My latest short story, dedicated to my own grand-father. Pour toi, Henri.
The young man in full uniform staring at me from the black and white photo is handsome. I have turned the pages of this family album dozens of times. I have looked at those photos again and again but have never really thought about this young man and his life story. To me, he was simply my grand-mother’s younger brother.
The next page shows my grand-mother, Alice: a tall and handsome woman, with dark curly hair and a freckled face. On those photos taken in 1942, I see a strong, defiant woman who is holding her chin high.
Germany defeated France in the spring of 1940 and soon after, Adolf Hitler annexed Alsace, where my family had lived for generations. Berlin took full control of the region and as soon as 1942, many Alsatians were drafted into the German Army, the Wehrmacht, and forced to fight against the Allies. Those men were called the malgré-nous (against our will). Jean, Alice’s husband, my grandfather, was one of them. Jean was sent to fight on the Eastern Front, in Russia, where he disappeared, leaving behind his young wife and two toddlers. The youngest was my mother. Alice had to wait ten years before Jean was declared missing in action and she could be considered a war widow, move on or even remarry. I often wondered how my grand-mother had managed to survive the war, deal with her husband’s uncertain fate and care for two small children.
On a beautiful spring day of 1985, when I showed the photo album to my then boyfriend, my family identity was shattered.
I was going through the pages, showing the black and white photos to Claude, when he stopped me and pointed to the photo of the handsome man in uniform. “Who is this?” he asked. “My grand-mother’s brother, why?” I couldn’t read Claude’s expression very well, but he seemed intrigued, shocked maybe. “Do you know what kind of uniform this is?” he asked. No, I didn’t. My boyfriend took a deep breath then told me it was a German uniform, but more specifically the SS uniform. “What? No, that cannot be…” I said.
Claude explained that while men like my grand-father Jean were drafted against their will into the German army, a small minority of Alsatians volunteered and became members of the Wehrmacht. I was stunned. I remembered the documentaries, the books and my father’s recollections of the war. I suddenly understood why my mother always cut him off. She didn’t like war stories; she didn’t want to hear war stories.
I was shocked. The SS were the worst with their senseless brutality, the massacres, the concentration camps… someone in my family had willingly taken part in those atrocities? Was my grand-mother Alice torn between her husband and her brother or was she too busy fighting for her own survival?
That night, when my mother came home from work, I asked her about her uncle and mentioned Claude’s comments. Yes, she knew, she admitted. Her mother, Alice, knew, everyone knew. “Yes, he was a Nazi. He had no choice,” I couldn’t believe how matter-of-factly my mother replied. “You can’t change the course of history” she added. “No, but you can remove that photo from the family album,” replied my self-righteous, rebellious teenage self. “This man has no right being in there.”
As always, there was no possibility of a dialogue with my mother. She was right, I was wrong. End of the discussion. I sulked; she gave me the silent treatment.
A few days later, the black and white photo of the man was still in the family album. His uniform had simply been cropped out.