At a book
party for Ernestine Schlant (a.k.a. Mrs. Bill Bradley), author of THE
LANGUAGE OF SILENCE - WEST GERMAN LITERATURE AND THE HOLOCAUST, I was
particularly struck with Ms. Schlant’s statement that “literature is the
seismograph of a people’s unconscious”.
Schlant, professor of German and Comparative Literature,
and I both grew up in Germany.
She was nine years old at the end of WWII, I was six.
We both live in the US now and have a foot in both worlds.
I attended schools where “former”
Nazi teachers made sure that I didn’t know about the atrocities committed
by my people, was surrounded by a thick wall of impenetrable silence and like
many young Germans of my generation, including Schlant, didn’t find out about
the Holocaust until I ventured abroad as a young adult and was confronted with
can safely be said that the official silence of the first twenty postwar years
has long since given way to debates, discussions, the publication of many
non-fiction books, documentaries, and so forth.
While German authors like Heinrich Boell (who received the Nobel prize in
1972), Guenter Grass (one of last year’s nobelists), Wolfgang Borchert,
and others have written eloquently about the horrors and the madness of war and
our misery because of it, literature by non-Jewish Germans depicting and
addressing the suffering of
fellow German-Jewish citizens continues to be virtually nonexistent.
We German non-Jews saw our world as shattered
by WWII and its aftermath, Jews disappeared while the language with which we describe our own suffering is rich in
nuance and texture, the language we use to describe the fate of Jews is abstract
and devoid of emotional resonance.
my own research, I have found that many of my countrymen believe that there is
in fact an abundance of literature written by German gentiles which deals with
the plight of European Jews in general and German Jews in particular.
In reality, there is a distinct absence of Holocaust victims as
protagonists in literature written by German gentiles.
Many if not most Germans seem to consider literature about their own
suffering during WWII and the chaos of the postwar years, and condemnation of
the Hitler regime as synonymous with writing about Holocaust victims.
It doesn’t strike them as extraordinary that there are almost no books
written by them about our former Jewish fellow citizens, who had lived in
Germany for hundreds of years, had contributed richly to our culture and
been our neighbors, our class-mates, our colleagues, our acquaintances, our
friends and our relatives.
Ms. Schlant brilliantly demonstrates in her book, even after WWII , when it was
perfectly safe to do so, almost no books were written by Germans, which explored
their feelings about the forced emigration or deportation to a sure death of
their Jewish fellow citizens.
Not even by the roughly half a million German gentiles who had acquired
Jewish relatives through marriage.
One could expect that at least a handful of those might have felt
compelled to write about the emotional fallout of the tragedies of their Jewish
in-laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, or cousins.
being immensely readable, Schlant’s book is a thorough work of solid research
and insightful interpretation and analysis of West German postwar literature.
Her perceptive psychological analysis of West German postwar literature
takes us all the way from the first postwar decade through every subsequent
decade. She also provides judicious information about the political events as
they have unfolded in Germany during the past fifty years.
careful readings of texts reveal that even the most capable writers (Guenter
Grass, Alfred Andersch and Peter Haertling) did not attempt to create Jewish
characters and she raises the question: Why do German non-Jewish writers
adroitly shun writing about the victims of the Holocaust, or even about Jews
presently living in Germany?
starts off with the first postwar decade and offers an in-depth analysis
of the writing of Heinrich Boell and Wolfgang Koeppen.
Heinrich Boell published his first prose pieces in 1947 and established
himself, in the course of a prolific and morally committed career, as one of
West Germany’s most widely read and internationally acknowledged authors.
As a matter of fact, he was one of my favorite writers in the late
fifties and early sixties.
Throughout his work, there is a sympathetic description of the common
solder and the ‘average man’ contrasted with unflattering descriptions of
officers and people in higher positions - which leaves the reader with the comfortable perception that ‘ordinary Germans’ had been victims of the
Nazi regime and had been powerless to assert themselves to Nazi-authorities.
(Goldhagen has debunked this theory roundly in his book hitler’s
willing executioners.) Boell’s
oeuvre is bereft of Jews except for two female characters who are converts to
Catholicism, even though Boell grew up in Cologne which had one of the oldest
Jewish communities in Germany. Nowhere does Boell, a devout Catholic, express
outrage about the extermination of an entire people.
As Schlant says “The fact that genocide is criminal madness and
therefore on quite another plane from the death of a soldier in battle is
ignored”. (p. 33)
Boell’s books enjoyed enormous popularity and were commercially successful,
Wolfgang Koeppen who published Death in
Rome in 1954, a book which targets the Nazi past and the survival of some of
its basic tenets
in postwar Germany, only sold 6000 copies.
Wolfgang Koeppen, a virtuoso writer who is utterly unsparing in his
descriptions of postwar Germans
did not achieve commercial success with his triology
Pigeons in the Grass, The
Hothouse and Death in Rome.
There is nothing comforting in his descriptions of ‘average Germans’
and he makes it very clear that the suffering of Germans was self-inflicted.
Koeppen’s writing career was all but over and he resorted to writing
1959 Guenter Grass (born in 1927 in Gdanks, now Polen) burst onto the literary
scene with his novel The Tin Drum.
This novel is uniformly understood as a serious attempt to reckon
with the German past, and yet the only Jewish character in this novel, Sigismund
Markus, is an unsympathetic caricature of the Nazi press.
