The Legacy of Bystanders, Cowards, Informers, Desktop Murders, and Executioners

Ursula Duba

The First Twenty Years In Postwar Germany: Impenetrable Silence


Contrary to common belief and wishful thinking, Nazis did not vanish from German society after the end of World War II. After all, they had not been an alien force which had swept into Germany from a distant planet, had committed unspeakable atrocities, and had then vanished – leaving Germans holding the bag. The New York Times [1] noted in an article in 1997 that “Chancellor Helmut Kohl and others of his generation sought to redefine Nazism as a period when their land and people had been occupied and oppressed by evil forces” – ‘being occupied and oppressed’ sounds more like being a victim rather than acknowledging that a great majority of Germans had embraced Nazi ideology with fervor and had given in to the evil forces within themselves. In fact, ‘former’ Nazis, both low- and high-ranking, permeated every facet of society in the New Germany [2] right after 1945.


The expression Die Stunde Null (The Zero Hour) may imply that there was a completely new beginning in Germany in 1945, but an astounding one-third of chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s [3] cabinet consisted of well- known high-ranking former Nazis, and Hans Globke, the infamous co-author of the Nuremberg race laws, was Adenauer’s right hand until 1963. According to Hildegard Hamm-Bruecher, 15% of all elected representatives to the German parliament in 1949 were known to be implicated in various Nazi crimes [4]. There was no public outcry about this. The entire judicial system, the education system, the medical profession – even the byzantine civil service [5] which had shaped German society for over a hundred years – was filled with former Nazis. Many physicians who had participated in the T-4 project [6] and others who had been the architects of mass murder in the death camps, went unpunished and frequently continued to hold leading positions in medical institutions and at medical schools. Judges who signed the death sentences of army deserters and of all those who had opposed the Nazi regime were never prosecuted and continued to serve as judges at the beginning of the New Germany. Teachers who had singled out German-Jewish youth for abuse, who had lauded the Nazi regime and who had enthusiastically extolled the superiority of the ‘master race’ and its right to conquer the world, continued to teach. Leaders and clergy of both the Catholic and Protestant faith who had applauded Hitler and/or had remained silent during the extermination of European Jews and others, continued in their roles as spiritual and moral leaders of their flocks.


Inge Deutschkron, a German Jew, who had spent the war years in hiding in Berlin and decided to help rebuild postwar Germany out of gratitude to all those who had helped her during the Nazi regime, has written about the infestation of former Nazis in the new German Federal Republic in her book “Life After Survival” [7]. One example she quotes is about Gustav Adolf Gedat who had stated in 1935 that “God ordered hunters to chase Jews to where God wants them” [8]. This was not an obstacle for Mr. Gedat to become an elected representative to the second Bundestag serving from 1953-1965. In that capacity, Mr. Gedat succeeded in banning the showing of the 1965 film Das Haus in der Karpfengasse at the Cannes Film Festival with the help of the German Ambassador in Paris, who successfully intervened on Mr. Gedat’s behalf. The film, based on a novel by Y. Ben-Gavriel, depicted a fictional family of refugees from Prague during the Nazi Regime. Mr. Gedat told elected representatives and film experts during a closed showing of this movie that “a political movie should not be shown abroad, that even within Germany young people were not interested in such a topic and that the older generation should be left alone”. [9]


The following are two cases that Inge Deutschkron details in her book about the contrasting career paths of Dr. Adolf Sonnenhol and Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz. Sonnenhol had joined the Nazi party in 1931 and the SS in 1938, had worked in Hitler’s State Department and had held several diplomatic posts during the Third Reich. Despite this, he held an important position in the OEEC (Organization for the Economic European Cooperation) in 1949, was sent to South Africa as German Ambassador in 1968, and ended his career as German Ambassador to Turkey in 1977 [10].


The career of Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, on the other hand, took a completely different turn. Duckwitz had held a post at the German Embassy in Copenhagen in 1943 and had informed the Danish resistance movement of the planned deportation of Jews as soon as he had learned about it. In addition, he personally took it upon himself to make sure that the guards stationed at the port of Copenhagen ‘looked the other way’ during a few following nights while Jews were ferried over to Sweden. He was later interrogated by the Gestapo but was fortunately released. Duckwitz became Denmark’s first German ambassador. But his diplomatic career ended abruptly during the Adenauer-era, when he was relegated to an inferior position.


A poll taken in the late 1950s revealed that 57% of Germans still felt that National Socialism had been a good idea, but had merely been carried out poorly [11]. “The extent of the atrocities which were revealed during the Nuremberg trial and other ensuing trials were often denounced and rejected as ‘justice of the victors’ and occasionally even mocked by the German public” [12].


One can infer that a fair number of civil servants who processed applications of Holocaust survivors for restitution in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the physicians who assessed health problems of those applicants, had themselves been ardent Nazis or even members of the SS [13] in the not too distant past. Can we now imagine how Jewish survivors must have felt having to interact with organizations that included former Nazi supporters, civil servants and others who carried out their tasks of processing the application of Holocaust victims for restitution?


During my family’s weekly attendance at Sunday mass , I don’t remember ever hearing a single prayer said for the victims of Hitler’s henchmen. Obviously, the Christian command ‘to love thy neighbor as yourself’ did not apply to those victims, or may we infer that those victims were not considered worthy of being our neighbors? Even though I was inundated with stories of Jesus’ suffering and was continuously admonished to express deep sorrow for his suffering, no such sorrow or compassion was expressed toward the victims of the Third Reich.


Individuals who had taken over jobs formerly held by German-Jewish colleagues during the Third Reich did not lose these positions in the new German Federal Republic. And owners of businesses procured under dubious circumstances for a fraction of their actual value were not required to make restitution. Houses, apartments, and other valuables were not returned to their rightful owners.


My father, who was himself a passionate socialist and a civil servant, had refused to join the Nazi party. He had consequently been denied promotion and had been kept in an inferior position. He had fervently hoped that after the collapse of the Third Reich ‘the Nazi bastards’, as he called them, would all be dismissed, and he would finally work with decent and honest people. Instead, he found himself surrounded by his former Nazi colleagues, who continued to mistreat him and who regularly reminisced about “the good old days,” even boasting about participating in the execution of Jews.


My father used to complain bitterly to my mother and to us children about the injustice of the postwar years and the Nazi-infested system, yet I don’t remember him mentioning the fact that for 25 years after WWII he worked with people who had personally participated in the extermination of Jews. Nor did he feel any responsibility to hand these murderers over to the justice system, despite their self-incriminating statements. I would like to add that I was unaware of my father’s murderous colleagues until several years after my father’s death, when my mother let this fact slip out inadvertently.


