“I AM SO fascinated, and so on edge, about this journey, that I suspect…that there is still something there, in Europe, which pulls me back. It may attract me or it may repel me when I see it at close range. But I must experience it, and that, for the moment, is my reason for going.”
This is Dr. Fred A. Sondermann, professor of political science, recording his apprehensions about returning to Germany in 1969, just 30 years after he and his parents had fled the Nazi regime. As Jews, Sondermann and his family were outcasts in German society at large in the 1930’s. In 1969 he was not only free to travel extensively; he was a frequent lecturer on his specialty of international relations under the auspices of the Cultural Section of the American Embassy in Bonn—Berlin, Munich, Regensburg, Bremen, Darmstadt, Nuernberg, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt are some of the major cities where he spoke.
But several of the most affecting days of his four months’ return to Germany were spent in his boyhood hometown, Horn. Impressions of that visit, and the memories and thoughts it evoked, are adapted here from Professor Sondermann’s journal and from a sermon he gave January w, 1970, at Temple Beth El in Colorado Springs.
This essay, originally published in The Colorado College Magazine, and the inspiration for the 2012 documentary, Return, is reprinted in AmericanVoice Media to commemorate the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
A former German Jew who now returns to Germany after an absence of30 years carries with him a difficult legacy, which constitutes a heavy burden. It is not necessary to dwell on the incredible barbarities and cruelties that were inflicted on fellow-Jews by the Nazis in the 30’s and 40’s, resulting in the virtual elimination through genocide of the Jewish communities of Germany and other parts of Europe that fell under Nazi domination. Very many members of my own and my wife’s families—grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, as well as many good friends—were victims of the greatest organized crime wave in all of recorded history—one that happened within my lifetime and that of my contemporaries, and must forever be part of our personal experience and of the record we transmit to our children.
I grew up in a very small town and spent most of the 1930’s there, moving to a large city only in 1937, two years before my family emigrated from Germany. In some ways, perhaps, it was easier to bear the Nazi period in a smaller community than in a larger one: there were, and remained, personal links (often and increasingly furtive) with others. On the other hand the very smallness of the Jewish community—consisting of all of five families—made those families an even more convenient target and deprived them of the anonymity, and therefore to some extent the safety, which a larger city might have offered. In September, 1969, I spent the better part of a week in this small town in which I grew up, and where my family had lived since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, and probably even before that. Since it is such a small town, utterly without military value, it did not suffer physically in the war, but it suffered in many other ways. Some of these came to my consciousness for the first time when I visited there. I met many former friends—persons, now in their forties like myself, with whom I had gone to school, with whom I had played as a child until they could no longer afford to be seen together with me and had to drop the relationship.
Although only one of them verbalized it, I could sense that many of them felt there was an implicit question in our reunion: had I forgiven them, could I forgive them, for the ostracism to which I was subjected in those days? I think that the answer to this has to be yes. Children can be thoughtless and cruel all on their own, of course; but in this case I do not see how they really had adequate defenses against a system that prescribed certain behaviors to them.
By sheer coincidence, I re-entered Germany with my wife, Marion, and our two sons and daughter exactly 30 years minus one day after I had left it—and at about the same time (9 p.m.) and at the same border station (Aachen) from which my parents and I had left just a few short days before the out-break of World War II.
I remembered the streets as we came into Horn, the town where I lived until I was 13. I had been away from it for 32 years and it was a strange sensation to drive back into it on our first full day in Germany. I told the family that “here is where the Post Office was located,” and found that it still stood there. And later remembered, after I had made the trip in vain, that it was closed for a couple of hours in the early afternoon, a German custom we had to get used to. I drove right to the Marktplatz, the central square, parked the car, got out, and stood in front of “our” house. It was very much as it had been 32 years ago, and I just stood and looked at it for a while before we went into the hotel, which is also located on the square. I introduced myself to the owner, who had been a friend and playmate during my childhood, and then we settled down in three very comfortable, pleasant, and cheap rooms in the remodeled hotel—a very old institution in the community, the building itself being at least two centuries old.
