Every German has a story that links him or her to the Holocaust. During World War Two my brother-in-law’s great-uncle served in the Wehrmacht. That’s the way it was: Most men of his generation served in the Nazi regime's various forces. My brother-in-law’s parents told him and his siblings when they were little that that particular uncle never killed anybody. According to the legend, he only ever shot a horse, but the poor animal had been injured and would have died anyway. It was ‘an act of mercy’ by a man who wasn't inherently bad.
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It didn't take long for my brother-in-law to figure out that this childhood story was anything but true. He realized the ‘horse story’ was merely an anecdote, an illustration of how Germans tried to come to terms with the Nazi past, and in particular, how children of the war generation tried to explain away the war to their children.
Since coming to Israel, Israelis keep telling me how Germany is a bright example for countries dealing with dark histories. Yet I’m not sure it’s true.
As a recent poll revealed, 70 years after the fall of the Nazis, 58% of Germans wish to consign the Holocaust to history. They don’t want to deal with the memory anymore. Critically, the majority of the respondents were born after the end of World War Two. Apparently they have had enough of remembering a war that they personally were not involved in. But toning down Holocaust remembrance would be a big mistake.
A couple of years ago, I met Eli. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he spent a couple of months in Berlin, a city his parents still feel uncomfortable visiting. It had been a surprise for him, Eli told me, to find so little traces of the Holocaust in Berlin – apart from the Holocaust memorial near the Brandenburg Gate. “Everybody tells me that during World War Two their grandparents and great-grandparents were part of the resistance movement and somehow fought the Nazis,” he said, laughing. “It’s almost hard to believe how the Germans even managed to kill 6 million Jews.“
I didn't say anything in response. In a strange way, I felt as if I had been caught red-handed.
My mother was born in 1940. When she was 4 years old, the allies bombed her home city, Dresden, reducing it to rubble. She still recalls being woken up in the middle of the night and carried down into a bomb shelter. That’s all she remembers of the war. The loud noises, waiting for the raids to end. My father, four years younger, never experienced the war. Neither of my grandfathers fought in World War Two. Still, Eli’s comment made me feel strangely responsible for my family's role in the destruction caused by the Third Reich.
My grandparents weren't part of any resistance movement. They didn't hide Jewish neighbors to protect them from the Nazis and they didn't speak out publicly against the regime. My grandmother kept visiting her Jewish doctor, secretly during the night because it was forbidden. That’s all the resistance she showed.
I’m sure my grandmother was afraid. She must have been worried about her family – she had two little children at the time. I don’t know whether she didn't know what the Nazis did, or if she simply didn't want to know, like many others. Later of course, after the war, my grandparents like everybody else must have known. I can’t imagine how they must have felt about themselves. According to my mother, her parents never talked about the war. And she didn't ask them. By the time I was old enough to wonder myself, my grandmother was already in her eighties. I didn't ask her either. What could I have said anyway? Silence, I guess, was easier.
I know I’m not responsible for what had happened during Nazi rule. But I still think remembering the Holocaust, being told about it over and over again, is absolutely essential. It is beyond my imagination how people my age could want to forget about it. Perhaps it’s too hard, too painful, too heavy for them to carry. Is it out of guilt or indifference? Are they sick of feeling forced to apologize for the sins of their forefathers? Perhaps they want to be able to wave the German flag when we win competitions like the FIFA World Cup without feeling ashamed of their display of nationalism. Is being a proud German somehow incompatible with being honest about the country's dark past?
For me, being German is positive. I like living in Germany. I like Berlin and its improvised craziness and the Rhineland with its peculiar mixture of tradition and tolerance. I love Hamburg’s harbor at sunset and the first sight of the snow-covered Alps as soon as I leave the highway south of Munich. I’m thankful that in my home country I had the opportunity to go to good schools and universities where most of my tuition was paid for by the state. I appreciate the freedom to go wherever I want and to say whatever crosses my mind.
I also cherish being able to drive and cross the border into Austria and then Italy without visas, passports or border crossings. I appreciate it even more since right now I’m visiting Israel, a country where not everybody is allowed to go everywhere. Where an Israeli tour guide has to drop off his group at a checkpoint because he is not allowed to cross the border into Bethlehem, a city only a few kilometers away from his home. Where on the other side of the wall, Palestinians from the West Bank have to wait every day at the same checkpoint to go to work in Israel.
I was born 40 years after the war was over. Nothing that happened during the war was my fault. Still, I feel it remains my responsibility – the responsibility of all Germans – to acknowledge what happened, to never forget or try hide the past. I’d like to believe that had I been born 60 or 70 years earlier, I would have been part of the resistance. I cannot know for sure. I just can ask myself over and over. It's the least I can do.
Survivors and perpetrators of the war are growing old and dying. Soon they will all be gone forever. They are the last direct link we have to the horrors of the Holocaust. If we start toning down the extent to which we remember the horrors perpetrated in Germany’s name, what will remain of the victims' memory? Who will tell the children of the coming generations that, during the war, Germans didn't just kill sick horses?
Tanja Brandes is a journalist at the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper in Cologne. She spent six weeks at Haaretz in January and February.