The Nazis’ Legacy of Silence

This week an essay by Jessica Shattuck in The New York Times caught my attention. Entitled “I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi,” it recounts how the author tried to reconcile her grandmother’s connection to the Nazis with the sweet and gentle woman she knew. At best, her grandmother gave stock responses or evasive answers to her many questions about that time. The essay resonated especially sharply with me. Having helped a German born, naturalized American doctor write his memoir, Backbone: The Life and Game-Changing Career of a Spinal Neurosurgeon, I recognized in it what I think of as the Nazis’ legacy of silence.

I was thinking about that silence, anyway, in preparing to respond to fellow writer and blogger Charli Mills’s flash fiction prompt this week: to write about an audience. As it happens, there is a moving scene in Backbone, wherein my author, Dr. Volker K. H. Sonntag, is to give a keynote speech in Berlin to a combined convention of German and American neurosurgeons. Like Sonntag, the German doctors had all been born during the war or immediately following the defeat of the Nazis. As Dr. Sonntag explains in the story:

After casting around for a topic I could get my teeth into, I decided to call on my own experience as a naturalized American born in East Germany in the last days of World War II, just as the Russians were massing at the border like a cresting wave. I called the presentation “A Personal Reflection of the Cold War.”

Brochure on the United States Refugee Program, 1950sWhen I first met Dr. Sonntag 4 1/2 years ago, this was the story we set out to tell in his book: how, in the last days of the war, his mother fled the East with her infant son, Volker, and his brother in tow; how, after the defeat of the Nazis, the family languished in an allied refugee camp for 4 years; how their brief postwar recovery was halted by a brain abscess in his father’s parietal lobe that destroyed his career as a dentist; and how they immigrated to the United States in 1957, where the young man overcame further adversities to realize his version of the “American Dream”—and came to grips with Germany’s Nazi past.

Backbone: The Life adn Game-Changing Career of a Spinal Neurosurgeon by Volker K. H. Sonntag, MD
Dr. Sonntag’s memoir, to be released May 2, 2017.

While that version still exists, the current book relegates that story to the background and focuses on Dr. Sonntag’s remarkable career as a pioneering spinal neurosurgeon. Certainly the story of his rise in the high-stakes world of neurosurgery is no less thrilling than his immigrant chronicle. But it was that earlier account that came to mind this week.

The questions Miss Shattuck grapples with are those that Dr. Sonntag and his contemporaries have struggled with, at even less of a distance. He was born to educated, bourgeoise parents in late 1944, in the walled city of Graudenz, which was then in East Germany and is now the Polish town of Grudziądz—”a city,” he writes, “that was fast becoming a landscape of bombed-out craters and smoking ruins.” He does not believe his parents were Nazis. But though historical hindsight has filled in many gaps for him, it has also posed questions his parents never answered, among them:

The Nazis roll into Poland in 1939.
Nazi Panzers roll into Poland in 1939.

I don’t know if my parents had already moved to Graudenz when, five years earlier, on September 3, 1939, Hitler’s Panzers rolled down its cobble-stoned streets to cheers of jubilation from the minority German population (and to the horror of the Poles), but it was in this town on the Vistula that had found itself part of Prussia, then modern Germany, then Poland, and now at my birth, Germany again, that my father decided to establish his dental practice and his family.

Like Ms. Shattuck, he wonders about his father’s and mother’s experience. What did his parents feel about the Nazis? Did they witness the persecution of the Jews? Did they know of the concentration camps? Did his father (as some anecdotal evidence suggests) defy the Nazis early on? Were they, in the end and by nature of their complacency, complicit in one of the greatest mass acts of evil history has known?

Those questions and more have not diminished in urgency, as Ms. Shattuck’s essay, and its reach, have shown. And while the children and grandchildren of the generation that brought Hitler to power have gone on with their lives and done good deeds—and, in Europe, become the cornerstone of a pan-European peace-keeping effort—they can never quite escape the stigma of Germany’s great sin.

The issue of the Nazis was a very sensitive one for my client to address in his book. But address it he did in scenes such as the one I mentioned earlier, where, in 2004, Dr. Sonntag delivers his “Personal Reflections of the Cold War” to an audience of stoic German doctors. Seeing their reaction, he concludes:

“It seemed that what had happened to my family, and to me, was a piece of a larger story that many Germans of my generation have been unable to tell, or even to explore for themselves. After all, our stories stemmed from our family histories, and who wanted to hear about the hardships German people faced after the war? Who wanted to hear how the generation of Germans who had brought the Nazis to power overcame adversity, did good work, loved and sacrificed for their children?

