By DR. Naomi Baum
When the Hamburg Senate sent me a formal letter inviting me to participate in its annual program for the children of Jews born in Hamburg, I accepted with both trepidation and excitement. My father, born in 1925 to a third-generation Jewish Hamburg family, had escaped along with his family on September 30, 1938, less than six weeks before the infamous Kristallnacht. This was my opportunity to look at what happened to my family, along with the 20,000 Jews who lived in pre-WWII Hamburg, and try to begin to come to terms with it.
Our home was German-Jewish. There were sandkuchen and baumkuchen. There were bircher muesli and rote grutze. There were the special tunes to Shir HaMa’alot, the Song of Ascent, sung at every Shabbat and holiday meal. There was order and organization. We arrived everywhere on time, and often five minutes early. We were German Jews and proud of it.
Assembling in June this year on the top floor of the elegant Steinberger Hotel, where we were guests of the city of Hamburg, a group of middle-aged folks gathered and shared a brief synopsis of their family history and what had brought them here. We were all the lucky ones, the ones whose parents had survived. We came from South America, Australia, Great Britain, Israel, Cyprus, and the U.S. All of us had parents who had been born in Hamburg. Many of us had lost family members, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. All were here to find out more about their families, about themselves, and about Germany today.
Taking the opportunity to talk to every German I met, the five-hour plane ride to Hamburg became my opening seminar, as I learned about how young Germans today deal with the horrors of the Holocaust and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by their people. I learned from Yolanda and Julius, the attractive 30-something couple that sat next to me, that Germans never fly their flag (except during the Euro Cup or World Cup), are forbidden by law to call their children Adolf, and cannot have the initials SS or NS on their license plates. Yolanda, in her seventh month of pregnancy, shared that genetic testing is against the law as well. When I asked about their grandparents’ roles in the war, I was told that this is virtually a forbidden topic, and that the older generations avoided talking about the war. Yolanda’s grandfather began to talk about his war service in the Wehrmacht only after he reached the age of 80. Her mother told her that she grew up thinking that her own father might have been a mass murderer, when it turned out that he had been wounded after a mere two weeks on the Russian front, ending his war career.
The sense that Germans are meeting their past on a collective level but shying away from it on a personal one was compounded when we met young German high-school students. I grilled everyone I met, asking them what they knew about their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ involvement in the war. Most knew nothing. When I asked one 17-year-old why he did not ask his grandmother about the war, he thought for a moment, and slowly answered that he was afraid. Afraid that he might displease her? Afraid of what he might find out? It wasn’t clear. When we met that same young man two days later, he came over to me and excitedly told me that he had spoken to his grandmother, and she shared with him that his great-grandfather had been in the SS. She had a packet of letters from this great-grandfather written and sent from the front. He wanted to read them.
Germany has put up many public monuments commemorating the atrocities of World War II. Thousands of Stolpersteins, small brass squares placed in the pavement in front of houses where Jews had lived before being deported and killed, have been placed all over Hamburg. These small memorials, displaying name, date of birth, and date and place of death, are found in large numbers in the former Jewish quarter of Grindel, where virtually every house has at least one, and often many, of these memorials. Because these stones have become so common, many folks, paying no notice, actually step on them. Some carefully walk around the stones. Yet others, like Sabine, a righteous gentile who volunteers her time to this memorial project and accompanied us on our search for family roots, came equipped with rags and brass polish to bend down and clean the stones. We, the Jewish visitors, stopped in front of these stones to reflect and to remember relatives we never knew.
Neuengamme, the concentration camp located within the city boundaries of Hamburg, is an example of how the official German response preferred to forget their ignominious past. Survivor groups pressured the German authorities, who for more than 40 years failed to place a memorial to the more than 50,000 prisoners who found their death in starvation, disease, torture, and murder. Marco, our remarkable tour guide, carefully walked us through the history of postwar Neuengamme, showing us a small memorial that was placed at the edge of the camp. It wasn’t until 2006 that the prison housed on the grounds was closed down, making way for a memorial and a museum about this camp. Standing on the enormous roll-call plaza and picturing the thousands of inmates lining up for interminable roll call in the freezing cold and rain after 12 hours of backbreaking labor was chilling.
Visiting the city of Hamburg offered me the opportunity to explore on a personal level my family roots. The Jewish section of the huge Ohlsdorf cemetery remained untouched during the war, and I found the well-tended graves of three great-grandparents. As we stood at the threshold of the building that housed my great-grandfather’s progressive girls’ school, known as the Loewenberg Schule, I felt a sense of pride and belonging to a tradition of educators and writers. While I had known of this school since my childhood, actually standing at the place where my great-grandfather walked and taught, I could almost reach out and touch him.
And so I am left with a plethora of feelings. The Germans we met were friendly and welcoming. They talked freely and with much concern about the Holocaust on a communal level. However, when it comes to a sense of personal connection and an understanding of what their family members might have done, there was little desire to search or to become accountable. There is still a long way to go in understanding the impact of the Holocaust on all of us, victims and perpetrators alike.
Trauma crosses generational lines, piercing the walls of denial and shame. The conspiracy of silence that continues in Germany today, surrounding what family members have or have not done—sins of omission and commission—cannot be disregarded. In her speech at the kosher gala luncheon sponsored by the Senate to welcome us, the Second Mayor of Hamburg stated that Germans must look the Holocaust in the face and take full responsibility. To this I say that this must include looking deep inside our families and ourselves, experiencing the horror, the shame, the revulsion, and understanding that as human beings we are all entirely vulnerable. The only way to make sure this doesn’t happen again is to unpack the trauma, bravely, and recognize the humanity in each and every one of us. v
Naomi L. Baum, Ph.D., is a psychologist and consults worldwide in the field of trauma and resilience. She likes to spend her spare time traveling with her husband and scuba-diving and hiking with her children and grandchildren.