My father did, however, constantly lament the injustices and horrible treatment of the Russians [14], especially the enslaved laborers who worked nearby during the war and whom he had befriended. In the eyes of my father, there seemed to be a distinction between the suffering of Jews compared with that of Russians, with whom he identified with both politically and socially. He therefore complained with fervor about the injustices and horrible treatment accorded the Russian slave laborers during the war, while failing to empathize whatsoever with the plight of European Jews. My parents, who both grew up in Cologne, which had the oldest Jewish community in Germany, and who both must have had Jewish classmates, acquaintances, colleagues, or neighbors, apparently never wondered what happened to these German-Jewish people. There was never an attempt made to find out. Even though my parents insisted until their deaths that they had not known what was happening to German Jews during the Nazi regime, they seemed somehow to know that they were most probably dead.


It still puzzles me that even those Germans who were vehemently opposed to the Hitler regime, refrained from speaking out forcefully against the atrocities and what had been done to their Jewish fellow citizens after WWII, if for no other reason than to distance themselves from the actions of the perpetrators. After all, the new democracy allowed free speech, and nobody had to fear being arrested in the middle of the night by the Gestapo. Even renowned authors such as Heinrich Böllc [15] and Wolfgang Borchert [16], and others who wrote extensively about the horrors of war in general, failed to write about the expulsion and extermination of their Jewish fellow citizens [17].


In retrospect, the impenetrable silence of the postwar years in Germany was in fact very loud; things left unsaid continuously hovered in the air. There were glances, gestures, unfinished sentences, and allusions never explained. In my own family, I naively assumed that because my father had been staunchly anti-Hitler, his two brothers and three sisters and their respective spouses had equally been anti-Nazi. However, a few years ago a cousin of mine inadvertently let slip out that his father, my beloved uncle Heinrich [18], my father’s second oldest brother, had been a fervent believer in the Hitler regime and had actually been a voluntary member of the SS. According to this cousin, his father had been a loyal Nazi, although his politically savvy wife told him that the Nazis were murders. Heinrich did not even disavow the Nazi ideology after his wife’s own brother was murdered in a mental institution in the late thirties. I should add that no one in my extended family mourned the murdered uncle—even when it was safe to do so after the demise of the Third Reich. His name was usually whispered in half-finished sentences with the insinuation that there had been something wrong with him and that he had consequently deserved his fate.


To my knowledge, my father, the pacifist, and anti-Hitler socialist, did not ask his brother Heinrich what he had done in this murderous organization, or hold him responsible for his actions. He did not even ask him what he thought of the Nazi ideology after the destruction of our own country. In fact, he never expressed any measure of outrage. As I recently found out from Uncle Heinrich’s daughter, my father had been a frequent visitor at their house and had in fact been her favorite uncle, while Heinrich was my favorite. My own memories of Uncle Heinrich are rather vague. I don’t know which of my memories are my own and which ones are based on family lore. Even my recollection of how he looked is blurred. I don’t think I saw him more than a dozen times in my entire life, and probably not at all after age 15 – even though we lived within 30 miles of him.


But one memory is unmistakable: Uncle Heinrich was the most revered person in our family—after all, he was a physician and consequently enjoyed a coveted social position in a Germany, where titles reigned supreme. Yet I don’t remember ever having a conversation or chat with him, not even some playful banter an uncle might have with his little niece. I knew that he was admired for his dedication to his profession. My strict and unforgiving Catholic mother did not criticize her brother-in-law Heinrich who had long stopped attending mass.


It is only recently, that I have learned from his children that he was a tyrant to his wife and children. He did not allow his wife to get a driver’s license and made her a virtual prisoner in the tiny village where they lived; he made his oldest son his personal lackey, smacked his oldest daughter in her late teens when she came home a little late from a date and used his young teenage daughter as his medical assistant during nighttime deliveries of babies, which caused her to fall asleep in school the next day and eventually made her a high school drop-out. Nor was he concerned about the personal development of his second son who was somewhat physically handicapped, supposedly slightly mentally handicapped as well, but was kept out of school and consequently was neither given special education nor the opportunity to acquire social skills. This son was excluded from family gatherings, was eventually made the ward of his older brother, and lived in a rented room after his parents died. He had no family of his own, didn’t know how to make friends, and was killed by a car at age 63 while riding a bicycle.


How could a devout Nazi and a member of the SS, a bad husband and irresponsible father, a man who had given up on his faith, be accorded the reputation of near sainthood and make himself exempt from any reproaches by his anti-Nazi brother and his devoutly Catholic sisters and sisters-in-law? To my knowledge, Heinrich’s Nazi convictions and his membership in the SS are not discussed even today among his many nieces and nephews and their children who are now in their twenties and early forties.


I recently came across two newspaper clippings honoring Uncle Heinrich:

An article in a local newspaper 1983 to honor his 80th birthday, pays homage to his selfless service to the community. Another clipping of 1991 shows him receiving the Bundesverdienstkreuz, an award for outstanding civic work, along with enormous praise for his dedication to the well-being of three generations of mostly poor, rural patients. Neither article even hints at the fact that this selfless and dedicated physician had supported the Nazi regime nor was the question raised how he, lauded for his selfless service to his patients, had felt about the experiments conducted by Dr. Mengele and others.


Then there was my uncle Erich, the lawyer who had been a judge during the Nazi regime. I remember hearing aspersions about Uncle Erich’s low moral character by my parents, but nothing specific was ever said. Since Uncle Erich was a womanizer who kept his family in semi-poverty because he preferred to spend his income on an ever-changing assortment of mistresses, I naturally assumed that those aspersions pertained to his sexual value system. Did Uncle Erich sign death sentences of army deserters or of those courageous Germans who maintained their humanity and opposed Nazi injustice and atrocities? It should be emphasized that since Erich was the husband of my father’s oldest sister and therefore not a blood relative, my father’s disdain for him was openly and frequently expressed.


To this day, I have no idea what my father’s oldest brother’s political convictions had been during the Nazi regime, but recent research at the National Archives in Washington DC revealed that my mother’s oldest brother joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party) in 1937. Unfortunately, the archives in Washington DC are incomplete, and I have no access to the archives of my aunts and uncles in Berlin without the express permission of their children.


During family gatherings, mostly first communions and confirmations, when we children were all still quite young, I remember the women doing a lot of whispering in the kitchen. The men, all academics, engaged in a game of one-upmanship by challenging each other about who could best remember rules of Old Greek or Latin grammar . I don’t remember a single conversation among those learned people about politics past or present — the Third Reich, Hitler, our mad pursuit to conquer the world just a few years earlier, the prevalence of Nazis in the postwar years in leading positions in schools.


My four brothers were enrolled at a Gymnasium whose principal had joined the Nazi party in the late twenties and who had been a Major of the Pioniere. The Pioniere had overseen rebuilding bridges, roads and other necessary infrastructure which were destroyed through the bombing and had used slave laborers and concentration camp survivors for this work. Before that, he had been responsible for the proper teaching of National Socialism at schools of the entire state of Rhineland-Westphalia.


