Bernd grew up in Northern Germany. He speaks about his childhood memories during and after the war, the role that National Socialism played in his family, and his mentally ill grandfather’s story.
B: My name is Bernd. I was born in September 1938, right before WWII; I was born in ——-, a town 30 km North-West of Hamburg, located by the river Unterelbe, where we lived until 1954. I am the oldest of seven siblings, and I am the only one who consciously witnessed and remembers the war or the time after the war. [00:00:49] My father was deputy mayor of the municipality but was relatively soon drafted because of the war starting. As a soldier, he then participated in basically all European theaters of war. He was very committed to and convinced of National Socialism, an idealist, I would say. He certainly… If he had any doubts, he suppressed them to maintain his ideal. And that’s what he stood for throughout the years, and, even after the war, he vindicated and justified this National Socialist regime, which he had supported practically from the very beginning – I think he joined the NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers’ Party] in 1929 already, and in the 1930s, during his studies, he was Studentenführer [leader of a National Socialist student organization] and advocated for the unemployed in the Unterelbe area. [00:02:14] Well, I mean, my mother was also involved in the system, she was BDM-Führerin, for example. Bund deutscher Mädel [League of German Girls], so a typical institution of the National Socialists, where young women were brought together and of course ideologically schooled, similarly to the HJ [Hitler Youth] for men. And, of course, there were big parades and so on… everything as the Führer [Adolf Hitler] wanted! [00:02:51]
L: Do you know when you started school?
B: Yes, in the fall of 1944.
L: And did something then change in the school after the war ended or did it remain relatively the same for you?
B: No, right after the war, we didn’t have any school. For a few months, I think.
L: But you did until then?
B: Yes. Yeah, as a first grader we even had a way to school, where we had to walk by foot for 15 minutes or something. We neither had a bicycle or a tricycle, and our parents didn’t have a car to drive us like it is today. You had to manage all that on your own. That means, our way to school was pretty tough and it even led through non-built-up areas and empty land. And there we experienced being shot at by low-flying planes on our way to school. And then we would just shout “Everyone lie down flat!“ in order to be less of a target. This was normal for us. I mean, of course this was also somewhat exciting, this can to some extent be exciting for children, yes. Of course, because we didn’t have the responsibility or the worries. [00:04:28]
Return of the Father from War
B: On this day, I was playing outside. I was, in general often outside… I mean, I’m not an intellectual. I’ve always been someone who really loved playing outside and always sat on trees or dug around in the mud somewhere, so that was more of my thing. Well, and on this day, I had been playing on the street and suddenly … a person, a man was standing in front of me. And I didn’t recognize my own father.
L: Because you hadn’t seen him in so long, or also because he looked so different?
B: He was also extremely thin, he looked really emaciated. [00:05:21]
B: For example, a family lived next to us, the ——- family. And one day after 1945, the military police stood in front of the neighboring house and they took Mr. ——- away. And he was said to have been somehow responsible for captive prisoners during the last years of the war, and that these prisoners were abused and even shot dead. In any case, he was executed. So I did experience these things. And on this occasion, the military police also searched our house, even though we didn’t have anything to do with that. That was… For me, of course, I thought, how dare they do this and enter our property as foreigners?! Of course, I didn’t realize at this point that a German government at this time didn’t even exist anymore. We were governed by the allied forces. All the power was with the occupying allied forces.
L: That means the sentiment towards the allied forces was not good?
B: Not at all. At least not in our case. And I’m certain that we weren’t alone in this feeling. [00:07:09]
Discourse around National Socialism in Society and Family
L: Do you think that it was possible to live during this time and not know that there was a systematic persecution and, eventually, annihilation of Jews?
B: Phhh…I don’t know, I think only very few people thought that far. They didn’t even think it was possible, such a thing. Well, of course it also was just not an issue that was discussed. No one talked about it, and if somehow a family disappeared just like that and you didn’t know, this also wasn’t discussed. This whole holocaust thing, the euthanasia [outdated, euphemistic term to describe the murder of people with disabilities or who were seen as unworthy of life] thing, and so on, that was a taboo subject even after the war. From the official side there also wasn’t anything done about this issue. Not even in politics.
L: Does that mean that if the subject of the holocaust came up that grandmother and grandfather just ignored it? Or did they actively say “No, this cannot be true, all of that was really different”?
B: Well, I cannot even remember a conversation… I cannot remember this ever consciously becoming a subject of conversation. As said before, this topic was hushed-up, kept completely silent. There were many people who… who knew within themselves that… that something had to have happened, but they refused to acknowledge or accept this. [00:09:21] In the first years after the war, when I was still fully at home, not in ——–, but still in Hannover, in Lemförder Straße…. There, these discussions also happened again and again. And my father, years after the war had ended, tried to justify and vindicate the time of National Socialism. Because he himself did not feel guilty, and somehow believed that something just went completely wrong. He even, at times, supported parties that spread unambiguously National Socialist ideas. He just was convinced of this ideology, he was an idealist in some sense. I think that even up to his death, he did not get past this. I don’t think he ever could. [00:10:34] And of course I experienced all this at first hand. This euthanasia thing and so on was, as I said, a taboo subject. Basically, I took up this issue later because I just wanted to know what really happened with my grandfather, my grandfather on my father’s side, the photographer, who was in a psychiatric hospital. But that with a certainty of 99,9% he was killed in a preliminary stage of euthanasia, as preparation, so to say, of mass murder, I did not know. And I think that my parents also did not want to know this. [00:11:35]
L: Was your father still alive when you started your research on this?
B: No, no… But I can still remember my mother’s frozen face, when I showed her the death list. Because there you could see it. The patient records of the psychiatric hospital were all destroyed – they did that secretly right before the German reunification to not become targets themselves. But the death list of who died when, on there you could very clearly see that within a short period of time a lot of people died at once. This case was also scientifically investigated – I had contacted an organization in Pirna, close to Dresden, that was also located on the property of a former psychiatric hospital, where this psychiatric hospital in the 1930s was made into an execution site, as a preliminary step to, so to say, the euthanasia in Auschwitz and the gas chambers. There, people examined, how fast you… well, how should I say this… they just wanted to know what the fastest way was to kill people. And there they tried that out. And the first victims were the mentally ill. My first assumption was that my grandfather was also gassed. But that was obviously not the case – in the psychiatric hospital where he was – that was located close to Grimma, in Zschadraß – no gas chamber existed… But instead they probably died by medication overdoses. And by… malnourishment and so on. They were basically systematically starved. [00:13:59] Yes, and my father, those are my father’s childhood memories, that he witnessed the progress of my grandfather’s illness. And the first years everything was still okay, but then he got increasingly sick and sicker. And then, relatively quickly, he was kept in a psychiatric hospital close to Dresden, I think in Groß Schweinitz or something like that. And then one day, some day during Christmas time or maybe even on Christmas Eve itself, I don’t know when exactly, he appeared in Loschwitz again, standing in front of the door. And prior to that the children – my father also had an older brother, Lothar – were told that their father was not alive anymore. You have to try to imagine that.
L: That is really traumatic.
B: Those were always my father’s nightmares… He had had a great imagination. And he re-lived these experiences vividly through his imagination.
—- = Name or place was censored
The interviews are given in the original language or a transliteration of it with preservation of national, regional and individual speech peculiarities.