What distinguishes the past from the present and the future is that we cannot change it any more. Yet often we still try to control it. In some way we have to, our approach to it will always be selective and it always needs interpretation. Yes, I agree that you and I, the generations of the children of survivors and of the sons and daughters of Nazi perpetrators and fellow travelers, have no alternative but to face the past of the Holocaust and World War II and to integrate it into our lives, intellectually and emotionally.
However we use or abuse individual or collective memory, it will color our current and future feelings, thinking, and acting. This is most obvious in the political domain which George Orwell had in mind, I believe, when he suggested that he who controls the present, controls the past and with that also the future: the control of thought and discourse in all dimensions of time for purposes of deliberate manipulation as well as self-deception.
We are both lucky that we encounter no major problems in our societies when we try to report about the past in our families and societies as honestly and respectfully as we can, and with only one ethical or political purpose in mind: the rights of all men, women, and children to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is the bridge which connects the approach to our individual histories and their foundation in the 1930s and 1940s with our current and future activities. Other people (and other generations) may choose different pasts or foundations or may connect them differently. A couple of days ago, we had been invited to celebrate the 80th birthday of a friend of ours. Erika, an ethnologist, was born in 1931 and grew up during the Nazi era. She has revolted against it ever since and been active all her life in many worthy pursuits. One of them was the renovation of Hofheim’s old town center with its roots reaching back into the Middle Ages. In the 1970s, the local elites had planned its demolition and modernization with high-rise buildings. Today, the whole town is happy about its ancient core and proud of it.
Another of Erika’s causes was the rehabilitation of 11 women who had been sentenced to death as “witches” by the authorities at Hofheim in the 16th and 17th centuries. In a resolution of November 3rd, 2010, the city council unanimously accepted an ethical responsibility for the murder of these women and professed to commit itself against violence against girls and women. A plate at a central place in town remembers the murder of the “witches”. It says:
“In memory of those who were tortured and put to death as witches: Where violence rules, peace cannot thrive; healing requires remembering.”