“I haven’t told anyone this before but I’m going to tell you now. You think that your grandfather came from England, don’t you? And your grandmother came from Ireland? Well, you’re wrong. And I should know, shouldn’t I? I’m their daughter. You knew them both as mild old people, white hair and crepey skin, giving you sweets and twenty cent for your money box. You thought their faint accents came from Great Britain. They even told you stories about rabbits and green hills and thatched cottages, just like in Beatrix Potter, so you imagined them back in the bucolic English countryside, tending their hollyhocks and growing carrots.
It was me who told you that they came out here in the 1950s, when I was ten years old, in the Pommie migrant boats. That was a lie. The boat wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t Pommie. It was a Dutch ship we came on not a migrant boat. Your grandfather, my father, worked for our passage. We came from Germany.
Yes, there, I’ve told you. Your grandparents were both German. I was born in Germany. I’m German. You’re half German. But there’s more I have to tell you. I can tell you now because we’ve just buried my father, and Mother died two years back. So telling their secrets can’t harm them, and you must know.
My parents lived in Berlin, in a middle class neighbourhood. Like all Germans in those times, they saw their neighbours, their Jewish neighbours, oppressed, deported, humiliated, sent to die. And I have to tell you this. Also like many middle-class Germans of those times, they did nothing about it. In fact, at the time, they approved. They were believers in the bullshit about racial purity that the lunatic Hitler fed them. Purity was popular back them.
But I see you’re stunned; horrified. You’re crying. Who are you crying for? Your grandparents? Me, or yourself? The Jews of Europe? There’s been a sea of tears for them, and it’s not over yet. But I see you’re afraid. You’re afraid that I have more to tell you. That I’m going to tell you that our grandfather was a nazi, that he took part in some horrendous crime; that your grandmother informed on a neighbour. That even I, a child, an infant at the time, am somehow culpable.
Welcome to the burden of German guilt. How will we bear it, you ask? We’ll bear it by confronting it, by weeping, by acknowledging, and by looking forward. There’s much work to be done in the future. It will take many a long century, and many generations of German descendants, like you, to clean up the mess our twentieth-century forefathers made.
But no crying now. I’ve told you the worst.