#1132: “Don’t go on vacation with Nazis.”

We take a break from important kitten content for this equally important reminder: You don’t have to pretend to tolerate Nazis for the sake of faaaaaaaaamily.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Thank you so much for your blog! Reading your insightful answers has really improved my emotional literacy. I’ve often wondered what I’d ask you if I had the chance, and I now find myself writing with a question which feels very surreal.

Background: My mother is from a Catholic family, and is one of seven children. My father is from a Jewish family, and his father, who died last year, was a concentration camp survivor. The rest of my grandfather’s family was killed by the Nazis. My mother’s side of the family regularly holds big family holidays where four generations of the family get together in a rented house.

(Not sure how relevant this bit is, but my mother is the only one of her siblings who is no longer Catholic (she’s an atheist). My mother is also the least conformist of her siblings – she’s an artist, poet and translator, and has no interest in being “normal”, which is important to her mother and siblings. Thus she has always to some extent been the “odd one out”, and feels pressure to take part in family events, including church stuff she isn’t comfortable with, and to conform to their “faaamily!”-oriented ways of doing things, in which getting all seven siblings together is the only “win”.)

The next family holiday is a few weeks away, and as with the last few holidays, this one will be hosted (and in large part paid for) by one of my mother’s brothers-in-law (let’s call him Uncle Steve). Then, last week, one of my mother’s sisters (not Steve’s wife) happened to mention in passing that Steve owns a painting by Hitler. My mother was horrified, and emailed Steve to ask if this was true. Long story short, it turns out that Steve does indeed have one authenticated painting by Hitler, as well as some other paintings and drawings which are probably by Hitler. Apparently he has had this “collection” for twenty years, has shown it to various other members of the family, and no one has ever been bothered by this. However, Steve says he would never have shown the painting to my mother, since he knows that she has “a special sensitivity” to such matters. The phrase “special sensitivity” infuriated my parents and me – as well as being condescending, it suggests that “normal” people are not bothered by Hitler memorabilia. On top of this, there seems to have been an agreement not to mention the painting to our branch of the family, which feels creepy. They clearly knew that the paintings would horrify and offend us, yet also felt separate from, and unaffected by, such reactions. My mother has now spoken or corresponded about this with Steve and two of her sisters (Steve’s wife and the sister who let slip about the painting). None of them consider it a big deal, and think that she should put FAAAAMILY ahead of disgust at people who would willingly associate themselves with (a painting by) Hitler.

My mother has decided not to go on the family holiday (my father and I were already not going this year for other reasons; my brother has yet to make up his mind). Steve is offended that my mother considers owning a painting by Hitler to constitute association with Nazism. There’s a weird gaslighting thing going on where multiple family members are suggesting that my mother is the one who is out of step for being bothered by this. Steve’s wife remarked pointedly that she herself cares more about people than objects, implying that my mother should make peace, ignore the painting, and stop “upsetting the family”. My mother has said this makes her feel as though she’s slipped into a parallel universe. Captain Awkward, please give us a reality check! It’s shocking to find out that family members are so blasé about an artifact that makes my immediate family and me feel truly ill to contemplate. Surely the people who think that Hitler paintings are no big deal are the ones who are out of step here?

Thank you so much for your help, and sorry this got so long!

Wrong Half Jewish (he/him)

Dear Wrong Half Jewish:

Two thoughts:

  1. There is an episode of Justified about a dude who collects Hitler paintings. You’re never as alone in your problems as you think you are.
  2. Your Nazi-apologist relatives can fucking fuck off for the rest of fucking time.

There is a reason the family never told your mom about her brother-in-law jacking off to his Hitler paintings all this time. They knew it was gross, and wrong, and evil. But they recast this as “sensitivity” on her part and not “casual & routine anti-Semitism” on their own. The question isn’t “Why is your mom so sensitive?” the question is “Why are all the rest of you okay with this?”

This thing, where Steve’s wife “remarked pointedly that she herself cares more about people than objects, implying that my mother should make peace, ignore the painting, and stop “upsetting the family” is 100% bullshit. I mean, if you care more about people than objects, prove it Aunt Glenda! Let’s build a cleansing fire in the back yard and end this conflict right now!

She can have Hitler paintings or all seven siblings hanging out together, but not both. She is choosing Hitler paintings and then trying to bully & blame your mom for “upsetting the family.” They can keep their gross paintings if they want them that badly, but they don’t get to have your company or your good opinion.

To be clear, I am definitely not advocating that you & your brother pretend to make nice with your relatives in order to infiltrate Uncle Steve’s house, steal his expensive Nazi shit, and set it on fire. That would be illegal. You should not do that. Stealing is wrong.

But a hearty “I cannot believe you are trying to get us to make nice with that fucking Nazi bullshit, do you even hear yourself right now?” as the last thing you ever say to these relatives? That is all within legal bounds. I mean…there is a reason that you can’t have giant fun family reunions with four generations packed under one roof on your dad’s side of the family. It’s not academic, it’s not neutral, it’s not abstract. It’s people who shared your blood murdered cruelly, and other people who share your blood being like “Why are you still sensitive about that? Would you like to see my cool art collection?” 

They need to grow some goddamn shame and empathy. Your mom, on the other hand, sounds pretty wonderful. It sounds like she has done a lot of painful and unrewarding work over the years to try to remain in contact with her family, work that is unappreciated by them. I think it’s time she has permission to stop doing that work. You are her family, you and your dad and your siblings. They make vacation homes and traditions that don’t involve pretending that Hitler’s paintings are a totally normal thing to collect, something one just happens upon, without any effort or intent to acquire them.

Ultimately it’s her relatives and her decision, so maybe your move right now is more about validating her than about telling your relatives to get elaborately fucked. Script: “Mom, I don’t think you’re being ‘too sensitive.’ I’m definitely not comfortable spending time with people who are so cavalier about this stuff, and if the family blames you for causing a rift here, remind yourself that you’re not the one who is defending collecting Nazi paintings as a totally chill hobby with no consequences. I will not miss a single one of those people. You and Dad are the most important people to me in all of this. ” 

Nazis are not curiosities of the past. They are marching this weekend in Charlottesville and in Washington, D.C. There are a lot of people who will try to tell you that its not a big deal, what they do. They are wrong. It is a very big deal. And we should ask anyone who tries to tell us differently “Why are you so invested in making excuses and providing cover for Nazis and the violent things they say and do?” 

Comments are closed. This is because posts where I say that “Nazis are bad!” tend to attract a lot of Nazis, er, totally well-meaning good-faith arguers who are sure that this is all about “free speech”/ethics in gaming journalism and also very sure that if we are mean to Nazis it’s our fault when there are Nazis and also very sure that I should “get raped LOL.” I’ll have enough fun playing Nazi moderation whackamole on all the other open comment threads, so, I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.