I turn page on my history

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By MELISSA O’BRIEN, Special to the Times
Published February 9, 2008

On my grandmother’s bookshelf, wedged in between Katharine Hepburn’s Me - Stories Of My Life and Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro was a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It is a 1939 German edition, and inside the front cover, neatly scrolled like a wedding invitation, are the names of my grandparents and the date of their nuptials. My grandparents told me that this book was issued to every newly married couple in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Having this book in my family’s possession has always made me uncomfortable. Sometimes, when I would visit my grandparent’s home, I would cautiously open the leather-bound book - flipping through it to see if there were any notes in the margin. Thankfully, there were no notes, and in fact, the book appeared as though it was never read. But it always surprised me that having settled in North Carolina after living in three states and three different countries, my grandparents never managed to purge this book with the junk most people get rid of every time they move.

When I was younger, growing up German meant eating red cabbage and sausage, opening Christmas presents on Christmas Eve and receiving tins full of lebkuchen and marzipan from our great-grandmother in Germany. It wasn’t until the fifth grade when I read The Diary of Anne Frank that I began to realize that being German had a stigma attached to it. I felt compelled to tell people when asked about my family’s heritage that my grandparents were not members of the Nazi Party and that my grandfather was not in the German army.

When both my grandparents had passed on, my mother decided to sell some of their things. I specifically asked her not to sell Mein Kampf. I wanted to find a way, short of burning the book, to dispose of it properly. The place I finally found for it may come as a surprise. I donated it to the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.

Why the Holocaust Museum? I called them to ask if they wanted the book as a record of the propaganda people received in Germany. The museum administrator said yes, she would, and also indicated to me that by keeping this book, the museum could prevent it from being in circulation, sold on eBay and or simply getting into the wrong hands.

I made my trip to the museum and asked a senior citizen behind the counter to direct me to a museum administrator.

What happened next took me completely by surprise. I burst into tears. “I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “I have this book and I want to get rid of it.” Mrs. Schwartz, a volunteer at the museum, came from around the counter at the gift shop to give me comfort. I explained to her the book’s history, why I had it and why I wanted to donate it to the museum. I felt compelled to tell her that even though one cannot compare the suffering, my German relatives had struggled too during the war and that I had an aunt who died at the age of 4 because a medicine shortage. And then I apologized for being German - again.

“Honey, you don’t need to be sorry,” Mrs. Schwartz said. “It was a different time. Your grandparents could have been killed if they spoke up.”

Needless to say, I sobbed through the entire exhibit. Not light tears - gut-wrenching, heaving sobs. Seeing pictures of children who look about the same age as my own 7- and 9-year-old - malnourished and surrounded by barbed wire - is enough to put anyone over the edge.

While walking through the exhibit, I was listening to a tour guide tell a group of teachers what children can expect when they visit the museum. “We want them to learn that they cannot remain silent,” she said. “They cannot sit back and allow something like this to happen again.”

Leaving the museum, I looked up at the banner, “Save Darfur.” It made me think - am I being silent? Mrs. Schwartz is right. It is a different time and a different place. We can speak up without the fear of condemnation. Fortunately as Americans, we can choose leaders in the 2008 elections that can and will put pressure on governments in places like Sudan and, hopefully, put an end to genocide.

As for the book, I am not sure if it is on display or if the museum staff just stored it away. I donated it anonymously. In its place, I bought a tiny box from Mrs. Schwartz in the gift shop. It is intricately carved with flowers and a Jewish Star of David on the top. It looks beautiful displayed upon my bookshelf.

Melissa O’Brien is a writer who lives in Tampa.

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