A Modern and Depraved Mephistopheles

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.”

Mom in uniform
Mom in uniform

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.

Flo's dog tag

Author: Molly Martin

I'm a long-time tradeswoman activist, retired electrician and electrical inspector. I live in Santa Rosa, CA. molly-martin.com. I also share a travel blog with my wife Holly: travelswithmoho.wordpress.com.

10 thoughts on “A Modern and Depraved Mephistopheles”

  1. OH what a treasure you have found in your mothers scrapbook, photos, and journaling. My mom stayed stateside, volunteering in what she called the “Grey Cross.” Need to search that out. Her babies were born in ’42, ’45, and last, me, in ’48. I only recently found out that Daddy was never deployed, but spent the war stateside on base somewhere, being a pilot in the Army Air. He never told us where he spent the war. He, in fact, was a career man in the soon-to-be-called Air Force.

    I have had an obsession with the Shoah, Holocaust, and Jewish history since I was in 8th grade, 1961, my first term paper, and has continued since. Guessing your mother’s experience brought anguish into her life for many years, a vision impossible to erase. PTSD was not a known diagnosis then, I don’t think. Wondering how much your mother left out of her diary, things she’d rather have forgotten. Oh, for a glimpse into her heart and thoughts.


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  2. Quite an opening, Molly. That quote about the potential Mendelssohns and Einsteins–starved, tortured, stacked up–always gave me pause. Sometimes I think you and I may suffer from a milder form of the trauma that the children of Holocaust survivors write about–the complex pain that was passed on; the intense need to understand and interpret the parent’s experience; the expectations to excel; the burden of insuring that the world never forgets. Excellent beginning. Your adorning brother…

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    1. Yes, you are so right. I think it’s what Jill Soloway was showing us in her brilliant series Transparent. The trauma is passed down and is felt even by those who don’t remember. I have friends whose parents survived the camps, friends whose fathers were driven mad. How can this not affect children, even in this American culture where we are encouraged to forget history and live only in the present. My articulate and adorning brother, you are invited to add your thoughts to this blog if you like. No pressure, but I think your perspective would enrich the story.


  3. I love the photo. I can see your face in hers in a way that I couldn’t see in person when she was older (70!). You drew me right into your thinking with the intro paragraph.

    Liked by 1 person

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