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.



  1. Vey moving post. I think it is important that we talk to ourselves about the holocaust.

  2. Thank you Outlier, I think you are right, to ourselves and to our children.

  3. This is moving and I am sad to read that it is the way you feel amongst your german friends.

    Not talking about a subject does not mean it is forgotten. It might just mean that one does not know how to approach the subject with a jewish person, how to handle it and there is the knowledge that nothing can be done to 'make it better'. What do you say to someone whose family and friends were killed by your family and friends. "I am sorry" is not enough. Nothing is enough. By talking about it one fears to open up a gap that can not be bridged.

    As a german I have been growing up with this horrible history of my nation. We do remember. The holocaust movies, long discussions at school and even visited a concentration camp and left horrified about what our grandparents have done. It left me with a feeling of guilt towards the jewish people and anger about my nationality. It took me a long time to accept and laugh about some of my not so funny german traits.

    I am not the only one who feels like this - a lot of people my generation do. School uniform, scout groups and any groups with loud leaders still give me goose bumbs and while widely accepted in other countries it is not so often seen in Germany.

    I don't know how young germans feel about the holocaust now - but discussions about why and how people were able to kill so merciless are still plentiful and movies such as 'Die Welle' 'The boy in the striped pyjama' created a lot of discussions around this subject. But not with jewish people - because what do you say to them?

    As in your example with your friends conversation this becomes obvious. There is an 'us' and 'them' as much for you as for your friend. In his awkward way he tried to say that he feels bad about what happened but you are as wrapped up in your sorrow as he is in his guilt. So be assured that germans have their thoughts about the holocaust as well and have moved on as much as you have done.

    It would have been nice to say to him the first thougths coming into your mind.

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    I am so grateful to you for responding. I completely understand what you are saying.
    I hope I can be helpful here.

    You ask:" What can we say to the jewish people?"
    In my experience, I wasn’t looking for an explanation. I wanted acknowledgment.

    The Holocaust was not the act of one person. It was a million refusals to see Jews as equal bearers of the endless, edgeless force that animates all life.

    My father-in-law, for example, tells of looting an underwear shop in Silesia during Kristallnacht. When he told me, he remembered the fun he had that night. Instead, I wanted him to say that he realizes how wrong it was to steal that bra for his mother. I wanted to hear him wonder how frightening it must have been for the owner of the shop he looted.

    I wanted the family members who told me my husband's uncle was in the SS, to say that yes, Hans had participated in a monstrous act. I wanted them to say that he had sent people to the Death Camps, however kindly he did or didn’t speak to those people.

    I wanted my friend to say yes his grandfather had been in the SS and although his grandfather never spoke about the exact details of what he did, his membership in the SS means he had participated in a monstrous crime.

    With that acknowledgement, I can move on. Then I can say those first thoughts that I wanted to say that night in Schliersee to my friend.

    To get to true dialogue, both sides have to be courageous, to hold back their feelings of blame and shame and to see that we are all essentially compassionate, loving and wise. It takes a leap of faith.

    Thank you for helping me understand that.
    With gratitude

  5. Dear Janine
    thanks for that converstation. I suppose it is always hard for murder to share the shame and sorrow with others. They/we have to life with their 'Tat' and have no relief of their remorse ever.

    Oh by the way there is a word "Judenvergasung" and we use it when we discuss the Holocaust - Holocaust is a word I did not know until that movie. "Judenvergasung" was what our grandparents did and in our school we were taught how horrible it was, that it is something we have to be responsible for that it should never happen again. I acknowledge that my nation did horrible things. I acknowledge that my nation started a horrible war and followed that horrible Hitler in his destructive path. I am proud that there have been germans that fought in the background, I am proud that my grandmother hit and fed a jewish family in the forest before they got away. I acknowledge that my grandfather was involved in the war and killed and got captured.

    I am thankful for your blog - I discussed the subject with my children. They are of mixed nation and their grandfather (fathers side) got killed by germans while he was executing a bomb attack in Germany that left my mother homeless. Now they celebrate all those anzac days through school. For them all those feelings are removed and they simply look at the "Judenvergasung' as a horrible part of a history that should never be repeated. They grow up as children that hopefully understand to not take part in something that does not feel right

    And in the long run I hope they will be loving and wise to all creatures of the earth, brown or white or yellow.

    All the best.