The Healing Wound: Experiences and Reflections, Germany, 1938-2001

The Healing Wound: Experiences and Reflections, Germany, 1938-2001

by Gitta Sereny


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"[A]n astonishing, subtle study of many Holocaust perpetrators and participants."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

One of the most vivid explorations ever of the legacy of Nazism in Germany. No person has examined the lingering evil of Nazism more deeply than Gitta Sereny. As much a work of autobiography as a work of journalism, The Healing Wound spans over sixty years of Sereny's investigations into the darker side of history, from her first encounter with the Nazis at a Nuremberg rally in 1934 at age eleven to her chilling interviews with the highest Nazi officials. The Healing Wound combines political statement with the haunting personal memories of one of the twentieth century's most relentless witnesses.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393323825
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 11/17/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 428
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Gitta Sereny's (1921 - 2012) previous books include Into That Darkness, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, and most recently Cries Unheard. She was born in Vienna and lived in London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Autumn 1995

My father, who died when I was two, was a passionately Anglophile Hungarian, whose greatest ambition for me was that I receive an English education. And so it happened that in 1934 I was travelling back to my boarding school in England from my home in Vienna when the train broke down in Nuremberg. I was an eleven-year-old girl, on my own, wearing my English school uniform—brown, as it happened, though I don't really think it influenced subsequent events. The German Red Cross, or its equivalent Nazi organization, quickly took charge of me; within an hour, to my amazement and, it must be said, pleasure, I found myself in a spectator's seat at the Nazi Party Congress.

    I was overcome by the symmetry of the marchers, many of them children like me; the joyful faces all around; the rhythm of the sounds; the solemnity of the silences; the colours of the flags; the magic of the lights (these, though I didn't know it, Speer's creation). One moment I was enraptured, glued to my seat; the next, I was standing up, shouting with joy along with thousands of others. I saw the men on the distant podium and heard their hugely amplified voices. But I understood nothing; it was the drama, the theatre of it all that overwhelmed me. (Forty-four years later, Albert Speer described to me his own feelings that day and said, resignedly, 'To think that when I'm gone, that's what I will be remembered for: not the buildings I designed but that—theatre.')

    A few days later, back at my peaceful school near the Kentish downs, we were given the subject for our first essay of the new term—not surprisingly, 'The Happiest Day of my Holiday'.

    What else could I, not yet twelve, have described other than that experience in Nuremberg? Although my essay was not chosen to be read out to the class (that honour fell to a lovely description of the birth of a foal), my teacher, Miss Hindley, told me that it was 'a very good piece of work'. She had a strangely formal way of speaking which I found very beautiful, and I thought her a marvel of erudition and adulthood. In fact she was in her early twenties, a slight, delicate, rather shy young woman, with a fine English complexion. She had a quiet sense of humour, was passionate about books and drama and had the wonderful gift of imparting that passion to her pupils, however cloddish.

    'I think you need to understand what you were seeing,' she told me. 'Anyone who comes from your part of the world needs to understand.' And she handed me a book. 'Read this, or as much of it as you can.'

    The book was Mein Kampf, and I did read as much of it as I could. Years later, when people told me they had found Mein Kampf unreadable (in Speer's case, he said Hitler had told him not to bother, that it was outdated), I never understood what they meant. It was hard going, true enough; I skipped large portions, and certainly I wished that it had more paragraphs. But I understood what Hitler was saying and, above all, that his vision of a new Germany, a new Europe, could not be realized without war.

    Was I particularly prescient? I don't think so. Throughout those hundreds of densely written pages, he repeated, again and again, Germany's need for Lebensraum in 'the East'. I knew nothing about politics and very little about the geography and tortured history of Eastern Europe, but it seemed to me obvious that no country would voluntarily give away any of its territory. How could anyone doubt that?

    I also knew very little about anti-semitism. 'Why does he keep talking about "the Jews"?' I asked Miss Hindley when I returned the book.

    'He hates them,' she said. And, as she so often did with all of us, she left me to think it out on my own.

