by Merle Hoffman
Iam a child of the holocaust, a survivor of sorts, a kind of surrogate sufferer. I have never smelled the burning flesh or felt the pain of my kidneys close to bursting -my legs turned to leadened fatigue as I stood crushed against others in the trains bound for Auschwitz or Treblinka or Dachau. I have never eaten out of the bowl I was forced to shit in, nor had my children torn out of my arms as I stood in an interminable line waiting for the selection process. Nor have I cowered in some corner clutching what was important to me, my mouth dry with terror as I listened for the sound of the S.S. boots outside my door, wondering if it was me they had finally come for. Nor have I felt the mounting panic of the bodies surrounding me as they struggled helplessly for air, gasping and gagging, tearing desperately at each other as the gas slowly entered the chambers.
No, I have not been there, yet it is always with me. I am a child of the holocaust, a survivor who was not personally threatened, yet cannot forget.
It comes to me at odd times. I remember once, a magnificent evening in the Islands, warm, sensuous breezes, a sky full of light, a smell of flowers and expectation, and suddenly I smelled the fires. Or, often in the midst of self-doubt and deep despair, I have stopped to step out of myself and wonder at my absolute gall for daring depression when I had survived, had escaped by the mere arbitrary factor of time and place of birth.
Strangely, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the holocaust -I can’t recall when I heard about it for the first time, it was just there -always. I do remember my teacher’s arm. How, one summer, when I came early for my weekly piano lesson and caught him unexpectedly in the garden without a shirt, I saw the numbers. Instinctively I knew I should riot have looked, should not have seen, but then I did. He caught my furtive, surprised glance, murmured something about being a part of the Resistance during the war, and it was never mentioned again.
And then there were my friends, children of the real survivors. The ones who had lost aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, mothers, friends. The survivors whose children had now become the one hope and the one light in the darkness of lost generations. These were the children upon whose shoulders salvation and guilt lay. The children who had to make up to everyone for everything, who lived in a particular paranoid reality that separated and branded them at the same time, who always seemed to be excusing themselves for having survivors for parents.
But I was not thinking of any of these things when I stood at the Wall. I had arrived in Berlin on New Year’s Day 1990. The night before there had been a massive joyous celebration -400,000 people dancing, drinking, awash with the heady joy of a newfound freedom and historical imperative. But that day there was only the routine of new tourists who had come as spiritual pilgrims to look, worship, laugh, touch and despise.
It was cold, gray and icy on the Kurfastendaam (the main thoroughfare), a kind of German Champs Elysee that separated both Berlins with two great monuments on either side, the Brandenburg Gate on the east and the Goddess of Peace on the west. At first it was difficult to make out the strange phallic structure with its gold forms, thrusting itself into the sky. Upon questioning my guide I was told this was the “Goddess of Peace” and those gold domed cylinders were to symbolize the weapons of the enemy taken in war. On top of the structure was the Goddess, a winged victory, an idealized woman granting her powers of fertility and nurture to the power and the glory of German militarism.
A strange parade it was that marched towards the Wall that day. Families, youths, foreigners, children sliding on the icy city streets, laughingly falling to the ground as their parents playfully scooped them up in their arms. Dogs too, pulling their owners towards the Wall which stood like some great fractured totem imposing and ridiculous at the same time. A massive concrete Rorschach test, changing definitions by the minute. And the sound of the chipping -the constant chipping away at the Wall. The entrepreneurs selling graffitied pieces for $3, the students ready to loan you a chisel for a few marks, the two East German soldiers standing on the top with slightly bemused smiles, as if they knew they would be part of everyone’s memory bank. And I, too, was swept away by the energy and the faces of joy and expectation around me. As I walked through the Brandenburg Gate, I was struck by the references to Gorbachev. The graffiti that read “Long live Gorby”; “Viva Gorby”. And the crosses -these were near the Reichstag -the Reichstag that was the centerpiece of the Nazi regime where the machinery, the bureaucracy of the Third Reich and the final solution was played out.
Behind the imposing buildings (there were seven of them) white wooden crosses were attached to a wire fence with a name or the word “anonymous”. These were the martyrs to German separation, those who were killed trying to cross over. The last death was in May, 1989, merely months before the falling of the Wall. I remember a conversation with a West German student who told me how surreal this separation had become. How he had been eating in a cafe when he heard someone had been shot trying to escape from the East. “You get used to it,” he said shrugging.
There is a special history here, one not often spoken of, of the martyrs of this place -of the Ghandi follower who was given a 13 month jail sentence for merely holding a sign that read “Freedom for the Political Prisoners.” Of the Indian, T.N. Zutshi, who traveled to East Berlin in March 1960 wearing a placard which read: “The first step toward freedom: Get rid of your fear and speak the truth!”
