Monday, July 15, 2013

My grandfather the “Nazi”

I received an email yesterday after I posted the announcement about my latest blog post to Facebook and to Google+.  A reader wanted to know why I would put a photo of a Nazi soldier on my announcement and why I would even have it on my blog at all.  That “Nazi” (who wasn’t a Nazi at all) was my grandfather August Weichert.  Yes, he is wearing a German uniform and yes he did fight for the Germans during WWII but he was anything but a Nazi.  You can read a little bit about him on “A Story From My Own Files” but that isn’t the whole story.  I am going to give you a little more detail. 

My grandparents were fairly well off and were living quite comfortably before the war.  My grandfather worked at the Bayer corporation as a barrel marker and my grandmother was from a prominent family in Köln (Cologne) When my grandfather was drafted, he didn’t want to go into the army because he knew he would be fighting against Poland.  His parents, his grandparents and his great-grandparents were all German but they lived in the area that would eventually become present day Poland. That is where my grandfather was born, Janiszewice, Łask County, Łódź Voivodeship, Poland.   Just before WWI, tensions were running high between the ethnic Germans and the ethnic Poles so my grandfather and his family fled back to Germany.  My grandfather was about 11 years old.  On the way back his father was killed.  His mother and all of his brothers and sisters made it back and they settled in the Köln area.  When WWII broke out my grandfather said he didn’t want to join the army because he didn’t want to fight Poland.  He still considered them his people. The Nazis came and took him anyway and they also took away everything that the family owned, their house and all of their possessions.  My grandfather was a skilled woodworker and my mother remembers a beautiful dollhouse that her father had made for her which she never saw again.  By the way, she never saw her father again either.

August’s family endured the air raids and the constant fear.  During one air raid in the middle of the night my mother ran outside half asleep toward the bomb shelter and right into the gate knocking her front tooth out.  My Uncle Karl thought it was pretty funny (brothers!).  Eventually my mother and her brothers lost both their father and their mother to the war and to the Nazis.  They were placed in a orphanage in Northern Germany far from their home.  They literally lost everything except each other.

My mother and her brothers remember the liberation well.  My mother remembers the Americans parading down the street tossing candy to the children.  The German people were happy to see the Americans because of all of the horrid things that happened to them because of the Nazis. The German people themselves hated and feared the Nazis as much as anyone else did.   

When my mother and I came to the United States for the first time we were called Nazis.  I was too young to understand but my mother certainly understood.  When I went to school the other children made fun of me and would say Heil Hitler!  I quickly learned to not tell anyone where I was born.

So when someone looks at my grandfather in his German uniform and calls him a Nazi I get a little defensive.  It might surprise you to know that even if my grandfather had been a Nazi I certainly wouldn’t hide the fact and I would have still posted his photo.  Why?  Because genealogists neither hide nor change history. 


August Weichert (1905-1949)

WeichertAugust01

                        1921, age 16                                                                1942, age 37


Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

24 comments:

  1. I'm sorry to hear that this ignorant person upset you Michelle.

    “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.”
    ― Benjamin Franklin

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  2. My grandfather died many years before I was born but when I look at his photo I can imagine myself giving him a hug and sitting on his lap as a child. I think he has a very kind face.

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  3. Quite a story, Michele. You literally could write a book about this and should seriously consider it. Your final sentence could be a post in itself! Thanks for educating us all about this controversial topic.

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  4. Thanks so much for your kind comments. There is still so much I don't know. my mother and her brothers were just teenagers when all of this happened. I have been trying to get their records from the orphanage (which still exists!) but have not been successful yet. My mother remembers that family members were asks if they could take the 3 children but no body could because they were all poor by that time and couldn't take on 3 more mouths to feed. Germany was just devastated. I want the orphanage records because I want to know who they listed as the official next of kin. My mother doesn't know what happened to several of her extended family members because after she was released from the orphanage and she came back to the area many of the family had left.

