No, My Dad Is Not a Nazi

But he was in the Hitler Youth.

Papa and I picking apples in Salzburg, Austria circa 1987

What opinion of the world does an eight-year-old have? As a child, it is difficult to keep the truth which you observe apart from the truth which is there, especially if it is being manipulated. My first memory was playing a piano before my feet reached the pedals. But my father’s was Nazi troupes marching down his street.

Growing up a brown girl in an agrarian town with a foreign name whose first language was German, I often found myself at the center of ridicule. A not atypical childhood experience, I too was at the mercy of the cruel impulses of children. As one of few who had immigrant parents at my elementary school — my mother from the Philippines and my father from Germany — my peers had many questions. Thankfully, why I was eating a liverwurst sandwich and ube cakes for lunch instead of PB&J was not one of them.

“Are you black or white?” or “how come your dad talks like that?” or statements like “your name is weird” or simply “I hate you” were often thrown at me in rapid succession. I had friends who weren’t assholes, so I wasn’t a loner — I was just annoyed.

But the question that was asked most frequently, from elementary school through high school, was: “is your dad a Nazi?”

Papa somewhere in Monterey sometime in the ’50s or ‘60s

It’s 1942 in Munich, Germany and a daydreaming boy stands at the bottom of a hill. He awaits instruction from the phlegmatic uniformed men donning red arm bands. The boy’s head feels heavy beneath the oversized, metal helmet, placed upon him with no sense of tenderness. Lost in thought, driven by id, the boy doesn’t wonder why he is there, he simply wonders what will happen next.

My then eight-year-old father Axel Steigenberger (changed to Duwe when he emigrated), along with several of his peers, was pulled from class only a few hours prior. Doing as diligent German boys do, he followed the soldiers without a single fuss made. Though he was accustomed to the two hours of basic training before school where he learned to shoot rifles and Lugers, leaving class was unusual. But here he was, bored at the bottom of a hill, squinting to see a line of soldiers standing at its apex.

Finally, instructions are given. They are simple enough: the children are to run to the top of the hill. It’s just a race, he thinks. There are no questions or complaints. The other boys line up at the bottom of the hill, also wondering what will happen next.

Abruptly, a shot is fired, shattering the serene Bavarian morning. The boys dart up the hill, smiling and excited at the prospect of winning. Little Axel pumps his arms, his breath heaving as he lunges up the incline. He can see the soldiers at the top slowly growing in size, the sun casting their long, sinister shadows. Like the carcasses of charred trees, the darkened Nazis stand motionless, observing.

Suddenly, with sniper-like precision, the first rock is thrown. Axel hears a thump and stops to look behind him. A boy has been hit and lay crying in the dust, holding his neck. Before he can process this imagery, another rock comes flying. He whips his head to the right and sees another boy, lying motionless, down for the count. He looks up and like a plague from God, a barrage of stones begin to rain upon him as boys hit the ground, run away, and cower in fear. The soldiers at the top of the hill are throwing stones at these kids and seem to be enjoying it. It is then that he realizes the true objective: it is not to be the first one up the hill, it is to be the only one.

Pre-war Papa with his boat on Lake Starnberg, Munich’s closest neighboring lake.

As he sees the boys scatter like mice, his primordial instinct takes over. He removes his helmet and holding it like a shield, deflects the stones. In times when strength is obsolete (or nonexistent), only the clever survive. While his friends are crying and bleeding in a battle they did not choose to fight, Axel trudges up the hill. The metallic clanks of the rocks hitting the helmet create an eerie rhythm as he presses onward. One boot in front of the other, he strides to the beat of his own metronome, feeling the power of the beat like a Nordic warrior on the precipice of battle.

Now he can see the soldiers without squinting. Almost there. He no longer checks on his peers because he no longer cares. He is a boy of mission and his mission is to make it to the top of that hill. Closer and closer to the sun he walks. He can hear the cries of the other boys become fainter as one last monsoon of stones comes pouring down. He is hit, but not hurt, as he continues to deflect the stones with the helmet in his hands, the rhythm getting faster and faster until… he has made it. The rocks cease and he hears the soldiers, not offering congratulatory cheers, but dubiously whispering to one another. Basking in victory, he catches his breath. He has won the game with aplomb and the sun is much warmer up here.

A Nazi points at him and in German says, “that one.”

His ingenuity just cost him his childhood.

This was how my father was chosen to be one of Hitler’s Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitler Jugend (the Hitler Youth) also known as “DJ” or “DJV.” He hated talking about his war-torn childhood, but if it was for the sake of education, he’d do it. In fact, my friend Alyssa wanted to interview him for a history report and he agreed to be recorded.

I’d forgotten about this recording, until his funeral in 2006, when Alyssa’s parents presented me with a copy, which they had converted from tape to CD. It took two years for me to find the strength to listen to it, but when I finally did, I was gobsmacked by his stories. That 45-minute interview could easily be turned into a film — despite the fact that most Hollywood war epics aren’t told from a child’s perspective.

The Hitler Youth audition is just one story from this interview. Others include how he was left on an operating table with appendicitis as the hospital was hit with an air raid. Or how he shook hands with Hitler. Or how he was in a propaganda film. Or how my Omi (grandmother) was chummy with Hitler’s notorious mistress, Eva Braun.

My father was a polyglot, maestro, musician, educator, writer, illustrator, publisher, race car driver and philosopher. He was generous, fascinating, intelligent, hilarious (sorry for the schmaltz, but this is my dearly departed dad we’re talkin’ about). He was also flawed — maybe because the Nazi’s hijacked his childhood, or maybe just because he’s human. But to answer the question that plagued most of my adolescence, what he definitely was not, was a Nazi.