Staying Positive

by Luke Adams

The bags are packed, outside darkness engulfs Breslau. The family is all together, everyone is ready to leave. They hug Amanda, my great-great-grandmother; she is an old woman and staying behind because of it. They say their goodbyes and flee into the night. That was the last time they saw Amanda; she was killed by the Nazis.  

That was in 1933. Eighty-four years later I was sitting outside a Starbucks in Palo Alto with my great uncle Robert Adams, or as I call him, Uncle Bob. Amanda was his grandmother.  Bob was smiling and laughing as he was telling the story of his family’s escape as Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the early 30s. His family left Germany in 1933, moving to Italy to avoid a rising Nazi party under the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Bob was born in 1936 in Italy to a mother, father and two brothers; his older brothers were twins, and the older twin, Gerard, was my grandfather. My great-grandfather, Walter, kept his family in Italy until Mussolini forced all Jews out of Italy in 1938. The then Weissenberg family fled to England, where they stayed for less than a year, living through a number of bombings in shelters. In 1939 their ship arrived in New York. They moved to Saginaw, Michigan, and changed the family name from Weissenberg to Adams to hide their Jewish heritage. Uncle Bob has very few memories of his time in England and none of Italy. Most of the information he shared with me was passed down to him as a story or from his work to edit and publish my great-grandfather’s autobiography.  

It was a sunny, breezy day as we sat in the shade of a few small trees outside of Starbucks. Behind Bob, a traffic light flashed and cars roared by. To my right was a group of middle-aged women wearing workout clothes relaxing and chatting over a cup of coffee. Bob is an elderly, happy man with a white mustache and a big belly. He is the sort of man who would make a great Santa Claus. His constant cheeriness is infectious and he loves to talk. That day, he was wearing a baby blue collared shirt as he leaned back in his chair. Bob had been a professor of economics at UC Santa Cruz for 35 years, where he was a founding member. He had just finished telling me a full history of my family from 1776 to the present day. I learned more about my family from an hour and a half with him than I had in my previous sixteen years. I told him about my literature of witness class and the interview project in a greater detail than I had previously explained over the phone.  

He leaned back in his chair, thinking for a second before he chuckled a bit, and looking up, he said, “I guess I’m a witness in a funny sort of way.” Not yet understanding what he meant by this, I was afraid I would get caught in another one of his famous tangents. The man can talk for hours.  

I pushed forward asking the first question. “So what are some challenges you faced in the process of leaving?”

He seemed to be caught off guard by my first question and asked, “Our family?” I nodded and he thought for a moment before saying, “Challenges?” Another pause. “The challenges anybody faces when they leave in a period of two weeks with no job, and no money, and not familiar with the language. And not knowing where to go; with my father it was nuts, let me tell you, he was irrational.” A faint smile appeared on his face. He continued, smiling, “He decided to go to Italy because he liked the warm weather and the art, he wanted to see the art, he wanted to see Italy.” He thought for a second before giving me a counterexample. He used Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father. Otto and my great-grandfather Walter never knew each other but fled Germany within the same month. Otto went to Amsterdam to family and business contacts, which did not end well for him. Walter, on the other hand, had no business connections. Bob switched back to his family’s story saying that his father went to Italy, “almost on a whim, crazy.” He paused and broke eye contact to look past me as he continued, “But, I often think of what would have happened if my mother had close Jewish friends in Amsterdam. I mean, you know what happened to the Franks.” He believed that given the option, his dad made the right choice. He looked back at me saying, “I’m just telling you sometimes in life you make choices that aren’t particularly rational to other people, but they work. Had [my father] been totally rational, had he had a business contact, he might have taken us the Frank route, which was a disaster.” His words trailed off into silence. After a few seconds he apologized and asked me to continue.  

I nodded and looked down at my paper for the next question. Looking up I said, “So you don’t have many memories of fleeing or your time in London, but how were you treated, what was it like when you first got to America?”