This principal managed to create the legend that his efforts and his rallying of high school students had saved the severely bombed cathedral in Cologne from collapse, and he was consequently taken back into the civil service and allowed to teach. The truth is that the saving of the cathedral was carried out with the help of slave laborers. Obviously, no major effort had been made at the time to check this story. This principal made it his goal to hire as many former Nazi teachers as he could – most of whom had held high positions in the military during the war. He ran his school with an iron fist. Physical education was highly stressed and was carried out militaristically. Small and physically weak students were subjected to extra heavy exercises. No concern was expressed as to how these teachers would influence us children [19] nor did I hear any reflections or insights whatsoever about the very recent regime and its aftermath.


Indeed, I grew up with the notion that there had been a war and that we were merely the unlucky ones who had lost. What I did hear in abundance instead was the constant lament about our own suffering caused by the bombing by the Allied Forces, the food and housing shortages, the ruins, having to absorb millions of refugees expelled from territories lost, and the plight of German prisoners of war, especially the ones in Russian captivity. That this suffering was self-inflicted and was the direct consequence of our own actions was never mentioned, not even by my pacifist anti-Hitler father! Nor did anyone mention the death and suffering of tens of millions of innocent people caused by our invasions and the extermination of six million Jews.


These memories coincide with Brigit Rommelspacher’s [20] observations; she notes that “parents and grandparents infantilized themselves by saying that they didn’t hear anything, didn’t know anything and couldn’t do anything.” In retrospect, it appears to me that the prevailing notion was that we Germans were uniquely equipped to suffer the most. No one else could come close to our suffering: not the Jews, not the Russians, not the inhabitants of the West European countries whom we had conquered and terrorized. Even in our victimization we clung to ideas of superiority.


Another component of our successful avoidance of any insight, self-analysis, or a reckoning with our past was our single-minded devotion to the restoration of our material world. We cleared the rubble in our cities in no time at all and built and manufactured in a frenzy that is hard to fathom 50 years later. Inge Deutschkron describes this process vividly in her book Leben nach dem Überleben. And since being industrious was lauded as one of the most admired virtues in German society, this industriousness allowed us to feel intensely virtuous about ourselves and look down on those countries which did not rebuild with the same fervor. It was as if we wanted to restore our soiled reputation and bury our sorrow – for what we had done to ourselves in the process of becoming bystanders, cowards, snitches, and murderers — by displaying new houses filled with ultra-modern furniture and proudly wearing new overcoats and shoes. New overcoats and shoes became important status symbols – much more so than what was worn underneath the coats.


Thanks to the Marshall Plan , we Germans were in the midst of the so-called economic miracle and unabashedly reveled in our accomplishments ten years after the end of WWII. We were shocked when we traveled to countries we had bombed and saw ruins that had not yet been removed. For us, this was a sign of slovenliness and was often commented upon by the adults with consternation and even anger.


No opportunity was ever missed to nurture the notion of our own victimization and to point to shortcomings and misdeeds committed by other countries. As I describe in my poem Blind Date [21], I did not learn about the Holocaust until I was 19 years old in 1958 on a trip abroad. I would like to add that this experience is echoed by many Germans of my generation.


In 1961-62, I spent a year living in a kibbutz and traveling in Israel. When I returned to Germany and went to visit my family, neither my parents nor any of my six intellectually inquisitive siblings, five of whom were attending graduate school at the time asked me a single question about meeting German Jews or Holocaust survivors in Israel, or how I had been received and treated as a German by Israelis in general. Nor was the opportunity taken to discuss the legacy of the Third Reich and the persecution and extermination of our fellow Jewish citizens. and European Jews. Years later, a brother of mine told me that my mother had expressed indignation about my stay in an ‘unchristian country.’ The only interest expressed was by my father’s oldest sister, uncle Erich’s wife, who was a former social worker. She asked me whether “Jews living in Israel still smelled offensively?”


A few months ago, my oldest brother, a retired high school history teacher, let slip out that he had skipped lectures at Cologne university repeatedly to attend the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt in 1963 – 1965. Even though I was living in Frankfurt at the time, my brother did not visit me and kept his attendance at this trial a secret for close to four decades. The fact that I had recently returned from a year-long stay in Israel and that my fiancé’s father had had to flee his native Romania during the Nazi regime because he was Jewish, did not allow my brother to break through the pervasive silence and tell me about his interest in this ground-breaking trial. I am utterly perplexed as to why my brother adhered to the prevailing societal taboo of talking about the accused murderers of Jews even though our father was a socialist, and an avowed opponent of the Nazis. When I asked my brother why he never told me about his attendance at this trial, despite my obvious interest in issues related to the Holocaust, he answered “I didn’t want to show off.”

The Anger Of Young Germans When Reminded Of The Holocaust


I left Germany in 1965 and did not return there for the next seven years. For the first five years, my former husband and I lived in an Eastern European neighborhood in Brooklyn among refugees and Holocaust survivors, and while I was primarily occupied with raising a family, I got to know bits and pieces of my neighbors’ stories. Eventually, these stories became the impetus for my book Tales from a Child of the Enemy (Penguin Books, 1997). This section is based primarily on my experience as a visiting author at international schools in both Germany and Belgium in 1996 and at German schools in 1997.


During student unrest in the US and other European countries, I tried to keep myself informed about the student revolt in Germany in 1968 with the hope that the Achtundsechzigers [22] would begin to research their parents’ roles in the Hitler regime and would finally put an end to the silence. Yet thirty years after my arrival in the United States, a second cousin of mine, a young physician in her late twenties, vehemently told me her grandparents’ generation had every right to revel in the accomplishments of the postwar years. She talked with pride about the dedication and efficiency with which they had rebuilt our bombed-out cities in such a short period of time.


I was stunned by this young German’s defense and wondered what had become of the traces of the revolt by the Achtundsechziger. Where was the anger at the generation had committed unspeakable atrocities and had left us with a legacy which was hard to bear. I responded to my cousin’s comment by asking her “Why should we be impressed with that generation’s accomplishments? After all, we Germans built extermination camps and an elaborate railroad system leading to these extermination camps with the same remarkable dedication and efficiency just a few years earlier. Besides, is it fair to focus solely on our accomplishments without acknowledging the havoc and destruction we wrought in dozens of countries on tens of millions of people just a few earlier?” There was no response from my cousin.


According to a recent conversation with Birgit Rommelspacher, the silence of the first postwar years was broken during the student revolts of 1968. But instead of focusing on the personal history of their families and instead of trying to understand how their families’ history had shaped them, the anger expressed to the generation of perpetrators was undifferentiated and was simply a wholesale condemnation of everybody older than themselves. “You are all murderers!” they accused their parents’ generation.


Self-righteous condemnation did not lend itself to the opening of a dialogue between parents and children. One of the arguments used to dismiss the accusations of their children was “you weren’t there and consequently you have no idea what it was like,” falsely suggesting that any form of resistance had been impossible and would have led to a sure death.


In addition, the intergenerational anger quickly turned into condemnation of imperialism in general and the US in particular. Before long, young German students were preoccupied with demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. What went missing was the confrontation with the personal history of the family and the necessary mourning for the victims of the Nazi terror. It is notable that groups like the Red Brigade and the Bader-Meinhof-Group which resorted to extreme violence in their pursuit to end imperialism, took considerable hold in both Germany and Italy, but to a much lesser degree in other European countries which experienced similar student revolts. It is equally notable that the sixty-eighters do not talk to their own children about the Third Reich and the horrors it perpetrated and thus continue the legacy of silence [23].


