Building Bridges

  • December 31, 2014
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Gert: January 1, 2010

Building Bridges Between Incompatible Spaces

The magazine of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, my favorite daily newspaper, recently carried a long and fascinating interview with two famous Jewish-German writers: Henryk M. Broder and Maxim Biller. The interview is a kind of intellectual fighting match, full of humour, wit, and irony, focussing on their work, their roles and identities, and their relationship (which hardly seems to exist). I know Broder better than Biller, he regularly comments on politics and culture in Germany, often harshly, yet almost never boring.

In this interview, Broder mentions that he had once been friends with the son of a bad Nazi criminal. The “funny thing” about their relationship, Broder says, was that his non-Jewish German friend had ablutomania (obsessional washing) and he had asthma (Broder’s father had survived Auschwitz.): “There we faced each other. I was gasping for air with my aerosol, and he was constantly on his way to the bathroom to wash his hands. That his father had been a Nazi criminal had not harmed our friendship (SZ Magazin, 50/2009, p. 18).” Biller responds that he could not be friends with such a person, because it was impossible to separate a human being from his history. He would either feel unnerved by that person’s urge to compensate, or he would suspect that he secretly harboured thoughts similar to his father’s.

This exchange made me think why you trust me. As I know from Motherland (your book about your first trip to Germany, the original home of your mother), you had been quite skeptical about my country; but you also relate positive experiences. And when you returned to Germany with you mother in 2006 for a lecture tour which my wife and I together with old friends of yours and new friends of ours had arranged for you, you told me that you had found a different Germany, much more open and more willing to face its evil past. Of course, since then the trust has also grown through our correspondence.

Currently, I am reading a new book by Alexandra Senfft: Fremder Feind, so nah: Begegnungen mit Palästinensern und Israelis, Hamburg 2009 (something like Enemies, Unknown and yet so Close: Exchanges with Israelis and Palestinians). Ms. Senfft is an orientalist and a journalist, who has worked for the German Bundestag and for the UN. She is also a granddaughter of Hanns Ludin, Hitler’s representative in Slovakia, who was responsible for the deportation and annihilation of the Slovak Jews and was hanged in 1947. In her first book, Schweigen tut weh (Silence Hurts), she describes the difficult and torn life of her mother (she finally burnt to death in a steaming-hot bathtub), the eldest daughter of Hanns Ludin, who knew that something had been wrong with her beloved father but did not or could not openly challenge the family secret.

Alexandra Senfft participated in the late Dan Bar-On’s workshops on reconciliation, which were based on the willingness to tell one’s life’s story and to listen to the stories of others: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians, and people from other nations. She now uses this method in her own work and in her interviews with Israelis and Palestinians who work for peace in the Middle East, several of them jointly, whatever their own bad experiences either from the Holocaust or the conflict in the region. She is friends with Yizhar Be’er, a former director of B’Tselem, the famous Israeli human rights organization. (Yizhar Be’er’s mother survived Auschwitz.) Of course, their life stories, the stories of their families, were very different indeed, and yet there were some parallels, she says. A lot of things would never be compatible, yet they had built a bridge between them, where they could meet again and again and exchange views and experiences. Then she quotes Yizhar Be’er: “The past is strongly present, even if we don’t think about it or deny it. Instinctively, I have passed on my mother’s experience to my own children. They suffer as third generation, without knowing it, and they will make their imprint on the next generation. Many Israelis still carry the legacy of the Holocaust in them and even today feel like refugees (pp. 182-183).” And she adds that we Germans also have generational transmissions. The experiences of World War II had still not been fully worked through, and many people still denied their relatives’ complicity in the murder of the Jews. Even today, denial, complicity and shame subtly affected our society.

In the course of our dialogue, I will tell you many stories about that.

Fern 12/30/09

During our initial discussions about collaboratively writing this blog, you weren’t sure you wanted to participate. At one point you wrote to me, “And the offspring of the offenders should not take on guilt for which they are not responsible…So I need to find out whether I really want to join the new blog project, and learn to say no to you, if I don’t, without feeling guilty.”

I was surprised that you continue to feel so guilty, that it would be a factor in writing this blog, that you felt you couldn’t say no to me simply because I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.

I want you to be my friend without guilt. In fact, I replied to you, “You are not guilty!”

I strongly disagree with Biller’s statement that he could not be friends with such a person because he cannot separate a human being from his history. In fact, it seems critical to me that we separate a human being from his history; it’s important to understand how history shaped that person, but that history alone doesn’t define the individual.