He put down the drink he had just picked up for a sip and quickly began, “Ah well, I was just a kid, I can’t tell you much except that we weren’t treated very well and did not have a lot of money.” He told me about his experience going to a welfare camp in upstate New York with his mother, only to discover it was a scam and the organizers were overcharging and keeping profits. A couple with a baby sat down at the table next to us to my left. The couple’s relaxed manner with their baby made me think about my childhood and how much easier it must have been compared to Bob’s. Bob continued, “I remember always having fights, for quite a while I remember having  to deal with people.” He looked left, pausing as the baby shrieked when his father picked him up. He continued, “I think that was because to people in Saginaw we were from Germany! Not everyone in Saginaw liked Germany in 1941, so we were enemy aliens.” He hesitated for a bit. “I think I had some uncomfortable moments that way, but I would say I never saw them that way. I just grew up in a family that does not have a lot of money,” he let out a small chuckle, “and that was true of a lot of people in Saginaw.” He chuckled a little louder, “So I never felt I was getting any type of special negative treatment, and it was during the war, there was nothing going on anyway.” Looking me in the eyes he continued, “It was not a question of me going to little league. Those options were not there for anyone, for anybody, so it wasn’t like I felt like I was missing something. There was no candy, milk was rationed, you got meat maybe once, twice a week, it was war time. The thing about war is everybody gets treated equally badly.” Here he did not chuckle. Instead, he laughed and soon quieted down as he waited for the next question.

Looking down and reading from my paper I asked, “You mentioned that you were born in Italy. Do you remember much from your early years?”

Taking a bite of his bagel he chewed, swallowed, and responded, “Not really, I was just a kid in Italy, but I do remember a bomb shelter from London.” I asked him to describe what little he remembered. “And all of a sudden the sirens go off, and my brothers grab me. I’m kinda thinking what the hell is going on? Why are we sitting down here, why can’t we sit up there?” I leaned in to hear as the traffic light turned green and traffic roared by. He continued, “I was too small, but I will tell you, these things affect you.” He paused again quickly before continuing, “As a neighbor told my mother in Saginaw, this was a few years later, but every time a plane flew overhead I would run around the house screaming, “The bombers are coming.” He paused for a second and looked up at a passing plane overhead. He said, “I will honestly tell you until I was 20 if I was sitting here and heard a siren, maybe a police siren or something, I would get cold chills. That’s about it, nothing too dramatic.”

He took another bite of his bagel. I tried to move on and said, “So have you ever been back to Italy or London, or even to Germany for the first time?”  

He nodded as he replied, “Oh yes, of course, many times.” I asked how it felt, and putting down his bagel he said, “I have no problem with it, I understand what happened. I understood when I went through [Germany] for the first time in 1959.” He sat back in his chair and continued, “I grew up with the language, I grew up with my parents, my family was German, I absorbed a lot of that, I also moved, but there were a lot of Germans who moved.” He looked at me and kept going, “A lot of people who lived [in Germany] suffered badly because of the war.  They didn’t necessarily have any bad feelings towards Jews or anybody else. But the Nazi takeover was so quick and so ruthless, there were people who lived there, who did nothing out of fear they would be next.” I pushed my phone forward on the table to ensure that it was recording his words. Bob said, “I also understand that there are Germans who are bad, there are people who are anti-Semitic, there are people who contributed to the deaths of millions of people. But I don’t feel any different than I do about Germans than I feel about any country.” He smiled as he kept talking, “Part of this attitude comes from my mother. After the war she wrote the Red Cross and said she wanted to help some German kid who was not from a Nazi family. She did that and I still see them regularly and consider them my extended family.” The smile from his face faded a little, “I understand, yes there are nasty people, but look around! I am not uncomfortable in Germany at all; I think that if you look at the German national anthem, the first stanza talks about freedom and equality. That’s the part of Germany I think that still exists.” I nodded, and not knowing the German national anthem I took his word for it. He thought for a moment before he added, “And they have an Alt Right too, [they] just got into parliament. I mean, that’s always there too.” This reminded me of the rising Alt Right movement and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in America. It was never fully gone, but it has finally been unearthed. Bob’s words are meaningful to both him, the refugee, and others like me because it is the sharing of history that prevents us from repeating it. Especially in today’s political sphere, it is important to remember history. We need to be sure that travel bans here, and “ethnic cleansings” elsewhere, do not mature into a modern day Holocaust or genocide that are anywhere near the scale of past genocides. This is why witness literature is important. The roar of a loud motorcycle passing by dispersed my thoughts so I pressed the interview on.

