The Power of Forgiveness

Gertrud

I was born and raised in Germany. When I was 79 days old, the night of broken glass signaled the beginning of the Holocaust. Many people had believed that Hitler and his ilk could not possibly last, that the scenario of the Weimar Republic would repeat itself soon with another change in leadership. Alas, it was not to be. This regime had bolstered its staying power with brutal force and intimidation. We know what followed.

I spent my earliest childhood with my mother's parents and their friends. There were no other children my age. While I quietly played I was exposed to the adults discussing the Nazi horrors. They may not have known all the details but there is no doubt that most Germans knew of the atrocities committed. In my family they were certainly discussed and I overheard them - though I am unable to say whether this was before the end of the war of immediately following. Names of concentration camps like Bergen Belsen, Salzwedel and Neuengramme came up, and "der Kohnstein" was singled out as an especially bad place for the treatment of Jews in the cavernous depths of the southern Harz mountains.

My grandmother was born in the nearby city of Nordhausen and a large part of our family still lives there. Nobody was allowed anywhere near the area surrounding the Kohnstein.

In his book titled "Destined to Witness", Hans J. Massaqoui describes the same story I had heard my own family tell about the trucks arriving with emaciated-looking men in convict garb. It was a one-way trip for these men; the trucks returned empty. Only years later after a visit to the Center for Holocaust Education and Information in Rochester did I learn the more recognized name of the Kohnstein as Camp Dora-Mittelbau, where under the mastermind of Wernher von Braun Germany's V-2 rockets were produced.

In my grandparents' circle they also whispered about the gruesome details of how Jewish children were killed. There was talk of the gas chambers and of the crematoria.

The immediate postwar years were much worse for me than the war had been. With the extreme housing shortage, everybody lived literally on top of one another. There was no privacy and no relief from the day to day stress of too much togetherness. People who couldn't stand each other found themselves living in close proximity. It made life very difficult when everything was in short supply except, it seems, alcohol. It flowed freely in the village pubs, where the prize for a good card player might be a sausage, a piece of meat, or even a whole goose for an especially lucky winner. My father was one of those good players. Proudly he would bring home his winnings. In those days, my grandmother knew how to stretch a goose to feed the ten people at our table for a whole week!

Food on the table didn't equal peace in the house. I found my loyalties very much divided as my father in his inebriated state ranted and raved, unable to cope in this confining environment.

As children often do, I assumed it was my fault that we were where we were. From "If I hadn't been born..." to "why couldn't I have been killed instead of these Jewish children in happy families" didn't seem such a big leap. Once that connection had been made, it wasn't difficult to arrive at the next question: "What right do I have at all to live when so many children - so many people - weren't allowed to live?" For a while I was preoccupied with thoughts of suicide but was so terrified of not succeeding and ending up maimed that I never attempted it.

In the wake of these postwar events imagination and reality became blurred. It took years for me to realize that my father had not been a member of the Nazi party. He had been stationed in a labor camp. I was crippled by feelings of guilt and shame. How could anybody have committed these atrocities? How could we as Germans live as equals among the nations, how could we breathe? It became my private hell as the veil of silence descended upon the country. Talk of the past was such a total taboo that I had to bury my feelings very deep inside.

After I completed school I apprenticed in a very large company and became close friends with two other girls in the program. One of them had family who had immigrated to Australia and she was dreaming of that faraway land. Soon she had the two of us ready to join in. I was suffocating and yearned to breathe free; here was my opportunity! We took advantage of the extra English classes the company offered and on our own took English short-hand courses to prepare for our big adventure. By the time we were ready to plan in earnest, the other girl had met a boy friend abandoning us for another dream. The emigration advisors suggested we consider Canada because it was much closer, had a more European flair, and would be much less expensive to come back from in case our enthusiasm collided with reality.

We liked the reality. We also were lucky. Off the boat I was offered a job in the German Embassy in Ottawa!

My main assignment was the typing of press releases arriving by wireless transmission on inch-wide strips of paper. On the rare occasions when this didn't take up the allotted time I would help out elsewhere and became aware of the stacks of files concerning "Wiedergutmachung" or "reparations". It was autumn of 1959, recent German history caught up with me again! It would be two more years before the Eichman trial in Jerusalem and the release of "The Diary of Anne Frank" would begin to explode the capsule of silence for the wider world.

In 1963, when my first husband was reassigned to a post of his country's mission to the United Nations I came to live in New York City. A friendly exchange by the mailbox brought my first encounter with what I later realized had to have been a Jewish refugee couple from Berlin. Thoughtlessly I poured out my unhappiness about the dirty treeless neighborhood that was so unlike that described in the advertising brochure. Reflections of the exchange left me horrified at my insensitivity. After all, I could return any time to my hometown, the "green city" surrounded by its ancient forest, the artificially created lake area, and the royal gardens!

