We then left the center of the city to the south, in order to visit Bessungen, the district where my grandparent and my parents had lived during the war and where I was born. We first went to see the Viktoria School, my mother’s former grammar school which still exists – much larger today and co-educational. It has a small memorial from 1997 commemorating four Jewish girls who were murdered under the Nazis. I found the pyramid by chance, after we had walked around the whole building and also searched the large schoolyard in vain. (The school itself was closed because of the fall vacations.) It is on the front side, partly hidden by brushes and little trees.
The inscriptions say: Four Names for Many – Liese Juda, Erika Dahlerbruch, Anneliese Trier, Irmgard Schaefer; and on the other side: Against Oblivion and Indifference. I thought I had heard the name Irmgard Schäfer from my mother before, but it is a very common (and very “German”) name. When I asked her, she told me she had not known her or her name. She had had two Jewish classmates who both survived, because their families emigrated in time.
Our next stop was at Paulusplatz (Paulus Square), which is in repair. It has a Protestant Church on one side, almost literally like in Luther’s famous hymn “A Solid Castle Is Our God”, and a huge administrative building on the opposite. In the middle of the large meadow in between stand two steles, representing Christianity and Judaism. They were made by the Israeli sculptor Igael Tumarkin in 1990/1992.
The inscription on a separate plate says: The two steles represent Isaak’s sacrifice and Jesus’ crucification, thus expressing the fundamental experience in the Jewish as well as the Christian faith of their fright before the living God. I did not like the text when I first saw it, and I like it even less now that I have read Carlo Strenger’s new book on Israel. (Strenger, who grew up in Switzerland, is a psychology professor and a writer; he lives in Tel Aviv.) It is a wonderful “introduction into a difficult country” (his own words), empathetic yet also critical and skeptical. He thinks that one of the major causes of conflict in the Middle East is the absolute obedience to God (or rather the respective Gods) in the three major monotheistic religions, making man even sacrifice his loved-ones or himself. Christian (today mainly US evangelicals), Jewish, and Muslim fundamentalists in this tradition have been and still are a central obstacle to peace in the area.
I much prefer the interpretation given in the text from the internet page on the memorials of the city of Darmstadt: The two steles stand separately and unconnected, but they are also close together, representing both their individuality and their dependence on each other – a sign of Christian-Jewish reconciliation.
From the area of the old freight station, we drove on further north into Grafenstrasse and, with help from someone who seemed to know the area well, finally found the place of the former orthodox synagogue of 1905/06, which was completely destroyed in the night of the pogroms on November 9, 1938. The memorial with inscriptions in German and Hebrew is built like a small wailing wall; the Star of David is made of granite stone from the KZ Flossenbuerg.
We then walked further northwest to the Friedensplatz (Peace Square) between the castle, which today houses parts of Darmstadt University, and the shopping mall. At the beginning of the mall there is a showcase of photographs of the city after the big air raid in September 11/12/1944. As with the memorial for the synagogue, you wouldn’t find it, if you were not searching for it, although it is three meters high. As you know already, my parents luckily survived the raid and could thus conceive me.
We continued our back to my roots trail through the shopping mall which we left at its northern edge to walk into Große Bachstraße, where many Roma and Sinti had once lived. Most of them were sent to death in Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Nazis of Darmstadt on March 15, 1943. The memorial of 1997, which stands right in the middle of residential area, is made of rusty iron. It looks a bit like the front of a house with blind windows, having small plates below them with names of survivors and a few words addressing the horror which the Nazis had brought over their families. The large plate on the short side reminds the reader of their fate as a minority in the Nazis’ European empire: half a million men, women, and children murdered, just because they were considered different and somehow dangerous.
In 2008, when I visited the glass-box memorial on the tracks at the train station in Darmstadt, Germany, I found it to be moving, with the shards of green glass aptly portraying how lives fragmented at this location. This was where my grandparents were deported in the late 1930s.
For me, the most stunning aspect of the memorial was simply seeing my grandparents’ names – Siegmund Westerfeld and Frieda Westerfeld – etched on the glass. I have rarely seen my grandparents’ names written on anything, even documents. Since they were murdered in concentration camp long before I was born, I never met them and, as you know, my mother rarely spoke of them. It was too painful for her to remember.
When I saw their names, I was struck by the thought that I was standing in a place they once stood and seeing what they once saw. I tried to take in the entire scene – the sights, the smells, the noises. Since we have no shared experiences, I thought, this is the closest I will ever get to them.