 I asked Bob, “So I know that your father was baptised as a Christian, but do you still identify as a Jew?”


I asked, “Not at all?”

He nodded saying, “No, I was raised as a Christian. I recognize my ancestry, I have no problem with that, I mean Gia (his daughter-in-law) calls me up, says come down for Shabbat, I go, ‘Shabbat?!’” He cracked up and continued, “But no one said anything about Judaism to me, there were practically no Jews in the Midwest anyways. I grew up in a Congregational church, know more about pilgrims than I do Jews.” He let out a full sounding laugh, and I joined in.  

After a moment I pushed further asking, “But growing up, did you know about your Jewish background?”

He nodded saying, “Vaguely, I mean my father was trying to get away from it and my mother was not interested in it. It wasn’t of any concern to her, and they went to church together every Sunday.” He put the bagel down without taking a bite and wiped a small bite of cream cheese off his fingers with a napkin. Looking at his hands, he continued, “All the years I knew him he was a very go to church on Sunday guy, and I think my father had some spiritual conversion with all this. For most of my life it has been a nice thing, I don’t hide my identity, I have many Jewish friends who are kind and accepting of me.” A smile appeared as he kept talking, “My attitude is you can choose to see me however you want, but I know who I am, so it doesn’t matter.” He took a bite of the bagel, getting a small bit of cream cheese in his beard. I nodded, agreeing with his point and taking a sip of my drink.  

Next I asked him, “Has your experience changed your outlook on life that much?”

This response was not as quick as the others; he sat back, deep in thought. After around 45 seconds, still looking down he said, “Yes, fundamentally.” He looked up at me and said, “I am profoundly impacted by the fact that individual acts of human kindness can have an impact way beyond anything you ever dream when you do them.” He paused to think, “So it’s not just a question of helping by putting money in the Salvation Army red pot.” He quickly added, “It helps, it helped me.” So as to not take away from the importance of donating, he continued and said, “But it is just individual people, who, out of kindness, just because they wanted to be helpful were helpful to my family, just on the day to day stuff. And I realized that,” another pause, “you are a little pebble, but when you drop in the water,” he paused for another second, “you know, you can have a big impact,” he said as he leaned back in his chair. “It certainly has affected me that way. You would be amazed in how you can change the world by just the little things you do, that’s one thing that impacted me.”He paused as again the child shrieked. He smiled, looking at the child before saying, “I think the other thing that impacted me is understanding just how precarious society is.” The smile faded a bit from his face. “You and I can sit here comfortably, but I understand there are forces of evil in this world, and that there will always be.  Anti-Semitism isn’t going away, it is here and it is in the United States.” He moved his chair forward and said, “Racial attitudes and all that kind of stuff is here, and if you let that virulent attitude wild, we can have our own disasters. And, you know, occasionally we have done it, we rounded up the Japanese in 1941 put them in internment camps.” He seemed to shudder at the thought. He adjusted his posture and looked at me, then he said, “My message always is: Yeah, it happened in Germany, it was terrible, don’t think that was a one of a kind occasion, and don’t think it is only the Germans that can be the meanest guy in the valley. We have that potential too.” Slowly he continued, “I look with a great deal of concern at what is happening in our country right now. That goes back to my history experience, you know, it doesn’t take much for evil people to do wrong stuff.” I nodded in agreement and he said, “And it is easy to ignore, you know, it is easy to go back to Cupertino, say it’s alright.” He chuckled lightly and ended abruptly as he leaned back in his chair before saying, “I can’t guarantee you that I’m a nice guy and that I’m always doing nice things, but I do know that occasionally I have an opportunity to help an individual person, that doesn’t necessarily mean with money or with anything else, that was part of what I enjoyed about being a professor, and when those occasions occur, sometimes you don’t even know you are doing it, it’s just a form of giving back.” I looked up from my notebook to see the large smile on his face, a contagious one that quickly spread to mine. Smiling, I thanked him and switched off the recording on my phone.

