Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Holocaust and me

The Holocaust and me
- how the Holocaust impacted me as a German

by Rosemarie Cloete

First of all, I want to thank you all for the opportunity to be able to stand here today. I want to confess that this is not completely without a bit of trembling and nervousness. I also stand here this afternoon with great humility. After having listened to David and his enormous sufferings during these horrible years of the Holocaust (and what this caused most probably for the rest of his life) brings myself as a German descendant to a place of utter humility and shame. And yet I want to thank God that He has given me this opportunity to stand here today. For many years I was searching for a way to express my deep feelings of regret, sorrow and shame as a German towards what has happened, to Jewish people in general, but even more so towards those who have suffered so much by themselves during the Holocaust and those who have lost family and friends in a senseless and gruel way.
I wish to share today with you also something of my own struggle as a German to deal with the guilt of the previous generation of Germans.
I was born 6 years after the war to a father who at the end of the war had to leave his home in Salesia. This part of Silesia was given after the war to Czechoslovakia and so my father and his family had to flee from there, leaving everything behind them. Because he was slightly physically handicapped, he never served as a solder during the war.
My mother was born in Stuttgart, a city in the south of Germany. She also lost everything during the war, as her family home was bombed and in the course of this my grandmother was killed. So for some time she also had to seek places to stay here for a couple of years.

I grew up as a typical post war child. Not yet coping with everything that had happened to them, my parents would often talk in the presence of my sister and myself about their experiences during the war. I can remember that as a small child I had difficulties to go alone to the bathroom, because I was afraid that in the meantime another war could break out. I just knew, from everything I had heard that war was the most horrible thing ever imagined.
Little did I know by that time that this war, about which I heard so many terrible things, was actually caused by the Germans themselves. That changed when I got a little bit older. Then I had to witness many arguments between my parents concerning the Jews. I heard my mother expressing her deep regret concerning what has happened to the Jews. Often she said: “If I only knew what was really going on in the concentration camps at that time!” As a small child I was always wondering what she meant by this.

On the other hand, my father had his education in a part of Germany that was strongly influenced by the Nazis. As a result of this education and influence he would always argue by suggesting that everything couldn’t have been so bad - many things were exaggerated and the Jews were the cause of all the trouble anyway. I vividly remember the tears in my mother’s eyes after such arguments. The reason for this, I found out later, was that her upbringing, her choices in life and her opinion concerning this matter was in complete opposition to that of my father.
My mother grew up in a family who lived out Christian principles, based on love and tolerance towards all people groups. So amongst her friends my mother also counted Jewish people, which she loved and cherished. When in 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power her whole family was alarmed. My grandfather (my mother’s father) had warned the whole family, long before Hitler even came to power, not to believe the promises and lies of this man. When most of the Germans welcomed this man with wide arms, he believed, that monstrous things must come out of an ideology that was based on the superiority of one race. My grandfather died before the war started. But my mother often said, that actually all his “prophesies” of doom about this man came true later.
The rest of my mother’s family then witnessed soon after Hitler became the German Chancellor how all the Jewish shops were boycotted. Anti-Semitic propaganda increased and my mother’s family was deeply ashamed, when they saw Jews discriminated nearly in every area of live, even being compelled to wear the Star of David, marking them in this way. In spite of all the anti-Semitic vibes and propaganda the family continued their friendship with and sympathy for the JEWS.
As an adolescent my mother was expected to join the Hitler youth. This was more or less compulsory thing in those days. But she was horrified about what she had witnessed and how her Jewish friends were treated. Jewish schools closed down propaganda via the paper “Der Stuermer” took on grotesque forms. Because of her resistance to join the Hitler youth my mother was not allowed to study to become a teacher, although she was a top student at High school. The pinnacle of her experience was, when she witnessed during the Kristallnacht how Jewish synagogues and shops were burned down.
Contrary to my mother, my father had never met any Jew himself, but to my regret I must say, that he believed the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis and was sympathetic towards them. As a young man, he believed that the Jews were to blame that Germany was in an economical crisis. In Hitler’s propaganda the Jews were used as scapegoats. Everything that was going wrong in Europe was loaded on them. (Is this not something that sounds quite familiar in these days? Doesn’t it seem as if History repeats itself when we look what is happening at the moment in our country? It seems that certain people have have found another scapegoat for unemployment and poverty in the country. My husband and I work with an organisation called ”Friends from Abroad”. We are deeply concerned about what is going on right now!)
But back to my own struggle as a German with an inheritance from the war that is deeply shameful. As I have mentioned, I had witnessed and heard both opinions from my parents and already as a child I was very much troubled by what I had heard. Especially the stories from my mother haunted me. But the questions I had about this whole matter were almost not allowed. Speaking about what has happened to the Jews during the war, was only done in hushed tones and rather avoided at almost all costs. I can still remember vividly that I saw a photo from a Jewish child with the Star of David on his arm lifting up his hands, while a German Nazi was threatening him with a rifle from behind. This photo made such an intense impression on me! It was like I was identifying myself with that child. Later I saw this photo also in History books and much later in Yad Yashem in Jerusalem.

