Sometimes, we get so obsessed with Jewish victims of World War II that we forget the others.
Several years ago, we had a young woman from the Ukraine stay with us while she was on a short exchange program here. She was from Chernigov, a mid-sized city in the northwest of the country, and in a conversation one morning told us that her grandmother was quite ill. I asked about her, and learned that she was not that old (in her 70s), but that she had been in relatively poor health since the end of World War II, when she was a victim of dislocation and famine. I then learned that she was the only surviving sibling in her family, and that the others had all been killed, either when they were in the army, or as victims of various invading forces. They were not Jewish; they were, I guess, normal Ukrainians.
Then last night, I read quickly through a fascinating book titled Have You Forgotten?, “a Memoir of Poland, 1939-1945”, written by Christine Zamoyska-Panek. The author was 16 when the Germans invaded Poland. She was the daughter of very wealthy (emphasize the ‘very’) and aristocratic Polish families. (Her father’s estate had 110,000 acres, for example.)
During the war, the estate was taken over by the Germans, the family dislocated and separated. They lived with various friends and relatives, some of whom were hiding Jews and others wanted by the Nazis. The Gestapo marked her father for execution because he was involved in hiding Jews, and he had to go into deeper hiding. For a while she believed both her parents had been killed, as had many of her relatives and friends.
Her family were clearly Polish nationalists, active during the period between the wars, and she became involved in the underground both during the war and after the war (when the Russians took over, and marked Polish nationalists for elimination).
Eventually, after a series of adventures and numerous experiences where only luck (perhaps and good looks) saved her, she married an American (it sounded like theymarried to get permission for her to enter the country, and that they found out that the marriage, to a man much older than she, was much better than she expected), and wound up living in Maine, and the Virginia. I do not know if she is still living or not.
At any rate, it makes you think about how awful it all was, how lucky we have been in this country, and quickly things can change. It also makes you wonder about people and their past. If you had met Christine Zamoyska-Panek as an older woman in Maine or Virginia, would you have guessed what she had done, and what she had gone through?
Of course, that goes both ways. I think back to the early 1970s, when I was sitting in a cafe on the Algarve coast of Portugal eating breakfast. There was an elderly (to my mind, he was elderly, probably in his 60s then), courtly gentlemen at the small table next to me, and we began to talk. He was quite friendly. He lived in Malmo, Sweden, and I asked him if he had always lived there. He told me that it was his wife’s hometown, and that he was from Germany, but moved there when they were married. I asked him when that was, and he told me it was some time in the early 1930s. I asked him what it was like there during the war, but he told me that he had gone back to Germany then, that he felt it his duty as a German to defend his country. Where was he during the war, I asked? He told me that he was not in the military, but in the civilian administration and, in fact, was (and I forget the term he used) in charge of the civil occupation of Amsterdam. He was, I then knew, a Nazi.
He then told me that there were three separate German authorities, the Gestapo (the crazies), the military and the civilian administrators. The latter group, he said, tried to keep things together, and that he had done nothing wrong. In fact, he said, he protected several Jews throughout the war.
I believed he was who he said he was. I did not believe a thing that he said justifying his activities. And I abruptly ended the conversation, telling him what I thought, and leaving the cafe.
But was I right? Or did I reach conclusions too quickly? I always have wondered.