My interview with my Uncle Bob helped me bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust and its personal impact on my family. It is important to make these personal connections so that I can understand the refugee crisis happening today. It helps me identify with the boat people from Syria who are drowning in the Mediterranean. Seeing photos of dead immigrants every morning in the newspaper who drown trying to flee with their lives, it makes me think, this could have been my family, my grandfather. Curiously, Bob’s testimony bears witness to the incredible power of the human spirit and small acts of kindness from strangers. While Bob never truly witnessed the horrors of the war, he is still a witness. For all the horrible things that happened to Bob while escaping from Nazi Germany, his overriding life philosophy is to be happy and enjoy life and the people around you. There’s no anger . . . there’s no resentment, just a feeling of let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.   


Silent Voice, Blaring Soul


When I made my first phone call to Mrs. Haas, an 87-year-old woman who had survived the Holocaust in Germany, I felt confident and excited to finally begin my exploration of her story and her experiences.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Tamara Haas? It’s Angelina Laus, Chris Bradshaw’s friend,” I said politely.

“Hello? Hello? Yes. This is she. You are… Angelina?” Tamara asked—the decline of her health that comes with old age was reflected in the frailty of her voice.

After we introduced ourselves, I asked her if I could conduct an interview; however, when I asked her, my voice begun to shake. I was reluctant to utter words such as “Holocaust,” “atrocity,” “suffering,” and “survivor.” I stuttered before every word that would have sparked a painful memory of hers. I did not want to hurt her; I did not want anyone to set a reminder to—in my assumption—a person who has already moved on.

Initially, Tamara and I made plans to meet in San Francisco one week after our phone call. Unfortunately, she called me the night prior to our meeting and cancelled. We made plans to meet once again, but they did not go through because she had an unexpected appointment with the doctors. Finally, we were able to conduct a phone interview three weeks later.

I was in Priory’s Student Center, standing in front of the glass case, looking at the pictures, trying to distract myself from feeling the least bit nervous. I assumed she was in her living room, seated perhaps on an old-fashioned couch, whose fabric may have had floral patterns with a pastel color palette.

“Hey, Tamara, it’s Angelina,” I said. By this time, she and I had frequented the phone, and naturally, we let go of the formalities.

“Hello, so what is it you need to ask me?” Tamara asked. She was a confident woman; she knew what she wanted and despite her weak voice, and one could hear her personality past her voice. I told her that she should answer the questions freely and proceeded with the interview.

“What was your family like? Did you have any siblings?”

“My parents were married; they loved each other, and they had a typical relationship. My father was in charge, made us feel safe, while my mother stayed home with us and made sure the home was arranged. I had an older brother and a younger brother.”

She went straight to the point, as if she did not want to exert any emotion. She wanted to remain separate from what happened.

“How old were you when the Holocaust started?” I asked.

“I was a teenager, I forget. It was difficult, I had friends, I was in love, and I was confused. I had no idea. I was frightened. Things happened. And I did not know. It seems odd. Events just flashed before my eyes, and I did not know what to do.”

“Did anyone assure you? Make you feel safe?”

“Well, I was lost—emotionally and in every way possible. But my father always remained strong. I knew everyone was hurting, so I tried my best not to show any emotion. I did not want those around me to panic.”

