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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 asmall number of American Jews to gain intensive, personal, and honest exposureto the condition of Jews in Germany today. Credit for the idea and for thearrangements goes to the German Consulate of New England. It was sponsored bythe press office of the German federal government. The many excellent scholarsand experts with whom we met were chosen without bias and without the control ofthe German government. There were seven participants. Each of us is a memberof one of the three German/Jewish Dialogue groups in the Boston area. EachDialogue comprises about fifteen to thirty people, perhaps half of whom attendeach monthly, evening meeting to discuss issues of interest to Germans and toJews, such as the Holocaust, South Africa, racism, fascism, etc.
My fellow Dialogue members had chosen me to be one of its two representatives tothe Berlin meeting because I had been in the Dialogue for two years and becauseof my involvement in two other groups. I am one of eighteen or nineteenparticipants in an encounter group created and facilitated by Professor DanBar-On, Chairperson of the Department of Behavioural Sciences of Ben GurionUniversity of the Negev. Most of us are children either of Jewish Holocaustsurvivors (or escapees) or of Nazi perpetrator fathers (mostly of moderate orhigh rank). The participants had all been carefully screened beforehand, to behonest, informed and thoughtful. We come from Israel, from Germany, and fromthe U.S., and have encountered each other so far in four four-day intensivemeetings over the past three years in those three countries. Stemming from thatgroup, a similar encounter group met in Vienna in July 1995, organized andfacilitated by me and composed of children of Austrian Holocaust Jewish escapeesand children of Austrian Nazi perpetrators (mostly of moderate responsibility).
These were not designed to be traditionally therapeutic groups; rather, theywere structured to be genuine and straightforward encounters among interestedand concerned people who stemmed from both sides of perhaps the world's greatesttrauma. The meetings are emotional, intellectual, incisive, constructive, andethical 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 ofconcentration-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 atAuschwitz and Goerlitz.
The Berlin seminar was packed with meetings and coordinated very effectively byDr. Eckart Stratenschulte, Director of the Europaeische Akademie Berlin, atwhich we lived and sometimes met. The exposure was very intense, substantive,fascinating, open, and honest. All of us felt that Dr. Stratenschulte and theAkademie were superb.
In the middle of this seminar, I left for three days because of a priorcommitment 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 threehundred people to whom I spoke came from over twenty countries, but especiallyfrom France, the U.S., and Canada. The organizers and participants were bright,motivated, positive, and energetic. I spoke about both Holocaust encountergroups and the prospect of creating encounters between children of victims andof victimizers generally. Indeed, there now exists a non-profit, charitablecorporation 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 thesix-seat, first-class compartment, a polite and initially reserved conversationbegan with a stranger. She and I sat facing each other, next to the window, theother four seats in the compartment remaining empty. She looked about fiftyyears old but I later calculated her age to be fifty-seven or so. Her skin waspale white and slightly moist, her hair wavy and dull brown but well-kempt, hercontour lean, and her bearing modestly confident. She was conservatively (evenboringly) dressed. All in all, her appearance was entirely inconspicuous. Sheseemed harmless.
Her English was good and far better than my barely existent German. She is agymnasium (high school) history teacher in Germany. Revealing her curiosity,she asked almost immediately what I, an American, had been doing in that area ofPoland. 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 aJew too. I mistook her "too" not to be in reference to the others at themeetings, but rather to herself. So, I answered affirmatively and confirmed ifshe were Jewish. Taken aback, she replied sternly, "no."
Within moments, she asked if I "as a Jew" would be interested in learningopenly, honestly, and anonymously "from a German what the great majority ofGermans really think about Jews and Germany today." Her tone was serious butanimated, even a bit driven. She seemed clear and intelligent. It would haveseemed to me an unfortunate mistake for one to miss such a rare opportunity bysimply capitulating to one's natural and primitive tendencies to argue with heror to bias the impending exposure with one's feelings or reactions. So, Ianswered "yes" and determined at that moment to listen fully, openly, andhonestly, without censure or even the subtlest of negativity in my gesture orfacial expression, to everything she had to offer.
