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“[an] ambitious…superb work of popular history and thought. [a] brilliantly conceived quest…Long Shadows is simply first-rate writing…an intellectual triumph, in its refusal to succumb to denial and its hopeful faith that it’s better to know.” —Stan Persky, Vancouver Sun
"[Erna] Paris…intelligently examines [memory] within the context of national remembrance." —Canadian Jewish News
"[Long Shadows] rings with the moral authority of a voice raised in defence of human rights and cries out for no-amnesty accountability for war crimes." —Montreal Gazette
"[a] powerful and sombre book…Paris’s belief in an honest search for the facts…is admirable and ultimately inspiring." —The Globe and Mail
”[Paris] walks with a keen eye, a journalist’s skill at detail…a high intelligence and a deft pen…. [A] timely contribution.” —Ottawa CItizen
The Stone of Sisyphus
What is past is not dead, it is not even past. We cut ourselves off from it, we pretend to be strangers.
— CHRISTA WOLF, A Model Childhood
A stench of sewage pollutes the streets of East Berlin; exposed wires dangle ominously; uncollected garbage spills into sunless, dilapidated courtyards. The graffiti scrawled across walls speaks of uneasy transition—layer upon layer of a still-stratified past. "Nazi lives here!" accuses one notice painted on an apartment building. "Attack fascism!" orders another. "Defend squatters' rights!" commands a third. The developers from the West are moving in, juxtaposing restored nineteenth-century facades and modern cubes of steel and glass with the decrepit cinderblock construction of the German Democratic Republic. Some of the residents are angry.
But the development frenzy cannot silence the airy whisperings of unquiet ghosts that can be heard, should one care to listen, in the hundreds of empty spaces that pockmark the city: in memory holes that have never been plugged, either by choice, in order to mark the terror of the Nazi era, or by default, as in the East, where the continuing presence of bombed-out structures and vacant lots was for decades useful antifascist propaganda.
It is these whisperings I have come to hear, these memory holes I have come to explore. And finally, after months ofplanning, I have arrived in the country that has for years been a source of personal uneasiness. Ever since I first realized the magnitude of the Holocaust and understood my own life as part of a swell of survival—I am the daughter of Canadian-born Jewish parents—Germany has felt forbidding and ominous. In the 1960s, when I was inexperienced and ignorant of history, I crossed the border from France into Germany several times to visit Freiburg, in the region of the Black Forest—a city that charmed me. That was before I visited Natzweiler-Struthof, the Nazi death camp in the nearby Vosges mountains; in any case, I was young enough then to feel closer to the Brothers Grimm than to Auschwitz. And I had not been back in the country since.
Now it is 1997, and I have learned over the years, in excruciating detail, what happened here between 1933 and 1945 and struggled to understand how and why. Part of this exploration has been about memory—about how calamitous events, such as the Holocaust, are shaped in the collective story of perpetrator nations, how ordinary people remember and what they tell their children. I have come here with the understanding of one who has studied the facts and now seeks deeper answers.
My plan is to start in Berlin—in East Berlin, to be precise, where the old Jewish community of the city used to live—and then to travel in search of the memories and the whisperings. Here in Germany, as elsewhere, some of my itinerary is planned and some is not. People tell me things. Or I just follow my nose.
Memory: the pre-war Jews of Berlin—once the centre of German-Jewish life—were deported long ago, but in an indefinable way their vibrant world remains both occult and palpably evident. Thanks to Joel Levy, a former American diplomat who now heads the German branch of the Ronald E. Lauder Foundation, which funds the reconstruction of Jewish life in Europe, I am staying in a partially rebuilt, once-famous building, the Neue Synagoge on Oranienburger Strasse in the erstwhile East, that feels to me like the epicentre of that peculiar ambiguity. When Levy invited me to stay here, in one of two or three available guest rooms, I accepted with alacrity: I thought—rightly, as it turns out—that I would not get much closer to the past than in a place that housed so many ghosts.