“Where did you go when the Holocaust was happening? Where were you sent?”

“My father and my brothers were taken from us in our home, and my mother and I left immediately, to different people’s homes, hiding, in barns. Anything we could do, we did.”

By now, I did not know what to say. I was in awe of how strong she was, but I was also in awe by the way she trusted me. I felt like her confidante.

“Did you eventually lose anyone close to you?”

“My father and my brothers. I didn’t see them since the day the soldiers barged into our house. And, eventually, my mother. We were in hiding. She went off to the market to get some bread, and she never returned. No one would tell me what happened, and I, too, did not want to ask.”

There was a long gap of silence. Our conversation must have been the first time she had spoken abut her mother in years, but I did not hear her cry. It was just a long pause of silence, but we both understood.

“What helped you get through the day?”

“I just worked and was too busy thinking about how I could stay alive. Back then, there was no time to feel. You could not. Otherwise, you would go mad. I heard frightening stories about my friends, my relatives, but I could not be weak. I had to live. I did not know everyone else’s future, and I had no control. But I had control of mine. I looked for food, sometimes ate the dying grass just to get some sort of nutrients. I controlled what happened to me.”

“Were there any defining moments that flashback every now and then?”

“I try to forget. Try not to think of the bad memories. The flashbacks that keep me alive are the happy moments. The moments when my family and I would go the fields and have a picnic, or when my mother prepared our favorite meal. You know, Angelina, I cannot dwell on the past. It happened. And I am still hurt. I would like to know what happened to family members, but it is easier to move on without knowing. I love them dearly. But I continue to live for them. In their memory.”

Our interview ended on that note. Tamara had been so intimidating, so self aware and strong. I wondered if she had any break downs every now and then, and I wondered what she thought of late at night before she went to sleep, when she had nothing to do but listen to her own thoughts. There was no doubt in my mind that she did think of her family, the atrocities, the joys, and the bliss, the mixture of emotions from the past.

Speaking with her made me think of a conversation I had with the school Dean, Mr. Schlaak. He said that often, survivors feel a guilt for having been the one to make it through. He said, “It is as if you are in a plane with all of your closest family and friends, and it crashes. All of them die, except for you.” I think Tamara was strong-willed, but I felt as though she was merely existing. I sensed the lack of spirit when I talked to her. She was living, but not for herself, and I could not blame her. I commend her for merely existing because perhaps, when people undergo atrocities such as the Holocaust, merely existing is more than enough.

Memories Preserved With Time


I can hear the faint sound of the old clock in the corner of this small kitchen. Tick tock tick tock tick tock. It’s a little sound that we’ve all heard before, but it makes this moment feel more momentous, as if it were preserving a moment within the tick tocks of time.  My grandfather’s face is solemn but friendly. His skin is rough, but his eyes are soft and lively. I can tell that he is eager to talk about his experiences in Germany… he normally is. “Nonno,” I began, “Why did you join the army?” I want to know about his life, about his experiences, and about his past.

He replied without hesitation. “In 1942, when I was seventeen, I was worried that the Germans would invade Switzerland, so I applied to the US army to get me out of Switzerland.”

“It sounds like it was a way for you to escape?” I asked.

“Yes, it definitely was. Before I continue,” he said, “let me give you a brief history lesson.” My grandfather has always been great with remembering history and dates. He continued, “In 1938, Hitler invaded and took over Austria. In the same year, he invaded Czechoslovakia. And a year later, in 1939 on the 1st of September, he invaded Poland. England and France had previously made a treaty with Poland that if anyone made war with Poland, they would declare war with that country.  In 1940, Hitler invaded France and, about the same year, he took over Denmark and Norway. I was in Switzerland, and I heard how in all of the countries Germany conquered they took all of the Jews and sent them to many, many concentration camps in Germany and Poland. What happened in the concentration camps we all know… they killed over six million Jews.”

