[The following article written by Talia Klein is reprinted here here with permission of the author]
by Talia Klein
We, the Jewish people, collectively and individually seem in a constant quest to define, appropriate and canonize our memory. In the twentieth century the Shoah stands as an object of this quest. However, the Shoah is also pivotal to the national memories of Germany, Poland and many other European countries. I traveled recently to Germany to learn about the culture, the politics and the past. The culture and the politics belong to the Germans but the past is mine, and theirs at the same time. Traveling as a Jewish journalist in Germany, I was thrust into the German waltz of its own "Vergangenheitsbew?ltigung", a lengthy German compound that expresses a management or coming to terms with the past. To me was handed the mantel of victim and the roles of accuser, jury, judge and priest. I was the living proof of Hitler's policies, I had the right to accuse and I had the right to condemn as long as I would hear the confession and deliver forgiveness. I had a right to peer closely and skeptically at German policies while they attempted to become "normal" again.
Normal? My immediate reaction is, what gives Germany the right to become normal if I cannot? How can Germany roll over and be normal if I and the rest of the Jewish people are still reeling from the shock, if my peers are still listening to the stories of our grandparents and are still vessels for their testimony? How can Germany become normal if when a Jewish foreigner is taken to the Jewish sites it means Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, the Berlin synagogue museum, the Jewish museum of Frankfurt. How can Germany be normal if the synagogue in Koln is so afraid of violence, it is nearly empty on Friday night and I, as a stranger, am subjected to security searches and treated with suspicion?
It may be that Germany has succeeded in trapping its memory into the sites and the architects of the crime. Memory is exported and stored in the barracks and pits of the camps, the conference room at Wannsee and the Gestapo headquarters on Prince Albrecht Strasse. Accusations and blame can be flung at portraits and symbols of Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann and the other Nazi criminals who supposedly enslaved the German people and committed a heinous crime in their name. And the image of the Jew is garbed in blue and white stripes and the Star of David is perpetually yellow, raveled and sewn on in patches.
I traveled to Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp just outside of Berlin, in the late afternoon. During the ride on the S - Bahn commuter train and the twenty minute walk I prepared myself for the psychological and spiritual implications of standing on the grave of countless Jewish men, women and children. I hoped to find there the reverence and honour deserving of such a place of murdered innocence. I arrived at Sachsenhausen and it was closed.
Closed? As if this site could be played with during the day and put away in time for dinner. The camp-turned-museum had just closed and there was still a man at the desk, so I asked him for ten minutes to look around because I was only in Berlin for a day. "No, it's closed", he said, waving his hands for emphasis. "Please", I said, "Just for five minutes?" "No!" he said, this time loudly waving his hands and head. "Please", I begged, "Please, you have to let me in!" As soon as he realized that I was not going away, he waved me in. It was getting late and light was scarce, I had only enough time for a cursory survey of the site. Everything was there in some state of decay, destruction or reconstruction; crematoria, labs for human experiments, barracks (someone had recently burned down the Jewish barracks) and an East German monument to anti-fascist freedom fighters. I hurried out past the office buildings, occupied then and now. It was not until later that I realized what I had done. I, a Jewish woman, had stood outside a concentration camp in Germany, begging to be let in.
This reminded me of another experience I had this summer in Austria at Mauthausen. I traveled there with a friend of mine whose grandfather was a survivor of Mauthausen. My friend had been raised with the specter of this place, discussed at family lunches, manifested in the personality of his grandfather, protected and guarded by the family memory. For him, this was a personal journey into his own history. We arrived at the town of Mauthausen and with some difficulty we found the camp. At the gate was a woman selling admission tickets.
Tickets? That they could commodify the history of our people, of my friend's grandfather, and the crime of the Shoah, was a travesty. That Mauthausen had become a junket at the Holocaust theme park was distasteful at best.
We proceeded past the gate without paying. We were promptly chased by the attendant woman. She yelled, we yelled and she threatened to call the police. We invited her to do so. Finally my friend turned to the woman and the following statement and the pain on his face will stay with me forever. He said, "I am not paying because you didn't charge my grandfather when he first came here." And, as did the man at Sachsenhausen, she waved us in.
Add to this the experience of having a horde of Polish peasants waving farming implements at me and a group of protesters at Auschwitz, calling us "christ killers" and yelling that Hitler should have finished the job.
The aggregate of these and other similar experiences at Majdanek, Theresienstadt, Dachau, Birkenau, etc., have left me paralyzed in my attempt to "come to terms with the past" and/or to create and understand memory because the present and current experiences feed into and, on some level, mimic the past. Germany, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic are trying so hard to package their memory into the sites and selves of the Shoah because they as well cannot make sense of their role and responsibility. It is obvious that much exploration, soul-searching and understanding must be realized before I and those like me can rationalize and subdue Hitler's shadow. And before Germany can ever imagine becoming normal.
May 22, 1998