My ancestors were both Nazis and refugees. So are most of us.
I was born in Germany, and half of my family is German. My grandparents and great grandparents lived in the eastern German countryside, with a few of them also in Berlin. There's not exact information about what they all were doing during WWII, but the evidence generally indicates that some escaped to the countryside to avoid all conflict, and others, though not my direct grandparents, were likely Nazis.
When the war ended, my grandparents were still in eastern Germany. The Berlin contingent experienced the soviet blockade in the 1940s, and moved as far West in the city as they could afford. The eastern Germany group was forced into the Russian labor camps. While they weren't concentration camps, conditions were bad, food was scarce, lives were lost, and my grandmother was raped. They were, somewhat miraculously, released, and returned to eastern Germany to settle down once again. There, my dad was born. When it became apparent that conflict with the Soviets was not going to end, and the Iron Curtain began to fall, they escaped on literally one of the last trains to cross from East to West Germany for the next 30 years. The needed refuge. They lived in Hamburg and Berlin for the rest of their days. There I was born, in West Germany. My baby clothes and toys are marked, "Made in West Germany." **
We moved to the US in the late 80s, after seeing the Berlin wall come down. My father brought me a piece of it - graffiti red and black on one side, and grey concrete on the other.
I loved my German-ness. I enjoyed our few remaining traditions, being able to speak German, getting to travel internationally at a young age. It made me feel unique. Until 6th grade. Our history class did projects on injustices throughout history. At least half of them were about the Holocaust. It took me years to figure out how I could feel ashamed and sorry for something that happened before I was born. I could have gone off-campus to take German as my required foreign language. Instead, I took Spanish.
This (his)story may sound uniquely dramatic, but it's not. Not really.
Most of us have within us, within our families, within our culture or country or religion, stories of being oppressors and being oppressed. Perhaps not to this degree. Nazis, after all, are essentially the gold standard example for oppression, injustice, and hate. They may not be our personal stories, but we carry them with us. We exist, because of and in spite of them. Some of our stories are neater, more obviously lacking of evil and oppression, and perhaps more filled with mercy. Some are messier, making us feel dirty and wishing we could dissociate from that part of our unchangeable identity.
I've thought again and again about how to hold these two identities at the same time. I've wondered, what I would have done, had I been alive back then.
At any given moment, we all hold the ability to enact either hatred or mercy. It's a grace in and of itself that we're able to choose mercy and kindness as often as we do. At times we are the oppressed, the refugee- powerless, alone, vulnerable, the object of oppression. Some face this intensely and physically. At times we are also the oppressor, or at least given a choice of being the oppressor- powerful, safe, able to harm others. Some experience this in large, dramatic ways; all of us experience it in smaller, day to day actions and choices.
Just as my family history holds both evil and escape, hatred and harmony, mercilessness and mercy, so do I. So do we all.
Let us be refugees from our own hate and fear- to flee from evil and darkness, and run with abandon towards goodness and light; to find refuge in something outside of our selves.
** while my family were not refugees when they came to the US, they were relatively well-off immigrants, they were also descendants from one of the largest terror organizations, in modern times. Yet, we had no trouble getting into the US.