The Neue Synagoge was built in 1866, with thirty-two hundred seats, and for seventy years this stately palace-like synagogue embodied the excitement and bourgeois pride of the new Jewish Reform movement, which had embraced the modernity of the Enlightenment by casting off the embarrassing, outmoded forms of orthodoxy that differentiated Jews from their fellow Germans. In the Neue Synagoge, Jews practised their religion just as their compatriots, who happened to be Lutherans, practised theirs. They were proud Germans of the Jewish persuasion. But the synagogue was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War, and for the next fifty years, the charred ruins were left untouched by the East German government (along with other destroyed buildings), as presumed evidence of Western, fascist brutality: until 1988, that is, when the German Democratic Republic (GDR) entered its final death throes. That was the year Communist Party chief Erich Honecker promised to help finance the reconstruction of the famous landmark. (Since he was about to leave for a visit to the United States, he might have been hoping the gesture would help him overseas.) The government in Bonn also contributed funds, and the building's foundations were redone. Then, on November 9, 1988, on the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht—the night the yellow-red flames of burning Jewish homes and businesses illuminated the Berlin night sky—a commemoration was held at the partially reassembled site.
That the reconstruction was merely partial seems deliberate and symbolic—like a Japanese haiku that forces the reader, or in this case the visitor, to imagine the rest. Half recalled, blurred, wispy, irretrievable, the building is here yet not quite here; it exists, and parts of it are once again in use, but it is now manifestly a museum and a pointer to the past. There is also a notable police presence, which unintentionally evokes both past and present. Every time I leave or re-enter the building, I pass through a metal detector and show my passport to the same suspicious-looking guards, who seem never to recognize me. A plaque to Kristallnacht on the outside wall attracts a steady stream of passersby: they stop to read with looks of consternation on their faces. Before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, few West Germans knew this place.
For an entire week, I seem to be the only person rattling around the upstairs halls—but nighttime is the worst: it is unnerving to be alone in a museum of missing people. I grow addicted to watching television and channel surfing. One evening I happen upon a U.S.-made documentary about unapprehended war criminals living in Canada. Is this one of the first features on this subject to be shown to the citizens of the former East Germany? I wonder. I sit ramrod straight on my chair, as the nation that invented Nazism is informed that my country has one of the worst records in the Western world for permitting the immigration of thousands of escaping Nazis and their East European collaborators after the war. Of course, Canada is not the only country to have its shameful record belatedly confronted: evidence of iniquity has surfaced over the last decade in a dozen new places, as the terrible effects of the Holocaust ripple anew across the world. Even bland Switzerland has had to struggle publicly with its hidden legacy of appropriated Nazi gold.
Alone in my silent museum, I imagine the thousands of empty seats looming in the darkness just down the hall. They have been replaced just where they used to be—wordlessly memorializing their missing occupants. Inside these new-old walls, the past already feels too close for comfort.
In the streets that surround the synagogue are empty spaces containing nothing but remembered forms. Inexplicably, my guide and I peer into such places and talk about what used to be. She is Lara Dämmig, an East Berliner in her early thirties, who works for Joel Levy, and she knows this part of the city well, because, as a Jew who has "returned" to the faith since communism evaporated, she has spent a lot of time exploring such evocative sites. We walk together to a vacant lot, where the internationally renowned artist Christian Boltanski has created a conceptual work titled Missing House. Plaques engraved with the names of all those who lived in the vanished apartment house until 1945, and their dates of residence, have been hung on the outer walls of the buildings on either side of the emptiness: Jewish residencies ended in 1942.
We walk up the street, across a block, where one of the buildings once housed a day-care centre for Jewish children, then down the next street to a still-extant building with a memorial plaque to the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the Jewish school he founded there in the late eighteenth century. During his lifetime, Mendelssohn was held up as a model by liberal Christians who admired what they saw as his attempt to help his fellow Jews "Germanize" themselves and assimilate. But Mendelssohn rejected the idea of total assimilation as culturally impossible—and undesirable—in that it condoned the disappearance of Jewish identity. For him, the ideal of equality, which was inherent in the emancipation of the Jews, meant the right of the minority to continue its practices within an environment of liberal pluralism. What mattered was the willingness of people to live together with reason as the yardstick of the worthy life.
