I was in 8th grade the first time I learned there was a Nazi in my family tree. My mom was helping me with a school project for my English and Language Arts class. We were reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I learned much later that my English teacher covered this topic only with those classes with whom she trusted the material. The assignment was to create a family album and to learn about our history and narrative. As we were talking about how my grandparents came to live in Cincinnati, Ohio, my mom pulled out the old photo. She hesitated before showing it to me. “I want you to know that I will understand if you choose not to include this in your photo album,” she said. “I’ll leave that decision up to you.” Mom knew how cruel middle school kids could be. I doubt she trusted my classmates as much as my English teacher did. Who knew how they would react?
There it was, in black and white: a great uncle in his Nazi uniform seated next to his two young boys in their brown shirts. Mom explained that this great uncle is a family member about whom the family rarely talked. I’m still not sure how it came to be in my mother’s possession. Yet there it was, and it could not be ignored. Mom and I talked about what an impossible decision families faced if they were unable to emigrate from Germany: either join the Nazi party or face starvation. Even as an 8th grader, I knew that we cannot erase our history. We must attend to our histories.