“I am ashamed to say this,” Ursula said to me. We were sitting in her lovely Los Angeles home in the middle of the day on a Saturday in February. All the lights in her house were off, but the blue skies outside graced her face, her 90-year-old wrinkles defined. “I was so stupid to believe that when Hitler died, that the world would come to the end.”
Our time together that day began with a kind-of battle, me and Ursula — this small, but strong 91-year-old woman who walked quickly and with purpose. She had the type of grey hair that you could tell was once a bold blond, or maybe I just thought that because I knew about her past. She was a former member of the Nazi party; a dedicated leader within the Hitler Youth. I, in contrast, am the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.
I had never met her before, but per my request, her unlikely friend Xenia, a recent high school graduate, set up a date for us to go see Jojo Rabbit, the satirical anti-hate film set during the time of the Holocaust that had won an Oscar just a week before. As soon as I walked into her house however, Ursula told me she didn’t want to go.
“I don't like watching things that aren't real,” she told me, unapologetically, as I stood in her doorway, unsure if I should now continue inside and settle into an afternoon together. “No, not for me. If I watch something about the war, I want it to be true.”
“But, Ursula,” I said, “Xenia bought tickets. You already agreed to go.”
She shook her head. It wasn’t going to happen.
We went back and forth for a while. I even tried showing her the trailer for the film, which like many others, put her off even more. The buffoonish, catroonish version of Hitler (played by the film’s writer and director Taika Waititi), the bright colors, the Jewish girl in the attic — it had possible controversy written all over it for anyone even slightly connected to the history of the Holocaust. Waititi, who is Jewish himself, has been answering a version of the same question over and over again during press interviews : why would he choose to write Hitler to be so ridiculous? His response, “I had no interest all in portraying him authentically. I didn’t want him to have the satisfaction of knowing that someone studied him… I don’t think he deserves someone making that much effort.”
Some reviews I have heard from friends and colleagues who work in the field of Holocaust memory have applauded the film and the ingenious way it takes on the period of World War II. Others wouldn’t even step into the theater. I told Ursula this and more, letting her know that I was one of those viewers who thought the film was brilliant -- surprisingly so. I tried to explain to her that it is exactly because the movie had inspired so much debate that we wanted her perspective. We wanted to know — what was it like to watch a satire about the Hitler Youth as someone who was such a part of it?
Ursula Martens was born in 1929 in Germany. She was four years old when Hitler came to power; he was her very first memory . “I remember when Hitler became chancellor,” she told USC Shoah Foundation during her video testimony, recorded by them in 2019 (the Institute houses over 55,000 testimonies from Holocaust and other genocide survivors; Ursula is one of the first perpetrators to be recorded). “Outside was a gathering for people and they had put loudspeakers there because a lot of people didn’t have radios in those days… and then I heard Hitler for the first time… this voice was so special, so powerful. And, I asked my mother [who] are these [people] and she said, these were Nazis. And I said, what’s a Nazi? She answered me that Nazis are good people and communists are bad people.”
The Nazi party began recruiting and educating kids in 1922 with the establishiment of the Hitler Youth — Hitler Jugand, in German. That was over a decade before Hitler was democratically placed into office. To quote the Führer himself, he wanted to transform German boys into a “violently, active, dominating brutal youth.” By the time of his election in 1933, the youth movement had over a million members and a year later all other youth movements in Germany were outlawed. By 1936, involvement in the Hitler Youth was compulsory and three years later one could be punished for not being a member.
“It was the law,” as Ursula said. “When you were 10 years old, you better sign up.” The female branch of the Hitler Youth was called the League of German Girls -- Bund Deutscher Mädel, in German. Ursula bought into all of it; she was impatient to turn 10 so she could join like her older sister had and by her early teens she became a leader within the movement. “They measured you for how tall you were and how big your head around is because you had to be the pure Aryan race… They said that some people are better than others. That’s what I learned. And the people that are not as good, they shouldn’t be here.”
Throughout the war, Ursula espoused her Nazi idealogy. “The way they teach it... it made sense,” she said. “Your blood is pure and the next blood is not pure. That’s easy for children to believe.” In her testimony she confesses that her grandfather, who was ferverntly anti-Nazi, referred to her as a war criminal and she admits that if she knew her parents were doing anything that would be considered against the Nazi idealogy (which they weren’t), she would have had no problem turning them in. Waititi echoed this in his interview on The Daily Show, “When children were indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth, the first lesson they were taught was to rebel against your parents.”
In the final years of the war, as she neared the age of 16, Ursula slowly began to question what she was being taught. “I was fighting it. I didn’t want to believe it… And I couldn’t talk to anybody.”
Ursula remembers a dark, snowy evening, when she was at the train station her father worked at, “I saw them,” she said. “I saw the two cars stopped… I saw soldiers going around with the rifle. With the guns drawn… And when I came closer, I see them hitting the people. And then I saw the striped uniforms on the people. And they were shipping them… I went home and I didn’t tell anybody. I couldn’t sleep that night and that was my awakening. This is all a lot of bullshit. This is not the truth what we are doing here.”
