BERLIN, Sept. 12 (JTA) — Not every child of a Nazi has become an activist for tolerance and reconciliation. Not every daughter of a war criminal has fought for compensation for slave laborers, set up a fund for Jewish artists and insisted that the history not be forgotten. Hilde Schramm has done all these things. On Sept. 6, Schramm, 68, the eldest daughter of the armaments minister for the Nazis, Albert Speer, received the Moses Mendelssohn Award from the State of Berlin for her work promoting tolerance and reconciliation. People “who do indisputable good, and do this so tirelessly, so convincingly and so unpretentiously, are not only respected — they are honored and loved,” Berlin Culture Minister Thomas Flierl said in remarks to some 400 guests at the ceremony. Beaming and clutching a bouquet, Schramm received a standing ovation. Ironically, the honor to Schramm comes just as Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick, grandson of convicted Nazi war criminal and industrialist Friedrich Flick, is about to see a seven-year exhibit drawn from his vast art collection open at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Museum. Critics say Flick’s collection was bought with inherited profits from his grandfather’s huge wartime armaments factory, which used slave laborers. They say the grandson hasn’t contributed to the German fund for slave laborers nor displayed a sense of responsibility for remembering the past. In response, Flick has complained that he is being held liable for the crimes of his ancestors. In an open letter, he said “the family name Flick comes with a special responsibility,” and added that he did not intend to “relativize or make people forget” his grandfather’s crimes. Yet the position of the head of Berlin’s Jewish community has been hard for some to understand. It started last spring, when the community’s president, Albert Meyer, said he regretted he couldn’t honor Schramm in the Rykestrasse Synagogue, where the Mendelssohn prize usually is given, out of respect for former slave laborers in the congregation. Schramm expressed her understanding. But when word emerged recently that Meyer had invited Flick to the synagogue’s centennial, few accepted his decision. Ruth Galinski, widow of Heinz Galinski, former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said she would not attend in protest. “This man does not fit in a synagogue. He has not shown that he understood what happened back then. He has refused to contribute to the fund for forced laborers,” Galinski told JTA. “He has not learned.” Schramm, on the other hand, understands history, Galinski said. Schramm told Der Spiegel magazine that “if you accept a material inheritance that is tainted then you become implicated, because you are profiting through the injustice associated with the inheritance.” In an interview with JTA, Schramm, whose father was in the infamous Spandau Prison from 1946 to 1966, said she was forced to grapple with the legacy of the Nazi era up close — and didn’t flinch. Her father, who started as Hitler’s architect, became his armaments minister and promoted the use of slave labor. “I was forced to see” what he had done, Schramm told JTA. “My head was not clouded.” While Speer was in prison, father and daughter corresponded by letters that were smuggled out. “I asked him, ‘How could you get involved, as an educated person?’ I questioned him,” she said. “He took the opportunity to try to explain it. It was a relief for him too.” Her father tried to understand the nature of his complicity, “and it helped me not to break completely with my father and be bound to him negatively,” Schramm continued. “I could be free to see him for what he had done and still not make excuses, as he himself in a certain way did.” Later, as an educator and politician, Schramm’s confrontation with the past has translated into concrete action: She has fought for compensation for former slave laborers, promoted the establishment of the Topography of Terror documentation center on the Gestapo, and established the Zuruckgeben foundation — the name means “giving back” in German — to help Jewish women in the arts. Schramm said she would donate part of the $12,000 Mendelssohn prize to her foundation, which marks its 10th year in October. The rest will go to the Kontakt foundation, which helps Nazi victims in Eastern Europe not covered by the German government fund for former slave laborers; and the Berlin-based Center for Victims of Terror, on whose board Schramm sits. After the war, Schramm spent a year living with a Quaker family in the United States, then returned to Germany to study educational science. She later became involved in liberal politics in the precursor to the current Green Party. She served as vice president of the Berlin Parliament and pushed through a hardship fund for victims of the Nazi regime. In 1994 she founded the Zuruckgeben foundation, in part with money from the sale of paintings she inherited from her father. Schramm suspected some had belonged to Jewish families who were forced to part with them. Schramm said it didn’t matter whether one’s parents were major criminals or minor players in a terrible chapter of history. “There is a collective responsibility” to learn from history, she said. “The question is whether you have a specific biography at an early age that sensitizes you more.” Meanwhile, another person with a complicated biography — Flick — will see his exhibit open in Berlin on Sept. 22. He contributed $9 million to make the necessary alterations in the museum so it could properly display his collection of works by artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Richard Serra and Cindy Sherman. But he never has contributed to the German government and industry fund for former slave and forced laborers, said Salomon Korn, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Such claims could not be independently confirmed, though they have been reported widely. Flick did create a Foundation Against Xenophobia, Racism and Intolerance in 2001. But Korn has said Flick did this on the advice of a P.R. agency, not from conviction. Coming to Flick’s defense, Julius Schoeps, head of the University of Potsdam’s Moses Mendelssohn Jewish studies center, has said, “Mick Flick can not do anything about the shadow of his grandfather.” The debate about the Flick collection has produced some results: On Sept. 20, several women will describe what it was like working as slave laborers in the Flick explosives factory. The program is organized by the Fritz-Bauer Institute of Frankfurt and will take place in the Otto Suhr Institute in Berlin. In addition, the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich will initiate a research project on the Flick family’s wartime history, said Klaus Dieter Lehmann, who heads the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. He said all archives will be available to the team of historians.
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Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.
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