A Jew Among the Germans
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photo exhibit at the museumcould there be such a thing as "good guilt" for germans? By Marian Marzynski

On May 8, 1945, when World War II ended, I was an eight-year old Jewish boy who by a sheer miracle had been smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto and hidden on the Christian side of the city. I survived the Holocaust, but my father and most of my relatives did not. I am now among the youngest of eyewitnesses to German crimes against Jews, and the youngest German perpetrator must be close to eighty today.

When I realized that twenty years from now all first-hand, living memory of the Holocaust may be erased, I decided to take a look at the German peers of my children and find out what the new generations on both sides may do with their second-hand memories.

Several years ago, I started to film the story of the designing and building of Germany's "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." It is a memorial that the German government recently unveiled and it represents united Germany's ultimate apology for the Holocaust. But I wasn't just a reporter sorting out the controversies that swirled around this project -- controversies such as "Why apologize only to the Jews?" "Why build it in the busy center of Berlin?" -- I felt in a way I was visiting Germany, finally, as the one to accept an apology on behalf of my murdered family.

So I wanted to know what young Germans who call themselves "third generation" -- the ones in their twenties who will live with the memorial -- think about their parents' ideas. These were the parents who in their youth during the '60s were young rebels accusing their own parents of Nazi crimes.

My first discovery was that the former rebels of the '60s saved their children, this "third generation" of Germans from listening to the horror stories. And, despite the Holocaust education inserted at the very end of German high school, young Germans today see the Holocaust as a symbol of some universal evil, not as a crime committed by their grandparents' generation. They think their teachers are too self-conscious to convey the true meaning of the Holocaust. The brightest of them see the new memorial as an "aspirin" for the still-existing Holocaust taboo. They reject the memorial as institutionalized memory, frozen in stone, and imposed on them by their parents.

I happen to agree with those young Germans. But here is my worry: With what would they replace this memorial, this government "fix"? They say: We must do our own homework to personalize this experience and filter it through our own morality and ethics. To which their parents respond: National memory cannot be left to personal devices.

Above all, there is the question of guilt. "We cannot be guilty of our grandparents' crimes," say the young Germans. Again, I agree. I want them to be liberated from this feeling as much as I want my own children to be liberated from the prison of my Holocaust memories. But without an emotional quest, how can the young Germans assure me that the tragic past will not be forgotten altogether, while for my children, the memories will always be personal? And I want them to do well together and that they will find each other.

As for myself, I wish there would be no German celebration of the end of World War II. No government-approved memorials. No finishing touches. My request to the German people would be that they create for themselves a concept of good guilt -- an honorable one. And within it, a proud guardianship of memory. My father would like that.

 

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posted may 31, 2005

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