Moral dilemmas

29 Oct

A Russian prisoner at Buchenwald berating a brutal Nazi officer after the liberation of the camp, 1945.

A short little story exemplifying the kind of moral and ethical traumas that still confront many Germans and Austrians today:  yesterday we went to visit an old friend, Jutta (I have changed their names here). We met her through American friends  in Vienna when we lived here in 1980-81. Her husband Johann was a painting conservator at one of the museums–through him I was able to view several Renaissance paintings in the process of restoration, which was a thrilling experience. Johann and Jutta and their children lived an hour by tram from the city, in a lovely old building with a fantastic garden.  They were a very interesting pair:  Johann was from peasant family and a die-hard Communist of the gentlest, most idealistic kind. He was much more political than she, who was raised in the DDR and was most interested in alternative education (their children all went to non-traditional schools) and organic gardens. In America, these two would have been ”back to the landers” of the most committed sort.  The children, I remember, were encouraged and supported to go and help the Nicaraguans during the Daniel Ortega days. We had only stayed in touch by occasional Christmas letters, and I hadn’t communicated with them around the time that The Berlin Wall came down, but I’m sure it was a bitter disappointment for Johann. He died in the early 2000s after a long illness.

Jutta still lives in the same house, has several grandchildren, whom she sees from time to time. She still lives a very simple life, with no television or computer, does interesting artwork, re-writes fairy tales, and until last year worked with children who have learning disabilities. In other words, an old-fashioned, generous humanist who believes art and peaceful occupations can help the world become a better place. I can’t imagine she has ever had an enemy or a violent thought in her life. But here comes the burden of the German past: a few years ago, her older brother, already in his 60s, decided he wanted to know what their father did during the war. He fell at the Russian front when Jutta was 5 and her brother was 10; her mother never talked about him or what he had done once he left their home in a region of Eastern Germany in 1939. They knew he had done something administrative ”somewhere in what is now Poland”, but that was all. In the age of the internet, where everything is online, more information was not hard to find. Another sibling did a simple search, and found specific documents talking about their father. He had been appointed as the administrator of an Eastern region of Germany, in 1939–a very telling year. After having the documents online translated from Polish, the siblings found out the horrible truth: their father had been responsible for the organization of the deportation of 6,000 Jews from ”his” region to the concentration camps, and had written that he did this in such a way as to not ”disturb” the German people.

This was, understandably, shattering news to the siblings, who knew nothing about this. Jutta said that one time while doing a report in high school, she had asked her mother about her father during the war, and she had simply said, ”Es war alles damals zu hart”–it was all too tough at the time. Just imagine learning this about your own father after so many years. Did the mother know? Did she want to know?  Did any of the women want to know?  As Jutta said, most Germans tried to forget the past and rationalize the atrocious events of the time by saying they were just living their lives, and that they really didn’t know what was happening. But here were these good people learning that their own flesh and blood willingly and actively participated in the atrocities. ”It’s actually a blessing for us all that he died in the war,” Jutta said. It is no wonder that people have only begun to face this painful past in the last few years, and why so many Germans simply did not want to talk about any of it. I really feel for Jutta–this is now a horrible burden that this good woman must carry with her for the rest of her life.

2 Responses to “Moral dilemmas”

  1. karen pope November 30, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

    This reminds me of my first visit to Germany. In 1971, the year after I graduated from college, I spent 5 months traveling deliberately around western Europe with a girlfriend. We took the slow, creepy train across East Germany to reach Berlin, and we spent an afternoon in East Berlin (including a 2-hour detention at Checkpoint Charlie). At the National Gallery, an exhibition in the basement included a separated area where WWII-era footage was being projected non-stop. We joined the small crowd in folding chairs–the figures I remember were young families with strollers–and realized we were sitting among baby boomers who were confronting the visual evidence as if for the first time. The atmosphere was the “stunned silence” of people rivetted to images of horror they’d had no inkling of. By coincidence, my visit to Berlin with students in 2014 included a pilgrimage to the National Gallery to experience the architecture; the building was essentially mothballed, awaiting the proper repurposing to play the needed role in the “reunified” Berlin. I began to grasp the state of things (socially, reunification is not complete!) thanks to a book I found to use in a course on “Modern German Art” put together for the students who would be participating in that field study. It’s a good survey: Hans Belting, The Germans and Their Art: A Troublesome Relationship (1998)

    • esauboeck November 30, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

      An amazing story, Karen. And these kinds of confrontations are still taking place. Such a traumatic century….

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