Hundreds of glowing paper lanterns, richly colored and adorned with handmade stars and animals, bejeweled the darkening evening. They bobbed on the ends of carrying-wands touted by children wandering down the streets in parade-like processions. I held my lantern, a crescent moon with a smiling face, and walked among winter-jacket bundled crowds, experiencing for the first time St. Martin, the lantern festival. This German holiday celebrates the venerated Holy Roman Empire soldier who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm. Through his selfless deed, he saved the impoverished man from freezing.
I had spent two weeks learning traditional songs honoring the Saint so that I could sing from door to door and receive candy in return on this special November night.
For my eight-year-old self, this was the most wonderful and exciting holiday I had ever experienced. I traveled through the grand streets of Neuss singing my songs proudly and admiring the handcrafted sphere and prism-shaped lanterns that shone like planets. In that moment, I was proud to partake in such a beautiful celebration. For me, a celebration of being German. But that same year, someone tried to make me feel ashamed of it.
“You’re a Nazi,” the boy in my third-grade class accusingly spat at me as he pointed in a WWII book at a photograph of a devastated city. There were emaciated prisoners in the picture, being led by German soldiers. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as he said this. He was strangely enraptured by the war and spoke with bitter hatred woven into his words when addressing me. For several weeks I had been hearing these spiteful comments.
I let his invective roll off my back– it didn’t hurt me. But I was confused about why he would accost me; I had never imagined being associated with Nazism and the horrible events of WWII. How could I be assumed a Nazi when all of my grandparents, the most kind-hearted people I knew, had suffered so immensely?
My grandfather often told me stories about his experiences through the war. His family was ripped apart after losing their business and savings, and he and his siblings separated. He had to work as a young boy to help his family, yet he witnessed his mother crying when she had nothing to feed them but the starch-based adhesive scraped from wallpaper. He ran to escape bombings, and his promising education was cut short when his teacher starved to death.
He lost his childhood to the war.
I would listen with a heavy heart to his stories but smile at the end, when he expressed how grateful he was that I didn’t have to live through such times. I became imbued with a great sense of gratitude as well because, thanks to his stories, I deeply understood how fortunate I was. To have a childhood in peacetime, replete with opportunities and choices, was not something to take lightly. From knowing what my grandfather went through, I began to live with a more profound appreciation for what I had.
And so I looked at the lanterns and felt utterly blessed. I admired the colors, the lights, and cherished the beautiful voices dancing in the air. I love the many aspects of my German culture that I am able to enjoy, from celebrating Oktoberfest to watching soccer. Of course, I also share a deep repentance with each German in remembrance of the Holocaust and the role that the German people played in it. But with this shouldered sense of guilt, there comes modesty, the spirit of betterment, and a character of learned industriousness that I believe I inherited, too.
Each aspect of my German culture glimmers brightly in my vision, reminding me of who I am. The undeniable incandescence stays with me, and my path is lit. I am forever appreciative of this.
Lilian Wiegand is a twelfth-grader living in New Jersey. Originally she is from Germany and has spent time living in England as well. She is planning on studying neuroscience in college and going to medical school afterward. She loves writing and reading and hopes to one day write a novel. Other passions of hers include playing/instructing tennis and running cross country and track.