This was not to be, even during his own lifetime. Mendelssohn engaged in a searing public dispute with his friend Johann Lavater, a theologian who had challenged him to convert to Christianity. Afterwards, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and one can only speculate that part of his despair might have come from Lavater's suggestion that he would never be a "real" German as long as he remained a Jew.
From 1829 until 1945, the empty space next door to the one-time school was occupied by a Jewish home for the aged; then during the Nazi era (and before it was bombed), the now-invisible building was utilized by the Gestapo as a holding depot for neighbourhood Jews awaiting deportation to Auschwitz. The apartment dwelling immediately adjacent survived the war. At such close proximity, it is impossible to believe that the tenants neither saw nor heard what was happening to fifty-five thousand of their neighbours, which is the number of people dispatched from these premises. At least ten storeys of multiple windows look down on the spot.
Next to the vanished home for the aged is the largest of the disappeared places: the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, in use from 1672 until 1827. Mendelssohn was buried here, along with many of his contemporaries, but these dead "died" twice. The graveyard was levelled by order of the Gestapo in 1943, and now it is a featureless expanse of land shaded by trees. Complete oblivion—with one exception: the site of Mendelssohn's grave was remembered and restored. On the crushed, levelled earth there stands a single memorial stone inscribed with the name and life dates of the man who once personified the dream of integration.
But while the vanished Jews of Berlin whisper to me of their fate by seeming to inhabit the shadowy empty spaces, the architecture of what remains of the recent Communist era openly proclaims its inherent fakery. Lara and I hail a taxi on Oranienburger Strasse and get out at Husemannstrasse, a thoroughfare that was rebuilt in the 1980s. It is just one outwardly restored street, large enough for the leader of the people to parade along, but the restoration was surface only. A decade later, the underlying decay has eaten through the cracks of the flimsy facades, and the roofs along the show street are in an advanced state of collapse. We continue to the famous Brandenburg Gate, where history and memory are on sale for a mark or two. Once, Adolf Hitler rode between these imperial columns as emperor of the Thousand-Year Reich; now Turkish pedlars hawk kitsch: GDR police caps (someone has patched on the red star insignia for added effect), Russian fur hats and Russian nesting dolls. A niche inside the Gate houses yet another piece of the unprocessed past: in tribute to the 1989 reunification of the two Germanys, an earnest lady presides over a non-denominational "Room of Silence," inviting all who pass by to reflect on universal peace.
Down the road, defaced and as ruined as Shelley's statue of Ozymandias, sits the former parliament of Erich Honecker. From here emanated the orders to shoot would-be fugitives scaling the Berlin Wall; from here the Stasi secret police kept tabs on everyone, with the help of everyone. Now graffiti sprout over abandoned stones.
Just over the Wall, the municipality of West Berlin had constructed a large, ultra-modern glass building facing east. Its message was obvious enough: enslaved people, look and see what we have! The Honecker government responded by erecting apartments that blocked the view and by designing maps for schoolchildren that showed East Berlin—and white space where the Western part of the city ought to have been.
The Nazis and the GDR, memory holes and histories overlapping. Fraternal ghosts of the twentieth century, still disconnected, still unabsorbed.
Lara has embraced Judaism, but without most of the trappings of organized religion, and she has not revived the wishful hopes of Moses Mendelssohn. Unlike the great philosopher, she describes herself as a "Jew living in Germany"—not as a "German Jew," an identity she adamantly rejects. In 1989, she avoided the joyful reunification celebrations because, in her words, the event was "too German." It made her uncomfortable.
"But you are German," I say.
She looks unhappy. "Well, yes, of course ... No, that's not right! I am a Jew living in Germany."
"Do others feel as you do?"
