CAT | German Burdens
Fern Schumer Chapman
Your comments about Kandel’s observation that people have the desire to destroy people outside the group to which they belong struck a chord with me.
What happened in Vienna in 1938 also occurred in my mother’s town, Stockstadt am Rhein, a village of 2,000 people and two Jewish families. My grandfather was a respected civic leader in town, which his family had helped settle in 1721. No farmer in the area could bring his crops to market without the services of my grandfather, Siegmund Westerfeld. In addition, my grandfather introduced the cucumber as a cash crop. His family had the first telephone and the first car in the area. The family was assimilated into the town and he served as a trusted lender to many members of the community. In fact, most families in the town had borrowed money from my grandfather; that way, they could stay solvent and keep their farms afloat.
When Hitler came to power and, as Kandel puts it, “the successes of the Jewish community generated envy and a desire for revenge among non-Jews.” The townspeople of Stockstadt did nothing to defend or protect Westerfeld and his family. After all, how convenient it would be if the town lender would simply disappear and the loans would be eradicated.
A daughter of one of the townspeople who owed my grandfather money came to me about ten years ago and cried. “My father was indebted to your grandfather a great deal of money and I feel that his blood is on my family’s hands,” she said. She was trying to take responsibility for, as you wrote in your blog “what we do and who we are.”
Even though we cannot change the past, I deeply appreciated her candidness, just as I value your deep reflection on envy. Both of you examine your lives and contemplate possible scenarios, guarding against impulsively dangerous reactions. Interestingly, this daughter is a member of your generation who you say “must sort out the complicated relationship between guilt, innocence and responsibility.“
The children of survivors and refugees also struggle with issues of identity, but it seems to me that you and your generation face the fundamental question: If that is my mother or father, who am I? The inhumane and criminal acts of the Nazis make this question especially difficult and painful to evaluate and answer.
For the victim’s children, we struggle with our own issues of guilt and responsibility. How can I be a good daughter to this parent who has lost so much of her family and her self? What is my responsibility to her well-being? What are the boundaries of parent/child love? The answers to these questions are unclear since the victim/parent is so dependent upon the little family that remains.
Sadly, we, the victim’s children, often see ourselves as inadequate in the face of our parents’ distorted expectations. We carry a sense of guilt and we feel we come up short: We can never replace the basic nurturing that our parents should have received from their parents when they were children. In terms of our own identities, we never feel we are good-enough sons or daughters…because we were children and we could never fill the role of the victim’s parents.
With one passage in Eric Kandel’s book, In Search of Memory, I feel particularly uncomfortable. The desire to destroy people outside the group to which one belongs, may be an innate response and may thus be capable of being aroused in almost any cohesive group, he says (p. 30). But he quickly adds that such “quasi-genetic predisposition” would probably not operate in a vacuum. “One important reason for the actions of the Viennese in 1938 was sheer opportunism. The successes of the Jewish community generated envy and a desire for revenge among non-Jews, especially those in the university. Nazi party membership among university professors greatly exceeded that in the population at large (my emphasis).”
I asked myself how I would have reacted to the successes of the Jewish community, had I been a Viennese professor in the 1930s and not one in Frankfurt/Main in the 1990s. My questions became even stronger, when I read Kandel’s next chapter and really did feel envious, of his successes, his excellence, his (seemingly) happy family life, his (seemingly) uncomplicated relationship to the other sex, and his strong academic connections. I grew up in a broken family, with a loving but violent mother. I had no Mizzi to introduce me to the joys of eroticism; I was rather shy and had strong inhibitions towards girls. I was good at school, but not self-evidently excellent. I was a good and well-liked teacher, but I had few academic connections and was more of a “home-town professor”.
