My grandmother Ursula was a deeply devoted person. Whenever we stayed with her, she would pray with us before we went to bed. She prayed so long we’d fall asleep. It was as if she was communicating with somebody she knew well. Only years later did I learn why Oma felt God was always right by her side and present to all humans.
As a new MP I thought of Ursula in my first remarks in Parliament. I was conscious of the sacrifices she’d made and her very positive approach to life. No person outside my parents had a greater influence on me.
My Oma’s family, the Kuppenheims, thrived in early 20th century Germany. Her grandfather Rudolf was a beloved doctor in the city of Pforzheim. He and his wife had converted from Judaism to Christianity; they were active members of their church; and their son, Ursula’s father, married a Christian. Oma was born in 1930 in the Westphalia region of Germany. Three years later, the Nazis were elected to a coalition majority in the Reichstag. With the Nazis’ rise to power, Oma came to be defined as a ‘mischling’ — a derogatory term for ‘half-Jew’ or ‘mixed-race’ enshrined in German law in 1935.
In 1940 all Jews were expelled from Pforzheim. Ursula later learned that her grandfather pleaded with the Gestapo for a private moment so he and his wife might gather their things. They sat in their favorite chairs, held hands and swallowed poison. They chose suicide rather than deportation to a concentration camp.
Although able to ‘hide in plain sight’ with her Aryan mother for a number of years, as a young teenager my grandmother was forced to flee, alone, to the countryside. She attributed her survival to the influence of Bishop von Galen, the region’s sympathetic Catholic bishop. Rather than turning her over to the authorities, farmers in the area allowed her to sleep in their barns in exchange for farm labour. This was terrifying and dangerous for my grandmother. Eventually, after a journey that involved stops on three continents, my grandmother found a true sense of home in Canada.
Ursula spent her childhood in the tempest of war and Holocaust. For many years she rarely spoke of her experiences. But members of my family recall incidents in which the extraordinary pain of those years was revealed. My uncle remembers a squabble in which a boy said, “I’m going to bash your head in!” Oma became very upset and forbade such violent language; she said that she’d once seen someone bash a man’s face in.
Incredible stories of trauma and survival are shared by many who evaded the death camps. As a schoolboy I invited my Oma to speak to classmates on Remembrance Day and share her amazing stories. Some survivors of trauma lost their faith and questioned why God allowed such horrors to occur; Oma emerged with a sense of God’s presence and a caring heart for each individual who crossed her path.
Until her passing in 2006 my grandmother remained hopeful, optimistic and deeply faithful to God. As a result of the Holocaust, the Kuppenheim name has all but died out. But my Oma believed God had saved her. No wonder He seemed so imminent in her nightly devotions.
My grandmother was a survivor. When I stood in Parliament for the first time, I thought of this remarkable woman. I thought of her disrupted childhood, her wanderings as a refugee, and the sacrifices she’d made to give us the very best she could in life.
(Editor’s note: the author is Conservative MP for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.)