Discovering My Grandfather was a Nazi

February 4, 2019

6 min read


The enduring shame I felt due to my family’s past created a surprising bond with survivors and their descendants who experienced guilt for continuing to live.

Last March, as the intensifying sun presided over a cold wind that blew a last winter chill through the streets of Stockholm, I stood with my friend, Hédi, who had survived Auschwitz with her sister, in front of a pile of old shoes. The undone laces reminded me of lifeless limbs and people callously thrown away. Hédi and I had been asked to inaugurate the European part of this installation, which had been arranged on both sides of the Atlantic – the other one outside the United Nations building in New York – in commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust, who were stripped of their belongings before they went to the gas chambers.

Each of us placed one of my son’s size-45 soiled white sneakers on top of the pile, and then stepped back to reflect before a gathered crowd, which took photographs of us observing a moment of silence. Hédi leaned her head on mine and instantly I felt the deep connection between us. Both of our lives had been profoundly affected by the same historical events, but in quite different ways.

Julie Lindahl, aged 3, pictured with her grandfather in Brazil.

As a descendant of the perpetrators of WWII and the Holocaust it feels inappropriate to speak of my own sufferings. Yet, it is often only by opening up to one’s own hurt, and being willing to explore it without embellishment, that one can gain insight into the pain of others and find meaning rather than self-pity. My friends who survived the Holocaust, Hédi and others, always encouraged me to explore this suffering, which they never once doubted was real.

I was handed incontrovertible evidence that my grandfather had been an ideologically committed Nazi since 1931, and an early member of the mounted SS.

In 2010, driven by the desperation of old family relationships that were collapsing under the weight of secrets and lies, I visited the German Federal Archives in what would become the beginning of a shocking yet transformational seven-year journey. In this temple of documents that Allied bombings and the Nazis themselves hadn’t managed to destroy, I was handed incontrovertible evidence that my grandfather had been an ideologically committed Nazi since 1931, and an early member of the mounted SS, which he joined in 1934. From the places and years marked on his party card, I understood that he had been stationed in occupied Poland throughout the duration of the war. In the documents my grandmother had prepared in her role as an SS spouse, I recognized her handwriting. It was the same bold script as in the many loving greeting cards I had received from her throughout the years.

After this initial discovery, I drew upon my academic training in twentieth-century Polish-German relations to research the story more thoroughly, traveling to archives and interviewing eyewitnesses in Germany, Poland and eventually Latin America. While I tried to keep my academic “hat” on, it was impossible to fight the feeling of disorientation. The family stories I had “taped” together in my mind in order to continue believing the old narrative came unglued like ill-fitting puzzle pieces. At the same time, I began to understand why I had lived in a room of shame for nearly 50 years. “It is where we do not seek truth that ungoverned guilt does its unholy mischief,” said an old man who had been drafted into the SS while still a teenager at the war’s end. He had devoted his life after the war to exposing complicity in his local area and shedding light on the enduring effects of “unclaimed guilt” or lack of remorse among the perpetrators.

Julie Lindahl and Hédi Fried. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

A turning point in the work arrived when one of my grandfather’s victims, a ten-year-old child back then, looked me in the eye and told me that it wasn’t my fault, I hadn’t done anything. In that moment, the door of my room of shame opened a crack to let in a slim ray of light that showed me the way out. As I began to follow it and walk another path, I found an increasing number of kindred spirits moving in the same direction with me, many of them Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Survivors have sometimes told me about the enduring shame that comes from continuing to live when close family perished in the Nazi death machine. In turn, their descendants relate the impact of silence generated by the previous generation’s feeling of shame.

Reaching out across traditional divisions is the highest form of responsibility.

In autumn 2016 one of the kindred spirits walking this path, a young woman who had spent the same amount of time as I had researching her family’s past, contacted me. In photographs and writing she had meticulously recorded her grandmother’s wartime flight through Europe, including Scandinavia where I live, to escape the Nazis. She had heard me interviewed on NPR Boston, and her equally young Polish husband, who understood instinctively that we were walking the same path, suggested she contact me. He died suddenly a few hours after he and his wife pushed the “send” button on an e-mail to me.

Since then, Rachael and I have appeared together before several audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to relate our story of what brought us together, and how the intertwining of our experiences into a new narrative empowers us and others. In 2017 NPR Boston aired a three-part multi-media series about us that eventually went national and won several media prizes in 2018.

We live in times when the poison of the past is harming our societies. The most powerful antidote is not only personal stories that awaken people to this realization, but also personal stories of people whose lives have been formed in same-but-not-the-same ways that are permitted to fuse and generate a new, unstoppable energy. It is the reason I continue to actively seek these types of collaborations on the path of kindred spirits who comprehend that reaching out across traditional divisions is the highest form of responsibility.

This December, as I was visiting a friend of mine who survived five concentration camps and devoted decades of his life after retirement to counteracting extremism, we spoke of our journeys. “How do you manage?” I asked him, in awe of his determination. How do you manage? he asked, in recognition of our common challenge.

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