I never wanted to write this memoir
I first discovered my grandfather’s diaries after my mother’s death, hidden behind books. Although it was already late at night, I started to read immediately. My grandfather, Api as I called him, had given me my first stable home after the war, and I had spent the happiest days of my childhood with him. Since my father had been killed in the war, he was both father and grandfather to me. As I opened the first of the two little green notebooks, I noticed that each entry was in the form of a letter to my grandmother, mother, and even me, a baby. We had fled the city in February 1945 while Api had stayed behind to serve as doctor during the final period of round the clock bombing before the fall of Berlin. Starting in April 1945, he recorded his experiences every day:
“Towards evening, the sky to the east is a ghastly sea of smoke. I creep out at ten o’clock at night to the clinic under whistling grenades and bombs, a wilderness of fire and dust, behind it, although already high in sky, the blood-red moon.”
Still reading while the first light broke in the sky, I came upon something that hit me like a punch to the gut: my beloved Api had been a member of the Nazi Party. For a while I sat there with a pounding heart, unable to move, and then I hid the diaries again, just as my mother had done, not even telling my husband Mike.
Two years later, Mike and I were relaxing in a coffee house when suddenly I started to cry, and my secret burst out. To my surprise Mike said that I needed to write about the diaries and show how ordinary people get caught in a totalitarian regime. That thought kept me awake at night, and yet I couldn’t get started. It felt like a betrayal. However, for the first time in my life I began to seek out books about the Nazi period. I was surprised how historians stressed the importance of personal experiences, like the diaries, for our understanding of history. So gradually I got up the courage to write Api’s Berlin Diaries. My Quest to Understand my Grandfather’s Nazi Past.
I set out with two goals in mind. I wanted to give the reader a powerful personal perspective of what it was like in Berlin as Hitler’s Reich collapsed. Working to exhaustion in medical cellars, Api could do little for the wounded and dying. Doctors were left with few medications and without even water after the last drops had been drained from the heaters. He records in graphic detail how streets had become unrecognizable beneath the ruins so that he had to find his way over rubble and through cellars of destroyed buildings. The entire city seemed in flames, the smoke making it hard to breathe. He saw starving people cut up a dead horse in the midst of bombardment.
My second goal was to find out why Api had joined the Party in 1933. In Berlin archives, I found out more about his life. Raised in a Prussian town, he obtained a scholarship to a prestigious Berlin academy to become an ophthalmologist. The only stipulation was that for every semester he took, he had to serve a year as military doctor. The moment he graduated in 1914, he was sent to the Eastern front where he suffered a nervous breakdown and for a while was a patient at the Charite Hospital where just before he had been a student. Within a few months, he was back at the front.
After the war Api set up his own practice in Berlin. The city was torn by violence, strikes, even assassinations. Gangs of young Communists fought gangs of young Nazis; shootings were common. The Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democratic government, was unable to prevail. At the same time, the gay twenties turned Berlin into “the Babylon of the new world,” as so many tried to forget the war, the gargantuan inflation immediately after, and abandon themselves to a life of orgies and wildness. Into this world stepped Hitler. He promised to restore law and order; he promised peace and stability, and a return to Christian values. Api, I learned, fit the profile of people who joined in 1933: educated, conservative, veterans of World War I.
In the process of writing, two other themes forced themselves into the book. Finding out more about Api’s life brought up a flood of memories of living with him after the war which I hadn’t thought about for half a century. The other subject that kept pushing itself into my mind was reflections on German guilt, and Api’s in particular. His de-Nazification document categorized him as Exonerated. This was a relief to me, but at the same time I knew that it was too easy and incomplete an answer. Although I do not believe in collective guilt, I do believe that we are accountable for what happens in our countries. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who condemned not only the actions of the bad people but the silence of the good kept ringing in my ears.
Api’s Berlin Diaries made me confront a past I had evaded all my life. As I grew up in post-war Germany there was complete silence about the recent past. Our history classes stopped with the end of World War I. Neither I, nor as I remember any of my friends, ever questioned this silence. So now, late in life, I needed to come to terms with my German past. I had always been ashamed of being German for the country’s horrendous history of genocide and war, but I had never dealt with the guilt.
It was hard to face German guilt on such a personal level. I kept asking myself “what would I have done if I had lived in the Third Reich?” What small acts of courage or cowardice would I have committed? Would I have given the Hitler salute or dared to refuse? How far would I have been willing to go to help Jewish neighbors? I doubt that I would have had the courage to risk my life and stand up against the Nazis.
I hope that readers of today will come away with two main feelings. First, an emotional understanding of how the “volcanic eruptions” of history impacted my grandfather’s life who had to serve in two world wars and lost his only son, and how these tremors still reverberate with me in the third generation. Juxtaposed with these are my happy memories of Api who loved me and played with me, who taught me Latin and showed me how to build a kite. These passages I hope may trigger readers’ childhood memories of their own that will continue long after they have finished the book. Above all, I hope readers will feel more strongly how all our lives intersect with history. We all have a past and that past is still with us.
I hope that the ultimate take-away that sticks with my readers is one of empathy, of understanding other people’s behavior and mindset, that we may need now more than ever. This will strengthen our faith in our common humanity, in our capacity for compassion and tolerance. Although much of the diary focuses on the horrors of torture and persecution perpetrated by human beings upon one another, it also shows instances of kindness and love that testify to the power of the human spirit to breach the gulf of hate. As Api wrote even in the depth of his despair: “If love once again dwells in all human hearts then also will the life on God’s wonderful earth again become not only bearable but beautiful.”
One reason for her fascination with the intersection of the personal and historical stems from her own experience. Born in Berlin in 1942, her father’s fighter plane was shot down in 1943. After her family was bombed out twice, they fled Berlin in 1945.
To learn more about Gabrielle, the author, and the normal everyday Gabrielle with her cat named…, visit her website, https://www.gabriellerobinson.com/
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