Title: Api’s Berlin Diaries
Author: Gabrielle Robinson
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication Date: 15 September 2020
I received an advanced copy of this book from She Writes Press and Books Froward in exchange for an honest review.
When I first heard of Api’s Berlin Diaries, I expected this to be more diary-like entries. Instead, we get a woman struggling with coming to terms with her kind, gentle grandfather being a member of the Nazi Party. There were many selections of the diary entries throughout that Robinson placed in context with what was going on in the time period.
Of course, when someone finds out that a family member did something awful or was a member of something horrible, we balk. We want to forget or obfuscate. I’m reminded of the show Finding Your Roots where Ben Affleck tries to hide the fact that his ancestors were slave owners. On the same show, Anderson Cooper took the approach of laughing about his ancestors and saying that one of them deserved to be killed by a slave. There are different approaches to take, whether the family member was a Nazi or a Slaveowner, we all have to come to terms with our past.
Unfortunately, Gabrielle Robinson has only begun to do that in the early 2000s when she found her grandfather’s diaries. It was a common theme throughout this book of the author’s family not recognizing or realizing their guilt of what happened to Jews in Germany.
What was difficult about this book is the fact that Api was living in Soviet controlled Berlin, which was horribly bombed with most people living in slums and many people dying of illness due to a lack of health and infrastructure. Yet, Api is part of a political organization, the Nazis, that destroyed Jewish homes and businesses. The Nazis killed millions of Jews. I recognize that what Api went through was horrendous, and the fact that he was never an active member does make it better (only marginally). While Api never participated in the party, was never an active member, he still saw the atrocities and did nothing. He voted for Hitler because he agreed with what Hitler and the party stood for when Hitler was rising to power. Yes, many people changed their minds after the fact, but there is never any mention of this in his diaries.
This is something the author struggles with throughout this memoir/biography. She does a great job of balancing out the atrocities of what happened in the war, while trying to understand why her grandfather joined the Nazi Party. She questions if his silence implies that he agrees with any of the racism that costs millions of lives, if silence itself a sign of guilt.
Later on she writes:
I am confronted again with my key quandary, this time expressed as unambiguously as never before, “without the faintest guilt.” Api did not feel guilty or in any way implicated in the murder and destruction that the Nazi regime perpetrated. I realize that he was not personally responsible for any of it, that apart from having joined the Party, he did nothing further to advance its cause, that he did not hold any office in the Party or persecute anyone. Nevertheless, he was a member of the Party; he witnessed persecution and saw his Jewish colleagues disappear.Chapter 34
It’s hard to imagine our family members perpetrating atrocities. Earlier, I compared what happened in Germany to Slavery in America. Both are atrocities of different kinds but atrocities nonetheless. However, the most similar parts remain with the ones who are left, with Germans who have to recognize their ancestors part in the Holocaust and Americans who have to recognize their ancestors part in owning Slaves.
The last chapter Robinson is trying to come to terms with this “wide field.” She states “A silence that is almost a crime is a chilling specter that lays its finger on many, if not all, of us and makes innocence impossible. I am reminded again of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he condemned not only the actions of bad people but the silence of the good. Yet, in telling Api’s story, I did not want to condemn him. I wanted to be one of those who break the silence, sometimes referred to as the German’s “second guilt,” and recount and account as clearly as I could. I found this led to unwelcome discoveries and an uncomfortable questioning of my family history. But it also brought up kernels of insight from the buried past.”
In the end, all of us have to look at this “wide field” and come to terms with what happened. To recognize what our ancestors did or did not do. Yes, it is true that all of us were not there, nor can we go back because as far as I know, no one has invented the TARDIS; however, we have benefitted from our past and we are accountable for it.