Last night, I went over to my in-laws place for dessert after going out to dinner with them. My grandmother-in-law (Oma) was there and at some point she brought out a bunch of old photographs from her life. In these photo albums there were pictures of her husband (Opa) from his time in the military in WWII. He was a paratrooper, like I was, and was captured around 1941. There are not a lot of records of his service… from what I could find it was just one picture and one POW record, but I found it all very fascinating.
Particularly because he was German and was captured by the Americans.
Among the documents and pictures there was evidence of how life was for the common person in Hitler’s Germany. There was a document that he had to carry with him in order to travel, they were basically the “papers” from the standard “Papers, please!” image we get of totalitarian dictatorships. There were pictures of him (as well as his future wife) with their friends, going to school, and sitting in front of their old house. There was even a photo of him as a baby sitting with his 12 siblings and parents sometime in the early 1920s. These documents, and the stories Oma tells about how terrifying it was for civilians during that time humanizes the common people that were stuck under the evilest of regimes, all because of their birthplace.
Opa didn’t choose to join the military, he was forced to do it. He didn’t choose his job while in the military, he was forced into it. He was a kid, barely 17 when the war started and he was forced into service, a gun in his hands and an “enemy” to fight. Even the choices he made were barely his because he was basically a child who had been brainwashed by the government. The schools and the media were all influenced and controlled by the state. The national government decided what the people knew and they decided who the enemy was.
There is one thing that Opa did decide to do, though. He decided to surrender to the Americans at one point. It doesn’t sound like this was his way of showing his disagreement with the regime, it was a self-interested move. His unit was being sent to fight the Russians and, according to the rumors, the Russians were terrible to their POWs but the Americans treated the captured Germans more civilly. And that is how he ended up in the states. He was shipped to a POW camp in Florida and when the war ended his older brothers (who were already in the US running their own businesses in St. Louis) came down and took responsibility for him. They put him to work and provided him with an opportunity to build his own life.
Opa eventually met Oma at a soccer match, and after they got married he quit his job with his brother’s to start his own business. He bought property, restored it, and sold it for a profit. He also ran a couple of housing complexes and purchased a farm to raise cattle. When disease struck and killed most of the cattle he started turning the land into a prairie to help bring back the original wildlife, primarily quail.
Unfortunately, Opa died almost 20 years ago, long before I met my partner. I wish I knew more about his life and I wish there were more records. Oma is a good resource, but she is well into her 80’s and her memory is facing the natural decline that comes from nearly a century of life on this earth. There are so many stories in this world that fade into the past, but that doesn’t need to be so anymore. Hopefully we, as a culture and species, start to collect more stories of the common people. Historians will always talk of kings and generals and volcanoes, but the barriers to storytelling have fallen away. We don’t need historians, we just need to listen, record, and write. Opa didn’t change The World, but he did change many worlds. He won’t be written about in history books, but his decisions and life has had a cascading effect across the globe, just like all of ours do. His story has now collided head on with the story of my family, who had men fight on the other side of WWII, hopefully I can do a good job of telling that story someday so that my nieces, nephews, and random people who find old photo albums at garage sales can get insight into a time that past long ago.