In 2016, Maria Hagen ’17 spent the summer living in Nuremberg, Germany with her grandparents, her Großmutter and Großvater, “as a way for me to answer questions about the time during and after World War II in Germany,” the country where Maria was born, but not raised. Maria’s grandmother was born in 1935, a year after Adolf Hitler became Germany’s president, in addition to his role as chancellor. Maria wanted to know about a child’s life under Hitler, but also how a nation in ruins from war grew to be the most powerful country in Europe. How did people respond to the harsh conditions of destruction and poverty? How did they rebuild? “Understanding this seems to me to be the only way to stop a similar movement in the future,” Maria writes. The following excerpts are from her senior project essay. 

“Once, just once, did we go to a parade. Mutti, my mother, wanted to see Mussolini, il Duce,” recalls Maria’s Großmutter, Annemarie. She and her twin sister, Ruth, were living in Munich at the time. Mutti, says Großmutter, “probably wanted a reminder of her life in Milan, a happy time, except for the death of her first baby days after its birth. Mutti took us to a store owned by a friend and we stood in the window. We could just see Mussolini and Hitler go by, saluting. And then they were gone and we went home. That was the extent of our political education.”

Großmutter pauses, pouring coffee, then continues, “The Hagen side of the family was completely different. Großvater was constantly surrounded by politics. His aunt brought a stool to every parade so that she could see over the crowds. And she was not the only one who did that.”

Having watched a movie with her grandparents that glorified young Turkish patriots, Maria relates her distress over “this pride in military power, so abundant in the United States. I am angry at the need for power, for killing, and disrespect for lives that aren’t American.”

Großmutter looks at Maria and replies, “Americans have never had a war at home. They don’t remember what it is like to sit in a bomb shelter and watch the latch jump higher and higher with each explosion while the old lady next to you keeps saying der nächste Schlag wird den Kindern die Lungen rausreißen, the next blast will tear the lungs out of the children.”

In 1942, with Allied bombs threatening Munich, Annemarie and Ruth, just seven years old, fled to Neuhaus, a village north of the city, with their mother, leaving everything behind. Their father was not with them. He was on the front, fighting for Hitler.

“I was shot at once by an American Tieff lieger, a strafer, a low-f lying aircraft with guns,” Großmutter tells Maria. “I was on my way home from school. I had my Schulranzen, my school bag, on my back. I was walking along the field. I was almost home. He flew so low I could see the little cap on his head. And he fired at me. I threw myself into the ditch. He shot at a child with a school bag.”

The twins were suddenly former city girls with nothing to their names, dependent on their country relatives for everything. And their family had ignored the expectations of what a German girl should be under the Nazi regime; rules disseminated in newspapers, in cartoons, on placards, and advertisements:  

Deutsche Mädchen tragen Zöpfe. German girls wear braids. Notes Maria, “The twins had missed the announcement and stood out with their short brown bobs. When the war ended their hair was finally long enough to braid, but by that time all the other girls wore bobs.”

Deutsche Mädchen weinen nicht. German girls don’t cry. “And they tried, but they had lost everything and they missed their father. Everything was strange and they never fit in.”

Continues Maria, “The house was big, but by the end of the war, when refugees from the east were put up in the house as well, twelve people shared the one toilet on the second floor. Eight people shared the one downstairs. There was no toilet paper, so Mutti tore up old architecture magazines to use instead.

Annemarie would sit on the toilet trying to piece together the pages so she could examine the blueprints. The paper was thick and heavy, and the articles and prints so fascinating. But as soon as she had two pieces together someone would knock. Locking the door was strictly forbidden.”

“At night, sometimes, you could see the moon over the field when you stood on the toilet lid,” says Großmutter with wonder in her voice. “I would wake up Ruth and we would balance there, gazing at the moon. Everyone thought we were crazy.”

“Großmutter found out much later that Neuhaus, with its Protestant population, voted entirely for the Nazi party in the 1930s.” writes Maria. “The next village over, which was Catholic and Jewish, was less predictable than the Protestant towns. They were more likely to understand what was happening, and what the Nazi Party meant for them.