My grandfather can tell you dates for everything to the month and, sometimes, the day. He remembers the date of everything from graduating primary school to visiting a new restaurant over twenty years ago. He can even tell you the date he got a great discount at the supermarket for low fat milk. The army taught my grandfather to take nothing for granted. He talks like an army man, too. He’s factual, to the point, and shows very little emotion. Everything is steady, like the clock ticking in the background.

“What was your assignment in the army?” I asked. I wanted to ask him more probing questions, but it was important for me to understand the background before diving in.

He replied smoothly and without hesitation, as if he had prepared a response. “I was at Nuremberg trial from 1945-1947. My assignment, for General Maxwell Taylor, the Commander of Nuremburg, was to translate the diary of General Halder. This man planned every invasion by the German army and trained the German army until 1942 when he broke up with Hitler.”

“You’ve told me before that you interrogated people too, is that right?”

“Yes, that is correct,” he replied.  “My job before I went to Nuremberg was working in a camp with 10,000 German soldiers, and three of us interrogated 500 soldiers every day. If I found that they had nothing to do with crimes against humanity, then they would get a discharge. With the discharge paper, they could get a job and food.”

“Five hundred people… that’s so many…,” I thought. I imagined a line, 500 tired faces long, all waiting to be interrogated. Then, I thought of my grandfather, Charles Tatti. He and two other men had the authority to decide the fate over that many people. My mind was filled with questions.

“Was there anyone that stood out to you in particular? Or did you have any experiences during interrogation that were particularly emotional?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied swiftly. “There was one time when we were interrogating a very old German soldier. His name was Deschauer.”

He stopped here to spell the man’s name for me because, unlike my grandfather, I know no German.

“After lengthy interrogations,” Nonno continued, “Deschauer admitted that he was a member of the SS, one of the meanest units in the German army. He admitted to killing an average of three Jews every day and was rewarded with a pack of cigarettes for everyone he killed. He thought that he was a hero… because these people that he killed were enemies of his country, so therefore he was doing a great deed for his country. At this point, it was very, very emotional for me.”

My grandfather’s voice rose ever so slightly. For a man who keeps his conversation steady, this rise seemed to convey the emotion still locked within old memories.

“Deschauer.” He repeated the man’s name as though it were sour. “Every day he would admit to more atrocities. He would kill a man just for dropping a fork. Finally, he signed a confession and, after that, the three of us lost control of ourselves and we beat him up and broke one his bones. We were able to bring him back to complete health in six weeks then sent him back to Poland where he was wanted for war crimes.”

“You know, Jennie,” he said to me, “there are things that are so terrible, that they would get anyone excited. Our minds were just occupied by the immensity of his crimes.”

There was a pause after this, but I remained silent for a moment because I could tell that his mind was racing. His eyes were still steady, and his body was still, but yet, I could somehow sense that he was deep in thought.

Following the long pause, I asked quietly, “Did you ever see the concentration camps where these crimes were committed?

“I drove by… I have pictures…,” he said, “but I refused to go and see it. I was a young soldier, and I didn’t have the courage. I know there were thousands of skeletons and bodies.”

“What did the camps look like?” I asked.

“We just drove by ‘em. All you saw were fences and a huge piece of land with wooden or metallic barracks by the hundreds. They were about a hundred feet long and, at the gate of the concentration camp, they had a big sign in metallic letters that read ‘Work makes you free.’ ”

Nonno spent some more time describing those signs, and I could tell that they were an image that he will never forget. It’s been about sixty years since he saw them, yet he remembers every detail.

He continued, “The camps had ovens where they burnt thousands every day. When they took a population of Jews and brought them to the camps, they would separate the children from the mothers and the mothers from their husbands. The first thing they would do is tell the kids they were gonna get a ‘shower’ and… instead of water… they were all gassed to death.”

I imagined the screams… the sheer terror of the camps. I imagined the large metal signs, and the showers, and the children, as they were pulled apart from their mothers. I imagined the utter sadness, the complete devastation, in the child’s eyes as they said goodbye to their mothers, never to see them again. It amazed me how my grandfather was able to tell me these things in such a factual way, but I reminded myself that it is just the nature of his personality.

