Friday, February 21, 2014

The Sins Of Our Fathers

I like to learn.  I watch many documentaries.  Good ones teach us valuable lessons with the added emotional impact that film can carry.  I just saw a film I want to talk to you about.

How should we deal with the lives of our parents and ancestors?  The film I saw examines this issue from the perspective of children and grandchildren of men who committed horrible atrocities.  While the relatives interviewed were not complicit (and, in many cases, were not even alive) during the crimes committed by their ancestors, they carry on their family's name which connects them publicly to historical horrors.

At what point might acts by our ancestors forfeit the natural (and culturally-encouraged) love we have for family?  Should we even confront the morality of our ancestors' choices and lives?

Modern society washes away what happened last week, let alone in the last generation.  So the current inclination is to simply forget about the past.  But when the past was very bad, forgetting it is wrong.  We owe victims of injustice remembrance of their suffering.  And we owe ourselves a clear picture of how our family got to be what it is.  That includes honest understanding of our family's history.  Grappling with the past, including ugly parts, is a path to such knowledge.

To what extent do you wrestle with the acts of your parents or grandparents?  To what extent are you even aware of those facts?  Many whose family histories are contaminated by immorality are shielded from information by closely-guarded secrets and long-held denial.  My family falls into that group. 

My father grew up in an extremely troubled place (Germany during the Nazi regime).  For my whole life, my father has refused to talk about his childhood and what his family did back then.  I learned to stop asking him about it because he erected a brickwall against any inquiry.  Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he does this to avoid painful memories.  It might, however, also be motivated to conceal unpleasant facts.  I don't think I'll ever know because there are no other relatives or independent sources to tell me about our family's history during that period.

Thus, I have to view my father solely on the life I've had with him, not on anything earlier.  I wish I could get that information, though; it might answer some questions and complete the picture of our family.

How about you?  And what are your thoughts on this?


  1. My mother's side of the family is very British and tight-lipped about anything unpleasant. My mother on the other hand is not. My father was an alcoholic and Al-Anon and AA taught my immediate family to be open and communicate, so we are a bit at odds with the rest of my Mom's family.

    My partner's family is also pretty quiet about not-so-nice aspects of their family and as a result my boyfriend is very private about anything that he deems "not normal". Which for me, as you can imagine is a little frustrating. For example, (and he would die if he knew I was posting this openly on the internet, but I'm not ashamed of it, nor should I be), I had a breast reduction when I was 19 and told our group of friends while we were out for drinks one night last year. We were discussing plastic surgery, so I felt it appropriate to chime in with my experience. Well, when we got home my boyfriend told me how upset he was that I told them. He said it wasn't their business and I shouldn't tell anyone and that it's private information. All of which I disagreed with. It's my body, it's my experience and I can share it or not with whoever I choose. Period. And there are other examples like this too…

    I think communication is healthy. It promotes connection with others. healing in bad situations and helps us learn and grow as individuals. Silence is deadly, it fosters isolation, loneliness and misunderstanding.
    My boyfriend has had to learn the hard way that if he's going to date me he's got to start talking. :)


  2. I can find merit in both positions (I usually's a blessing and a curse). Let's stay with Hitler as our example. I'm a "warts and all" kind of gal. If I was Adolph Hitler's daughter or grand-daughter, I would feel the need to own that lineage, no matter how evil I found his deeds. I am not him, I did not condone his acts, etc., and so I should be seen as separate from him and allowed to live a normal life.

    On the other hand...we all know how ignorant some people can be. Therefore I would probably be tempted to downplay or even deny that part of my heritage for my own safety and peace. I am very much into family history and leaving a record, so to speak, so I would probably write down the details for future generations to find.

  3. Since I'm generally curious by nature I would want to know about my family's past... however, I'm not sure I agree that learning about it would help me understand my family more unless said family was a parent or grandparent. Needless to say, I'm sure every family has its secrets.

  4. I was just thinking about this sort of thing recently. My thoughts lead me to wonder if there are any people left in the world with the surname Hitler. I meant to google that. Somehow I doubt it. I am sure I would change my name if I had that one. I certainly don't believe that anyone is responsible for actions he didn't commit or enable himself, children exempt. I also know that human history is full of beliefs and assumptions that are now horrifying to us which seemed very normal and right at the time.

    To the best of my knowledge, and my father has done some very thorough geneology on his ancestors and my mother's, there are no significant secrets in my family history, though there are things people thought were shameful at the time. Some of my relatives were a bit bohemian in that whole turn of the century, artists "living in sin" and artists with two wives sort of thing that one associates with The Bloomsbury Group and the artists Augustus John, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Bell and Lyton Strachy. My great grandfather was an artist and seems to have changed his name at some point in his life. I suspect it was more likely to dodge some sort of financial issue rather than having murdered someone, or possibly to make his name sound of a higher class than what he originally came from.

    Family history can be fascinating but the search for it can also be frustrating.