"Germany is for Germans, not for Jews," she began. However, her alreadypowerful words were promptly interrupted by the entrance of a Polish trainconductor into our compartment. It soon became clear that she needed to payeleven more Zlotys in fare to him. She had only Marks but he refused toexchange currencies for her. Their stalemate was obviated by my intervention:knowing very well the generosity it would demonstrate, I deliberately handed atwenty-Zloty bill to him and told her that she need not recompense me. She wascaught off guard and momentarily stupefied by such kindness from a Jew-a Jew whoobviously knew that he was about to be informed of strong and negative feelingsabout Jews from her (a German).
She continued by opining confidently that most Germans are fearful of being openand honest about their thoughts and feelings because of their own country's lawsrestricting free speech regarding Jews, Nazis, concentration camps, etc. To doso would be to risk imprisonment, perhaps for years. She said that she hadyearned for years to come anonymously across a "reasonable Jew" so that shecould explain the feelings of "most Germans," and she related her hope thatother "reasonable Jews" might hear of it from me. At that early point in ourconversation, it was already clear that her orientation was that ethnic Germansare the victims and that the German government and Jews are the perpetrators!Her confidence and orientation were both reminiscent of the Nazis of the earlyto middle thirties. Of course, the whole discussion reminded me of The JewishProblem 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 usedample time to review carefully and compulsively every word and phrase in thenext three paragraphs, changing words, moving sentences around, etc., until sheapproved 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 approvedrepresentation of her beliefs as expressed in voluntary discussion:
Germany should be for Germans, for a small number of persecuted foreigners, andfor Jews whose families had been here in former times; other foreigners here inGermany should remain with foreign status; it is impossible for Germany to begradually changed into a multicultural society; the great majority of Germansresent deeply the fact that Germany is becoming involved with all sorts offoreigners, especially extra-European races; Germany is dependent upon Americaand Jews; the German government now favors foreigners and Jews and disfavorsGermans; and, Jews in Germany today hope to take advantage of and profit fromthe multicultural chaos here and also to hide in it so as to avoidconfrontation.
On relations between the Germans and the Jews: the laws against free speech inGermany regarding the Holocaust and the Nazi era are unethical and themselvesencourage anti-Semitism; the non-native Jews should remain in Germany as guests,along with other foreigners, and not seek revenge; German officials who feelotherwise are wrong, and those who simply say otherwise are dishonest cowardsand hypocrites; the relationship between Jews and Germans is much worse now thanit had been just after the war; after the war, most younger Germans (excludingthe older Nazis remaining) had been ready to reconcile with Jews in an honestway; the Jews don't know their borders; the Jews perceived the readiness of theGermans for reconciliation as weakness; the Jews exaggerated their reparationsclaims 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 thewar; the Hanover memorial to the Jews is a disgrace; we Germans feel it isshameful of the Jews to treat their dead as wares by garnering financial gainfrom them; the concept of "collective guilt" is pure nonsense-guilt can be onlypersonal; the culminating point of all this is that the Holocaust has becometaboo for discussion in several important European countries; there existsresearch from a man named Leuchter, from an institute in Krakow, and from achemist named Germa Rudolf (pseudonym Ernst Gauss) that indicates that thepresumed gas chambers had never contacted gas, but that they had simply beencrematoria for people who had died of typhus; gas chambers existed in Auschwitzbut only for the purpose of insecticide disinfection of clothes; the majority ofintelligent Germans know about such research and the imprisonment of Mr. Rudolphis therefore absolutely unbearable for a normal-thinking, normally intelligentperson; to have put this young scientist into prison (sentenced without parole)rather than to have encouraged open discussion is to have regressed back intothe middle ages; and, the book he authored called ~Strittige Fragen derZeitgeschichte is forbidden and the book he edited called Unterricht inZeitgeschichte is banned.