But then, I felt sick. I realized that 60 years earlier, I would have shared their fate. Like them, I would have been marked. My heart hammered as I thought about how afraid they must have felt as they boarded the train. My grandfather, a decorated World War I veteran, must have had a deep sense of betrayal; his country and fellow soldiers had turned against him. I felt what I imagined he felt that last time he was at the Darmstadt train station -- a toxic brew of anger and hurt.
Seeing the names of Siegmund and Frieda (I never knew them so I never called them by an affectionate grandparent name) on that glass in that location made the incomprehensible reality of the Holocaust more real for me. It is difficult for anyone to understand the inhumanity and the scale of this horrific genocide, even someone like me who has had to integrate this history into my identity.
The glass memorial in Darmstadt is another piece of evidence confirming the Holocaust. And, given my experiences last week at a school in a small town in Texas, that is critical.
The librarian at the school where I was giving presentations about my books told me that many in this town of German immigrants are Holocaust deniers. “Yet, they live right next door to neighbors who have their Hitler Youth uniforms stored in their attics,” she said.
Though it has been defaced and damaged in recent years, the memorial at the Darmstadt train station isn't hidden in an attic.
Back to the Roots at Darmstadt, part 1
Last week, on Friday, November 21st, 2011, we went to Darmstadt, where I was born more than 66 years ago. It is only 35 miles south, but we don’t go there often. The city’s cemetery office had notified my mother that her parents’ urn grave would soon be closed down and asked whether we wished to keep the plate with the inscriptions. The family decided to get it and put it on the grave at Hofheim, where Irene’s parents and our first child are buried. Irene suggested that we also visit some memorial places, official and personal, in the city. We went to the Waldfriedhof first, which comes right after you leave the Autobahn to get into Darmstadt. It is a very large, well kept cemetery with many huge pine trees.
We picked up the small grave plate with the names and dates of Karl Grund and Gretel Grund, my grandparents. We then drove on past the Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) to the area of the old Güterbahnhof (freight station). We wanted to see the “Denkzeichen Güterbahnhof” there.
“Denkzeichen” is an artificial term, with associations of signal, sign, thinking, and memorizing. It was built by a private initiative and opened on November 11, 2004. It is a big glass cube in light green on tracks leading nowhere on one side and to a buffer on the other. Inside are big pieces of glass in different triangular shapes with names on them (I could only see one name) – representing the Jews or Sinti whom the Nazis used to collect at the Gueterbahnhof to send them to the camps and to death – your grandparents Siegmund Westerfeld and Frieda Westerfeld from Stockstadt among them.
In the night of July 9/10, 2006, the “Denkzeichen” was attacked and the glass on three sides violently damaged. These sides are now full of cracks but the memorial has stood firm.
Zwischen (Between) Charleston und Stechschritt: Schwarze (Blacks) im Nationalsozialismus
This is the title of a huge book with 34 articles and several hundreds of fotos and documents from a major exhibition by the NS Documentation Center in Cologne on Blacks under the Nazis in 2004. (The Stechschritt is an especially martial way of parade-marching.) The book was edited by Christine Alonzo and Peter Martin, who is a specialist on slavery and the image of blacks in German history. He also happens to be the younger brother of my wife’s best friend, Jutta Martin.
Since Blacks and Afro-Germans were so few in Germany, they were not in the center of the Nazis’ racist activities; it was never considered to eliminate them. But they were highly important symbolically, the Nazi’s major concern being to keep them separate and not to allow any black “contamination” of the “Aryan race”. Blacks and Afro-Germans were heavily discriminated against, personal defamation or even physical attack was a constant risk. During the war, Nazi actions against blacks radicalized and many were sent to forced labor camps or to KZs.
Of the devious Nazi activities against Blacks and Afro-Germans, I want to mention two in particular. One was the forced sterilization of 385 Afro-German boys and girls, children of black soldiers, mostly in the French army which occupied the Rhineland provinces after WW I, and German women. They were called “Rhinelandbastards” and considered an especially insulting disgrace by the German right even in the Weimar Republic. In his pathological anti-Semitism, Hitler once said the Jews had brought the French blacks into Germany to undermine its “racial purity”. The sterilization took place in 1937 and was illegal even under Nazi law. (Sadly, I must mention that some of the justifications which the involved German physicians and bureaucrats used were based on US writings and practices.)
Another infamous and not well known case is the murder of quite a number of black prisoners of war in the conquest of France, many of them from Senegal. Nazi racist killings of prisoners of war, especially of Jews and Slavs, were common in the East, but they also happened elsewhere. Not only soldiers from the SS killed black French prisoners of war, but also from the regular Wehrmacht.
