Being German on Yom haShoa

I’m standing in the middle of what feels like hundreds of students from Ben Gurion University in the boiling sun. Our heads are lowered when the siren starts. I fight the instant urge to run away and seek a safe place, which arises within me at the sound of every loud noise since I moved to the South of Israel, and keep my head down. The siren gets louder and starts ringing in my ears. The sun is burning my neck.

It’s Yom haShoa – Holocaust Memorial Day!

Unlike in Europe, where most of the people do not even know that the 27th of January, the day Auschwitz was liberated, is the international Memorial Day, Israelis take this day serious. In schools, Kibbutzim, universities, Yad Vashem and on public squares ceremonies take place, all following a similar pattern. Speeches are held, sad songs are sung and six candles are lit in reference to the six million killed Jews. Each candle is lit by a different person who tells the story of their own Shoa experience or the story of friends, their grandparents or other relatives. The radio only plays sad songs. The TV program is shut down, except for a few channels which all show the same movies or documentaries about the Shoa.

It is needless to mention why this day plays an important part in this countries annual schedule.

But I think also for me it is a very different experience compared to other foreigners in Israel. A member of the third generation of the perpetrators in the country of the victims!

First of all I have to state that I am an ‘unguilty’ German. I laugh about Holocaust jokes, I do not feel bad to talk German in the Israeli public, I criticize the Israeli government when necessary and I do not see every critique made about Israel as Anti-Semitic.

I used to be a ‘guilty’ German. In my teenage years, I was embarrassed to say where I come from and felt ashamed for what my country had done. When I first started reading about the Holocaust and the war I was around nine years old. I made no connection between the war I was reading about and the wound on my grandpa’s arm where he got shot. “A straight through and through shot.” My brother, cousin and I used to love the story. “Here it went in and there it went out”, he had to tell us over and over again. For us it was like a story out of a fairytale. About a time that never really existed. My grandma used the war argument only when we were not willing to finish our plate or to try food unknown to us. “During the war, we had nothing. We would have been happy to be able to eat … (here you can fill in any food we did not want to taste)”. Until today I hear these words ringing in my ear when I leave something on my plate.

One day it finally dawned on my childish mind that the war, my grandparents were talking about, was the same one I read about in the books.

I started to ask questions. And I got the same answers as nearly every other German teenager gets: “We did not know.” And the topic was over.

One grandma was an exception to this rule. Actually she never told me the story herself, but I found out later after her death, that she stood up against the police and the only reason why she was not deported to be interrogated by the Gestapo was because the British had already destroyed the only bridge, leading to the nearest headquarters. So the local police drove back and had to let her go, for they did not know what to do with her. I am not telling that to show that my family has a clear ‘unguilty’ record, just because I felt I was not doing her justice by saying that all my grandparents behaved in the same way.

Anyways, in this time I felt as if I was personally carrying the whole guilt of the Holocaust on my own shoulders. While getting older I learned that every country has its good and bad histories, its advantages and disadvantaged and I just have to deal with it. Now I know that I personally am not guilty for anything that happened in my countries past. But I think that the responsibility of making sure that something like the Shoa does not happen again lies with me. Not because of my nationality, but because I am a human being. We are all responsible for that.

With today’s attitude I can live very well in Israel. I also never had a bad experience being from Germany. On the contrary, most young people envy me for being able to live in Berlin without a visa.

But Yom haShoa is different. I created my own ritual for this day. In the last years I went to the ceremony in the university and afterwards buried myself at home watching a marathon of Schindler’s list, The Pianist, Sophie’s choice or whatever cinematic product the movie channel chose this year to commemorate.

All my Israeli friends ask me: “Why are you doing that to yourself?” I have no answer to that. In a way I have the feeling I have to suffer through these films to feel the pain that survivors feel. I know that it is not comparable at all, but somehow I think I have to stand these movies, even though I feel bad afterwards, because the people who actually lived during the Shoa did not have a choice if they wanted to see the horrible things they experienced or if they wanted to live with horrible nightmares all of their lives. Who am I, if I am not even able to stand a movie about this, when my own people did this to others in real life?

Somehow I also feel I need these movies to remind me how horrible it really was. During the year I tend to forget that. I laugh about Hitler’s gas bill joke just as much as any Israeli and I make jokes myself. Otherwise I could not cope, living in this country.  My 16 year old me, would not be able to live here. During the year I sometimes get tired of hearing about the trauma that the Shoa caused. I probably forget how deep this trauma is and how justified it is. Get over it! No it is not possible to get over this. Deep down I know that, but once a year I need Roman Polanski and Steven Spielberg to remind me of that.