The original part if the city was very much as I had remembered it – with two exceptions. Everything was so much smaller, and distances much less, than I remembered from my childhood. And it was much cleaner. From earlier times, I recalled certain not too pleasant odors, emanating from compost heaps. (I have decided that I have no emotional attachment to these odors!) The houses are extremely clean and well taken care of. The streets are quiet and attractive—all but the main street which carries a very large amount of traffic. I think I walked every inch through all the streets of the old city, remembering that a friend used to live here, a certain shop used to be located there. The city, like almost all old German cities, was once surrounded by a wall, parts if which are still standing. There is also the old castle, which is now used as a local museum. I visited the building in which the old Synagogue had been located. At the time I grew up, there were only five Jewish families left in town, and only two children – a girl, Hilde Blank, who died in a Concentration Camp, and myself. A town history which two friends gave me as a present records that in the nineteenth century there had been a far larger Jewish congregation; it also records that in 1810 two of my ancestors – Aschoff (my paternal grandmother’s family) and Sondermann – were among the registered residents of the community. Even prior to that time, the Sondermanns lived in or near the city, but since German Jews took last names only in the late eighteenth century, the family is not easy to trace. (Prior to that time, they were simply known as “So-and-So, the son of So-and-So.” In my family, the names of Abraham and Simon were always alternated for the oldest sons.)
I was born in late 1923. My arrival coincided with the end of the inflation in Germany, which had brought the value of the mark down to virtually nothing, and my Dad used to say that the house and I were the only things he had when the inflation ended and stable currency was reintroduced. The population of Horn was around 3,000 when I lived there; I hear that now it is around 6,000.
I was an only child. Yet, though our immediate family was small, the “extended” family was very close. Our household consisted of my parents and me and always a grandmother – first Grandmother Sondermann (Oma Liese) and then, after her death, Grandmother Eltzbacher (Oma Meta), since Grandfather Eltzbacher had died in 1929. But there were uncles and aunts and cousins who frequently came to visit, including second cousins – all of whom were very close. My father had had two sisters, who had died rather young. Both of them had children: my cousin Hans, who now lives in Indianapolis, and my cousin Anne, who died in a Concentration Camp. My mother had a brother, Josef, to whom we were especially close. He and his wife Hilde had no children; both of them also perished during the Nazi period. My grandmother, however, had been one of ten children, and that accounts for most of the relationships I remember. We would exchange frequent visits, and I really felt as if I belonged to a very large, and nice, family.
We were not wealthy, but there was always enough to go around. My father had a small store – Men’s and Women’s Clothing. The store occupied about half of the downstairs of the house in which we lived; the other half was a combination living room/office; then came a small room for the piano, a hall, a kitchen, and another room which later became a sitting room for Grandmother Eltzbacher when she moved into the house. I don’t recall what it was prior to that time, except that I once lay in it for six weeks with measles or scarlet fever, and after I had recovered, the room had to be “disinfected,” which meant the wallpaper had to be steamed off and burned, and other sanitary rites performed.
Upstairs there was a large dining room, used only on “state occasions,” my parents’ bedroom, my own small room, a maid’s room, a bedroom for my grandmother, and the bath. It was an old house, just how old, I am not sure. My mother remodeled and modernized it considerably, and on the outside it looks today as it did when I left it. In the back there was another house, used for storage of coal and other implements, and in the rear was a very small garden.
The house had been in the family for a long time. I think my grandfather was born in it, and that must have been in the 1850’s. Just how long before that it was in the family is not known to me. It is located right in the central spot of town, facing the Town Square, with the City Hall off to one side and the leading hotel to another.
I don’t really remember a great deal of my youth, except I think most of it was very happy. My parents led a harmonious life. They liked to entertain friends some of whom referred to our house as “Public House,” which in German has somewhat different connotations than in English. There was hardly a Sunday but that friends would drop in for dinner or a cold supper. We took many trips, to various resorts and to visit my grandparents who lived in a small village about 40 miles away, where they had a lovely new house and a big garden with strawberries in it. I could pick them for breakfast. There were other trips to visit other members of the family, especially to Duesseldorf. In the later 1930’s I usually spent my summers with cousins in Holland, to get out of Germany for at least part of the year. Since I came from the state where Prince Bernard, the husband of the then Crown Princess Juliana was born, and since I had gone to school with his cousin, Prince Armin, I remember being quite the “big cheese” among my Dutch friends.
