When 45-year-old Antje Naujoks was a child growing up in Germany, World War II was something no one usually talked about. People wanted to forget, to bury the nightmare and the shame. But in Naujoks' home, the war was impossible to ignore: Her father, who had been drafted toward the end of the fighting, at age 17, lost a leg. And so, she says, "We did speak about the war. We spoke about Father's injury, about the long process of rehabilitation and the years of hunger and abject poverty he suffered. We spoke about the war, which was more than other people did, but only from the German point of view. I knew there were difficult battles; I'd heard about Stalingrad. But in these conversations, there was no Holocaust and there were no Jews."
At the age of 10, Naujoks happened upon "The Diary of Anne Frank." "I began to read and suddenly I understood that this was the same war we spoke about at home," she says . "I said to my father: 'You talk about how you suffered, but I'm reading about the terrible suffering our nation caused.' My parents said: 'Ask your teachers about it.' My teachers said: 'You'll learn about it later, in history class.'"
What was taught at school in her hometown of Jever, however, was far from satisfactory. Naujoks joined a study group set up by a teacher belonging to what she calls the "younger generation," which met during vacations.
"We read local newspapers of the war period, and familiar names popped up," recalls Naujoks, today a translator and public relations woman, who has worked with Hebrew University and Yad Vashem. "It turned out that a man I knew was a member of the SS and was connected to the burning of a synagogue. I discovered there had been a Jewish community in my town and a synagogue."
Naujoks and her friends acquired a list of the former Jewish inhabitants and tried to find out what had happened to them during the war. They contacted survivors all over the world and invited them to a meeting in Jever. At the beginning of the 1980s, such an initiative was highly irregular and Naujoks, who led it, paid a heavy price.
"We didn't understand what we had started," she says. "I took my matriculation exams under police guard. A police car was permanently stationed outside my home. There were threats against me, and anti-Semitic pamphlets were distributed in town. My parents owned a grocery store. One day a customer said to them: 'Too bad there are no more concentration camps; that's where your daughter belongs.'"
Was she sorry about what she initiated? "Not at all," says Naujoks. "When survivors arrived and reached out to us in reconciliation, it changed my life, and made everything worthwhile."
Was that when you decided to move to Israel?
"No, but even then I felt as though I didn't belong; in Germany I was odd man out."
In 1986, after studying at a Berlin university, she came to Israel, and now lives in Jerusalem. Her official reason was to pursue a master's degree, but she also wanted to become acquainted with Holocaust survivors from Jever who had not attended the meeting in Germany. She met up with some of them, and they helped her gain acceptance here: "At first I thought: Oh no, I've come to a country in which everything connected to Germany is painful to many people, and perhaps I'll be met with hostility. But the opposite occurred: People opened their arms to me."
No more questions
Prof. Gunnar Lehmann, 55, also happened upon the Jewish past of his hometown completely by accident. When he was 10, he found the remains of a Jewish cemetery while walking in the forest near the city where he was born, Cookshaven.
"There were tombstones with German writing on them, and a language I did not know - Hebrew," says Lehmann, today an archaeologist who teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, where he lives with his Israeli wife and their family. "I asked my mother about them, and right away she said: 'We did not know anything.' I couldn't ask more questions, but I understood there was something shameful here."
Is that why you moved to Israel?
"It's one reason," says Lehmann. "I was also interested in the area professionally, as an archaeologist who specialized in the ancient Near East. At university in Berlin I was politically active as an anti-fascist, and took an interest in the Holocaust, and in the German Jewish culture that was destroyed by the Nazis."
When he reached draft age, in 1983, he opted for civilian national service instead of military duty, and within that framework came to work in Israel for the German-based Ot Hakapara (Sign of Atonement) organization. It was his first time in the country; he made friends and developed many connections here.
"When I worked at Yad Vashem during that time, I came across the silence of Holocaust survivors for the first time. I learned Yiddish and took testimony from them, and suddenly realized this was a subject they did not speak about. I didn't understand at first. After all, they were the victims; they had nothing to be ashamed of. But that's how it was. Some of them said that children mustn't hear what they told us. Suddenly I understood the difficulties the victims faced."
German-born Carsten Steinmann, a 46-year-old architect who lives in Jerusalem, did in fact learn about the Holocaust at school, and was later involved in anti-fascist activities. And yet, it was still hard for him to speak to his grandparents about such subjects.
"My grandparents weren't Nazis, but they didn't actively oppose them," he says. "People watched out for themselves. I don't remember one conversation when I could say, 'Now I understand.' To this day there are things I do not understand."
Steinmann's hometown of Wolfenhuttel lies on what was once the border between East and West Germany, "and so I'm used to borders and checkpoints," he adds, referring to those in Israel and the West Bank. But he did not move to Israel out of political motives: An Israeli friend he met at university in Berlin in 2000 offered Steinmann his apartment in Jerusalem for a vacation, he came here, met his future wife and remained. Would he have chosen to live here? Not necessarily, Steinmann admits. He loves Berlin, but his wife finds it difficult to even visit there: "She thinks that every elderly man she sees on a train must have been a Nazi and may have participated in atrocities, and that now she's sitting opposite him. It's very hard for her."