During the massive demonstrations in Germany in 1991 against the Gulf War, no one thought to demonstrate against the numerous German companies which had sold equipment, chemicals and technical know-how to Saddam Hussein for the manufacturing of chemical weapons [24], even though it was known worldwide that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians and that these weapons represented an enormous threat to Israel.


In 1993, I was invited as guest author at schools in Germany and Belgium to read from my manuscript Tales from a Child of the Enemy (Penguin, 1997). I noticed that the emotional and intellectual response of the German students at these schools was drastically different from the response of the non-German students[25] The non-German students responded with what I consider appropriate emotion (e.g. sadness) to the stories of the Holocaust survivors. They asked questions about the people in these stories and wanted to know more about me personally and my experiences during the war. Invariably, one of the main questions was whether the stories were based on real people; if so, how I had met them; how they had felt about me, a German Gentile; what it was like during the bombing attacks; and how my family and friends responded to my writing. They wanted to know more. On the other hand, the about 10 to 15% German student body at these schools, responded with sullen anger. Once in a class of high school seniors, several students exclaimed, “if it wasn’t for people like you spreading all this sh–, we wouldn’t be mistreated by the rest of the world!” They expressed no interest in the content or background of the stories. None of the students asked questions about the people in the stories or about my own experiences during and after WWII. Neither were there questions as to how Germany had made the transition from a fascist society to a democratic one, whether my parents had been Nazis, and what compelled me to write a book about this topic.


Without fail comments such as “What about the war in Vietnam?” “Why aren’t there any books about slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans?” were the immediate reactions. Most young Germans knew that all Americans had sullied themselves with slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, not to mention the war in Vietnam. They presented as hard-core facts that Americans don’t write books or make documentaries about these historic events, and instead maintain silence. The overall assumption was that racism, prejudice and antisemitism is not acknowledged in present day America and consequently, Americans feel morally superior to Germans. Much to my surprise, the very same argument was raised by a German graduate student in her late twenties at Penn State in 1997 after a reading from my book there. I told this student that I was very willing to open the discussion to look at man’s inhumanity to man, but I was not willing to point to other atrocities with the purpose of diminishing atrocities committed by Germans.


Another frequent complaint of the young German students was that they are unduly burdened by or overly immersed in the Holocaust. However, it is notable that the non-German students who were subjected to the same curriculum did not feel that they were unduly burdened or overloaded with textbooks or lectures about the Holocaust.


At the time of that lecture tour in Germany in 1996, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. had recently opened, and anger was expressed about that, too. Many Germans I encountered saw the opening of this museum as another slap in the face to Germany. Many felt as though the world would not stop beating up on poor Germans.


Rommelspacher, addressing the concern that a major memorial may be misperceived as salt in German wounds, calls it “the reestablishment of the scenario which has nourished antisemitism for hundreds of years: the revengeful Jew who doesn’t want to make peace and the poor Christian victim who seeks salvation through his quiet lonely suffering.” [26] Further, many Germans seemed unaware that the initiative to build the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, USHMM, had come from Holocaust survivors; it was in fact intended as a memorial to the victims of the Shoah and was in large part financed by private donations.


Outrage was also expressed that ‘the world press’ had dared to criticize their chancellor Helmut Kohl for failing to attend the opening of the museum (the only European statesman not to do so). It ended in more outrage at the criticism heaped on Kohl for inviting President Reagan to the SS cemetery of Bitburg and what right did we [Americans] have to criticize their internal decisions! The Holocaust Museum had declined Chancellor Kohl’s offer to add a wing to it, a wing that would have depicted “the new Germany” and all its accomplishments since 1945. Kohl was obviously miffed that this offer had not been accepted. I marvel at the inability of Chancellor Kohl and his advisers, who seem not to understand that the Holocaust museum is about the Holocaust and not about Germany. I am also distressed that they did not consider that Holocaust survivors might very well be upset or even be re-traumatized by anything German, especially displays of German power.


I had never experienced such blatant hostility at any reading I had given to any other audience, which to this point had mostly consisted of mainstream Americans of varying ethnic backgrounds, and I was totally unprepared for it. Thirty years spent outside of Germany had dismantled my protective armor. Still, this experience led me to want to know whether this phenomenon was restricted to German gentile students studying at International Schools, who were, after all, a distinct minority there, or whether a similar mind-set was prevalent at German public schools.


But getting invited into German public schools turned out to be another unexpected challenge. I accumulated a three-year paper trail of mostly unanswered letters, faxes, telephone calls and emails to cultural and educational institutions in Germany, to Christian – Jewish Societies, to German-Israeli Societies, and to various individuals personally recommended to me. I finally turned to the German Information Center in New York [27] and told them that I was frequently asked by Jewish audiences how young Germans responded to my writing and that I felt embarrassed to tell them that German institutions were reluctant to invite me. The German Information Center was helpful in getting me invited to read at a public high school in Cologne, several schools in Berlin and a private Catholic school in Hamburg. I would like to add that my inquiry as to honoraria was responded to with astonishment.


Altogether, I addressed several thousand students in German high schools. The students, for the most part, represented a wide cross section of the population and were from all walks of life and varying economic backgrounds. I need to add that none of these students attended my lectures voluntarily, but rather, were required to be there either as part of their history or their English class. In other words, none of my audiences were self-selected nor did they necessarily want to be there.


The response of these students did not differ in any way from the response of the German Gentile students at the International Schools. Again, the primary response was anger at having to hear about the Holocaust, anger at being discriminated against when traveling in other countries, anger at having ‘to pay’ for something they had not done, anger that everybody ‘feels sorry for the Jews,’ anger that no one expressed sorrow at the suffering of their poor grandparents, who had been bombed and ‘who had to eat grass,’ anger exploded all over the place.


What was missing entirely in most of the students’ reactions was any expression of sorrow for the Holocaust survivors whose stories they had just heard. When I asked a group of about a hundred students at a high school in Cologne whether they would respond differently if I had written about the victims of the genocides in Cambodia in Rwanda, a chorus responded with “of course!” When I asked the students why they were unable to express sorrow for the victims of the Shoah, they responded with “We didn’t do it!”.


I encountered one notable exception in the class of seniors at the Catholic private school in Hamburg. These students, majoring in English and most of whom had spent a year as exchange students at American schools abroad and had not been treated with disdain because of being German, responded with sadness and deep emotion to the stories of Holocaust survivors. When I first asked them how they felt after hearing the survivors’ stories, they said that they felt ‘depressed’, but they nevertheless engaged in a lively conversation about the generation of perpetrators and the victims of the holocaust. However, when I repeated the same question at the end of our half-hour discussion, they all responded that they felt less personally burdened and sad, and even felt hopeful.


