Viewpoint — A Chance Dialogue with a Contemporary Nazi

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A Chance Dialogue with a Contemporary Nazi

by C. Samson Munn, M.D.

L ate August 1995, I took a train from Katowice (Poland) to Berlin. On it andbriefly afterward, I had a revealing and amazing seven-hour conversation. Tounderstand better the impact and significance of the experience, some contextwould help.

I had been attending a two-week seminar in Berlin. The purpose of it was for a small number of American Jews to gain intensive, personal, and honest exposure to the condition of Jews in Germany today. Credit for the idea and for the arrangements goes to the German Consulate of New England. It was sponsored by the press office of the German federal government. The many excellent scholars and experts with whom we met were chosen without bias and without the control of the German government. There were seven participants. Each of us is a member of one of the three German/Jewish Dialogue groups in the Boston area. Each Dialogue comprises about fifteen to thirty people, perhaps half of whom attend each monthly, evening meeting to discuss issues of interest to Germans and to Jews, such as the Holocaust, South Africa, racism, fascism, etc.

My fellow Dialogue members had chosen me to be one of its two representatives to the Berlin meeting because I had been in the Dialogue for two years and because of my involvement in two other groups. I am one of eighteen or nineteen participants in an encounter group created and facilitated by Professor Dan Bar-On, Chairperson of the Department of Behavioural Sciences of Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Most of us are children either of Jewish Holocaust survivors (or escapees) or of Nazi perpetrator fathers (mostly of moderate or high rank). The participants had all been carefully screened beforehand, to be honest, informed and thoughtful. We come from Israel, from Germany, and from the U.S., and have encountered each other so far in four four-day intensive meetings over the past three years in those three countries. Stemming from that group, a similar encounter group met in Vienna in July 1995, organized and facilitated by me and composed of children of Austrian Holocaust Jewish escapees and children of Austrian Nazi perpetrators (mostly of moderate responsibility).

These were not designed to be traditionally therapeutic groups; rather, they were structured to be genuine and straightforward encounters among interested and concerned people who stemmed from both sides of perhaps the world’s greatest trauma. The meetings are emotional, intellectual, incisive, constructive, and ethical on several levels. Naturally, in both of those groups, the “children”range in age from their late twenties to their middle sixties; I am forty-three.My parents are from Germany and Poland, and each is a survivor of concentration-death and forced labor camps. My mother had been at Auschwitz, Graeben (a division of Gross-Rosen) and Bergen-Belsen, and my father had been at Auschwitz and Goerlitz.

The Berlin seminar was packed with meetings and coordinated very effectively by Dr. Eckart Stratenschulte, Director of the Europaeische Akademie Berlin, at which we lived and sometimes met. The exposure was very intense, substantive, fascinating, open, and honest. All of us felt that Dr. Stratenschulte and the Akademie were superb.

In the middle of this seminar, I left for three days because of a prior commitment to speak at an international peace meeting at Auschwitz (Oswiecim,Poland). It was called “The Turning Point” and was created by A.C.C.International Institute, a non-profit organization headed in Paris. The three hundred people to whom I spoke came from over twenty countries, but especially from France, the U.S., and Canada. The organizers and participants were bright,motivated, positive, and energetic. I spoke about both Holocaust encounter groups and the prospect of creating encounters between children of victims and of victimizers generally. Indeed, there now exists a non-profit, charitable corporation the mission of which is to support just such encounters.(Tax-deductible donations may be sent to TRT, P. O. Box 183, Newton Centre MA02159-0002.)

I left Auschwitz on a train from nearby Katowice August 22nd. Upon entering the six-seat, first-class compartment, a polite and initially reserved conversation began with a stranger. She and I sat facing each other, next to the window, the other four seats in the compartment remaining empty. She looked about fifty years old but I later calculated her age to be fifty-seven or so. Her skin was pale white and slightly moist, her hair wavy and dull brown but well-kempt, her contour lean, and her bearing modestly confident. She was conservatively (even boringly) dressed. All in all, her appearance was entirely inconspicuous. She seemed harmless.

Her English was good and far better than my barely existent German. She is a gymnasium (high school) history teacher in Germany. Revealing her curiosity,she asked almost immediately what I, an American, had been doing in that area of Poland. I explained a little about the Auschwitz talk and the Berlin meeting,mentioning that some of the people at each were Jewish. She asked if I was a Jew too. I mistook her “too” not to be in reference to the others at the meetings, but rather to herself. So, I answered affirmatively and confirmed if she were Jewish. Taken aback, she replied sternly, “no.”

