I made contact.
What followed was a series of phone calls and emails, each of us sharing our journeys through the minefield of mixed emotions one has when an immediate member of your family fought on the wrong side of history. In my case, my father who was drafted into the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the war; in Minna’s case, her grandfather who was forced into the Wehrmacht at the bloody end of a tattered war. My father survived the war, bitter and no doubt suffering from PTSD, but alive. Minna’s grandfather was not so fortunate.
Yesterday, Minna and I finally met in person. She was in Melbourne and came to my place. We spent the next few hours talking about our families and sharing our research. Our conversation was punctuated only by Google searches for WWII articles, Eastern European towns and maps of the places our father and grandfather fought. We come from different generations but have similar feelings about the time our father and grandfather spent in the Wehrmacht. We know the government they fought for were in the wrong and perpetrated massive atrocities which should never be forgotten. However, neither my father nor Minna’s grandfather wanted to serve in the German Army but, when given no other option, they did so bravely. I believe I speak for both of us when I say we are proud of them.
It isn’t easy to feel pride for your relatives and still have regrets that your family were on, not only the wrong side but the losing side. It feels slightly schizophrenic to carry this pride alongside of the horror and dismay at the barbarities committed by Hitler and the Nazi Party. For me, it doesn’t help that my extended family refuse to talk about the war or tell me any stories about their experiences. I understand their refusal, but I simply want to comprehend that time in history and learn more about my father and how he would have felt at the time. Slowly, through many hours of research and translation, I’m hoping to build a better picture of my father, who was born a refugee, was drafted at the age of 19, became stateless at the end of the war and who never wanted to have children.
I’m glad I decided seize the opportunity to contact Minna. We now have a connection which I hope will grow, not only for sharing research but also as emotional support. I know I will be there to support her if she ever needs it and I’m sure she will do the same for me.