The class was extremely well informed about the historic data of the Third Reich and the Shoah but told me that my reading acquainted them for the first time with personal stories of survivors. I was quite surprised and asked them whether they knew about books by such authors as Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Jean Améry and others. To my utter amazement, I learned that these well informed and rather sophisticated students knew none of these authors.


Young Germans’ complaints in the 1990s about being treated poorly when traveling in other countries often lack specifics. When I ask for specific personal experiences, the conversation turns vague. A group of students at a German school [28] in Westchester, New York told me about abuses in England – but further probing revealed that the abuse happened to a group of Germans about which they had read in the newspapers and that this unfortunate event had not been their own personal experience. One student in Germany told me that someone had made a comment about his German orderliness for a task well done during a work-visit in Israel. For him this was the insult of all insults. He refused to consider the possibility that the person was paying him a genuine compliment.


A German-American who came to the United States at the age of five, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and has been involved in German-Jewish dialogue for a number of years (her father was a member of the Waffen-SS [29] and whose mother is still unabashedly antisemitic to this day) made the following statement on H-Holocaust (an electronic discussion group): “Today, the world looks at German culture (italics mine) with loathing”. In my experience, even among Holocaust survivors and their descendants, some of whom would not set foot in Germany or purchase German products, the rejection of German culture is rare. What I hear in this categorical statement is the emphasis of our victimization by the world and the total rejection of the fact that we Germans gave us a bad reputation by murdering tens of millions of innocent people and by committing unspeakable atrocities.


None of the young German students I encountered acknowledged that people in countries invaded by us, as well as ethnic groups who suffered under the Hitler regime, have every right to be wary or on guard with Germans or even blatantly mistrusting of Germans, regardless of their age, because of what they or their relatives suffered. The young Germans I spoke to failed to realize that it is unrealistic and shows a lack of understanding of human nature and of the severity of traumas inflicted by Germans to demand measured and rational responses from the victims of the Shoah or from victims of German wartime bombing and other atrocities.


I have also heard complaints from German-Gentile students and teachers about ‘all the money young [innocent] Germans still have to pay to the Jews’. The fact that the average per capita payment for restitution to victims of the Shoah has amounted to approximately $24 dollars per year (considerably less than a carton of cigarettes) and hardly causes anyone financial hardship appears unknown or unimportant. Again, they exclaim: “We didn’t do it and why should we pay for something we didn’t do?” Oddly enough, I have yet to hear complaints about the huge payments to former members of the German army and the SS, including hefty pensions to widows of members of the SS or of judges who signed death sentences of innocent people, which in 1997 alone amounted to 7 billion dollars [30].


What is the possible explanation for this? Considering that youngsters in different parts of Germany come up with the same arguments about ‘the war in Vietnam,’ and ‘the American slave trade,’ it has to be assumed that these opinions are expressed in the students’ homes, at school and in the media since most young Germans simply have not had the opportunity to clarify whether there are or aren’t any books or documentaries written about the dark chapters of American history.


My experience in the 1990s with German teachers , both in Germany and at government maintained German schools in the United States, has shown me that many teachers who were born 10 to 25 years after World War II are themselves ambivalent about the teaching of the Third Reich and the Shoah. Two teachers separately asked me in a challenging tone what I thought ‘about that Goldstein fellow’ referring to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996).


The following is an excerpt of a lecture given by Mathias Heyl [31], a German gentile who has done extensive research on the teaching of the Holocaust in Germany:

In the most common intergenerational conflict, the teachers try to derive a better position for themselves by blaming their parents for the past, but by not taking the past very seriously. Auschwitz became an instrument within this conflict, and the teachers identified themselves with the victims, thus denying their own personal and biographical links to the past as children of perpetrators and bystanders. They tried to take over the victims’ position from the authentic victims, imagining themselves as avengers. Auschwitz was an argument to them, a justification for ending their dialogue with their parents, instead of asking them seriously what happened. Auschwitz enforced their claim to be superior to their parents’ generation, but their rigor helped them to avoid confronting existential issues and dilemmas arising from the reality of Auschwitz as a historical fact.


Another attitude I meet is one in which teachers try to pay for the guilt of their own omissions. Their keyword is ‘Betroffenheit’ (consternation), and they attempt to evoke shock by forcing their students to face the masses of corpses of the victims. In the end, this approach enables them to avoid dealing responsibly with the crimes perpetrated against the victims. To these teachers, it becomes more important to speak about their own feelings, than to speak about the feelings, pains, and dreams of the people who had been killed. Their consternation leads to a rivalry between them and the real victims.


Birgit Rommelspacher expresses it similarly in her book Schuldlos - Schuldig, Wie sich Junge Frauen mit Antisemitismus Auseinandersetzen [32]: “Many students are shocked and emotionally overwhelmed when teachers discuss the politics of National Socialism in a very dry and factual way and then confront them – all of a sudden – with photos of mountains of emaciated bodies or field trips to former concentration camps where they must watch films documenting unimaginable atrocities. The students feel that the teachers leave them ‘hanging’ with these strong emotions by failing to help them in processing them.”


In addition, young Germans told me in the 1990s that they knew from an early age that the topic of the Holocaust is taboo in their homes. Consequently, they cannot share their feelings of shock, confusion, anger and sorrow with their parents when they learn about the Holocaust at school or are confronted with it in the media. I had a group of parents (who all happened to be teachers as well) bitterly complain to me “that their poor children had to learn about those terrible events.” One student told me that she heard about the Holocaust the first time while being enrolled at a school in South Africa. When she asked her father whether it was true what the teacher had taught that day, her father told her angrily to leave the class the next time the teacher would again discuss this topic.


Dr. Dori Laub’s statement “When truth dies, continuity is compromised” [33] seems relevant to many young Germans in contemporary Germany. Mathias Heyl (1993) analyzed this problem in the above lecture as follows: “Children need fairy tales, but they also need parents telling them about their lives, in order to be able to build up their own relationship to the past. But the stories their parents would have to tell are not common stories of war and adventures, but are stories to be rejected, are in fact to be ashamed of, dangerous and awful. The most important stories are not to be told, so the fathers and grandfathers, the mothers and grandmothers decide to keep silent. What they do not tell causes a kind of emptiness in the lives of their offspring. I often encounter this emptiness or vacuum in the statements of the members of the German Third Generation. We may ask whether this intergenerational conspiracy of silence is always related to the Holocaust. There were also other aspects of the Nazi system that might explain its taboo nature. It has been a painful experience for many of the generation of perpetrators and bystanders that their hopes, expectations, and dreams once linked with their Nazism, failed in the long run.” Unfortunately, young Germans don’t seem to be aware as to who compromises the necessary continuity and collude with their parents and grandparents that their pain is caused by the outside world and does not come from within themselves.