Within moments, she asked if I “as a Jew” would be interested in learning openly, honestly, and anonymously “from a German what the great majority of Germans really think about Jews and Germany today.” Her tone was serious but animated, even a bit driven. She seemed clear and intelligent. It would have seemed to me an unfortunate mistake for one to miss such a rare opportunity by simply capitulating to one’s natural and primitive tendencies to argue with her or to bias the impending exposure with one’s feelings or reactions. So, I answered “yes” and determined at that moment to listen fully, openly, and honestly, without censure or even the subtlest of negativity in my gesture or facial expression, to everything she had to offer.

“Germany is for Germans, not for Jews,” she began. However, her already powerful words were promptly interrupted by the entrance of a Polish train conductor into our compartment. It soon became clear that she needed to pay eleven more Zlotys in fare to him. She had only Marks but he refused to exchange currencies for her. Their stalemate was obviated by my intervention:knowing very well the generosity it would demonstrate, I deliberately handed a twenty-Zloty bill to him and told her that she need not recompense me. She was caught off guard and momentarily stupefied by such kindness from a Jew-a Jew who obviously knew that he was about to be informed of strong and negative feelings about Jews from her (a German).

She continued by opining confidently that most Germans are fearful of being open and honest about their thoughts and feelings because of their own country’s laws restricting free speech regarding Jews, Nazis, concentration camps, etc. To do so would be to risk imprisonment, perhaps for years. She said that she had yearned for years to come anonymously across a “reasonable Jew” so that she could explain the feelings of “most Germans,” and she related her hope that other “reasonable Jews” might hear of it from me. At that early point in our conversation, it was already clear that her orientation was that ethnic Germans are the victims and that the German government and Jews are the perpetrators! Her confidence and orientation were both reminiscent of the Nazis of the early to middle thirties. Of course, the whole discussion reminded me of The Jewish Problem as it was addressed in the thirties and forties by the Nazis.

We spoke mostly in English but occasionally in German. A few minutes after webegan, I asked her if she would mind if I were to pull out my notebook computerand to take notes. I assured her that she could take all of the next severalhours to get her feelings precisely as she wished into words in my computer.Happy to sense the depth of my interest, she agreed.

The following narrative is condensed from her spontaneous elaboration. She used ample time to review carefully and compulsively every word and phrase in the next three paragraphs, changing words, moving sentences around, etc., until she approved in a heartfelt and proud way. None of this was taken out of context;no other context existed! Thus, this is a full, accurate, and approved representation of her beliefs as expressed in voluntary discussion:

Germany should be for Germans, for a small number of persecuted foreigners, and for Jews whose families had been here in former times; other foreigners here in Germany should remain with foreign status; it is impossible for Germany to be gradually changed into a multicultural society; the great majority of Germans resent deeply the fact that Germany is becoming involved with all sorts of foreigners, especially extra-European races; Germany is dependent upon America and Jews; the German government now favors foreigners and Jews and disfavors Germans; and, Jews in Germany today hope to take advantage of and profit from the multicultural chaos here and also to hide in it so as to avoid confrontation.

On relations between the Germans and the Jews: the laws against free speech in Germany regarding the Holocaust and the Nazi era are unethical and themselves encourage anti-Semitism; the non-native Jews should remain in Germany as guests, along with other foreigners, and not seek revenge; German officials who feel otherwise are wrong, and those who simply say otherwise are dishonest cowards and hypocrites; the relationship between Jews and Germans is much worse now than it had been just after the war; after the war, most younger Germans (excluding the older Nazis remaining) had been ready to reconcile with Jews in an honest way; the Jews don’t know their borders; the Jews perceived the readiness of the Germans for reconciliation as weakness; the Jews exaggerated their reparations claims in a way which is unbearable for the German people; in contradistinction,nothing is ever made of the damage and harm done to German civilians during the war; the Hanover memorial to the Jews is a disgrace; we Germans feel it is shameful of the Jews to treat their dead as wares by garnering financial gain from them; the concept of “collective guilt” is pure nonsense-guilt can be only personal; the culminating point of all this is that the Holocaust has become taboo for discussion in several important European countries; there exists research from a man named Leuchter, from an institute in Krakow, and from a chemist named Germa Rudolf (pseudonym Ernst Gauss) that indicates that the presumed gas chambers had never contacted gas, but that they had simply been crematoria for people who had died of typhus; gas chambers existed in Auschwitz but only for the purpose of insecticide disinfection of clothes; the majority of intelligent Germans know about such research and the imprisonment of Mr. Rudolph is therefore absolutely unbearable for a normal-thinking, normally intelligent person; to have put this young scientist into prison (sentenced without parole) rather than to have encouraged open discussion is to have regressed back into the middle ages; and, the book he authored called ~Strittige Fragen derZeitgeschichte is forbidden and the book he edited called Unterricht in Zeitgeschichte is banned.

