German heritage ignites a healing journey

Caroline Haase Atchison

For more than three years, I’ve been researching my family history — and I’m still doing it. When I received my DNA test results a few years ago, I was surprised, like the actors in the Ancestry TV commercials.

Instead of being primarily of German descent, I’m actually 50% Swedish, 24% Eastern European, 13% British, 5% Diaspora Jew, 4% Southern European and 3% from the Middle East. I called back and asked, “Is it really my genes?” The answer, “Yes.” The 13% of Britons was a real surprise. Could it be my grandfather’s mysterious father?

The irony is that I have spent much of my life running away from my German heritage. And for good reasons. I was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1961, at a time when people were more busy rebuilding their lives than dealing with the past. Oblivion seemed the key word. Nobody talked about the war years. But I wish someone had.

I first heard about the Holocaust through a documentary on German television. It was the late 1960s and I was waiting for Star Trek to come out. Instead, I learned the unimaginable. Concentration camps. Black and white images of hungry human beings looking at me with sad eyes behind barbed wire. Mass graves. Gas chambers. Six million Jews murdered in Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, Treblinka, Dachau…

I was in shock. How could people do this to other people? Why didn’t anyone shed a tear or even apologize? How could people continue to live as if nothing had happened? How could people become such monsters?

I began my ancestry research even then. My parents had to swear to me that there were no Nazis in our family. Every night before bed, our devoted — and weary — parents would read my brother and I a bedtime story or tell us a childhood prank they’d pulled. Like the time Dad pulled down Hitler’s flag “with the evil spider on it.” Naturally, there also had to be heroes in the Haase-Bussmann tribe. And luckily there were. There was Aunt Thea, who hid Jewish friends in her apartment in Berlin and helped them escape to Shanghai. There was General von Hase, who, like Darth Vader, had had enough of the “evil empire” and chose to participate in the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, only to end up hanging from the gallows himself.

In the late 1970s, after our parents divorced, our mother packed up our things and, in a gesture of defiance, moved us to sunny Southern California. Sun, surf and hikes on the big old Barney in Huntington Beach put a damper on all that darkness. At least for a moment. College was good, and so was my move to New York, where, through a work colleague, I met Dr. Hertha Einstein Nathorff.

Once a week, I would visit “Aunt Hertha” in her modest Upper West Side apartment to help her publish her diary of her life in Germany, only to find myself, cream, captivated by her stories of life in pre-war Berlin, her difficult new beginnings with her family in New York, and her visits with her cousin “Albertle” to Princeton. Even at 91, she hasn’t missed a beat. After all, she was an Einstein who, at 28, had been the youngest director of the Red Cross children’s hospital in Berlin, and later had fallen in love with the eminent Dr. Eric Nathorff, chief medical officer at Moabit Hospital. Both were forced out of their jobs with the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, and in 1938 immigrated to the United States. Like many refugees, they had lost everything and were lucky to be alive.

With my move to Los Angeles, my visits with “Aunt Hertha” came to an end. On occasion, I would try to visit a Holocaust museum, only to be so choked up that I could barely walk through the exhibit. Unlike my friends in Germany, who worked on the subject in high school, I never did. Deep in my psyche, the shame and guilt over Germany’s past never left me.

Life in Los Angeles was good, though. I took long walks on the beach with my dog ​​Max, fell in love with a ranger named Sky, and worked to protect beautiful open spaces and wildlife corridors in the Santa Monica Mountains. One of my happiest days was when I became an American citizen, as I thought I was no longer a German.

But my marriage didn’t last. And all the while, my discomfort with my legacy kept growing. I always feel sorry for people who detected a slight accent and innocently asked me where I was from. Or the blind date that took me to a nice restaurant and naively suggested that he would like to visit Germany one day. It was only when I struggled with a precarious financial situation that I thought, “How did my grandmother survive the war, with two small children? Until then, I had never really thought about what they had been through.

But still, everything was there. Haunts me. I knew I really had to do something about the guilt when I looked at an Excel spreadsheet I had created for work and all I could think of were the forms on which the Nazis had recorded the assets I had. they had taken from the Jews when they arrived. in the concentration camps.

And so my journey to healing began. In honor of the victims, I began with a visit to the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum and listened to the moving testimony of a survivor. I read the biographies of the survivors and slowly made my way to Germany’s reparations efforts and its culture of remembrance.

So many things have happened since we left. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was built, as well as the Jewish Museum and the Topography of Terror. The Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research was created, as was the Foundation for Remembrance, Accountability and Future. German schoolchildren are required to visit a concentration camp as part of their Holocaust education program. German artist Gunter Demnig creates “Stolpersteine” (stumbling blocks) to commemorate victims of Nazi persecution. In May, Sybille Steinbacher became the first professor of Holocaust studies in Germany, at Goethe University in Frankfurt.

When the American TV mini-series “Holocaust” aired in Germany in the late 1970s, helplines had to be set up to help people cope. About 10 years ago, a new field of study emerged that focuses on “war children” and “war grandchildren”, to help Germans heal from the effects of this traumatic time. I understand. I am one of those grandchildren.

About three years ago I moved to Tucson for personal reasons, and after discovering the Family History Center, I began my family research in earnest. I wanted to know if it was true that our great-grandfather, Opi Laub, was born a Jew but later converted to Catholicism, or if our great-great-grandmother really came from Sicily.

I have yet to find Opi’s conversion papers or my great-great-grandmother’s birth certificate, but I have learned that my maiden name, “Haase”, is actually a Jewish surname, just like other names in my family tree, such as Laub, Wegmann, Schipper, Sontheim and Herz.

What are their stories? When I looked at Yad Vashem’s database of Holocaust victims, Haase, Laub, and Herz have pages of entries. Could any of them, or some of them, be related to me?

The dark clouds of my German past begin to lift amid the rays of truth – and my journey of remembrance and healing continues.

Carolin Haase Atchison is a freelance writer in Tucson.