“Why did you refuse to hail to him when the rest of your classmates obeyed?” I asked Angola, a spunky 81-year-old German woman. She laughed. Then she said, “Why the hell would I hold my hand up for any stupid man? ”
The “stupid man” Angola was referring to was Hitler.
It was my second Christmas in Germany. One and a half years ago, I met Luisa in Madrid, a German girl who quickly became one of my best friends. Ya’ know when you just have that special connection with someone? Well, it took us about one week and three tapas dates to realize we would become inseparable. Little did I know, it would become a yearly tradition to spend Christmas with her family in Germany. ‘Cause who doesn’t love Christmas cookies, shiny presents and three days of non-stop food?!
From the moment I walked into her house that first year and met all of her extended family, I was overwhelmed with the love and warmth I felt. From Christmas presents under the tree with my name on it, to adorable hand-written cards in broken English from her 12-year-old cousin, despite my lack of German and different background, I became the Jewish- American Christmas daughter they never had.
Meanwhile, I grew up in New York eating Chinese food on Christmas (although we always loved the lights) and my family’s Jewish roots come from Poland, Hungary and Austria. I couldn’t help but to wonder; What was my adopted family’s story in the Holocaust?
So, I finally got up the courage to sit Luisa’s grandma down and talk to her (over a cup o’ coffee and some Christmas cookies, of course).
Luisa sat next to her to translate. I looked at Angola and asked, “What was your experience in the Holocaust?”
Before Luisa even had the chance to translate, Angola looked at me and started to cry.
All she understood was the word “Holocaust”.
I tried again.
“I was 6-years-old.” said Angola.
“Did you know any Jewish people?” I asked.
She began to tear up again.
“There was a girl in my class. She was my neighbor. We used to play together in the neighborhood with the rest of the kids. One day, she disappeared from my class. Nobody knew what happened to her. And everyone was too afraid to ask.”
There was a terrible silence in the room, and Luisa grabbed her hand.
Angola continued to explain that there were rumors floating around that her family had moved, however nobody knew for sure. Their furniture remained in the house along with the rest of their belongings; the only thing missing was them.
“Nobody disliked the Jews”, explained Angola. “We were neighbors, friends, business partners, classmates. We were all the same before that stupid man came in!”
“So how’d it happen?” I asked her.
“Everyone was just too afraid to speak out,” she said. “If you said anything slightly negative about the Nazis, they would find you. And after that? Well, nobody knew…”
However, Angola and her family were different.
In her school, teachers were forced to make children hold their hand up and hail to Hitler. Angola was the only kid in her class to refuse. In response, her entire family was called into the school. They were told that if Angola didn’t start putting her hand up with the rest of class, the Gestapo would come after her family.
So, Angola, against all her fiery will, started to quietly hail in class along with everyone else.
And then, one night Angola’s grandfather, Georg, was by the train station. It was 3 am, and he heard screaming coming from a cart. It was the same cart that he saw in front of Angola’s classmate’s house. Suddenly, he put two and two together; without thinking, he ran towards the cart and smashed the door open. He sprinted to get them water and some bread.
The next day, the Gestapo knocked on his door. He was taken to prison.
Shaking her head, Angola said “those were the longest three months of our life”. One of her neighbors was an SS and convinced the courts to let him free. Nobody, not even his wife, learned why he was imprisoned until after the war was over.
Angola was 10 when the war ended. Her entire city was destroyed, including her home. All she had left? Her doll carriage, that was burnt into the wall, melted by a bomb. Georg pulled it out of the wall for her.
“Till this day, I still jump when I hear thunder” said Angola.
I grabbed Angola’s hand and gave her a huge hug.
“Thank you.” I said to her.
Here’s a photo Angola and I snapped after our talk.
Now, let’s fast forward to the start of 2017.
From an American’s standpoint, when we hear of Germany, most people’s minds go right to the Holocaust. Yes, still. Just look at American media! Have you ever seen one of America’s modern comedic classics, Euro Trip? Well, this scene happens:
Welp, I guess it’s no longer “too soon”.
However, it’s not too late to re-understand history. As Angola told us, Germans were not Jew-haters. Of course, they existed; they were the radicals, the ignorants, and the weak-minded. And everyone else? Well, they were good people living in fear.
It’s just those special ones, like Angola and her family, who had the bold strength and courage to do something about it.
Unfortunately, many people fear that we are coming full circle, given recent events in the US and worldwide. In the past couple of years, there’s been a marked increase in petty hate crimes, dictator-minded leaders coming into power globally, terrorism, and the biggest refugee crisis of our time. And then of course, there’s Trump. I’ve heard many people say “this looks awfully familiar to Germany in the 1930’s.”
On my behalf, I’ll admit it; I’m downright shakin’ at the knees, losin’ sleep, scared. I’m scared about the fact that there are far too many eerily similar parallels between our new, glorious President Trump and Hitler. Hitler’s promise to Germany as he was rising to power? That he would make Germany great again.
And then there came the hate crimes. Not-so-coincidentally, graffiti like this one (in Upstate New York) has been popping up on municipal buildings and school baseball fields…
Trump has spoken about "Making America great again," but someone else had a different message recently in Wellsville. pic.twitter.com/YGBFfBXO8F
— Brian Quinn (@brianqwdr) November 9, 2016
After being a part of the Women’s March, proudly attending one right here in Granada, seeing the world come together to fight for justice and human rights is comforting, and certainly empowering. And after talking to Angola, it made me incredibly thankful to live in the time that we do, where we can speak our mind without the threat of getting imprisoned, or even killed.
Still, I can’t help but to ask: Angola and her family battled against a society marked by hate and discrimination in 1933. It’s now 2017. Is it just me, or did we step into a time machine?
Angola’s seen it once before; when she stood up in front of her school and defied her teacher, she didn’t have the rights to speak her mind, the backing of social media, nor a global network of people ready to fight for justice. In a time when our world is full of fear and narrow-minded people, this time, let’s finish the job that Angola started.