    I did not succeed. I knew, of course, that there were, in the school of my early childhood in Vienna, three classes of religious instruction —Catholic, Jewish and, my own class, Protestant—but I was not really consciously aware of who among my classmates belonged to which group. This must sound strange, but I have since asked Viennese friends of my own age, from similar backgrounds, about this, and they too, I found, had little awareness of religious difference—which is perhaps a tribute to our schools.

    For a privileged child like me, Vienna was paradise. I lived with my mother, who was beautiful and much courted, in a large flat overlooking St Stephen's Cathedral. She had been an actress when she was young, and her life revolved around the theatre, actors, playwrights and drama. Was St Stephen's Cathedral, with its powerful smell of incense, its monotonous singing and its silences, its bleeding or smiling statues, just drama to me? I don't know, but until I was sent to England, I went in there every day on my way to or home from school, leaving my irritated governess outside while I knelt there in a curious pretence of—or perhaps wish for—religious fervour.

    My other passions were more prosaic: my mother, for her looks; a few of her gentleman friends, for their charm and elegance; the countless books I read, many on the sly by torchlight under my bedclothes at night; teachers—there was always a special one—for their cleverness and, as I was mostly lucky, kindness; the theatre, which obsessed me from my first visit at the age of four; and Vienna, because it was Vienna.

    By the time I was fourteen, I had left my English boarding school and was back in Vienna, studying at the Max Reinhardt Drama School. Although I had not inherited my mother's looks—I was a little girl with puppy fat—I somehow never doubted that they would give me a place, and for some reason I was accepted on the spot, as was another girl my age. She was delicate, with a cloud of silky, dark hair, and was most appropriately named Elfie. We were inseparable from that moment on.

    The Max Reinhardt Drama School was a wonderful place, housed in the extraordinary setting of the Imperial Palace of Schönbrunn. Reinhardt, the greatest producer-director of his time, who had had to leave Germany and his school in Berlin because he was Jewish, made a speech on the day the school opened in Vienna which was reprinted in a brochure we were given: 'Use this place. Walk in the park on your own, think on your own, speak on your own, dream on your own: before you can know anyone else, in life or on the stage, you must know yourself!'

    These were powerful words for young minds, and both Elfie and I followed his advice, conscientiously taking long walks on our own, speaking aloud as he advised, expressing our thoughts, our longings, our anger, on occasion, and our dreams.

    Most of Elfie's and my life was spent together. We would meet every day half-way between our homes, by the statue of Johann Strauss in the Stadtpark. We would go together to our fencing or dancing lessons close by, or attend rehearsals at Reinhardt's theatre, the Josefstadt. Later on, we would take the tram to Schönbrunn and most nights—often very late, because many of our teachers were directors and could only take classes in the evening—we would walk home past the palace park, down the immensely long Mariahilfer Strasse and finally along the Ring with its beautiful trees and baroque buildings. When we reached the Opera, we parted, Elfie turning right and I left. No one ever bothered us; despite its many political conflicts and frequently violent demonstrations, Vienna was—and still is—a strangely safe city for children.

    This innocent, or insouciant life ended shockingly and quickly in March 1938, when Hitler invaded Austria. At about nine-thirty in the evening on 11 March, Elfie telephoned me. 'Meet me at the statue,' she whispered.

    'Why are you whispering?' I asked.

    'Just come,' she said, and hung up.

    While I waited for Elfie in the dark, deserted park, I heard for the first time a sound that was to echo around Vienna for weeks: the rhythmic chant of many voices shouting words I had never heard before: 'Deutschland erwache! Juda verrecke!'—Germany awake! Jewry perish!

    When Elfie arrived, we stood stiffly in the darkness, listening. Then she said, 'My father—'

    'What's the matter with your father?' I asked, and then, to my own surprise, added, 'Is he a Jew?'

