Books

Generations on, making peace with the trauma of my past

Angela Findlay's German grandfather was a Nazi. It took until she was 40 for her to realise the weight she carried was generational guilt

A typewriter and a photo of a German in Nazi uniform

Image: Supplied by author

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you

Maya Angelou

There are many stories in the world that have never been told and never will be. They are considered too painful or shameful to be aired in the bright light of everyday human interaction and other peoples’ judgements. They are better buried and then lost to the silence of the dead. 

Sometimes they are tucked away so deeply into a corner of our psyches that we forget they are there. But traumatic experiences and the accompanying feelings, like fresh berries plucked from their stems and instantly frozen, can maintain their potency. Addictions, extreme behaviour, self-harming or depression can result as we attempt to avoid feeling what we fear will hurt or horrify us. 

If, as I discovered, a story of trauma – whether of perpetrators or victims – remains unresolved, it can fester and negatively influence our lives. Not even death swallows them whole, rather they are transferred intact to the next generation(s) to seek the resolution they did not find in the first. 

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Probably the most painful aspect of my youth was believing there was something wrong with me; that I was different, but not in a good way. Even four decades after World War II ended, being half-German was not cool. Germans were Nazis, evil, losers, the enemy. To my young mind, that meant half of me was all those things too. 

“Guilt – or was it shame? – slipped into my soul discreetly. Its presence was initially little more than an occasional flicker, a brief tonal dimming of the colourful world around me. But it would soon become master of my internal world, switching off the lights for increasing periods of time and leaving me fumbling in the dark.” (In My Grandfather’s Shadow

It would take me decades to get to the bottom of the self-destructive symptoms as I tried to hide this part of myself. Driven by a need to atone, I worked as an artist in prisons, helping prisoners to work through their guilt while subconsciously trying to work through mine. 

It was only when I turned 40 that I was able to identify where my inexorable sense of badness came from. And it all had to do with my German grandfather. 

I had never met Karl von Graffen; he died a week after I was born. But I always sensed our paths crossed as we passed each other on our ways in and out of life. And in my mind’s eye, like a relay racer, he handed me a baton. 

I would go on to discover this man, whose photograph sat on my mother’s desk, had been a decorated Wehrmacht general marinated in the Prussian virtues of bravery, obedience and honour since the age of 10. He fought in the WWI trenches and in 1941 led a division in Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Hundreds of letters from the eastern front paint the gruesome picture of a deliberate war of annihilation like none before.   

As part of my quest to understand my German roots, I travelled by train with my German mother following his footsteps across the Russian terrain. Devastation and trauma lingered in the land, in the cemeteries and in the faces. Having been brought up, like many, to believe the Wehrmacht (Germany’s armed forces) was ‘clean’, I realised with increasing horror that it hadn’t been and that my own grandfather had dutifully been a cog in the Nazi killing machine. 

Digging deeper both into his and Germany’s wounds was unbearably painful. But I knew I had to reach the full truth, no matter how horrific. Yet knowing the truth was not enough to free myself. I had to feel the feelings he, as a soldier and later POW to the British, hadn’t been able to. I had to somehow seek their resolution. 

There is no one way to resolve the traumatic impact of lived or inherited experiences. But many things helped. Journaling and painting gave form to what was unspeakable. Movement loosened what was stuck within my body. Family Constellations work (group therapy designed to help reveal the hidden dynamics in a family or relationship in order to address and heal problems) and travels to significant places helped me connect with the then and the now. 

The real healing came through reconnection to self and others. Sharing stories in safe spaces and being met with non-judgement and compassion enabled extraordinary bridges to be built. What had been banished into silence and shame transformed into gifts or new strengths.  

The world is full of people buckling under the weight of stories that apparently can’t be told. But it is in their telling and being heard that both they and we can be healed.  

Angela Findlay is an author and artist 

In My Grandfather's Shadow cover

In My Grandfather’s Shadow by Angela Findlay is out now (Transworld Publishers, £10.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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