‘My grandfather was a Nazi and I just wanted to say…’
What if his grandfather murdered my grandfather? This bizarre question sometimes pops into my head when I meet a German, even in a benign business context, as happens regularly.
The Holocaust looms large in my family. My late father survived Auschwitz, and with his brother were the only survivors from a large family. My grandfather died just weeks before liberation. The trauma that survivors suffered is transmitted to their children both through their behavior as parents, and epigenetically. In the latter case, we end up with remnants of the effects of trauma but without experiencing the trauma that caused it, which can lead to a bizarre dissonance.
I was reminded of this question after a recent Twitter post
Ohmygosh yall, I'm at a Walmart in far out Eastern Texas and a man just walked up to my kippah-wearing husband and said,
"You're a Jew right? My grandfather was a Nazi and I know its been a long time but I just wanted to say I'm sorry."
— Dr. Hannah Lebovits (@HannahLebovits) November 25, 2020
I’ve visited Germany, and met many people from that country and felt neither animus nor regret. By contrast, I felt and experienced more hatred when visiting Poland some 20 years ago during a family roots trip.
I don’t expect apologies from random Germans, and I would be taken aback if one was offered — my instinctive response would likely be “While I appreciate the gesture, I don’t think a personal apology is necessary”. The genocide committed by the Nazis against the Jews was the action of one collective against another. Accordingly, the ‘remedy’ (using a legal term) comprises an acknowledgment by the the German leadership of its crimes, a system of reparations to the victims, and the appropriate legal and structural changes to prevent such an atrocity happening again. That has taken place, and the Claims Conference was established to administer reparations to victims.
To be sure, the apology and reparations are directed to both the Jews as a collective, and to the individual survivors and their families. Germans might reasonably feel shame for the actions of their country, and of specific citizens. In addition to the collective trauma experienced by the Jewish people, there is collective guilt/shame for Germans, and this too is transmitted generationally. But that not imply an obligation on any random individual German to apologise to any random individual Jew.
But what if his grandfather murdered my grandfather? The question still gnaws at a part of me. To which my rational side response: but he didn’t do anything wrong to me, nor does he show any malintent. But is there antisemitism or murder in his veins? Only God knows that. I ought to form a view about a person based on their own speech of actions, rather than prejudging every German I meet and hold them to account for the possible sins of their ancestors. Indeed, that principle applies to any collective.
Basil Fawlty, in the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, repeatedly offends his German guests despite warning his staff. But we do ourselves a disservice by constantly reminding ourselves “don’t mention the war”. All that achieves is to bring any intergenerational trauma to the surface.
Political theorist Michael Walzer expressed this very well, in a discussion on Tablet Magazine. “Jews have been oppressed more than anybody in Europe, culminating in the systematic genocide that was the Shoah. Yet, we refuse to be victims. We show none of the hallmarks of having been oppressed”. (I don’t quite agree with the last sentence). Jews pose a problem for the now-popular theories of oppression and victim politics. We are a living example of a historically oppressed collective who turned their situation around.
My father, grandfather, and hundreds of members of my family were victims. They did not have a choice in the matter. I am blessed with the ability to choose: to either let victimhood define me, or to move forward from it, yet still remember it appropriately.
I choose to maintain a positive and uniquely Jewish identity – not based on guilt and thousands of years of suffering, but based on the many positive aspects to being Jewish. That is the kind of Jewishness that can be readily transmitted to the next generation, and beyond.