Even the progressive and well-intentioned Fritz Bauer Institute [34] expressed ambivalence about my writing. Someone sent a copy of my book Tales from a Child of the Enemy to this Institute. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from Dr. Jacqueline Gier [35], the director of the education department at the Institute, in which she expressed admiration for my book, suggested that it could be a helpful tool at German schools and asked me if I would be willing to work with them. Since I had had little success so far in reaching audiences of young Germans, I immediately wrote back and offered my services in whatever way we could think of. I then received a letter from Dr. Gier in which she told me that she had shown my book to her German staff and they had decided my book has a major weakness “because you tell survivors’ tales. I feel that survivor tales should be told by the survivors themselves.”


I was stunned at the arrogance of anyone, especially German Gentiles, making a rule as to who can and cannot tell stories of survivors of the Shoah. Obviously, when it comes to artistic freedom, German employees at the Fritz Bauer Institute appear to have taken on the responsibility of creating rules and regulations as to who can write what. When I met with Dr. Gier a few months later in Frankfurt/Main and expressed puzzlement about this criticism and its implication and asked her if she and her colleagues would be equally disturbed if I would write stories of survivors of the genocides in Cambodia or Rwanda , she responded with an emphatic “Of course not!”


At that point, Dr. Gier realized that there was something else at work here. I then told her what had compelled me to write stories of my Brooklyn neighbors, whom I knew first as personal acquaintances and friends over a period of several years and did not look at as impersonal and abstract concepts such as ‘survivors.’ For me, they were flesh and blood human beings whose stories had etched themselves into my mind and soul. She listened with understanding and interest and concluded that most Germans never can get to know survivors of the Shoah as neighbors and friends and that for them, survivors are primarily abstract figures who conjure up guilt feelings. Unfortunately, no further offers of collaboration with the Fritz Bauer Institute followed, and despite numerous letters written by Holocaust survivors to the Fritz Bauer Institute expressing their support for Tales, Dr. Giere and her colleagues did not withdraw their objections to my writing. Then there is the issue of distrust among Germans. I have personally encountered a fair amount of this even among Germans who are genuinely trying to do honest and courageous work. This distrust among Germans is expressed in being suspicious of others’ motives .


How does one explain the fact that all those fine and courageous people who maintained their humanity and resisted the Nazi terror had yet (as of 2002) to be honored in Germany and are not held up as role models for young Germans? These role models could give young Germans something to be truly proud of. Many debates were held in the parliament during the past 54 years to rehabilitate all those who were convicted of anti-Nazi crimes, but without success: the forces who maintained that they had committed crimes and should consequently continue to be listed as criminals always prevailed. Fortunately, (now former) chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder , took it upon himself to finally remove these brave souls from the criminal records, but removing them from the criminal records is still a long way off from honoring them for their courage and humanity. Not surprisingly, an American Jew first honored Oscar Schindler before he became known in Germany for his deeds of courage. And Nathan Stoltzfuss, an American gentile, wrote the book The Rosenstrasse, in which he describes the months-long demonstrations of German gentile wives married to German Jews. These wives demonstrated in 1943 in front of the Gestapo building in Berlin, because their husbands were destined to be deported to Auschwitz. The courageous demonstrations resulted in the eventual release of the husbands, and the wives did not suffer any ill consequences because of their unlawful protests. Marlene Dietrich [36] is a person of scorn to many Germans: a decision was made to name a street in Berlin after her, but tremendous opposition arose, because she, too, is considered a traitor by many.


By keeping silent about all those who defied the Nazi regime and those who helped the persecuted, the common and much beloved myth is kept alive ‘that it was impossible to do anything, and that any resistance or opposition would have resulted in one’s own and one’s family death.’ Even though it would probably help German youth tremendously to have role models with whom they could identify and who would give them a sense of pride in being German, we see elders’ efforts to keep prevalent myths alive rather than consider the emotional and psychological needs of future generations.


How is this agenda to cover up while simultaneously giving the impression of openness carried out? I would like to offer two examples: While I was looking for a particular book in a public library in Berlin, I noticed that there was a physical category for literature about National Socialism [37] but I could find no such category for the Holocaust. Research in other public libraries in Hamburg, Cologne and Munich showed similar results. Art Spiegelman’s Maus – A Survivor’s Tale [38] is to be found among comic books while several major bookstores in Berlin used the category “Judaica” for literature about the Holocaust. When I discussed this with the deputy director of the Haus der Wannsee Konferenz [39], she told me that the word “Holocaust is an English word and therefore inappropriate for use in Germany”. When I pointed out that this word is of Greek origin and is globally used and understood worldwide to describe a specific historic event, she dug in her heels a little more. I should add that contemporary German is permeated with English and American expressions, but Germans don’t find it odd that the one word they don’t want to use in libraries and bookstores happens to be the word ‘Holocaust’.


Germans, young or old, rarely hear German-Jews referred to as Germans. Consequently, they do not know that German Jews had in fact been our neighbors, colleagues, classmates, family physicians, family lawyers, had been German citizens for over a hundred years and had lived in Germany for centuries before becoming German citizens. German Jews have been referred to as Jews, or worse as “the Jews,” thereby continuing marginalization and clearly separating Jewish people from German society. In 1996, The German Information Center [40] in New York City, published a book called From Horror to Hope. On the first page, it states “Germans and Jews share a long history in Germany” [41]. If we Germans continue to use Nazi Terminology, including language of exclusion, I see little hope that young Germans will be able to see Jews, wherever they live, as citizens of their respective countries and as part of the family of mankind and will therefore never understand the full impact of the extermination of German and European Jewry.


Birgit Rommelspacher has analyzed the phenomenon of seeming openness and simultaneous cover-up and writes:

Children and grandchildren are being confronted at schools and by the media with public remembering. The chasm between public speaking and private silence leads to suspicion. From a personal perspective, the public speeches appear to be artificial and exaggerated, since most were led to believe that National Socialism was none of their concern. On the other hand, the knowledge about the Nazi crimes creates a general suspicion about their personal lives; are the lovable parents and grandparents criminals? Even the most insignificant question causes monstrous moments of suspicion and takes away any harmlessness which consequently causes any conversation to be blocked right at the beginning.” [42]


Is it possible to normalize contemporary German society, a wish often expressed by young Germans? Rommelspacher suggests: “Such normalcy would require normalizing the crimes committed. Germans are well versed in this. For example, when grandmother who is asked by her granddaughter about the night of the pogrom on November 9, 1938, (Kristallnacht ), she replies without any expression of emotion ‘that she heard the sound of broken glass somewhere,’ she tries to turn this event into an everyday occurrence by denying the extraordinariness of this event and by denying her own inner participation. She does not tell her granddaughter who smashed whose windows, whether she was scared herself or whether she was elated, what her own position was at the time and what she thinks about it today. What she does tell her granddaughter instead is that those events did not affect her emotionally and are none of your business. The event itself is removed, is made to sound alien, and is bereft of any personal connection. This is the exact opposite of acknowledging one’s own history.


