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.”
When 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.
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:
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.