German Guilt

by Tinamarie Bernard March 29, 2013


By Tinamarie Bernard

My Lutheran-raised mother was born in Germany in 1937; as her American-born daughter, it was probable that I would grow up hearing stories of Nazis, war and suffering. As a child during the worst of the atrocities, she was not responsible for a country gripped by evil, torn by evil, bent to perpetuate evil. Who could blame an underfed, cross-eyed German girl of 5 abandoned on a train platform in Bavaria for the bombs exploding around her, or the murder of her friend, a Jewish girl, that took place before either of them entered kindergarten?

Who could blame me, her daughter, born decades later under the sunny California sky in the land of opportunity and freedom, for what happened in the Shoah?

It turned out, one person could — me. I could blame myself for things done in a place and time before my own. What’s more, I wasn’t alone in so doing.

It wasn’t until I read the works of Ursela Hegi, author of several books of fiction and non-fiction, including the esteemed tome “Tearing The Silence: On Being German In America” (Simon and Shuster, 1997), that I realized how large a gestalt of guilt rested on the shoulders of people like me. We were shamed that our German relatives, however distantly related to us, succumbed in big or small ways to the shadows. Darkness had snuffed out the light, and they hadn’t found a match.

If evil could lurk in them, it could lurk in us, we reasoned. It could lurk in me.

“‘Tearing the Silence’ is a deeply affecting stud of a people that can neither escape nor embrace its national heritage,” Hegi writes in the introduction. Written from a novelist’s (rather than historian’s) point of view, the book includes interviews between Hegi and German-born Americans who were small children during or just after World War II. People, like my mother, who often cowered at the hard questions, just like they had from explosions and sudden fences. It’s common, when your own PTSD from childhood bombs and hunger lurks within, to insist in small whispers that it was not your fault.

Normalize suffering, and absolve responsibility. At least, that was the message I absorbed as a child each time I asked my mother a question about her past.

“Why had her Opa Karl been a Nazi?”

“Why did the Germans murder Jews?”

“Why hadn’t ordinary people protested more?”

If Mom talked at all — when she did choose to speak of this taboo topic — her pain and anger at the effect of the war on her childhood reflected a universal theme that Hegi describes with eloquence. Scrutiny at this level is unbelievably hard, Hegi writes. But people like Mom suffered too, and while her silence was perhaps an effort to spare or protect younger generations, that silence “added to the horrors of the Holocaust.”

Thus, it was a surprise to many when decades later, I chose to become Jewish in my 30s. Those who don’t know me have assumed on more than one occasion that my conversion to Judaism was somehow a means of minimizing my angst at being the great-granddaughter of a Nazi. What better way to put an end to suffering than by joining those who suffer! When Moment Magazine picked up my conversion story a few years back, Sara Ivry, a writer for Tablet, deemed it fit to assume that my “narrative” was from “the province of the improbable.”

She dismissed the mysterious pull that touched my soul, almost mocking my revelation that becoming Jewish felt like a spiritual homecoming.

“Tinamarie Bernard, the great-granddaughter of a high-ranking Nazi officer,” Ivry wrote, “asserts her conversion had nothing to do with inherited guilt but with having ‘a Jewish neshemah [soul] all along that just needed a chance to take off.’”

So improbable, Ivry says? Perhaps…except that on this Jewish journey of mine, I’ve met more people whose stories mirror my own. People born of German parents, Germans born in Germany, who, for reasons beyond understanding, have heeded the invitation to join the Jewish fold.

There’s Emunah, a woman I met in New York at a Jewish meditation retreat. Born in Germany and now living in Florida, her spiritual journey compelled her to change her name when she converted to Judaism years before me.

Gad Ben Ami won’t tell me his given name, only that his conversion to Judaism as a young German man in America in the early years after World War II was much harder than my own. In those years, being German was a stigma in itself. Now living in Israel, he is retired and earns money as a tour guide. His specialty? Tours for Germans and Christians visiting the holy land. Having raised three children in Israel and the U.S. with his Yemenite wife of close to 50 years, his German youth and Jewish conversion are ancient stories for him.

Emunah, Gad Ben Ami and I didn’t become Jewish to assuage our guilt over the Shoah. We did it in spite of the overwhelming awkwardness of straddling these two worlds, knowing full well that for many people, no explanation can suffice for our life choices. We simple do what we must do to be who we are meant to be.

In some cases, these decisions have put us at odds with our family of origin or our adopted Jewish communities. We are asked, or we ask ourselves, what did our relatives do? In my case, my mother’s grandfather, a high-ranking Nazi, paid a steep price: Death by firing squad. His wife: Death by starvation. My mother lost a sister before the age of 4 to tuberculosis. Her father, a lower-ranking Nazi, died on the Russian front. Her mother, my grandmother, was the rare adult relative to survive, yet they were estranged for years, my mother ashamed of her own mother’s choice to sell her body for a bit of food.

Could any of them individually have really stopped the Reich? Unlikely, but that doesn’t stop people from harboring anger and resentment at those of us who have German blood and choose a Jewish path.

