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In the middle of the blazing heat of summer in Nürnberg, I sat with stiff muscles and frozen hands with the family that up to this moment had always been so welcoming to my company. My eyes wandered the living room to find a niche that would comfort them; my hands sought solace in each other. Today, I was a stranger.
Earlier that day, I had dared to ask the question that had been gnawing at me since I had passed the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds. After all, my exchange family had always been so kind in answering all of my queries about their language and lifestyle, until I posed the question about what they thought of the Holocaust. I had thought the ordeal was history.
After that awkward moment of silence that followed my question, Peter Gechter, the father of the family, sprang into a response so quick it was almost incomprehensible. Impassioned by lamentation and accusation, he spat in German, “You Americans think… We never wanted … We never knew…” At first, I took offense to his generalization of finger-pointing Americans. Presumably taking sudden notice of my irritation, Peter summoned the rest of the family to the living room to watch a documentary from his collection.
As I watched the gray soldiers marching across the screen, heard the piercing voice that had haunted all of my studies of the Holocaust, and saw the images of a people confused by poverty and marred pride, I thought of my classes in the States, when the words “Nazis” and “Germans” had been so easily transposed during discussion, and I had been so disgusted at the nation of blonde and blue-eyed “fiends” that I had accused collectively of the most heinous crimes. I realized that I, with all my supposed middle-school sagacity, had thought myself capable of being the judge and jury of an entire people for an event that I had never experienced myself. Although there were certainly some cruel men who merited the blame, my twelve-year-old finger had not been so kind as to make that distinction.
“There are Nazis, and there are Germans” said Peter, in English this time.
When I look at the words imprinted on my history book’s pages, I think of the spectres of time that lie behind the words and reside in the air of the places where the stories took place. Marveling at the simple elegance of an Aborigine playing a didgeridoo in Sydney, taking the subway between the dilapidated and chic parts of Prague, being accused with disdain in Paris and thanked in Normandy on behalf of my country, or even listening to the accounts of my Mexican mother’s family condemning Pancho Villa as a villain and my Mexican father’s family venerating the same as a hero, I find myself repeatedly unqualified to be the judge of history’s civilized and uncivilized, winners and losers, good and evil. When I look back at the day that I had first felt like a foreigner with my exchange family in Germany, I thank the Gechters for helping to remove my blinders and for showing me that Wahrheit (truth) comes in a panoramic shot. Although I may never be able to be completely attuned to the feelings of every player in history, I can at least remember that no story comes in only black and white.
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