I want to close with a quotation from a long letter of 1934 to the Colonial Department in the Foreign Office by Kwassi Bruce, who had fought in the German colonial army in World War I and who lived in Germany with a German passport. He was a musician and, like many other blacks, could not find employment any more: “We Africans are not aware of ever having harmed the white race in general and the German Reich in particular. We never came to conquer Europe and never attempted to fight wars against it or to exploit it. Europe came to Africa! (…) Today, the blacks from the former German protectorates are standing in trust before the German people and appeal not for mercy but for justice. We remind it once more that in the hour of danger its poorest sons had been its most faithful ones. Do not forget this, Germany!”
The foto, which I have taken from the book mentioned, shows Anton de Kom, a Surinamese/Dutch intellectual and anti-slavery activist who was captured by the Gestapo in 1944. He was murdered in Sandbostel, a dependency of the KZ Neuengamme, April 29, 1945.
“Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger”: A Childhood in Germany
Hans J. Massaquoi’s autobiography was originally written in English and first published in 1999 under the title “Destined to Witness”. The German title is also the name of a good movie with one of our best-known actresses as his mother, and it is much more telling. It is a racist children’s rhyme, a “Schornsteinfeger” being a chimney sweeper. As a boy Hans-Jürgen had to hear it quite often.
The book consists of more than a hundred small chapters with many lively stories and anecdotes in chronological order. Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi was born in 1926. His father was a Liberian diplomat, politician, and businessman, whom the child and his German mother did not see very often. But Hans-Jürgen had a close and loving relationship with his grandfather who had once been an African king. His father and his grandfather went back to Liberia and left Hans-Jürgen and his mother behind, shortly before the Nazis came to power.
He says his situation was different from that of the Jews and that of his black brothers and sisters in the US in three major respects: As a black man in Germany he could neither flee nor hide. He also was not used to the survival techniques which blacks as a group had learned from their ancestors; he had to develop his own strategies. He did have his mother’s unconditional love and trust, but not the feeling of security and belonging which a community can give. And of course, Nazi racism was much more radical and institutionalized than racism in the US; it was official and everyone practicing it had the government’s support.
Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi survived the Nazis and the war with luck, his life or at least his liberty was in danger several times. Once he was taken for a shot-down American pilot by people in the street in destroyed Hamburg who were about to lynch him; he was saved by a German policeman. He also survived because not all Germans were Nazis or fellow travelers. Some, not enough to make a major difference, remained decent people in spite of the regime’s pressures. And since there were so few blacks in Germany, the Nazis often did not consider them really relevant or regarded them more as a nuisance.
Even Hans-Jürgen came under the influence of the Nazi propaganda for the young; he strongly wanted to join the Hitlerjugend. Later he tried to get into the Wehrmacht, seeing it as a protection against the SS and as a way to belong and to get accepted. Both rejected him. So when he was drawn into the “Volkssturm”, which drafted old men and boys for the “final battle” in 1945, he knew that Nazi-Germany had lost the war.
After the war, Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi lived in Liberia for some time where he met his father again. It was a complicated relationship. In the early 1950s he went to the United States to realize his American dream. In spite of a series of heavy disillusionments, he stayed and became an active participant in the black struggle and a well-known international journalist. Beginning in the 1960s, he would visit Germany regularly. He was surprised that the country had come back on its feet again and that it was so different culturally and mentally. But he was also concerned about the Neo-Nazis. I have thought a lot about one of his closing sentences: If Nazism could come over Germany it could happen anywhere – a very sad compliment in many respects.
(The photo from the cover of the book shows Hans-Jürgen as a schoolboy carrying a button with the swastika.)
The Past and the Present – Continuities and Differences
I am sorry for creating such a long gap in this blog. My wife and I were in Berlin for two weeks, for “cultural holidays.” We had intended to avoid the German “past”, the Nazis and the Holocaust – but that is impossible in our old and new capitol. I will write a special blog about this vacation. Before I do that, I will write two more pages on another Afro-German survivor and on the situation of Afro-Germans under the Nazis in general, but I feel the need to tell you and my readers something about the situation of Afro-Germans in today’s Germany first.
As I see it, many Afro-Germans are well and fully integrated and don’t experience any or at least not much racism. As an example, take the black or dark-skinned female soccer players in the German national team who are admired, praised, and celebrated – Steffie Jones from Frankfurt, the daughter of an American soldier and a German lady and now the President of the Organizational Committee for the world championship, or Célia Okoyino da Mbabi, the daughter of a Cameroonian and a French lady who became a German citizen in 2004 and is one of our best young players. But there are also bad and sad continuities, as the story of Ibraimo Alberto shows, which is related in today’s
Sueddeutsche Zeitung by Thorsten Schmitz.
