The destination for history

My Grandfather’s Knife: How ordinary objects tell extraordinary wartime stories


A knife, a diary, a recipe book, a string instrument, and a cotton pouch. Each belonged to an individual in their twenties during the Second World War: I talked to elderly family members, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances – people drawn from everyday life – asking them the same question: is there a belonging that tells your wartime story? In most cases, I asked the question in reverse. Can I discover the Second World War story of a deceased person through an object they owned?

The stories I was told came together as my new book, My Grandfather’s Knife. I’m sometimes asked why I decided to write a book about objects and the Second World War. The reason is that the topic landed on my lap. Or, rather, it came through the post. It’s a story worth telling (and what follows is an extract from the first chapter that does so).

My grandfather kept a knife with a swastika on the wall in his basement. When I was small, he took me down to see it, and it frightened me. It hung cold from its hook, surrounded by other weapons the veteran had collected or inherited. There was the riding crop and sword of my great- great-grandfather, a colonel from the Boer War. The colonel’s sword was imbued with positive feelings: the material was bright and shiny and silver, and I had read enough fairy tales to want a sword.

But, even at the age of 6 or 7, I knew to distrust the knife in its scabbard. I did not have the words then – nor really now – to describe its negativity. Was it the silver eagle’s head, decorated with carved feathers? That it was bolted with a layer of bone – human? – below the elaborately carved hilt of laurels? Was it the scabbard, of worn leather, for the ferocious blade that had brushed against some trouser leg?

When my grandfather took it down from the wall and unsheathed it, the knife made an efficient sound – a slide and a click. This was so unlike the elegantly resounding ring of the colonel’s sword. And when he lowered it into my hands, I looked into the blank eye of the eagle. I examined all the Xs carved into the silver of its hilt. I turned it over, fascinated with the insignia of the eagle, wings spread, also wreathed with laurel leaves, all surmounting the swastika.

My grandfather told me that he had liberated the knife as a captain in the Canadian forces in 1944 or 1945 in the Netherlands. My father told me a different story – perhaps to protect me – which was that he ‘found it in the mud somewhere’. At that age, the word ‘liberate’ was a positive one. I did not for a moment think that it could be a euphemism for capturing or killing the enemy.

Many years later – after my studies and time spent living in many places, with possessions scattered between college storage, my parents’ house, and lockers in Cambridge, New York, Nottingham, Vancouver, and Edmonton – I settled down and ended up living in the capital of my grandfather’s enemy. I have been living among the defeated in Berlin for more than a decade now.

My grandfather died in 2005, and I never paid much attention to his will, except for a couple of details: he left me both my great-great-grand-father’s sword and his Nazi knife. The sword was outside normal baggage restrictions (it’s still in my parents’ basement and I wonder if I should transport it with golf clubs one day). But the Nazi knife had vanished; no one knew what had happened to it. ‘Thank goodness,’ my aunt told me. ‘It was so horrific. Stuff like that should just disappear.’

A few years ago, my family shipped many of my books to me in Berlin. Surrounded by boxes in a new apartment, I started to go through the stacks of historical tomes. It was then, at the bottom of one box, that I was surprised to find a long object wrapped in a cloth. I unpacked it and – to my horror – discovered that my grandfather’s Nazi knife had somehow slipped through German customs and ended up back in the fatherland.

Nazi symbols are, of course, illegal in Germany. I was lucky that the knife had not been discovered during a customs search. I shivered at the idea of a metal detector passing over what was declared as a box of books and documents. But I also felt helpless, and exposed, holding this object from a villainous regime, in the country that had murdered so many of its citizens. I honestly went to pieces, not knowing what to do with it: whether to turn it in to a museum or to call the police, or to hide it deep somewhere in my apartment, under a floorboard, or else try to destroy it somehow. Because the knife, which had merely been terrifying back in Canada, had a completely different set of meanings in the country that had produced and used it.

I could not risk sending the knife back to Canada through customs. But I wondered if it could stay in Germany either – a country haunted by its past, where almost any object emblazoned with a swastika causes panic and ends up being put away. I remember how it was only with a great deal of fuss that the German Historical Museum finally exhibited everyday objects – such as a Nazi doll’s house and SS action figures sporting tiny swastikas – in their collection. They were afraid that visitors including, at worst, neo-Nazis on pilgrimage, would tell their own stories about these objects instead of the carefully researched ones of historians. If the knife went to a museum, it would end up in a crate in the basement, not used as a tool for examining the barbarity of the regime’s executors.

With the knife in my hands, I was stuck. Would I be reduced to taking it out at dinner parties to horrify my German guests? Or had the knife followed me to Germany for a purpose? Had my grandfather left me this knife so it could find its way back to the continent where he had fought? Nonsense: a good historian would rubbish this kind of superstition. Rather, the knife provided me not just with an opportunity, but with an imperative to tell its story and justify its presence.

Perhaps I could, too, learn something, as a descendant of the victorious powers. In Berlin, they tell the story of war differently than we do in Canada or Britain, where we are often uncritically patriotic about the deaths of so many men who were too young to die. Perhaps the ugly object would speak in the absence of the man who owned it: it would tell me a darker story about a loved one I had only ever known as sweet and gentle.

The obstacle was that I had almost no context to understand the object. I did not know why it was made, who owned it, who used it, against whom – all I knew was that it was German and vaguely represented to me the evils of the Nazi regime. The object should be a key, but to what door?

The object itself did provide clues: the crosses etched into the silver by some hand, perhaps a death count. Engraved letters and numbers: ‘S.Sch. II.421.’ crossed out and replaced with ‘47’; ‘W80’ stamped on the skinny edge of the blade; the crest ‘ACS’ adorning the image of a weighted scale and then, on the obverse, the name of the person who had made the blade, ‘Alexander Coppel’; the name of the city of Solingen. There was, too, the knife’s model, which I imagined was one of many.

Apart from these physical clues on the knife – archaeological evidence – there was what my grandfather might have told me: information about the battle in which he captured it from the Nazis. I might still find details in his military file, the regimental war diary, the twenty-minute recording he left of his memories.

I imagined discovering two journeys, the knife and a young soldier moving inexorably towards one another. I expected fascination in the detective work. History is usually presented as conclusions, sparing the reader hypotheses, wrong turns, revisions, and fudges. The historian shows the front of the rug to the reader, neatly sewn up, not the messy back with the knots and corrections. The back of a rug is more interesting.

Charting the knife’s journey would require a visit to the company that produced the knife in Solingen; an understanding of the history of the knife’s iconography; an explanation of the etchings on the object itself. From these, I hoped to find out how it came to be in the Netherlands. My grandfather’s journey to the knife would be a war narrative focusing on that country where he found the knife and where it had been used. The stories, naturally, interwove. I hoped that the journeys would speak to and illuminate one another, like colours in a single woven fabric.

Letters, numbers, code, documents – but would they be enough? Could a whole story be told with so little? Seventy-five years had passed since my grandfather had ‘liberated’ the knife. Who was left who could make the object speak and tell its story?

Or could the knife tell its own story after all?

By Joseph Pearson

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