This 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’ liberation inspires three sets of memories.
The first involves my father, who as a Yiddish-speaking GI was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 to serve as a translator for the American authorities working with the survivors. He didn’t speak about the experience much, but he did tell me, more than once, that he was never able fully to believe in God again.
Somehow, after this, and after his prior combat experience, he was able to lead what is called a normal life. However, he did refuse to return to Germany for the rest of that life, even though he and my mother became big-time globe-trotters once they could afford foreign travel, especially in their retirements, and even though he was an avid student of European history.
I decided to leave Germany off my list of destinations, too, but wound up making a visit in 1992 anyway. I was asked by the State Department to give some speeches there and in England, and I convinced myself that this kind of business trip was a permissable exception to my rule. (My father, who never urged me to avoid the country, readily agreed.)
The memories that were created there were much happier. It was creepy to think that practically any German I saw over a certain age would have at best been a passive supporter of Nazism. But of course human biology had already dealt with much of that issue in the nearly five decades that had passed since VE Day.
Wholly unexpected was the reaction I got from Germans (overwhelmingly much younger, including college and university students) I met if my heritage happened to come out. The compassion was highly moving, along with what seemed practically an eagerness to learn about my own feelings about those long ago crimes and horrors, and to share theirs. Although the German State Department staff who hosted and worked with me didn’t have enough advance notice to arrange a side trip to a concentration camp or other Holocaust site, one was able to arrange a private tour of an exhibit titled “The Jews of Hamburg” that was about to open at that city’s local history museum. The facility was closed the only day my schedule permitted a visit, but the curator of the museum agreed to conduct it all the same.
I hope that this trip’s memories – along with those of other German friends I have made since – aren’t too sanguine. The same goes for this one – despite the notable uptick seen lately in anti-Semitism in Europe. It involves the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which I visited for the first time with my parents a few months after it opened. One room commemorates the innumerable European artists and scientists and scholars who fled Nazism before the war’s outbreak – along, I think, with the many who perished. (Although I can no longer bring myself to watch most Holocaust documentaries, I suppose it’s high time I went back.) Thinking that day at the treasure trove of genius they represented, and the knowledge and beauty that they have given us, it could not have been clearer that they defined every decent and noble impulse ever displayed by humanity.
My first reaction: Their oppressors meant to destroy all of this. My second reaction: They failed.