Are you sure you want to know? That’s the question my mother asked me when I started researching her father’s war past. She was concerned I might learn of things I rather hadn’t known. Luckily for me, my grandfather hadn’t any skeletons in his closet from that time. The same question popped back into my mind yesterday when I was watching an episode of the Dutch version of Who Do You Think You Are?.
Dutch celebrity Jan Jaap van der Wal researched his great-grandfather’s war past, after having heard stories that he had to go into hiding at the end of 1942. During his research, the picture he was forming about his great-grandfather began to show something very different than what he’d always thought. Documents started showing a pro-German attitude and even a possible desire to join the SS. Luckily, this story had a ‘happy’ ending, when his great-grandfather stood up against the Germans, refusing to help them capture Jews, which ended with him having to go into hiding as an arrest warrant was put out for him as well.
What this showed is that family stories can be quite different from reality, especially when it’s about things like actions in a war. Once you start researching, you might learn things about your ancestors you rather hadn’t known. But once you begin to get the first inklings that something is wrong, it is already too late to stop.
So what’s a researcher to do? Keep on digging, even if there’s a possibility you might not like what you find? And what do you do with such information if you do find something you wish you didn’t know?