A Jew Among the Germans
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marian marzynski's conversations with young germans: christian staffa

A pastor, Staffa has a degree in theology and works for a German Lutheran church as head of its German-Jewish reconciliation project. Its work includes conducting seminars, group sessions and sending young Germans abroad, mainly to Israel and the U.S., to visit and/or work as social workers helping elderly Jews and Holocaust survivors in order to become acquainted with the life of Jewish communities and the Jewish religion. Staffa calls himself "a two-and-a-half generation" German, but works with the third generation as a kind of older brother. Here in this discussion, Staffa talks with Marzynski and Marzynski's American friend Thomas Mehrel, who is a Jew born in Germany after World War II. Their conversation deals with the guilt about the war and Holocaust that is pushed from one generation to the next; whether a so-called "good guilt" can exist; and how to build bridges between Jews and Germans. This conversation, parts of which were conducted in German and are translated here, took place in Berlin in 2003.

I have a very good friend in Frankfurt  Jewish, the son of survivors, and right in the beginning of our friendship, he said, You have to know one thing: We won't bridge the gap. And I said to him, I accept that, and that makes our friendship a lot more worthwhile than others ...

Marian Marzynski: …Will you address this issue of this victimhood of the third generation of young Germans.

Staffa: Again, one thing I discovered in the book [Nobody Asked Us], which I also discovered in the seminars [about the third generation's views] is the enormous aggression against their parents because their parents put a moral weight on them without helping them to deal with it.

We had one really beautiful -- well it was also very horrifying -- scene in our seminar when we said [to the participants], "Try to show the relationship to your parents concerning this issue, the Nazi time and the Shoah." And three of them laid themselves on the floor, and the parents came with huge baskets with little newspaper articles crumbled and pushed them on them after they were covered with these newspaper articles. And the message was that: We feel the delegation. We feel that they didn't deal with their guilt feelings, and they just transferred it [to us] without saying a word about it. So we are here with this guilt, feeling even more distant from the facts that can help … with better relationships with the grandparents … than they did with their parents. And now they say, "Your grandfather was a murderer," which they didn't mostly [before]. And so, I think there is a certain kind of victimhood of the whole German mentality after 1945.

It is not only the third generation. It is also the first generation and the second generation with the '68ers, and they suffered under capitalism and the United States and the Vietnam War, and the police of course. And the third generation suffers under their parents. And what I try to say at this 27th of January [Holocaust Remembrance Day in Germany], is that I think it is their right in being aggressive against their parents, but [they are] missing the next step, which would mean to really open up to their emotions towards this whole issue and … try to talk about the universalization of the Holocaust and all these discourses.

Marzynski: But why all this aggressiveness towards the parents? Why not go directly to the source. I mean, I was telling you, I don't understand German, but you know what I think you are doing? I think you are sick and tired of being defensive. Now you are "offensive." You say, "We are the first ones. We learned from scratch." That is why you have a seminar. "We will tell the world about concentration camps. We will tell the world about murderers who are German. We have to do [this] on our own, but let's be open. We feel responsible. We are knowledgeable. We can talk about it."

But when you start with saying, "I have a conflict with my father," it is already a sort of blockage, constipation. It is already this tension. We are so much looking for normality, we would just like to have -- Thomas and I -- this kind of relaxed meeting with the people on the other side and speak the same common language but--

Staffa: You won't get it. I have a very good friend in Frankfurt. He is Jewish, the son of survivors, and he has said to me, right in the beginning of our friendship, he said, "You have to know one thing: We won't bridge the gap." And I said to him, "I accept that, and that makes our friendship a lot more worthwhile than others and a lot more--"

Marzynski: I can bridge the gap; I don't care what another Jew thinks.

Staffa:What I am trying to say is that you have to be aware of the gap to get a normal relation. I don't like this word "normal" anyway. So you have to be conscious about it. Which is sort of the way to communicate about it, so you run toward the gap, parallel, and communicate, and to me that is friendship.

… On a collective level, it never worked that way, and that's why we try it now to relate this to people. And if this is a guilt-feeling relationship, which it mostly is, then we have to go through the guilt feeling. But they haven't. But if you talk to pedagogues, they will say that guilt feeling is bad. You are right, guilt feeling is bad, but if it is there, you have to work with it. I feel a lot of guilt feeling in this whole society, and because of that, a lot of defensiveness.

Marzynski: Can we promote a good guilt?

Staffa: Well, as a theologian, I probably have a different relationship to guilt because I do think that we are guilty on every step which we take. There is guilt in relationships; you hurt people. It is always around you. And one of the modern illnesses is [that] you don't accept it. You want to say, "You're OK; I am OK." This kind of transaction, you know, all of this I would say [is] frankly bullshit because I am not OK, and you are not OK. But in this saying, I say, "Because I know I am not OK, I am OK." So there is [a] step between that, and that is not at all what we have around us. …

Marzynski: But tell me, if I were your young son and I saw this horrible Holocaust movie and I come to you, to the house now, and I am telling you, "Daddy they are ruining our childhood." What are you telling me?

Staffa: I would say that is a really difficult one. I would try to say that it is reality, and that I don't like that they show it. Now I don't know how old [the hypothetical child] is, but my son is 12 and I would not show these movies to him, and I have seen a lot of them. ...

Marzynski: Why would you not show it?

Staffa: Because I believe that [there is] a certain age you have to be. … You have to be an adult because it is so cruel; it really destroys your feeling for humanity. And because children tend to learn in very small steps that the world is not only their really nice family.

Marzynski: But isn't it the job of all parents to heal those hard feelings?

Thomas Mehrel: I have a 12-year-old son. I come from the other spectrum, and I don't like my son to see these images either. There is compulsory Holocaust education in the United States, which has essentially come to be showing the images of cruelty and which results, more or less, in condemnation of the Nazis and nothing more than that.

Staffa: No relation, no emotional background?

Mehrel: My son, at the age of 12, growing up in the U.S., has seen many images of all kinds of violence in Hollywood movies as far as I cannot avoid him seeing it, but I don't want him [to]. I was thinking very hard whether he should see "The Pianist" or not, and to this point, he hasn't seen it. Do you want [your son] to see "The Pianist"?

Staffa: No.

Mehrel: And both of our children, or probably my son, will come to [me] disturbed about [these] images. And I understand very well what he says. …

Marzynski: I would just like to know what should I tell my 30-year-old daughter about her peers in this country. And so the question is, just to take a poll of the young generation -- and we know their shortcomings -- but what do you do to improve this, to relax it, to just build the bridge, to destroy the mental wall? You send them to America?

Staffa: Not only [to America]. We send them to Israel, the U.S., Poland, Russia, Czech Republic, Norway, Great Britain, Netherlands, France, Belgium …

Marzynski: What's happening when they go?

Staffa: What we try to do is first making them aware that this reality is still alive, and that is not true in every country. We have projects that they are volunteering for in the countries, whether it is with handicapped people, with Jewish survivors, with survivors of forced labor. They work in anti-racist projects and in refugee projects.

Marzynski: But give me not so much the action, as the results. You said, that Christoph, at one point was speaking and moved everybody. Tell me about results. When they come back, what transformation [do] you see?

Staffa: They discover a whole new world. I mean, first they meet -- in the U.S. and Israel -- they meet living Jews, something they don't discover in Germany. I mean, there are living Jews in Germany, of course, but they don't see them. So they come into a Jewish community which is alive, and they hear stories which tell them about the personal experiences of people during the Shoah, and so they have a totally new access to their worlds. And what I would try to say is that they gain a self-awareness and [discover] how history influences their life today. …


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posted may 31, 2005

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