I just wanted to share a bit of my family history with everyone because it’s personally fascinating to me, I think it says a lot about the kind of people we are and the situations we’ve been through. I suppose I should start by explaining the above photographs, granted that you probably already have the wrong impression—I would too if I had never seen these before, given the Nazi uniforms.
My grandfather Johann von Harten (pictured above on the left) recently passed away at the age of 91 after living a good long life which I will tell you about. The first couple photographs are of him (the taller one) standing in front of his house, first in 1932 and the second probably around 1940 I believe. Germany had obviously changed very drastically during that time. His younger brother was Karl Georg.
Their childhood had been fairly normal for a German family, and the two enjoyed all sorts of things such as racing bicycles, collecting mushrooms in the woods to sell to local restaurants, going on vacation to Goslar, raising rabbits, gardening, going to Church, and many other things that children did back then. There was not a single violent or prejudice bone in either of them.
Then Hitler came to power in Germany. My grandfather was not a part of the Hitler Youth as membership was not yet compulsory (he was later drafted into the German army), but in 1936 it became so and his younger brother Karl was swept up in a wave of indoctrination. The above photo of him on the right was taken in 1940 when he was fifteen years old, at which time he voluntary enlisted for active duty.
Karl would go on to spend a lot of time attempting to prove his Aryan ancestry in order to advance in rank while my grandfather Johann fought in the panzer tank division on the Eastern Front. Karl eventually became very disillusioned as to the goals and ideals of the Nazi party, a concern he voiced during a meeting with his brother at a train station before the two left to fight. That would be the last time the two saw each other; Karl eventually went MIA during the war, and we believe he died as a POW somewhere.
My grandfather, however, was very strong in his Christian faith during a time when such beliefs would get you punished within the Nazi party. He always did his best to show compassion where he could, even convincing his fellow comrades to spare a Russian family. They ended up spending Christmas dinner with them before moving on.
During a brutal battle, my grandfather claimed to have had a vision of an angel appearing in front of him to tell him he would not die in combat so long as his faith in the Lord remained strong. Soon after that, he got wounded by grenade shrapnel in his right hand and was sent home, and the war ended. For the longest time, he lost the use of his right hand and was told he could never use it again. But he was determined to play the accordion he so loved before the war, so he kept at it, lifting and working the soil as a gardener. He had so much pride he refused to let anyone see him trying, but he eventually regained the use of all of his fingers and was able to garden and play the accordion again in a few years.
Eventually, he met my grandmother (who had worked on German radar during the war), and they got married in 1948 and left Germany for Canada in 1952. My grandfather attended seminary there and became a Baptist pastor while my grandmother raised their kids Marlies, Rosie, Karl, and my dad Manfred at home.
My grandfather’s gardening was well known in the local community (he never used pesticides or Miracle Gro because he knew exactly how to work the soil and which plants to put next to each other to ward off pests), and he was leader of the fruit and vegetable union in the Okanagan Valley.
He would pick up soldiers on the side of the road who thumbed for a hitch and talk to them because he understood what war was like. As a pastor, he showed up to peoples’ houses to sing happy birthday, to help if they needed it, and to celebrate with them and mourn with them. He provided for his family, and though he was always quite stubborn, aloof, and misunderstood, he loved us all. He suffered a lot of post-traumatic stress during a time when psychological services for soldiers were unheard of or nonexistent, which explains much of his behavior following the war.
Despite all of this, he and my great uncle Karl were not what I would consider to be Nazis, but instead two simple boys swept up in the wave of supreme horror and indoctrination that Hitler would come to unleash on Europe. I personally cringe at posters that surfaced during the Allied liberation in Germany that showed photos of the Holocaust to everyone and said “THIS IS YOUR FAULT!” That is just not true, because most of the country didn’t even support Hitler. He simply pulled enough strings to rise to power and imposed his will on the country, something quite a lot of people didn’t appreciate, and those who went along with him had no idea what they were doing. A lot of it began with exploiting young, impressionable children—children like my great uncle Karl Georg, and my family lost that otherwise handsome, young, compassionate man to Hitler’s bullshit.
But regardless of all that horror, I know the kind of person my grandfather was. A gardener. A pastor. A compassionate soldier. A father. And I’m very proud of him and of the country my family comes from. I’ll never forget his boyish smile, the German songs he’d sing at the breakfast table, his stories of courage and perseverance during the war, his amazing ability to grow perfect fruit and vegetables, and his often frustrating (but sometimes hilarious) stubbornness, such as the smoking he did until the day he died that he always tried to hide from us lol. My grandma died in 1997 and was just as compassionate and caring (if not more so). He outlasted her another good 17 years.
And of course that last picture is of me on his lap when I was about 5 or 6. I love you, Opa, and may you rest in peace <3