What's it like to be a German in Israel?
Lehmann: "When I first arrived, at the beginning of the 1980s, it was difficult. If I unfolded a German newspaper on the bus, some people got out of their seats and moved away. There were also people who had no connection at all to Germany, but were very anti-German because of what they had heard about the Holocaust. Over time, it became easier. I don't feel guilty, there's no reason to, but I feel responsible for the future, for education, so that things like this don't happen again. My German identity connects me to this history."
Says Naujoks: "I also feel no guilt. At first I went around with the unpleasant feeling that because I'm German I might be likely to hurt people - that when I spoke I might remind someone of something [terrible]. I don't have guilt feelings, but I definitely have heightened sensitivities."
One way or another, it is strange to be a German in Israel, according to Steinmann: "In 2000, when I'd just arrived, there was a moment when I sat in a cafe and the thought crossed my mind that I might be sitting among those who were the victims of my people."
Did you feel guilty?
Steinmann: "No, because I wasn't a part of it and I'm not a Nazi. But, unlike other places in the world, here it's hard to separate Germans from Nazis. Here it's the 'Germans' against the 'Jews,' and I feel very German. And it hurts. I think there are still many people who are convinced that most Germans of the period were Nazis. One day my son, who is 8, came home from school and asked me if I had been a Nazi. He said: 'I'm not German, I'm only Israeli' - and suddenly he didn't want to study German anymore. It's hard to explain that Nazism developed in Germany but that it is not German culture per se. Paradoxically, German Jews in Israel understand. They are more German than I am."
'I felt vulnerable'
"In the past, Holocaust Memorial Day was hard," Lehmann notes. "There were times when the children didn't go to school that day. But Be'er Sheva is a relatively relaxed place and things have improved. We asked the teachers to say 'Nazis' rather than 'Germans' and they accepted this. Once there was an incident in which pupils shouted 'Nazi' at my daughter, but the school responded properly and it ended."
Has having children changed the way you see the Holocaust?
Lehmann: "Of course. When they were born, I felt vulnerable. I suddenly understood Jewish families, who could not fight [the Nazis] or do anything; the only thing they cared about was protecting their children. My mother, too, now that she has Jewish grandchildren, identifies more with the Jewish families. The Holocaust was one reason I got to Israel. In my family there were no Nazis, but no dared raise a head in protest."
"It's hard for me to leave the house on Holocaust Remembrance Day," Naujoks says. "It's hard for me to sit at official ceremonies. At first I searched them out; I had to feel the day. Not anymore. I light a candle at home, and speak to the survivors I know. Either they look for me or I look for them. In one way or another, we speak on Holocaust Day."
"I don't do anything special that day," explains Steinmann. "I don't need a Holocaust day to remember, because memory is present here at every hour of every day. I think that from this point of view, I'm Israeli now."
Is it hard for them as German-Israelis to be critical of Israel? Naujoks says she has criticism "just as all Israelis do, and sometimes it's not easy to voice opinions as a German. I'm careful about how I offer criticism. I've never been attacked, but I'm always careful."
"I lower my profile instinctively," Lehmann says. "I know how sharp the disagreements are within Israeli society, so I choose the time and place for my criticism. I don't shut up; I say what I think at academic forums, but there is a lot of violence in our everyday life and I don't want to expose myself to it."
Steinmann: "I've never been told I don't have the right to criticize, but sometimes I get the feeling that I'm not asked to give it. Perhaps it's not because I'm German, but because I'm not Israeli ."
Nonetheless, what bothers you here?
Naujoks: "The macho-ism of Israeli society. When speaking about people in Hebrew in plural, the gender is male, as if women don't exist. There are other things that irritate me, too. I never thought I'd see the day when the word selektor [a term with Nazi connotations that means security inspector in Hebrew] would be used in this country, but people accept it completely."
Steinmann: "What bothers me is the need of Israelis not to be 'suckers.' They are always checking everything, arguing and complaining about everything. It's not a nice feeling. But I like the tolerance here. If I make a mistake in Hebrew, perhaps someone will correct me, or they'll just ignore it. In Germany if you make a mistake in the language they look at you as though you are stupid. Here, people offer help."
What makes it worth living here?
Naujoks: "First of all, this is my home now. After 25 years, I've spent more time in Israel than in Germany. And I love the openness of people here, their solidarity. These are the things that charmed me and led me to stay."
Lehmann: "I've met the most amazing people I've ever known, starting with my wife. I love the warmth, the Mediterranean temperament that accepts and makes room for me. What I don't like is the fear of difference, of the other, and the obsession with security that doesn't allow certain things to happen: Any progress toward peace is sacrificed on the altar of security."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now