Remembering may mean acknowledgement or, conversely, estrangement. One can assume that much of the public remembering leads to estrangement, because the generation which does the revealing does not acknowledge their own guilt and the guilt of their forbears. In this process of revelation, it denies the personal connection but simultaneously insists on being morally superior and demands submission by the younger generation. It is precisely because of this that this history will never stop being explosive because it continues to live in the distrust of the children toward their parents and grandparents. This distrust often turns into distrust of the self, because of the missing resonance of the elders. What’s missing is a moral authority which could give guidance as to how to deal with this history. The distrust and moral confusion becomes the psychological legacy of the descendants and creates a confusing guilt feeling which seems to weigh one down, solely for being German [43].


My own observations make me suspect that much of the public speaking and many of the Holocaust commemorations are inspired by the fervent wish to erase the horror of the Holocaust by making nice and thereby fixing Germany’s reputation [44]. Germany is not powerful enough to achieve this goal and consequently creates substantial frustration for those involved in this endeavor. The book Fragen an Die Deutche Geschichte (Questions about German History), published by the German Parliament in 1985 [45], simply does not address the problems caused by former Nazis in the new German government, in the judicial system, in the education system, in the civil service and in the military. Neither does this book reveal that the New Germany is imprinted by the legacy of the Nazi regime to this day.


How can we account for the anger of some young Germans? Perhaps, whereas the Hitler regime was instituted and maintained both from the top down and from the bottom up, most discourse since has been imposed from the top down to an increasingly resentful populace. By and large, within most German families and between the perpetrator generation and subsequent generations, there is still little private talk about Nazi persecution and extermination of two thirds of European Jews. In turn, younger generations feel abandoned by their elders in their search for understanding and consequently become resentful and angry.


A recent study reveals that many Germans fill in the void of the actual knowledge about their grandfathers with fantasies in which the grandfathers are turned into heroes. It is not surprising then that young Germans react with anger to anyone who claims that the majority of adult Germans during the Hitler regime were at best bystanders and at worst murderers.


Too much emphasis is often placed on abstract facts and figures and not enough on personal stories, which would humanize the abstract data. Human stories could tremendously help young Germans and others to see the Shoah as an enormous human tragedy for all of humanity and not as an endlessly repeated accusation.


I would like to suggest that many of our noble efforts to redeem ourselves have been carried out with the unconscious wish ‘to make the Holocaust go away’ so that we would be redeemed in the eyes of the world. In other words, we have focused on achieving an outward redemption rather than engaging in the inward effort of self-reflection to learn to live with the long shadows of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust.


While reading the book The Children of Job, by Alan L. Berger [46], I was struck by the enormous outpouring of creative works in film, documentaries, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, opera and music from the descendants of the Shoah and the creative expressions of their own personal history as children or grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust. In contrast, there is much less creative outpouring expressing the legacy of children and grandchildren of bystanders and murderers. Considering that creativity is equally distributed in all societies, what creative energies are used in avoiding that which is forever present, but not acknowledged and consequently not expressed?


I have encountered quite a few German gentiles, young and old , who do not fit the profile above. They are sincerely struggling with their legacy, are doing honest and courageous research about their family histories and the Third Reich and try to learn as much as possible about these topics. Unfortunately, these individuals are often ostracized by their own families and the society at large and are by some called Nestbeschmutzer and are accused and suspected of having dubious motives for wanting to know the truth. They are often isolated and don’t seem to have a network to which to connect and from which to draw support and strength. Not surprisingly, these Germans do not feel victimized by the world. Instead of suffering from a confused feeling of guilt, they feel a sense of responsibility for the present and the future and confirm the dictum that ‘the truth will set us free.’


In closing, I do not think that the avoidance of facing our dark history is uniquely German. This avoidance strikes me instead as quintessentially human. Whether we look at the genocide of Native Americans, the horrendous suffering caused by slavery, the Armenian genocide, Japan’s horrific conduct during WWII, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, or the genocide in Rwanda, it is not easy for any of us to overcome our deep shame at having believed in or having followed a murderous regime, of having cast aside our own ethics, of having passively stood by while countless victims were murdered. Many even profited from the injustices perpetrated against those arbitrarily deemed inferior and some directly or indirectly participated in the murder itself. But even while this behavior is human, that doesn’t make it acceptable.

References and Footnotes

[1] New York Times, July 6, 1997

[2] Many Germans place great emphasis on the existence of a ‘New Germany’, since the creation of the German Federal Republic in 1949.

[3] Adenauer was the first chancellor of the newly founded German Federal Republic.

[4] p. 55 Hildegard Hamm-Bruecher Zerreißt den Mantel der Gleichgültigkeit

[5] The structure of the civil service in Germany was unique in that the civil servant was required to take an oath of loyalty to the State and is precluded from being fired unless convicted of a crime. However, atrocities committed by Nazis during the Hitler regime were, to a large extent, exempted from criminal liability and therefore civil servants involved in the atrocities committed were readmitted to their lifelong positions after a relatively easily attained “denazification” process. After 1949, civil servants had to take an oath to protect the constitution and were no longer beholden to the State.

[6] The T-4 project was one of the projects in which physically and mentally handicapped German children and adults were killed.

[7] Inge Deutschkron Lebern nach dem Überleben, dtv 1995

[8] p. 130 Leben nach dem Überleben

[9] p. 131 Leben nach dem Überleben

[10] p. 132 and 133 Leben nach dem Überleben

[11] p. 59 Hildegard Hamm Buecher Zerreißt den Mantel der Gleichgültigkeit

[12] p. 52 Hildegard Hamm-Bruecher Zerreißt den Mantel der Gleichgültigkeit

[13] The SS (Schutzstaffel), under leadership of Himmler, had originally consisted of Hitler’s bodyguards in the early twenties, but later attracted members who believed in ‘the master race’ and these became a formidable force of its own in the Third Reich. The Waffen SS (part of the army) was known for its ruthless conduct and supplied forces to the Einsatzgruppen who were instrumental in the extermination of millions of Jews. Members of the Totenkopf (skull and bone) supplied personnel to concentration and extermination camps.

[14] Millions of Russians and citizens from other Eastern European countries were used as slave laborers during the Third Reich.

[15] Heinrich Böll received a Nobel Prize for his literary oeuvre

[16] Wolfgang Borchert died in his mid-twenties in 1948

[17] See The Language of Silence by Ernestine Schlant (Rutgers 1999)

[18] names have been changed

[19] My parents did not allow us to join the girl- or boy-scouts, because they associated the wearing of uniforms with the Hitler Youth, but they did not express any concern in what way Nazi teachers might influence us.

[20] Dr. Birgit Rommeslpacher is a psychologist who teaches at the Alice Solomon Schule in Berlin. Her essay About Public Speaking and Private Silence appeared in the Tageszeitung, Berlin, 12-19-1998

[21] Tales from a Child of the Enemy (Penguin 1997)

[22] The word Achtundsechziger (Sixty-eighters) refers to all those who organized and participated in student revolts in Western Europe and the United States in 1968.

[23] According to Brigit Rommelspacher, 1998

[24] GAS by Lea Fleischmann, Steidl Verlag 1991

[25] Foreign students at those schools are from a variety of countries, including the United States, Japan, Korea, India, Pakistan, England, and other European countries.