Interestingly, after my mother read Motherland, she asked for only one change. In the book, I had quoted my mother’s old friend, Mina, as saying, “Some of your classmates were Nazis.” Then Mina named names. When my mother read the book, she asked me to change the quote to say, “Some of your classmates’ parents were Nazis.” My mother said that the classmates were only 12 years old at the time and they should not be identified that way. My mother was trying to separate the individual from the history.

To do that, we must build Alexandra Senfft’s bridge between us, where we can meet again and again and exchange views and experience. This blog is that bridge.


Gert Krell  01/15/2010

I was moved very much but what you said; it goes to the heart of my personal legacy of the Nazi era and the holocaust. Of course, I am completely innocent legally, as innocent as a baby born after the collapse of the “Third Reich” and the liberation of the survivors in the camps could be. Politically and psychologically, the situation is much different.

Let’s begin with politics. Ever since I had watched Erwin Leiser’s “Mein Kampf” as a pupil, I knew what had happened. This documentary was the best “re-education” I could have. So start from scratch, learn about and condemn what the Nazis had done, become a good demo­crat and an anti-racist, work for peace, reconciliation, human rights. One of the problems is that this also meant you had to distance yourself from your parents, at least to some extent and in very many cases. I have friends, who did that literally. One of my room-mates from student years had left his home when he was 17 and from then on lived on his own, without any support from his father, whom he literally fled, because he wouldn’t give up his Nazism. (To­day, he is, by the way, married to a Jewish-American.) My wife’s best friend also cancelled any relationship to her father since he left the family and divorced her mother with three children, because he also was an unrepentant Nazi.

I remember scenes in a workshop with children of survivors and perpetrators, when several Germans, whose fathers had been severe Nazi criminals, desperately tried to establish at least some connection. The therapist gave them three chairs to address: one with the Nazi criminal, the second with the harsh and authoritarian father, and the third with his loving side. (Even bad criminals have this loving human part in them.) Only after these scenes could Michael, a Jewish-German who was born in Israel but had gone back to Germany with his family, because his father missed his old “Heimat” so much, begin to relate to us non-Jews in the group.

We wanted to be different, as different as possible from the Nazi generation, our parents, and in the end we believed we were. Unfortunately, you cannot change the mentality and psy­chology of a whole nation just like changing a shirt. There are strong subtle psychological currents underneath which bind even those to the past who are seemingly moving in a completely opposite direction. Take the Red Army Faction, who fought against the “Fascist” Bundesrepublik Deutschland, which was said to turn a new “Auschwitz” on them. Their vocabulary seemed to have changed radically, but their attitude towards other human beings was not much different from that of the Nazis. You can also find disturbing continuities in their anti-Semitism, which they disguised under an anti-American and anti-Israeli anti-imperi­alism.

Well, that was the drastic variant of the legacy for my generation. I was luckier in many ways. My parents had been true believers and youth and student activists, and my father probably spied on his colleagues for the party, but they had not been involved in the war and as far as I know not committed serious crimes. And they both repented. (How and to what extent is an interesting story. At this point, I only want to remind you that my parents divorced and my father left the family, when I was five.) I also left the 68 movement, before parts of it turned violent. Even then, I had to do a lot of working-through the past, and not just on the intellect­ual level.

We weren’t guilty, but we grew up in a country full to the brim with guilt, probably more than any other in history. And we discovered that those who were responsible for the crimes or at least implicated in them, often did not accept that guilt. So in a way the guilt was “floating around”, and many in my generation took a small part of it upon themselves. This can be dan­gerous in several ways, and it is not as generous as it may seem at first glance.


Fern Schumer Chapman

You and other German friends of your generation have said to me: “You are fortunate; you don’t have to wonder about your parent, and in turn, yourself. She did nothing wrong. She was a victim. But I am the child of a perpetrator and I must ask myself, if he or she could commit those crimes, then who am I?”

We, as children of survivors, have all the complications of being raised by parents who were defined and scarred by devastating traumas. While some of your peers terminated your relationships with parents because you could not accept who they were and what they did, some of my peers distanced themselves from their parents because they could not maintain a relationship with such a needy parent. We have been cast in the role of filling our parents’ unmet needs and, when we determine that those needs are unrealistic, we feel guilty for saving and protecting ourselves.

Both children of survivors and perpetrators seem to struggle psychologically with similar parent/child issues. We have difficulty individuating from our parents. Individuation, as de­fined by C.G. Jung, is a process of psychological differentiation, having for its goal the de­velopment of the individual personality.

