“We didn’t know” was a kind of mantra for her on the long walks we took when I visited her at the farm she lived on, not far from where she grew up. “But didn’t you hear what Hitler was saying?” I would ask, grappling with the moral paradox of a loving grandmother who had been a Nazi.
My grandmother would shrug and answer something like, “He said a lot of things — I didn’t listen to all of them.” Didn’t she see Jews being rounded up and taken away, or at a minimum, harassed by the police? No, she maintained, not in the countryside where she lived. And anyway, she was focused on her own problems, on making ends meet and, once the war began, protecting her children.
This insistence on her own ignorance was an excuse, and I didn’t and still don’t accept it. It is impossible that she wouldn’t have known of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism and the Nazis’ objective of ousting Jews, whom Hitler had falsely (but successfully) linked to a Bolshevik terrorist threat. But did she follow what she knew of Hitler’s plan to its horrific, unimaginable end? In the late 1930s there was talk of sending Jews to Madagascar and to “settlements” in the east. But even if she believed this, why wasn’t she appalled at the injustice? At the dangerous stripping of rights?