After the war, as if an act of defiance, Ursula began dating a Mexican-American soldier. He would become the first of many men to enter her life who chipped away at her racist ideology. She would go on to marry a Latino man from Texas (who was also an American soldier who she met in Germany). He brought her to America. They had two daughters together before they divorced. Her next husband was an African-American man and in between she even dated a Jewish Holocaust survivor.
“[I think] that is all my inner self trying to prove I am not prejudiced,” she said. “Because, it is like I almost went out to look for somebody of a different race.”
Ursula only began telling her story of reformation in recent years. She speaks in any school that invites her (this is how she met Xenia, the young woman who introduced us). She warns young people that any nation can fall to racism and authoritarianism . She urges young people to vote, telling them that choosing who will be your leader and your teacher, is the most important thing you can do. She also wrote an autobiography, titled Stations Along The Way, that tells her wartime story by way of the railway stations that her father worked for during her young life.
“To me, my father was the smartest man that I ever knew. And, you could ask him anything,” she said while also stating that politics was not something that they would talk about.
During the wartime years, Ursula’s father rose to a level of importance within the German government. When Mussolini came to town, it was her father who was called on to operate the train tracks to ensure that no mistakes would be made when Hitler traveled with the Italian leader. Her father was even gifted a framed photo of the two leaders waving from the train which he displayed proudly in their home. During the war years, he was promoted from first a small village train station to a larger city station to eventually making his way to working in an office in Berlin, the epicenter of Nazi activity.
“I think sometimes I didn’t want to know how important my father was,” Ursula said. She remembers him being in charge of the trains that were bringing stuff back from occupied countries and he got to be one of the first to pick through belongings that presumably belonged to those deported to concentration camps or forced into ghettos. He would bring home food, paintings, and items embroidered with royal symbols. “The way that my father explained it is, that’s the way war is. The ones that win, he takes.”
“Was your father a Nazi party member?,” Ursula was asked during her USC Shoah Foundation testimony, which lasted five hours long. “You know, to this date, I don’t know whether he was, how involved he was because on this evening that Hitler became chancellor, I remember he came out of his bedroom and he had the same uniform on as Hitler… which was riding boots and the pants [which were] loose up to the waist. And I remember that because I was always crazy about horses and riding, so riding boots I knew. And, he would make us, my sister and I, he would make us help him; he would sit down and we would have to help him pull off those boots.”
I had noticed almost immediately that Ursula’s home was covered in pictures of animals. There were photos of her dogs and paintings of other dogs. There was a plastic brown horse head hung against a turquoise wall. There was one of those pictures that changes when you tilt your head from one direction to another — that was also of horses. There were stuffed animals and figurines of monkeys kissing and her California State Parks Foundation card was presented on her mantle, with her married name — Ursula Matthews.
“Ursula,” I said to her after Xenia joined us, still determined to get her to watch the movie with us. “What if we watched Jojo Rabbit here? Would that be okay?”
To that, she agreed.
So, the three of us drank coffee and ate cake as we silently and seriously watched. With every joke that made me want to laugh out loud, I looked over at Ursula who sat petting her dog.I was trying to watch the movie through her lens, as a child of the Nazi party.
Each scene reminded me of her video testimony, which I had watched in the days before I met her.
I looked at Jojo’s uniform and remembered Ursula’s description of her own, “Oh it made me proud. It was a nice fitting uniform… the blouse was white. And I think the buttons were gold-ish. And then you had a jacket over it that was kind of short… and it was kind of velvety.”
Jojo being unable to kill the rabbit reminded me of Urusula’s own affinity for animals, “we used to go the farmers and we used to ask them can we take care of rabbits.”
Jojo’s desire to belong reminded me of her own feelings about fitting in, “It was… a lot of comradeship together. You got away from your parents. You didn’t have to do the dishes or clean the house, or whatever… They made you feel important.”
But perhaps the greatest connection I found between her and JoJo was the awakening -- the idea that what one so deeply believed in can prove to be so wrong. This is the core and the urgency of so many perpetrator stories, that a person has the ability to change their perspective and that prejudice is not a fixed emotion.
When the movie ended, I looked over to Ursula. Ursula looked towards Xenia. Xenia looked at Ursula. They both smiled and Ursula said, “well that was very good. I didn’t expect to cry. It felt real.” —
** USC Shoah Foundation's JOJO RABBIT education initiative brings together the powerful anti-hate message of the film with Holocaust survivor testimony from the Institute's Visual History Archive (VHA). Through a robust suite of resources for educators, classroom-ready activities incorporating clips and content from the film and a dedicated landing page on the Institute's IWitness website, these educational resources will help students understand the peril of prejudice, antisemitism, and bigotry as well as the power of individual agency and resiliency. For more: https://iwitness.usc.edu/sfi/Sites/JojoRabbit/