At Dachau at war’s end my mother photographed stacks of corpses left by the fleeing Nazis. She was focusing on the bottom layer when she caught the movement of a human hand through the camera’s viewfinder. Her screams brought others, but of course, nothing could be done to save these victims of the Nazi holocaust. She later wrote: “…I wondered how many potential Mendelssohns and Einsteins there were among those wretched skeletons, and if, perhaps, the great Goethe might be turning in his grave about this modern and depraved Mephistopheles, Adolf Hitler, and what he had done to Goethe’s Germany.”
The question has haunted both my mother’s generation and my own post-war generation: How could a culture that produced such artistic and intellectual genius fall to such depths of depravity? And how do we keep it from happening to our own culture?
I know. Heavy, right? But I can’t help it. This is what I can’t stop thinking about in the emerging Trump era as I examine my mother’s scrapbook from her time in Europe during World War II. How did ordinary Germans ease Hitler’s rise to power? Why do people vote for demagogues?
My mother never found the answers to these questions, but she never stopped searching for them. I believe she would say that we must keep imagining a better world and remain active and involved citizens. In that regard she was a good role model who believed that knowledge of history can help us navigate our present. Although she was constantly disappointed that history was so seldom consulted by our leaders and policy makers.
I want to learn how the war affected my mother’s thinking. I’m also interested in what influenced her to become the person she was, a liberal thinker in the sea of conservative backwardness of Eastern Washington. I aspired to become my mother’s daughter. But what made her that way? Who was she, really?
I know she didn’t always tell me, her only daughter, everything. What secrets did my mother take to her grave? How did her experiences in the war shape her life and the lives of her generation and how did that history shape me and my generation? These are some of the questions I hope to explore as I attempt to tell about her two years in Europe during the war working as a Red Cross “donut girl.”
Mostly I’m just interested in my mom’s story. It’s a good one.