Thursday, October 25, 2012

Visiting Europe

by Miki Kashtan


It’s never easy to visit Germany, not as an Israeli Jew, no matter how many years I’ve lived in the USA. The question is never far enough away to forget it: What did your parents do during the war? (or now it’s grandparents for some of those I meet). When I know that 90% of people supported Hitler, how can the question not be asked? At a workshop on the power of requests, it takes me the entire day before I can bring myself to tell the usual story about the power of requests based on the Oliners’ study of rescuers of Jews (for more details, see Tests of Courage, Part 2). I am in Germany, and the discomfort is bigger than my capacity, for most of the day. At night, sitting with friends over dinner, I allude to my general sense that the Germans haven’t really dealt with the Holocaust, not in a deep, significant way. I am met with vociferous disagreement, which dissolves when I explain what I mean. Have the Germans truly looked into what led so many people to be willing to participate? When I was in Dachau a number of years ago, the most intense aspect of it was how emotionally blank the entire exhibit was. I didn’t see any engagement, any sense of horror, only facts and figures. I do not have a facile belief that the Holocaust could only have happened in Germany. I do not believe there is something unique and horrible about Germany. I do believe that a certain culture of obedience, of following and admiring rules and order, is a part of what happened. Have Germans changed the way they raise their children? 

In an earlier visit, I stayed at someone’s home for a few days. She told me, on the first day, that she had moved back in with her parents, and described in moving detail how she now enjoys a relationship without limits, where they talk with each other about everything. Two days later, when the Question was finally asked, I learned that her parents apparently sided with the Nazis, and suddenly she was in intense discomfort, and told me how they have never once talked in full about the topic. How come this discomfort, this anguish she expressed and about which she cried, didn’t get included when she talked about their relationship two days earlier? She expressed gratitude to me for opening the door for her to look at the issues.
We agreed to stay in touch, and she didn’t. Months later she responded to an email and admitted it was tough for her to stay in touch. How could Germans completely heal from what happened to them without allowing such anguish to surface, without talking with all of us, the Jews and the others they harmed, without looking at their cultural habits, without looking directly and squarely at what hurts?