First Person | Local

German heritage kindles journey of healing

Carolin Haase Atchison

For more than three years, I have been researching my family’s history — and I’m still at it. When I received the results of my DNA test a couple of years ago, I was surprised, like the actors in the Ancestry TV ads.

Instead of being of mainly German heritage, I am actually 50 percent Swedish, 24 percent Eastern European, 13 percent British, 5 percent Jewish Diaspora, 4 percent Southern European, and 3 percent Middle Eastern. I called back and asked, “Are these really my genes?” The answer, “Yes.” The 13 percent British came as a real surprise. Might that be the mysterious father of my grandfather?

The irony is that I spent much of my life running away from my German heritage. And for good reasons. I was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1961, at a time when people were more busy with re-building their lives than confronting the past. Forgetting seemed the key word. No one talked about the war years. But I wish someone had.

I first learned about the Holocaust through a documentary on German TV. It was the late 1960s and I was waiting for Star Trek to come on. Instead, I learned about the unimaginable. Concentration camps. Black and white images of starving human beings, looking at me with sad eyes from behind barbed wire fences. Mass graves. Gas chambers. Six million Jews murdered at Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, Treblinka, Dachau …

I went into shock. How could people do this to other people? Why did no one shed a tear or even apologize? How could people just go on living as if nothing had happened? How could people become such monsters?

I started my ancestry research even then. My parents had to swear to me that there were no Nazis in our family. Every night before going to bed, our dedicated — and tired — parents would read my brother and me a bedtime story or tell us of a childhood prank they pulled. Like the time dad shot down the Hitler flag “with the evil spider on it.” Naturally, there also had to be heroes in the Haase-Bussmann tribe. And luckily there were. There was Tante Thea, who hid Jewish friends in her apartment in Berlin and helped them escape to Shanghai. There was General von Hase, who, like Darth Vader, had enough of the “evil empire” and chose to participate in the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, only to end up hanging from the gallows himself.

In the late 1970s, after our parents’ divorce, our mother packed our belongings and, in a defiant move, settled us in sunny Southern California. The sun, the surf, and trail rides on big, old Barney in Huntington Beach put a brake on all that darkness. At least for a while. College was good, as was my move to New York City, where, through a colleague at work, I met Dr. Hertha Einstein Nathorff. 

Once a week I would go and visit “Tante Hertha” in her modest apartment on the Upper West Side to help her with the publication of her diary about her life in Germany, only to find myself, over saltines with cream cheese, captivated by her stories of life in prewar Berlin, her difficult new beginnings with her family in New York City, and her visits with her cousin “Albertle” in Princeton. Even at 91 she did not miss a beat. She was after all an Einstein, who, at 28, had been the youngest director of the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Berlin, and later had fallen in love with the eminent Dr. Eric Nathorff, a senior physician at the Moabit Hospital. Both were forced out of their jobs with the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws and in 1938 immigrated to the United States. Like many refugees, they had lost everything, and were lucky to be alive.

With my move to Los Angeles, my visits with “Tante Hertha” ended. On occasion, I would attempt to visit a Holocaust museum, only to get so choked up, I could barely make it through the exhibit. Unlike my friends back in Germany, who worked through the subject in high school, I never had. Deep in my psyche, the shame and guilt over Germany’s past never left me.

Life in L.A. was good, though. I went on long beach walks with my dog Max, fell in love with a park ranger named Sky and worked to protect beautiful open spaces and wildlife corridors in the Santa Monica Mountains. One of my happiest days was when I became a U.S. citizen, because I thought I wasn’t a German anymore.

But my marriage did not last. And meanwhile my unease with my heritage continued to grow. I still feel sorry for the people who detected a slight accent and innocently asked me where I was from. Or the blind date who took me out to a nice restaurant and naively suggested he would like to visit Germany someday. It was not until I struggled with a precarious financial situation that I thought, “How did my grandmother survive the war, with two little children?” Until then, I had never really thought about what they went through.

But still, it was all there. Haunting me. I knew I really needed to do something about the guilt when I looked at an Excel spread sheet I’d created for work and all I could think of were the forms on which the Nazis had recorded the possessions they took from the Jews on their arrival at the concentration camps.

And so my journey toward healing began. In honor of the victims, I started it with a visit to L.A.’s Museum of the Holocaust and listened to the moving testimony of a survivor. I read survivors’ biographies and slowly inched my way toward Germany’s efforts at reparations and its culture of remembrance.

So much has happened since we left. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was built, along with the Jewish Museum and the Topography of Terror. The Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research was established, as was the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and Future. German school children are required to visit a concentration camp as part of their Holocaust educational program. German artist Gunter Demnig creates “Stolpersteine” (stumbling stones) to commemorate victims of Nazi persecution. In May, Sybille Steinbacher became the first professor of Holocaust studies in Germany, at the Goethe University Frankfurt.

When the U.S. TV miniseries “Holocaust” aired in Germany in the late 1970s, helplines had to be set up to help people cope. About 10 years ago, a new field of study emerged that focuses on the “children of war” and the “grandchildren of war,” to help Germans heal from the effects of that traumatic time. I can relate. I am one of those grandchildren.

About three years ago, I moved to Tucson for personal reasons and, after discovering the Family History Center, began my family research in earnest. I wanted to know whether it was true that our great-grandfather, Opi Laub, had been born Jewish, but later converted to Catholicism, or whether our great-great-grandmother really did come from Sicily.

I have yet to find Opi’s conversion papers or the birth certificate of my great-great-grandmother, but I did learn that my maiden name, “Haase,” is actually a Jewish surname, as are other names in my family tree, such as Laub, Wegmann, Schipper, Sontheim, and Herz.

What are their stories? When I looked at Yad Vashem’s database of the victims of the Holocaust, Haase, Laub, and Herz have pages of entries. Might one, or some, of them be a relative of mine?

The dark clouds of my German past are beginning to dissipate amidst the rays of truth — and my journey of remembrance and healing continues.

Carolin Haase Atchison is a freelance writer in Tucson.