On September 19th I started my new job in the international division of a social service agency. It was a week before Rosh HaShanah. The co-worker charged with showing me the ropes was a Jewish woman. We connected right away. She also provided a rudimentary introduction to Judaism. On Rosh HaShanah a whole new world opened. I had not realized how many Jewish co-workers I would encounter. How could I possibly survive? There was no way people wouldn't recognize my accent and know from where I hailed. Quickly the feelings of guilt and shame were joined by desperation about my ability to function. The graciousness of my coworkers was an incredible gift. If anyone bore resentments, it was unexpressed. Edith, who would become a lifelong friend, invited me to join her lunch table. All she told me then was that she left Germany in 1938, alone, her parents unable to join her later as had been planned.

The past remained a taboo. The pain grew deeper as I got to meet the people whom Hitler had called "vermin." After my marriage broke up I was planning to return to Canada. At some point I met a Jewish man. Since it couldn't possibly lead anywhere, I continued to see him. Nobody would be hurt when I was ready to leave! Out of the friendship grew love. We discovered we shared the same values. We were married. Almost all of his family accepted me warmly. The one person who had been a prisoner of war in Germany enjoyed kidding me and catching me up when I didn't quite "get it." He loved to call me "Aunt Gertrud" despite his being older. His wife was far more reserved. The past continued to be a taboo, the deeper pain remained.

Eventually we moved to Rochester. I converted to Judaism. It was so comforting to discover the Yom Kippur ritual of taking on responsibility for one's actions, or rather for one's transgressions. I felt right at home with the commandment of tikkun olam - repairing the world. It was a value my grandfather had taught me so many years ago and that had been my guiding light. It was less comforting to consider what my presence might mean for those worshipers who were refugees from Nazi oppression. The response was mostly positive. Still, the feelings of guilt and shame didn't go away.

Then came 1991. On a Sunday morning, Charles Kuralt broadcast a segment of an extraordinary meeting of a unique group of people in Boston. Children of Holocaust survivors and children of Nazi party members had come together to tell the stories of their lives and how the Holocaust had influenced them! There were Germans whose parents had been enthusiastic Nazis and there were children whose parents had survived the worst imaginable horrors. Instantly I recognized the healing power emanating from such a gathering. Both sides were tied to this history and only in dialogue with each other would we be able to become whole. The Jewish survivors have many deep roots in Germany. They need to be liberated to allow them to explore their past and overcome the taboos imposed by the reality we grew up in. Later I heard of an Israeli, Daniel Bar-On, being engaged in dialogue with children of prominent Nazis. I was no longer alone!

In the spring of 1997 a group of Tibetan monks were creating a prayer wheel at the Memorial Art Gallery. In conjunction, the Art Gallery offered a series of related workshops on themes of peace. One of those presentations was by a group of second generation Holocaust survivors and of children of Nazis. I finally had come home! The presenters revealed themselves as members of One by One, an organization that grew out of that 1991 gathering in Boston. The participants realized they were meeting a need and now are continuing to speak at various events. They are also sponsoring an intense annual dialogue group in Berlin, Germany.

In June of that year I went to Hampshire College for the annual meeting of One by One. At my very first workshop it became obvious that I was in the right place! We were asked to share our reason for being there. The first speaker in the circle was Emma, whose parents had escaped from Nazi-occupied Holland. Emma grew up with a lot of taboos that included her family's past and anything that had the slightest connection to Germany. She wanted to meet the monsters hiding in her family's closets. She wanted to find out for herself what was so terrifying to her parents. It was my turn to follow Emma. I had to identify myself as that monster - and when I was finished speaking, the dam burst: we embraced in a warm hug and just held on to each other. Was it love? Was forgiveness involved? I don't think so. Emma expressed her surprise that someone from Germany could be feeling the things I had brought up. We found each other as two souls struggling alone on opposite sides of the same horrific past. It had left a deep wound in our hearts. We were able to acknowledge each other with respect. Neither of us had participated in that past, hence could not grant nor ask for forgiveness. We were both victims, both tired of perpetuating hatred, mistrust, and most of all the silence between us.

In March of 2000 I went to Berlin for a week of dialogue with fourteen participants guided through the intense sessions by four advisors and consultants. We stayed at a villa on the outskirts of the city not far from the infamous "House of the Wannsee Conference." Together we toured the building where Eichman laid out his plans for the "Final Solution." As we listened to each other's life stories, we came to cry and laugh together, to share hugs, to reach out to each other well after the official sessions were over. We learned to respect each other. We left as very different people. Love? Yes, we came away with some deep personal friendships that still nourish us. I am no longer afraid to raise my voice, knowing that on occasion I will get bruised. There were far too many shards of glass in that long ago November night, they can never be totally swept away. Pieces will come to the surface and cut on all sides. It is for us to repair the damage, to dress the wounds, to soothe the pain.

December 5, 2006