According to Zutshi, “At East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz Station, policemen tried to wrest my poster from me. There ensued a scuffle with the police, as hundreds of spectators looked on. I refused to be led away, clung to my poster and shouted my, slogan.” Zutshi’s action caused a sensation; he was released after five days of custody and interrogation. His courage, along with the tradition of creative non violence expressed by others, and the sacrifice of Pastor Oskar Bruesewitz who burned himself to death in front of the Church at Zeist in protest, moved me to a poignant rage.
The story is that upon reaching the square in front of the church, Bruesewitz unfolded the posters he brought along in his car and then proceeded to douse himself with gasoline. A group of people rushed forward with outstretched arms to extinguish the flames engulfing him. However, two policemen lunged immediately for the posters and removed them on the spot. To this day it is not known what was written on them, but they are rumored to have contained the phrase. “DO NOT CORRUPT THESE YOUNG PEOPLE.”
They are all my comrades. They are beyond nation, beyond nationalism. Yet, they are German. “German unity is a German question,” said Helmut Kohl in the NY Times. “There is a difference between understandable misgivings and fears and what is disguised as fear but is really economic jealousy.”
Disguised as fear? Repeated reports of the rise of anti Semitism in Germany and, increasingly, in Russia, belie the minimization of appropriate and understandable anxiety at the so called “German Question” -the issue of German reunification. A.M. Rosenthal, writing in his weekly NY Times column, “On My Mind”, says “I search through the endless newspaper columns about the German wave rolling toward unification, but I cannot find any of the words I am looking for.
“I cannot hear them in the drone of the experts mustered up for TV nor in the Sunday talk shows… These are some of the words: Auschwitz, Rotterdam, Polish untermenschen, Leningrad, slave labor, crematorium, Holocaust, Nazi.”
A German question? Rosenthal argues that “to keep the words hidden is to kill the murdered twice, this time with the forgetting mind.” Rosenthal, it seems, is also a survivor.
November 8, 1989 marked the 50 anniversary of the Nazi program known as Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass), a night when the white heat of fire mixed with the brilliance of the shattered glass of Jewish homes and shops to give prophetic form to the coming of the “FINAL SOLUTION.”
Fifty years later these fires still burn. Anti Semitism, as Eli Weisel has said, is a “light sleeper.” East Germany, which until very recently has never publicly accepted any responsibility for Nazi crimes, has spurned the growth of violent right wing activity. According to an article in the NY Times “hundreds of skinheads goose stepped through Leipzig shouting “Seig Heil” as they smashed windows and disrupted a regular weekly demonstration for German unity. Like Hitler’s brown shirts, the skinheads fought with bystanders shouting “To hell with the Jews.”
And, as the world watches the cataclysmic changes in the Soviet Union with bated breath and shouts of “Viva Gorby” fill the international air waves, thousands of Soviet Jews are attempting to escape the personal results of Glasnost. Reporter Joel Brinkley writes of fleeing Russian Jews who tell of “physical attacks against themselves, relatives or friends. One man said his brother had been murdered and thrown into the river, bound head and foot, just because he was a Jew.”
Will they come to America? According to a Mr. Eikel of Kiev, interviewed by the New York Observer in February, “I always felt anti Semitism in the Soviet Union, but I’ve also read that there’s anti Semitism in the United States.” Speaking of his decision to emigrate to Israel, Eikel states that “now I want to live in a country with Jews.”
Unfortunately, Eikel’s appraisal of anti-Semitism in the United States is correct. According to the Anti Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, “anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased 12 percent in 1989, reaching the highest level since the organization started keeping track 11 years ago. The greatest number of attacks occurred in New Jersey and New York.” (New York Observer) Oddly enough, Middlesex County, NJ seems to be a hotbed for growing anti-Jewish hatred. An anonymous advertisement appeared in the student newspaper at North Brunswick Township High School which read “The ovens are in the kitchen. Rope them up. I’m hungry and need a lampshade.”
It is not that the Nazi regime had a patent on anti-Semitism, not as if the roots of this ancient prejudice and scapegoating did not travel deep and wide into the past of most European nations, not as if the majority of the world’s population looked away when the first reports of the unbelievable parameters of the Holocaust began to leak into consciousness, not that the concept of collective guilt does not embrace all of us, but when analyzing and comparing the calculated evils of state initiated genocide, the Holocaust stands unparalled in human history. An event so unbearably evil that its remembrance is, in a sense, best left to the survivors, for even the best analytic, intellectual, philosophical or political attempts to explain it will fall hollow and short. Indeed, recent attempts to deny its existence is the most insidious form of what Rosenthal would call “killing the murdered twice.”
