Remembering in two parts: My Kriegsmarine and Canadian Forces grandfathers – not at war in me
Remembrance day for me is a big deal. Though I do not mark the date with more than a poppy on my coat outwardly, it stirs my tears. I’ve thought a lot about whether to share this, but I think I should. My memory of what I mention below is clouded by the filter of childhood but captures my sentiments around the ‘facts’ I recall.
The choir songs I learned in elementary school still circulate in me. Blowin’ in the Wind, No Man is an Island, and poems (turned song) like the following, echo:
POPPIES-CRIMSON RED – Greg Gillis
Standing silently on Remembrance Day,
We show our love in a special way.
Wearing a poppy, crimson red,
Reminds us of soldiers,
Now long dead.
They gave their lives for country and home,
In fields far away,
At times alone.
They proved their love,
Their duty too, fighting for freedom
For me and you.
Take up a torch and hold it high,
Keep your faith for those who died.
Wearing a poppy,
Reminds us of soldiers,
Now long dead
World War II is the war I understand most intimately, and the only one I feel a disturbing connection to. It also involved my continent (North American) more than most other wars. WWI is also etched in my brain, perhaps because Canada played such a big part; our elementary school history books tell the tales of Vimy Ridge and the Somme proudly. My studies of the First World War have also really helped me understand the progression of Russian history in the 20th century. But I’ve never been to war. I don’t know war.
I only really knew two who did know it. And they fought on opposing sides, in that same war.
My mom’s dad, with Ukrainian ancestry, grew up in Canada on a small farm. He was good at fixing things, and when it came time for war, they tried to employ him as a Morse code operator. Trouble was, he knew Morse better than the instructors, having trained in this by correspondence, and he could fix a radio too. He wound up instructing the class, and went overseas to Belgium where he fixed radios, tanks, and weapons. He achieved the rank of Sergeant with the Governor General’s Footguards.
Only once did he have to draw his pistol, and he was proud of the fact he never had to fire it. Toward the end of the war, he was injured while riding on a tank that was being shelled; he did stay in Europe briefly after the War, working on microwave technology. Soon, it was time to come back to Canada, get into cabinet-making with his brothers, and marry my Grandma. Late in life, Veterans Affairs provided some financial and homecare assistance. The Royal Canadian Legion was visited regularly by us as an extended family, mostly because they served good perogies, because that’s where Grandpa Peter met Grandma Inga at a dance just after the war, or because Grandpa could feel like he was ‘the man’ when he was there (however that translates into a proud Grandpa’s mind, anyway). You know what I mean!
Occasionally, Grandpa would tell us about the things he’d seen. I remember the smile on his face as he talked of knocking on doors in a small Belgian town, in search for anyone who could understand English peppered with French. If I recall correctly, he found a schoolteacher who was multilingual and able to help his squadron locate places to bunk. When I was little, he had parts of his uniform and other gear – mainly radio doohickies – in the basement. His small gas-mask bag served as a purse during my pseudo-angsty ‘surplus is cool’ teen years. His headset, sitting beside his pipe, now adorns my mantle.
My other grandfather – my Opa – was from Bremen, Germany. I didn’t know him well. I remember a strict man, one who could be jovial occasionally but he was not forgiving. He smoked, he drank, and he was angry. There were good times too – I remember a big laugh, playing cards, jokes about flyswatters, and loud cheers’ – but I think there was always a deep resentment, for what, I’m not sure. The number of times my dad and his brother were told (as children) by Opa to give away their toys and pack up to move back to the Fatherland was a testament to something unsettled in him. He held onto some of the Nazi beliefs he had been so early indoctrinated with, until the end of his life.
Growing up, he was in the Hitler Youth. One of his proudest moments was being involved with serving Hitler cookies and hot chocolate when he made an appearance at their troop. With the profoundness of the propaganda, the sentiment that Germany had been forsaken with the treaty of Versailles, and the overall spirit of nationalism uniting people, I’m not surprised that teenagers were buying into the ideas of the time. Next, he joined the merchant marines. War came, and they became the core of the Kriegsmarine. He was a signal operator on the Kormoran, a passenger ship that was converted into a raider for the war. Among many things, his ship captured the British Union; for treating them well, when being transfered to a U-Boat, the British captives left their pet monkey behind with the crew of the Kormoran. This I learned from wikipedia, not from my Opa. He didn’t really tell me much about being a Nazi or being on a boat. I was too young to ask.
My family spent Christmas last year in the house I remember him living and dying in. I asked my Oma (German grandmother), about all this war stuff. I started looking on the Internet about his raider and the events it was involved in. I noticed that all of Opa’s books, like “Who Sank the Sydney,” still sat on the shelves, 15 years after he was turned to ash. They must have been important to him, but meant nothing to me until I learned more.
The Kormoran famously and controversially sank Australia’s HMAS Sydney and all its 645 crew. The German vessel was badly damaged and had to be scuttled, while most of the crew survived and made it to shore. My Opa and his shipmates became Prisoner sof War (POWs) somewhere around Perth, Western Australia, after rowing to land. They were held and questioned, as the events surrounding the battle were cloudy at best.
Part of the Kormoran‘s MO was flying flags of other ships or countries as a disguise to avoid engaging or in order to come near to board and capture. As I understand the rules of war, they had to be flying their real flag if engaging in combat. There is some controversy about what flags they flew, whether the flags were hidden from the Sydney, whether some tricks were used to draw the Australians closer, if Japanese torpedo ships were involved in the attack etc. Naturally, with my Opa being the signal operator, he would have been one of the men directly carrying out any controversial orders from his Commander. Before this, I imagined him in his sailor suit, ‘swabbing the deck’ because that’s what all sailors on TV do, right? I started Googling.
Despite all the theories, with the 2008 evidence of the wreckages, the Australian war crimes tribunal ruled that the German account was accurate. The interrogation of opa Otte and others from 1941 showed that their battle flag was up before they engaged. The devastation of the Sydney and death of all her crew was incongruent with the initial facts; however, when the delays in the Australian Captain’s actions are noted along with the unfortunate proximity of the ships – which seemed to have been arrived at by legal means – the battle is deemed to have played out as reported.
Years later, there were efforts of the Germans to reconcile or at least honour the crew of the Sydney. I don’t know how my Opa felt: Right? Wrong? Sad? Guilty? Relieved to be alive? Did it disturb him to be associated with the murk at the centre of a war crime investigation?
A tragedy. What must it have been like to be on the Sydney as she went down? Or to be the family on the receiving end of ‘one of those’ telegraphs or phonecalls? I am so grateful that I don’t personally know anyone who is away at war, and I hope it stays that way.
While in some ways it sickens me to think my blood ties me to someone who was involved in killing on purpose, another part of me wonders if I wouldn’t have done the same, if raised in the same time and environment. I’d love to think that I could overcome the propaganda, the zeitgeist, and resist vocally. However, the threat of death, torture, or imprisonment that may have come with any refusal to support the mass cause would have been even harder to resist.
Would I do everything I possibly could to win a war for what I believed to be right? Would you? With my medical inclination, would I, could I treat those soldiers injured the war, or would this feel like enabling the killing? Could I kill? Would I hang firmly to the beliefs I fought for even decades after the fight? I hope to never find out. Even those who did not die signed up for sacrifice. I’m not so brave.
I get sad thinking about all the things other people have had to go through that I have not. The mud, the blood, the hunger, death. Remember your story and how profoundly it will impact you and yours. As mundane as my life seems in comparison to my grandfathers’, I can’t help but be indebted to them for making it that way. Each of them fought for a world they believed would be the best for me.