I’m looking at an old photo album with my grandmother. She points to a picture of her father and tells me the now familiar story: My great-grandfather fought for Germany in World War I and when the war was over, he was afraid that war would come again. He didn’t want to experience another war, nor did he want my grandmother to grow up in post-war Germany. So he took his wife and daughter to America. Even now, my grandmother feels the pain at being parted from friends and family, and she points at pictures of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, telling me their stories. I peer at the tiny faces, knowing what they must only suspect, that another war is coming and wondering what their war experiences were like, longing as always to know what is going on behind the motionless faces in old photographs. My grandmother points to a friend and tells me that he died when he was 18. “Was it during the war?” I ask, and my grandmother says nothing, just turns the page. We look at more photos, more people that she lost and, eventually, she turns a page and I see a death notice with a swastika on it. I don’t know how to conclude this. I don’t know how I feel. I knew that her friends and family must have fought in World War II, but actually seeing a swastika in a family album feels like a kick in the stomach.
My children go to a Waldorf school. Waldorf schools were founded in Germany, after World War I. Their founder, Rudolph Steiner, wanted to educate children in a way that would make it impossible for them to grow up and start wars. My grandmother smiles when I tell her this. I think about how my own great-grandfather must have felt much the same way that Steiner did, but his solution was to leave Germany, and bring up his daughter somewhere safer, somewhere less broken. I think that my great-grandfather was less heroic than Steiner was, or maybe just less idealistic, less optimistic. I think about my grandmother’s family, left behind in Germany. We all want to think that we would be on the right side of history, that we would be heroes. But most of us are just ordinary people, striving for self-preservation.