Thursday, December 13, 2012

Found Him

I’m not sure how I was expecting to feel when I finally found him.   The SS officer who saved my mother was up until now just a story, told by my (adopted) grandmother in her later years.  My grandfather wrote a short note about him in his memoirs, relaying what had happened in the prison in Radom, Poland.    I knew lots of little things about this man, but I did not know his name.  I knew my adopted grandparents went to testify in favor of this man at his trial for war crimes, and that he was subsequently not hanged.    Searching through trial records at Yale and Harvard, there was no mention of their testimonies, their voices silent.

Last week I found his name.
A historian at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C was showing me tracing documents he had been able to find on my family.   He showed me a record of an interview with my grandfather undertaken by the Military Government of Germany in July 1945.  Suddenly I noticed a name I had seen two days prior.

My grandfather Mietek never told me what happened to him in the camps. At least publicly he wanted to move forward with life and leave the hell of Poland and Germany behind him.   It was only when I was in my twenties that Zdislaw, my grandfather by birth told me a little of what happened to both of them, as they were together in the camps until just before the Americans liberated Dachau.

Now I’m looking at Mietek's life history on a cold hard piece of paper…
Places of Detention:
Radom – Prison
Radom – concentration camp
Auschwitz – concentration camp
Vaihingen - concentration camp
Dachau – concentration camp
And then suddenly, the name.  The name of the man who interrogated them in Radom prison.  The name of the man who didn’t kill them.  The man who drove some forty kilometers to find my mother, a toddler left behind when  Ala and Mietek were arrested.  The name of this strange SS officer who packed a small suitcase for her and took her to a catholic convent, who ordered the Nazi soldiers stationed at the convent and the Sisters, “don’t harm a hair on her head”.

I’d seen this name a few days ago, sent to me by a historian in Poland.   A historian I was connected to because I sat next to a woman on a flight from Warsaw to Berlin.
 All the tourist books tell you not to talk about “The War” when you travel to Germany.  On the plane I was deciding what I would say to people when they asked me what I was doing in Germany.
“Oh, I’m Nazi hunting.”   That wasn't going to cut it.
Well, that was precisely my answer after the woman in the middle seat told me she was a German PhD student, interviewing descendants of parents & grandparents who had been in the war, studying the effect on their lives, one of them a grandchild of a war criminal.

The historian in Poland sent me one name.  The only name that matched the jigsaw of pieces of information from my grandmother that I’d sent him.
Now in D.C, I’m staring at the name.

That’s him.


Why was I so elated?  How could I allow myself to feel so pleased at this discovery?

He was a Killer
Yes but he didn't kill my family
He tortured.  You heard how she described the treatment he gave to other prisoners, didn't you?
Yes, but he gave my grandmother food after her interrogation.   She was so thankful. The prisoners were starving and he gave her food.
He was a Nazi, an SS officer for God’s sake!
Yes, but he did something human.  He didn't have to.  He was trained not to.  He saved a Jewish child.
So? Does that make up for all the blood shed?
No.  No.  But, if I can just understand what made a man like this step out of his role, perhaps we can learn something.
Learn what?
I don’t know yet.   All I know is that my Babcie, my Grandmothers are watching me.

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