This behavior ridicules the German government before the world, and it damagesthe appearance of the Jews in Germany and in the remainder of the world too. Itseems as if the German government and publicly visible Jews in Germany wish tomake anti-Semitism permanent. Anti-Semitism is encouraged and made stronger bythe 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 possibleexplanation.
I told her that I, as an American, find it easy to agree with her objection toinfringements 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 ofscientific evidence in any discussion (such as in this one regarding theHolocaust), just as in a court of law. I told her that although I respected herview in regard to herself, I do not live merely in a courtroom; as a person, oneis 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 seengas chambers in use as weapons of mass killing, I might chose to believe her orhis testimony even in the absence of photographic or of chemical documentation.The concept of a more personal approach to wider truth seemed entirely unknownbut attractive to her. It left her confused for a moment. Perhaps that is whyshe did not pursue my example with further questioning.
Also, I informed her that her "scientific" claims would be disputed by mostexperts. She replied that they would not include "real Germans," by which Ipresumed she meant non-Jewish, ethnic Germans. I told her that she happened tobe sitting "across from either the wrong or the right person"; I happened tohave 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 workin Germany! She asked why they do not publicly and very visibly talk or writeabout such discrepancies from the view "held by most Germans." I replied thatthey indeed did so often, and I offered to give to her their names and workphone numbers (public information). She was deeply impressed with theseriousness of my approach to her, and said so, and gratefully andenthusiastically 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 wasstill to meet back in Berlin:Why do you come to us? We know that you are not honest. Why don't you have thecourage 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 minimizeyourself in this way.
She also instructed me that Germany will recover Silesia in only about tenyears. I asked how that would be possible. She replied that it will happen forfour reasons: Silesia is German, Germany's economy and world position are fastrecovering, America is in an important financial decline that will lead itssignificance 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 wasrecently nixed by his girlfriend. When the two women spoke about it over thephone, 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 notionpreposterous to the mother. The ex-girlfriend answered that, among otherthings, she had seen him raise his arm to Heil Hitler. Surprised, the motherinsisted to her (and to me) that that simply could not be so, since neithermother nor son was a Nazi! For her, the image of her son in Heil to Hitler wasinconceivable. The ex-girlfriend remained unshakably steadfast and theirconversation ended without resolution. (The son will begin medical school inGermany this fall.)
Finally, she described Americans in occupied Germany in the period just afterthe war as "barbaric-even more barbaric than the Russians." She felt thatAmerican "barbarism" was subtle and largely hidden beneath the superficialwonderfulness of post-war respite, but nonetheless powerful, evil, andinsidious.
I was offended at four levels: as an American, as a Jew, as a child of Holocaustsurvivors, and primarily as a person. I was born in America, was a baseballlittle league all-star, attended public elementary and high schools and a stateuniversity, and have consulted professionally on patients (veterans) at theBoston V. A. Medical Center for over thirteen years. Although as an American Ifelt instantly hurt by her accusation, my emotional response to the bulk of hercommentary and even to her existence was deeper-more visceral.
