Israelis, Germans, and Their Disparate and Unifying Memories of the Holocaust - Dr. Nili Keren
Israelis, Germans, and Their Disparate and Unifying Memories of the Holocaust
Holocaust remembrance is the most significant component in the Jewish-Israeli collective consciousness. Its characteristics are affected by a collection of factors that have come into being since the State of Israel was established: the formal and nonformal education system, the media, memorial institutes, literature, cinema, and the plastic arts, to name only a few.
The Holocaust survivors who reached Israel after the liberation, however, had a special influence. They influenced, and still influence, the way the memory of the Holocaust has been assimilated into the Israeli collective experience. Above all, the survivors influenced the shaping of the personal Holocaust experience of their descendants.
Members of the first generation transmitted their traumatic memories not only in words but also in silences, sundry behaviors, and communication and lack of communication.
The intergenerational discourse created a special language—special words that only “those who were there” fully understood, words that one was not allowed to utter. Collectively, they constituted the infrastructure of the family system.
The survivors of the Holocaust were the first to relate the narrative of the Holocaust. By means of their accounts, they created images of “Aryan” and “Jew” that were seared into an entire generation’s consciousness. Expressions that Holocaust survivors used, such as “other planet” and “Nazi beast,” also helped to assimilate these imageries into the consciousness of the generations that followed.
One of the strongest manifestations of identification with the victims in the early years was hatred of everything German. Anti-German passions surfaced whenever any dialogue with Germany took place. The public turbulence in Israel surrounding the reparations agreement, an arms deal with Germany, and the subsequent decision by West Germany and the State of Israel to exchange ambassadors—to name only three events—exposed this raw nerve in the Israeli remembrance of the Holocaust.
Literary works have also dealt with the issue. Two of them were actually written by native Israelis. In his book Growing Wounds, Hanoch Bartov describes the lust for revenge that gripped his comrades, soldiers in the Jewish Brigade, when they entered Germany after the surrender of the Third Reich. Dahn Ben-Amotz describes the acute need for revenge in his book To Remember, To Forget, which deals with the feelings of guilt and vengeance that beset a young Israeli who visits Germany.
Many Israelis vowed not to buy German-made products; others swore never to set foot on German soil. Commemorative institutions such as the Ghetto Fighters’ House and Yad Mordechai refused to host German visitors, including groups of young members of the second generation. When volunteers from various countries began to flow to Israel for labor on kibbutzim, quite a few kibbutzim refused to host those from Germany, even though they were young people who belonged to the second generation.
During those years, the 1960s, young Israelis took no interest in what happened in the Holocaust. However, in face-to-face encounters with young Germans, Israelis regarded themselves as representatives of the second generation of victims. They defined young Germans in monolithic terms and did not distinguishable one from the other, viewing all as offspring of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
The young Germans, too, were born and raised into remembrance. Their personal memories often included SS men, ardent members of the Nazi Party, officials, or even fathers who had died in combat and were considered heroes by military standards….
In the world that arose from the ruins of World War II, the second generation grew up with a mark of Cain and a heavy burden of guilt that its parents’ and grandparents’ generation had bequeathed. “Parents have eaten sour grapes and children’s teeth are blunted,” said the Prophet (Jer. 31:28), and these children’s teeth were blunted severely.
The Action Reconciliation (Aktion Sühnezeichen) organization, established in the early 1970s by a group of second-generation German students who had participated in the students’ rebellion in 1968, accepted the heavy load of guilt and the need to act in atonement of their parents’ personal and collective crimes. Its members even went to Israel and volunteered to help the weak and the ill, including many Holocaust survivors. Several members linked their fate with Israel’s; others married Israelis and established families.
This was the point of departure for an Israeli-German encounter that has been continually fraught with emotional confrontations as it plies a path toward the shattering of stereotypes, the creation of dialogue, and, perhaps, understanding and acceptance.
If Israelis of the second generation are the victims’ victims, then Germans of the second generation are the perpetrators’ victims. The tremendously heavy burden carried by young Germans whose parents had been active Nazis and had taken part in the atrocities transformed their lives into a continual quest for answers to the question of their identity and responsibility.
Thus, the encounter between members of the second generation—Israelis and Germans—was an essential phase in the crafting of these young people’s personal and collective identity. This initial encounter came as something of a revelation to both sides: it revealed the human common denominator, the weight of the burden that the first generation had foisted on these unwilling young people, and their responsibility to subsequent generations.
Over the past two decades, young artists of the second generation have found special and diverse ways to articulate the Holocaust experiences that were transmitted to them. Their ambivalence toward everything German often emerges in the abundance of works in literature, theater, cinema, and plastic arts that they have produced.
Many works have been translated into German and many plays about the Holocaust have been performed for German audiences. They serve as a cultural platform for dialogue between young Germans and young Israelis—a dialogue that elicits difficult and piercing questions that reveal the heavy burden of the past that young members of both peoples have to carry.
Haim Maor’s exhibits, “The Forbidden Library” and “The Face of Race and the Face of Memory,” express the essence and the many meanings of memory powerfully and movingly. The triggering factor is an encounter between two young people, one Israeli and one German. Susanne, the German, and Haim, the Jew, reveal to each other their inner worlds, their worlds of images, and the language of discourse and silence. The many mirrors that they hold to each other reveal a picture of people who are sometimes victims and sometimes executioners.
From the educational standpoint, these artistic tools greatly enhance the human insights that arise from the heavy burden of Holocaust memory. They also elicit particularistic and universalistic questions about our identity as members of diverse peoples and as human beings—questions that only a human encounter and a clash of memories may evoke.
Therefore, it is not by chance that Massuah Institute is hosting this exhibition. The exhibition reflects the Institute’s multidisciplinary educational worldview, which aims to present young people who have been exposed to the Holocaust with questions about human beings and human nature that are so relevant in forming the identity of young Jews and non-Jews—people for whom the Holocaust is a major component in collective identity.
Dr. Nili Keren