Photo: ©Susanne Hakuba
Artist, author and speaker, Angela Findlay grew up in the UK with an English father and a German mother. For decades she struggled with a sense of her own ‘badness.’ It was not until she turned to her German roots that she discovered she was enmeshed in the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Second World War.
I always knew I had a German general as a grandfather. His unblinking eyes stared out from a photograph on my mother’s desk. We knew him only from stories – he was a phenomenal athlete, he had fought in the war and he had smoked himself to his death a week after I was born. I always had a strong sense that as he ascended out of the world and I descended into it, our paths briefly crossed. And as they did, he handed me a baton. It would take me over forty years to discover what this baton was.
Growing up in England in the seventies and eighties, I soon learnt that Germans were disliked, hated even. After the 1979 TV series, Holocaust, I too saw them as evil. Guilt – or was it shame? – seeped into my psyche, then spread. I fought against my German mother and tried countless ways to escape or suppress the growing weight and isolation. Unconsciously I needed to punish the bad person I believed I was, to atone and earn my right to be happy. To exist even. For years, working as an artist in prison was where I felt most at home. Among the ‘guilty.’ It got very dark at times. Recurring depressions took me to contemplating taking my life.
I was forty when my grandfather’s past collided with my present and a photograph of him surrendering to the Americans in May 1945 appeared on my laptop screen; the moment he became a prisoner. From then on, his life took centre stage in mine.
I embarked on the lengthy process of uncovering the family’s experiences. With the Soviets approaching, my ten-year-old mother had been forced to flee Berlin. I recognised how the trauma of losing her home, being separated from her mother and facing a life of uncertainty as a refugee, plus a childhood shaped by Nazi indoctrination had led to the behaviours I had found so challenging. I realised she was not to blame. That’s when I discovered the power of forgiveness for the first time.
To me, it meant letting go of expectations of how I wanted her to be; of understanding and empathising with her story.
When it came to my grandfather, it was more complicated. As a career soldier, accomplished artillerist and Wehrmacht division leader, he had become a cog in Hitler’s massive invasion of Russia in 1941, a war of brutality and annihilation previously unknown to the world. Yet his letters reveal he believed that destroying the Bolshevists was justified. I researched extensively and travelled to significant places in his life to try to comprehend both him and the times. These culminated in a trip across Russia with my mother following in his marching footsteps. At each place, I performed a small ritual using earth and tobacco. It became my attempt to heal the wounds of the place, people and past. And to offer an apology and ask forgiveness for my grandfather, my family and myself for any guilt we carried.
Whether you can forgive or ask forgiveness on behalf of others remains a question for me. I wanted to forgive my grandfather, but it was not my place. I was not his victim. Germany, as a nation, has erected hundreds of ‘counter memorials’ in its unique culture of commemoration, apology and atonement. With most first-hand witnesses, victims and survivors of the horrors now dead, younger generations may carry their unresolved emotions and so any responsibility to remember.
Without a perpetrator to accuse, blame or forgive for the debilitating problems I experienced, I have had to direct my forgiveness more generally. To Germany, to my grandfather and mother for not having been able to deal with their experiences and unwittingly handing them to me. Maybe above all to the cold, cruel part of me that hated and punished myself, driving me to pay penance and atone for some of the worst crimes in history.
Forgiveness has helped me to see the process of working through my transgenerational transmission of unresolved trauma, guilt and shame as a gift.
The process of facing the truth of the past, and forgiving errors and weaknesses of myself and others has lifted the burden and re-connected me to other people and life itself.
Angela’s book – In My Grandfather’s Shadow
– describes how the scars of trauma and wrongdoing can not only be handed down through the generations, but also be healed. Angela also writes a monthly blog and gives talks to a wide range of audiences: angelafindlaytalks.com