A Jew Among the Germans
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Marian Marzynski's Conversations With Young Germans: Christoph Erbsloeh<

Erbsloeh, the grandson of a soldier in Hitler's Wehrmacht, faced a decision when he was 19: mandatory military service for a year and a half or social service work. A conscientious objector, he chose the latter and joined Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (Aktion Suhnezeichen Friedensdienste), a German organization committed to reaching out to victims of Nazi crimes. It is one of many human relations groups promoting opportunities for young Germans to interact with Jews and increasingly is the last chance for young Germans to meet those who survived the Holocaust. Erbsloeh was partnered with a New York City Jewish social service agency, which arranged for him to conduct home visits to elderly Holocaust survivors, including Arthur Lederman, a 100-year-old Polish concert violinist too frail to leave his apartment. Erbsloeh, a budding cellist, discovered that he and Lederman shared a passion for music that transcended their differences and their ages and fostered a friendship that grew between them. This conversation took place in 2003.

What was it like, this whole experience for you with Arthur Lederman? Was it a liberation?

A liberation?

A liberation of mind, a kind of awakening or illumination.

Yes, it was an illumination.

Can you try to describe the illumination?

I think it basically illuminated my way of thinking and how I perceive my personal history, but also the history in general. I really mean he represented one of the 6 million victims. He is still alive, but in a certain way his soul was lost, and he was very sad about what happened to his family, and he always told me that. So he personally showed to me what it meant for the Jews to suffer that way, and he really opened up my mind to Judaism.

Let's talk about you. You came with guilt.

I wouldn't say guilt.

Video "Facing Arthur"

photo from 'facing arthur'

Here are excerpts from a 2002 documentary about the unlikely friendship between Arthur Lederman and Christoph Erbsloeh, produced by the independent filmmakers at Canal Water Films.



Okay, it is a different word. You came because your people have a difficult problem with the past. Your sister is telling you, "They told us enough about it [the Holocaust]. They told us enough about it." Do you find it logical or fair to say this, to agree with your sister?

I personally don't agree, but I accept it. You know, I have to. I can't force them to think about this. But I don't agree with them. I have a different approach to this, and I am personally interested in this, and it will never be too much for me.

[Marzynski]: So this is my mission: I would like to sign a personal peace treaty with Germans, between me and you. ... So my children will finally see that now, three, four generations [later], victims and perpetrators are now together. [Christoph]: You know that the governments have done this already ... between Israel and Germany. But you are right, the populations have to get in touch.

They didn't tell them too much about the history, but they told them in a wrong way. … Don't you think that if they would tell her right that would never be enough? Because it is never enough for you to be with Arthur … he was a human being and you are a human being, those things are completely different. Your sister is talking about a school official coming into the classroom and telling the stuff that she is told to tell by the government actually, and of course it has to be personalized, I know that it is very hard to use the word guilt here because legally there is no guilt here, but I --

We like to talk about it more as responsibility, as we like to talk about it.

I know, but between you and me, the same way that my children feel angry [about what] the Germans did to us, I imagine that if I were a German, I would feel guilty about it because as you say "Why so guilty… responsible, whatever, [that] you came with all those feelings that came with you to New York? Where was the liberation? What was the feelings for you after leaving New York, after meeting this man?

Well, personally, I was very happy that I did have the opportunity to work in a Jewish social service agency caring for Holocaust survivors, being able to help Jews in general. It really became a living culture -- this whole experience, you know, living in New York, and being exposed to Jews and the Jewish culture everyday going to shul, visiting --

It felt good? It felt like what?

It felt like wow, I am learning a lot here, and this is an experience that I will never be able to get in Germany. Really, that is how it felt. That was a very special feeling that I still cherish today.

But it was in a sense the undoing of the things the Germans did?

No, it wasn't the end, no. Certainly not the end of the guilt.

No. For little Christoph, was this the end, as much as you could do? I cannot do anything about my family being dead. You can[not] do anything about those soldiers who killed the[m]. We cannot do anything. We are completely hopeless -- what can we do.

The only thing I think we can do today is really to try to foster a natural relationship between non-Germans and second-generation Germans and Jews living today. I mean [there won't] be any Holocaust survivors in a couple of years. So the only way to get over this sin … is to try to establish a normal relationship.

Something the total opposite to hatred?

Yes, yes. Well what I notice is that many Germans [of] my generation still [feel] estranged by Jews, and they don't really know any Jews. …

… I think that what you are talking about, even today, is that there is a stigma of the "other." The Jew is the "other" and we don't even know how "other" he is, but he is different.

He is not exactly, and this is something that I did experience in New York, and this is something that I did experience with [Arthur]: He became a person, he became a grandfather. The first time I met him was in November 1999; that was around the time my grandfather died. So somehow he became like, you know, a second grandfather for me.

Tell me about your grandfather. Tell me about any attempt to have this really soul-searching conversation with the generation that really remembered the war. Did you attempt [it]?

No, that was also part of the documentary ["Facing Arthur"]. My parents basically told me not to talk to my grandparents because they won't talk about it. My father tried to talk to his father, and he would never really tell him about it because he was not able to speak about it. He was basically keeping this all for himself, and he died with it. He really was not even able to talk to about it to his own wife.

He was a doctor?

