If you saw a murder, would you report it?
If you saw all the signs that a murder had happened, but not the murder itself, would you report it?
I’m hoping you would.
If you and your community knew that someone had been murdered – and no one else talked about it, would you, even at great personal cost?
Would you speak out if you had small children? If you yourself were a child? If you had nothing to gain and everything to lose?
These are by no means easy questions, and I suspect that no one could answer them except through experience. However, I think it is a necessary exercise. It’s a big part of why I read Remembering…Years of Hiding Behind Silence, a series of essays written by someone I go to church with, Christa Meiners-DeTroy. Christa – or Christine, as I know her – who grew up in Worpswede, a small artist’s town in northern Germany during the Nazi period.
Running through the book is silence, silence disguised by carefully nonpolitical conversation, suspicion and fear behind a sheen of conformity. It was a defensive kind of muteness, one taken up by many Germans, but there was a cost to this desire to live, a cost in pride, integrity, and in innocent lives. The true price was extracted after the war, in the honesty of the aftermath.
Of course, it was hard for everyone during the war: some people were never fully trusted (like the family’s cherished housekeeper); people were sometimes forced to take part in political rituals they had no interest in (Christa was once ordered to wear a Hitler Youth uniform and to march to a theater to watch propaganda films); food became hard to come by (to this day, Christa prefers the heel of a loaf of bread, which is thicker). Yet my impression is that, however grueling the Nazi regime had been, the prevailing questions and disquiet have lingered more than the hungry afternoons might have done.
Was the housekeeper an informant? Was taking part in such a ritual – wearing the uniform, marching in step – was that an act of complicity with the government? How many people would it have taken to speak up before the deportations and murders stopped? Words can’t always tell the story, and questions are more important than answers.
So we are left with the onus of remembering. Most of us were not alive at the time, and most of us live in other parts of the world. At first we might exclaim that we are not responsible for the atrocities, but to say such a thing is purely self-defensive. Instead, it’s more useful to think that it could happen, and to be as active and compassionate as possible. To be as strong. As honest.
It’s not easy, but who said that the worthwhile things in life are easy?
As Christa says,
How can we keep the unequivocal message of “Never Again” alive in the minds of the young people without passing on the shame and guilt of their elders? Are the older generations willing and able to help their descendants understand the difference between acknowledgement and evasion, between responsibility and guilt, without blurring the lines with defensive explanations and excuses and plain denial? (163)
Christa grapples with these distinctions particularly in her thoughts about a neighbor of hers, Frau Rosa Abraham, who as a Jew – even as the respected older lady that she was – was murdered at Treblinka after a stay in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. No one said a word in the days and hours before she was taken away; if they had, they too could have found themselves in a train bound for the Czech Republic or Poland. In the last decade or so, Christa found Frau Abraham’s grandson in New York, visited the concentration camp in which she was held, and finally helped to dedicate a park in Worpswede to her. Frau Abraham has been brought back to the world, has become more than a number in a gruesome registry; she has been remembered without shame.
You can find copies of Christa’s book on Amazon.