With my good senses I know that the relevance of such comparisons is highly doubtful, they may even be considered arrogant. I never experienced such a terrible year as Erich Kandel did in 1938, and compared to your mother’s fate, which you so caringly describe in Is It Night Or Day?, I grew up in heaven. I was a brave boy in the better sense of the term, but how brave was your mother as a girl – thrown out of her homeland, without her parents and soon to be orphaned, living with and depending on an aunt who did not love her. Nevertheless, if I can have such feelings today, how might I have felt had I received my education in an anti-Semitic academic climate!
You know how angry and sad, sometimes desperate, I often feel about the German Nazi past and the lack of atonement in the years after it. Part of the anger derives from the fact that responsibility was not accepted by many or even most of those who had committed the mass crimes or had supported the regime which ordered them, asked for them or allowed them to happen. A responsibility which many in my generation felt we had to bear and which we rejected at the same time. We wanted to be innocent and tried to put as much distance between ourselves and the Nazis and what we regarded as personal and structural continuities.
Another part of the anger, however, derives from the fact that we are not innocent by definition, nobody is. In the almost obsessive desire not to be anywhere near the perpetrators, some of my compatriots among the leftist students became perpetrators themselves. They fantasized themselves into a fascist state which was seen as planning a new Auschwitz, this time on them. Gudrun Ennslin, one of the leading figures in the RAF, once literally said so. Another leading figure, Horst Mahler, a lawyer by training, later became one of the leading Neo-Nazis. He is currently in jail because he publicly denied the Holocaust.
So it is important that the successors to a generation of murderers and racists or at least supporters and fellow-travelers of murderers and racists sort out complicated relationships between guilt, innocence, and responsibility. We are not guilty, but we are not innocent by definition. We cannot define ourselves by being the complete opposite to the perpetrators in every respect. It is highly unlikely that we ever become like them, but we are responsible for what we do and who we are.
I wonder, what kind of complications you see in the generation which succeeded the victims, how you define yourself, and what risks you see in your generation’s strife for identity.
Yes, it is very important always to remember that groups of people and whole societies are capable of learning, and that new generations are willing to challenge the taboos which nations build around their histories. Knowing that there are so many Germans genuinely ashamed of our past and actively engaged in symbolical and also small material efforts to undo some of the vast furor Teutonicus which the Nazis brought over the world, is part of the breathing space which people like me and my wife need to feel o.k. in this country.
I saw a report the other day on German TV about Arabs who had saved Jews in North Africa during World War II. When a French general (!) from the Vichy regime presented the then King of Morocco with 20 000 Yellow Stars of David for the Jews in his country, the king said he needed 20 more, for his own family. I have ordered the book by Robert Sattlof “Among the Righteous”, who has more stories about Muslims who saved Jews. (The report was based on the book.)
On Friday, we visited an exhibition by the Folkwang Museum in Essen (my brother was born there and we still have relations in Essen) on paintings banned by the Nazis. Until 1933, this place had been considered one of the best collections of modern art, and they tried to present at least some of their old treasures. It was so crowded that we had to wait an hour to get in. The sheer number of painters banned from the museum in the 1930s – they were all listed near the exit and included so many well-known names – was mind-boggling. In a major book about “Verfemte Kunst” (Outlawed Art) I read that well into the war many art dealers still tried to present small collections of modern art and that they still had customers. The Nazis were angry that they did not seem to be able to control the Germans’ taste completely. The majority went along, of course.
Sometimes we feel helpless and overwhelmed by the amount of brutality and stupidity which Nazism represents. This also concerns the years after the war, when everything ought to have been different but wasn’t. To be sure, the Federal Republic never was a “fascist state”; in spite of many continuities it never came even near it. Compared to other countries, we have not done too badly in facing, coping with, and working through our dark past. But in relation to the dimensions of the crimes and idiocies of the Nazi period we certainly could have done better. I cannot and do not want to forgive stories such as the one I reported about the Flick family.