Yes, he was a general doctor.

With the troops, so he didn't kill, but he saw other people killed of course.

Oh, yes. Yes.

He saw a lot of shit during the war, and never told you the story.

Never told me.

You see when I was five years old, my second father -- because my first father died after the Warsaw ghetto -- was always telling me [things] about the '39 war. So Daddy, did you have a revolver? Did you have a pistol? Did you shoot? Did you kill someone? He was of course on the good side because he was a victim, but he wouldn't even admit he killed his enemy, because you don't tell the little child that you killed someone, right? So [your grandfather] didn't say anything. … What if we go now to Hamburg and say, "This is Marian, Grandma. Tell Marian and me, what do you know about your husband's war adventure?"

She would say, "I don't know anything, because he didn't tell me anything." But she will say … "Well, I was living in Hamburg most of the time with two kids, and I was basically taking care of them and waiting for my husband to return, and we were being bombed at the end." They like to sometimes present themselves as victims.

This is also what I experience with my younger grandmother. She was a youngster. She was about 14 years old during the war, and she likes to tell me how she suffered, you know.

So it was a wash: We killed them; they killed us.

This is what happens often, yes.

A wash.

Yes, right. Also with the bombings, you know, the air raids over Hamburg and Dresden, being bombed by the Allies. Many Germans of my grandparents generation, they like to complain about the bombings of the Allies, you know bombing of Dresden and Hamburg. You know, "We suffered, and we are the victims." It is very difficult. They don't realize that they are the perpetrators in the first place.

How many people are like you? ...

Well, to tell you honestly, most of these people don't really think about this anymore. For them they would say, "Well, I am a responsible person. I am interested in German history, but I have never met someone like you. I have never done this."

"I don't know you and what you are talking about."

Yep, I think they would really have never thought about something the way we are thinking about it now.

Because they would say, "Hey, it happened so long time ago. It is so removed from me."

"It has nothing to do with me."

What would you think [if] ... I would introduce myself [and] say, "I am a child of the Warsaw ghetto. My family was killed." How would I open them up the same way as I am opening you up?

You know, I think many people [would] feel guilty somehow, and they will think, "What is this man doing now? Does he want us to feel guilty? Does he want us to feel bad? Well, I am sorry, I don't know what to do." They don't know how to react.

I just … want them to be aware of this because this thing can happen tomorrow. That is the whole idea. Why are we doing it? Because we know about Bosnia, we know about Yugoslavia. Because we know all the killings which were based on the same idea about the "others" -- you know, there is an ax in the house and the families are talking for three generations and they are saying, "The Muslims are bad." One day, there is a nice weather, and the ax is in the corner, and the father says, "Now is the time. Let's do it." So it is in the real[ity] of our lives today. This is why I have a message and you have a message.

Tell me about your message.

My message is that this hatred is so ridiculous that we should remove this completely from the human mind. And if I say "This is a victim," they will say, "Of course they suffered, he is emotional." But when also the next generation of perpetrators will say the same message, then we make a pact together -- I am for a pact or a treaty between the victims and the perpetrators, because in order to make the pact you have to meet. And I am told that in Germany the problem is they are not meeting. So this is my mission: I would like to sign a personal peace treaty with Germans -- between me and you.

Between Jews in general?

No, between me and you. But basically between victims and perpetrators, so that victims can realize the tension of perpetrators, and vice versa. So my children will finally see that now -- three generations, four generations [later] -- there is not this division, that victims and perpetrators are now together.

You know that the governments have done this already. You know, between Israel and Germany, the governments have been doing this. But you are right, the populations have to get in touch.

What the government is doing, this is heavy-handed. What the government is doing is to wash their hands. It has to be inside the human mind, otherwise -- today I was listening to the guy who was telling me 80 percent of Germans are still anti-Semitic.

Who said that?

I don't know. The guy who is doing the theater about Adolf Hitler. I mean, nobody can prove 80 percent, 70 percent, 60 percent. It doesn't matter, and I don't care about those numbers either. If someone would tell me 80 percent are anti-Semites, you know, I will say "I am only interested in 20 percent." And someone will say 70 percent, and I will say 30 percent. It doesn't matter, but the fact is that it is different when I come as a victim and tell this story that everybody feels sorry for me, but when you come and you say, "My sister thinks that we were taught too much, and I think we were taught not enough." This is what really I like to hear in any case, and I am hearing this from you.

You mean this conversation between us.

Well, that is right, but I am saying that your sister probably represents the majority of your generation. When I am in Germany, I always have this stupid idea to cross on the red light, because that is my revenge. Because it is a society towards reprimanding other people. I find that this is people that stop other people and tell them how to behave.

Maybe because I just grew up in the society, so I am basically used to it, though I do realize that, when you were just saying that, there are a lot of rules and restrictions and that we are just a very organized society, and whenever you go abroad you realize this is a country that works well with less laws and less restrictions, maybe so.

Give me some context. How did you create your personality as kind of a free person and not really suffering from the society that may be oppressive to other people?

Well, I guess that is what happens when you live in the society and go abroad once in a while and see how other people live and how other people behave. And I have been abroad several times to several different countries, and I have seen that the German way of behaving is not always the best one, and it is not non plus ultra.


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posted may 31, 2005

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