Reinhard Dinkelmeyer, born in 1937 in a small German town to Lutheran parents who neither joined the Nazis nor actively opposed them, faced the tense audience gathered at the Jewish Community Building last Sunday morning and greeted them with an acknowledgement of “our terrible past.”
“Auschwitz,” said the director of the Goethe Institute, “remains entrusted to us, it belongs to us just as does the rest of our history.”
Entrusted to those who perpetrated the Holocaust, to those who suffered through it and survived, to those who live after it--and owned by no one. That much became evident in the course of the emotional, provocative and often-volatile two-day symposium of children of the Holocaust perpetrators and survivors.
From the start it became apparent that the Holocaust, never a static event frozen in history, is a catastrophe that continues to cause new problems, disturbing relationships in a generation that was not alive at the time, paradoxically offering hope and despair, shame and inspiration for the present and future.
Although it was unique that Germans and Jews were coming together to discuss this issue, there were times when it seemed irrelevant that the Germans were present--so profound were the disagreements among Jews on the subject. Are some Jews exploiting the Holocaust for money and politics and is it time to say “enough already,” one speaker asked? Are the Germans guilty as a nation into the present generation or as individuals? How different or damaged are Jewish children of survivors? Is it blasphemy to make art of the Holocaust? What lessons are to be learned?
“Shadows of the Holocaust: Reflections by the American and European Postwar Generation,” was jointly sponsored here by the Goethe Institute, a worldwide German cultural organization, and the Jewish Federation Council’s Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust. It was occasioned by the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, Nov. 9, 1938, now regarded as the official start of the Holocaust--Hitler’s systematic destruction of European Jews and others undesirable to the Third Reich--in which 6 million Jews were exterminated.
The intent was to focus on the literary, cinematic and historical work on the Holocaust and create a dialogue among the children of survivors and the children of the perpetrators. But while the panels proceeded as scheduled before the audience of several hundred, what resulted was often a dynamic that took off on its own. It was, in the words of Michael Nutkiewicz, director of the Martyrs Memorial, a combination of “high passion and high intellect.”
Less than one hour into the first panel, “Pain, guilt and rage: Have we moved beyond?” Menachem Rosensaft hijacked the discussion into uncharted territory.
Born in 1948 to survivors of Auschwitz, he is president of the Labor Zionist Alliance, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and the man who organized the 1985 protest at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during President Ronald Reagan’s controversial visit there, followed by his wreath-laying activities with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at Bitburg Cemetery, where Nazi soldiers were buried.
“I suggest we are at a stage where a re-evaluation is in order. We have reached a stage today where there is a general use--a complete exploitation and abuse of the memory of the Holocaust for cynical and immoral purposes. I suppose it started with Menachem Begin raising the memory of the Holocaust every time a hand pistol was sold to an Arab anywhere. It gave carte blanche to this country,” Rosensaft said, deploring the use on fund-raising posters of the famous picture of the little boy with hands raised over his head in the Warsaw ghetto.
He went on to criticize the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles for “bad taste” in featuring Kohl, whom he referred to as “the architect of Bitburg,” as keynote speaker at an upcoming fund-raising dinner in New York in honor of Nazi hunter Wiesenthal’s 80th birthday.
Rosensaft’s remarks were received with scattered applause and cries of “Absolutely,” “Yes,” while others jeered.
(Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, calling Kohl a friend of Israel, later said, “Mr. Wiesenthal enthusiastically endorsed the idea. It was his idea. Chancellor Kohl said he would like to make an important statement on the meaning of (Wiesenthal’s) life work. We do not believe a respected world leader who wants to make an important statement regarding the work of Simon Wiesenthal should be placed in eternal quarantine for a bad mistake he made.”
Of the center, Hier added, “We were at Bitburg (protesting the visit). We were in the first line of demonstrators. . . . We protested. We were not quiet.”)
No sooner had Rosensaft provoked debate Sunday morning than Peter Sichrovsky, an Austrian Jew born in 1947 who now lives in Vienna, stepped to the podium and took an equally controversial stand.
The author of “Strangers in Their Own Land: Young Jews in Austria and Germany Today” and “Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families,” he had earlier told of learning much about World War I in school. His grandfather had been a hero in that war, a military officer, he said, adding that many Austrian Jews had joined the fight.
“I think,” he had said earlier of the Austrians and Germans, Jews among them, “we destroyed two generations of young Italians in that war. What if an Italian said to me, “look what you did...” I’d say, ‘Listen, that was (70) years ago. I had nothing to do with it.’ ”
The audience had listened in silence when he had made his point, not objecting openly when he had said, “We shouldn’t make the mistake of pushing them (German children) to feel guilty. They should accept the history. It’s part of the history of their families.”