Remember, I am the son of two survivors whose experiences were repeatedlyhorrid. In addition, my mother's parents and one brother, and my father'sparents, brother, sister, and wife, were all killed in ghettos or inconcentration, forced labor, or death camps. German and Austrian Nazis selectedJews per se for camps not by religious, political, or other social aspects, butrather by an intrinsic, immutable criterion: ethnic category at birth. Jewswere 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 theliquid feces from the diarrhea that so many had would not drip on one throughthe cracks between the wooden bunk boards (from the eight or nine people in anuncushioned 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, itis hard even to approach grasping the enormity of the evil in the camps-thebeatings, starvation, exposure, disease, rape, experimentation, etc. The campswere created and supervised, sometimes proudly, by German and by Austrian Nazis.Although I reacted with outward equanimity while we were together, my internalresponses as a child of survivors, as a Jew, and especially as a human, wereprofound 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 transmissionof 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 seemedsurreal 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. Sinceshe had finished her statement and since the computer was no longer in evidence,our conversation became more relaxed and less focused. She seemed comfortablewith and more trusting of me. We rambled briefly, coming to the topic oflanguage, and she asked if I speak any other languages. I answered that I speakYiddish. She was excitedly delighted to learn that, and asked me to speak a bitin Yiddish. I did so, and she understood me well because 80-85 per cent ofYiddish words are derived from the same parent language as is modern Germanvocabulary, Yiddish grammar is the same as that of Old German, and I endeavoredto avoid those 15-20 per cent of Yiddish words that originate from otherlanguages (Hebrew, Polish, French, etc.). So, for most of the cab ride, I spokeYiddish and she spoke German.
She was visibly moved when she realized how very close the language of thedecimated European Jews is to her beloved German. At the same time, I chose toelaborate upon the person to whom I had alluded, whom I have known for overforty 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 atAuschwitz, all of the Jewish barracks were already jammed full. However, the"Gypsy" barracks were empty since all the Roma and Sinti ("Gypsies") had alreadybeen killed earlier in the day. So, he and his train mates were billeted in"Gypsy" barracks instead of Jewish ones. Nine weeks later (a typicalAuschwitz-Birkenau "shelf-life"), when it came turn for his barrack's contentsto be killed and disposed of, a guard marched my father's whole barrack groupacross the camp and right up close to the gas chamber entrance. My father sawthe 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 Austrianrunning the gas chamber and the one who had marched the Jews there began adisagreement and later an argument over what to do with the Jews. The formerdid not want to deal with another round of gassing and then moving and burningdead bodies, etc., while the latter did not want to have to lead another marchacross the camp back to the barrack. My father and the others heard the disputewell. In the end, the one at the gas chamber won, and the other led my fatherand his barrack mates back. They spent that night believing all night long thatthey were to die in the morning. Coincidentally, very early the next morning,an envoy arrived from the Goerlitz forced labor camp to requisition slaves. Myfather 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 ofmy parents, and I also related simply that although fewer had been killed in mymother's immediate family than in my father's, her personal victimization hadbeen even more heinous than his.
I could see my taxi-partner's eyes riveted upon mine. In the end, she wastrembling, her eyes were turning pink, and her voice was quivering. Sheconfessed with anguish, frustration, and confusion, "Now I don't know what tobelieve!!" I calmed her a little by suggesting that she need not necessarilybelieve me, a man she had begun to trust over only the past several hours; onthe other hand, I offered that she also might not trust the biased sources shehad previously believed. Rather, I encouraged her to contact the Holocaustscholars 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 shewould indeed contact them. We shook hands and said "good-bye."
I discussed her, her words, her feelings, etc., with my colleagues and withthose with whom we met in Berlin. At first, most dismissed the experience asfluke and her as exceedingly rare. After all, most Germans who are urban, youngor middle-aged, bright, educated, and employed are certainly not racist,anti-Semitic, etc. Further, it is clear and important to note thatanti-Semitism is more ardent in Austria and is certainly not confined toGermanic countries. I had known all that before I went on this trip and it wasall confirmed during the Berlin meeting.
Over the next several days, however, the view of her and of the experiencechanged in Berlin. She (and her son) began to be thought of as one of animportant minority in Germany who are dangerous because they hold positions ofrespect and of influence, because they are often overlooked since they are notreadily identifiable (as are skinheads), because they are not rare, and becausethey could be of pivotal political power and peer-pressure utility should a moreconservative government arise. If such a governmental shift occurred, theycould function as liaison, providing reciprocal political, psychological, andconcrete support between that conservative government, neo-Nazis, and thegeneral German populace.
Time will tell.
C. Samson Munn, M.D.September 11, 1995
School of Medicine
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