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  5. It is important for people to remember that not everyone who has ever worn a military uniform was a willing participant in the war. You are correct to get defensive when someone calls your grandather a Nazi.

    On the other hand, when someone posts a photograph of a relaative in any military garb without indicating otherwise, I don't think it's an unnatural assumption to assume that the individual was participating willingly in the war, and that the descendant is proud of that participation. If that isn't the case, I don't think it's unnatural to expect some disclaimer with the post. And some people are a lot more sensitive to certain military uniforms than others.

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  6. Amazing! You definitely can take this one and run with it! It challenges the pre-conceived notions many people harbor without perhaps even knowing it.

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  7. Okay, you got me there, John. I can see your point. You are saying that the emailer could have assumed that my grandfather was a Nazi and I was proud of that fact so I was displaying his photo. When I look at old photos I take a very neutral view. I don't really assume anything because I don't know the context but I guess that others don't do this.

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  8. I love this post - it really reminds us of the various situations families go through to get where we are today. I have several ancestors who owned large plantations and many slaves before the Civil War - while it's not something we would be proud of today, it is history and I'm proud to know that my ancestors participated in it.

    I hope you are able to get the orphanage records so that, maybe, you can put more of the puzzle together. And I agree - your grandfather has a very kind face.

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  9. Ah yes, I have a collection of slave holders in my file. It is what it is. I have an obligation to report history accurately so this isn't anything that I would ever hide. I have approx. 40 ancestors/relatives that served in the Civil War on the Confederate side.

    This of course makes me want to go off on a tangent... Most people don't know that the main issue that the South had was not the abolishment of slavery per se but rather state's rights.

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  10. Reading the text of the Statements of Secession filed by the various Southern legislatures make it quite clear that Slavery was the only State's Right that the legislatures were interested in. (I haven't read all of them, but the ones I have read seem quite clear to me.)

    But the reason a state legislature decided to secede, and the reason the individual citizens fought are two different things. Same as it is today. Why someone decides to join the armed services and fight in any given war isn't necessarily the same reason the government has.

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  11. Here's a link to four of the secession statements.

    http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html

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  12. It was complicated. The crux of the matter was economic. The southern states relied on agriculture while the northern states relied on industry/tradesman. The south used slaves for plantation labor. The north (who also had slaves) didn't need the same sort of workforce that an agricultural industry died so slavery wasn't near as prevalent in the north. When slavery was officially abolished, the south viewed it as taking away their right to make their own decisions about what was best for their own state. Their entire economy was in jeopardy and the decision was being made by people who didn't have the same issues and concerns. Slavery was the overt issue but the underlying issue was that of state autonomy. The south also felt that the north wanted to put them out of business so to speak because the south had become very wealthy and successful.

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  13. Look at the first part of what SC said...

    "The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue."

    Though it does mention slavery in particular, the underlying issue was that of state's rights. Our original constitution called for a weak central (federal) government and a strong state government. The states felt that the federal government was overstepping its bounds.

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  14. When the only right they were complaining about was the right to own slaves, to suggest the legislatures weren't seceding because of slavery but because of state's rights is playing with semantics.

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  15. Slavery was catalyst. If the south had acquiesced, it would have set a precedent that the federal government trumps the rights of the states. Actually, that is where we are at now. Over time, the federal government has assumed more power making it stronger and the states weaker. The only responsibilities the federal government was given in the constitution were national defense, national currency, postal service, treaties/alliances and regulate interstate commerce. The south felt that the federal government was assuming too much power and that the northern states were in control of the federal government. Please know that I am playing devil's advocate here. I am in no way condoning slavery.

    A lot of people don't realize that there were slaves is the northern states too. Here is a good article by Douglas Harper http://www.slavenorth.com/ There is a link to the authors credentials and bio. As mentioned, there was less of a need for slave labor in the north so they didn't have the numbers that the south did. (Again, just to be clear, I am just reporting what was going on during this time period).