Currently I am reading another book by Brigitte Hamann, on Hitler’s Bayreuth and the Wagner family. “Wahnfried”, the house where Richard Wagner’s widow, his son Siegfried with his wife Winifred, and his daughter Eva Wagner with her husband and famous racist philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlain lived, was a center of “völkisch” and anti-Semitic ideas and conversation, and it played a major part in the network of support for young Hitler and Nazism. They were all very close to the “Führer” until the end; Winifred felt so even until her own death decades later. If the Federal Republic had really wanted a new beginning and a clear cut from its past, it would have closed Bayreuth for at least 20 years.
In the 1920s, Siegfried wrote letters to Jews asking for financial support so that the Wagners could reopen their festivals. He tried to explain that he wasn’t really anti-Semitic, but his explanations were so tortuous that his vehement prejudice became all the more obvious. Siegfried Wagner was a minor composer and he blamed the lack of enthusiasm for his work on the “Jewish press”. This reminds me of his father, who once wrote an almost servile letter to Giacomo Meyerbeer, assuring him of his everlasting gratitude. Meyerbeer, whose operas were very successful in France in the 19th century, had supported young Richard Wagner financially and had helped him set foot in the business. We all know where Wagner’s gratitude led: to a vicious attack on the “Jewishness” in music.
Fern Schumer Chapman
Since the 1940s, one of the few ways that American Jews protested the Nazi regime was to avoid certain German products. High on the list was the Mercedes. (Volkswagon and German wine were other targets.) Evidently, the protest didn’t make a dent in Flick’s financial portfolio.
Still it was a matter of principle. When Chrysler Corporation bought a majority share of Mercedes manufacturer Daimler-Benz, some newspaper and magazines posed the question of whether some Jews would begin to boycott Chrysler. Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick said that, as a “private memorial” to the Nazis’ victims she would boycott Chrysler. But others say that mega-mergers and the global economy make it impossible to know who owns the product. Others think it’s simply time to move on.
If this is a conundrum for American Jews, I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the problem Flick and his company posed for generations in Germany. What a complicated legacy!
* * *
On a trip to Germany in 1999, my mother and I the guests of an organization called “The German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture.” In 1988, fifty years after Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken Glass,” churches marked the mournful occasion by creating a “Night of Remembrance.” Services were held, candles lit, names of survivors and escapees read at memorials and churches. During those ceremonies, many church leaders asked elder members if they remembered the Jews who once lived in their towns.
A grass-roots movement emerged and Germans began to research the Jewish families who once lived in the area, restore the local synagogues, and
create organizations formed at that time to remember the Jews and their contributions in Germany.
This German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture brought back to Germany all the “children” in my mother’s religious class. Of the seven, all except my mother had gotten out of Germany with their parents (like Kandel).
“It is a very different experience to get out with parents,” one of my mother’s religious school classmates told me on that trip. “Yes, it’s traumatizing since they have lost the means of earning money, their home and homeland, but the family is still in tact.”
For my mother, as I described in my new book, Is It Night or Day?, to lose your parents as a child to genocide is devastating and incomprehensible. In addition, as I’ve described in this blog, the psychological consequences live on in the generations that follow.
On one of my trips to Germany, I came upon a metaphor for the effect of genocide on victim and perpetrator.
A 30-year-old man who worked in a nursing home in Crumstadt, Germany said he had only “encountered” Jews through the intrusive memories of his patients. Some had served in the SS. Sometimes, when disturbing memories flooded, they blurted out what they had done at that time. The caregiver said, “They are haunted.”
Interestingly, some concentration camps survivors living in American nursing homes also are plagued by persistent, painful memories. Uniquely challenging to the nursing home staff, survivors often refuse to take showers or do anything that triggers the memory of their traumas.
Sounds like Flick was so lacking in empathy and so well defended that he didn’t suffer with the consequences of his actions.
On the long Pentecost weekend we watched the film “Auf der Suche nach dem Gedächtnis” (In Search of Memory). You may know it, and of course you know Eric Kandel, the famous Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist on whose book, which combines personal biography with the story of his scientific discoveries, it is based.