    Elfie looked at me helplessly. 'A Jew?' she said, confused, her voice tight. 'He is a Nazi. They told me tonight. He's been an illegal for years. He said I was never to speak to any Jews at school, and that anyway'—her voice sounded dead—'the whole place will be ... disinfected from top to bottom. What shall I do?' She sobbed, holding on to me. 'How can I not talk to Jews?' Then, for the first time, she put into words the subject that had never touched us, reeling off the names of four of our teachers whose criticism or praise had dominated our lives for over a year.

    I was almost speechless. 'But why?' I asked, and then, immediately, 'How do you know they are Jewish?'

    'He knows,' she said, tonelessly. 'He says they are Saujuden and that they will all be got rid of.'

    'Got rid of?' I repeated stupidly, and she cried out then, furiously, 'Didn't you hear what I said? Disinfected, he calls it, the schools, the theatres, everywhere'—she spat out the word—'disinfected.' The chanting from the street went on and on as we stood there under the trees. 'What shall I do?' she said. 'How can I live with them?'

    She could do nothing, of course; well-brought-up teenage girls in Vienna did not leave their families. (In the end, happily, she did manage to escape; by the time she was sixteen, she had become a star.)

    Three days later, I stood in a crowd underneath the Imperial Hotel balcony and heard Hitler speak.

    I had become terribly, achingly aware of wrong, wrong in my small world and in the world beyond it. But I don't remember Hitler saying anything outrageous: he was just lauding the Austrians for welcoming the Germans. And indeed, huge numbers of Viennese, and Austrians all over the country, did welcome them, and the air was full of excitement and joy. What I remember most clearly—to my horror—is how excited I felt myself as, part of this seethingly emotional crowd, I listened to that man. Four years earlier, in Nuremberg, I had sat high up in the stands and found myself shouting with joy. Small as I was, I was aware that my pleasure derived not from any person or words but from the theatrical spectacle. But now? I had heard the Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg announcing the plebiscite of 13 March, his voice breaking at the end: 'Austrians, the time for decision has come.' I had heard Elfie crying about her father's betrayal. I had heard those raucous voices, 'Deutschland erwache, Juda verrecke'. And here I was, standing before this man whose orders had sent troops into Austria and who had followed those troops to seal the deed with his presence. What was it that made me join the mindless chorus around me, welcoming this almost motionless figure to our Vienna? What was it in him that drew us? What was it in us—in me too, that day—that allowed ourselves to be drawn?

The next day, Elfie and I went for a walk around the city. On the Graben, one of Vienna's loveliest streets, we came across a band of men in brown uniforms, wearing swastika armbands, surrounded by a large group of Viennese citizens, many of whom were laughing. As we drew near, I saw that in the middle of the crowd a dozen middle-aged people, men and women, were on their knees, scrubbing the pavement with toothbrushes. I recognized one of them as Dr Berggrün, our paediatrician, who had saved my life when I was four and had diphtheria. I had never forgotten that night; he had wrapped me again and again in cool, wet sheets, and it was his voice I had heard early that dawn saying, 'Sie wird leben.' (She will live.)

    Dr Berggrün saw me start towards one of the men in brown; he shook his head and mouthed, 'No,' while continuing to scrub with his toothbrush. I asked the uniformed men what they were doing; were they mad?

    'How dare you!' one of them shouted.

    'How dare you?' I shouted back, and told him that one of the men they were humiliating was a great physician, a saver of lives.

    Stunningly beautiful, her trained voice as clear as a bell, Elfie called out, 'Is this what you call our liberation?'

    It was extraordinary: within two minutes, the jeering crowd had dispersed, the brown guards had gone, the 'street cleaners' had melted away. 'Never do that again,' Dr Berggrün said to us sternly, his small, round wife next to him nodding fervently, her face sagging with despair and exhaustion. 'It is very dangerous.' They gassed them in Sobibor in 1943.

