Saturday, October 24, 2009
Where Walks the Grandfather!
See the bald guy in the photo above there? That's Julius Streicher, publisher of the Nazi propaganda newspaper known as Der Stuermer. I scanned this photo some time ago from the original. Why would I have a photo of Julius Streicher? It's because the guy to the left is my grandfather, Hans Meyer.
Several years ago now, I worked for an search engine known as LookSmart. (It still exists, apparently, but it doesn't resemble the company that I once worked for.) On one of my assignments, I was searching for and organizing a list of sites related to World War II. One of the coolest ones I saw was a tribute that a guy did to his grandfather who fought in the war. I had the idea of doing the same thing, only mine would have a bit of a twist to it as I'd be representing "the bad guys". I figured that I'd eventually make one on my other grandfather (everybody's entitled to two, as Paul McCartney points out in A Hard Day's Night), but I didn't have nearly as many photos as I did of my German one. I figured that this would be a site that would interest people, as it contained a lot of historically significant photos.
Of course, I wanted to make sure that nobody got the wrong idea and felt that I was endorsing Nazi ideals. I just wanted to make a site about my grandfather and the tumultuous times in which he lived. It was also my way of getting to know him, as I only met him once when I was three years old, and I only have a fuzzy memory of him. So, the first page started with a disclaimer, pointing out that the site was for historical purposes only, and I was in no way endorsing Nazi beliefs.
I'm ashamed to admit it now, but I was concerned that I'd get a lot of hate mail from Jews who didn't understand what I was trying to do. The worst that ever happened was that a Jewish coworker told me that he didn't want to look at it, but he understood that I wasn't trying to glamorize it. Every other response that I received from Jewish friends and strangers has been positive.
There was, however, a huge problem. And the problem came from my family. In my naivete, I thought that this would be a cool forum to connect with my relatives in Germany. While I did get some positive responses from some of my cousins, I got a fiercely negative reaction from some others. Immediately after I put it up, I got an email from a cousin of mine who translated a letter from my aunt to me. It basically stated that I had no right to post these photos, as my grandfather was a "private citizen".
Ummm...call me crazy, but once you march in a parade next to Julius Streicher, you're not exactly a "private citizen" any more. Not only that, but he was the adjutant to the mayor of his hometown, Erlangen. He was important enough to be on the wanted list of the Allies, and he wound up doing three years in prison. I don't think that I was exactly unearthing some kind of dark secret there.
I resented being told what to do, so I kept it up. It later got back to me that much of their problems had to do with my mother and a story of hers that I put up on the site. I guessed she aired too much of the family dirty laundry, and some of my aunts were worried about their reputations. Because, you know, the whole world is constantly looking for dirt on my family because they're all so damned important. It also came back to me that a big problem was that some of them were too god damned stupid to even understand what I was doing in the first place.
I had posted a piece that I did for a creative writing class entitled "Is a Hot Potato Evil?" Basically, it was about confronting who my grandfather was and what that means to me. I wrote about how supposedly I have a lot of his idiosyncrasies, so that means that even though I never knew him, he still has some influence over me. I also wrote about how I'd like to think that I would have stood up against Hitler's regime, but the sad fact is that I probably would have fallen in line just like he did. Anyway, the story began with this absurd scenario about how when I saw him on his deathbed, he took me aside and instructed me on how you should wipe your knife off after cutting into a potato and before cutting into the butter, so you don't get potato gunk all over the butter. The whole scenario was deliberately absurd, and I assumed that everybody was smart enough to know that I was joking. Turns out, some of these relatives thought that I was ACTUALLY trying to write about some memory that I had. "How could he have possibly remembered something like that?" Morons.
I also received an email from my aunt's lawyer, instructing me to take down the site or face legal action. I wrote him back, asking him what he was going to do - extradite me to Germany? For making a website about MY GRANDFATHER? For publishing photos that I owned? (Technically, they were my mom's, but she gave me permission to use them.) He tried to bluff his way through and say that he "wasn't going to discuss legal strategy" with me. I wrote back to him that the reason why was because he had no strategy. (It later got back to me that I was perceived as being arrogant. Yeah...right. I wasn't the one threatening a phony lawsuit and telling people what they can and cannot say in a public forum. Oh yeah, I'M the arrogant one in this scenario!)
The website itself is down, but I'll probably write about my grandfather some more. Maybe I can even dig up that old hot potato story, and a new generation of people can miss the damned point. (According to Google Analytics, I'm getting some visitors from Germany. I know that my mom reads this blog, and I'd hope that some of my more reasonable relatives check it out from time to time...but hopefully I can piss off the right people too.)