Monday, June 15, 2015

Reflections on Germany, Part 1: The legacy of the Holocaust

(Introductory note: From June 7 to June 13, 2015 I visited Germany at the invitation of the German Foreign Office as part of an international group of 16 Jewish community and civil society leaders, representing nations from Uzbekistan and the Ukraine to Argentina,  Australia, Canada and Slovenia.  My fellow participants, both Jews and non-Jews, as well as our guides, brought a wide range of perspectives and ideas to the experience, something for which I shall be eternally grateful. In this first piece in a short series on my time in Germany, I look at the impact of the Holocaust on the country and how the experience and its lessons continue to reverberate today)

At a city bus stop in Berlin, Germany those waiting for their bus are reminded of the crimes of the Nazi party which were often orchestrated in the city and carried out across Europe. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.  
In my life, I have learned about the Holocaust many times, in many ways: I have met survivors, read books, visited memorials and museums in the US and Israel. And when I traveled to Germany this past week I added another piece to the puzzle, the seemingly ceaseless question of how and why this maniacal, murderous vision found such fertile ground in the soil of Europe, and how those inhuman ideas led not only to the murder of millions of Jews, Poles, Slavs and others, but to the very destruction of Germany as it existed. A week is not much time to explore any place, and Germany, which I found to be a fascinating, complex nation, certainly requires more time to comprehend. That being said, in the time I spent there, speaking with people and visiting important historic landmarks, I do think I gained a few insights, and like any good learning experience, I walked away with many more questions than answers.

More so than if I had been travelling alone, or with a group comprised solely of other Americans, the diverse nature of my company added immensely to the quality of the experience I had. These new friends, who shared amazing family and personal stories of connections to the Holocaust or experience with totalitarian regimes enriched my experience in innumerable ways.

At the site of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in former East Berlin, visitors are invited to walk among 2,711 blocks of gray stone. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

On my first morning in Berlin we took a bus tour of the city and I was immediately struck by the degree to which memories and images of the Holocaust were woven into the fabric of the city itself. Apart from formal memorials and museums, there were reminders at city bus stops and under the feet of pedestrians in the form of Stolpersteine's, small memorial stones placed in locations where individuals killed or persecuted by the Nazis lived. Honoring the memory of both victims and those who resisted the Third Reich, these “stumbling stones” make it impossible for anyone walking through Berlin to ignore the Jews, members of the LGBT community, Communists, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others whose lives were either lost or changed forever simply by virtue of who they were. 

The Stolpersteine project by artist Gunter Demnig honors victims of the Nazis in cities around the world. In the image above several stones can be seen on a sidewalk in Frankfurt, Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
During my trip I had a chance to see a new one of these Stolpersteine laid by Gunter Demnig, the artist who created this project, at a moving ceremony attended by the daughter and granddaughter of Hans and Ruth Gosler, who were murdered by the Nazis. More than just a memorial stone or point of curiosity for visitors, these artifacts are a daily reminder to everyone walking by the homes of these victims that they were not some abstract “other” person, but real people who walked down these very same sidewalks, who may even have lived in the same buildings or houses that they do today. I like this way of honoring Nazi victims because it has a solid and (quite literally) grounded feel – there is really nothing abstract about it, which is part of the appeal.

Artist Gunter Demnig lays one of his Solpersteine's (literally "Stumbling block") in honor of Hans and Ruth Goslar who perished in the Shoah. Attendees included members of the Goslar family, as well as the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Germany, German government officials, students and teachers from a local school and others. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
The memorial, which was created by architect Peter Eisenmen was designed so that visitors are swallowed up by the stone blocks around them as they walk. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
By contrast, I was struck by the way that several other memorials and museums we visited used the idea of “disorientation”  in rather abstract ways to evoke the Shoah and its attendant dread and confusion. I first noticed this when we stopped at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a massive field of stone columns spreading out before us, with the ground below dipping in the middle, creating a sense, as one walked among the stones, of sinking down into an unknown place, of the walls collapsing and the sun blotted out. I felt this again at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where the section on the Holocaust was set in a lower level of the building, with the floors purposely at angles, seemingly to disorient the visitor and convey a sense of confusion, and once more in the outdoor “Garden of Exile,” at the museum where a similar technique to the one employed at the memorial in East Berlin makes visitors feel off-kilter and unsettled.

At first, my reaction to this theme of “disorientation” and abstract representations of the Shoah was wholly unfavorable. I walked away feeling that while it was perhaps true for the victims of the Shoah there was a profound sense of instability as they saw their families, friends and very existence being destroyed before their eyes. Yet at the same time, for the perpetrators of this crime, both those who led the effort and the vast, vast majority of those who went along with it, there was nothing disorienting at all about the experience. In fact, for the Nazis and their collaborators, what they were doing was not an attempt at destroying the world, but a carefully planned effort to impose upon Europe – and whatever other parts of the globe they could reach – a carefully ordered new reality, reflective of their own deeply disturbed ideas about race, religion and identity. That such notions are abhorrent does not mean they were illogical to those who held them. My worry is that if someone were to visit only these memorials which are largely devoid of context and explanation, they would come away from the experience thinking that the Holocaust was unique not because it represented the horrific ultimate expression of hate, intolerance and centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, but rather because Hitler was a master manipulator who was somehow able to brainwash otherwise normal people into doing abnormal things in a topsy-turvy world in which no one had freewill.

