I recently wrote a story, not yet published, about Nazi-era family albums based on some that I randomly found at a Berlin antique flea market. These albums portray the normalcy of a nation gradually accepting and supporting Hitler’s reign of terror. Families take vacations as synagogues burn.
A Hitler portrait suddenly appears in the living room.
Grooms proudly marry in uniform.
Most of the time, these albums get stored and ignored (or sold to the highest bidder). The Nazi era is sometimes a severe, yet abstract, national tragedy to Germans, hardly personally touching their families.
While Germany, as a country, expresses great remorse, most German families don’t openly discuss what their parents, grandparents, and, now, great-grandparents did.
But some brave German souls open the pages.
One such woman is Tina Pompe, active with the March of Life organization consisting of Germans and descendants of Nazi perpetrators who now fight for Israel and the Jewish people. The movement grew out of an evangelical Christian ministry in Tübingen, once the intellectual cradle of Nazism. The ministry’s pastor encouraged congregants to undertake difficult, painstaking family research.
Using family albums she found at her family’s vacation home, Pompe discovered her grandfather’s role during the “silent years.”
“For the very first time I held a pre-war and war album in my hands, and I’ve never seen it before,” said Pompe, 46, from New York where she was representing her ministry in praying and advocating on behalf of Israel at the United Nations. The album from Nazi-occupied France read more like a vacation album.
“Sites here and sites there, going hunting, visiting Mont St. Michel,” she said. “Every now and then there was a completely bombed out city, so it really was a war.”
Letters to his wife, her grandmother, read more like an inventory of goods he was sending her. She figured out that he worked for the military unit that “acquired” property and supplies to keep Germans well fed and sheltered.
“Basically, to steal from the civilian population.”
Until a 1990s exhibition in Germany portrayed the Wehrmacht’s participation in genocide, the German armed forces was largely considered “cleaner” than the SS or Gestapo. Her discoveries further debunked that myth. Her grandfather’s unit was also responsible for executing hostages, Jews no doubt included, in revenge for injury to German soldiers.
Last month, while in France to participate in the ceremony commemorating France’s deportation of 76,000 Jews, Pompe used Google Street View to track down the French house where her grandfather lived (after appropriating it), in part so that she could apologize to the (non-Jewish) owners for her grandfather’s crimes. She found them, and surprisingly, they did not want to hear her say: “I’m sorry.”
“They said only: ‘Let’s learn from the past and make sure it doesn’t happen again’...
When I speak to Holocaust survivors, they try to say, ‘It’s not your fault and you didn’t do it,’ and that’s completely true, but I have to take responsibility for what my family did, and say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘it must never happen again.’ Most survivors experience healing over that, but the French weren’t able to accept that yet.”
She believes descendants of the World War II generation, on the side of victims and perpetrators alike, are internally affected, with unmeasured psychological effects, that could only be healed through coming to grips with the family past, breaking the silence, and, even more so, a process of apology-forgiveness.
Normally, I keep my journalistic interviews professional, unemotional. The interview is about the subject, not me. But something she said touched me.
I told her, “I’m the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and I wonder how much I’ve been psychologically affected without knowing it. It’s like I carry a burden, always fearful I’m being hounded. But here I am living in Germany, and strangely loving it, so I must have let go of the pain somewhere. I don’t know if it’s possible to forgive what was done, but I must have forgiven on some level. There are a lot of Holocaust memorials, but no one has personally apologized to me.”
Her tone turned from professional to motherly. “What if I apologize? What if I said: ‘I’m sorry.’” Tears flowed from my eyes.
“But is it your sorry to say? It was a collective act?” “I could say I’m sorry on behalf of my people. And maybe not everyone will say ‘sorry,’ but I will.”
I started bawling; I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear that. How much I needed her hug in that moment, which she wanted to give.
I said, “Thank you,” but it was still hard for me to say: “I forgive Germany.”
The Holocaust has shaped my worldview. I’ve learned from it. I’ve felt it in my gut, but I no longer want it to affect me psychologically. I want to let go of the post-traumatic stress. I even want to forgive, so that I act from strength, reason and authenticity, and not fear, especially as I fight antisemitism today, especially in the form of jihadists who spew and act on the kind of violent Jew-hatred that would make Hitler proud.
But even if I were to forgive Germany, I’d still feel hounded. No, I am hounded, literally. In Israel, I felt like a sitting duck, unsure when a Palestinian terrorist would strike me with a knife or vehicle at a café, bus stop, or in the street. Just days before my interview with Pompe, an Arab terrorist stabbed an Israeli family in cold-blood, killing three, as they were preparing for a Friday night celebration.
A few days afterward, the prime minister removed metal detectors at the Temple Mount in fear of the Jew-hating Muslim mob.
So I said something that surprised me: “If I forgive Germany, that leaves me to forgive my own people. Could I forgive them?” It is completely taboo, and some would say despicable, for anyone to place blame on Jews for their own deaths in the Holocaust. How dare you blame the victim? But Jews were no ordinary victims.
They were exemplary victims. They were, in large part, passive victims. Plead ignorance and find excuses in the face of 100,000 Jews.
200,000 Jews. But six million? We Jews hardly ever ask: “What more could we have done to stop this?” Pompe tried to assure me: Israel is now a light unto the nations, and the Jewish people is living its purpose.
But we are not. The essence of Judaism is to fight slavery.
We tell tales of freedom from slavery and of fighting Jewish genocide every year on Passover and Purim – but to what avail? The acts of resistance against slavery and death during the Holocaust were few and far between.
Today, the Israeli government appeases Jew-murderers, and the people feeds into excuses for not fighting back and vanquishing this terrorism completely.
Jews always seem to be waiting for someone else’s permission.
The State of Israel was supposed to be the “I’m sorry” from the Jewish people to the Jewish people, the “Never Again.” But Never Again is now! Not even one Jew should be murdered in the streets of Israel just because he or she is a Jew. I feel let down by my people. It is too easy for the Jewish people to scapegoat the “world” and especially Germany for contemporary Jewish suffering, pain and weakness, then to appeal to the “international community” to have mercy.
Maybe I’m in Germany to fulfill this process of apology and forgiveness, to create a paradigm shift. It’s hard. It’s painful. But it’s exhilarating.
As long as there are people like Pompe, the process is possible. And as long as Jews forever assign guilt to other nations, and not look within, we will never transform ourselves inside out to ensure the Jewish people will never ever be slaves again.
So, Germany... I forgive you.Orit Arfa is a journalist based in Berlin covering German-Israel affairs and author of The Settler. Her website is www.oritarfa.com.