Why don’t we talk more about reconciliation?

I love a good argument and lately I’ve had quite a few of them with Jewish people about the concept of Holocaust reconciliation. At a recent Jewish Stammtisch (regular get-together) in Berlin there was an eruption of contrarian sentiment when I mentioned that the growing numbers of German Jews who now hold German passports are evidence of movement towards reconciliation.

I asked the contrarians why they did not see the decision to reclaim German citizenship as an example of reconciliation. The response was that getting a German passport was merely a practical decision with no deeper significance. They insisted that the many Israelis with German passports proved their point.

“Well, how do you define reconciliation?” I asked the naysayers. The response was a resounding silence amidst the buzz of conversation at the tables around us. The Jewish Stammtischlers had no answer and instead went back to insisting that I was misconstruing the significance of reclaimed German citizenship. A few of us were getting worked up and others suggested that we change the topic.

I then shared my view of reconciliation as a coming to terms with the past and an acknowledgement to collectively move forward. There was some vigorous head shaking in denial of my point and then the woman next to me brought up the children of German Jews who had German passports even though their parents still refused to have anything to do with Germany. Wasn’t that just what I was talking about, she asked?

The next day another woman from the Stammtisch who I had not previously met sent me an email to say that she didn’t mean to be so “dogged” during our discussion. She then went on to tell me that the process of reconciliation had occurred mainly on the German side, not the Jewish side, and to reiterate (but not in a dogged way, of course) that getting German citizenship is not a sign of reconciliation. To back up her comments she sent me the Merriam-Webster definition of reconciliation: “the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement.”

Though I have no dispute with Merriam-Webster, reconciliation is a complex term with multiple meanings that are specific to situations and individuals. In my conversations with people about the Holocaust, the term is sometimes confused with forgiveness. But these terms have different meanings. The two sources below offer a good starting point for thinking about reconciliation.

from Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook:

At its simplest, it means finding a way to live alongside former enemies – not necessarily to love them, or forgive them, or forget the past in any way, but to coexist with them, to develop the degree of cooperation necessary to share our society with them, so that we all have better lives together than we have had separately.

from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Reconciliation, as an outcome, is an improvement in the relations among parties formerly at odds with one another. While the outcome of reconciliation is oriented toward a future marked by peaceful and just relations, the processes of reconciliation are typically oriented towards the continuing bad feelings, suspicions, or harms that were created by the conflicts and injustices of the past.

Whether viewed as a process, a goal, or an outcome, reconciliation involves moving forward towards a better future. There are of course many examples of reconciliation besides German Jews getting a German passport. One of the most recent and inspiring examples is ID Festival Berlin, a three-day celebration of Israeli artists in Germany with a unifying theme of identity and origin.

We need to have more public discussions and private conversations about Holocaust reconciliation. Perhaps it’s best to view the concept on a personal level, to acknowledge that survivors and their descendants are at different stages in an ongoing process. We can and will argue about that process, but let’s not overlook the progress that’s been made.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout is a writer and university instructor based in Berlin, Germany. Her book, A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany was published by Berlinica in December 2018.
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