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April 1996

Making Peace with the Past: Should Germans still do time for the Holocaust?

A look at the meeting of One by One, an organization that pairs the children of Holocaust survivors with the children of Nazi officials

March 6. Marienplatz. A bandstand banner at an SPD party rally reads, "München 2002: Stadt mit Lebensqualität. Sicher - Sozial - Tolerant" (The city with a high quality of life. Safe. Socially responsible. Tolerant). Behind the bandstand and just under the Glockenspiel waves a banner advertising a Jewish history exhibit at the Galerie im Rathaus. Daylife in Munich, one-time Hauptstadt of National Socialism, is superimposed on something that won't just go away - something to do with the undoing of age-old cultures under the Third Reich. A German and a Jewish history. Just underneath the well-groomed surface of Thomas Mann's 'shining city'. So the old paradigms are out of date: good and evil, victim and victimizer, Jew and German. Everyone is innocent. And everyone is responsible, -sort of. Fifty years after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, cadres of German and American Baby Boomers are organizing '70s-style encounter groups to talk about their mutual Holocaust and Third Reich inheritances. Meanwhile, Munich's Generation X thinks it's time to move on; for them, the Holocaust is history. Despite differences in age and Zeitgeist, two post-war generations have one thing in common. Even the youngest and most dispassionate of Munich's twenty-somethings will admit to an impaired national identity. "If I said I was proud to be German, I would sound like a Nazi," says Daniel Birkner, a 19-year-old Oskar-von-Miller Gymnasium student. In February of this year, a group of 22 adult children of Holocaust survivors and Third Reich descendants met in Berlin to face each other and wrestle with a 50-year backlog of anger, fear and grief. One by One is the Massachusetts-based organization that brought them together for nine days of "dialogue sessions." Healing the Holocaust is not just a matter of time, says Natalie Fasolt, 44, vice president of One by One and one of its most ardent advocates. It's a matter of effort. "The aftermath of a totalitarian system doesn't just disappear in a few years," she says. Fasolt's father was an officer in the Wehrmacht but not a Nazi party member. According to Fasolt, the war didn't end in 1945. Within the childhood homes of today's forty-somethings, the Third Reich lived on. Their parents felt guilty for participating-passively or actively-in horrendous crimes, then passed this guilt on to their children, undiluted, in the form of lost innocence. "It doesn't matter if you came from a family of resisters, perpetrators or victims," says Fasolt. "We all know how easily corruptible people are." Fasolt has devoted the last 10 years of her life to healing what she describes as the Holocaust's wounds-shame, a sense of powerlessness, and a feeling of being cut off from the rest of humanity. When asked why she's given so much to her country's history, her response is practiced, the passion and pain close to the surface. "Evil is in all of us," she says. "If only evil people did bad things, we'd have a very safe world. This is not just about Germany." The Holocaust began long before the gas chambers were built, Fasolt continues. It began when people were permitted to objectify other human beings with "harmless" racial epithets and jokes. "Nigger. Kike. Spic," Fasolt says, intending to shock. "We've all said these things. We've all heard them. We all have to watch what we say and think." One by One tries to cut through the years of denial on both sides of the Holocaust by getting beyond the anonymous photos of SS soldiers marching seriously through German streets, and beyond the numbers tattooed on concentration camp prisoners' emaciated arms. One by One tries to make history personal. At the Berlin conference, participants went to synagogue and church together, listened to Klezmer, heard the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, and, most important, talked. They start by talking about their parents; then they talk about the Holocaust's effect on their own lives. Participants might find that despite Germany's reparations, politically correct textbooks, and a slew of Holocaust memorials and good intentions, the stereotype that Germans are evil persists like Original Sin. Carole Vogel, a Jewish American participant in the Berlin meeting and a writer, says she studied German intensively before she left home. That way, she figured, if she got lost in Berlin, she could save herself from certain death by "understanding what the evil-doers were saying" about her. Her parents emigrated to New York in 1938 but lost most of their families to the Holocaust. "I'd always thought Germans were monsters," Vogel says. "But on a one-on-one basis, I realized that they're actually human." Though Vogel, 44, describes the Berlin meeting as "life-changing"-she finally saw beyond the wall of Jewish rage against Germany-her anger still runs deep and, it seems, at the expense of German dignity. She laughs as she describes the nervousness of German One by One participants waiting in the Berlin airport for her and other Jewish Americans. And she laughs as she describes herself upbraiding a German participant whose Waffen-SS father was stationed in Vienna in the late 1930s. The German woman's father had claimed not to know what was happening to Jews under Hitler. "Nazis forced my relatives to scrub the streets of Vienna on their knees," she says. "You'd have to be blind, deaf and tied to a chair not to know what was happening and to do nothing about it. I was so angry at her that she would protect her father's memory like that." The persistence of Jewish fear and anger against Germany is neither unwarranted nor surprising, but it has become part of a worldwide self-righteousness that insists German history begins and ends with Hitler. And this stereotype, particularly popular in the U.S., makes the next generation of Germans-twens, twenty-somethings or Generation X-doubly distance themselves from their country's history. "In school, we talk about the Holocaust again and again," says Katharina Probst, 24. "Young people begin to think, 'Okay, it should never happen again but, hell, we didn't lead that war.' They get bored with the whole thing." Katharina is the granddaughter of Christoph Probst, who was beheaded in 1943 for his political activities against the Nazi regime; he was a member of the White Rose movement at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU). Twenty-something Münchener defend themselves from the accusing gaze of the world in a host of ways that evince ambivalence. They tend not to know what their grandparents were doing under the Third Reich; they resent years of schooling that wouldn't stop talking about