I started school in 1929. One of my first memories was an Assembly to celebrate the departure of the last French troops from German Rhineland. We heard patriotic speeches and sang “Die Wacht Am Rhein” – The Watch on the Rhine—in honor of the occasion. I can still hear it. Interestingly enough, on the evening before I received my Ph.D. from Yale in 1953, Marion and I went to a concert of the Glee Club, and one of their selections was the same song which I had sung on one of my first days of school. It had different lyrics, of course, but it struck me as a strange coincidence that my formal education should be bounded on both sides by this particular melody.
I must have gone to the regular Volks-Schule for four years, until I was 10. Then I was sent to a very small private school, the Rektorschule, which occupied two rooms in an old public school building and which was presumably a kind of transition to higher education. Here is where I started to learn English. I remember that on the first day of English classes, the teacher picked up a pin and said, loud and clear, “This is a pin!” All of us were convulsed with laughter, we had never heard anything funnier in our lives. After these two years, I went for two or three years to the Mittelschule in Detmold, about nine miles away. My recollection is that the German educational system at the time was as follows: if you wanted to pursue a university education, you attended the Gymnasium; if you wanted to go into some other profession which did not require university training, you went to a Realschule. To prepare for business and commerce, the Mittelschule was created.
My recollection is also that, by the time I was ready to go, Jews could at most go to the Mittelschule. By now, we were well into the ‘30’s, of course. I remember the day Hitler took power, January 30, 1933, because it was the same day my grandmother, Elise Sondermann, died. Her funeral a few days later was an impressive event. The plain pine coffin, covered only by black cloth out of my Dad’s store (I think I remember his measuring it off, though perhaps I only imagine that); the horse-drawn funeral cortege with hundreds of people walking behind it, my Dad and I in the front row. My grandmother had been an institution in the community. One thing I remember about her were the literally dozens of baskets of food which she prepared each Christmas for the poor people in the town. I had to help our maids deliver them in person. My mother kept this up for a couple of years after 1933, but later the bad times were upon us, and the custom was discontinued.
I also recall coming home from a school excursion a couple of months later – April 1, I think – to see people standing in front of our store. My Dad had been forced to put a sign in the display window to the effect, “Don’t buy from me. This is a Jewish store.” The business steadily declined. By 1936 and 1937, there were days when not a single customer entered the store. My mother thought we should stay put anyhow, that the madness could not last. My Dad thought otherwise, and finally, in 1937, we left Horn and moved to an apartment in Cologne, which we shared with an elderly uncle and aunt of my mother. They were more or less “boarders” with us, and presumably helped financially to sustain the family. I don’t know what we lived on in those years. Perhaps there were some savings, but in any event, there was no job for my Dad. It was a difficult time for him and for us all. I left school in 1937, at 13, with no regrets. After my close friends, Joe and Karl Meyer left, first for Holland and later for America, I was the only Jewish student in a school of over 600, most of them members of the Hitler Youth. I would just as soon not think about that experience anymore. I do recall a couple of funny incidents. I won first prize in an essay contest, and was asked to withdraw my entry, because the prize simply could not be given to a Jew. On another occasion in literature class, we were discussing Schiller’s “William Tell,” and the teacher, who was fairly influential in the Nazi party asked how we, as Nazis, could defend the killing of the Austrian representative by Tell. No one knew the answer, so I thought I’d have fun and gave what I assumed was the correct one (because the deed was done for the Fatherland, what else?). The teacher buried his head in his hands, then looked at the rest of the class and said, “And you have to be told this!” My Dad was so delighted when I told him of the incident that he doubled my allowance for the week.