    (When I told Speer, forty years later, that I was in Vienna in March 1938 when he too, as he had told me, was there to prepare a hall for a rally at which Hitler was to speak, I asked him whether he had seen the shop windows marked in white paint with the word 'Jew', or noticed Nazi brutalities. He said no: 'I saw nothing like that; I wasn't there long. I did my work ... I stayed at the Hotel Imperial. I strolled along the Ring and the old streets of the inner city, and had a few good meals and lovely wine. And I bought a painting—that was nice. That's it.' He hadn't known that people, Catholic and Jewish patriots, were being arrested in droves by then and that the first wave of suicides, mostly elderly Jews, had started? 'No, I knew nothing about that. I still know nothing about that. Suicides?')

    The schools and colleges reopened within days. I have tried to recall the changes in our lives. The main one, at least for me, was a sudden awareness of feelings I had not felt before, an excitement that I didn't understand, and didn't really want to feel.

    Though Hungarian by nationality, I loved Austria and above all Vienna; even now, having lived in cities all over the world, I cannot recall ever having been so joyfully aware of the changing of the seasons as I was there. Is there another city in Europe where the scent of lilac lingers so heavily over the streets in May, or the leaves of the trees in the parks turn so golden and red in October, or the snow lies so thickly on roofs and streets in winter? I remember as if it were yesterday the hard, clean feel of the pavement under my shoes once the galoshes were put away: childhood memories of unimportant things that mattered. All this probably didn't change, but my awareness of it did. It was a warm and beautiful March, but I don't remember the sun or the buds on the trees or the smell of the lilac later that spring. It is people I remember: the first day we returned to school, two students wearing swastika pins, and a few days later, the school administrator too, a man of great importance to us all, appointed by Reinhardt himself.

    By now, we knew of course that there were three categories of people who were in real danger: Jews, communists and Austrian patriots. For the rest, life could go on more or less as usual, although foreign embassies sent small pins in the national colours to their citizens, urging us to wear them. My mother and I received small Hungarian flags, and I wore mine not so much for protection as to separate myself from those at school who wore that other pin.

    In the weeks that followed, people began, slowly, to disappear: one of my teachers, a small man of quite incredible kindness to fumbling young drama students, killed himself by jumping out of a fourth-floor window; two others left for the United States. Elfie and I no longer walked home; her parents and my mother forbade it. We no longer went to theatres, for rehearsals or performances. All of us came and went in groups, orderly, quiet and, in many cases, suspicious of each other.

A few months before the Anschluss, my mother had become engaged to Ludwig von Mises, one of the country's leading economists. He had been living and teaching in Geneva for several years, spending only his summer holidays in Austria, where he and my mother indulged their passion for hiking in the mountains.

    Among my mother's many other admirers was a high-ranking German diplomat. Early one evening in May 1938, he appeared at our door and told her that the Nazis intended to arrest her and hold her as a hostage against von Mises's return; being both Jewish and a prominent intellectual with dangerous ideas, he was high up on their blacklist.

    I don't know whether the Nazis would actually have taken my mother hostage, but she believed it, and so we had to go. By late that night, she had packed our cases and arranged for friends to send on to Switzerland my father's collection of paintings and other valuables. Austrians, by then, needed exit permits for travel abroad, but we had our Hungarian passports and we left the next day for Geneva.

    I don't think I was bitter; just as Elfie could not leave her family and live on her own, I could not stay behind by myself in the political cauldron of Vienna. But having experienced the adult freedom of drama school, I was both sad and furious to find myself in a finishing school near Lausanne. I developed a particular loathing for the headmistress when, just weeks after my arrival, a little German Jewish girl was suddenly removed from the classes and our luxurious accommodation and sent to work in the kitchen; her parents, it transpired, had been sent to a concentration camp, and there was no money for her fees. My mother and my new stepfather, together with the mother of my co-conspirator, a wealthy New York socialite, came up trumps: they threatened not only our removal but the most unpleasant publicity for the school unless the child was immediately given a free place.