Mr. Alberto grew up in a jungle village in Mozambique and migrated to East Germany in 1981. He wanted to study sports there, but the German Democratic Republic needed butchers, so he became a butcher. After work, he practiced boxing and studied social education. One day, the boxing club of Schwedt, a small town about 80 km northeast of Berlin at the German-Polish border, invited him to move there. He found a German wife and stayed. He became an authorized representative of foreigners, a member of the city’s parliament, worked in the German-Polish youth center, talked in schools about tolerance, taught drums and boxing to teens, and represented Schwedt all over Germany in anti-racist conferences and seminars. Three years ago he received an award from the Federal Minister for the Interior as an “Ambassador of Democracy and Tolerance.”
Last week, after 21 years, he left Schwedt and moved to the south of Germany. He is not a fearful man, but he just could not stand any more the problems which the city of Schwedt and the Schwedtians had created for him and his family. In spite of all his contributions, he had never been offered a permanent job, the buddies network in the bureaucracy would not hire a black man. And people would often call him “negro”, which makes him mad; or they would say: we have nothing against foreigners, but why do they have to live here? And there was open and sometimes violent neo-Nazi racism against him and his family. He was spit at, hit or chased by neo-Nazis. His 17 year-old-son, who played soccer in the local team, was once called “a dirty nigger” and attacked.
Not one of the bystanders came to his help.
Mr. Alberto gave up walking through town with his wife, because she could no longer stand the remarks and the looks. Constant fear about his and their two children’s safety made her sick. The doctors advised the family to move to a place where people were used to “Multi¬kulti”.
On his first weekend in his new place, he joined a summer festival in the inner city. He says it was fantastic. There were blacks everywhere and skin colour did not play any role at all. He has now been invited to work at a local kindergarten. His female colleagues say, isn’t it wonderful to have a black man working with our children now. He also has a found a boxing club, and his family will soon join him.
(The foto shows the clivia in my study in bloom. I consider it a symbol that one day there will be nor more racism in Germany – or anywhere else.)
Who Is Afraid of the Black Man?
I have now read Gert Schramm’s life story. It is a wonderful book about an awful time, and more than that. Gert Schramm has always been a very active, hard-working, and courageous man. From the way he writes, I also believe he is a very warm person.
The story of Gert Schramm’s family is even more tragic than I had thought. His father had gone back to the United States very early in his life, and his mother later married a German, who was soon killed in the war. In 1943, a few months after the Nazis had imprisoned Gert Schramm, his natural father, Jack Brankson, made his way back to Germany – under dangerous circumstances – to search for his former love. After 15 years, they joined each other again and decided to marry. They were so innocently naïve to collect the necessary documents and go to the registry office. Jack Brankson was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Early in 1944, Gert Schramm’s mother was sentenced to forced labor. She was considered “notoriously unreliable,” because she had “fraternized with the enemy” and with someone from an “alien race” (“fremdvölkisch”).
As I had already mentioned, Gert Schramm survived Buchenwald with the help of Communist prisoners who had organized an underground network. It was so effective that they could hide their leaders in the camp when the Nazis got hold of a list of its members. The underground managed to find less burdening work for him than in the quarry, which he would not have survived – he was only 14 in 1944. They also saved him and cared for him when he was buried alive and wounded in an air-raid.
Gert Schramm also has a lot to say about post-war Germany, separated between East and West, and reunited again. He lived in Essen (where my father’s family is from) with his wife and children for about 10 years, but went back to East Germany for private reasons, which was very rare. In the German Democratic Republic, he worked in the uranium mines (well paid, but very dangerous to your health) and later became a respected transport manager. He never joined the party and always maintained his independence. In the book, he vividly describes the practical everyday problems of the Communist economy.
When the wall came down, Gert Schramm brought his private taxi company into reunited Germany and helped others adapt to the new economic circumstances. (In the GDR, only 2% of the working population were self-employed, and he only got his licence because of his endurance and because he knew a high-ranking politician from his days in the camp.) After his late retirement and after a TV documentary about his case, Gert Schramm decided to become a public witness. He was so enraged by the renewed violence against foreigners in Germany that he began to tell his story to pupils in schools and in clubs, wherever young people gathered. He does not talk about politics; he sticks to his experience in the camp. That he finally wrote down his story is not the end, he considers it a beginning.