“In general, it is the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated,’’ Jung wrote. “In particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the general, collective psychology.”

What is different about our experiences is that few of my friends were raised by survivors, even though I lived in a community that had one of the largest survivor communities in the country — 8,000 of the 60,000 residents were Holocaust survivors. The experience of being raised by the child of a survivor, especially an escapee, was unique and alienating. I couldn’t understand my mother and I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about the experience. In addition, because she never spoke of her past, I didn’t really understand the depth of her pain and why she behaved as she did.

I imagine growing up in a country brimming with guilt defined you and your generation’s self concept and identity as Germans. It is a broad stamp upon an entire nation and it is unique to the Holocaust.


Gert Krell, 01/20/2010

I sometimes think that both sides could only face the reality of what they had done or what they had suffered in stages. Could Israel with the biggest Jewish survivor community have grown and built up the country, if they had focussed on the pains of the holocaust in the years after the war and the 1950’s? Could the Germans as a nation have survived and rebuilt the country, if they had really faced all the crimes they had committed already in the very early years? (Quite a few dedicated Nazis and common people committed suicide towards the end of the war, when they discovered or had to admit what Germany had wrought and/or feared the revenge.)

Your mother wanted to protect herself from the pain of her losses, the loss of her parents, of her home and of her youth; that’s why she did not talk about her past. Maybe she also wanted to protect you; because if she almost could not bear it as an adult, how might you – as a child?

We both know that negation and repression don’t work in the long run, certainly not for us, but we are also in a much better situation. As for me, I had the chance to grow up in a demo­cracy, and to educate myself politically; to be sure, it was a political education in the shadow of the Nazi past, but I grew up in a (relatively) free society, not under the propaganda of a nationalist and racist dictatorship. I have made my own detours and mistakes, but I can still learn and grow. Let me tell you a little more about this learning process, and come to the de­tours and mistakes later:

As I told you, my political education about the Nazis seriously began with Erwin Leiser’s “Mein Kampf” of 1960 (I was 15 then), a mix of documentation and commentary about Hit­ler’s rise, foreign policy, the war and the mass crimes. (Erwin Leiser, born 1923 in Berlin, emigrated to Sweden in 1938. He returned to Germany after the war and made several import­ant films about the Nazi era.) I was deeply shocked, disturbed, and moved. Even today I re­member some of the scenes from the film: the collections of human “material”, the mountains of emaciated corpses, the liberation of a KZ, the German cities in ruins. At the beginning of the film, columns of German soldiers march confidently to the front with the original propa­ganda comments mentioning the various regions from which they come: “woher kommst Du, Soldat?” (where are you coming from, soldier), “aus dem Frankenland”, “und Du?”, “aus Schlesien”, and so on. Towards the end Leiser would use the same original commentary for columns of exhausted and wounded German prisoners of war marching into POW camps. And I remember a series of portrait photographs with the comment: this person now belonged to the “Volksgemeinschaft”, this one also, this one not, and so on. It was an easy and quick lesson in the absurdity of Nazi racism, you had no idea what the criteria might have been by looking at the photos. It was obvious that most of the big Nazis in no way looked near the ideal type of the “Nordic race”; many of them were quite ugly in fact. Nor could you say why the others had been marked unfit.

Later, as a student, I would read widely on the Nazi era, the mechanisms of terror, continuities and discontinuities in German foreign policy in the 19th and 20th centuries, and on the theo­ries of fascism. In spite of my many and various responsibilities in peace research and as a university professor, which were not primarily related to the Nazi past and the continuities reaching into post-war Germany, dealing with it, working through it, wanting to know about it has remained an important part of my intellectual, emotional and professional identity. Being “responsible” Germans in this sense is one of the strong bonds (among others) towards my wife, who has learned much more about Jewish culture than I have – I have read more about the German-Jewish symbiosis, about Zionism, Israel and the Middle East conflict –, and a bond to many of our friends as well.

When I asked my elder daughter one day whether I could borrow her mini-disk, because I wanted to do some interviews for a book, she immediately knew that it would be a book about the Nazi past, “my parents’ number one topic”, as she added with a slightly ironical smile. One day we need to talk about our own children and “our past”. My daughters have much greater distance to the Nazi era, historically as well as psychologically. Not to be a Nazi is so self-evident to them, a kind of second nature, that they don’t deal with the past often and certainly do not feel the need to atone for it.


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