After leaving school and moving to Cologne, I took some private lessons in English and French. Then I was sent to Munich, where I spent a year living with a Jewish widow whose husband had been killed at Dachau Concentration Camp the previous year. She had a lovely apartment, overlooking the Isar River. I spent my days and most of my evenings learning to cook in a Jewish cooking school near the Central Station. (The place is now a Parking House, and Marion wanted to lay a wreath of flowers, in gratitude for the talents I acquired there.) The idea of training me to become a cook was that in our attempt to emigrate, it would help to know a trade – and that this was perhaps a good one for me. I enjoyed the work. Later, back in Cologne, I became an apprentice in a Jewish “Pension,” where guests came to have their main meal of the day, so that they would not have to cook at home. I don’t think I got paid – perhaps I got my meals free – but I do recall that there were a few days when everyone else was ill, and I, at age 14 or 15, had to prepare the meals for 30 to 40 boarders by myself – and somehow managed to get it done. I also remember that this “Pension” was in a building next to the Roonstrasse Synagogue, and that in November, 1938, that Synagogue – like all others in Germany – was burned in retalitation for the shooting of a German Embassy official in Paris by a young Polish Jew. I went to work that morning, not knowing what had happened. During the day, a crowd gathered, the Synagogue burned, and there was a real possibility that the adjacent house where I was would also be burned. I escaped over a back fence and ran toward home – pursued by some young Nazis. I finally managed to get into a taxi and reach home safely. These are some of the less pleasant things about Germany that one remembers. There are others, too.
We tried to emigrate from Germany for a number of years, but it was not as easy as it sounds. At first my Dad was anxious not to lose everything he had – not that we had all that much, but we managed to live rather comfortably. He made a trip to Italy and came back with a proposition to “buy into” a factory in Milan. Then it appeared that about half of his belongings would be confiscated by the German government if he went through with that project, so the plan was abandoned. It is interesting, and would be funny if it hadn’t been so grim at this time, that when we finally left Germany, we had a suitcase apiece and DM 10.00 – roughly the equivalent of $4.00 each, with which we arrived in New York. Another time Dad traveled to Holland to see what business connections he might make there, but nothing came of it, except a plan to send me to Holland, so I would be “safely” out of Germany. In retrospect, of course, I have much reason to be grateful that the project failed. All my relatives who had moved to Holland were overtaken by the German invasion of 1940 and eventually transported to extermination camps, where they were killed. Surely this would also have happened to me had I gone there. At last we concentrated on going to the United States, and Dad got a friend in Holland to put up $10,000 as a guarantee that we would not be a burden on the public here. (the understanding was, of course, that we would never touch the money, and we never did.) Even so, it was a slow process, because the American quota of some 35,000 German immigrants per year was heavily oversubscribed with Jews trying to leave. We had to wait two-and-a-half or three years before our quota number was even called up.
I remember traveling to Stuttgart where the American Consulate was located. (It still is, and I have recently given a talk there – a strange feeling to be back in a place where, in a real sense, one’s fate was decided.) I remember waiting interminably in long lines to be questioned and examined. I also remember that the American doctor was inclined to reject me because of a small shadow that showed up on X-rays. We had known about this beforehand; it was a slight curvature of the spine and not TB, but we had to get the opinion of several doctors before the American officials were satisfied on that point. Finally they gave visas to my parents and me, but not my grandmother, who had intended to emigrate with us, because the $10,000 “guarantee” was insufficient. So my grandmother stayed behind and suffered the same fate as every other member of my family who didn’t get out. It was a hard decision to make, and my mother never got over it. (I remember later, in Indianapolis, opening the last letter from my grandmother, in which she wrote of her impending deportation East; hiding it from my mother who found it nonetheless.)
My recollection is that our visas were granted in early summer, 1939. We then purchased tickets for the U.S.S. Manhattan, to leave from Hamburg in early September of that year, and made arrangements to pack our belongings, and dissolve our household. August, 1939, was a nervous month, with ever-increasing warlike gestures on the part of the Nazi government. Finally, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was announced; it came like a bombshell, and the meaning was perfectly clear. On August 25 the movers came to pack our furniture for the overseas transport (needless to say, we never received it – it got as far as Rotterdam, where it was bombed). On the same date my Dad decided that the risk was too great for us to wait – that no American ship was likely to come to Hamburg in early September anymore. He went downtown to the Belgian and French consulates, but both of which were already closed. But he managed to rouse someone in each place to secure transit visas, and on the afternoon of August 26, while the packers were still in the house, we took our suitcases, said the difficult goodbyes to Grandmother, Uncle, and Aunt, and took the streetcar to the main railroad station, to board an agonizingly slow train to the border. At Aachen, the border station, we had to change trains, and while we waited for the one to take us to Belgium, an SS man in his black uniform came to inquire about our mission. He had all of us thoroughly examined, and had my Dad confined for the better part of an hour – an hour when, in a sense, everything hung in the balance. Dad finally reappeared; he never said what had transpired. At last we were on the train and across the Belgian border. I understand that the border was sealed after our train had crossed it. After a day or two in Paris and one in LeHavre, we caught the ship from the latter port. My dad had been right: the Manhattan never made it to Hamburg. We were on the high seas, somewhere southwest of Ireland, when war was declared.
