Thursday, 2 February 2012

Difficult conversations

The view from the house in Schliersee

We had had just eaten a delicious supper of trout and potatoes, followed by ice-cream followed by schnapps.

Everybody knew they wanted a kind of pear schnapps called "Willy" and truthfully it was delicious, served in ice cold little glasses with the edges at the bottom of the glass nicked out.

I find it hard to understand German in big groups of fast flowing dinner conversations. I miss the jokes mostly so I spent some time examining the bottom of the schnapps glass.

It was good to be with old friends again. Not much had changed in 26 years. We were all still with the same partners, and all still in the same professions. We were all still healthy and busy and I think I was the only one who dyed her rapidly greying hair. I was the only one who didn’t go to the Albert Einstein Gymnasium in a small town in South West Germany. I was the only one who didn’t speak German as a first language.
I was also the only one who was Jewish.

In the 26 years I knew them, we had never ever discussed it. In years of holidays together in Germany, in France, in Italy and once in New York, we had never ever discussed the subject.

In the years of coming to Schliersee and hanging out together, hiking and drinking and cooking and laughing and playing cards, we never discussed it.

Even when I went to visit Dachau, close by Schliersee, we never discussed it. It was a non-issue.
They knew I didn't eat pork and that was the end of it.
No one asked me anything about it, and I was glad to be accepted so completely by such kind, funny, loving, wonderful people.
So I was not expecting it when the subject finally came up.

We were all walking back to our hotel. We were full of good food and good will. I was talking to one of the group about his grandfather who had built the house in Schliersee that we always stayed in.

He told me his grandfather had been in the Waffen SS and that when he came back, he never spoke about what he saw and did. He built his house on the hill and lived in it alone for the rest of his life.

It was an awkward conversation. I didn't say what I really think which is there is not in reality an "us" and "them" and that we are all capable of evil actions and kind actions.

That we are all part of the collective whole of life, and that it is our responsibility to be kind, with whatever powers we have, to all forms of that life.

I didn't say any of that.  Instead I told him tearfully about my great-grandmother who was murdered alongside her son, her daughter-in-law and her grand-children in Riga in 1941.

I realized that while I have many thoughts about the Holocaust, the person I was speaking to, didn’t. The issue is not what we remember, but that we remember.

My people read Primo Levi, Martin Gilbert, Anne Frank, Victor Frankel and Elie Wiesel. We visit concentration camps in Germany and Poland. We build Holocaust museums. We teach it to our children. We remember the unspeakable.

It's in our cultural DNA to remember. We have in our history enemies we do not forget like Amalek, Haman and Pharaoh. 

In the shadow of the Holocaust, we are a people with post-traumatic stress disorder. We have all personally lost entire branches of our family or been raised by orphans from the Kindertransport or known survivors of the camps. 

Even far away, in South Africa, where I was raised, we were not unscathed. During the war, my grandfather received a telegram telling him his family had been murdered. My father still remembers the day the telegram came and his father’s cries of pain.

We have two names for it - the Shoah or the Holocaust. They have none. They call it Der Nazi Zeit. The Time of the Nazi's.

My husband's mother's brother was in the Waffen SS. I didn’t know about it until he died. He was based in Gurs concentration camp in France and had worked on the selection of Jews for transfer. When he was alive, I had often been in the same room as him and no one ever said a word about it.  It was never mentioned as if it wasn’t relevant that a man with a tattoo in his armpit, signifying his membership in a group whose function it was to carry out the Final Solution, was now happily chatting to a Jewish woman and her three Jewish children.

Here is poster I saw once in the area. It is advertising a memorial hour and the subhead says: 70 years since the deportation of the Jews of the Rhinlenand Palatinate to Gurs.

Gurs was the French holding station for the Jews of the Rhineland Palatinate before they were selected to be taken by train to Auschwitz and Sobibor, where they were gassed.
The poster says - they were deported. It does not say they were murdered. It tells the part of the story that is easier to tell.

Understandably, as a deeply shameful episode, the Holocaust is largely encapsulated and over as far as they’re concerned.

We are like a lesion that was removed from their body, and the body has healed with no sign of a scar. Our partners in crime have moved on.

It is not the same for us. 

But when we remember the Holocaust, we are talking to ourselves.