And it is that scene that has provided my response to Charli’s flash fiction challenge this week: March 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about an audience. It can be broad or small, and gathered for any reason. How does your character react to an audience? Is the audience itself a character. Go where the prompt leads.

So imagine now that generation to which Dr. Sonntag belongs, a generation that inherited both the ignominy of the Nazi legacy and the silence to which that legacy condemned his parents’ generation—and their families. Imagine a cadre of very successful members of that first postwar generation gathered together to reflect on their experience. Here then, named after and modified from the chapter in the book in which it appears, is my flash.


When I’d finished speaking, the air in the hall felt like a single, collective breath being held. Then clapping surged, a hard rain on a tin roof.

Several fellow Germans made their way to the podium.

“Very fitting, Doctor,” one said, his voice breaking. “I’ve not thought about those days in so long.”

“Your story is my own,” said another. “No one has talked about what happened to us after the war.”

Last was the distinguished head of a large hospital. Blinking through tears, he took my hand. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m very grateful.”

My own throat closed.



8 thoughts on “The Nazis’ Legacy of Silence

  1. Isn’t it funny? 99 words, no more, no less, yet there is so much behind the words we respond with.
    Thank you for the response to the prompt and the background for it.

  2. I’m sure this book would be very interesting, and it’s important no doubt for the German people to come to terms with their ancestors’ actions, and to realise that they are not responsible for them. I read an interesting YA novel by Australian author Jackie French entitled “Hitler’s Daughter” in which she explored what it might be like to be Hitler’s descendant. I also read a memoir by Australian actor Magda Szubanski called “Reckoning” in which she revealed that her father was an assassin in the Polish Resistance. I think it’s important for such stories to be told to help us develop some understanding, empathy and compassion, and to realise that we are not responsible for the “sins” of our fathers or mothers.
    Having said all that, for that is what you got me thinking about, your flash is excellent in the way that it shows the importance of having a voice and of expressing feelings. Only through that can healing occur.

    1. Yes, it was difficult coming at the whole issue of his parents’ generation, and in the original book the theme of generational silence is much more developed. Dr. Sonntag was 12 when the family immigrated in 1957. He knew nothing about that period of recent history until a neighbor boy called him a Nazi. When he asked his mother what a Nazi was, she gave a vague answer. And we both worried about how to convey the pain the Germans experienced–the separation of families and destruction of the country and deaths (his uncle was a Luftwaffe pilot who was shot down at the age of 20)–in light of the magnitude of horrors the Nazis’ victims endured. The books you mentioned sound interesting. It seems the fascination with that period endures.

  3. Great flash, Jeanne, and a fascinating story behind it. It’s important that we keep exploring the different perspectives on that shocking period of history to avoid polarising people into the two categories of innocent victims and perpetrators. Some stories might be easier to tell, or to hear, because they fit with our expectations, but all need to be heard. And your client was lucky to have you to help him to find a way of telling his to an audience that could hear him.

    1. It did take time finding a way to approach it. In a first draft of the telling, a friend of mine who read it really objected to my making my client’s father or other Germans of that time sympathetic. She kept bringing it back to the magnitude of what the Germans had done to the Jews. But having delved deeply into his family history and pored over old photos with him, it was hard not to mourn the loss they experienced too. And who can ever know what individual Germans did under the circumstances in which they found themselves. Or what we would do under such conditions. Thanks for dropping in Anne.

  4. Such fascinating material. At first, I thought this was a different project, but now I see the Dr. is the spinal neurosurgeon. You must have so much material in your mind, I’m sure there remain interesting avenues to explore such as in response to the NYT essay. The flash gives me a deeper idea of Dr. Sonntag.

    1. Yes, still mining the doctor’s stories. You know I ended up writing two books, the first a more personal life story including much more about his background and early struggles. There’s a great character in that one, Uncle Rudy, the only member of the family to join the Nazi party and to come out of the war with his finances intact. And his wife Tante Tutti, who in the 70s suggests that what Germany needs to fix the economic problem was “eine kleine kliene Hiter” — a little Hitler. Dr. Sonntag is an amazing person. Check out his website sometime….(as if you have the time!) I loved the historical photos he shared with me and there’s a photo gallery there of some great historical pics.

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