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A story for our times

A story for our times

I recently had the pleasure of talking about my memoir and the challenges of writing about parents to 50 students in a writing class taught by the wonderful Dr. Anna Rumin. I’ve taken several courses with Anna, an inspiring and encouraging teacher. I launched into writing my book after taking her course “Remembering My Father”.


As I told the class, I was dredging through memories about my German parents just when Donald Trump called an assortment of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Klansmen and other far-right extremists “fine people” after they stormed through Charlottesville, Virginia in a Unite the Right rally, some carrying Nazi and racist symbols while chanting “the Jews will not replace us!”


Here were echoes of things I’d heard from my own father growing up. Thoroughly indoctrinated while marching with Hitler’s armies, he tried to fill my young head with rubbish about strange anti-Semitic conspiracies, our absolute Aryan superiority and the inferiority of other races.


Most people would likely be loath to admit their parent held such odious views. It’s a bit like confessing grandpa was a pedophile. And in truth, if my parents were still alive, I probably wouldn’t have written this book.


But I reminded the students about memoirist Mary Karr, whose writing I admire and influenced me a lot. Karr spent years trying to suppress all the awful stuff about her East Texas childhood, including growing up dirt poor with alcoholic parents. Only after she reclaimed that past did she pen her best-selling memoirs. Sometimes you have to write about the tough stuff even when you’re not proud of it. The tension and inner conflict you feel can become the core of the story, as they have in mine.


One German-Canadian writer I know who, unlike me grew up in post-war Germany, said she was so filled with horror and shame about the country’s dark past that in her teens, she concluded she was born into a nation of barbarians. As I learned about the atrocities committed by the Nazis, I also felt ashamed and had trouble trying to reconcile those horrors with pride in my heritage.


My father wasn’t a barbarian, just an average working-class guy. As a child, I’d idolized him, trusted everything he said. Puffed out my chest when he told me to be proud of being pure Aryan (whatever that meant). In Canada, where I felt like an immigrant outsider, nobody cared much about your race.


Later I came to feel simmering anger at my father. I never let go of it, even decades after he died. Writing the book was part of the painful process of “letting go”, a topic for another day.


I was gratified when several students contacted me after hearing about the memoir. They also expressed concern about the resurgence of right-wing movements, populism and racism.


Men like Hitler exploited the fear and uncertainty created by the economic and social crises of the Great Depression, spreading hate-filled claptrap to gain power. But fascism is not uniquely German. Today we’re facing an economic crisis, a climate emergency, uncertainty in a global pandemic and a destabilizing war—conditions ripe for the far right to grow. They are gaining ground in Canada, as seen by the rise in hate crimes and the recent so-called “Freedom Convoy” that occupied downtown Ottawa.


I’m hoping that people who read my German family’s story are encouraged not to stand by or be complacent in these times.


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