CAT | Holocaust Remembrance Day
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.
Fern Schumer Chapman
Guilt, shame and pain…yes, I certainly experienced those emotions as well, but because of the alienation of my experience, it has taken me a long time to fully understand this legacy.
The source of those emotions is different for you and me. You and your peers suffer with guilt and shame as a nation. I (and most children of survivors, I suspect) have suffered individually and personally.
We felt guilty that we could not alleviate our parents’ pain. They certainly suffered with survivor’s guilt – why did I survive when so many others died – but the children of survivors suffered with a kind of derivative guilt — why can’t I take away her pain? Am I not enough to fill the holes in her being? We feel some shame that we couldn’t replace the relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. This is our form of “secondary guilt.”
Somehow, we interpreted our inability to fill our parents’ (inappropriate) needs as our own shortcoming — a child-like view to be sure, but one that is not easily dismissed. All of our experiences were dwarfed by the overwhelming sadness and devastation of our parents’ lives. We empathized with our parents, absorbed their pain and somehow our emotions became twisted and enmeshed with their feelings. Their shame became our shame. Their pain, our pain.
What does that mean for the children of survivors?
Research shows that parents coped with their losses by numbing themselves and shutting down their emotions. Survivor parents had difficulty showing love, though most children understood that their parents loved them. But the children, seeking parental approval and love, tried to excel in what the parents valued. When survivors didn’t reinforce them for their efforts, children became frustrated and angry. Consequently, survivor parents who couldn’t attune to the child’s needs and couldn’t show love in the critical years of childhood limited the attachment between parent and child.
Further exacerbating those feelings of guilt, the children who take on the responsibility of their parents also take on the responsibility for the fragile relationship. They often feel burdened by the tenuous attachment because, typically, they are the only immediate family of the survivor parent. This responsibility drives the child to do one of two things: A child might distance himself or herself or cut off from the survivor parent whose needs are too overwhelming. Or the child might invert the relationship and assume the role as “parent” that the survivor parent so desperately needs.
Either way, trauma is transmitted through families. The child who distances himself or herself is permanently fixed in a reaction to the survivor parent and the grandchildren are deprived of a grandparent. The child of the survivor who becomes the parent’s parent has a confused understanding of how to parent his or her own children.
There are many important, even radical differences, moral and political, in our mutual experiences; yet there may also be some psychological affinities.
For the victims of National Socialism – above all the Jews but also many non-Jewish Germans, Austrians or Chechs – Germany had become a severely traumatizing country in 1933 and then in 1938, and for many other groups or nations it became one with the war. Yet the new Germany of 1949, in different ways, has been a traumatic country for the vast majority of the Germans themselves. I give you the results from a 1989 poll of 1130 pupils and students (quoted from Konrad Brendler, Die NS-Geschichte als Sozialisationsfaktor und Identitätsbal¬last der Enkelgeneration/NS History as a Factor of Socialization and a Burden for Identity in the Generation of the Grandchildren):
65% felt ashamed, when they heard of the mass murder by their ancestors
41% had feelings of guilt, even though they were not involved in any of the crimes
50% felt somehow paralyzed
68% felt threatened, were afraid of punishment, or afraid of the future, while thinking of the Holocaust.
In post-war (West-)Germany, the trauma was one of inconceivably vast guilt, of shame, and of pain. (The Jewish trauma was one mostly of pain and much more serious pain to be sure, and there was no real guilt whatsoever, although many survivors felt the undeserved guilt of having survived from a sea of innocently murdered fellow Jews.)
How to address the German guilt, shame, and pain properly and how to put them in the right perspective? Often guilt was (and still is) denied or hidden behind excuses, resulting in what others have called the “second guilt”. Confronted with the shame of both, some of my peers in my generation went mad with rage and projection, and turned violent against a “new fascism”.
For others, it was difficult to address their own all too real pain from the war and its sometimes severe losses, because they could not compare with the losses and pain our own country had inflicted on others.
Brendler and his group of researchers found five reactions altogether among third generation youths to the German “trauma”:
• aggressive defense against the shadows and consequences of the Holocaust
• avoidance of emotional involvement and negation of personal relevance
• depressive suffering under the weight of memory
• partial defense and resolution of conflict
• integration and constructive working-through of the shadows of history
Among my second and third generation family and among friends, I have never seen the first reaction and hardly any of the second. Personally, I have touched the third but mostly strived for the fifth. The fifth reaction essentially means to accept the unavoidable fact of belonging to the nation of the perpetrators, without letting that affect your own self-esteem; to avoid the naïve hubris of being totally immune against similar human error and failure and yet be aware of and control impulses of “repetition” in whatever disguises; to accept historical and political realities and yet not surrender but develop energy to learn, to teach, to do differently.
The sadness or rather the mourning must have its place as well: the mourning about the catastrophe of the 20th century, above all the Holocaust; for me as a non-Jewish German also the mourning about the mostly self-inflicted sad history of my country, including the violent end of an immensely productive Jewish-German symbiosis: The Pity of It All, as the late Amos Elon called his wonderful book about the “German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933.”