I knew that I had to go research for myself to find out what had really happened in the past. As I was hearing opposing opinions all the time in my early childhood, I knew I had to find the truth myself. I started to look for books in the library and found the diary of Anne Frank. Also here a deep identification took place as she was also a teenager. I looked for more and more material and was very much shaken every time when I read anything about the Holocaust or even about Jewish History in general. When I tried to bring this topic up for discussion among my friends, I often got the answer: “Why is this bothering you, of course it was terrible what happened, but we are a different generation and we have nothing to do with that what our parents have done wrong!” But I could not put it aside that easily. The more I got to know about it, the more it bothered me. It was like I identified my self in a strong way with the Jewish people and their suffering. I also started to feel a growing love for them, but I had a problem. I did not know how to express this to them, as I felt ashamed to tell them that I was a German. I was struggling with that guilt feeling of being German and having that inheritance of the World War 2 and everything happening at that time.

Then something happened in my life that changed a lot of my thinking. Although having grown up in a so-called Christian family, I never had peace with God. As a youngster I was very sensitive and very much aware that I couldn’t meet His holiness and righteousness. Friends invited me to a Christian youth camp, where I for the first time understood what Jesus had done for me. I learned that Jesus became my scapegoat who took it on himself to die for my sin and guilt. Only he could set me free from those guilt feelings. And Jesus was a Jew too when He lived on this earth! He lived in a Jewish environment and observed the Jewish rules. Yes, he was even acknowledged as a rabbi. For me it was like seeing the connection. Like the Jews were so often used in History as a scapegoat and given the blame for everything that was going wrong, I could see Jesus - His Jewish name is actually “Jeshua”, meaning Saviour - as the scapegoat for my sins. As I grew older, I understood more and more what a beautiful inheritance I received from the Jews, also concerning the Bible and through my spiritual roots. I got to love the Jews and their nation even more.

I always had the desire to go to Israel one day. It would however not be like many Christians who do it as a sort of pilgrimage to all the biblical places, but rather to be in the beloved country of the Jews that was clearly given to them by God. When I heard about the opportunity to work for a Jewish children’s home, I saw this as my opportunity. At the age of 21 I went together with friends who also loved the Jewish nation, to stay in Magdala, near Tiberias. We worked hard there, as we mainly did spade work in the garden. But it felt so good, just being able to do something practically for the country. It was an opportunity for me to show my love for Israel and the Jewish people in a practical manner.
It was a hard thing for us as Germans to visit Yad Yashem in Jerusalem. Once again I was so much aware of the guilt of the German nation. But we didn’t want to spare ourselves the hardness of it - knowing that the remembrance of the Holocaust must be kept alive to all the generations to come.

Therefore I want to thank you so much David for sharing with us your experiences. I want to express to you, your family and all the Jews here present how deeply sorry I am as a German about what has been done to you! I also want to ask forgiveness for the Church, whose role should have been to stand up for the Jews in the times of horror, instead of being mainly silent. As for myself, it feels like being insulted myself when anybody says something negative about the Jews. I love them with all my heart and I am glad that I had the opportunity today to speak out what has been in my heart for a long time. God bless you all.

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