This behavior ridicules the German government before the world, and it damages the appearance of the Jews in Germany and in the remainder of the world too. It seems as if the German government and publicly visible Jews in Germany wish to make anti-Semitism permanent. Anti-Semitism is encouraged and made stronger by the restriction of free speech in regard to the Holocaust and the Jews. Official Germans who are devoted to Jews are in this regard imbeciles, neurotic, hypocrites, cowards, or without character-there is no other possible explanation.

I told her that I, as an American, find it easy to agree with her objection to infringements of free speech, such as those in Germany to which she referred. I did not then reveal specific disagreements I had with her comments, however.

Somewhere in the midst of our conversation, she cited the supreme value of scientific evidence in any discussion (such as in this one regarding the Holocaust), just as in a court of law. I told her that although I respected her view in regard to herself, I do not live merely in a courtroom; as a person, one is free to consider evidence differently and more personally than is a court.The example that I gave to her was that if I had (over more than forty years)come to know and to trust someone deeply, and if that person had personally seen gas chambers in use as weapons of mass killing, I might chose to believe her or his testimony even in the absence of photographic or of chemical documentation.The concept of a more personal approach to wider truth seemed entirely unknown but attractive to her. It left her confused for a moment. Perhaps that is why she did not pursue my example with further questioning.

Also, I informed her that her “scientific” claims would be disputed by most experts. She replied that they would not include “real Germans,” by which I presumed she meant non-Jewish, ethnic Germans. I told her that she happened to be sitting “across from either the wrong or the right person”; I happened to have with me in a computer folder the names of at least five Holocaust scholars,four of whom were Germans and not Jewish, and three of whom still live and work in Germany! She asked why they do not publicly and very visibly talk or write about such discrepancies from the view “held by most Germans.” I replied that they indeed did so often, and I offered to give to her their names and workphone numbers (public information). She was deeply impressed with the seriousness of my approach to her, and said so, and gratefully and enthusiastically accepted. I gave them to her right then.

She asked for my computer entry to end with these cautions and questions for meto pose to the remaining scholars, academics, diplomats, etc., with whom I was still to meet back in Berlin:Why do you come to us? We know that you are not honest. Why don’t you have the courage to say to us what you really think? Try to say what you really feel! We won’t harm you; don’t be anxious. It’s ridiculous to disgracefully minimize yourself in this way.

She also instructed me that Germany will recover Silesia in only about ten years. I asked how that would be possible. She replied that it will happen for four reasons: Silesia is German, Germany’s economy and world position are fast recovering, America is in an important financial decline that will lead its significance in the world nearly to vanish, and the Poles are so very stupid.

She related some personal anecdotes too. For instance, this woman’s son was recently nixed by his girlfriend. When the two women spoke about it over the phone, the ex-girlfriend said it was because she found his Nazism intolerable.The mother asked how she could possibly believe that he was a Nazi, a notion preposterous to the mother. The ex-girlfriend answered that, among other things, she had seen him raise his arm to Heil Hitler. Surprised, the mother insisted to her (and to me) that that simply could not be so, since neither mother nor son was a Nazi! For her, the image of her son in Heil to Hitler was inconceivable. The ex-girlfriend remained unshakably steadfast and their conversation ended without resolution. (The son will begin medical school in Germany this fall.)

Finally, she described Americans in occupied Germany in the period just after the war as “barbaric-even more barbaric than the Russians.” She felt that American “barbarism” was subtle and largely hidden beneath the superficial wonderfulness of post-war respite, but nonetheless powerful, evil, and insidious.

I was offended at four levels: as an American, as a Jew, as a child of Holocaust survivors, and primarily as a person. I was born in America, was a baseball little league all-star, attended public elementary and high schools and a state university, and have consulted professionally on patients (veterans) at the Boston V. A. Medical Center for over thirteen years. Although as an American I felt instantly hurt by her accusation, my emotional response to the bulk of her commentary and even to her existence was deeper-more visceral.

Remember, I am the son of two survivors whose experiences were repeatedly horrid. In addition, my mother’s parents and one brother, and my father’s parents, brother, sister, and wife, were all killed in ghettos or in concentration, forced labor, or death camps. German and Austrian Nazis selected Jews per se for camps not by religious, political, or other social aspects, but rather by an intrinsic, immutable criterion: ethnic category at birth. Jews were transported by the German railroad system in death-defying cattle cars,standing over-crowded for days or weeks without food, heat, water, fresh air,rest, or toilets. In the camps, a highest tier bunk was prized so that the liquid feces from the diarrhea that so many had would not drip on one through the cracks between the wooden bunk boards (from the eight or nine people in an uncushioned bunk above), but rather one’s own could flow downward and away. Forgive me that one, gruesome description; without at least one image of it, it is hard even to approach grasping the enormity of the evil in the camps-the beatings, starvation, exposure, disease, rape, experimentation, etc. The camps were created and supervised, sometimes proudly, by German and by Austrian Nazis. Although I reacted with outward equanimity while we were together, my internal responses as a child of survivors, as a Jew, and especially as a human, were profound and vacillated among various combinations of revulsion, hurt, hatred, angst, and pity.