Eric Kandel’s family left Vienna in 1939, a year after the “Anschluss” and the November pogroms, when their situation had become unbearable. In an interview for German TV he said he had been afraid to cross the street, but that he crossed the Atlantic. Eric (I assume he was called Erich at the time) was nine years old when his parents sent him
and his brother to grandparents in the United States. They followed their sons six months later.
Of course, I connected Eric Kandel’s story with my recent reading of Brigitte Hamann’s book on “Hitler’s Vienna”. Eric Kandel himself established such a connection when he complained in another interview that the part of the ring road, where the University of Vienna resides, was still named after Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic popular tribune and one of Hitler’s political teachers. (A few weeks ago, I read in the papers that a group of Viennese students was trying to have this ring road section renamed, but it seemed an uphill fight.)
Yesterday we watched a German TV documentary about Friedrich Flick, one of Germany’s biggest tycoons of the 20th century. Flick built his first industrial empire in the 1920s and persuaded the government, with a mixture of political blackmail and financial lubrication, to save him in the crisis of 1932. They bought parts of his coal and steel works with taxpayers’ money for more than three times their worth on the stock exchange.
Friedrich Flick was heavily involved in the Nazi economy and in arms production during WW II. He was close to Hermann Göring and also a member of Heinrich Himmler’s “circle of friends,” which he supported financially. He greatly profited from “aryanization” and from forced labour, altogether increasing the value of his group fourfold between 1933 and 1943.
Flick was no. 3 on the Allies’ list of the 42 industrialists most responsible for the Nazi crimes. During the Nuremberg trials, he denied any active involvement in the Nazi era and depicted himself as a kind of involuntary fellow-traveler, even a victim in his own right. He got away with a sentence of seven years in prison, of which he only served three, and later used the mild ruling as proof of his essential innocence. The new German government and its new Western allies needed him for rearmament. Our first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, wrote to him and congratulated him on his “great and amazing life’s work.” So Flick began, even when he still was in his prison cell, to reconstruct a new financial and business empire, of which Daimler/Mercedes later became a central part for many years.
Flick had to make restitution of Jewish property, but he arranged clever deals which did not harm him too much. He never paid any compensation for forced labor. On his 70th birthday, one of his friends presented him an album of photographs from the Nuremberg trials in which he ridiculed the whole process and particularly the witnesses who had testified on the conditions in Flick’s factories during the war. By the end of the 1960s, Flick had become the richest man in Germany. He and later his son also continued the habit of (illegally) subsidizing the major political parties – the young Helmut Kohl is said to have been one of his major clients –, also trying to buy tax favours. This led to a political scandal in the 1980s and a trial in which one central manager and two cabinet ministers were (mildly) convicted.
According to the documentary, only one of Flick’s six grandchildren and heirs to his tremendous fortunes voluntarily contributed to the forced labor claims fund jointly set up by the German government and the business community in 2000 (when most of the potential claimants had already died), and another one only after public complaints had been raised about an exhibition of his collection of paintings worth several million Euro.
Eric Kandel was luckier than your mother, because his parents also survived and the family rejoined in the US. Yet even for him, the expulsion from his old Heimat and the Holocaust were traumatic experiences. In the book he writes: “In retrospect, my family was fortunate. Our suffering was trivial compared with that of millions of other Jews who had no choice but to remain in Europe under the Nazis. (…) Although my family and I lived under the Nazi regime for only a year, the bewilderment, poverty, humiliation, and fear I experienced that last year in Vienna made it a defining period of my life.” He had tears in his eyes when he said, in an interview about the film, that it was not easy to be a Jew.
In 1963, Friedrich Flick, one of the leading figures in the Nazi regime, was awarded the “Große Bundesverdienstkreuz mit Stern und Schulterband”, one of the highest decorations which the Federal Republic grants.