This name I carry: Amid the hovering questions, not all Goerings were Nazis
By Laurie Goering
NEW DELHI—I have a notable last name, one that, in my 20s, sent me searching through family records with some trepidation. Nobody wants to be related to a monster, and Hermann Goering, Adolph Hitler's second-in-command, was certainly that.
After 45 years of carrying my name, though, I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I don't often stop to think about how it affects people.
Occasionally there's a reminder, when someone gets the nerve to ask. I remember Fidel Castro raising a bushy eyebrow when I introduced myself to him in Havana while on assignment there. "A famous name!" he offered. "An infamous name!" I joked back. He clapped me on the back, laughed and that was that.
Mostly, though, the reaction to my name is a pause on the other end of the phone or a question swallowed so quickly and subtly I often miss it. Few dare to ask bluntly what plenty are probably thinking: "Were your ancestors Nazis?"
The other day, though, someone reminded me of the unspoken pain and questions that hover, silently, around any Goering, around anyone who shares one of history's sinister surnames. The note landed like a bomb in my e-mail in box.
"In all the years I have seen your articles . . . I have yet to read one of them," it said. "I would like to tell you why."
The writer said his mother's family had been murdered by the Nazis—more than 50 aunts, uncles, cousins and great-grandparents gone. The notorious Nazi leader who shares my family name "is a monster of history," he wrote. "The name Goering literally makes me nauseous, nauseous with pain and anger."
"I don't think you are evil," he went on. "I also know that your name is just a name, that you did not choose it and that you should not be burdened with the evils that some people associate with it." But as a writer, he said, I should understand "the power of words, the meaning and connotations that they carry and the emotional impact that they can have. "Goering," he said, "is a word that, next to Hitler, evokes that horror more vividly than any word I know. Perhaps no one has ever written or told you this. You should, however, know it. I would think that you might care."
I finished the note shaken and moved, shaken at the realization that my name was more painful to some than I had realized and moved at the note's undercurrent of appeal for understanding. This was no crackpot. This was someone courageous enough to ask the unspoken question and try to work through the answer, for both of us.
I thought a long time about what I wanted to say to him, and by proxy to everybody out there who has wondered.
The truth is this: My family members weren't Nazis. My great-great-grandfather, Johann Georg Goering, fled Germany in 1865, quite possibly to get his three sons, the eldest of whom was of fighting age, away from the looming Franco-Prussian War. In southwest Germany, my ancestors had been making wine for generations; in eastern Nebraska, where they settled, they became struggling grain farmers. By the time World War II got under way, my Nebraska-born grandfather Herman Goering, who surely suffered at sharing that notorious name, was raising wheat, chickens and seven kids on a farm that was just being wired for electricity.
A few months ago, an uncle found a diary from 1941 written by my Nebraska grandmother, who died long before I was born.
Amid brief entries early that year noting the birth of a calf and recording having spent $2.45 for a pair of children's shoes, she expresses revulsion at a "money war" in Europe. She hated conflict, my uncles remember, not least out of deep concern for the safety of her five sons, some of them approaching fighting age.
I didn't think the family history—the denial, in essence—was quite enough of an answer, though. After all, I'm married. I've had the chance to change my name and have chosen to keep it. So I simply wrote what for me is the truth, that "for all the horror of it for many people, I know it as the name of lovely, decent, caring family members that I am deeply proud of. Not all Goerings were monsters; it took just one to tarnish the name. The rest of us are still trying to undo the damage."
I braced myself when his next e-mail appeared, but his answer was a relief.
"Frankly, I did not expect a response from you, and certainly not one that was sympathetic to my perspective but warmly and deeply committed to your own. I did not expect a response that I could accept intellectually and emotionally," he wrote. For the first time, he gave his real name—he is a Chicago lawyer—and said he would now look at my articles in the newspaper with new eyes.
Since then we have been building a dialogue. I have learned about his father, a Jewish-American soldier who fought Germans, face to face, during World War II; he has looked into the stories of the infamous Luftwaffe commander's two lesser-known brothers: Karl, who immigrated to the United States and whose son Werner flew bombing missions over Europe during World War II, and Albert, who abhorred Nazism and forged his infamous brother's signature on transit papers to allow persecuted Jews to escape.
With the name I carry, I've always been hesitant to consider working in the newspaper's Jerusalem bureau one day. But my new correspondent suggests I would be welcome there, if only "by Jews who are aware of your perspective."
These days I'm listening again for the pauses after I introduce myself, paying attention. I can't change history. I won't change my name. But it's good to know it feels a touch less painful, even for just one person.
Laurie Goering is a Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent based in New Delhi.
We were just talking the other day about how Adolf used to be a popular Jewish name. No more. History does have an impact on us in so many ways.