Focus on Issues: Descendants of Holocaust Survivors and Perpetrators Reflect on the Legacy
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Focus on Issues: Descendants of Holocaust Survivors and Perpetrators Reflect on the Legacy

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At a time when the experience of the Holocaust and World War II is passing from living memory into history, Europeans are asking questions that will frame the debate over the Shoah’s legacy for the next generation.

Among them:

What impact does the Shoah have on the children and grandchildren of survivors?

What impact does it have on the children and grandchildren of the Nazi perpetrators and collaborators who carried it out?

Can jointly examining these parallel traumatic legacies of suffering and guilt help heal personal scars?

How do countries where atrocities took place confront their past?

What are the broader implications of this troubling legacy of history?

These are some of the questions examined this month at a three-day conference in Vienna that grouped Holocaust survivors and their descendants along with descendants of Nazi perpetrators, bystanders and collaborators.

Titled “The Presence of the Absence,” the conference opened on Sept. 1, 60 years to the day after the German invasion of Poland launched World War II.

It was sponsored by several European organizations formed over the past few years to deal with the aftereffects of the Shoah on postwar generations, a phenomenon that has been acknowledged for some time among children of survivors and is increasingly recognized, too, among the descendants of perpetrators.

“The effects of the Holocaust are so massive that they cannot be absorbed by the generation that immediately experienced them,” said Katherine Klinger, the founder of one of the sponsoring groups, the London-based Second Generation Trust.

“We are not only dealing with transmitted memory, but also with transmitted traumatic memory,” said Klinger, the daughter of a Jew who fled Vienna in 1938. “Even if someone doesn’t experience events directly, the shock and trauma is somehow communicated within the family through generations.”

Participants included scholars, artists, researchers, psychologists and social workers, as well as individual survivors and members of the “second” and “third” generations from a number of countries, including Germany, Austria, Israel, Holland and the United States.

Themes included how being a descendant of either side influences personal identity, the issue of “money and justice,” various ways in which the Holocaust is commemorated and the future of memory as the “eyewitness” generation passes away.

“No matter how hard I try, as a German of the second generation, I cannot undo a single one of those horrible memories,” Anna Rosmus, who was born in 1960 in Passau, Germany, told one session.

As a student in 1980, Rosmus began uncovering the Nazi history of Passau, sparking criticism and personal attacks. Her work became the subject of a movie, “The Nasty Girl,” and she has continued to publicize the truth.

“I cannot heal the many hurt feelings. I cannot alter the course of history,” she said. “All I can do is create little signs, small symbols of one individual’s goodwill.”

In workshops and informal discussions, descendants of Nazis and their henchmen, or simple bystanders, described how the psychological impact of learning the truth about their family or local history was both devastating and cathartic.

“My father was executed as a Nazi war criminal in 1948, when I was eight years old,” Dirk Kuhl, from Germany, told JTA. “My family tried to hide this. I got suspicious and finally found out the truth when I was 16. It devastated me, and led me to split from my family.

“When I finally got married, I married a Jewish woman,” he said. In the early 1990s, Kuhl joined a support group organized by Israeli psychologist Dan Bar On, which helped him come to terms with his identity. This group eventually organized dialogue meetings between descendants of perpetrators and descendants of survivors.

“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “A long, long string of meetings, of sharing experiences and sometimes of finding astonishing parallels.”

Among these parallels is a reticence by parents to discuss their wartime experience — be it that of suffering or of guilt — and to hide their traumatic memories from their children. Sometimes parents will open up more readily to grandchildren — or to outside interviewers — than to their children.

The conference was held in Vienna as a means of focusing attention on Austria’s own difficulties as a nation in recognizing and coming to terms with its Nazi past.

Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938. But though hundreds of thousands of Viennese cheered Hitler when he made a triumphant entry into the city, and though many Austrians were among the most enthusiastic Nazis, the victorious World War II Allies declared Austria to have been “the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression.”

Unlike as in Germany, where public policy fostered efforts to pay amends and come to terms with the past, Austria’s officially certified victimhood was jealously maintained and promoted throughout the postwar period until the scandal surrounding the election of Kurt Waldheim as Austrian president in 1986, despite evidence he had a Nazi past, exploded the myth.

Austria’s political orientation as a neutral country, rather than as an ally of either NATO or the Soviet Bloc, also helped maintain the fiction of victimhood. It was only in the early 1990s that the government publicly admitted that Austria had been a willing servant of the Nazis.

“With this conference, we wanted to say that we cannot continue with the myth that Austria was the innocent `first victim’ and not deeply, deeply involved,” Katherine Klinger said.

A number of conference sessions, thus, were devoted specifically to examining the ways in which official Austrian policy hushed up the past on political, legal and economic levels.

Shimon Samuels, European office director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, noted that the process of recognizing history was part of the critical changes in examining the past sparked in part by the fall of communism.

“Owning up to the truths of World War II is an act of catharsis for the collaborators, an end to lip service for the bystanders, a rejection of denial of responsibility of the perpetrators and perhaps a final accounting for the victims,” he said.

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