“In school, der Nazi Gruß, the Nazi salute, was held for hours,” recalls Maria’s Aunt Ruth. “You thought it was over and then you just had to keep holding your arm up.” Adds Maria, “Schoolchildren were presented with  information about their Jewish peers, all of it false. They wrote essays about it, repeating back to their teachers the lies and prejudices they were taught.”

Later, Maria finds similar essays in a Nuremburg museum. “There is one essay, a single sentence in unsteady cursive, proclaiming that Jews are dirty and stink. It was written by a six-year-old. I almost throw up. I understand why Großmutter does not attend these exhibitions.”

Großmutter’s Uncle Johannes was a minister, but because he had a Jewish mother, he could not get a good position in a church. Writes Maria, “He found a job working with the Jewish population in a small town instead. The only way to help them was to get them out, so Johannes arranged for them to get fake passports, organizing ways for them to sneak out of the country. It was dangerous work, especially in a small town.

“Johannes finally received a ministry position in a small village, but under  surveillance from the Nazis. The farmers in the village all knew what he had done, and they often brought him new people when they showed up in town: ”’Pfarrer, Pfarrer, hier ist wieder einer.’ Father, Father, here’s another one.

“One night, when Johannes and his wife had already moved their child’s bed away from the window so she would be safe if someone decided to throw rocks through the glass, Johannes heard something outside. He went downstairs to see what was going on. Outside he saw his neighbors standing at the edge of the property.

“One of them came and told Johannes: ‘We are keeping watch, halten Wache, in case they try to take you away.’”

In Munich, alongside others who stood in resistance to the Nazi regime, there is a plaque honoring Johannes’ memory.

“People bought food with stamps,” Maria writes. “Each tiny square reserved a certain number grams of meat, butter, bread, or f lour for each person. Men were awarded the most amount of food per month while the rations for the elderly were often so small it was not enough to live on. Rations for a normal person amounted to 1,200 calories per day. If you lost the form with all the stamps, then Pech, there was no other way to obtain food. For people living on farms it was often easier to get by than in the cities where there was no way to grow a little food on the side.

“On Saturdays, if the girls swept the town square, they got a free bun from the bakery run by their uncle. They were tough buns, called Gummiklößle, rubber buns, but when food is scarce, anything is good enough.

“Sometimes the girls begged for fresh fruit. The family sent the children to the other houses to ask for an apple or two. After all, people are more likely to give hungry children food. Annemarie would talk while Ruth stood just slightly behind her. Annemarie hated having to ask neighbors for fresh fruit.  Annemarie’s mother made some money as a seamstress, continues Maria. “Sometimes her customers paid in eggs,  or a liter of milk. Sometimes that milk had a bluish tint, giving it away as skim. Then Mutti was upset. Once she sewed for three days for one customer who gave her ten eggs.  Annemarie thought it was an amazing amount of food and could not fathom Mutti’s anger.

“We never had anything fancy to eat, like carp, goose, or duck. But sometimes we had a pigeon. Our grandmother would stuff it to try and make the bird look bigger, but even then, with five people, a single pigeon isn’t much meat.” And so they scavenged. “We gathered every edible plant, brewed every herb into tea. Grains were roasted to make coffee substitutes.”

“I marvel at Großmutter,” Maria adds. “Here we are, sitting in the sun with our feet up, sipping coffee and eating fresh Streuselkuchen that she baked this morning, piled high with whipped cream. The contrast leaves me breathless, but she just pours herself more coffee and offers me noch ein Stückchen Kuchen.”

Großmutter says it’s up to us.
My generation. The young people.
It’s up to us to remember.

Two years ago she took me to a protest.
At seventy-nine, she stood for refugees in the cold.
She remembered,
three grandchildren stood with her.

Remembering is the debt we owe the dead.

Germany over all, Hitler said, and rose.
America first, Trump said today, and rose.
I went into the Holocaust Museum in Washington and remembered.
His words were an insult to the people whose memories and stories are kept here.
His supporters’ presence, jarring and hypocritical.

The next day I marched,
one pink hat in the crowd,
Großmutter’s words heavy on my shoulders.
“Remember,” she says.