Transforming guilt into understanding
As Germans and Austrians come to grips with the Holocaust’s meanings for Jews, they find themselves becoming isolated from their own people.
By Ernie Meyer
“The closer a German or Austrian comes to a real understanding of the Jews, the further removed he finds himself from his own society”, notes Ya’acov Lozowick
, project coordinator for Yad Vashem’s education department.
That was just one of several impressions participants had while taking a new course there on the Holocaust.
Juergen Stettler, a wine chemist from Stuttgart who participated in the first session, notes that he wrestled with German responsibility for the Holocaust. “The riddle grows, when I get home it will get worse.”
“The German memory of the Holocaust is very different from that of other Europeans or of Americans; since for Germans the Holocaust is much closer to home, it becomes, paradoxically, more remote and academic”, Lozowick says. “This is because it its potentially more threatening and dangerous for them.”
Although seminars on the Holocaust have been given by Yad Vashem in English, French, Spanish and even Russian for many years, the proposal for a 10-day seminar for Germans and Austrians in their language was only recently implemented. Opposition to the idea was considerable when the idea was first broached by Lozowick and others.
But Yad Vashem vice-chairman Reuven Dafny, who as a young soldier from mandatory Palestine parachuted into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, endorsed the course. He told Lozowick, 35, that there had been a certain emotional revulsion against the idea by some survivors on the institution’s advisory board.
The first course was held in July 1992; a second was completed in November. A third is scheduled for April, and a fourth is planned for October.
THE PARTICIPANTS’ written evaluations attest to the success of the first two courses. The 10 days of lectures and films prompted intense discussion about, for example, the responsibility of the entire German people for Nazi crimes, the role of the churches at the time, and post-war teaching of the Holocaust in German schools, Lozowick recalls.
“For months after the first course I got letters from participants and I had follow-up meetings with some of them in Germany and Austria. Our success consisted in reaching the students”, he says, adding that initial opposition by the Yad Vashem advisory board has dissipated.
Asked about the possible impact of the courses on neo-Nazism in Germany, Lozowick says: “They are not s [opinion-makers] but in letters from home many tell me that the course changed their world outlook.”
To some extent, the course was preaching to the already converted – people sufficiently motivated to come to Yad Vashem in the first place.
“Many Germans, even those without neo-Nazi tendencies, have no real understanding of what the Holocaust means for Jews”, he adds.
Bonn journalist Wolfgang Storz says: “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz. They know of their guilt, but don’t want to be reminded of it.” He thought there was little Israel could do about this. “Whatever you do will be wrong.”
The November course was distinguished by the presence of five participants from former East Germany. The first course had included 20 Germans and 10 Austrians. The proportion was similar in the second course. The courses were organized in conjunction with the Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism.
The Program included lectures on Nazi persecution of the Jews, relations between Jews and Christians after the Holocaust, antisemitism in Germany today, and the impact of the Holocaust on the Arab-Israel conflict. The lectures were rounded off by visits to Yad Vashem and Beth Hatefutsoth.
, mayor of a village in the Austrian Tyrol, says his neighbors thought he was crazy when he declared his co-responsibility for the Holocaust. “I once said I was glad Germany lost the war. I was not understood and called a Nestbeschmutzer, a bird that fouls its own nest”, he recalls.
Austrian social worker Elke Schernhammer of Linz says she admired Israel for its readiness to take in hundreds of thousands of Russian refugees. She recalled how her own country had balked at taking in 30,000 German-speaking refugees from Romania.
Johannes Zuber, a history teacher from Vienna, says his sympathies had been with the Palestinians, but during the Gulf War he realized the Jews were again hostages. He also mentions his isolation, but adds philosophically: “No one can choose his fatherland.”
AMONG THOSE who had pushed for a German-language course was Innsbruck historian Dr. Andreas Maislinger
. A graduate of an earlier English-language course, Maislinger, 37, is now creating an Austrian parallel to the German Suehnezeichen, or Kapara, organization, which in a quest for atonement sends young volunteers to Israel and countries that suffered under the Nazis.
Heidrun Strasser, a Vienna media director, says she had many Jewish and Israeli friends, and really wanted “to find out about this Holocaust thing.” She says she was dissatisfied with the lack of interest with which the matter was handled in Austria.
“I felt that in Israel people understand suffering”, she says. “In Europe death is ignored.
Strasser was particularly moved by the talk of Czech-born survivor Ruth Elias. In an unemotional voice, Elias told how as a young woman she was taken first to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, where her husband died. She then described how she managed to hide her now-born baby for a while, but was forced to watch him die because SS doctor Josef Mengele forbade her do breastfeed.
There was a stricken silence in the room when Elias told how she finally agreed, at the urging of a fellow prisoner, herself a doctor, to put the starving baby out of its misery.
Elias survived several other camps and on April 18, 1945, was liberated by the Americans from a work camp at Taucha near Leipzig. After the war she raised a new family in Israel and wrote a book about her experiences, which was published in Germany.
Once course participant said it was a riddle to him where Elias could find the strength to tell her story so matter-of-factly, and to a German audience.
Strasser approached Elias after the Talk and embraced her.
Elias said: “Do not cry.” Strasser cried anyway.
THERE WAS another sequel to the talk. Hermann Kuhn, an engineer and a member of the Greens Party in the Senate of the City of Bremen, said he felt a special bond with Elias, based on a coincidence.
Kuhn was born at Taucha on April 14, 1945, four days before Elias was liberated. As a youngster he heard that during the war there had been a camp for Gypsies near his town. “Yes, we also had Gypsies in our camp”, Elias said.
Kuhn later said that until the meeting with Elias he had felt he could be critical of Israel without considering himself an antisemite. “But that has changed now”, he says.
One of the most colourful among the course participants was the Austrian Andreas Hoertnagl
, in his late 40s, who in 1980 came to his job as mayor of the Tyrolean village of Gries in an unusual way.
His predecessor, Jakob Strickner, who had held the job for 24 years, had been an SS officer and was jailed briefly after the war. He later boasted that he knew who had helped Mengele escape to Italy, hinting at an SS escape organization. This boast so enraged Hoertnagl that he publicly apologized for his mayor and donated 10,000 shillings (about NIS 2,500) to help Jewish survivors.
Strickner sued Hoertnagl for libel, calling him a Judenknecht, a servant of the Jews. The case aroused such passions that it had to be moved from the small village courthouse to the town of Innsbruck, where Hoertnagl won the dispute.
Unlike Hoertnagl’s case, the major impact of the program is on individuals, who will live with their new-found understanding of the Holocaust alone. Hermann Zinggl, who teaches religion in Hamburg, says he has changed his negative attitude toward Israel and now accepts how Christian teachings fomented antisemitism. “I expect isolation, but I go back a changed man.”