Haaretz International

 

 

[Haaretz vom Mittwoch, 1. Dezember 2004]

Father didn't talk about the SS
A trip to Germany reveals not only where Jews once lived, but how children of ex-Nazis are dealing with it - or not



By Orna Coussin
GERMANY - It would be hard to recommend this trip through southwestern Germany to others. It is far from enjoyable. Disheartening, in fact. But it is also interesting and at times emotionally stirring. In recent years, this sort of "heritage tourism" has developed, as an added and essential - if not alternative - offshoot of the commemoration journeys to the death camps in Poland. The added value of this tour has to do with the encounter with children and grandchildren of Nazis, with Germans who are contending for the first time - courageously and with difficulty - with their own families' past.

The cold and gray of late November suited the atmosphere of the trip. A delegation set out from Israel last week, at the invitation of the German Tourism Ministry, to tour the area of the destroyed Jewish communities that lie south of Frankfurt. The ancient cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz - known collectively by their Hebrew acronym Shum - constituted the heart and soul of Ashkenaz Jewry from the Middle Ages on. From there we also toured smaller cities in southern Germany such as Breisach and Sulzberg in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the pastoral wine and spa region along the French border. Wherever you go, the streets are covered in reddish autumn leaves. The sky is dreary.

Rashi's pink chair

Touring the "Shum" cities furnished interesting information, akin to what you may learn at Tel Aviv's Diaspora Museum, but it did not generate any sense of emotional involvement. The cities are small and toylike, quiet and conservative. All of the residents are Christian: half Catholic, half Protestant. The Church's presence is noticeable, as is the feeling of suffocation you feel as soon as you enter these homogeneous towns and cities in the periphery.

Mainz is the birthplace of the inventor of the printing press and the illustrious distributor of the Bible, Johann Gutenberg, as well as the Maharil - the acronym of Rabbi Yaakov HaLevi ben Moshe Moellin - the spiritual leader of the Jews of Germany, Austria and Bohemia. On the tour you stop by a monument, gaze at a statue, receive an explanation at the entrance to a building formerly occupied by Jews, and get an impression of a synagogue that survived Kristallnacht in November 1938. Hundreds of Jews lived here over the years, between pogrom and expulsion. But most of the visitor's attention is drawn to the Christmas market that has opened in the city center, with its enticing, vibrant, sweet-scented cheerfulness.

In the town of Worms, further down the Rhein, a representative of the local Jewish community leads us to the Rashi Synagogue, a handsome, impressive building that is a reconstruction of the synagogue built in the early 11th century by the Christian builders' guild, which also built the local cathedral. Here, yes here, on this pinkish stone seat, Rashi - Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the most important medieval commentator on the Bible - sat, taught, interpreted and wrote in the 11th century.

The guide leads us down into the local mikveh, the ritual bath, which was built in the early 12th century. The air here is cold and moist, as in a cave, and accompanies us to the verdant Jewish cemetery, in the heart of a nice, living thicket. There are thousands of tombstones, the first of which is dated 1076. Small rocks have been piled up recently atop the gravestones, with notes tucked between them. There are some here who connect a certain holiness to the dead.

The visit to Speyer is interesting as well, although it too does not emotionally move the visitor. Last week, an attractive exhibition opened at the local museum, about the Jews of Germany in the Middle Ages (the exhibition, which includes a nice selection of original manuscripts and archaeological finds and is designed in the style of the Diaspora Museum, closes in March). Right across the street, at the entrance to the large and imposing local cathedral in which emperors and kings are buried, Henry IV set out in 1076 on his way to Canossa to genuflect in the snow and ask for the pope's forgiveness.

The Speyer mikveh, built in the 11th century and very well preserved, is located near the ruins of the ancient synagogue. Also well preserved is Jews' Street - the ghetto complete with quiet, curving streets and low-set buildings. One's imagination conjures up images from those years, in which the residents were locked in at times of curfew and not permitted to leave.

