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'I wrote a book about my Nazi grandparents – but it's also a universal tale'

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'I wrote a book about my Nazi grandparents – but it's also a universal tale'
Author of The Pendulum, Julie Lindahl. Photo: Julie Lindahl
07:00 CEST+02:00
Brazilian-born author Julie Lindahl speaks to The Local about finding out that her German grandparents were members of Hitler’s elite SS, the ways in which writing her book, The Pendulum, helped her process the trauma – and how she’s now using the experience to speak out against a growing politics of exclusion.

Born in Brazil to an American father and a German mother, Lindahl says she had always carried a sense of shame which she felt indicated something amiss in her family history. But it wasn't until she moved to Sweden in the late 1990s that she found the emotional space to delve deeper into just what that was.

She'd moved to Stockholm in April 1996 to join her Swedish partner, relocating from her London base. Having met him in Sri Lanka while working as a development consultant, once in Sweden their relationship moved quickly. One year after her arrival, the pair were married; one year after that, Lindahl gave birth to twins.

Yet while her young family was growing, and thriving in Sweden, older family ties were on the verge of collapse.

"Once in Stockholm I really awoke to the feeling that there was something very wrong in my old family. My father had died, and I realized that my old family relationships were crumbling under the weight of something very serious that no one wanted to talk about," Lindhal told The Local.

"That dynamic of secrecy and things that can't be said made me very depressed. I looked at my own little twins and thought, 'What in the world is going to happen to my new family?'"

Lindahl had known that her grandparents, who moved from Germany to Brazil post World War II, had been stationed in occupied Poland during the war. She had been told that they were posted in a civilian capacity – which turned out to be far from the real story.

The search for the truth took her across the world.

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Holocaust survivor and grandchild of Nazis speak out against hate and racism
Julie Lindahl and Hédi Fried. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

It was in Berlin's German Federal Archives that Lindahl first received confirmation that her grandfather had been an SS officer. He'd been stationed in occupied Poland in the role of Special Führer, complicit in the deportation and murder of the existing landowners on the estates he resided over. He was known as a fanatic who often committed acts of brutality.

Aided by many people along the way, Lindahl travelled from Germany to Poland, Brazil to Paraguay, piecing together the scattered jigsaw of her family's past. But it was Sweden that remained her base throughout this time.

And it was in Sweden that Lindahl first began to talk publicly about the secret. "In 2014, before the Swedish election – and while I was in the middle of researching my story – I was invited to help facilitate discussion at the Living History Forum around the idea that fascism was on the rise once more," she explains.

Her initial response was one of uncertainty; she felt sure that in the lead-up to the elections, politically minded people would be busy on the campaign trail. But nonetheless she accepted – and at the event the room was full.

"I started with the question, 'What are you all doing here? It's election week!' The response was: 'We think that this is the central question in politics at the moment.' And that marked the first time I shared my story as I'd researched it up to that point," she recalls.

"I realized then that this story – my story – wasn't mine anymore; it belonged to us all. It was a warning around what could happen if one doesn't remain vigilant about protecting freedom."

It was a turning point for Lindahl, who, despite already having written several books and newspaper columns, felt uncertain about publishing her story.

"I'm a writer but it doesn't mean that I think everything I write should be made public," she explains. "I felt uncertain about whether this should be made public. It was an emotionally paralyzing discovery; I had studied World War II academically at Oxford University, so for it now to link so closely to me was shocking. I felt like my family had told me alternative facts about our collective past."

If penning her book, The Pendulum, was an author's instinctive way of feeling her way through uncharted territory, it was through meeting in person some of those who survived her grandfather's violence that she was able to face the truth head-on.

"Writing the book helped me to set out my feelings, but it was getting to know all these people who survived my grandfather's horrific violence that slayed the shame monster. I met five families who remembered him from the time in which he was stationed in occupied Poland, which is amazing when you consider he was there over seven decades ago."

Responses to her arrival from her grandfather's victims were mixed. Some did not welcome the reminder of a painful past. But others helped Lindahl let go of her feeling of inherited shame.

"There were some people who could see that I had suffered with this for some time. One man in particular, who wore a visible scar over his eye from a wound inflicted by my grandfather, grabbed my arm when I was leaving and said: 'Hey, this isn't your fault'. That didn't mean that I should forget about it, but that I should summon the energy to be able to move forward. I was able to transform the shame into a more positive feeling of responsibility."

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Lindahl hopes the book can offer a collective cautionary message.

"As well as being a story about the discovery that my grandparents were Nazis, it's a universal tale," she explains. "It's about the different paths that we could take. One is the politics of exclusion and division, the route of following leaders who tell us that certain people should be kept out, exercised as a tool of power. And the only logical conclusion of that sort of politics is murder."

In The Pendulum Lindahl also shines a light on what she sees as the other possible path: one that sees strangers coming together and working towards uncovering the truth. These individuals appear throughout the book, from the Brazilian-American researcher who sourced Lindahl's grandfather's death certificate to the Polish archivist who helped her find the victims and eyewitnesses from her grandfather's time in Poland. Lindahl stresses that researching and writing the book would not have been possible without them. 

"These people, these random strangers, who turn up and offer their help, for no other reason than that they believe that truth is the foundation for democracy, were with me the whole way, in Germany, Poland, Brazil, and Paraguay. We can choose that route too, one where we share in the idea of the equal value of humans and of our power to do good, together," the author says.

READ ALSO: Teaching the Holocaust to young refugees in Sweden

Having turned her hand to being a writer, educator, and democracy activist, she's already using her platform to amplify her message around cohesion and understanding. Along with fellow authors Rachael Cerrotti, Rachel Kadish, and Derek B. Miller, Lindahl has now set up a new global initiative, New Voices, which is hosting its first live session in Stockholm on April 9th, 2019.


Lindahl in conversation with fellow New Voices member, Rachael Cerrotti at the US Embassy Stockholm, in September 2018. Photo: Private

"One of the great joys – and unexpected consequences – of doing this work is that I ended up joining hands with a number of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Some of Sweden's best-known Holocaust survivors have been among my greatest supporters. I became aware of their concern for who is going to take responsibility for telling the story of the Holocaust, its causes and consequences, in a way that interests and energizes people."

New Voices was born with that objective in mind.

The core aim of the programme is to connect with creatives around the world – whether they're photographers, artists, or any other form of expression – who are looking for ways to renew interest in learning about the effects of war and peace. The Holocaust plays a central role in the initiative's work, in light of what Lindahl fears is a growing ignorance or denial of this period in recent history.

"We need a strong academic community, but we also need collaboration with creatives who can touch people's hearts, bring the past to life, and move them to learn," Lindahl notes.

Whether she's telling her story in the USA, Sweden, the UK or Germany, the response has been consistent in the appreciation of the weight of her experience. "Wherever you are in the Western world, we're living in breaking times. The old order is sinking fast and something new is emerging," she says.

"The response that I've felt is of a global community that feel the weight of this moment. I always say to people, 'Believe the warning signs that what you're seeing is really dangerous'."

Lindahl sees hope in these difficult times. She references the role of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as symbolic of a wider shift towards grassroots movements.

"It's no coincidence that Greta emerged in Sweden. Sweden, and Scandinavia in general, is a place where people – particularly women – have long since had access to a strong voice. We all have our own power to speak out against wrongdoing when we see it. We need to harness that for good."

 
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