Yet look we must, hear the voices of the survivors, read the accounts of the camps, look at the numbers burned into flesh and remember, even if memory itself is an untrustworthy instrument. For it is just these memories that give form to the mirror that we must hold up to our souls. It is a reflection that should claim no ownership in human consciousness, yet it lives on in all hate inspired violence and racial prejudice.
“That’s the difficulty in these times. Ideas, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered. It’s a wonder I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet, I keep them because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.
“I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens I think it will come out all right and that peace and tranquility will return again.” Anne Frank -The Diary.
The consistent arguments for a speedy reunification of Germany are based on an expressed belief that a strong, economically powerful, unified fatherland (Germany), controlled by NATO and the Soviet Union, will indeed bring a kind of peace and tranquility to post World War II Germany. As the G.D.R. loses over 2,000 of its citizens daily to the West, and the Eastern economy crumbles, the political and economic necessity of a United Germany is being posited as both necessary and unstoppable.
Max Lerner of the NY Post writes that “If we could order history according to our memories of trauma, I would continue to fight against any further enhancement of the power of a Germany that gave us Adolf Hitler. Nothing can extirpate the fact of the Holocaust.” Patrick J. Buchanan, also writing for the NY Post, believes that “a strong, united, free Germany in the heart of Europe will be as great a triumph for America as a strong free Japan in the Far East.”
Buchanan also compares the treatment of the East Germans by the Allies t the end of the war with the annihilation of the Jews during the Holocaust. In this, Buchanan is a political comrade of Heidegger’s, who in response to a letter demanding that he be accountable for his support and reinforcement of Nazi ideology, wrote: “I can only add that instead of the “Jews” one should put “East Germans”, with the difference that everything that happened since 1945 is known to all the world, while the bloody terror of the Nazi reality was kept secret from the German people.”
Going even further in apologia for a new unified Germany, Henry Ashby Turner (NY Times, February 11, 1990) believes that fears of an economically powerful and militaristic Germany are for the most part unfounded.
“Some people think the Germans bear a hereditary taint that predisposes them to aggressive, even criminal, behaviors as a nation. Surely no one conversant with the record of humanity can seriously entertain the hackneyed notion of indelible national character.”
Perhaps not. Perhaps not an indelible national character, but if history teaches us anything it is the indelibility and undeniability of anti Semitism, a trait which goes beyond nation and national character, yet is, at the same time, ultimately expressed through both.
It also teaches us that each generation must struggle anew, and ofttimes start the process of remembrance again, if liberty and freedom are to be maintained. Indeed, since World War II our own country has witnessed great achievements in civil and human rights, while the last nine years under Reagan and Bush have shown us a precipitous slide backwards. Aided by a conservatively loaded Supreme Court, we have witnessed the roll back of both civil liberties and reproductive freedom.
Losing constitutional rights and privileges that we once thought to be sacrosanct has taught a new generation of Americans that there are no safe political harbors. Turner asks his readers, “How can Germans born since 1945 be held culpable for what happened before them?” Those in our own country who fight against any type of affirmative action program use just those types of arguments. Why, indeed, should I have to bear the burden of my ancestors 100 years ago who held .blacks as slaves?
Although each generation is, in a sense, a new beginning, we do not begin in a vacuum. We are all our parents children and have with us all the individual and collective societal baggage that attends it. Just as Americans must bear the burdens of a history that was tossed on the inhumanity of slavery, so must this generation of Germans deal with the reality of their past.
Children of killers are not killers. they are children,” according to Eli Weisel. I would only add that they have the responsibility of not forgetting that many of their parents, grandparents or other relatives were killers. :Otherwise, they must be sure not to fall in to that seductive, pervasive ease of spiritual and historical amnesia that seems to afflict so much of the German population.
Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved speaks eloquently to the issue of German responsibility: “Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all were responsible, but it must be just as clear that behind their responsibility stands that great majority of Germans who accepted in the beginning of mental laziness, myopic calculated stupidity and national pride the beautiful words’ of Corporal Hitler, followed him, were swept away by his ruin, afflicted by deaths, misery and remorse and rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.”
There is, of course, always the danger that by defining ultimate evil as German, we allow ourselves to pale in terms of our own individual responsibility. If the heart and head of the virus of anti Semitism rests on the Kurfurstendaam, then the trunk and the limbs spread worldwide.
To posit that the German youth of today bear no direct responsibility for the Second World War and the Holocaust is true, but to then deny them any moral responsibility for dealing with its residual effects is moral cowardice.
Anti Semitism may “sleep lightly” around the world, but it was in Germany that it awakened most fully. The children of the holocaust are everywhere.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.