"Yes. There are the Germans and there are the Jews, but even the Germans don't like to be German. They call themselves `Europeans' or I don't know what. To be German is very hard."
"Do you have `German' friends?"
"Of course! Lots!" She looks at me as though I have asked something impossibly stupid. "I was born here!"
I learn that Lara's ambivalence is not unique when she takes me to meet her friend Eva Nickel, who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor whose first husband and two small children, age five and seven, were deported to Auschwitz. After the war, Eva's mother married the son of the brave Catholic family that had rescued her and tried to save her daughters. That young man was Eva's father, and he had insisted that she be raised as a Jew.
Eva's apartment is not far from the Neue Synagoge, where she works in community administration. And an extraordinary apartment it is, with a colourful history. The building was constructed by her great-grandfather in 1865, with money that had come into the family in an unusual way: an ancestor had purportedly saved the life of Frederick the Great of Prussia, in the mid-eighteenth century. According to what Eva calls "the family legend," the king fell off his horse one day during the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and was lying, injured, surrounded by his enemies, when Eva's ancestor—a soldier named Moses Isarch—rushed to the scene and lifted the monarch onto an ox cart. Isarch covered him with dry grass so he would not be seen and slowly walked off the field, with the king hidden under the camouflage. Isarch was well-known in Berlin Jewish circles—he was, says Eva, a friend of Moses Mendelssohn's; and Frederick, like Mendelssohn, was a leading exponent of the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. In fact, his insistence on religious toleration widely affected the intellectual currents of his age. So the king was intent on recompensing the Jew who had saved him, and he paid Isarch very well—enough to allow him to establish a "foundation" of sorts. When Isarch died, he stipulated in his will that the boys of the family were to receive an inheritance, in order to establish themselves in a profession, and the girls were to receive money for a dowry—but only if they married Jewish men. "He could see what was happening," says Eva. "All the Jews were going to Church and becoming baptized. So he said the girls had to continue the Jewish line."
A charming story—whether true or not—that reminds me, as I listen, of the long, complex past of Jews in Germany. Frederick the Great—an "enlightened despot"—set the contemporary standard for religious tolerance. Eventually, reflecting the new ideals of rationality that were sweeping across Europe after the French Revolution, German Jews were emancipated into full citizenship towards the end of the eighteenth century. But there was also a particularly brutal history of anti-semitism in Germany that stretched back to the Middle Ages: some of the worst massacres of so-called well-poisoners (during the plague years of the fourteenth century, Jews were accused of infecting the water supplies) took place in this community. On an icy February day in 1349, nine hundred Jews were hurled into bonfires in the city of Strasbourg alone. The blood libel (according to which, Jews were accused either of killing a Christian child in order to mock the Passion of Jesus, or of desecrating the consecrated host), though actively bruited about in many European countries, was nowhere more volatile than in Germany, where indelible images of "murderous Jews" cleaved to memory and folklore. Emancipation allowed German Jews to enter the modern world, where they prospered in the liberal professions and in business, but their very success raised philosophical problems for many people, as well as the usual jealousies. The social philosopher Hannah Arendt put it best when she wrote that "the breakdown of the feudal order [gave] rise to the new revolutionary concept of equality, according to which a `nation within a nation' could no longer be tolerated." Although many of the Jews rushed to convert to Christianity (a reality that Eva's great-grandfather had tried to counter in his own family), baptism was not obligatory, creating the difficult contradiction Arendt attempted to analyse. It was hardly a wonder that Moses Mendelssohn had had a nervous breakdown after his debate with Johann Lavater.
They were a middle-class family. Before the war, Eva's mother was a milliner, and her husband owned a transport company, but when the persecutions began in the 1930s, after the election of Adolf Hitler, they tried to leave for Argentina, sending their rugs and furniture to London in preparation for the sea voyage. But their passports were "not right," says Eva, and the money they had paid for them was stolen. So they stayed in Berlin.
