Living in Bavaria is an eye-opener to those born soon after WWII. I was born in Malta in 1951. I can still remember seeing rubble and bombed out buildings. My parents never ceased to relate the harsh realities of living in bomb shelters. But they could never explain Nazi Germany to us. Possibly because Malta’s connection to the war was the Luftwaffe; bombings on our shores lasted for days on end.
The small Mediterranean British Colony kept its courage and spirit under a bombing siege that slowly starved the people and sank every ship attempting entry into the Grand Harbor. The Luftwaffe siege continued for months. In September, 1940, King George VI awarded the George Cross to the Maltese Islands: an epical symbol of bravery and resiliency by a small country surrounded on all sides by the powers of evil and destruction. That symbol still adorns the Maltese flag.
But amid the heroic stories of “the” war, the Holocaust was never mentioned. Was it perhaps because Malta was and is a predominant Catholic country, or because the island never had a significant Jewish population? Later in my youth, my father would discreetly point out a few families who had been “saved” from the war. I could never begin to understand that implication until much later when military life took me to the epicenter of Nazi Germany.
Living in Bavaria is like living with an elephant in the room. The proximity to Nurnberg brings the past to our doorstep. A few kilometers north of our town is Flossenburg. Anyone driving north on Autobahn 93 may dismiss the Flossenburg sign as inconsequential. There is no historic indicator and no call to fame. Flossenburg is the typical quaint Bavarian town nestled in the rolling hills of the Oberpfalz; the Upper Palatinate of Bavaria. It is a breathtaking vision of forests, lush green fields, and Bavarian charm that is stereo-typical of the region.
Flossenburg is the typical Oberphalzer village where window flower boxes and blue and white Bavarian flags adorn buildings and Guest Houses; lending credibility to German hospitality and nationalism. Flossenburg has a small secret: it is the site of a concentration camp that imprisoned thousands of slave laborers who were forced to work the hard granite quarry in the area.
What is insidious about Flossenburg? The relatively exposed camp lies in the center of town; surrounded by houses, bakeries, butchers, and other mundane life activities regular folk normally participate in. The camp evolved from a 1928 political prison camp to a concentration camp which also doubled up as a “pit-stop” for those whose journey may have ended up in Dachau. There is barely any distance from the front doors of a bakery to the camp’s front gate. “Arbeit macht Frei”; Work sets you free. The Nazi concentration camps’ slogan was etched on the gate wall. Only few meters separates the normal from the obscene. In 1938, most of the homes surrounding the camp belonged to the SS and camp commanders.
On a recent trip with visiting family, a question hung in the air: how can anyone pretend to live a normal life in this place? How indeed! As we walked through the various buildings and exhibitions we realized that most of the businesses still on the camp’s doorstep were probably reminiscent of those mentioned in the exhibits. According to camp documentation; businesses routinely requested prisoners as free labor. The town’s economy thrived because it was the sole resource provider to the camp. When the camp was liberated by the Americans, the village locals were forced to walk through the camp, bury the dead, and clean up. The local population stuck to the now familiar profane narrative that they had no knowledge of the camp’s function. Walking through the silent grounds the sounds of horror were still suspended in time. How can anyone become immune to the past when living a few meters from an execution wall or crematorium? We wondered in silence; and the elephant remained in the room.
Nazism left a putrid and evil map of terror that crisscrossed across Europe; more so in Bavaria. Flossenburg is just one dot on this map. To give my relatives “the rest of the story” I decided to take them to the epicenter of the Nazi Regime: Nurnberg. If Berlin was the “think tank”, Nurnberg was the energy and heart of the Nazi party. Zeppelin Field Tribune Hall in Nurnberg remains the mother of all stadiums. It was built in 1934 specifically for Hitler’s rallies. It was the rallying point for the Fuhrer. This was the party’s Madison Square Garden. Here he shouted, waved, denounced, and worked the 400,000 plus crowd to frenzied “heils” and military displays. Troops, Nazi youth, supporters, and party goons; attended the rallies in thousands. The balcony where “he” stood is still there today. As we climbed the stairs to the balcony with the large Tribune Hall as its backdrop; the “dark side” oozed from underneath our feet. When the Americans liberated Nurnberg, they held a tongue-in-cheek symbolic rally at the stadium, then proceeded to blow up the large swastika on the Tribune Hall! Nowadays, kids ride on skate boards, families walk leisurely, and normal life unfolds surreally in a place where normal was sordid. Poetic justice or moving on?
Continuing to “connect the dots” on Nazi Germany to my family, our final destination was the Document Center in Nurnberg. Situated in a Coliseum-like building; it conjures up images of gladiators and martyrdom. This was one of Hitler’s favorite architect Speer’s most ambitious projects. It was never finished, but even as it stands today it invokes terror. In 1994, the city decided to put the Document Center in it. The permanent exhibition is aptly entitled: Fascination and Terror. The center documents in detail the rise and fall of the Nazi party and Third Reich. Herr Hitler’s imperialistic vision included building a “Rome” in Nurnberg using Flossenburg granite. Flossenburg granite was transported to Nurnberg to construct everything Nazi and Third Reich. Singularly ironic : one of the Fuhrer’s buildings is now a Burger King. An Eagle and Swastika once removed can still be seen as a shadow on the Whopper!
