"Should We Forgive" - A Panel Discussion re Three Generations' Attitudes on the Perpetrators and their Descendants
Facilitator: Dr. John Serry, Psychiatrist and a speaker from each generation - survivor, 2nd generation and 3rd generation.
Reflections on Forgiveness
As a child I knew that my parents had a sense of revulsion for anything German, from the guttural sounds of the language, to German shepherd dogs, Volkswagen cars and even Staedler pencils. I had little understanding of what this was all about, but with unexamined loyalty, followed their beliefs.
Once I had learnt more of my family’s history and began to understand the enormity of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, I felt an impotent mixture of grief, anger and helplessness. Forgiveness was not even a consideration. Of course I didn’t personally know anyone with a German background, and just lumped everything together as foreign, evil and disgusting. (Interestingly, this attitude did not extend to things Polish, even though I later learnt that the anti-Semitism and ignorance in Poland contributed greatly to the suffering of my family and so many other Jews.)
Over the years, however, there has been both an increasing complexity in my responses, and a parallel reduction in my need to take an oppositional stand. What happened in the war was unforgivable; there can be no softening or acceptance of the perpetrators’ abhorrent attitudes and actions. Yet I cannot feel the same about subsequent generations of Germans, whatever their past. Although I knew it made my parents uneasy, I had childhood friends who were Catholic or who had Ukrainian parents; they were not responsible for what their parents might have done.
There are doubtless many factors which have contributed to my beliefs. The fact that my parents were saved by Oskar Schindler, a German, and that my father often said that there were good and bad Germans, like in every other race, showed me that any kind of broad generalisation could not sustain closer examination. I have an inherent dislike of using labels and pigeon-holing people, preferring to give them a chance to show who they are as individuals. I find it hard to entertain the idea of total good or total evil.
When my book Sister, Sister came out I received an interesting letter from a young German woman, with whom I subsequently developed a relationship. She wrote:
‘We are both second generation to the horror of the Holocaust. My parents were young Germans who went to war for their country. I was born in Frankfurt, 1952, and grew up in post-war Germany. There was silence in Germany too. Shame, guilt, disbelief, denial, silence. My parents are very open-minded, but for many years nobody could talk about it. When I finally discovered the truth, it drove me out of Germany, along with other personal dramas.
Your book is the first personal story of a survivor that I have read. I haven’t looked for such books for years, knowing how much they distress me. The pain is totally overwhelming. It has not words, no images, other than those we are all familiar with from stories and films. I don’t know where this intensity is coming from.
Is it a normal reaction that any human being would have?
Is it the guilt of being German?
Is it the silent pain I absorbed from my parents as a child?
Or was I there?’
In a second letter she explored this further:
‘After I posted the letter I thought of ‘the other’. I wondered whether it was quite inappropriate of me, as a German, to burden your with MY pain. Maybe I should have simply said ‘I’m sorry!’.
When I bump my shopping trolley into someone’s bottom at the supermarket I say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ Can I say ‘I’m sorry!’ to you and your mother? ‘I’m sorry that my fellow Germans killed your entire family and tormented you, an innocent teenager, for six endless years’?
‘I’m sorry’ seems so inappropriate, for you and for me, so trivial, so little, so simple. Usually when we say ‘I’m sorry’, it’s over. The issue is dealt with. The Holocaust is in a different league altogether. I remember once seeing an Israeli say on television: ‘We can forgive the things that happen to us. But we have no right to forgive the wrong that has been done to other people’.
Yes, of course, I am sorry. But more than that: I am aching, I feel responsible, I wonder if I’m guilty, I feel ashamed and most importantly I feel totally helpless in the face of the horror of it all. What can I, as a German, offer you in the way of support and comfort?’
There are those who would say, ‘Good, let her suffer!’ But my natural response was to honour the opportunity for connection. I don’t know if it’s genetic or learnt behaviour, but I have developed the belief that if I hold on to hatred and resentments, it damages me as well as destroying my relationships. Forgiveness always came easily to me (maybe too much for my own good!). I have great admiration for people who can demonstrate a largeness of spirit which allows them to let go of grudges and bitterness, especially when they themselves have suffered and could justifiably hold onto such feelings. Tibi Katz, the survivor who spoke at the panel discussion, demonstrated just such forbearance. This is not to say that he or others like him are saying that what happened to them was all right; of course they suffered enormously and will never forget those years of torment. But living with the anguish of suffering keeps recreating it anew every day, and can cripple your life. Letting go and allowing healing to happen seems the only way to move forward beyond victimhood.
Melanie Lipson, a representative of the third generation, also had come to a mature, if rather difficult, conclusion about the wisdom of trying to understand people of her generation who may have been descendants of persecutors. This sentiment was echoed by Amelia Klein, a young woman who has done a lot of work in setting up dialogue groups between Jewish and German or Polish young people. Only through dialogue, they maintain, is it possible to work through the problematic past and move beyond its damaging influence. Only if we can go beyond thoughts of justice and revenge can we contemplate some kind of inner peace. This is not to say we can forget or put aside the difficult questions. On the contrary: we need to rigorously examine our beliefs, confront the complicated issues, push through the barriers to understanding, in order to not perpetuate hatred, racism and the impulse for violence.
Interestingly, it was the second generation children of survivors (as demonstrated by Jack Felman’s pointed questions) who seem to find it the most difficult to let go of their anger and despair, on behalf of their parents. It is as if they have taken up the baton and need to carry it high, to prove to their parents (living or dead) that they would not be forgotten, and that their suffering was not in vain. But forgiving and forgetting are two different things. It seems that a misplaced sense of loyalty can lead to unexamined and exaggerated beliefs about what is right or wrong, acceptable or objectionable, far beyond what circumstances call for. In a show of reverse racism, members of my generation often demonstrate a sense of superiority and exclusivity, as described by psychiatrist John Serry. A need to express tribal loyalty and identity seems to override an awareness of what it means to be human, whatever one’s background or culture.
As long as people have a need to dwell on the injustices of the past and consider that everyone who is linked to past misdeeds is tainted as well, then distrust and disharmony will be perpetuated. In what Eva Hoffman calls the ‘cyclical logic of revenge’, wars such as the recent one in the former Yugoslavia, which recall ancient aggression and martyrdom dating back centuries, will continue to find the fuel for continuing damage, destruction and grief.
It may be an idealistic view, but I believe that only if we can listen carefully and respectfully to those who think differently from the way we do, hear their viewpoints, acknowledge their struggles, accept their differences, and understand that descendants do not necessarily share their parents’ views, can we hope to move beyond the trauma that was bequeathed to us and create a new space for healing old wounds.