In February 1942, her mother's husband was rounded up by the Gestapo at his workplace and deported. In desperation, Eva's mother asked a Catholic family—friends—for help. They agreed and took the two little girls to their country house forty kilometres outside Berlin. Eva's mother stayed in the city, cleaning the houses of loyal, tight-lipped friends to pay the children's board; then, when the situation became too dangerous for her to continue living in the Jewish neighbourhood, she moved in with another gentile friend: this woman's son became her future husband, Eva's father.
Every weekend, she put herself at risk by removing the yellow star that identified her as a Jew and taking the train to see her daughters, until the day in 1944 when she found them missing. They had been denounced to the Gestapo by someone who had seen them playing and was suspicious.
The apartment had somehow escaped both the bombings and appropriation by the Nazis, and, once again it became the locus of family life—although the family was now reconfigured. Eva was born in 1948, and she tells me that during her years at school, no one, including her teachers, ever talked to her about what had happened to her family. "Here in East Germany, everyone was considered a victim of fascism, but some of us had more status than others," she says with an ironic smile. "The Communist fighters were the most important and Jews were the least." I had been reading about this: the state-run war museums had glorified the anti-fascist struggle led by the Party, but the deportation and murder of civilians was barely acknowledged. It was the mid-1980s before a stone commemorating Jewish victims was added to the memorial at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. "East Germans never thought much about what happened during the Nazi era, except that it was fascist and now we were socialist," she continues. "We lived in a new world, and everything from the past was pushed away. This is what we were taught, and people from my generation heard and believed the same messages as their parents. But in their hearts they knew, we all knew. What happened during the Nazi time drew a line between Germans and Jews, and this is still true today."
She is as fully integrated into her society as any other East German; in fact, she used to teach socialist economics to high school students. But remembering my earlier conversation with Lara, I'm burning to ask a question: "Are you a German?" I ask her.
She shrugs and laughs. "I guess I am whether I like it or not; this is my language and my culture. But really, I live in two worlds. Even today Germans are very uncomfortable about Jews. They are very interested, and things that seem Jewish are fashionable right now, but obviously they have never met any. I was at a birthday party in Kiel recently, and when I told people I am now the director of the Jewish Centre in Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin, there was a long silence. Everyone looked down into their glasses. I find I have to learn to read faces, because when people hear I am Jewish, they are very careful about what they say, and it isn't natural anymore. This is typical. There is a chasm between Germans and Jews in spite of all the fake interest in Jewish culture. Between us lies the Holocaust."
It was 1992 before Eva could put her past to rest. Her mother never spoke about what had happened during the war, but for the rest of her life she talked obsessively about her two lost daughters. And she screamed at night. "Mother was very ill in the last six months of her life in 1987. She was always thinking they were coming back. She kept calling for them—Ruth! Gittel! Her last words were their names. From that point, I had to find them, and find peace for them, and for me. I went to Auschwitz. It was terrible. I stood in the gas chamber and beside the oven, but it was not good for me. Then I decided to go to Israel—to Yad Vashem, where they have all the names of the victims. By then we were allowed to travel, so I went, and I found their names. The man there was so nice to me. He said, `You must go into the memory garden for children.' And I said, `Okay, I will go.' I went inside the garden, and I felt very peaceful there—still and peaceful—for the first time. And from this moment I felt they were finally at peace, and so was I. I had found their resting place."
I finish my cup of tea in near silence, so heavy are the shared feelings in the room. It is not until we have said goodbye and I am walking down the stairs to the ground floor of the building that I allow the sadness to wash over me: sadness for Eva, for her suffering mother, for the lost children. I tune my ear to the whispering voices of the dead and think about the layers of history in this ancient sector of the city.
Although no one seems able to explain to me exactly why, the moneyed chic that has invaded East Berlin since reunification includes Jewish chic, and it is fashionable to approximate, or more realistically perhaps, appropriate, "Jewishness." This is true all over the country, but nowhere more so than in the eastern sector of the capital. In a land where few people under the age of fifty-five have ever met a Jew, Jewishness is the latest fad.
