Imagine discovering that the grandparents you adored as a young child were Nazis, and your grandfather was responsible for untold cruelties. That’s exactly what happened to Julie Lindahl, a Brazilian-born American who now lives in Sweden. She spent years traveling abroad seeking the truth about her mother’s German father, whom she called Opa. The Pendulum: A Granddaughter’s Search for her Family’s Forbidden Nazi Past is Lindahl’s memoir of her findings and her search for understanding.
Opa died when Lindahl was nine years old, but other sources bring to light the splintering history of her grandfather’s life. She writes:
As I looked at the story that was forming, it was impossible not to arrive at certain damning conclusions. The worst of these was that my nearest had not told the truth about something, the magnitude of which was so great and so serious, that it was hard not to feel the sting of deceit.
She visits her grandmother, her Oma, in West Germany. In what appears to be self-protection, Oma not only insists her husband was simply a farmer in occupied Poland, but she also denies the Holocaust. Oma is a feisty old woman with, as Lindahl puts it, “convoluted” logic. Nevertheless: “She was my grandmother and had always been good to me. I wanted to stay in that space, continue to receive the benefits of being her granddaughter, and not become entangled in this fruitless argument.”
But Lindahl, being a modern, well-educated writer, cannot let it be. She begins gathering assorted documents and in 2012 travels to Poland for a copy of her grandfather’s death certificate. She also finds classified documents with leads to people who knew her grandparents.
An interview with a man in his 80s, who was beaten by Opa, reveals: “Your grandfather tricked workers so he could beat them. [ . . . ] Always on white horse watching and making terror.” But then, he adds that Opa’s wife: “made sure they got medicine, treatment—from doctor—after beatings. Your grandfather didn’t know.”
Further documents complicate her “determination to detest my grandfather for what he had done.” For example, his birth certificate “presented the obvious, but overlooked, fact that Opa had once been a child, too.”
It’s hard to conceive of her distress as she writes: “No sooner had the pendulum of my thoughts swung toward doubt than someone appeared to make it swing the other way.”
That someone, in one instance, was Oma. Although she was a dutiful wife, at one point she tells her granddaughter, “Our life together was not nice. [ . . . ] It was hard and cruel, and I was afraid. As soon as he came into the house all of us froze and when he was gone everyone could breathe again.”
Lindahl believes: “Opa had taken the violence of war home with him and unleashed it on his own family. For them, the war had never ended, and perhaps this was the reason I felt it alive in my own life, so many decades later.”
While in Germany, Lindahl gains access to papers that address another lifelong question. How did she come to be born in Brazil? It turns out that her grandfather had hurriedly taken his family, which included Lindahl’s mother, from Germany to Brazil “due to his National Socialist past. As Sonderführer or Special Führer for Landed Estates in East Prussia and Poland he had tortured, shot, and caused the death of many. When Adolf Eichmann was arrested, Opa fled.”
In addition to suddenly learning about this dark past to her family, along the way, she must also decide how best to present her ancestry to her children for their future understanding.
In opposition to all the terrible news that Lindahl was faced with, there were several bright spots in researching her ancestry. One lay with finding her mother’s brother in Latin America. “Uncle Harty had died countless grim deaths in the stories told in Oma’s apartment, but now after forty years of eternity he was back. . . .”
The Pendulum: A Granddaughter’s Search for Her Family’s Forbidden Nazi Past is a thrilling memoir. Lindahl shares all the emotions, the triumphs and crushing sadness that accompanied her journey to unmask the truth about her grandparents, and ultimately sees her own life more fully.