Before I came here and even before I really started thinking about the Holocaust, I was confronted with the consequences of Germany’s Nazi past. I remember when I was an exchange student in London, in a History class that talked about the Second World War. Every time somebody said “the Germans,” the whole class turned around and looked at me. It is not unusual for people to immediately associate Germany with Hitler and the Holocaust. I had never connected with the Jewish community in Aachen, my hometown, and it was only when I came here, to the US, that I realized that the Jewish culture is still missing in Germany.
Here I lived with a Jewish woman, went to synagogue, celebrated Passover, and listened to the stories of Holocaust survivors. I had never met a Holocaust survivor before, so I had no idea how they would react to a German girl. Actually, I had no idea how I should react to them. Should I say, “I am really sorry”? Or “It’s terrible what happened to you”?
But the contact was so easy! Everybody welcomed me, wanted to know where I was from and how I was doing in this new country. They saw me as a person, not only as a German. I love to talk to survivors with all their wisdom and advice. I am impressed at how positive most of them are and for me they are real heroes! It must take so much strength to build a new life after you lose your family, your identity, and your belief in humanity. I learn so much being around them, and I feel appreciated as well. One day I told a survivor that every time I think about the Holocaust, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for what my ancestors did. Her response surprised and touched me: She said that I don’t have to feel bad because to her I am an “instrument of justice.” Her reaction empowered me. I felt proud to represent Germany as a country that wants to atone. I think it is great that we can connect generations, cultures, and religions, and for me some of the survivors are real friends.
Of course some situations weren’t easy. One woman, who survived camp after camp and saw her whole family die, said to me that there was a time where she wanted to kill all Germans. I was stunned. How should I respond to that? I started to think about how I would deal with grief. Would I like revenge? Are you allowed to wish somebody’s death? The woman told me after awhile that she stopped hating the Germans because with negative energy, it’s impossible to achieve anything. But how can I be proud to be German? How can I expect Holocaust survivors to forgive the Germans? What do I want my legacy to be? There are so many questions that come up when I spend time with Holocaust survivors—questions about myself and my country.
I will never quite understand what happened during the Holocaust; I will never understand the horror that all the survivors went through; I will never understand why people believed lies; and I will never know how I would have reacted in this situation. But I know what I can do right now. I can stand up. It is the combination of guilt and my wish that Germany can be a normal country again that drives me. It is a challenge for me to meet Holocaust survivors, not because of the way they react to me, but because it makes me think about my responsibility. I know that meeting Holocaust survivors shaped and changed my life.
Posted by Clara Schulte | Action Reconciliation Service for Peace intern, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center