“I understand that you were scared to go inside,” I said, “but were you close to anyone who was forced into a concentration camp?”

Nonno thought for a moment, then replied, “Yes, yes I was. I became friend of the mayor of a very little village next to the prison camp. The village was Kappel. His name was Richard Hopf, and he was head of the Boy Scout movement in Czechoslovakia. Although he was a German, he refused to join the Nazi party and was put into a concentration camp at Buchenwald with his wife and mother. His wife and mother were killed in the camp, and he was tortured.”

“What did they do to him?” I asked timidly, meanwhile hoping that my curiosity wouldn’t appear disrespectful.

Nonno replied, as usual, calmly and swiftly. “When I became a friend of Richard’s, he was probably 40 years old, but he looked like he was 60 from the beatings. He dropped his knife one day in the cafeteria, and they hung him feet up in the cold over night as punishment. That man taught me a lot during the interrogations.”

I could tell that my grandfather had a deep respect for this man, a respect for all that he had endured to stay true to his morals. Although I hope to never be put in that sort of position, I hope that, if it ever does happen, I will make decisions as honorable as those of Richard Hopf. In refusing to kill others, his family was killed and he was tortured. Yet, even through these atrocities, he would not join the Nazi movement. He seems like the sort of man that makes you see the good in humanity and regain faith in the morality of humans.

Without prompting another question, my grandfather continued,

“The people in the towns told me and everybody else that they did not know what went down in the concentration camps. Which was a lie. Every day trains full of people would pull into the camps, and then all that was left were bodies.”

“Was it really emotional for you,” I asked, “to think about what was happening and be so close to the horrors?”

His response completely surprised me. “Honestly, no,” he said matter-of-factly. “For this reason: I was young. I had heard the stories… and I was so busy interrogating my share of the 500 from 8 am to 5 pm that, at the end of the day, I was so happy to go to bed that I did not let it get to me.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if this made him any different from the local townspeople who seemed unbothered by the concentration camps. My grandfather made those people seem like monsters for pretending to know about nothing, yet, he himself was only focused on his own day-to-day life at the time. It seems strange to me, to not have an intense emotional reaction to the pains that others are suffering. Then, however, I realized that I do the same thing. Genocides and other crimes against humanity are occurring all throughout the world, and while I would never support these atrocities, I am also doing nothing to stop them. Talking with my grandfather made me realize the selfishness of humanity. He is a great man and a wonderful grandfather. My conversations with him about how the locals reacted to the concentration camps and how he reacted revealed to me how unintentionally self-centered I am. It was an unexpected lesson, but, nevertheless, a powerful one.

I decided to ask one last question. “Nonno,” I said, “when you look back at those years in your life, how do you feel about them?”

“I think it was an extremely valuable time for me,” he responded. “I was appreciated for my work and had a very honorable job in the secret service. At times, it was scary. The Russians increased their number of soldiers, so there was the fear that they would invade the American zone, in which case officers and Army Intelligence such as myself would be the first people they would kill. But, I am very grateful that I learned a lot. The army gave me responsibility for which I knew nothing of before.”

“Thank you,” I said, truly grateful for everything he had shared with me. I learned valuable lessons and have a better understanding of the way humanity reacts to crimes against our neighbor. Witness texts are important because they are an attempt to open the eyes of the reader and take them outside the bounds of their self-centeredness. We don’t try to be self-centered, and we certainly don’t want to be selfish, but there is an undeniable lack of both sympathy and courage in our society. There is a lack of sympathy towards sufferers and a lack of courage to do anything to stop suffering.


As the clock continued to tick in the background, I realized that the things he taught me were possibly the greatest use of time imaginable. These lessons on morality will impact my own future decisions and how I view the world around me, and I am grateful that my grandfather was willing to share his past so openly.