Oddly enough, it’s a recent book about a treasonous father that speaks most closely to me. Wibke Bruhns’ My Father’s Country: The Story of a German Family tells of her father, an army officer during World War II, who was executed in 1944 — when she was 6 years old — for his role in the plot to kill Hitler. “I never knew him, and as a result he didn’t affect me. I never missed him,” she writes of her childhood. As an adult, she had great trouble coming to grips with her family’s support of National Socialism; ultimately, though, his participation in the failed assassination plot made her come to see her father as a hero for renouncing Hitler. She ruefully speaks to her dead father: “I would have liked to laugh with you.”
Looking at my father’s haunting mug shot, I find it hard to think of laughing with him. My gut reaction, when I first learned of his treatment in prison and the Gulag, was hatred for his oppressors. But where can I direct my anger? Stalin is long dead, as are his brutish henchmen; the Soviet system is no more. It’s a memory of a time and a politics long ago.
Yet when I look at his picture, he’s so young that I can’t help but feel oddly protective — as if he were my own son. It pains me that he died, of starvation and cold, unremarked, only to be buried in the wastelands of the Russian tundra. So I write to reclaim him from the Gulag, to piece his life back together from a few dusty files at the Lubyanka — to give him the funeral he never had.
Peter Buck Feller, an international trade lawyer in Washington, D.C., is writing a book about his father.