Still every year, I also have to see the other side. When all my Israeli friends think about their grandparents who survived the Shoa, I also think of my grandparents. Both my grandfathers were soldiers and both were captured at the end of the war, by the British and the Russians. One grandmother was in the “Bund Deutscher Mädel”, the other was not. She was also the one to be taken away by the police. I have to say that I am a bit proud on that, but I also questioned the fact if she was really very moral or if the reason her family was personally threatened by the Nazis, because her sister was mentally disabled, played a big part in this. If they would not have had a child the Nazis wanted to kill, would they have also reacted like this? It hurts me to think like this, like it always hurt me to ask questions about this time and being doubtful about the honesty of the answers. I think some people do not understand how hard it is, to find out as a child, that your grandparents might have supported a murdering regime, or have been murderers themselves. It is not very pleasant to doubt everything they say about this time. When growing up you do not see your grandparents like this. German grandparents, alike all grandparents in the world, are those wonderful creatures that give you extra money when the circus is in town, that have this magical closet that always contains sweets, that let you watch the stupid kids programs on Sunday morning your parents would never allow you to watch, that would let you stay up at night as long as you want, that would take you to the supermarket and let you chose whatever you want and that would let you dress up as princess with their clothes, Makeup, Shoes and Jewelry. Until one day you find out they might have known something about the most horrible crime in history and not have done anything about it. How are you supposed to deal with this as a ten year old?

For a long time I had the nerve to think I would have been a second Sophie Scholl if I would have lived in that time. Now I know better. I do not know what I would have done. I do not even know what I would do if something like this would happen again today. Let’s be realistic. Things like this happen every day. Not to this extent, but do we have to wait until it comes to this extent again? Bad things happen every day in the world, in Africa, Ukraine, China, Germany, Syria and also here in Israel, but what am I doing about that? I am going to the beach in Tel Aviv, playing Matkot, not caring about a thing and I sit in a hip coffee place writing this piece. And I do not even have a family yet. If one day I will have children I will again think differently about what I will do. I would be very selfish risking my life and the lives of my children, wouldn’t I?

Thinking I would have stood up to the Nazi regime is as arrogant as it can get and blaming all the people who lived back then for what happened as well. The author of the book “Destined to Witness”, Hans-Jürgen Massaqoui, son of an Liberian student and a German mother who lived in Germany of the 1930s, had to admit himself, that only the dark color of his skin kept him from becoming a Nazi himself.

No one knows what they would have done. The only thing we do know is that it can happen again. The book “The wave” by Morton Rhue describes the experiment of a teacher at an American High School after his students said that something like the Holocaust can never happen again. He founded an imaginary movement and showed how fast people are willing to hurt others for the sake of this movement. The experiment went completely out of control, but it proved that people today, with the knowledge of the Shoa, are not better at all. On Yom haShoa a friend of mine shared a Facebook status roughly stating this: “If you ever said “Death to the Arabs” or mentioned dislike against Gays, Lesbians, refugees, religious people, or just anyone who looks or behaves ‘differently’, then you have not understood what this day is about.” This is the best and most honest thing I have ever read.

Yes, we do have to remember the Holocaust, it is important not only for Israelis and Germans, but also for the rest of the world. But we also have to remember that the Holocaust does not just stand as a symbol for Anti-Semitism. It is a symbol for hate against others. One thing that always bothers me about the ceremonies in Israel is the fact that, so far, I have never heard them mentioning the other groups persecuted by the Nazis. Understandably, for Israel the murder of the Jews is the most important one, with six million they were the biggest group to be killed and the prior victims. I do not want to minimize this, but they were not the only ones. Everyone who was ‘different’ was deported to concentration camps, Sinti and Roma, Gays, Communists, religious people of any sort, Arabs, and mentally challenged.

I always hear “never again”, but I believe that it possibly will happen again, maybe not to the Jews, but to another group. Does it matter to whom? In my opinion it does not. It shall not happen again and that is what this day should remind us about.

This year I went to the ceremony with my Israeli friend whose Dutch grandmother survived the war in hiding. At first it was weird for her to go to the ceremony with a German and I understand that. Afterwards we had a coffee and talked about the ceremony, but very soon our conversation went over to our studies, people we know, professors and very important stuff like Buzzfeed quizzes that we love to take, because we always get the same results. If that does not show that we are not so different from each other, then what does?

Yes we have to remember, but I think coming here and making friends like my Buzzfeed soul mate, is a very good way to make sure that “never again” becomes reality.

About the Author
Simone came to Israel from Germany in 2012, as an exchange student and decided to stay for her M.A. in Israel Studies at Ben Gurion University, where she is currently writing her thesis about the image of Israel amongst Germans. Before starting her life in the desert, Simone was a Stage Manager at German musical productions, completed a degree in Acting, worked in a bookshop and finished her B.A. in Jewish and Islamic Studies in Heidelberg.