To be sure, Hitler did not come out of the blue, and he could not have staged his satanic mass without the support or involvement of millions of Germans. But the German-Jewish relationship did not, by some perverse logic of history, have to end the way it did; things might have been different.
Fern Schumer Chapman
Let me begin with my response to Mrs. Schrage’s comment that she sometimes thought her son was more of a Nazi victim than she herself had been. I think the second generation is viewed as once removed and therefore insulated from the Holocaust. Certainly there is some truth to that perception since we didn’t directly experience the anti-Semitism, the camps, the losses and the immediate psychological devastation.
Those early experiences formed the survivors and defined their lives. Sadly, as parents, the survivors imprinted some of that damage upon the next generation. Through trust, a mother teaches her child how to love and how to attach to others. Children of the Holocaust lost their ability to trust and never learned to nurture. Here are some ways survivors’ losses define their parenting:
• Research shows survivors look to their children to replace what was traumatically lost. Consequently, they become over-involved in their children’s lives.
• Survivors can be over-protective of their children, transmitting a sense of distrust of anyone outside the family.
• Some survivors don’t talk and some don’t stop talking. Either tactic can traumatize children.
• Separation or individuation is associated with death for survivors. A child who separates may be seen as betraying or abandoning the family.
• To cope with their losses, many survivors numbed themselves to emotional pain. As parents, they have difficulty showing love.
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Today I received the jacket of my second book, which will be released March 16, 2010. I suppose that is a fitting way to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Here’s the description I have written for my new book:
”Is It Night or Day? tells the story of a 12-year-old girl (the author’s mother) who escapes certain death at the hands of the Nazis by travelling alone to a new life in a foreign country. Young Edith’s bewildered efforts to assimilate in America are as poignant as her struggle against constant feelings of abandonment and isolation. Through the prism of one girl’s story, readers view urgent themes direct from today’s headlines: families torn and children threatened by immigration issues, war, natural disasters, and the daunting work necessary to rebuild a life in the face of unspeakable loss.
A prequel to Chapman’s first book Motherland, the new book explores the little known One Thousand Children project which rescued some 1,200 youngsters from the Holocaust.’’
I’m honored that, in the past, you read the words in Motherland to commemorate the day. Giving voice to my mother and other Holocaust survivors has been a significant part of my life’s work. As you know, many — like my mother — cannot speak for themselves; they are too traumatized to tell their own stories.
But I hope to speak for the second generation in my next book, the third in the trilogy. Clearly, there is collateral damage for the children of survivors and I hope to capture how the Holocaust experience — how trauma from any source — can devastate a family and subsequent generations in that book.
In Germany, January 27 has been an official Remembrance Day for the Victims of National Socialism since 1996. Last year, we participated in a 24 hour lecture at Schwalbach, where my wife’s grammar school is located. Pupils, students, politicians, and citizens all read from texts or documents about the Nazi era and the Holocaust. My wife and I read sections from your book Motherland, as you may remember. (I’m sure we told you.)
This year we stayed at home. German TV programs showed many relevant documentaries and features. The most disturbing was “Conspiracy”, an American-British co-production which replays the infamous Wannsee Conference of January 1942. In this conference, Reinhard Heydrich, assisted by Adolf Eichmann, officially discussed but actually committed mostly all too willing representatives from various agencies and ministries to the “Endlösung”. There was only one person who suggested that killing masses of people might raise serious moral problems, and in the end he also went along.
We also watched the documentary “Gerda’s Schweigen” (Gerda’s Silence). It is a film built around a long interview with Gerda Schrage, a Jewish-American of German origin in her 80s. She grew up in Berlin where her family were close friends with their Christian neighbours. With their help she survived for a while – her parents were deported and murdered – until she was betrayed (to this day, she has no idea by whom) and also sent to Auschwitz.
With luck she survived again, but her newborn baby (from an affair she had with a married man shortly before she was discovered) died in her arms, because she was not allowed to feed her. (This was one of Mengele’s experiments – otherwise they would have killed the baby right away.)
She kept the part about the baby a secret even to her own (conservative) family, husband and son, in the United States, where she had emigrated after the war. Only very late in her life did she tell the full story to Knut, a German journalist who wrote a book about Gerda’s silence and also made the film with her. (This created problems with her son – her husband, also a survivor, had already died – who could not understand why she had not told him first. He had always and urgently wanted a brother or a sister.)
Knut is the young boy from the neighbors who used to call Gerda Schrage “Tante Gertie”, Aunt Gertie. As an adult he made an effort to find her again. Together, they tracked down the family of the German soldier who had helped her escape the transport from Auschwitz to another camp. He had died in the meantime, and his children did not think he had been a good father. Nevertheless, they were delighted to learn something so kind and positive about him.
Towards the end of the film Mrs. Schrage, a very warm and mild person, says she sometimes thought her son was more of a Nazi victim than she herself had been. I don’t believe this can be taken literally, but I am curious to hear what you think about it.