What is your biggest regret? Many people might say they let someone go, they didn’t take the chance or didn’t follow their hearts. But how many people say that their biggest regret is murdering thousands of people while allowing your peers to do the same?
Wake up, greet my wife and children, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, spend more time with my family. My days. Filled with love, compassion, empathy, warmth, friendliness, everything a man could want in his life; so why did I let it all go?
My wife, Alaina, and I have two wonderful, beautiful twins. One boy and one girl, Adele and Ralph.
“They are the two of your mirror reflections,” says my mom on their fourth birthday.
Blue eyes, blonde hair, fair skin, spitting images of Alaina and I. In their school of Zittau, Germany, they are intelligent, learning and adapting quickly to their surroundings. They behaved well, were kind, pleasant, and well mannered; the perfect kids. Adele loved animals, the color purple, her friends, and both of her parents (although she spent more time with her mother.) Ralph was a polite boy who loved his parents, always played with his toy dinosaurs, and had to be wearing an article of clothing that was yellow all of the time.
Yellow. To this day it is still my favorite color because it reminds me of our little family. Our house was littered with yellow things because Ralph always insisted on it.
Our family, our life was so perfect. I would still have it if he, Fuhrer, didn’t take it away from me. I would do anything to get it back.
It was sometime in the 1930s. Hitler was taking over and trying to make his perfect population, meaning get rid of the people who weren’t his idea of perfect. He started by ridding the country of Jewish people, or “Juden.”
At the beginning of his reign, he made his own people submit to his beliefs, by brainwashing us. It worked well on me, but not my wife and kids. They truly are good people, and that is how I can tell. They didn’t agree with cruel things even when a person of great power was desperately trying to get them to believe it, even in the most subtle ways. Overall of these years, I have believed (and still do) that I am a bad person, at least a little bit. A genuinely good person would have never believed in Anti-Semitism, not for one second. Even though I was different from the other Nazi soldiers, I am still not good; purely because I was able to find it in my heart to hurt others.
Hitler’s party began expanding in the early 1930s. While slowly brainwashing his kind into believing that Jews are bad, he began recruiting soldiers. To me, Hitler was king. He was everything. Something inside of me told me that I needed to serve him, and so I did. I became a Nazi soldier. Something terrible was happening in my mind. My wife and children begged me not to, but the evil sprouting within me was not bothered by their cries and pleads. Once they realized there was nothing they could do to stop me, they left. And I haven’t seen them since.
Now on my own, I moved to Poland with Hitler and his invasion to further help him. He ordered us to do terrible things. If we saw Juden in the wrong place, we had to shoot them on the spot. If we saw them smuggling food to keep their families alive, shoot them. If we saw them with banned items, shoot them. He always told us that they deserved nothing more than death, and my biggest mistake was believing him. It is hard to believe I killed so many people, even before the concentration camps were enforced. In those streets, pulling the trigger to end an innocent life was empowering to me. Ending someone’s ability to breathe, love, fight, laugh, cry, walk, sing, eat, sleep, live, and an endless amount of other things did not bother me. Aiming the gun at the heart of an innocent person purely because they had a yellow star on their coat, looking into their teary eyes before pulling the trigger, and seeing their mouths move, pleading for their lives but I could not hear them. The exhilaration I felt in these moments was like a drug. It made my ears drown out sound, my eyes become depleted of peripheral vision, and my heart drained of all empathy.
It really escalated in November of 1938. By then I knew it was the real deal, and big things were coming. Kristallnacht. We went into Jewish homes. We murdered people, we burned down homes and stores, we kidnapped the Jewish and sent them to the concentration camps. This night was monumental for me. As I broke down the door of a home in the ghetto and went up the stairs to find a family of four, a father, mother, daughter, and son, huddled in a closet praying with the screams, cries, yelling, breaking glass, and crackling fires in the background, I got the feeling. The feeling that this was wrong. I pictured my family of four doing this. The feeling of helplessness washed over me. It was the first time I had felt any sort of empathy in years. I stood frozen as a single tear ran down my cheek. The family looked at me with confused hope in their eyes. I didn’t have the power to move, so we just stared at each other for a minute. I heard boots coming up the stairs and knew I had to do it. I nodded at the father, and they all got up. The other soldier and I led them out of the house and to the concentration camp.
