Nazi Was the Ugliest Word to My Grandfather
I saw the movie The Reader recently and thought it shocking that the character Kate Winslet played had far more shame for her illiteracy than for her time as a murderous Nazi guard. Nazi – it’s a word that means pure evil and should bring shudders to everyone.
I first learned the word Nazi was when I was very very young. I must have been about five or six, but the memory stays with me and will always haunt me.
My maternal grandfather took me out every Saturday for a special day together. He loved to spoil me and many days he took me to a local amusement park to ride the Carousel and the Tilt-a-Whirl. I was afraid of bigger rides like the Ferris Wheel, but my grandfather was patient, doting, and didn’t care if I just wanted multiple rounds on the Carousel. On these days, as my grandfather squired me around, his big coarse hand holding tight to my tiny one, he had a smile plastered on his face and nothing could change his mood. It was a cherished time for both of us. (Much of the other time he was brooding and so these are the happy times I like to remember of him.)
There was a mini roller coaster for really young children that I felt ready to try one week and so my grandfather and I stood in line. When we got up to the ride attendant who was ready to escort us, I saw a tattoo on his arm. This was in the early 60’s when tattoos were not at all commonplace so it was a complete novelty to me – and appeared as if the man’s arm was painted with a spider-ish sign.
The particular tattoo I saw, and learned more about much later in life, was a Swastika. That day, as I pointed it out to my grandfather, I was shocked at how instantaneously his entire persona changed. Instead of the smiling, gentle giant I knew just moments before, he filled with explosive rage as his face turned red and contorted with anger.
“He’s a damn Nazi,” my grandfather spat out, as he yanked me roughly away from the ride.
At that age, I had no point of reference for the term Nazi, and thought it was just a word you would use for a bad person. Never having seen him rage before and not wishing to further upset him, my usual inquisitiveness was temporarily shut down, and so I didn’t ask for an explanation.
It turns out that my grandfather did have a very personal point of reference. He was stationed in Germany as a soldier in World War II. He was older, with a family, but was sent from the reserves because he understood the German language – his parents had been German immigrants.
There was no term such as post traumatic stress disorder for returning soldiers in those days, but I feel sure that with all of the torturous memories he kept locked up inside, only to show them in short rage-filled bursts, that is exactly what he was left with. Having helped liberate concentration camps and witnessing the death and destruction at the hands of the Nazis, my parents told me later that my “grandfather’s nerves were never the same again” after he returned from war. That was their explanation, and there was nothing more to be said or asked.
That first contact with the word Nazi stayed with me and I occasionally heard my Grandfather use that word after he watched the news. I never inquired further, wishing not to upset him each time, though now I wish now that I had the courage to do that.
While going through college as a psychology major, I took a comparative religion class made up of students of every religion and many nationalities. For two weeks of the course, another guest lecturer gave us a mini-course on the Holocaust. The most moving and transforming part of the course, aside from reading the book “Night” by Elie Wiesel, was watching a documentary film called “The Night and the Fog.”
That film uses actual footage taken out of Nazi archives to show the worst of the concentration camps and the methodical way the Nazis were working toward their murderous “Final Solution.” Many of the students in our class had to leave the room during parts of it, many cried, and many became ill. (It is such an important film in my opinion, I think that it should be viewed by all high schoolers so they can learn about racial and religious intolerance in the extreme.)
I sat riveted through the film though, and that’s because I was watching on film with my own eyes what my grandfather must had witnessed in person with his eyes as he arrived at death camps. In the film they showed archival footage of emaciated barely surviving skeletons of humans with hollowed eyes near the piles of dead skeletal bodies that were later steamrolled into a hole. My grandfather had unfortunately passed away a few years earlier before I could discuss the film or hear his experience as a first-hand witness, but I finally had all of my unasked questions answered. I learned what a Nazi was and it made my blood run cold, because it wasn’t just a character or a bad guy from a horror film any more, these were real life evil people. This two week mini Holocaust course moved me beyond anything had in my entire life.
Since my paternal grandmother knew a lot about my grandfather’s history, I finally asked the questions and she filled in the blanks for me. She told me about my grandfather’s war service. She said my Pop-pop was “touched in the head” because he had seen a lot of death in Germany during World War II. She surmised since he came from Germany as a young boy that maybe he had family there still. I was old enough to realize that he may have seen his own relatives among the skeletons of so many innocent victims in the camps.
During the 90’s at the height of Seinfeld’s television show popularity, Jerry Seinfeld coined a flippant term about a mean restaurant owner. The term was Soup Nazi. As happens in pop culture, the term was picked up on, and was used in popular lexicon. Suddenly the term Nazi was tagged on and used for every disagreeable, or mean person. With this, the original meaning of the term had been watered down to its most trivial.
As a writer and a bit of a wordsmith, this bothered me more than I could ever say; my experience with my grandfather and the Holocaust course caused me anger beyond reason that the term Nazi could be so trivialized. (I am my grandfather’s legacy in this sense.) I am sure most Holocaust survivors felt the same way. Words can indeed hurt.
Because I am at heart a psychologist as well as a writer, when I watch films featuring Nazis I try to use psychology to explain their behavior. But no matter how hard I try, I have never been able to come up with a rational explanation of the sort of evil that took over common people who went along with the murderous rampage on innocent citizens.
Though my grandfather wasn’t able to give me a personal history lesson from his eyewitness accounts, he at least taught me one very important thing: that the term Nazi should be reserved for the worst kind of human being- the kind who has no value for human life.