CAT | Gert Krell's blogs
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.
“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.
Michel Friedman: Lawyer, Writer, Entertainer, and the Son of Survivors
Knowing more about someone’s past can be very useful to understand him or her. Many people in Germany know Michel Friedman, who is now 55; he once was the host of a show with two million viewers. He is also a lawyer and a writer, and a well-known liberal member of the Christian Democrats. His life ran into a serious crisis in 2003, when he was discovered with cocaine and when Ukrainian forced prostitutes testified that he had had sex with him. He always was a bit too flamboyant for me, but I feel much closer to him since I read a long and frank interview with him the other day.
Michel Friedman was nine, when his parents decided to move from Paris to Frankfurt, for business reasons. Frankfurt was an ugly city at the time compared to Paris, and Germany the country of the murderers. His parents were both survivors, almost all his other family had perished in the Holocaust. So he argued about the decision with his parents until they died: “Germany was a poisoned country. And those who had scattered the poison were partly my teachers and neighbors, partly judges and politicians. Growing up in such an environment was an extreme burden (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, April 1st, 2011, p. 26, my translation).”
He decided to stay, because his parents needed him, as so many Jewish parents in this generation needed their children: “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.” Yet he also regrets that he has not left Germany again; mostly when he is confronted with racism or anti-Semitism.
After his “fall”, he had a number of difficult years, including the painful examination of why he “blew up his own life”. He now says he would have died from loneliness and sadness, had he not been caught. When his parents had died, he had felt he almost died with them; and a few months later he had lost one of his best friends who had been a kind of mentor to him. Michel Friedman sees all this as an explanation, not an excuse. He is back on TV, on a smaller channel with fewer viewers. I am sure, next time I see him as a host or as a guest in somebody else’s show, I will view him with different eyes.
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.”
The Past and the Present Time
War has come back into some of my dreams. Since there is always some war going on somewhere, I ask myself why now. I think it is Libya. Fortunately, it is not a major war, but it is nasty; one party is a brutal dictator, it is close, and NATO is involved, with Germany abstaining. Can we make good for past misdeeds by trying to keep out of war, any war? What about the responsibility to protect? I was actively involved in these debates 20 years ago, when they were even more ideological than they are today.
Then there is the natural catastrophe in Japan and the crisis at Fukushima. My elder daughter, who has been active in anti-nuclear energy protests since she has been politically aware, has always felt that topics such as these are much more important than dealing with the shadows of the past. She is more concerned about the shadows of the future.
Maybe this is a false alternative. How we deal with the past is partly a generational question. But I also believe that the reflection upon how we use (or abuse) it in current discourse is of central importance for our well-being and our future. I have read a lot about the politics of historical memory recently, in Germany, in Israel, and among the Arabs, and I would like to write more about it, particularly how the past is abused as a political and ideological weapon. Maybe I can go back to teaching a course on the topic, together with a new friend; an American who lived in Israel for 15 years and then moved to Vienna.
Irene and I saw “The King’s Speech” the other day, in the new cinema in my home town. (The theater even had a presentation of the original version.) We both considered it a wonderful and very humane film; and it was much more political than I had thought. The king’s speech, of course, was the justification of why Britain had declared war on Germany in 1939. I was moved to tears and I know of German friends who also cried, because it was such a powerful justification of a very just cause. (Not that all British wars had been just; these days, new embarrassing official material on Britain’s colonial wars has been published.) The decision which is the topic of “the” speech could have cost my embryonic life, but that doesn’t change my calculus one bit, even though I may one day be able to accept that the deliberate bombing of residential areas in Germany had been a war crime.
Apart from Japan and Libya, the newspapers I read and the German TV program have again been full of material on the shadows of the Holocaust: a new book by Thomas Harlan, who died recently, on his father, the notorious Nazi film maker Veit Harlan (Jud Süß); a documentation on the (normal) German police in the Nazi era, which had (of course) been deeply involved in the dictatorship and the Holocaust – it wasn’t just the Gestapo; reports on the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem; an interview with Michel Friedman, a famous Jewish-German lawyer and entertainer, about his life as the son of survivors in post-war Germany; and the story of a German-African survivor whom the Nazis had sent to Buchenwald when he was 14. I will write more about the two survivors, but let me know how you feel about all this and how you bring the past and the present time together these days.
“Coping with our past means sitting in session about ourselves and about the dangerous factors in our history, everything which has been inhumane here – with the innate consequence of a profession of truly humane values in the past and in the present time”, Fritz Bauer wrote in 1961 when he was already deeply involved in the preparation of the Auschwitz Trials in Frankfurt (Wojak, p. 358, my translation). It was by no means self-evident that these trials would take place; it needed someone with Fritz Bauer’s energy and determination to get them going. Although he was not involved in the actual trials, he was the chief of the prosecuting agency and the directing spirit behind them.