The Jews return to Breisach

The high point of the tour was meeting Dr. Christiane Walesch-Schneller, the founder of the "Blue House" commemoration project in the ancient town of Breisach, which has a history going back 3,000 years. It is a fine-looking town perched at the top of a hill, situated on the banks of the Rhein along the French border, near the Black Forest. The building, which was purchased, renovated and painted blue in November 1999 on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, was a gathering place and synagogue for the local Jewish community between 1829 and 1940. At its peak in the mid-19th century, the Breisach Jewish community numbered some 500, representing nearly 20 percent of the population.

One of the walls of the empty building - Walesch-Schneller's nonprofit "Support Association of the Former Jewish Community House" does not yet have enough money for furnishing - is adorned with the names of 250 of the town's Jews who were deported on October 22, 1940, leaving it Judenrein (free of Jews) for the next half century. A few Jewish families that settled in Breisach last year - as part of the mass immigration of Jews to Germany from the former Soviet Union - now use the building for prayers on Sabbaths and holidays.

Walesch-Schneller, a psychoanalyst, is a tall, impressive, attractive woman in her 50s. "This project was conceived from conversations I had with a colleague, an ex-Israeli, Josef Arie Kornweitz, who is a psychoanalyst working in northern Germany," she quietly explains. "Both of us are second-generation to the war. We exchanged information and impressions. These conversations aroused in me a need to research the history of the Jews of my town and the history of my family."

She says that until five years ago she knew very little. "As a child, I only knew that my mother was in the Nazi girls' organization BDM. She never hid that. But she never said how she felt about it."

Before speaking with her parents, Walesch-Schneller pored through the archives, seeking to find out what her relatives did during the Nazi period. "Most Germans still resist doing this. It's like hounding your relatives. It is far from pleasant. It isn't what's done. But I felt I had to do it. This is the responsibility of my generation."

Walesch-Schneller found out quite a bit. "My father was born in Transylvania; he belonged to the German minority in Romania," she dryly reports, without pathos. "All of the men in his community were automatically drafted in the SS, my father, too. He never talked about it. When I came to him with the information that I'd unearthed - I was 50 years old when I asked him for the first time, he was 75 - he admitted that he had served in the SS. But he doesn't talk about it. If I ask, he is always on the defensive, and there's no real conversation. Although he supports my project, and even contributed money to publish the memorial book, he still doesn't talk."

What Walesch-Schneller turned up about her mother was, as she puts it, "even more illuminating. As a young woman, my mother had a romantic relationship with a relative who was a high-ranking officer in the SS - in other words, a bona fide perpetrator. My mother did not see him after 1932. She was active in the Nazi girls' organization. To this day, she doesn't express any feelings of guilt. I found out other stories that had been concealed all these years, for instance, about relatives of mine who bought assets of expelled Jews and still have not told anyone how they got these assets and became so rich. They don't feel any guilt, either. Actually, they won't even talk to me.

"More than 50 percent of my family relationships deteriorated as a result of the research I began five years ago. Many people in my family think that I'm simply mad. My parents' generation feels no guilt. The guilt arises in the second generation, in my generation. It took me a long time to understand where this guilt comes from."

The patients suddenly remember

Four years ago, Walesch-Schneller and her colleagues in the association (which now has 145 members) invited the descendants of the Jews of Breisach - most of whom now live in the United States, Israel and Switzerland - to a convention.

"Invitations of this sort were extended by the municipality, but it was lip service," she says. "We also paid for the plane tickets, and we really made it possible for the gathering to take place."

At the conference, members of the families learned about the local history, exchanged information, and contributed photos, letters and other memorabilia to the Blue House.

The core event of the annual sessions is the slide-showing night. Using slide projectors, members of the group project images of the murdered Jews on the facades of buildings along the town's main street and on homes that belonged to Jewish families and are now inhabited by Christians. The current inhabitants, many of whom do not even know that Jews once lived here, are compelled to leave their home, take in the images and learn something about the former inhabitants of their homes.

Walesch-Schneller relates that in the past two years, since the Breisach townspeople became aware of her project, she has begun to hear patients of hers who are the children and grandchildren of Nazis relating their memories of the period. They are suddenly remembering episodes of life under the Nazi regime. Some of the recollections they dredge up relate to persecution of Jews. They understand something about their parents. The guilt begins to emerge. "The period of repression," says Walesch-Schneller, "is beginning to end."

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