In my final analysis,  I’m not sure how worried I am  that visitors are likely to base their total understanding of the Shoah solely on these kinds of memorials and exhibits, since there are other places which do explain, with great clarity and depth, the events of the Holocaust.  Taken together, things like the Stolperstein and the East Berlin memorial work best in concert,  speaking to both head and heart about what took place in Germany some 70 years ago.
A round-table discussion on fighting Anti-Semitism and Promoting Democracy included, among others, German journalist Anetta Kahane and Israeli journalist Daniel Dagan. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

I also had the chance to hear from leaders in civil society and the Jewish community, about how the legacy of the Holocaust influences the community today and its relationship with the German government. For Germans, it is abundantly clear from many conversations that a great deal of shame and guilt exists in the country when it comes to the Shoah – whether expressed in the form of philo-Semitism, outright Anti-Semitism, or a quiet sense of injustice, my sense was that the way that Germans seem to feel about this period in their history is complicated and continues to play a significant role in modern German identity, even for those who were born long after the end of World War II.

When documentary series on the Shoah began to be shown in Germany the reaction of many young Germans, who had been taught very little about the Holocaust, was one of guilt, and members of the Jewish community we met with spoke of how this impacted their non-Jewish friends. It was hard to judge to what extent these previous experiences with hyper-xenophobia and identity are applied when it comes to contemporary questions around immigration and identity in Germany. Although I asked a few people if the experience with the Holocaust was having an impact today, for example, on relations with the large immigrant Turkish population in the country, I didn’t get much of a clear answer.

After decades of sitting in disrepair the Max Liebermann Villa and grounds have been authentically restored in Potsdam, Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
The former home of the artist Max Liebermann now stands as a monument  cerebrating the work and life of his tremendously influential Jewish artist. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
In another part of this series I intend to explore what I learned about Jewish life in Germany today,  but it is clear that the impact of these events goes far beyond the physical destruction of buildings and lives lost, raising very painful questions about identity for a community whose antecedents often saw themselves as "Germans with Jewish religion.”  During a visit to the villa of the German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann in Potsdam, located just a short walk from the house where Hitler and his generals planned the final destruction of the Jewish people at the Wansee Conference in January of 1942, I was reminded of this. As one of the informational boards at the museum noted, Liebermann clearly saw what was coming in his country and lamented shortly before his death in 1935 that the dream of true assimilation for Jews in Germany was lost.

At the front gate of a home not far from the Max Liebermann Villa a sign in German, English and Hebrew tells passersby that this was the site of the January 20, 1942 meeting presided over by Reynhard Heydrich, at which the Nazis finalized details for their plans to murder all the Jews of Europe. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Through the bars of this gate the home were the Wannsee Conference took place can be seen. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
However one views the particular ways in which Germany has chosen to engage with and memorialize this history and these crimes against humanity, it is abundantly evident that they have not shied away from this experience and what it did to the world. Throughout the trip, often in conversation with other participants or in speaking with community leaders, I experienced a wide range of emotions, but one of the stranger things I felt was a sense of gratitude – gratitude that the majority of my family left Europe  before the war, gratitude that I had a chance to see for myself what Germany is like today, and gratitude that the same spirit that sent the Partisans into the forest to fight the Nazis and inspired righteous gentiles to risk their own lives to save the persecuted, still seems to exist in Europe.

It would have been easy, I think, for Germany to present the Shoah in fairly black and white terms – portraying the Nazis and their allies as a malevolent force beyond comprehension and everyone else as hapless victims. Instead, I saw this determination to fight back against hate and intolerance in both leaders and ordinary citizens, whether discussing the problem of growing Islamist Anti-Semitic ideology in Germany among a small segment of the community, or when we emerged from a train station to find fresh anti-Semitic graffiti spray-painted on a sign marking the location of Rothschild Park in Berlin.  The energy, the focus that I saw and felt in these cases was perhaps the most encouraging example of the idea that Germany is a far different country than the nation which sought to murder or enslave a significant part of the world’s population, laying waste to Europe in its path.

An information sign about the Rothschild Family, defaced with 
Anti-Semitic, Anti-Israel graffiti. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 
The truth is that Germany will never be free of its association with the National Socialists or the damage they did, but there is honor, I believe, in how the German government and many of the German people have responded to this legacy in the last few decades. At first reluctant to look into the mirror from the late 1940’s to the late 1960’s, through reparations, education and diplomacy, Germany has shown that it understands it is responsible for what happened in the war and Shoah. We must not, and cannot, ever forgive those who designed and executed the Holocaust – from the leaders of the Nazi party, to willing Hungarian and Ukrainian collaborators, to otherwise “normal” Poles who murdered surviving Jews attempting to come home after the war. I do think, however, that those of us in the Jewish community (and many other communities) who care about these things have an important opportunity to engage in a dialogue with Germany and Germans not only on the Shoah specifically, but more broadly on issues of democracy, civil society and totalitarianism.

Graffiti on a poster protests a planned Neo-Nazi rally this month in Frankfurt, Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015. 
A poster In Frankfurt, Germany calling attention to an upcoming Neo-Nazi rally and asking people to come and protest it, highlights both the continued existence of Nazi ideas at the fringes of society, as well as the willingness to speak out against hate in 2015. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Perhaps this is the most emotionally complex lesson and inheritance of the Shoah, that those of us who live after the devastation of the Holocaust, whether as a survivor or someone born 60 years later, bear a responsibility not only to remember the humanity of the victims and the cruelty of the perpetrators, but to speak up when we see racism, intolerance hate today. Some people have written that the only real response to the horror of the Holocaust is silence, that words cannot begin to help us understand or process what happened in this period, but the real lesson of the Shoah is that silence is not an option, not then and not now. It is a lesson that is at the core of any healthy civil society, and one which was clearly on display in many parts of Berlin, Frankfurt and Potsdam.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment