Rebecca Wittmann sits looking out a window
Photo by Marta Iwanek
Opinion

Confronting the Past

My father demanded an explanation from his mother about what she did during the Holocaust. Like many Germans of his generation, he never got it

Last year, on a grey January evening, a taxi dropped me off at Pauly Saal, an impossibly hip restaurant in Berlin. It is housed inside a former Jewish girls’ school. The architecture has been painstakingly preserved, from the tiled floors and cement walls to the institutionally prescribed bathrooms, updated only by new stall doors and fancy towelettes. The restaurant is in the former gymnasium: a simple square room that has been transformed with green velvet banquettes, cutesy stuffed foxes, and an enormous red rocket above the open kitchen. The food is a modern take on traditional German dishes: hearty, delicious and expensive.

I walked slowly past the placards explaining the history of the building. It was designed in the late 19th century by a Jewish architect who met his end in the Theresienstadt ghetto. The Nazis closed the Jewish girls’ school in 1933, and the vast majority of the students met their ends in death camps in Poland. In 1996 it was finally returned to the Jewish Community of Berlin by the Claims Conference. The German Jewish Council rents it out to entrepreneurs. And so I find myself eating here.

The existence of such a chic restaurant inside a former Jewish girls’ school made my father’s stomach turn. Born in 1935, he grew up in West Germany and was plagued his entire life with shame and horror at the crimes committed by his parents’ generation. He left West Germany for North America at the age of 28 and only ever returned for brief family visits. Like many young Germans in the aftermath of the Second World War, he felt suffocated by the guilt of a previous generation who never took responsibility for their actions during the Nazi period, and who refused to even discuss what had happened. Confronted with his own mother’s silence (his father had died during the war), my father faced a tormenting moral choice: be complicit in his mother’s silence or speak out against her. 1

Wittmann's father (right) with his sister (left) and mother
Wittmann's father (right) with his sister and mother (seated), at the family home in Bad Sachsa, Germany.
Wittmann and her father walk down a road away from the viewer
Wittmann walking with her father in Roseneath, Ontario, where she grew up. Photos courtesy of Rebecca Wittmann

My father never stopped loving his mother. But he also rejected her – and his sister (who took his mother’s side). He left the country and excluded both from his wedding. Some 40 years later, my aunt and grandmother called my father’s decision a “Trennungstrauma” (separation trauma), and felt bitter that in rejecting the country of his birth he had also rejected them; he seemed to hold them personally responsible for Germany’s crimes.

This made visits to Germany with my parents tense and sad. The country felt like home to me: I remember looking forward to the smell of my grandmother’s house (a combination of marzipan, cooking lard and her perfume) and the sound of her voice. But there were always arguments. On each visit, my father brought his mother books about the Holocaust, which she leafed through but probably never read. He questioned her silence. He had little sympathy for her protests: that she wasn’t political (“to be apolitical is a political position!” he would scold her); that she was too busy hiding her family in the bomb cellar; or coping with the grief of her husband’s death on the Russian front in 1942. Once, my father took her to Mittelbau-Dora, a concentration camp close to where she lived. Afterward, she became very depressed and my aunt berated my father for exposing her to such a terrible place. My father, in turn, couldn’t abide his mother’s sensitivity – as if she herself was being victimized as the Jews had been. He had absolutely zero patience for it.

I do not imagine my family to be so very different from other German families coping with the burden of crimes committed in their names, often by their relatives. How do successive generations cope with the past under these conditions, in which those who committed the crime – a whole generation – refused to take responsibility? Almost every German I know has questions and stories about a relative’s mysterious actions during the Nazi period. Yet the moral indignation expressed by my father and others of his generation was certainly not the norm; the vast majority preferred to sweep the past under the rug, just as their parents had.

Rebecca Wittmann sits beside a window
“The motto for International Holocaust Remembrance Day is ‘never forget.’ For my father, and for me, this must be more than a slogan remembered on one day a year.” Photo of Rebecca Wittmann by Marta Iwanek

About The Author

Author image: Rebecca Wittmann

Ironically, as a nation, Germany has done a very good job of confronting its past. Who else builds a memorial to its own crimes the size of two football fields in the centre of its capital? Where else do you have an almost daily discussion in the media of the atrocities of the past? For this, I credit a very loud few, like my father, who wanted answers. But many Germans greeted the process with resentment; they didn’t want an investigation into their parents’ past.

Admission of guilt on the official, national level is very different from a personal admission of guilt. My father demanded an explanation from his mother, even after Germany had begun to acknowledge its crimes. Why did she insist that “it wasn’t all bad back then”? Why didn’t she object to the bust of Hitler in her friend’s living room? Ultimately, I think, he felt her silence, her willful ignorance, her defensiveness were acts of complicity.

This deduction was central to the lessons he taught me, and is now very much part of what I teach students about the slippery slope of indifference, apathy and collaboration. An official, national admission of guilt is not enough. When individuals refuse to accept responsibility for crimes that were committed with their tacit consent, the crimes can easily be repressed, forgotten and, ultimately, repeated.  The motto for International Holocaust Remembrance Day is “never forget.” For my father, and for me, this must be more than a slogan remembered on one day a year. It must be a collective reckoning not only by governments but by the individuals who supported, allowed or simply turned away from the brutality and tyranny of oppression and mass murder. This personal reckoning has not taken place in Germany. The divide between the official government position – welcoming more than 1.5 million refugees since 2016 – and the growing populace of resentful right-wing nationalists, attest to a great chasm between official German atonement for Nazi crimes, and personal unwillingness to recognize that individual Germans made those crimes possible.

My father, who died last July, was uneasy when I told him about my dinner at Pauly Saal. For Germans of my generation living in Berlin, the discomfort also lingers: recounting my dinner to a friend, she worried that the Holocaust would become nothing but bittersweet folklore. At the same time, she recognized that more people might learn something by eating at this fancy restaurant than if it had been turned into yet another museum. This process of confronting the past is complicated and uncomfortable. But it must certainly continue.

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  1. 18 Responses to “ Confronting the Past ”

  2. Carla Gilders says:

    Thank you, Rebecca. We should all feel the discomfort and shame of not confronting the reality of what happens before our eyes.

  3. jacqueline emch says:

    What a wonderful article. We need to remember "never again." I pray for peace.

  4. Melanie Flake says:

    I can’t help but to think of the plight of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Many generations of Canadians have turned a blind eye to our government’s devastating policies and disparaging relationship with First Nations.

  5. Ingrid Ruhrmann says:

    My body is covered in shivers as I read this article. I was born in 1943 and arrived in Canada in 1952. I remember bombed-out buildings in Germany and discrimination in Canada.

    Confronting the past is important. I couldn't agree more. How we confront the past is also very important. Thank you for your article, Rebecca.

  6. Dale Hircock says:

    Thank you, Rebecca. This is a very well written article with a unique perspective. Looking at past atrocities through your father’s lens is critical to avoid the ‘slippery slope’ that you spoke of so clearly. It is my wish that Canadians make intelligent decisions when it comes to our struggles regarding immigration policies.

  7. Richard Rokosz says:

    Being the child of parents who lived in Germany during the Second World War -- their war, not my war -- I'm disturbed by your statement that confronting the past "must continue."

    You need to visualize what it was like to live in Germany during the war. If you refused to be conscripted into the army, guess where you went. The secret police had informers everywhere. Speak out and you got visitors in leather coats. My dad saw Polish workers who dated German women hung on lamp posts. Who dared protest?

  8. H Patricia Hantke says:

    I disagree with Rebecca Wittmann's statement that today’s Germans are not as remorseful as the German government. I was born in 1939 and came to Canada in 1961. Since then, I have been going back to Germany almost yearly. I am always pleasantly surprised by how today’s Germans are still ashamed and remorseful. They are definitely not forgetting the horrors of their war and are acutely aware of possible future danger. The reason that the right-wing party is growing is because of the inequalities in the Western world. We all have to guard against populism regardless of where you live. Look at the U.S.

  9. Caroline says:

    St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who hid and saved 2,000 Jewish people during the Second World War, was captured and eventually sent to Auschwitz. As the group of men, which included this Franciscan priest, were ordered to be starved and dehydrated, St. Maximilian Kolbe calmly led them in prayers. After two weeks, the soldiers gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He once said: “the most deadly poison of our time is indifference.”

    The question really becomes: How can we as a society not speak up against abortion (the killing of an innocent life) and euthanasia (lethal injections given to the weak and vulnerable, or the deliberate withholding of fluids and nutrition)?

    We must all speak for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

  10. B. Cornwell says:

    Implicit in this article is the failure of most European and some Asian countries to acknowledge and atone for centuries of colonial meddling, exploitation and genocide.

    Nationalism and aggressive colonial adventurism, leading to wholesale "warfare" against subjugated Indigenous populations and to two "world wars," are glorified by many historians as discovery, exploration, trade expansion and accumulation of wealth.

    No philosophy, religion, ethics or moral system can guard against the human will to survive even if it means destroying others. We can never make ourselves "great again" until we acknowledge how evil and "ungreat" our past has been.

  11. Peter Bzonek says:

    I think the way the author's father treated his mother was overly harsh. Causing her depression decades after the end of the war will not change history or the future. If she did not want to talk about the war, he should have respected her wishes.

  12. James Courtney says:

    I was working in the Karlsruhe area of Germany in the summer of 1972 when I received tickets to attend the Munich Olympics.

    It was a festive occasion. West Germany wanted to put the Berlin ("Hitler") Olympics of 1936 behind it, and show that it was part of the new democratic world. But two days after my visit to Munich, the terrorist incident involving Israeli athletes occurred. What I remember most about that was how my German colleagues (who were born during the Second World War or shortly after) were concerned about the incident reviving memories of the war and about being blamed for its atrocities.

    On a trip to Germany, in 2014, I did notice much greater recognition and awareness of the war and its atrocities.

  13. Stefan says:

    Germany and Germans should feel remorseful for the evil of the Holocaust. It’s admirable that they have taken steps to remember and to make financial restitution. It's good for those who have hurt others to ask for forgiveness; it's also good for those who have been wronged to forgive. Let’s also remember that it’s easy to apologize for others’ sins and much harder to recognize that each of us is capable of being selfish and apathetic in the face of evil. It’s difficult to recognize evil in our own lives.

    Instead of judging and condemning others, we might be better served making sure we are not silent about anti-Semitism today. Also, it’s easy to talk about the Nazis’ so-called “master race” and ignore the fact that some parents choose to abort fetuses with Down Syndrome or other conditions. Rather than feeling superior to Americans and Germans who want to accept refugees only after careful vetting, and who want to accept fewer economic migrants, perhaps we should remember that Canadians are being spared these decisions by the three oceans on our shores. More personal soul-searching and less virtue signalling would be helpful.

  14. Darlene Varaleau says:

    This article is outstanding. I love the reminder that state apologies (such as Canada's apology about the residential schools) do not excuse or replace individual responsibility. Canada has apologized but we continue to seize children for foster care rather than support families; we underfund indigenous schools; we fail to provide clean drinking water; we poison lakes and rivers; we fail to provide adequate health care. Complicity and silence are deadly and pervasive.

  15. Frances Clee says:

    What do you suppose would have happened to anyone who publicly objected to the Nazi government's policies? Nothing good, I would think. Those who did were exceptionally brave people but I wouldn't have been able to do it.

    @Caroline: People stop eating and drinking as part of the natural process of dying. It is one way that we know that the end of a life is approaching.

    As a society, if we want to say that we should not abort those fetuses that are less than perfect, then we should be prepared to assist the parents in caring for them once they are born. And that means paying more in tax.

  16. Peter Bernstein says:

    Excellent soul-searching article. The big question for me is what proportion of the German population enthusiastically supported the actions taken against the Jews and other so-called “enemies” of the people. These Germans (and Austrians) may not necessarily all have supported outright murder and extermination but the confiscation and plunder of Jewish assets, removal from official positions, institutions and professions and ghettoisation and deportation were certainly welcomed. In my opinion, 99 per cent of Germans from that time are complicit, whether or not they actually pulled a trigger to kill a civilian or released Zyklon B pellets into a gas chamber.

  17. Vasant Ramlaggan says:

    Excellent article! Thank you.

  18. Caroline says:

    @Frances:
    https://www.ewtn.com/morals/end-of-life.htm

  19. Alvar Taboada says:

    Self-flaggelation for crimes committed by previous generations is not healthy for any nation. While it is noble to accept refugees, every social system has a limit. To compromise future generations is a bad course of action.