I had been afraid of the return visit to Horn, but I found that it was really a very satisfying and enriching experience. The people whom I met reminded me, on the whole, of pleasanter parts of my youth. I was particularly pleased to find how many of them remembered my parents and how highly they spoke of them – because surely my parents deserved the respect and affection with which they were being remembered.
I saw very many people whom I knew from former days. On our first evening in Horn, Gerhard Kuehlemann, now manager of a factory, came to have supper with us at our hotel. On the first afternoon, I went to the bank where a girl, Magdalene Kiehl, who used to live across the market place from us when we were both children (and who still lives there), worked. It was quite an emotional experience to see her again after all this time, and I think we both choked up for a moment. We spent an evening with her, her sister, brother-in-law, and nephew. She never married. This is a family from which three brothers and cousins died in the last half-year of the war. The family were bitter about it, and about the former Nazis who, they said, had made it big in the community again. Theirs always was, and obviously still is, a thoroughly decent and good family, who were very helpful to my parents in difficult times.
Another girl with whom I used to pal around with as a child is now married to the chief of police. If someone had told me in 1937 that I would have coffee and cake in the home of the local chief of police, I should have wondered about the sanity of the prophet.
There were other former friends and acquaintances whom we saw again. The local physician is the daughter of the doctor who delivered me. Our mothers were close friends. Heinz Bohlemann now runs the local butcher shop which his father used to own – he was very touched to see me again and plied Gary and me with homemade Wurst, while immediately proceeding to tell me about all his physical ills and ailments, of which there are apparently many, some of them war-connected. I drove to a filling station which had the name of a former schoolmate on the window, tanked, and then asked the owner whether the name, “Fritz Sondermann,” meant anything to him. He said yes, he had gone to school with someone by that name. When I told him who I was, he was absolutely stunned – but then he recovered and we had a nice talk. Another former friend, Rudy Rose, was the only one who explicitly asked me how I really felt back in those years when all my friends, one after the other, had to drop me – he had often thought about it and wondered whether I had been able to forgive him and the others. (Later, when I had written him a note from Munich which I signed “Your friend Fred,” I received a very touching reply, thanking me for reviving the former friendship.) What he explicated, however, was something which I felt was implicit in the other relationships as well.
An old teacher, Mr. Reineking, now in his eighties, came to the hotel to meet me. He told me how he had been involved, as an arbitrator or fact-finder, in a situation involving my Dad’s business. The wife of the local clergyman had been reported as still trading in a Jewish store, by some Nazi who claimed to have seen her come out of our front door. She denied it, and he, the teacher, was appointed to find out the truth of the matter. He extricated her and himself by “finding” that the charge was unprovable, that the person who had submitted the report had stood in a spot from where one could not clearly see from which of a number of doors a person was emerging. An incredible story, all the way around. Marion was quite turned off by it. Why hadn’t he simply said that it was nobody’s business where anyone did her shopping? I have somewhat more sympathy with his predicament and that of all others who were similarly involved – and caught.
We left on a Saturday morning. I could not help but remember the last previous time I had left the city – by getting on the streetcar in front of our house, to go to the next larger town, there to catch a train to the Rhineland where we were going to live. (My parents stayed a few days longer, presumably to wind up affairs.) I recall looking back at our house as long as I could, wondering if I would ever see it again. I remember, too, not saying good-bye to anyone, and no one’s saying good-bye to me. This time, it was different. The owner of the hotel came out to see us off. Magdalene Kiehl came across the square with several bags of candy and fruit to see us through the day’s journey, her sister stood in the doorway to wave, the police chief came from his office across the square for a last talk with us – this is how I remember my second exodus from the town of my birth. It is a much nicer memory than the first.
