A Duty of Remembrance

 A Duty of Remembrance is a book about my German family during the first half of the last century.  Three generations were sucked up in the maelstrom of history: first they lived through WWI, the war to end all wars with sixteen million lives lost, then they slid into a terrible world wide depression for which  in Germany Hitler promised a way out with hope and honour which sadly resulted in WWII, a scourge that cost  another sixty million lives.

In September of 1965 I had been living in Canada for one year when I read in Time Magazine that my father was accused of killing 33 771 Jews in the Babi Yar Gorge outside Kiev.  Some time before my mother had written in a letter that ‘they’ had come and arrested my father; I knew who ‘they’ were.  I also knew that my father had been waiting for years for something like this to occur.  I knew about Babi Yar because I had read  Jevgeny Jevtushenkov’s poem. I did not understand how my father who I knew to be intelligent, honest and kind could be involved in this. The process against August Haefner lasted more than one year.  He was sentenced to nine years imprisonment.

Thirty years later in 1996 I asked him to tell me the story of his life.  That was the start of getting members of my family to record their lives and experiences.  I dug up diaries, journals, letters and nagged them endlessly for more stories.  I wanted to find out why they all had so enthusiastically joined the Nazi Party and been part of everything that happened thereafter.  I learned that men and women who became Nazis were ordinary people who wanted a future for themselves and their fatherland out of the miseries of the depression.  I also learned that men who joined the SS were often idealistic young men or just regular men who needed a job.  Today I thank my family for their honesty.

I titled the book “A Duty oF Remembrance” because today as in the 1920s and 1930s the liberal democratic parties, the press, the universities, the unions, the arts and churches are reluctant to come together to assert their moderating positions in a corporate state.  Therefore the disenfranchised, educated or not, the poor and the unemployed turn towards charismatic demagogues or authoritarian fascist like movements.  I wanted to show that war brings nothing but destruction, suffering and death.  There is no glory.  War is a waste of material and human resources and it marks everything that is touched by it forever.

We still have wars.  We still have the disenfranchised, the unemployed and the poor, the very groups a Hitler roped in so easily.  Have we not learned the lessons of history?  Could it not all happen again?