Facing ancestors' past

How do we face our ancestors’ past and how does that effect our family tree.

We all saw Ben Afflecks’s embarrassment over his ancestor’s slave ownership splash across headlines. To me, the surprise wasn’t that he wanted Finding Your Roots to edit out that information. What surprised me was that the issue hasn’t come up sooner.

Ben Affleck isn’t the first one to look through his roots hoping to find royalty or framers of the constitution who found the reality distasteful. Many of us have had the urge to turn away rather than facing ancestors’ past.

Researching my own ancestors in Virginia, I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that they didn’t own slaves. Realistically, it might have been the fact that they were poor, not conscience, that prevented my ancestors from owning slaves. I know that it’s not the same as finding out they were Abolitionists or conductors of the Underground Railroad. However, when my family tree casts its shade, I’m glad it’s not the shadow of slavery.

It’s not a new problem, although the more ancestors we find, the more likely it is that one or two brushed up against the wrong side of history. Or morality.

I remember some open conversations (there may have been a couple of glasses of wine involved) with my friend Gunther while living in German in the 80s. A Polizist, or police officer, who had participated in several NATO joint training courses, Gunter admitted that discussions of World War II with his US-American counterparts made him decidedly uneasy.

“It’s not that I’m not capable of condemning my nation’s past actions,” he said. “It’s not that I can’t find a place in my heart for personal regret either. I can. I do.” He went on to explain that, he, like most Germans, felt a nationalistic guilt. A guilt about the Holocaust. A guilt about how Germans who didn’t participate, still stood by and let it happen. Gunter even felt that it was good for German to discuss WWII with foreigners and to come to grips with how the rest of the world viewed not only Hitler, but Germans.

It took him a while (another glass of wine, minimum) to get around to the root of the problem.

“You Americans,” he said, “think I should hate my grandfather.”

Gunter had trouble when conversation turned to individual perpetrators—soldiers following orders—like his grandfather, a Schutzstaffel (SS) colonel.

Facing his grandfather’s past “fehlt ihm schwer”—was difficult for him. Yes, his grandfather had been an SS officer. But he knew his grandfather the grandpa. He could hate his grandfather’s choices and actions. He could despise all the things that his grandfather had stood for as an SS officer, but he still loved his grandpa.

He couldn’t hate the man who held Gunther the toddler on his knee and tossed him joyfully in the air. This grandfather was the man he had known from birth as a kind, loving man.

Making the dilemma even more difficult was that Gunther’s family hid his grandfather’s past from the grandkids until they felt the kids were old enough to understand. Gunther had known and loved his grandfather from birth, but had only found out about his grandfather’s past as an adolescent.

It’s an extreme example, but it’s a situation that more than a few of us find ourselves in when we encounter unsavory pasts among our tangled roots. Reluctant or not, like it or not, facing ancestors’ past is part of our family history pursuit. We have to face who they were.

But there’s more to it than that. Deeper questions.

For Gunther, there was more to it than how he should feel about his grandfather. There was the doubt. How could such a loving man be capable of such evil? Was that evil a product of his grandfather’s environment and upbringing or was it in his grandfather’s DNA?

And if it was in his grandfather’s DNA?…

I think that’s the question that haunts us when we find our ancestors weren’t all we had hoped they’d be. It’s as if they were tested and failed. Would we similarly fail if subjected to the same historical circumstances?

It’s enough to keep a family historian awake at night.

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