Not Guilty by Association

For my son’s high school senior retreat, we were asked to write him letters that he could open during a period of reflection and meditation. The theme was “Where do you come from?” We were encouraged to tell stories about grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. My throat tightened in an all too familiar feeling. My German great-grandfather was a war criminal who contributed to the horror of the Holocaust. I knew I would not be writing a letter about that to my son, but it brought the whole thing up for me again. It is the great unresolved issue in my life. I suppose everyone has one.

My great-grandfather haunts my family. The Greeks have a number of myths, or legends, in which the sins of previous generations fall on later descendants. Croesus, for example, lost his empire due to sins committed five generations earlier. These myths capture a powerful truth. The sins of earlier generations haunt those later-born. There is the constant sense that one is guilty by association of terrible things. We wonder whether perhaps the moral corruption is in our blood. 

The family narrative around my war criminal ancestor is overwhelming. There is no way to atone for crimes that one would never choose to commit, crimes that one longs could be undone. I have come to see that a perpetrator’s family lives in its own kind of traumatized limbo. I am also struck by how hard it is for any of us to speak about it. My family has learned to suppress. Many have turned to alcohol, and some to suicide. I believe that the silent struggle of my siblings, aunts, and cousins has all been caught up in the effort to pay the emotional and mental cost for sins that occurred before any of us were old enough to choose.

On the other side is the victim’s perspective. My sister-in-law’s mother escaped Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport. I know it’s a hard legacy to be left orphaned by the Holocaust. My sister-in-law talks all the time about her family’s legacy as victims of the Holocaust. She belongs to several groups that help victims process and heal. 

What does the therapeutic community do with perpetrator narratives? I really don’t know. I have never seen any resources. I would be afraid to go to a group because I know I would break down over the struggle to talk about it. On the rare occasions when I have tried to tell my family’s story, I have mostly been met with uncomprehending silence.

I listen to the stories of others, knowing I can never tell my own.

The legacy of the perpetrator and the legacy of the victim are two sides of the same trauma. It is the trauma of the terrible violence that human beings can inflict on one another.

I cannot even type this without the tears of decades of suppressed feelings coming to my eyes. I want to be a good person, but I come from a very bad person. The two-sidedness of my struggle has fostered my spiritual life. My Christian faith is overwhelmingly formed by my realization that I will never be able to construct my goodness on my own. I take comfort in knowing that Jesus held himself to account for all of us so that we don’t have to.

In some ways the school’s request helped me. It forced me to be conscious about deep feelings I had not faced. A narrative emerged for me, around my determination that my son not have to pay with his emotional and mental health for my great-grandfather’s crimes. None of this is my offspring’s doing. He deserves to grow up free, unscathed by the overwhelming narrative of an atonement that could never happen. In the end I wrote my son a love letter. 

I know I still have a lot of work to do personally to create a purposeful and constructive narrative around my family’s story. I read Red Tent Living every day with great gratitude that women are sharing their thoughts about the struggle to heal and to parent their children despite their own trauma. Thank you.

Claudia Hauer teaches at the college level, and she loves watching young people turn into adults. She lives under the Rocky Mountains and loves to hike, run, and cook, and can usually be found with a book in her hands and a cup of coffee nearby.