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  16. It is a shame how some people call themselves a genealogist when they do not know what it is. I bet they have dug up many skeletons and store them in the closet because they are ashamed of their heritage. Everyone has good and bad people in their tree and most are proud of their heritage. Don't let these ignorant people upset you, be proud of your heritage (which your story shows you are). Everyone's heritage comes from other countries. Mine is MacGregor and what they were accused of and branded for by the then king is atrocious. But they are still my heritage.

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  17. I would love to hear your MacGregor story! Is it posted anywhere?

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  18. Your grandfather looks rather sad to me in this picture. It makes me wonder what atrocities he'd seen that made him look so sad. There's a good lesson here: don't make assumptions. One of my favorite quotes is by George Santayana: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." How can we learn if we keep the unpleasant hidden and don't tell the stories like this one? Good for you for putting it out there!

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  19. I'm sorry but I disagree on this level. I think it is selfish to participate in an activity that is horrible, one that just kills people and claim you had no choice. I would rather try to attempt to escape and be shot possibly in my attempt to escape being apart of it or be imprisoned but I would NOT participate in killing Innocent people and doing horrible things to them or stand by an watch and not try to help them in some way secretly or try to free some of them when I can, when I would be on watch. People can dispute this all you want but with the depth of my soul i don't think I can stand by watch those things happen to people and sway because I was drafted I had to. People went against many things even then when they felt it was wrong. It think it is also a sign of courage to do that. Some people who were killed then, were some who stood up for themselves and their right to live and for their families, so I don't see why someone in uniform who has access to a gun wouldn't.

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  20. Meena, it is easy to say things like that when you have no comprehension of what was going on in Germany during this time. I saw your photo on your blog and I can say with some certainty that based on your age you have not lived through a war. You do what you have to do to survive. August's wife and children had been threatened and everything was taken away from them. Unless you have lived through this I don't think you can make this judgement. His wife ended up being shot and killed and his children taken away. I debated on whether or not I should allow your post to be posted to the blog but I did post it because I think it teaches a valuable genealogy lesson. There are many things that you will find in your family history that you might question but unless you were there and lived through you can't judge.

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  21. I have to agree with John that the "states' rights" argument was just a ruse used to legitimize the South's fight for the right to own slaves - or, in other words, their fight for the right to continue denying others their *human* rights (which, I would add, negates the "state's rights" argument. Unless it is going to be argued that blacks had no Constitutional rights and that "state's rights" trump any protections that blacks had under the Constitution, I fail to see how "state's rights" could ever be a legitimate, Constitutionally-sound argument for the Confederacy.)

    Additionally, the Vice President of the Confederacy made it very clear why the South fought the war in his "Cornerstone Speech":

    "Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition"

    Note that Stephens makes the very strong and telling statement that the Confederacy was "founded" not on strong beliefs in "state's rights", but based on the belief that blacks were naturally inferior to whites and served no other purpose in life than to be slaves to white people.

    It was also written into the Confederate States Constitution that no state would have the right to ban slavery. So, even if a Confederate state *wanted* to ban slavery, it would never have the right to do so. So much for "state's rights".

    It should also be noted that under the Confederacy and mandated by the Confederate States Constitution, Confederate states would have lost certain rights that they held as U.S. states. Where was the concern about "state's rights" there?

    It often seems to me that some people only oppose action by the federal government when those actions do not complement their personal biases and ambitions, as was the case when the South seceded. Unfortunately, many of the same people who complain about overreach by the federal government have no qualms about its overreach concerning social issues.

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  23. And he is NOT wearing a Nazi uniform, any more than a GI wears a KKK robe.
    The uniform is Wehrmacht as in regular army.

    People are very good a jumping to conclusions. Much like the recent case of a Japaneses pop group being deamonized for wearing so called Nazi style uniforms. Yes they were black but the cut was that of a WW2 allied Nurses cape/jacket

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