I am trying not to become maudlin about Germany and the Germans, particularly about those of the war and the pre-war generation. Their government, in their name (if not always with their approval), committed some of the most terrible crimes recorded in all of human history. Assuredly they were not maudlin about the destruction they caused in Poland, in Britain, in Belgium, and everywhere else where their armies and airplanes operated.
I tried to explain to one of my friends that, from my point of view, the war against Hitler Germany had been justified. I think he could understand that – I could see he was trying very hard to understand it – after I had told him that I had been stationed in the Pacific during the war – “How lucky for you; it would no doubt have been very difficult for you to fight against Germany.” I started to tell him that it wouldn’t have been difficult at all – in fact, that I had been disappointed not to be given the chance – but I gave it up as one of those hopeless attempts to communicate across a gap. I think it is well to realize such a gap does exist.
Still it strikes me as interesting and important that during that time – in the early and mid ‘40’s – I never gave a thought to what the war must have meant to Germans themselves, in human and in physical terms. I read in a paper that the total number of Germans in the military forces who were killed exceeded two million and that another two million were lost, captured, or seriously wounded – that, in short, one out of every five adult German males was a victim of the war. Add to this the number of civilians who were killed and maimed, and the total becomes truly staggering. It bothers me that I never thought about this at the time it happened. Had I thought about it then, I might well have concluded that it served them right – but can that position really be sustained, when the cost of war is borne by others than those who were responsible for the war in the first place? I worry: am I really that insensitive – or is my lack of concern in the past just a reflection of being far away, or of an underlying sense of revenge for what so many of my family had to suffer at the hands of the Nazis? I have no convincing answer.
I should mention here that I have been particularly impressed by the fact that the history of the 1930’s is remembered in Germany. It was a rare morning that I didn’t find some reference to it in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Maybe that excellent paper is an exception, but I have found similar items in other papers and journals. Whether it be a report on trials of suspected Concentration Camp guards, the dedication of a memorial stone where the old Synagogue stood, references to the German past in discussions of the recent revelations about the My Lai massacre – whatever it is, I am happy to see that there does not seem to be a conspiracy of silence to relegate that dark chapter of Germany’s recent past to a deep and dark, unknown and undiscussed theme.
My boys and I, by the way, did visit Dachau Concentration Camp and spent a sobering morning there. I felt this was necessary for their education and also mine. Yet, as we approached it, I felt a terrible reluctance to go through with the visit – and then felt ashamed of myself for being afraid to go in under the conditions in which I found myself, when so many people had no choice, and must have known that they would never come out alive.
Dachau contains an excellent museum and the most impressive sculpture – of men caught in barbed wire – that I have ever seen. But for the rest of it, it is quite impossible today to capture the horror which it must once have been. A sample cell-block still stands; the others are torn down and only their foundations are outlined. The present museum is the former maximum security prison, as I recall. The larger square in front of it, now dominated by the sculpture, is where the prisoners were assembled, and often some executed in the sight of their fellow prisoners. The crematorium also still stands, and it takes a great effort to force oneself to enter it. It is surrounded by mass graves, now beautifully landscaped. A Protestant chapel, a Catholic chapel with adjoining convent, and a Jewish chapel complete the complex of what was the first major Concentration Camp in Germany.
The citizens of Dachau try very hard to erase the association of their city with this monstrous institution – or, if not erase it, to superimpose another image upon it. Coming out of the camp-site, one sees a large sign calling attention to the centuries-old tradition of Dachau as an artists’ town, and inviting one to visit its churches, its castle, and its other important sites. I can understand their desire to dissociate themselves from the name of the camp, but I am afraid it wont work for them anymore than for the citizens of Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, or the other localities whose names will forever be associated with blots on the human record. I think that our visit, painful as it was, was an important part of our trip. It helped my sons to understand the ambivalence of my feelings toward the country and the society from which I came and to which I had now, temporarily, returned.