    1. The documentary I saw, which can be learned about by clicking on the link in my post ("film"), addresses several relatives of war-criminals who still have the infamous last-names of their ancestors. So those people, as in your hypothetical, have to struggle with this issue in a real way. How they do (and their responses vary) is very interesting.

  5. we can learn from the past - for the future.
    you know I'm German - and I am very aware of "our" past. a little I know about the past of my grandparents, there are big differences in the CVs. But it does not stop on - father was in the "Stasi" ......
    I have swum free me, live my own and very different life. and I think I understand the mechanisms of why people do "something".

    1. Buddy, I was thinking about you when I wrote this post. And I was concerned you might interpret it the wrong way. I hope you know I like you for the person you are. We are responsible for who we are as individuals, not who we are related to.

    2. no worry ally :-)
      i´m completely fine. i know you enough to be sure you don´t throw all in the same pot. and the "german" in my passport is rather abstract, first of all i´m a woman, a wife, a friend, a artist, a mountaineer, a cook, a nature lover............. :-)

  6. The older generation had secrets, I have a respect for that and also a curiosity too, is it my business to ask questions? I say this because I know there are a few in my family and my burning curiosity relates to my maternal Grandfather, yet my Mum loathed him (he has since died, she related this with 'I have great news....') I met him once, my Mum seems to be mellowing over the years so, hopefully she may provide more information, so far I know he was an Argentinian immigrant who served in the war, came back a changed man and became a philanderer and a father to more, they say he had shell shock (an old fashioned term to describe the shock and horror of war, I agree) x x x

  7. You can acknowledge the past deeds without blaming or feeling guilty yourself. They aren't you and you have grown up differently. Guilt by association is very common but it doesn't have to define you

  8. Actually there are things that have happened several generations ago and still affect us even if we don't know that. I don't really "wrestle" with what other people have done, anyway, even if they are my relatives.
    It's good to know about the history of your parents. I have started to understand my parents way better after I have became aware about their childhood, youth etc.. that has a lot to do with the persons they are now and how they wanted to grow me up.
    Your father's youth sounds sad and I understand he is not into talking about it. My grandfather never talks about the winter war.

  9. I actually know v little about my family's past nor what they did or do except that my great grandmother was an excellent musician who trained with Victorian composer, Sir John Stainer. Maybe I should ask more, esp since my only surviving grandfather is 91. However, interestingly enough, my husband's father told me a story recently that he'd somehow never told any of them. They were all gobsmacked as he told it. Apparently his mother had worked in a prisoner of war camp when he was a boy in north England and had an affair with a German prisoner! X

  10. Very interesting subject.

    No one should be judged by deeds committed by someone else. One should acknowledge they happened, most definately, but not live under the very heavy burden of them or feel any guilt through association.


  11. My family has always been surprisingly open about our "family" secrets. For all that we're all surprisingly passive aggressive about things.

    Personally, I've had to make a huge rift in my own life between me and my family. I've been trying to mend the rift in small ways, but I've never been comfortable to try and live by their standards or accept them to live by mine. After many years (up to 15 or more for some of my family) we've reached a point of agree to disagree.

    As for family going back even earlier, I know there were sections of my family that were imperfect, and some that did great things. I feel like that is a part of me, but only a very small part. I think I'm defined by my own life and actions, and not theirs.

  12. Thank you for raising this immensely important topic today, which really strikes a chord with me as I've been a passionate (hobbyist) family genealogy for many years. None of my immediate relatives lived in Germany during the Nazi party's tyrannical reign, or committed (or were a part of) any truly heinous going ons elsewhere as far as I know, yet I have still encountered many family members who will not speak about certain things (such a suicides, alcoholism, sexual abuse, etc) that have transpired over the years or will only give halfhearted, rather vague answers. While part of me sincerely has no problem respecting these peoples' desire for privacy or unwillingness to discuss things, I can't help but be struck by the fact that if the knowledge they possess goes to the grave with them, it will likely be lost forever (and all things, good, bad or otherwise, deserve to be a recorded part of history). If such is the case, I cannot help but feel that they're doing our family and the generations of it to come a rather great disservice.

    ♥ Jessica

  13. My mother was once in love with the son of a general who had had many of my matrilineal family's clan/people killed in war. She didn't hold the son responsible for the crimes of the father, obviously, but her father, who had lived in the war, felt very differently and felt he could not look his friends and countrymen in the eye if she were to marry him.

  14. I think about this topic often. Though I am aware of the most generic facts about my family, I often wonder if there is a darker side.

    I guess my brother is a perfect example. He's in the army, and he was in Iraq when it was the worst. Their location was secret, so I hardly heard from him. He rarely talks to me about what he did there. If I do ask him, he changes the subject.

  15. I do not know if its the same documentary but I recall seeing something very similar, where a woman refused to have children because she was afraid her kids might be evil like her grandfather who worked close to Hitler and was in charge of one of the concentration camps. I personally think that we are independent from our families and that who your parents are or where you come from should not dictate how you end up. But you have to be really strong.