November 01, 2017
by Albert Garih
Like many Jewish children who were victimized during World War II, I grew up hating the entire German people for the Holocaust. How could a nation commit such crimes as killing men, women, children, and elderly people and still look at other people in the eyes without being ashamed of themselves? How could they round up millions of Jews, Roma (Gypsies), slaves, homosexuals, and handicapped children and send them to gas chambers or perform experiments on twins, among others?
I am myself a twin, although my twin brother died before the war. What is it that enabled ordinary men to perform such atrocities on innocent victims? Indoctrination through propaganda is not reason enough for me to understand how a human being can become so dehumanized as to commit such crimes. For very good reasons, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does not try to answer that question because if there is an answer to that question, it must be given by God himself—no one else.
When Elie Wiesel was asked what question he would ask when facing his creator, he replied that it would be, “Why?” What the Museum tries to do is explain how the Holocaust happened. How is hatred ingrained in the minds of an entire people from infancy? How can a child turn from an innocent being into a fanatic young man so dehumanized as to kill a baby, an old woman, or another young man in cold blood with a bullet to the back of the head? How can a doctor who took the Hippocratic oath perform experiments on men, women, and children, thereby inflicting unbearable pain just for the sake of making them suffer?
Are such a people redeemable at all? That’s a question I have been asking myself ever since I was old enough to fathom the enormity of the Holocaust.
I don’t think I could ever forgive the perpetrators for what they did or allowed to be done. But, if forgiving the perpetrators is out of the question, must we extend the blame to their whole generation when they claim they did not know about or did not participate in the crimes? My answer is yes, because it is hard to believe that all those horrors could be committed without people living near the camps being aware of what was going on. It is true that some Germans stood up against the regime—people such as Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, and Claus von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators. But, that is not enough to absolve a whole generation of its crimes.
So much for the generation of the perpetrators. But, what about generations that came after? Must we blame the children of those monsters for the atrocities committed by their parents? I know that in the Bible, people must be punished up to the seventh generation. Should we be as intransigent? Maybe not, but perhaps we could expect some modesty on their part, an attitude of shame, for what their parents did.
I first encountered children of the perpetrators in the late 1950s while trying to perfect my English by going to international student farm camps in England—the only way I could afford to spend some time there. Those camps were full of students from all over Europe, including Swedes, Norwegians, Spaniards, and Germans.
As a French student, I was naturally more attracted to my Spanish counterparts than to the Northern Europeans, but one thing that struck me was the self-assurance of the Germans. They did not seem to be the least bit ashamed of what their parents had done only some 15 years earlier—they revealed not a speck of guilt or bad conscience but rather some arrogance and a feeling of superiority that made me feel quite uncomfortable, even angry.
A few years later, in the early 1960s—while I was still a student and still too poor to afford vacations abroad—I applied for a job as a tour guide based on my knowledge of English and Spanish (I had been a tour guide before, in Paris). But, the only offer I got was to accompany French tourists to Austria. There, I met and rubbed elbows with Austrians of all generations. When I would take my tourists in the evening to a weinstube (tavern), where we were drinking beer and singing, I could not help but wonder where all those people in their 40s and 50s had been 20 years earlier, and what they had been doing. I remember one big guy, about 40 years old, half drunk, singing next to me and calling me “mein Freund” [my friend]. I wondered how he would have treated me back then if he had known that I was Jewish. To this day, I feel only disgust and contempt for those people.
In 1978, after I had settled in the United States with my family, an American miniseries titled Holocaust aired on TV. It was later broadcast in Germany, and like the miniseries Roots—which dealt with slavery and which, one year earlier, had a profound impact on American viewers— Holocaust shocked young Germans. I also remember the 1990 movie titled The Nasty Girl, which was based on a true story about a young girl investigating her town’s Nazi past. Things were changing in Germany.
Twenty-five years ago, when Germany was still divided, skinheads killed a Turkish immigrant. Upset by the lack of response from the government, about 300,000 people staged a protest march in Bonn. This was definitely a new development in Germany: people showing solidarity for a foreign worker killed by young neo-Nazis.
Should we keep ostracizing this new generation that showed feelings for its fellow human beings? Are those people the same as their grandparents? Should we treat them with the same contempt as we feel for the perpetrators? Personally, I can’t.
A few months ago, as I was doing my tour of duty with the Museum’s Visitor Services, a German girl approached me and asked to talk to me. As usual, I was wearing my “Holocaust survivor” button. After following me to the donors desk, the girl explained that she had just completed her visit to the Museum and wanted to apologize to me for what her people had done to mine.
