Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Memoirs and History in Germany

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer and Susan Dworkin

I made it to 100 in less than a year! It might be fitting that my number hundred for the year would be a book about Nazi Germany; while I haven't read as much about the topic in the last few years, I went through a phase that was bordering on obsession while I was an adolescent. Overall, the story was interesting, though it doesn't necessarily say anything that hasn't been said before. Instead, it is another voice to be added to the history of the 3rd Reich. Edith was a young Jewish woman in Austria when the Anschluss happened in 1938. Her siblings quickly escaped, but Edith stayed behind because she was in love. At first, she obeys all the laws imposed upon her by the Nazis, and even becomes a forced laborer at a farm, but eventually, she decides to hide rather than report to be relocated to Poland. With the advice and help of some of her Aryan friends, she moves to Germany, passing herself off as an Aryan from Austria. While there, she ends up marrying, hence the title. Throughout the whole piece, Edith expresses her gratitude to the people that helped her and emphasizes her luck. While passing herself off as a good Aryan, she also hides/loses her personality - once she no longer has to fear being discovered after the Nazis have been defeated, her husband barely recognizes her because she stops being a good little housewife and once again becomes the intellectual law student she had been.

A while ago I was having a discussion with a sergeant in my company, and he'd asked me about how Germans taught the Holocaust. He said he'd heard that it wasn't really taught. I disagreed with him. I know directly after the Holocaust, there was a generation of Germans that really didn't want to confront or deal with their past. Their children, however, wanted to know the truth and demanded it. I went to German schools from Kindergarten to 7th grade. I admit, I don't remember a specific class on the Holocaust and I didn't learn about it in history class.

(This is due to the structure of my history classes in my German school. We started having history class in sixth grade, and sixth grade was exclusively devoted to ancient history - Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome. My 7th grade history class was slightly messed up because my teachers kept ending up pregnant, and then we'd have subs. However, it covered things like Charlemagne, serfs, the development of cities and the merchant classes, important religious pacts and documents – I think there may have been a little about Henry IV, etc. I happened to be visiting a friend in Germany in 9th grade, and went to class a few times with him, and at that point they were discussing the 1920's in Germany, so I just missed the World War II unit. Imagine my shock upon reaching the States where in one year we did all the world's history, devoting only two days to Egypt, Greece and Rome but then spent two years going through the exact same American history class - I honestly don't think I learned anything in my 11 grade American history class that I hadn't already known from my 8th grade American history class. Despite that, everyone in the class was always shocked when I knew all the answers - did they not pay attention, or just purposely forget everything? I also don't think AP History in 12th grade added any new knowledge.)

Despite a specific class or unit on the subject, however, I think at some point, we all kind of knew in general what had happened. In probably fifth grade, we spent a week or two reading the novel Die Welle, an exploration of how group mentality takes over a high school in America. I'm pretty sure this novel led to discussions about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and was in fact specifically chosen for that reason. At some point, my school also had a presentation on Nazi Germany in our auditorium - I can't remember the exact reasoning but one day there were several poster boards and display cases filled with pictures, artifacts and discussions of that time period. Additionally, we did actually have the occasional opportunity for extra credit in German schools, usually by doing a short presentation and book recommendations in literature class (I think my teachers got sick of me quickly because I always had something to recommend) or a presentation in religion class on a topic somehow related to religion or the Jews. Quite a few book recommendations were about children and Nazi Germany, such as Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl, while in religion class, someone chose to discuss the medical experimentations in certain concentration camps.

I acutely became aware of Germany's history in 3rd grade. My parents and I were in Munchen for a day, and for some reason, my parents decided to take me to Dachau. It was a dreary, rainy day, basically the perfect atmosphere for that kind of place. My mom says I was walking through the museum portion asking loudly how could people let this happen. I don't remember that part, but I was basically hooked on the subject after that. My favorite bookstore in Regensburg had a very good section of young adult literature, and they also had a shelf more or less specifically devoted to Holocaust stories, fiction and non-fiction. Some of the books I read included Chaja Heisst Leben, Dank Meiner Mutter etc. Some of them were about families on the run from the Nazis who had to leave everything behind, others about life and death in the ghettos, some about the actual camps - basically, some were more graphic than others. I read them all. Collections of stories, novels, everything. My mother and I actually would exchange books on the topic. The point is that the material was easily available and prominently displayed in the young adult section - Germans realized the necessity of not hiding their past. Perhaps they didn't teach it in an organized fashion until later in school, but the information was always accessible. It was part of a terrible past, but a past that Germany acknowledged.

Even now, I will still pick up books about Nazi Germany when I see them but I don't actively pursue them as I used to. I have a slightly different focus now when it comes to history and literature. As a result of growing up in Germany, and having that country's history as part of my past, I believe I was more critical of American history when I arrived in the States (Germany never glorified its history after all). While in Germany, I always thought of America as the shining example of freedom - they fought a Civil War to free the slaves (I didn't quite realize or consider the fact that they fought it against themselves). Once actually in the States, however, I saw that America, too, had dark stains on its past; they just didn't acknowledge or discuss them in the same way: the treatment of the Native Americans, blacks etc. I was probably the only one in my 8th grade history class thinking that the colonials were bitching a little too much with their refrain "no taxation without representation" - after all, they were only being asked to help pay for a war that had helped them out. Westward expansion was equally unjustified, as was the war against Mexico. I even had problems with the Alamo - after all, Mexico had allowed a few Americans to settle there, and next thing you know the ungrateful jerks are trying to take the whole place for themselves.

I took a class on 20th Century Germany in college, and one thing I enjoyed about that class was the fact that the professor chose to use novels instead of history texts to represent Germany's mentality of the time. We started the class with Gunther Grass's Crabwalk. It's not necessarily a great novel, but it raises some interesting questions, and shows how Germany is still grappling with how to approach and represent its history. It also discusses the idea of victimhood and complicity, using the victims of a ship wreck to illustrate the point. At the end of the war, many German refugees were trying to escape on a former cruise ship that was sunk by a submarine. Obviously these people had benefitted from Hitler's regime and who knows how much they knew about what was going on, yet at what point can their suffering be discussed? Obviously it doesn't compare. I guess that could be applied to many situations in history. For example, the Japanese civilization that was bombarded during the Tokyo Firing Bombings vs. the Japanese army that invaded China, and committed atrocities such as Nanjing. Where is the balance?

A few other books on the topic:

In My Hands: A Polish woman working for a German officer uses her position to hide Jews from deportation.

On Hitler's Mountain: A woman's memoir of growing up in Nazi Germany. It doesn't really discuss the Holocaust part at all, but for me it was interesting because it showed what an average German may have seen and thought. Also, my grandfather was about ten or eleven when the war ended so I figured there must have been similarities to his childhood.

The Investigation: A play written using exclusively court documents from trials against Nazi criminals after the war.

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