With 22 defendants, 19 counsels for the defense, three judges, four public prosecutors, and 360 witnesses, the first Auschwitz Trial (1963-65) was the largest criminal case in Germany’s post-war history (see Wojak, pp. 317-362). In the end, six of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment; others received sentences between 3.5 and 14 years, for murder and/or joint complicity in murder. More important than the verdicts was what the trial (and several successor trials) brought to the surface for everyone to see. Again, Fritz Bauer had invited historians to present their expert opinions on the Nazi regime and the whole system of persecution and mass murder. Although their expertise and the broad individual documentation of the terror in the camp in the survivors’ testimony did not lead to an immediate change in the general attitude toward Germany’s criminal past, the Auschwitz Trial was a turning point in the long run. The confrontation with so much individual suffering had broken the wall of silence.
While Fritz Bauer’s view of the full juridical responsibility of the perpetrators, who had not just aided and abetted murder but knowingly joined a murder-machinery and thus had been murderers themselves, again did not prevail, the defendants at least had to account for their deeds. This was much less so in other fields. Fritz Bauer’s activities against his own profession came to nothing. You won’t believe it, but not one of the judges of the infamous Volksgerichtshof or of any other Nazi law court was ever tried successfully after 1945. Thousands of those who had participated in unjust Nazi trials and imposed unjust verdicts remained in office; they became the juridical elite of the Federal Republic.
And one other series of Fritz Bauer’s major trials, against the physicians and the administrators of the euthanasia project, the precursor of the holocaust against the Jews, also was an almost complete failure. Only four of the defendants, some of whom had killed thousands of handicapped adults and children, were (mildly) sentenced to prison. Six were considered unable to stand trial (they often lived long lives after the trials and continued practicing as physicians right away or after a short time), and four were set free because they had not been aware that what they were doing was unjust!
No wonder Fritz Bauer felt increasingly isolated and saw the clouds darken over the final years of his life. As one of his friends, the writer Horst Krüger, said: “Fritz Bauer was a rare fortune in our judiciary and a miracle in our nation of obedient civil servants” (Wojak, p. 358).
(My foto shows a small part of the “Frankfurt Stairs”, a mosaic of almost two million pieces on the wall at the ground floor of one of Frankfurt’s tallest building. The unending staircase has a number of people on it, including 56 famous Frankfurtians – among them the physician Paul Ehrlich, the businessman Oskar Schindler, the painter Max Beckmann, or the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. Fritz Bauer stands at the bottom to the right. On his left, a few stairs up, you can see Anne Frank.)
In 1962, Fritz Bauer wrote about his return to Germany in 1949: “I came back, because I believed I could bring (…) some of the spirit and determination of resistance in the emigration in their fight against governmental injustice with me. German democracy had already failed once because it had no democrats. I wanted to be one of them. The German judiciary had already failed once when it ought to have defended the democracy but had misused its power – and crimes of government had been endless between 1933 and1945 (…). I wanted to be a lawyer who would not just pay lip service to the law and to justice, to humaneness and peace (Wojak, p. 232, my translation).”
The Remer trial in 1952 formed an important early part in Bauer’s efforts to help build a new and just German democracy. Otto Ernst Remer, the former commander of a battalion which had been instrumental in putting down the rebellion of July 20, 1944 in Berlin, was a member of the Sozialistische Reichspartei (SRP), a successor of the NSDAP. (It was prohibited by the Constitutional Court in 1952.) Bremer had spread slander and defamation against the resistance, whose activists he called traitors – a view still held by most Germans at the time.
Fritz Bauer wanted to use the trial against Bremer to legitimate the resistance, and he won, against severe odds (see Wojak, pp. 265-279). Hardly any of the officials in the judiciary, the police or in administration who had built up the Nazi regime and committed thousands of crimes against the opposition, had been tried successfully. Typically, in 1951 a court in Munich had acquitted the judge who had sentenced a number of famous resisters to death in the closing days of the war. The argument was that they had indeed committed high treason according to the law of the time.
Together with witnesses from the resistance and experts in history and moral theology, Fritz Bauer argued that the activists of July 1944 never intended to harm Germany but wanted to save it, and (2) that in all democratic and many other traditions people were entitled to resist their government, if it no longer respected their basic human rights. In his powerful and moving final speech, he said: “A political regime embodying injustice such as the Third Reich cannot even be the object of high treason at all (Wojak, p. 274).”
Bremer was sentenced to three months in prison. The case and the verdict were a historical turning point, although in strict juridical terms, Fritz Bauer’s success was limited. He had only rehabilitated one group of resisters, and he had had to focus on their intentions. Objectively, they still had committed treason in the eyes of the vast majority of his colleagues.
Deserters and their families had to wait the longest. In the 1990s, German courts rehabilitated a number of individual deserters, many of whom had been sentenced to death and executed during the war. Finally, in 2005, the German Federal Parliament rehabilitated all deserters from the Wehrmacht generally and collectively. By then, even those who had survived the war were mostly dead.
(My foto shows a court building in Frankfurt on Main with Article 1 of our constitution on it: Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar/Man’s dignity is inviolable. Fritz Bauer had it placed there.)