Of course, I knew well of such importantly evil and pathetic thinking. Still,the facts that both mother and son will have been ensconced so well incontemporary German society are troubling for me. Also, simply the transmission of such words, especially in this modern time, especially on a German train, especially between Auschwitz and Berlin, and especially with me as recipient, created some sort of tense excitement and mild shock. The experience seemed surreal even as it was happening!

Our encounter extended beyond the train compartment, briefly into the Berlinmain train station and then into a fifteen or twenty minute taxi ride. Since she had finished her statement and since the computer was no longer in evidence,our conversation became more relaxed and less focused. She seemed comfortable with and more trusting of me. We rambled briefly, coming to the topic of language, and she asked if I speak any other languages. I answered that I speak Yiddish. She was excitedly delighted to learn that, and asked me to speak a bit in Yiddish. I did so, and she understood me well because 80-85 per cent of Yiddish words are derived from the same parent language as is modern German vocabulary, Yiddish grammar is the same as that of Old German, and I endeavored to avoid those 15-20 per cent of Yiddish words that originate from other languages (Hebrew, Polish, French, etc.). So, for most of the cab ride, I spoke Yiddish and she spoke German.

She was visibly moved when she realized how very close the language of the decimated European Jews is to her beloved German. At the same time, I chose to elaborate upon the person to whom I had alluded, whom I have known for over forty years and who had personally had seen well a gas chamber at Auschwitz(Birkenau) without himself being gassed-my father.

Speaking in Yiddish, I related that when my father’s train had arrived at Auschwitz, all of the Jewish barracks were already jammed full. However, the”Gypsy” barracks were empty since all the Roma and Sinti (“Gypsies”) had already been killed earlier in the day. So, he and his train mates were billeted in”Gypsy” barracks instead of Jewish ones. Nine weeks later (a typical Auschwitz-Birkenau “shelf-life”), when it came turn for his barrack’s contents to be killed and disposed of, a guard marched my father’s whole barrack group across the camp and right up close to the gas chamber entrance. My father saw the gas chamber very well. By chance, at the instant they were about to enter,the camp whistle blew indicating the end of the workday! The German or Austrian running the gas chamber and the one who had marched the Jews there began a disagreement and later an argument over what to do with the Jews. The former did not want to deal with another round of gassing and then moving and burning dead bodies, etc., while the latter did not want to have to lead another march across the camp back to the barrack. My father and the others heard the dispute well. In the end, the one at the gas chamber won, and the other led my father and his barrack mates back. They spent that night believing all night long that they were to die in the morning. Coincidentally, very early the next morning,an envoy arrived from the Goerlitz forced labor camp to requisition slaves. My father was among those sent.

I was still speaking Yiddish. She was in silent and deep attention to my everyword. I listed those many who had been killed in only the immediate families of my parents, and I also related simply that although fewer had been killed in my mother’s immediate family than in my father’s, her personal victimization had been even more heinous than his.

I could see my taxi-partner’s eyes riveted upon mine. In the end, she was trembling, her eyes were turning pink, and her voice was quivering. She confessed with anguish, frustration, and confusion, “Now I don’t know what to believe!!” I calmed her a little by suggesting that she need not necessarily believe me, a man she had begun to trust over only the past several hours; on the other hand, I offered that she also might not trust the biased sources she had previously believed. Rather, I encouraged her to contact the Holocaust scholars whose names and numbers I had given to her, all acknowledged experts,and to trust them. She thanked me warmly and gratefully, and said that she would indeed contact them. We shook hands and said “good-bye.”

I discussed her, her words, her feelings, etc., with my colleagues and with those with whom we met in Berlin. At first, most dismissed the experience as fluke and her as exceedingly rare. After all, most Germans who are urban, young or middle-aged, bright, educated, and employed are certainly not racist,anti-Semitic, etc. Further, it is clear and important to note that anti-Semitism is more ardent in Austria and is certainly not confined to Germanic countries. I had known all that before I went on this trip and it was all confirmed during the Berlin meeting.

Over the next several days, however, the view of her and of the experience changed in Berlin. She (and her son) began to be thought of as one of an important minority in Germany who are dangerous because they hold positions of respect and of influence, because they are often overlooked since they are not readily identifiable (as are skinheads), because they are not rare, and because they could be of pivotal political power and peer-pressure utility should a more conservative government arise. If such a governmental shift occurred, they could function as liaison, providing reciprocal political, psychological, and concrete support between that conservative government, neo-Nazis, and the general German populace.

Time will tell.

C. Samson Munn, M.D.

September 11, 1995

Assistant Professor
School of Medicine
Tufts University

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