Germany's crimes against humanity. They pedantically intone that it should never happen again. Yet they say it all has nothing to do with them personally. "Young people in general don't want to know about their family's history under Hitler," says Markus Söder, 29 and, as head of the CSU Junge Union, the youngest member of the Bavarian parliament. "This is a potentially dangerous attitude because young people can make political movements very powerful." Despite rigorous schooling on the Holocaust, even well-educated twens can hold reactionary and willfully ignorant opinions about Germany under the Third Reich. "Udo," a 27-year-old engineer in Munich, for example, claims that the number of Jews sent to what he calls "work camps" during World War II is unknown; he also believes the number who died there is unknown. "It's possible," he concludes, "that Nazis weren't responsible for the deaths of so many Jews." More than anything, Munich's twenty-somethings want to move on, either at the expense of historical accuracy or at the cost of their national pride. In fact, most of them won't admit to being proud of their country and are critical of the kind of highly public patriotism Americans take for granted. "National pride leads to extremism," says Karsten Krämer, a journalism student at LMU. "It's bullshit, wherever you find it-an invention of weak people." Rather than the virulent patriotism that Nazis and neo-Nazis indulged in, Munich's younger generation neither suffers from nor embraces nationalism. "That I'm German is a fact, like my being female," says Anna Rosmus, 35, author and subject of the 1990 film "Das schreckliche Mädchen" ("The Nasty Girl"), the story of her discovery that Passau (her hometown) actively supported Hitler. "I'm not proud or ashamed of it. I'm an individual first." Fasolt thinks the solution to what she describes as Germany's "wounded national identity" is for Germans, including Munich's twens, to own their past. "Then we can discover what's unique about ourselves as individuals. Then, we can live our own lives," she says. While groups like One by One might suggest that young German's personal remove from history connotes denial or a lack of healing, this sounds like little more than an aging generation complaining about the inadequacy of its replacement. And Munich's new generation bristles under the weight of their predecessor's paternalistic vigilance. Young people need facts-which German schools amply provide-not "dialogue groups," says Katharina Probst. "For us, the Holocaust is not personal, and it isn't about guilt or grief anymore," she says. If Munich's twens won't take responsibility for what their grandparents did during World War II-and perhaps they shouldn't-and if they're neither proud to be German nor interested in talking about the Holocaust, exactly what are they willing to do? "Our responsibility is to make sure it never happens again," says Probst, emphatically. ONE by One by Natalie Fasolt In February of 1993, I participated in a conference that brought together descendants of Holocaust survivors and descendants of the Third Reich. The five days we spent together engaged in dialogue proved a transforming experience for all of us, and inspired us to create an organization that would initiate similar dialogue groups in the future. This past February, four members of our initial group facilitated a first meeting in Berlin that brought together 22 people from both sides. Most of the children of Holocaust survivors came from the United States, and some of them had parents whose families had lived in Berlin for many generations. Although I cannot speak for the participants, my impression was that the dialogue concept seemed to have the same impact on them that it had originally had on us, and which inspired us to call our organization One by One. We had not come together to "forgive and forget." Rather, we wanted to understand the aftermath, the "history in us" that all of us carry, and the responsibility we have as a generation born in the shadow of the biggest cataclysm in human history, which changed our concept of humanity forever. In the United States the term "witnessing" is common; this is exactly what we are doing. No one has altogether escaped the fallout of the dehumanization that took place during the Third Reich; and the only way to reverse this dehumanization, which is transmitted from generation to generation, is by personalizing it, one on one, one by one. It is in the individual stories of individual people that we understand how history gets transmitted. For us Germans, this also means recognizing how blind spots, insensitivities, and collective repression have affected the way we deal with our own lives, continuing a historical period that is amply discussed on a theoretical level, but usually avoided or ignored on the personal level of individual families. For me, the act of listening to personal histories transformed a black-and-white photograph into a tangible reality. It also confirmed my belief that when one human being dehumanizes another human being, both lose their innate sense of humanity, and this defective sense of humanity gets transmitted to the next generation, whether this is admitted or not. "Abstraction is memory's most ardent enemy," says Judith Miller in her book One By One, and she continues: "It kills because it encourages distance, and often indifference. We must remind ourselves that the Holocaust was not six million. It was one, plus one, plus one... . Only in understanding that... can the Holocaust, the incomprehensible, be given meaning." Having attended many group meetings in which we continued our "storytelling," including our Berlin meeting, I believe that this does not only hold true for the past, but also for the present. After hearing the stories of children of survivors, and of perpetrators, bystanders and resisters, after telling my own story and being heard, I have come to see the truth of C.G. Jung's statement, "Only what is conscious can be changed, what remains in the unconscious never changes." The process of listening has helped me identify the blind spots that I inherited, while, as I establish personal friendships with children of survivors and hear about their parents' and their own experiences, it has become impossible for me to "let the past be the past." Rather, it has given me a sense of my own responsibility, on a very personal level, to identify and, perhaps, to check similar patterns in the present. We are beginning to establish similar groups here in Germany: a Berlin group is already in existence, and we hope to start a chapter in Munich in the near future. Born and raised in Bonn, Natalie Fasolt now lives in New York and Munich. Her article, "An Unsettling Matter", about the effects of German reunification on her generation, appeared in MUNICH FOUND in October 1991.

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