I was a little surprised and didn’t know what to say. So, I told her that while I appreciated her sympathy and feelings about what she had apparently just discovered at the Museum, I could not absolve the entire German people with her apology; I had no right to do that. But, that young German moved me, and I was once again convinced that if there is a collective guilt on the part of one people, it cannot be passed from one generation to the next—particularly if a new generation shows sincere shame and sorrow for what their grandparents had done.
That was what I wrote earlier this year. I have since done some thinking on this subject.
First, about collective guilt: I have a very dear friend, an Auschwitz survivor who is now more than 90 years old. He once wrote that he didn’t believe in collective guilt. He even married a German woman who has supported his efforts to educate people about the Holocaust. I thought a lot about his comment but came up with a different conclusion. I find it difficult to absolve anyone who belongs to the generation of the perpetrators or to believe they didn’t know what was going on in their own backyard. It is enough to look at photos in the Museum’s Permanent Exhibition to see the indifference of bystanders. Of course, there are always exceptions—such as Sophie Scholl and Claus von Stauffenberg—but they were too few to redeem a whole generation. Abraham begged God to spare Sodom and Gomorra if just ten righteous people could be found there, yet Abraham could not save those cities.
Two generations after the Holocaust, when the perpetrators’ grandchildren react to what they learned about their grandparents, should we feel toward them the way we felt toward the perpetrators? In the summer of 2013, I traveled to Berlin to find out how today’s Germans feel about the Holocaust, and I was quite impressed by what I saw. First of all, today’s Germany is a real democracy that doesn’t hesitate to denounce the excesses of totalitarian regimes wherever they are. The Germans keep fragments of the Berlin Wall with graffiti from other “walls” that must fall: Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-un, Robert Mugabe, and other dictators.
But, they don’t stop at other dictatorships. A museum exhibition there—Topography of Terror— describes in great detail the rise of the Nazis, the anti-Jewish laws, and World War II and the “Final Solution.” All around the city, you can see columns with photos of people who opposed the regime or were persecuted by it and chose to flee—people such as Fritz Lang, Bertolt Brecht, philosophers Hannah Arendt and Ernst Bloch, Marlene Dietrich, and others. A museum is dedicated to the late chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt, who, during the Nazi regime, fled to Norway and later to Sweden. The country had definitely changed and is today one of the world’s most vibrant democracies. So, although we should remain vigilant about the possibility that that dangerous period in German history might be resurrected, I think today’s Germany deserves some respect.
Correspondence between Albert Garih and Huberta von Voss-Wittig, wife of the German ambassador to the United States.
Reply from the German ambassador’s wife:
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Dear Mr. Garih,
Thank you very much for coming to our home for lunch on November 9th. It meant a lot to us that you were there.
I just wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I have read your article and thought it was very moving to read about your understandable feeling of hatred towards the German people and your big-hearted approval of the changes that have fortunately occurred in our country. It remains an important and defining task for many of us to remember and to assure that crimes against humanity will not be committed under Germany’s name again. I would hope that the growing time and distance [from the Holocaust] will not change that.
We are immensely grateful that the Jewish community is growing again, and I hope that Germans understand better that we did not only brutally destroy the lives of so many millions of human beings but also part of our very own German-Jewish identity—a rich history of 500 years with many good moments for which we should be grateful. Germany’s position would not have been thinkable without the crucial achievements of our Jewish citizens. I am glad that the Jewish Museum in Berlin is showcasing that so successfully, with millions of visitors since its opening.
I very much hope to see you again and send my husband’s and my warm regards.
Huberta von Voss-Wittig
My reply (November 19, 2014):
Dear Mrs. von Voss-Wittig,
Thank you so much for your kind reply to the paper I handed to the Ambassador on the occasion of our visit to your residence on November 9. As it came out [in] that paper, my feelings have deeply changed over time, going from deep hatred for the perpetrators, to contempt for the indifference of their children, and to appreciation for the change that appeared with the third generation, the generation of the grandchildren, who started to question the action or inaction of their grandparents. This is exactly what I experienced over the years as I traveled to Germany or otherwise met German people of these three generations.
Your invitation to meet with us was a wonderful opportunity for us to appreciate the deep changes that Germany has gone through, and I wish to thank you for acknowledging the contribution of German Jews to the history of your great country. I visited last year the Jewish Museum in Berlin, as well as the Jewish Memorial, the exhibit at Topography of Terror, and the Wannsee Conference museum. I could witness firsthand these changes, and this is why I took the liberty to hand my article to the Ambassador.
Please accept and convey to the Ambassador my warmest regards and deepest respect.
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