Thanksgiving with the enemy

When we learned he built planes for Hitler, I wondered if we were the first Jews his family ever invited to dinner

Published November 24, 2021 7:00PM (EST)

Man carving a fresh roasted turkey (Getty Images/The Good Brigade)
Man carving a fresh roasted turkey (Getty Images/The Good Brigade)

In November of her junior year in high school, my daughter brought home her first boyfriend to meet us.

At the door stood a young man with short wheat-colored hair and a round face, and no visible tats or piercings. My husband greeted him with the line he had been practicing: "C'mon in, I was just cleaning my shotgun."  

To his credit, the boyfriend kept calm. 

"He's a senior, his family is from Nicaragua," my daughter said, anxious to get the logistics over with. She mentioned he was the second generation of his family born in the U.S. 

"Do you still have family there?" I asked.

"Yeah, but a lot of my relatives came here before I was born," he said.

"Why did they leave?" I asked, trying to appear casual while I snooped for intel.

"Well, my family is from Germany. And then they went to Nicaragua. I don't think they planned to stay there permanently," he said. My water glass slid through my sweaty fingers, crashing to the floor.

German nationals had been settling in Nicaragua since the 19th century when the government offered farmland in the north of the country, where they began growing coffee. During World War 2, when the president of Nicaragua sided with allies France and the United Kingdom and declared war against Germany in 1941, many German-Nicaraguans were imprisoned, some in detention centers in the U.S. The boyfriend didn't say when his family relocated, and Nicaragua wasn't a well-known haven for war criminals like some other Latin American countries. But that didn't stop my mind from going there: after the war, it may have been home to some Nazi sympathizers. And I was afraid my daughter — the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, who went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah — was dating one of their descendants. 

RELATED: A California suburb reckons with its Nazi past — and present-day controversy follows

A few days later, the boyfriend's mother called to invite us to Thanksgiving, the holiday celebrating grace and gratitude.

"Oh, of course, we would love to," I stammered. 

We walked into a family room bustling with at least two dozen Nordic-looking folks. My husband Ralph and our daughter, both fair and blond, fit in. My brown, frizzy mop and angular face made me the definite outlier. 

The familiar Thanksgiving aroma wafting through the room should have been comforting in a sea of Germanic strangers. But on top of turkey and gravy, I detected a hint of something burning.

Within minutes, the boyfriend's mother introduced us to the family. Aunts complimented my daughter, which almost put me at ease, like a group hug next to a crematorium.

Maybe I was overreacting, I thought, too quick to make assumptions. Maybe the boyfriend wasn't descended from Nazis. Maybe they didn't believe Jews drink the blood of Christian children. But still, I couldn't help wondering if we were the first Jews to join this family for a holiday meal.

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Ralph and I sat in the living room and were joined by the patriarch. The boyfriend, looking to facilitate a conversation, told his granddad that Ralph and I were pilots. His eyes widened, and a smile appeared. While the teenagers wandered off, we talked about aviation.

"I built airplanes," the patriarch said, his German accent still thick, with a "v" sound in place of a "w" and words pushed up to the top of his mouth. "Before I left Germany, I worked on the line building bombers."

Ralph and I sat up straighter, our internal antennae vibrating. 

"Then, I came to the United States and got a job designing aircraft," he continued, naming the notable engineering program he worked for.

I swallowed, my chest tightened, then I glanced at Ralph, enraptured with hearing the details of the famous American aeronautical engineer the grandfather worked with. Ralph asked all the aviation questions he wanted to know about since childhood, while I imagined every atrocity committed in the name of the Führer.

To be clear, he never said he had been one of the German scientists and engineers brought to the U.S. after the war to use their skills against our new enemies in the Cold War. Still, I was surprised that my daughter would choose to date the grandson of a Nazi bomber builder.

Dinner was buffet style. Ralph and I took our plates and walked into the kitchen where the turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberries and vegetables were carefully arranged in perfect rows. With our dishes piled high, we returned to the same spots where we had been conversing about airplanes only moments earlier. As I nibbled, my imagination went wild with the grandfather starring in each story. I felt sweaty even though it was November and I had removed my jacket.

Was there a way to casually inquire, "So, were you a member of the Nazi party?" Or, "Did you enjoy making bombers to kill American soldiers?" And, "Where were you on Kristallnacht?" My head pounded as questions ricocheted in my brain. I pursed my lips in the hope that one of them would not slip out. If I snuck into the back of the house, would I find a secret room with Nazi memorabilia? A hangar containing a Messerschmitt? 

"Would you like a glass of wine?" our hostess asked, pulling me back to the present.

"No, thank you," I replied, with my most assimilated smile. I needed to stay sharp.

When Ralph's mother was a teenager, she endured being imprisoned in a concentration camp, having her teeth kicked out by a German soldier, and watching as the SS beat her grandparents to death. She would bolt up in bed with nightmares for the rest of her life. Ralph's father jumped off a train en route to certain death at Auschwitz. His grandfather was killed by the Nazis. His cousin was shot in Terezín. Countless other relatives simply vanished. 

We survived the evening. They were a pleasant bunch, going out of their way to make us feel welcome. But I could not get beyond the idea of sins of the father being passed down.

Years later, we were driving somewhere when my daughter pointed out the car window and said, "I think my high school boyfriend lived on this street."

"You mean the Nazi Thanksgiving?" I asked.

"What are you talking about?" she said.

"The grandfather built Nazi warplanes," I said, losing patience. "We thought they were Nazis!"

"Why didn't you tell me?" she demanded.

"You didn't know?" I asked.

"You should have told me!"

The Austrian Nationality Act was recently amended to extend citizenship to the descendants of victims of Nazi persecution. My husband was eligible through his Austrian mother. At first, he refused to apply. Hearing the German language gave him chills. But when the Austrian citizenship papers did come through, we could not wait to visit Austria, proud and strong, proof that we could persevere through the worst of times. Maybe we would never forget. But we could heal and move forward. It would be like that Thanksgiving, with a few million more people.

More personal essays about World War 2, the Holocaust and generational trauma:

By Deborah Weiss

Deborah Weiss is a Los Angeles based writer and Lecturer in Law at the University of Southern California. Her work as appeared in Westways Magazine and the Independent. She is currently working on a World War II era novel.

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