To see part of the interview and Derenburg, where my grandfather was taken, click the following link: Derenburg.
It was quiet. That was the first thing I noticed. The floor creaked under my weight as I pushed through the door, but overestimating its willingness to open, I slammed the door against its supporting wall, slicing through the silence. The sound echoed across the ballroom walls as Guenther Eisenhauer and I stepped in. Gary trailed behind staring down into the screen of a Sony EX1 pointed at our backs. Large headphones covered most of the top of his head. I stopped moving and let the silence sit. Gary settled into a shot that he wanted. Here, in the Weisser Adler in Derenburg, was where the Gestapo took my Half-Jewish grandfather and his brother as forced laborers. I found myself standing alongside a former Hitler Youth member and good friend of my grandfather. For the first time, I stood in a place my grandfather wrote about as a 21 year old man.
My first interview with Guenther was not what I expected. Nor was my second. Or the third. Gary (my faculty advisor) and I filmed for three days straight in Hannover, Germany, and ate the freshest meats and cheeses one can eat. To get there, we took a taxi, train, bus, plane, then another plane, then a car to a quiet and remote neighborhood with green landscapes that gave any North Carolina countryside a run for its money. Landing in the dark of night, and being driven through quasi-urban streets with rivers and deciduous trees felt very close to home. The stories we heard shortly after, however, did not.
I learned many things about Guenther Eisenhauer this weekend. He is a complicated man and a principled man. We were his guests, and as such, he and his wife treated us with splendor fit for a king. After Guenther and his wife drove us to Derenburg and the Weisser Adler, I figured the least I could do was to treat them to lunch. Guenther and Traute (his wife), however, refused immediately. While we were their guests, they were going to take care of us. And take care of us they did. In the interviews, we talked in great length about his life and my grandfather’s life. They met in Atlanta, well after the war. In a small world moment, Guenther’s daughter ended up staying at my grandfather’s home because of mutual friends. When Guenther came to pick up his daughter, they had dinner at my grandfather’s home. Afterwards, Guenther and his daughter were walking down the hallway, and they saw a picture of a building in Frankfurt. He turned to his wife and said, that is where I grew up. My grandfather overheard him and told him, “me too.” Needless to say, they talked in great length that night. My grandfather talking most of the time, Guenther content to listen.
It is an undeniable fact that Guenther Eisenhauer served proudly in the Hitler’s Youth, but it is also an undeniable fact that this absolutely did not factor into my grandfather’s trusting and respecting the man he met that night in Atlanta. Guenther served the Hitler Youth as a young boy, and, afterwards, carried a heavy burden for what happened, as he grew up and learned the facts. Guenther was also the reason that the diary of my grandfather’s was translated into English and is the reason that I now can use it today for my film.
A lot of our conversations revolved around the time immediately after the war, the time period when Jewish families who were victimized began asking for compensation. My grandfather wrote on this topic when his mother was considering applying for compensation (her husband and daughter were killed by Nazi persecution). Guenther and my reactions to the following quote differed greatly before this weekend; now I am not so sure. While listening to a conversation of politics among workers of the railroad (where my grandfather worked after the war), he wrote on September 26, 1945, “By this I do not mean to shelter any Nazi. Absolutely no way!… Are they (the workers discussing politics) more victimized than, say, a German woman who will never see her sons again or will only see them maimed, and who, beyond that, feels herself deceived in her holiest thoughts? Or are they worse off than the widow of a concentration camp Jew, who, after all the years of struggle, grief and deprivation, can now claim her only compensation, that she is free of the Nazi terror, yet who now finds herself in virtually the same circumstances as before and unable to gain any material advantage there from.
Oh, there is much that is not like it should be or as it was promised.”
The widow of a concentration camp Jew he refers to is his mother. He is putting her situation on par with the situation of a Nazi sympathetic household who lost their sons in the war. Guenther said in response to this, “he is a very un-political man.” He finds my grandather’s personal take on the situation and his ability to forgive to be refreshing. But, he also feels that my grandfather is too unwilling to stand against the forces that caused his family’s and other families’ predicament. My grandfather’s trust in an “un-political” and higher order to the world takes away from his ability to face the reality of the situation.
On the other hand, however, the old saying rings true, “two wrongs do not make a right.” Perhaps his ability to forgive should be commended and, ethically speaking, we should be careful about how we categorize people into good and evil. It is true, that many German’s were victimized by the war in that they trusted a government that led them astray. It is an easy reaction to say that all people who did not stand against the Nazis are wrong. But, I think to myself, would I stand against them if it meant the lives of my own family were at stake? And could I see through all the lies that the Nazi’s told?
It is true that there are irreparable evils that were committed, and never would I consider belittling or forgetting this. And, it is also true that I can not pretend that my grandfather’s story even compares to the horrors of Jewish concentration camps. But still, I feel we have an obligation to know the facts and to learn from them. So, 60 years after the war, what is ethical? Should we always hate or punish those that played a part, even if it means an elderly man who joined the Hitler Youth as a small boy? I think not. I believe it would be unethical to hold his actions during the war against the man I met. But what about others, people we have never met?