I recently asked a good German friend what it was like living in Nurnberg at the rise of Nazism. She was born during the war sans a father who spent five years on the Eastern Front. She had never seen him until he returned from the war when she turned five years old. I suddenly realized that war makes victims on both sides of the fence. She remembered living in a beautiful house on the main square beside the Cathedral. Now the site of the annual Christmas Market. As I walk through the “altstadt” in Nuremberg, I cannot help thinking if any of the very old folks I see hobbling around had enthusiastically waived the Nazi flag as children. I also wonder why Germans allowed other Germans to be deported and murdered. Jews were ultimately German. But what could they have done? How many of us would risk our family’s safety for that of others? Most families in Nurnberg, including my friend’s, abandoned their homes and ran away to the country side. Silently and almost apologetically, my friend admitted that she found it difficult to believe that those living in Flossenburg or Dachau did not realize what was happening on their door step! Both camps were located in the center of towns. Were they afraid to come forward or were they caught up in misguided nationalism against their own neighbors?
Germany is an enigma. Having lived here for over thirty years I have made the most wonderful friends. The country has embraced me and my family with open arms. But somewhere in the depth of my mind are questions that cannot be dismissed. What could the population have done? Bulgarians and Bulgaria managed to limit Jewish deportation. Berlin tried to pressure the monarchy and the government into deportations; but a coalition of Jewish and local politicians refused Nurnberg deportation orders. They believed the rumors that once deported, the Jews would end up in Poland and Treblinka. Unfortunately 11,300 Jews were deported from the “new lands” of Macedonia and Thrace, before a “loophole” in the orders ceased deportations. The Bulgarians capitalized on deportation orders that referred to Jews in “new lands” only. Bulgarians Jews strongly supported by the Orthodox Catholic Bishop and his church saved the remaining 45,000 from deportation. Eventually, Berlin had other fish to fry and left Bulgaria and its Jews alone. (Sandy Tolan, The Lemon Tree). Bulgarian citizens found loopholes: why couldn’t the Germans? And why did the powerful Catholic Church in Bavaria blatantly ignore deportations and mass murders?
Germans must live with the stain of atrocity and terror for the rest of their lives. The guilt is passed on from generation to the next. No amount of guilt apologies will remove the historic impact that the Nazi era inflicted on this nation. Which is why the Bulgarians had argued on the side of historic significance. They united in telling their Bulgarian government that they would not allow their country to be besmirched with mass deportations and executions. They heard the rumors, they followed their hearts, and eventually they risked their lives to save others. Unfortunately, the country eventually fell under Communism which brought horrors of its own; but that is a story for another day. There are still pockets of crazy skin-headed pseudo Nazi following in Germany. Free speech gives them the time of day for marches and protests, but as loud as they shout, they are relatively insignificant. Germans would never allow the Holocaust to happen again. Which is why Flossenburg and Nurnberg are crucial public exhibitions with the majority of visitors being German. They come from all walks of life. School children, teen groups, church groups, or regular folk; silently walking through chambers and footage of madness and terror. The quasi-silence at the Document Center in Nurnberg is periodically broken by loud footage of Nazi rallies that set your hair on end. In between this craziness are quiet and articulate testimonials of those luckily enough to have survived the living hell. Listening and watching black and white news reels of the Nurnberg Trials is equally surreal. The cold and un-repenting testimonials of Hess and Goering raise evil to another level. Unfortunately, Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels could not be tried or persecuted because they committed suicide. How convenient. 24 war criminals were tried; 12 received the Death Penalty, three got Life Imprisonment (one of whom was Hess), three acquitted, two were found neither guilty nor innocent, and the rest got sentences between 10-20 years. The trials remain the most poignant testimonial to Nazi terror. Was justice done? Immediate justice was carried out; but thousands still live with the nightmares that were reality.
After the war, many Jews found their way to the “Promised Land”. They became the first citizens of the new State of Israel. Through time, Germany and Israel nodded in painful memory and became good acquaintances. I would not presume that they are great friends. But the Jewish community in Germany has grown substantially; especially in Bavaria, and Munich to be exact. A fitting tribute to a German State embroiled in an unthinkable past. Germany and Germans can never walk away from the Holocaust; but they continue to educate and urge tolerance. I personally believe that what happened in my neighborhood should never be forgotten. We must continue to forgive but not forget. We must also be true to ourselves and realize that the Holocaust was not just a German “thing”; it was a European “thing”. Europeans stood silent as they watched cattle cars transporting millions to their death. The Catholic Church remained silent. As a Catholic, that is my shame.