Nor does it turn out that I’m the only one with Nazi skeletons or possibly Jewish roots rattling in the family closet. In the New York Jewish Week piece, “For German Converts, a New Home for the Soul,” Sharon Udasim writes, “Some of the converts have Nazi histories in their families…and some suspect long-buried Jewish roots in their families.” In my case, it turns out my great-grandmother’s maiden name was one that was commonly Jewish. Was forced conversion to Catholicism part of her path? I probably will never know.

Where I might disagree with Usadim is her assertion that German converts to Judaism (I put German-Americans in this group too) “lack the acute guilt that resonated throughout postwar Germany.” The guilt doesn’t go away. Instead, it meanders. To deny it is to miss the potentially valuable purpose it serves.

What might that purpose be? I’ve often wondered and imagine that this mostly silent group of what Udasim calls, “little-studied second wave predominantly liberal German converts,” has a message to share.

Though the Holocaust occurred more than 70 years ago, mass executions and genocides continue today, so there’s no doubt humanity has yet to learn the lesson of Never Again.

Today, anti-Semitism grows. Israel, a beacon of democracy existing smack in the middle of a geographic region of oppression, faces alarming vitriol from those who condemn and hate her, bent on the destruction of the Jewish state.

When I contemplate these realities juxtaposed with the stories of German-American converts to Judaism, one message does emerge, illuminated with pressing insistence, though I struggle to put it into words.

In my humble observations and limited world view — the more I have seen, the more I understand that I have much to learn — I’m confident of this: No amount of guilt can change our personal or global trajectories. Hate begets hate. Righteousness begets resentment. Fear begets more of itself, and distrust builds no bridges.

Searching for meaning to this path as a Jew by choice, I’m reminded of Victor Frankl’s words: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”


3 thoughts on “German Guilt

  1. Here is where Germans are better than Americans. She felt that way because in part American society has a fetish with the Nazi perpretrated Holocaust while engaged in a 100% normalcy of American society denial of the
    America Holocaust. In California where she grew up between the Spanish Catholic period and the English Protestant periods the extermination rate of American Indians was 99%. California was one of the most heavily populated places in pre 1492 America. The California chapter of the America Holocaust was one of the most bloody and bloodthirsty incorporating unspeakable cruelty and extermination of Native Californians.

    German society has and continues to deal with its conduct but be it at home or abroad Americans have not even begun to face the trail of blood left across the world by the American Empire nor the blood upon which the USA was built. The US capital city is named after Washington and Columbus that is like renaming Berlin, Himmler in the District of Hitler.

    Across the entire Americas an estimated 90 million Indian peoples were exterminated by European conquerors.
    Holocaust denial is woven into the fabric of the nations of the Americas born of this while everyone waxes lyrical
    about Nazis. How convenient.

    1. Hi Howard,
      That’s an interesting perspective and one I’ve not yet heard. It has merit…and yet, it doesn’t resonate with me personally. I didn’t have a fascination with the Nazi perpretrated Holocaust. All my life, I’ve felt this terrible sense that we as a species/culture/nation (for lack of a better word) keep repeating the same mistakes and not yet learning from them. It’s an intutive thing, one I can’t quite put into words.

      Your analogy with how we’ve treated native American cultures is spot on, in my opinion.

  2. dear tina! i will comment more fully after i’ve fully read your piece. but for starters, having been very involved with these questions and others over several decades, and specifically since 1980, i not only can speak of many who’s own stories confirm yours, i can concur with and confirm all that you speak of. the motivations are clear, and the “unlikelihood” is nothing of the sort, except to academics too full of their conclusions and shallow people who never look into anything with depth. i came here with the intention of meeting those non-jewish germans of my generation and the previous post-war half-generation, of whom there must exist a lot who are as normal as i, and therefore for whom this sort of family past, as nazis and perpetrators or as passive enablers who ran with the herd, must be unbearably excrutiating to carry through life. i was right. they were here, and they embraced the opportunity to meet an american born jew who came over especially to meet with them and engage in new paradigms. never had i heard about these germans, who suffered under the onus of their parents and grandparents, who had nothing to be guilty for and are still today unsuccessful at growing past a german self-hatred. in 2005 i discovered an old fella through a feature article, with whom i immediately corresponded, he had been a young SS officer at auschwitz and was speaking out against the holocaust-deniers. he was under threat from them as well, for doing so. he had one wish, he’d always wanted to meet one jew in his post-war life, ‘fess up, ask his forgiveness or pardon. so i wrote him, in 2005, told him while it was not my place to forgive him i could offer him my hand in understanding and accept his action and his gesture unconditionally. this meant the world to him and he wrote me a most moving letter, 2 pages plus. these are things which “aren’t supposed to happen.” i thoroughly can relate to your becoming jewish out of a sense of being that, and not out of guilt – whoever tries to pigeon-hole you in the guilt-and-wannabe box is an ignoramus, and if they have a “dr.” in front of their name, they’re an educated ignoramus.

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