Simon Pasternak recalled the shocking moment he discovered his uncle Dirck, a relative shrouded in mystery, had fought with the Nazis during World War II. His discovery was all the more shocking, because half of Pasternak’s family is Jewish.
The Danish writer described in an op-ed in Britain’s Daily Telegraph how he uncovered the family’s dark secret.
“I found the suitcase in my parents’ basement in Copenhagen, when I was a boy in the late 70s. Rusty and black, it belonged to my maternal grandmother’s brother, ‘Uncle Dirck,’ who ‘disappeared in Ukraine during the war,’” Pasternak wrote.
Inside, Pasternak said he found “a hodge-podge of enigmatic, dust-covered documents with SS symbols, letters, an SS dagger, and an Iron Cross 2nd Class.”
Pasternak noted that his grandfather was Jewish, as is half his family, which made the Nazi paraphernalia tucked away in the house all the more puzzling.
So he approached his grandmother in search of answers.
“When I asked my grandmother about it, she said that Dirck wasn’t a Nazi, not at all, but he had been given permission by the Danish government to go to Russia and fight the Communists,” Pasternak wrote.
“When he discovered what the Nazis had done, he wanted out, but they wouldn’t let him go. The wool had been pulled over his eyes and that was all there was to say about that. Then my grandmother died and the suitcase went silent,” he wrote.
Pasternak’s mother was born in 1945, and he said that she didn’t know anything about the contents of the suitcase.
Years later, as an adult, Pasternak researched the items in the bag and discovered the Nazi connections, including “a photo from the 30s, when he was a young, promising naval officer; 1941 Waffen SS enlistment papers; an Aryan certificate; a document from the Ministry of the Navy, stating that ‘The King commends that the Lieutenant Commander be given leave until further notice’ (and could rejoin the Navy again ‘after the war.’)”
Pasternak’s investigation also revealed other documents, including: “his school report from SS School in Bavaria — top marks in Nazi ideology; his appointment as SS-Hauptsturmführer and a pile of letters sent home, written in a jaunty German revue style; and finally, a letter from Der Waffen-SS in Dänemark to my great-grandmother, exhaustively stamped and written in German as well as Danish, reporting that he ‘has been missing since August 20, 1943, at Gurinowka.’”
“[H]e had been a Nazi. My grandmother’s story wasn’t true,” Pasternak concluded.
Years later, Pasternak traveled to Riga in Latvia where his Jewish grandfather’s sister told him how, when the Germans arrived in 1941, they took 4,000 Jews to a forest, including her parents — Pasternak’s great-grandparents — and shot them dead.
She was fifteen years old when the Germans arrived, and her parents and 4,000 other Jews from Riga were taken to a forest outside the city and shot. That night she went out there to find them.
Under cover of darkness, she watched her fellow Latvians walking around, searching the bodies for anything of worth. She fled with her older brother and reached the front lines. He later became an officer in the Red Army and helped liberate the first Latvian village in August 1944.
Could my mysterious Uncle Dirck have participated in the killing of my grandfather’s family? Further investigation showed me that Danish members of the SS took part in mass killings of Jews and in the extremely brutal actions against partisans; they created ‘Death Zones’ where all living creatures – humans and livestock – were either killed or “exported to the Reich”.
The dates don’t fit him, but the principle does. He didn’t do it to my grandfather’s family, but he could have done it to someone else’s.
If he had survived the war, however, he would certainly have denied participating in the genocide, as did the thousands of other SS volunteers – but statistically they all did it.
Thus, Pasternak, author of the new book “Death Zones,” discovered his family included both victims of the Nazis and one who collaborated with them. His full account can be seen at the Telegraph.
For all European families, these stories of the war bind us together and define our identity. But the stories are also just that – stories we use to defend ourselves. And there can be several of these stories within the same family.
The societies that made the Holocaust possible are still around. And it could happen again. As Faulkner says: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
So what happened to the suitcase? It still stands in my parents’ basement; the medals and the dagger have been donated to a museum. Our family still doesn’t agree about whether or not the story should be told, and I’m going to wait a few years to tell it to my own children. But they will hear it.