My German-born grandmother’s initial reaction to the white smoke signifying that Catholics would have the first German pope in five centuries was excitement. But as the days passed, she grew less enchanted with the idea. My father — who was not born in Germany but whose childhood was dipped in the culture of Sauerkraut and liverwurst — agreed.

“This isn’t good for Germans,” he said as we watched the pope’s inception ceremony. “Especially your grandmother.”

Neither my grandmother nor my father doubted Pope Benedict XVI would lead the church honorably. They were upset because when people talked about the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, they were foregoing additional discussion about his doctrine in favor of speaking about his ties to the Nazi party during World War II.

“He was so young,” my grandmother said. “How could he have known?”

I suspect she was asking the question more of herself than of the pope. Like Benedict, my grandmother was in Germany during the war. Born in 1935, she took her first steps and said her first word with Hitler’s stern voice booming through the radio as background noise. Before her 10th birthday, she never knew anything other than Nazism, especially with her father working as a military firefighter. What 10-year-old girl would not believe in the cause her father and everyone else she knew was fighting for?

All her life, the distinction of being a former Nazi sympathizer has followed her. Conversation naturally funnels toward it, moreso lately with the pope’s past in the news.

“Where were you born?” someone will ask her. She’ll answer, they’ll gauge her age, and then you’ll be able to read it in their eyes — oh, so you were one of them, the most notorious evildoers in recent history.

One of the 20th century’s greatest villains: my grandmother.

Now she’s worried that what the pope was busy doing during World War II will define his papacy.

“The first time he does something the media doesn’t like, they’ll blame it on his German heritage, and all we’ll be talking about is what he did when he was 14 years old,” my father said.

Not much is known about the pope’s role during the Nazi era. What is known points toward an unwilling relationship with the Nazis, including a forced involvement with the Hitler Youth. But the media still wants to know if he housed any Jewish people and, if not, why didn’t he? No matter what really happened, the pope will remain tainted by his past, especially in England, where a host of newspapers have criticized his involvement with the Nazis and questioned his character because of it.

The whole issue forms a dilemma. It would be unwise to forget the Nazis’ evils, but it would be unfair to allow a connection to Nazism from his formative years define a German’s life 50 years later. For too many, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrongest of times.

Up to now, it has been fair to investigate and talk about Ratzinger’s past. The public needs to know about his character, and when you become pope — a public figure — you’re fair game. Now that everything has presumably been uncovered, it’s time to judge him on his papacy. Every unnecessary concern raised about his past not only burdens him, it burdens people like my grandmother.

As you read this, she’s probably sitting at her kitchen table, a gentle woman with a bad hip. Someone will call, and she’ll talk with a slight German accent that still hasn’t completely worn off. Mostly, though, it’s gone. After 50 years here, she’s not really a German anymore; she’s an American.

If you won’t reconsider your prejudices toward certain World War II-era Germans for her at 74 years old, do it for her at 19 as she was crossing the Atlantic alone to come to America. If that still doesn’t work, picture her at 10, a young girl overwhelmed by her war-torn world, struggling to simply stay alive — a bomb once landed inside her house but didn’t explode — let alone be on the right side of history.

 

Stampfl is a Daily fall/winter administration beat reporter. He can be reached at kstampfl@umich.edu.

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