Now, however, when he returned to the podium, he asked with some impatience: “What do you say to someone (a German) who tells you their father was killed at Stalingrad? ‘It’s your fault?’ ” His tone indicated how preposterous he regarded such a remark.
“Exactly, exactly” someone shouted in disagreement.
Another man rose from his seat and shouted: “I suffered from every German. Not from individuals.”
Suddenly, the room was brought to a stunned and pained silence when a young woman rose, already in tears, barely able to put her anguish into words.
“My grandfather was a Nazi,” Lisa Alden, 22, said. “The only picture of him I ever saw was one my father kept hidden in a chest. He is in uniform, with medals on his chest, shaking hands with Hitler. All of you with your disagreements and passion, you are beginning to bring a healing in my life my family cannot offer.”
Later, Harry Kagan, 79, a survivor from Poland who lost all his family, sat with Alden. “Look, you don’t feel bad about it, " he almost crooned to her, then said, “Here, hold me hand.”
In general, it seemed that most who were present were frustrated, still; some were almost undone. There is no adequate place or person, nothing big enough or accountable enough, to accept the blame and rage that endures. Some of the more predictable, but no less emotional or controversial, presentations demonstrated the constant struggle.
Doerte Von Westernhagen, author of “The Children of the Perpetrators” a book prompted by her own identity as the child of a SS officer she never knew, came from Stuttgart to read her paper in uncertain English.
Her generation attempted desperately not to become like their parents, she said, and in the process of evasion avoided common knowledge, the fact that parents profoundly affect young children.
Paranoid relationships have ensued into the third generation of Germans, she said. Parents blamed the leaders and made themselves into victims. Children felt a responsibility to help reestablish the shattered self-esteem of their parents. There was a dangerous feeling that the children themselves would become persecutors, she said, “aware of the existential threat their questions (about the Holocaust) posed.”
The next day, Israeli playwright Nava Semel would echo this eerily, revealing the power she felt as a child in possession of the one code word that the silence about the past had told her she could not use in front of her mother: “Auschwitz.”
For German children like herself, Von Westernhagen said, the dilemma was that “in order to preserve our self-esteem shouldn’t we have despised (our parents)? And yet, they are our parents. Shouldn’t we love them?.”
Having delivered her rather scholarly paper, she looked up red-eyed and summed up rather helplessly the results of her confrontation with her family, her past and her country: “It has changed me. That it has made me a better person, I do not believe.”
Pierre Sauvage, a documentary film maker whose “Through the Weapons of the Spirit” recounts the French village where 5,000 Jews, among them Sauvage’s parents, had been saved by the townspeople, discarded his formal remarks because his father, a French journalist, died just last week.
Sauvage described his difficulties and estrangement with his father. His Judaism and his work with the Holocaust did not have his father’s blessing.
“I was raised as a nothing,” he said, explaining that he grew up in New York not knowing he was a child of survivors, and as a young man off to study in France, his parents sat him down and told him he was a Jew.
“Weapons of the Spirit,” he said, “is the work of a rebellious child.”
He was not alone in his rebellion, it seems, and many of the survivors in the room seemed to regard the work of the second generation in that light. No one came in for more questioning than Art Speigelman, born 1948, who has used the comic book format for his book on the Holocaust, “Maus,” in which Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are swine. Much of it, he said, derives from how he dealt with his relationship with his father.
Many Felt Offended
Many survivors in the room took him to task, saying he offended them, one disgusted man telling him he ought to be ashamed of himself for making a joke of the Holocaust. Speigelman tried in vain to convince him he was serious. One survivor, Anna Fischer, started to ask a question about the comics, “Can’t there be a certain point when out of respect for those of us still alive, during our lives . . .” and then broke off in consternation, asking Speigelman to everyone’s amusement: “Did your mother appreciate your comic books?”
To those who would place the Holocaust beyond art, fearing blasphemy or trivialization, survivor Paul Kijzer had a long-range perspective. “Art is a synthesis of contradictions,” he said, and the Holocaust as it happened and as it persists is full of human contradictions. “Is not the art,” he asked, “not only inspired by it but actually how it will be carried from one generation to another in a way all serious people want us to carry it?”
The question that pervaded all of the symposium was: What to make of the Holocaust? Never did panelists and audience seem more in agreement than when Helen Epstein, an American journalist whose “Children of the Holocaust” first documented the second generation, gave her answer.
“We have to teach the value of personal interception,” Epstein, a child of Czech survivors, said. “Whether it is in response to seeing a mugging. Whether it is about reacting to a racist remark. This is the basic lesson children have to be taught.”