On March 13th, Jakob and I participated in the 41st Annual Youth Symposium on the Holocaust organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia at the St. Joseph’s University. We were quite excited but also nervous because of our assigned role as workshop facilitators. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a large auditorium full of High School students and their flustered voices. Shortly after the film I'm Still Here was shown, the 400 students from different schools were divided into mixed groups of around 15 people.
As my group entered our workshop room, the survivor Peter Stern was already there. Before he told us about his experiences I asked the students about their feelings regarding the film. Their thoughts included a deep identification with the young and mostly murdered victims of the Shoa whose diaries were read and pictures were shown in the film. After that I introduced Mr. Stern shortly and he began sharing his story. He was born into a Jewish family in 1936 in Nuremberg, Germany. When he was five, he and his family were deported to the Riga ghetto and later to a work camp deeper inside of Russia. In January 1944, they were deported back to Germany where his father died while imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Peter, his mother, and brother were transferred to the women’s concentration camp Ravensbruck and later moved to Bergen-Belsen where the British liberated them on April 15th 1945.
Within the dialogue between the students and Mr. Stern afterwards it was incredibly interesting for me to hear their diverse perspectives and questions which were founded in their personal backgrounds. There were Jews with murdered ancestors, people whose great-grandfathers fought in the US army and some people from other parts of the world without any connection to the described historical context.
During the lunch break I had the chance to ask Mr. Stern if he had been back to Germany after he immigrated to America. His answer was as bitter as true.
“The city of Nuremberg paid for my stay there to celebrate that they had expelled me 70 years before.”
After an astonished pause I thought about the fact that there is a big effort being made to gain the perspective of the victim in Germany. They are mostly integrated in ritualized ceremonies and celebrations reproducing an abstract because collective guilty plea to justify a new national identity which takes great pride in its alleged reprocessing of history. The identification with the victims does not lead to a reference to the involvement of our own ancestors. A new study of the University of Bielefeld shows that both numbers of Germans who say that among their ancestors were perpetrators and people who hid victims are 18%. 54% say there were victims. These utterly absurd numbers are a mirror of the superficial character of Germany’s remembrance culture. In contrast to the Youth Symposium there is no institutional dialogue with members of the older generations in Germany, which would be more important because it could be a reflective counterbalance to the family’s narrative.
I have never heard about a critical, contextualized and confronting dialogue with perpetrators or an examination of their documented narratives in school. But it would be of great importance because the personal perspective of the ancestors is mostly the only emotional connection to their crimes and the framework of our learned factual knowledge at the same moment. Challenging their fragmented and relativized stories is the indispensable requirement to scrutinize our own identification with the victims. There is no question about the importance of the victim’s perspective but there is a dangerous phenomenon of misusing the pictorial stories of survivors by older and younger generations to fill the gaps in their own family’s story. Empathy is something completely different than pure identification. The awareness of the factual distance could unveil the blurring border between victim and perpetrator expressed in the German culture of forgetting remembrance.