It went on like that for years. The knowledge of what I was doing was wrong, but I kept doing it. The approval of Hitler felt so, so good to me. In 1940, I was assigned to Auschwitz. I never knew how many people I, we, the other soldiers, would steal from. We stole these people’s lives, their dignity, their hope, their families, their health, their happiness, their love. We took everything from them. But what I didn’t know, was that I was taking everything from myself too.
In Auschwitz, I did unspeakable acts. I lead people to their deaths, beat people, killed people, starved people, and did so much more. Now, it hurts to even think about things that I did, but then, I wonder why it didn’t hurt to do them.
In the beginning of my time at Auschwitz, I got the feeling of being in the wrong occasionally. It usually happened when I led large groups of people to the gas chambers. These innocent people thought they were going to shower, but they were going to die. This hurts my heart to talk about it, and it even hurt my heart while doing it.
Watching weak, malnourished, and fragile people do immense amounts of cruel labor did not bother me. When some collapsed to their deaths, it did not bother me. When someone would fall out of line and one of us shot them, it did not bother me. Now, I cannot put into words how much this bothers me.
The event that changed me took place in the middle of my time at Auschwitz. I was working among a group of Sonderkommando. I walked up and down the aisles to make sure they were on task. As I walked behind one, a woman turned and looked at me. I started to raise my gun, but I froze. She looked just like my wife. The woman looked at my partially raised gun and a sense of fear and begging came into her eyes. The picture of my wife looking at me, begging for her life, was something that I could not bear. I looked into her eyes and stared at her for a moment. Imagining my wife looking so frail, so sad and miserable, looking into my eyes and having to beg for her life to me was overwhelming to me. I quickly lowered my gun and shuffled away to the restroom. That day I sat in the bathroom and cried for the first time in years. And in those moments, I knew something had to change.
From there on out, every time that I had to send someone to their death or kill them with my own hands, it was internal warfare. I needed to please Hitler, to prove to him that I was Aryan, but I also needed to listen to the good of my heart. And I needed to keep the act up to save my own life. Just being in this horrid place was excruciating to me. I needed to get out, but I couldn’t. I felt connected to the Nazis and I felt obligated to stay there. But on the other hand, every day that I stayed there, the more I lost sight of myself.
I no longer put my all into it. When the Nazis celebrated the news of another city becoming Judenfrei, my heart became stone. When the Nazis laughed about a Jewish man being overworked to the point of death, my soul cried. I couldn’t take it anymore. So I left. I gathered my belongings and walked out of the front gate.
I went back to my hometown. My previous house was barren. All signs of life were gone. Not one of my things were left there. And at that moment, I felt like I couldn’t go on anymore. I had nothing. My family was gone, my heart hurt, I had terrible memories, and I could no longer live with the things that I did. So on what used to be my living room floor, I laid down, and I wept. For hours upon hours, tears streamed out of my eyes. Eventually, I slept. And when I awoke, I left. I went to America. I knew that my family went there because my wife had mentioned it a few times. But now I knew for sure because it was safe there. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, but I knew one thing: I needed to find my family.
I never did find my family, and to this day and to the day that I die, I will continue to search for them. I know they probably want nothing to do with me, but I do not want to acknowledge that. The chance of getting to see them one day again is the only thing giving me hope.
I have so many regrets about my life now. I have so many things I wish I did and didn’t do. I have so many dreams that were never fulfilled. But the one thing I wish I had never done is become a Nazi soldier. I would never have lost my family and my dignity if I just listened to them instead of Hitler’s scapegoating. I miss them so unbelievably much, but deep down I know that I will never be able to see them again.
The biggest thing I wish I would have done is to help people in Auschwitz instead of leaving. I could have saved so many lives even if it meant risking my own, it would have been worth it. I know it wouldn’t have made up for my actions, nothing ever will, but it would have helped me live with myself. What I did in those years was so selfish and filled with hatred, I wish that I could undo it. But I can’t. And I am not ignoring what I did, I am owning up to my mistakes. And I apologize for them. I will apologize until I can no longer speak.