I may not look it, with my overgrown bangs and thrift-store shoes, but I’m descended from aristocrats and heroes of the German resistance. Years before the failed coup recounted in the movie Valkyrie, my great-grandfather Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord tried to overthrow Hitler. From 1930-34, he was the chief of the German military; later, as the commander of an army detachment, he tried to lure the Führer to a base on the western front to arrest him. His plots were never discovered, but his anti-Nazi attitude was well-known and he was forced to resign; he died of cancer in 1943. The following summer, two of his sons—my great-uncles—played their own small role in the real-life Valkyrie plot. They were among the very few who managed to escape.
They weren’t the only rebels in the family. My great-grandfather was known as the “Red General” for supporting tradeunions. He had two daughters (my great-aunts) who were Soviet spies. * My grandmother was the second of seven children; she fled Germany for Japan in 1936 and then immigrated to the United States in 1948. To me, she was just Grandma: Tall, thin, and at times formidable, she baked plum tarts and wrapped us in layers of wool as protection against the San Francisco fog. But as a young woman just before the war, she’d sold family heirloom silver to buy a motorcycle, which she used to help people who had to leave Germany to reach Prague. She also used information from her father to warn targets of the Gestapo to leave the country.
It took a long time for my family to learn the details of my grandmother’s involvement with the resistance, and the stories of her siblings and parents. At the time, their acts of daring were considered crimes against Germany—treason. And the stories have been kept muted for many years since. Indeed, the hero narrative has seemed crass and at times agonizing to members of my family. They may have risked everything to oppose Nazism, but the rest of their lives were spent in the peaceful company of countrymen who hadn’t. They were dogged with survivor’s guilt and preoccupied with the difficulties of the postwar years. The arrival of the Cold War further complicated things, given the family history of espionage. (My grandparents were routinely questioned by the FBI.) Finally, as Germans of high breeding, my grandmother’s generation had a healthy sense of family modesty: Any aristocrat knows it’s a faux pas to toot your own horn.
My uncle, who was born in Japan and raised in America, began to tease out the history in 1960, the year he married a Jewish woman. He conducted interviews and consulted diaries, and he slowly put together the story of his own aunts and uncles. Later, in 1997, he uncovered the history of my grandmother’s work on behalf of Jews, in an effort to have her named a “righteous gentile.” She’d never before mentioned what she had done.
My grandmother’s two younger brothers—the ones involved in the Valkyrie plot—were both officers on leave with war injuries in the summer of 1944. Ludwig, the younger of the two, was at the Bendler Block complex of military buildings when the Hitler loyalists showed up to arrest (and execute) many of the conspirators. But my great-uncles had played on the building grounds as children during their father’s tenure as chief of the Reichswehr, so Ludwig knew a back staircase. Fleeing down the steps, he hid in a nearby city park and spent the rest of the war living in hiding above a drug store. Kunrat had been working as a courier for the former mayor of Leipzig, who would have been the new chancellor had the coup succeeded. When the plot fell apart, Kunrat ended up in hiding with a family in Cologne.
Their mother and two youngest siblings were deemed guilty by association. The three spent time in Buchenwald and Dachau with the families of other conspirators, including the pregnant wife of head plotter Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise in the film version). My great-aunt Hildur, now a great-grandmother herself, turned 21 in a Berlin jail before being transferred to a concentration camp. In the spring of 1945, as the war wound down in confusion, the SS moved the group of prisoners into the Italian Alps and abandoned them. They were picked up by the Allies a day before the armistice was signed and held for another six weeks before returning to what was left of their homes. The family members had been splintered without news of one another other for months. Now some were back in Berlin, some in Bavaria, and some at Steinhurst, the family’s ancestral home—without working telephones, mail services, or trains.
For my grandmother in Japan, it took years, not months, to learn what happened. The reconnection of Grandma’s immediate family with relatives in Germany began soon after the end of the war in 1946, but the plot was never mentioned in letters. Her youngest brother, Franz, who had been on that forced march through the Alps, came to visit the family in Menlo Park, Calif., in the fall of 1948. That’s when Grandma learned for the first time of her siblings’ attempt to assassinate Hitler. According to my uncle, she must have been shocked to learn of her younger brothers’ resistance: She remembered them as patriotic young men bound for the military.
Hildur and her mother never spoke with each other about their experiences in the concentration camps, but the families that had been jailed together remained friends through the decades. Hildur is one of the two siblings who are still alive; last week she called the grandchildren of Claus Von Stauffenberg to ask whether they liked the movie. (They did.) Other Germans haven’t quite been thrilled, though the movie doesn’t open in theaters there until Jan. 20. Perhaps they’re reluctant to let the trauma and horror be turned into easy Hollywood narratives and bedtime stories. For grandchildren like me in America—at a remove from the ground on which it all happened—that’s how the family history was passed on.
Correction, Jan. 17, 2009: This article originally stated that Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord was “openly inclined toward communism.” In fact, he was supportive of Russia and had close ties to trade unions, but his political ideology was unknown. (Return to the corrected sentence.)