In the dark days of World War II and its aftermath, Christiane Brandt Faris lived in Berlin and the town of Celle in the Lower Saxonry of Germany.
The town, whose history dates to A.D. 985, was a key Nazi military garrison during the war, and although people whispered about a neighboring community, nobody Faris knew openly spoke of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp northwest of town.
Faris was but a girl when she moved to Celle. She’d been born during Adolph Hitler’s dictatorship and left Berlin only after her family’s home was destroyed by a bomb. Her family went to Celle to live at her grandmother’s sprawling old house, a place filled with pleasant memories and, at war’s end, refugees.
Faris, who came to the U.S. in 1968, is now a professor emeritus of modern languages at Oklahoma City University. Her memoir, “‘The Nicest Nazi’: Childhood Memories of World War II,” was published this year through Ionic Press.
The Oklahoman spoke with her about the book. Her answers provide a rare glimpse into another side of Hitler’s Germany and demonstrate that the country’s own citizens also were victims of the Nazis.
An edited version of the conversation follows.
Q: What inspired the name of this book?
A: Two things. The title of the book is “The Nicest Nazi,” which is a frightening thing to say, a shocking thing. That’s what somebody called me at a fundraising meeting, and it was intended as a compliment, but for Germans, the word Nazi is really an N-word, like the one in the English language. The term Nazi is not so much understood anymore. It didn’t stand for German at all; it stood for Hitler’s party, the National Socialist movement. That was one reason.
Then on the cover I use the words “The Nicest Nazi” in quotation marks, and you see a picture of myself when I was 4 years old, and I like that contrast between the shocking title and this innocent-looking little girl.
Also, I had always wanted to write about my grandmother’s house. My grandmother’s house was absolutely fantastic and large and beautiful and sitting on a very large garden, but the house became the place for 50 refugees. … At the end of the war, there were 20 million homeless people in Germany, and Germany had a population of 60 million, so you can imagine that every third person was homeless. … You had to take in these people. They were just sent to you, and they’d show up, and you’d have to put them up. They weren’t your guests. They were just people you somehow had to put up. That house had two kitchens and two bathrooms, so this became, really, a big effort. …
The end of the war is a really interesting period, and I don’t think it has been researched overmuch. That’s when total chaos broke out. When the war was going on and the Nazis were still in control, essentially, life functioned. There was food. It wasn’t much. But there was food; you could put on ration cards. There was transportation. Of course, trains were often disturbed by bombings. But there was fuel. There was electricity. The end of the war, that didn’t happen anymore. There was no fuel, and maybe electricity for one hour a day. Food was just something you had to find somewhere. People today really cannot imagine what it was like, so I thought it would be a good idea to write this book.
Q: That’s a lot of information I’d never heard before.
A: If I were to talk about the homeless people, these were people who were completely blown away out of their stores and houses. Hamburg, for instance, was very close to the town where I grew up, and that was the German Hiroshima. That was so horribly destroyed that thousands of people died and suffocated. So homeless people were among the people I really talk about. Also, refugees came in. Our house was very close to the Iron Curtain, and that meant that people were coming in, enormous numbers of refugees. … Then there were the people who were released from camps. There were camps all over Germany. They weren’t all concentration camps, but they were labor camps or camps for foreigners, all kinds of camps. … And then there were the returning widows, who had no idea where to go because they had no families and did not know if their town still lived.
Q: How long did it take you to write this?
A: I had written about this house about four years ago, and then I let it go completely. I didn’t even touch it anymore. I took it up again last fall, and between the fall and last Christmas, it was completed. So it was relatively fast. I didn’t start with that house after the war. I started with it before. I was born in Berlin. I had two older brothers, older by seven and nine years. They had to become members of the Hitler Youth. That was mandatory. And then later members of Hitler’s army of teenagers. I write about that and bombing nights and about losing the apartment in Berlin and things of that nature.
Q: Did your brothers survive the war?
A: Yes, they did. But they were marked by it. My oldest brother could not really live in Germany. He’s in Sweden. He just had too many bad memories. And the other one is fine and did well, but when I talk to him about it, he gets very tight-lipped. He has nightmares, and he cannot be in a dark room. It’s claustrophobia, and that’s very definitely a result of the war.
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The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp may not be as well remembered as Auschwitz, but it was a place so horrible that it nearly defies imagination. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the camp — actually a series of camps built at different times during the war — housed Jews, prisoners of war, Roma, “asocials,” criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. Tens of thousands of people there died in the first few months of 1945, largely due to a Typhoid outbreak. In all, about 50,000 people were killed, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot, both of whom died in March 1945. When the camp was liberated by British forces in April 1945, about 13,000 bodies were found unburied. Soldiers had the grim job of bulldozing the corpses into mass graves and tending to thousands of wounded inmates, many of whom died despite their ministrations. Once the camp was emptied, the British burned it to the ground to avoid the spread of typhus, marking the end of one of the most atrocious, inhumane places on earth.