[26] Birgit Rommelspacher, Tageszeitung 12-19-1998

[27]The German Information Center is part of the German State Department and works closely with the German Embassy in Washington, DC.

[28] The school is fully funded by the German government.

[29] A section of the armed forces under the command of the SS.

[30] Meanachem Rosenzaft, conference on Holocaust restitution at Mount Sinai Hospital, November 1997.

[31] Mathias Heyl Teaching the Holocaust in Germany – Issues and Dilemmas, Lecture given at Wittenberg University, October 24, 1993

[32] p. 18, Schuldlos – Schuldig Konkret 1995

[33] Dr. Dori Laub at Yale, Genocide Studies Program, 2-11-1999

[34] Fritz Bauer was a German Jew who left Germany, but then returned to Germany after 1945 in order to help Germany rebuild a “new Germany”. He was attorney general of the state of Hessen and was instrumental in initiating the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt/Main in 1963 to 1965. The Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt was founded in 1995 with the specific mandate to educate Germans about the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

[35] Dr. Gier is herself an American who has lived in Germany since the late sixties and is married to a German Gentile.

[36] Marlene Dietrich was a well-known German-Gentile actress who lived in the USA and who entertained American troops in Europe during WWII.

[37] National Socialism is the preferred term used rather than Nazi-Regime and in itself sounds much less loaded.

[38] Maus – A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman, Random House, 1986

[39] A museum, research and education center created to educate the public about the Third Reich and the Holocaust in the villa in which the extermination of European Jewry was planned by Eichmann and others.

[40] The German Information Center, located in New York City, is part of the German State Department and affiliated with the German Embassy in Washington, DC.

[41] From Horror to Hope, by Hans Weissmann & Brigitte Gess, The German Information Center, New York City NY, 1996.

[42] Birgit Rommelspacher in Die Tageszeitung 12-19-1998

[43] Birgit Rommelspacher in Die Tageszeitung 12-19-1998

[44] See my poem Not fixable in my book Tales from a Child of the Enemy, Penguin 1997

[45] Deutscher Bundestag 1985, Presse- und Informationszentrum, Referat Oeffentlichkeitsarbeit, Bonn

[46] State University of New York Press, 1997


Editor’s note

Please keep in mind that this essay was first written in 1998, based on the author’s personal experiences which took place from the 1950s and up through the 1990s. And of course, many things have changed in the new millennium. As Gross and Stevick (among others) note in the curricular journal Prospects (2010), Holocaust education, including German and international Holocaust education, has had its share of problems.  At the same time, it has also developed quickly in the new millennium and with 21st century technologies.  Holocaust and human rights education have the potential to transform citizenship and other forms education, including curricula, people, and the processes involved. Using reflection and avoiding learner-shaming, modern educators are encouraged to emphasize diversities within groups and explore the local meanings of the Holocaust, including in German regions and communities.  Rather than subsuming the Holocaust in the historic crimes of fascist and communist regimes, the world community (including Germany) is increasingly following UN guidance in creating cultures of remembrance.


Since Theodore Adorno’s 1966 radio speech, we remember that the first demand of Holocaust education is that there not be another Auschwitz. And we have been assured that instructional practices in history have changed drastically in recent decades. “Teaching about National Socialism and the Holocaust is an obligatory part of German school curricula and is governed by the 16 federal states (Boschki et. al., 2010, p. 31). We expect Holocaust education to be transformational, changing hearts and minds, whether or not it does.


Further, Boschki et al (2010, p. 135) note that the “quality of textbooks and history teaching on this topic improved, as a new generation of critical and historically aware teachers began to gain more influence in schools.”  Still, even with improvements and a wider range of educational approaches, better books and trained teachers do not necessarily imply that all students learn the intended lessons. Shame and anger may not be fully erased by higher quality curricula or pedagogy.  So, reasonable concerns, including those raised by Duba, remain.


In addition, scholars find that Holocaust- and war-related trauma affects many different groups and populations, including not only victims, but also bystanders and perpetrators. German and Austrian trauma after the Holocaust festered for more than 50 years, in parallel with a growing literature on the question of guilt. As Duba and others illustrate (Pearl 2005), trauma and tensions grew in the silences, which were especially tense in the homes and among families of people who were involved in carrying out or covering up this crime and injustice. At times, individual responsibility for war crimes was publicly pursued while collective guilt was not discussed, or it was considered too anonymous. Children of perpetrators and new generations of the German public have struggled with the Holocaust’s meaning and interpretations (Kellerman, 2009). Duba’s work reflects this struggle, which is not always easy, and which does not always result in a clear view of a destructive, difficult, and stormy historical record.



Adorno, T. W. (1997). Education after Auschwitz [1966]. In H. Schreier & M. Heyl (Eds.), Never again! The Holocaust’s challenge for educators (pp. 11–20). Hamburg: Kraemer. (first English translation of Adorno’s radio speech).

Boschki, R., Reichmann, B., & Schwendemann, W. (2010). Education after and about Auschwitz in Germany: Towards a theory of remembrance in the European context. Prospects (Paris), 40(1), 133–152. Springer Link 

Gross, Z., & Stevick, E. D. (2010). Introduction to the Open File: Holocaust education—International perspectives: Challenges, opportunities and research. Prospects (Paris), 40(1), 17–33. Springer Link

Kellermann, N. P. F. (2009). Holocaust trauma: Psychological effects and treatment. iUniverse, Inc.

Perl, S. (2005). On Austrian soil: Teaching those I was taught to hate. State University of New York Press.

Teaching Resources

The Legacy of Bystanders, Cowards, Informers, Desktop Murders, and Executioners

Click to view Teaching Resources for “The Legacy of Bystanders, Cowards, Informers, Desktop Murders, and Executioners”


The Legacy of Bystanders, Cowards, Informers, Desktop Murders, and Executioners

Students: please read and respond to this chapter from a free OER textbook on the Holocaust.  Please write a short essay (parameters noted by the teacher); follow the three-topic writing prompts below.  Please use academic writing style in your essays.
Duba (2023) critiques how many Germans were bystanders and later silent about the Holocaust.

  1. How does she describe an ‘impenetrable silence of the postwar years in Germany?’
  2. How does Duba’s own family reflect the silence of post-war Germany?
  3. How does she illustrate how many in younger (‘new German’) generations became angry at the prior (Nazi) generation?

Teaching resource by Professor Michael Polgar, May 2023.


About the author

Ursula Duba is a poet. This chapter is based on a lecture given by Duba as part of the Yale University Mellon Sawyer Seminar Series on Genocide on February 25, 1999.  It was updated in December 2002, and then edited in 2022 for this OER textbook. This lecture includes personal reflection on her experiences as a German-born post-war author who is one of many who recognized the difficult intergenerational and family relationships that were related to unacknowledged complicity and the many silences surrounding Nazi crimes.



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The Holocaust:  Remembrance, Respect, and Resilience Copyright © 2023 by Ursula Duba is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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