    This incident, which demonstrated that the Nazi poison was not limited to Germany and Austria, along with Elfie's carefully phrased letters, which clearly conveyed her unhappiness, convinced me that an expensive finishing school was not the place for me. At dawn one lovely Sunday, when I knew my mother and stepfather were away for the weekend, I ran away. I confided in two slightly older American girls who thought the plan mad but romantic, and gave me a large sum from their considerable hoard of pocket money. I packed a small bag; my American friends agreed to lock the door behind me (they also promised to telephone my mother that night, having told the teachers at Sunday breakfast that I had joined my parents for the day); and without great difficulty I got to Geneva in time for the early-morning train to London via Paris.

    I knew nobody in London, having only been there on brief excursions from my school in Kent years before, but I had a plan. Either I would obtain a place at the Old Vic Theatre School, where I would complete my training; or I would audition for Alexander Korda, Britain's top film producer, and get into films. Of course, neither plan worked. At the Old Vic, the suspicious school secretary, having seen the address I had written down of a fleapit hotel in a less than salubrious part of London, asked whom I was staying with and then added kindly, 'It's none of my business, but don't you think you should go home, wherever home is?' Fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda, upon learning my name and that I came from the Reinhardt school, granted me an audition and talked to me for a long time about what was happening in the world, about books and about music. By the time we got down to my audition, his wife, Merle Oberon, had joined us, and he had managed to extract a lot of information from me. 'You have some talent,' he said, after hearing my Juliet (I had played the part in Vienna in a special English performance for the Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson). 'I'll help you here if you really want, but I suspect this is the wrong direction for you. You are too young and you are uneducated. I advise you to go away, grow up, study—then come back and see me in a couple of years.'

    Merle Oberon then took me to lunch, lent me a handkerchief when I cried and arranged for me to telephone my mother.

By early autumn 1938, I was living in Paris with two young academics, Jacqueline and Jean (Yani) Hubert-Rodier, sister and brother, in a wonderful old flat in the 16th arrondisement off the avenue Henri Martin. Following the example of their mother, a noted hostess who had recently died, Jacqueline and Yani were astonishingly well read and multilingual, and kept open house for thinking people of all ages, colours and nationalities. I had a pass for lectures at the Sorbonne, had signed up for a typing course at Pitman's and was taken on as a pupil by one of the most generous and awesome actresses in Paris, Madelaine Milhaud, the wife of the composer Darius Milhaud. Vienna, the Anschluss and the Nazis were suddenly very far away. I was caught up in a passion for all things French and above all Paris; my life was wonderful, and I was learning what it was to learn.

     When war broke out on 3 September 1939, I was in Les Baux de Provence, at that time not even a village, more a settlement of about fifty people who lived in caves dug out of rock on top of a mountain. There was one extremely basic hotel, the Reine Jeanne, which the conductor Pierre Monteux took over for a few weeks every summer for a seminar to which, that year, thanks to the Milhauds, I had been invited. There were about a dozen of us, French and American. We had been immersed in music for two weeks when we heard on the wireless that the Germans had invaded Poland and that France and Britain had declared war. French mobilization was incredibly swift—the young men in the valley were gone within days—and a request arrived from the mayor at the foot of the mountain that the maestro's young students should come down and help with the grape harvest.

    The weather was glorious; it was fun to wash our feet and legs with rough country soap, rinse them in a stinging, green disinfectant and then walk, jump and dance on the grapes. We held hands and made a ballet of our first war-work. On the last evening, Monteux conducted his student orchestra in a piece by Brahms; 'N'oubliez jamais,' he said at the end, 'lui aussi était Allemand.'

    My mother and stepfather ordered me to return to Switzerland. When I refused to go, they stopped my allowance in an attempt to force me. But I was sixteen and in love—with an English boy, with France and with my studies. Nothing would have made me leave and, after a few weeks during which I slept on friends' sofas, ate very little and walked wherever I had to go, they relented, at least for the time being. I was not an easy daughter or stepdaughter; I suspect that they were almost relieved.


Excerpted from The Healing Wound by Gitta Sereny. Copyright © 2001 by Gitta Sereny. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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