I found that, for me at least, there was no ambiguity at all about my own position upon this return visit. I was in every respect – not just legally, but more importantly psychologically – a foreigner. I am sure that, as a child, I was affected by my physical and social environment, though I think that the environment affecting me the most of all was that of my parents’ home and their personalities – more so than the community in which they and I lived. I was moved when I visited the cemeteries where my paternal grandparents, my maternal grandfather, and many other members of my family were buried, especially since I was perhaps the first person in a decade who had visited either place, and perhaps the last one who might ever do so. I had feelings when I visited the spot in the city of Detmold on which once stood the Synagogue in which I had my Bar Mitzvah in 1936. Like all other Synagogues, it was destroyed in the “Crystal Night” of 1938. Now a small park occupies the site, and a plaque is inscribed with the quotation from the prophet Malachi which had once been inscribed over the front door of the old building; “Have we not all one Father, Hath not one God created us—Why, then, do we deal treacherously brother against brother and destroy the bond which God has created?”
But in spite of these personal moments, I was clearly an outsider, clearly a different person than when I had left. And I think this situation gives me some of the detachment which is necessary to address the enormously difficult question of a Jew’s attitude toward Germany today, 30 years later. I am sure that every one of us must answer that question for himself. I have a difficult enough time answering it for myself – too difficult by far to try to “sell” my answer to anyone else. My personal answer, forged out of the experiences of the last several months, is something like this:
One cannot forget what happened. The record is too enormous to allow such an easy escape. Nor can one forgive. Again, the deeds were so incredible, of such non-human scale, that human forgiveness is both impossible and in a sense irrelevant. But one can, I think, do some other things which place both the question of forgetting and forgiving in a different context that if they occupied the center of one’s concerns:
In the first place, one can remember that the Germans also suffered enormously in those years. Proportionally, to be sure, Jews endured more than others, but Dachau contained as many or more non-Jews as Jews. Too, I was struck by the enormous destruction of property and, more importantly, of life and health which was the price the Germans – Nazis and non-Nazis alike – had to pay. I don’t know how one figures a calculus of death and injury, when each single case hits those affected with a total impact. But I think we need to remind ourselves of something that, during and after the war, I had tended to overlook: the Germans paid a heavy price for the misdeeds of their government, their society, themselves. We can at least be conscious of this fact.
Secondly, one must make distinctions among Germans, however difficult it is to do this. A number of them fought courageously against the regime, with incredible odds against them, and usually with fatal consequences. Just why the Western allies did not make common cause with the domestic opposition to Hitler is a difficult historical question. A larger number of Germans were appalled but felt helpless. Some collaborated with the regime in some respects but opposed it in others. And some, of course, were wholeheartedly in support of what was done. It is no longer easy – it may not even any longer be possible – to disentangle exactly who did what and why in those years. But surely, for instance, the young generation, now in their twenties and thirties, cannot be burdened with whatever guilt their parents must carry.
Then it seems to me that Jews, of all people, should eschew the practice of ascribing to groups the characteristics of individuals. This is precisely what the Nazis did to them. An article in Die Zeit, an excellent newspaper, made this point in referring to the Sharon Tate murder case. The author said that to hold all hippies responsible for what one particular group of them is alleged to have done was equivalent to the situation in Germany in the 1930’s; when Herr Schmidt killed someone, it was Herr Schmidt who was the murderer; If Herr Cohn did it, it was the Jews! It seems to me that no one should be more ready and able than Jews to see through the practice of ascribing individual characteristics to whole groups, because Jews have for so long been on the receiving end of precisely this practice – and with devastating consequences.
And finally, I think that in shaping my attitude to the Germans, I can now go beyond the categories of “forgiving” or “forgetting,” and attempt to go on from where we are, not where we and the Germans were a generation ago – transcend, as it were, the past and look toward the future. I know that there are extremist elements in Germany, which worry me; just as there are in this country where, at the moment, they worry me even more. But I also feel that the traumatic experience through which the Germans have come has given a better chance than ever before for creating a more decent, humane, just, and sensitive society. It is an act of self-interest, and also one of justice and charity, to encourage those elements in the German society which are moving toward such a future, to give them the kind of understanding and support which is all the more meaningful because it is grounded in the transcending of tragic experience.