Schlant quotes literary scholar Ruth Angress:
“Markus, like the typical Jew of the Nazi press, is unattractive as a
man, though he lusts after an Aryan woman, and ludicrous as an individual, for
he acts and looks like a dog. He is a harmless parasite, a Jew without a Jewish
community or a family, without a background, or religious affiliation, but with
business acumen of sorts.” (p. 70)
that Guenter Grass has visited Israel and most probably has met Jews living in
Germany and quite conceivably has encountered survivors of the Shoah, his
inability or unwillingness to explore their particular life experiences, is
Eichmann trial of 1961 in Jerusalem and the Auschwitz trials from 1963 to 1965
in Frankfurt/Main made the atrocities of the Holocaust known to the younger
generation of Germans - those who came of age in the late fifties and early
sixties. (Their parents had been informed
about the horrors of the Holocaust during the Nuremberg trials, but they
never talked about this with their children).
presented a watershed in German society:
For the first time since the end of WWII, young Germans confronted their
parents and accused them of wholesale complicity in the Nazi atrocities.
But the writers from that era, primarily expressed
their own victimization by the continued presence of old Nazis in postwar
Germany and consequently regarded themselves as fellow victims.
This was a convenient way of avoiding responsibility for the atrocities
committed by their parents’ generation and in addition led them to deny the
uniqueness of the suffering of European Jews.
writes: “Furious attacks on the parent generation were meant to demonstrate
that one was not like the parent and was therefore released from a heinous past.
This shortcut avoided any confronting of the past and its legacy and any
concern for the victims; it was motivated not by sorrow and shame but by rage
Once again, what got lost in this intergenerational scuffle was
the fate of the victims of the Holocaust.
of the most recent books published which Schlant analyzes is The
Reader by Bernard Schlinck (1995). This book was on the best seller list in
the U.S. and became even more prominent by being featured on Oprah’s
The Reader is the story of a
love affair between a young boy of fifteen from an middle-class, academic
family, and a thirthy-six year old illiterate woman. The affair takes place in
1958 and lasts
from early winter to late summer.
Ten years later, Michael is a law student and attends a war crimes trial
in a nearby town. The defendants are five SS women, one of which is Hanna.
The women are accused of locking a group of Auschwitz inmates in a church
during the trek back to the West. The church is hit by a fire bomb and the SS
guards refuse to open the door so that the inmates’ lives can be saved.
Except for two women who escape death by a hair, all the inmates are
burned to death.
Hanna is convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Michael resumes the habit of reading to her as he had done during their
love affair. He
reads to her and sends her the tapes, but he does not visit her in prison.
After eighteen years, Hanna is paroled and Michael is asked by the warden
to help Hanna to re-enter life.
But Hanna commits suicide on the morning of her release.
In a note addressed to him, she asks him to give her savings to a Jewish
woman - the witness in the trial and a survivor.
The woman rejects the money and any gesture of atonement.
Schlant aptly demonstrates in her analysis of this book, “the exchange between
the judge and Hanna moves toward the most pointed question of the book - and
then collapses into moral obtuseness and platitudes.” (p. 211)
What is missing in this book, is Michael’s lack of abhorrence at
Hanna’s acts and his acceptance of her explanation of duty-driven obedience
– a much used excuse of yesteryear.
“Schlinck seems to suggest that Hanna’s criminality and general
brutality went hand in hand with her illiteracy, but that once she could read,
she became morally alert and wanted to know more
about the Holocaust...
Illiteracy cannot serve as an explanation for cooperating in and
committing criminal acts.
If hiding her illiteracy is more important to Hanna then saving lives,
and she can enjoy being read to by victims who are marked for death, what kind
of a person is she?
But if illiteracy is not the explanation - and excuse - for Hanna’s
acts, then what function does it serve in the novel?” (p. 213)
simply does not make a strong case with respect to the Nazi crimes and those who
I would like to add that the whole idea of an illiterate SS guard is
preposterous in itself, and illiteracy as an excuse for perpetrators even more
so - after all, Nazi-Germany was a country of almost universal literacy.
describing the numbness which seems to take hold of all those involved in the
daily proceedings of that trial, Schlinck does not distinguish between the
numbness of the prisoners of the death camp, that of the perpetrators and the
courtroom participants. He also reveals a prevalent mindset among contemporary
should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of
the horrors of the extermination of Jews?” Schlinck asks the reader (p. 215).
What about an expression of sorrow for the victims of Nazi Germany?
this day, German Jews are referred to as Jews,
hardly ever as German citizens, thereby continuing their marginalization in
Not surprisingly, young Germans are generally unaware that German Jews
had been fully integrated and assimilated into German society prior to the
my first collection of narrative poetry TALES
FROM A CHILD OF THE ENEMY (so far only published in the US) the stories of
holocaust victims and survivors whom I met in Brooklyn during the sixties,
I have returned to Germany regularly to share my work with students and
Germans involved in creating Holocaust teaching curricula, have criticized my inclusion of Holocaust victims in my writing and have told me that I should write about my experience, and Holocaust survivors should write about theirs.
Yes, German gentiles visit Israel; some young Germans pick weeds on kibbutzim during their holidays; others join Action
Reconciliation and perform lowly tasks in Jewish nursing homes.
But to this day we Germans have failed by and large to incorporate the fates, the sorrow and the suffering of our fellow German-Jewish citizens into our literature.
then does the seismograph of the unconscious as reflected in German literature
of the past 50 years say about The New
Copyright © 2000, Ursula Duba., All rights reserved. Reprinted
here with the permission of Ursula Duba.
Ursula Duba is the author of TALES FROM A CHILD OF THE ENEMY (penguin 1997) and has lectured
widely about the legacy of the Third Reich and the Holocaust at universities and
cultural and religious institutions in the U.S., Canada, Germany and Israel.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.