On Oranienburger Strasse, one can dine in the Café Mendelssohn, or the Café Zilberstein (someone researched the restaurants' original pre-war names); and there are dozens of klezmer bands composed entirely of German Christians playing to audiences of German Christians. Lara had told me she found all this disconcerting. "They are swallowing Jewish culture without any understanding or real interest," she complained. The apparent fascination with things Jewish does have a strange feel to it. On my first evening in Berlin, I had attended a concert at the cultural centre attached to the Neue Synagoge that included Maurice Ravel's famous Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. The audience was mostly gentile Berliners, and they looked visibly stricken as they listened.
"Many Germans try to attend every Jewish event," said Joel Levy of the Ronald E. Lauder Foundation, when I questioned him after the event. "They send their children to parochial Jewish schools and Jewish summer camps. They come to the synagogue and the centre whenever they can. They can't seem to get close enough."
"But the Neue Synagoge is a museum," I said, feeling perplexed.
"That tells its own story, doesn't it?" replied Levy. "I don't claim to understand, but they seem to be looking for comfort."
One evening, curious to observe post-Holocaust religious life, I attend a synagogue service in West Berlin, and, since the environment is Orthodox, I am banished with the rest of the women to the back of the room, behind a latticed screen. One person there seems more devout than the rest: she wears a headscarf, is praying intensely and seems to be alone. I approach her after the service, and she tells me this is her first visit to a synagogue. I ask why she has come, and she replies that she recently had a dream in which it was revealed that part of her family had been Jewish, and through which she understood that she personally carries the guilt for the deeds of her gentile relatives. Since then she has prayed constantly to God to forgive her family and studied Judaism. Now it is time to participate in Jewish religious services. "I feel the guilt of my family and I know I must make things right again," she says earnestly.
"Do you think some of the Jews will eventually accept Jesus Christ?" she asks me.
"Highly unlikely," I reply.
"I just feel things in my bones," she sighs with a sad little smile.
This confused, passionate appropriation of Judaism is, it seems, not unusual. Several people tell me about the case of a convert to Judaism who had been taking a university degree in Jewish studies. The woman grew more and more agitated at the makeup of the class—her teachers and fellow students were all gentile—and the secular, historical slant of the course, until one day she exploded and shot her professor. "No gentile should be allowed to teach the Talmud," she declared self-righteously to the police.
|Prelude: A Journey to the Stricken Lands||1|
|1||The Stone of Sisyphus: Germany||10|
|2||Through a Glass Darkly: France||74|
|3||Erasing History: Pretense and Oblivion in Japan||122|
|4||The Shadow of Slavery: The United States||166|
|5||The Beloved Country: Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa||240|
|6||Who Will Own the Holocaust?||312|
|7||The Furies of War Revisit Europe: Yugoslavia and Bosnia||346|
|8||New Genocide, New Trials: The Legacy of Nuremberg||398|
|Coda: In the Wake of Memory and Forgetfulness||449|
Posted July 8, 2001
In reading Erna Paris' latest book I am fascinated by how nations can constantly lie to themselves and their citizens about shameful incidents in their past. What Ms. Paris' book brings out is that the past cannot be buried for long. Citizens within those nations will seek out the truth and will confront their elders about their past egregrious behavior. This has happened in Germany and is now happening in Japan. Americans who have had difficulty in reconciling their lofty national goals with their shameful record not only of slavery but of post-slavery denial of civil rights are still paying the price in the inner cities, high crime rates and prison populations. While some might criticise the book as superficial what is more superficial than the inbred bigotries that give rise to the slaughter of one's neighbors on the ground of religious or racial differencies. Our bigotries are acted out one small step at a time and reflect the attitudes of real people. Hurrah for Erna Paris. Five stars for the bookWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 8, 2001
What I really liked about the book was that it combined the author's personal experiences with a thoughtful analysis of how societies remember terrible events in their own past. It's a well-written, thought-provoking read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.