I have just read a review, in the New York Review of Books, of a new biography of Barack Obama’s mother, a remarkable woman. She lived and worked in Indonesia for a couple of years, together with her son, until she sent him back to Hawaii to her parents. I had not known that skin color was (and perhaps still is) a very important social marker in Indonesia as well. The review led my thoughts back to the situation of Afro-Germans during the Nazi era. I had already seen a film based on a famous book by Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, who survived with the help of his strong mother and other family and friends and left Germany after the war to work in the US as a journalist for Ebony. The book’s title is “Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger” (negro, negro, chimney sweeper), a racist nonsense rhyme of the time.
In the 1930s, about 3000 “Blacks” lived in Germany. Some came from the former German colonies in Africa, others were children of liaisons between black soldiers in the French occupation forces (after the First World War) or African/Afro-American diplomats/business men and German women.
Gert Schramm, e.g., born in 1928, was the son of an American engineer and a German lady from Erfurt in Thuringia. The Nazis imprisoned him in 1943 when he was 14 and later sent him to Buchenwald. According to the Reichsrasssegesetz (The Reich’s Race Law) he was “eine Gefahr für Volk und Staat” (a danger for the German people and state). As he said in an interview for the Frankfurter Rundschau (April 2nd/3rd, p. 24), he only survived “because of the Communists” – older prisoners who helped him find easier work in the tool shed and kept him out of sight of the SS. His father, who came back to Thuringia in 1943, was also captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. He left no trace, i.e. he was murdered.
After the war, Gert Schramm worked as an interpreter for the Soviet Military Administration in Germany, as a miner in France, in the Erzgebirge (the mountains in the south of Thuringia), and in Essen in the Ruhr-Valley. In the 60s, he went back to East Germany where he founded a taxi company before the end of the regime. Gert Schramm has four children, many grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. When asked in the interview, whether he had ever thought of leaving Germany, the country which had almost murdered him and even after the Nazi era had called him a “negro-bastard” in an official letter, he answered “no”. A couple of years ago, when a right-winger shouted at him: “I am proud to be a German,”he shouted back: “Me too, blockhead.” If you want to know whether he feels accepted in Germany, he will say “yes, yes, yes.” His autobiography Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann. Mein Leben in Deutschland (Who Is Afraid of the Black Man: My Life in Germany) has just been published.
Fern Schumer Chapman
The quote from Michel Friedman that resonates with me is “Imagine what it means to be a child of a father and a mother who had been broken. My mother saw how her father was beaten up and murdered. My parents later tried to rebuild themselves from millions of mosaic pieces. As a child of such a family you carry more responsibilities than is good for you.”
Sadly, the Holocaust produced many mother and fathers who were “broken.” Broken parents often raise broken children. As I’ve written many times in this blog, trauma is transmitted in families.
Based upon recent studies of mice, scientists recently discovered that some animals and some people are genetically wired to develop PTSD. A team of neurobiologists at the University of Zurich found that environmental factors can alter genes that can be passed on to the next generation. This study indicates that the children of those who have been traumatized aren’t just affected by living with the disturbed parent; the anxiety can be expressed in the genes. In other words, trauma can be imperceptibly transmitted from parent to child, through nurture and nature.
But let me return to Friedman’s comments. His image of “mosaic pieces” is apt. Someone who suffers from great trauma is left with shards of themselves. Fragments. A deeply damaged self. An individual survives great trauma by denying what happened , insulating himself or herself from the memories, and splitting off the part of themselves that is damaged so that the individual doesn’t remember or feel the pain. But that individual also remains stuck in the moment the trauma occurred. They have not fully integrated the experience into their being.
Consequently, children, who live with a traumatized parent who are stuck in a younger self, perceive the parent’s vulnerabilities. The children worry about the parent’s weaknesses and try to insulate them from pains that they fear will overwhelm their parents. Consequently, we “carry more responsibilities than is good.”
What gets confused is an understanding of boundaries. What are a child’s responsibilities to a damaged parent? What is a child’s responsibility to himself or herself? What does it mean to be a good daughter or a good son? Since the demands of that role are defined by the parent’s needs, and damaged parents expect much more than is realistic, the children feel like failures as sons and daughters when they can’t meet their parent’s inappropriate needs.
Friedman says that “When his parents had died, he had felt he almost died with them.” Here again, he is alluding to a lack of boundaries. He cannot define himself without his parents’ needs or demands. The child’s identity is subsumed by the parents and the child isn’t sure where he or she begins or ends. The relationship becomes so tightly intertwined , the child isn’t sure how he or she will survive without the parent.
New research and recent understandings of trauma and its transmission in families have helped children address this experience. Often, children raised in these families aren’t aware of the psychological dynamic; they only know their own pain. But thankfully, therapists and specialists who are knowledgeable in the field are better able to help children cope with the guilt and shame children like Michel Friedman know all too well.