Anne Frank in Marin County
Exhibition: Anne Frank the World Today: A Call for Tolerance Compassion Reviewed by Daniel Jay Sonkin
"My story is a story of very ordinary people during extraordinary terrible times. Times the like of which I hope with all my heart will never come again. It is for all of us ordinary people all over the world to see to it that they do not" Miep Gies (with Alison Leslie Gold. Anne Frank remembered : The story of the woman who helped to hide the Frank family; New York,Simon and Schuster, 1987)
This year, 1995, marks the fifty year anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the close of World War II. In remembrance of the millions of victims of the Nazi atrocities, and in attempt to address the broader issue of racism and prejudice within our society, the Marin Center for Peace and Justice co-sponsored a traveling exhibit of photographs that were on loan from the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam. This exhibit, though small, is unique in that many of the photographs displayed have never been viewed by the public before now. The timing of the exhibit also coincides with the release of a new version of Anne's diary (Marjorie Agosin. Dear Anne Frank; translated by Richard Schaaf, 1st North American ed., Washington, DC, Azul Editions, 1994; Anne Frank. The diary of a young girl; translated from the Dutch by M. Mooyaart-Doubleday, with an introd. by Eleanor Roosevelt, New York, Modern Library, 1952, rev. 1994) with segments never before published. I decided to view the photographs because of an on-going personal struggle to understand what the Holocaust has meant to me, so that I can someday help my now three year-old daughter derive some meaning from an event that helped shape the course of history as well as the Jewish people as a whole.
The black and white photographs that comprise the exhibit trace the life of Anne Frank from her birth on June 13th, 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany (Joke Kniesmeyer. Anne Frank in the world, 1929-1945; Amsterdam, Anne Frank Stichting, B. Bakker, 1985). Anne, and her sister Margot, were the daughters of Edith and Otto Frank. Mr. Frank was an enthusiastic amateur photographer and took many photographs of his wife and daughters both inside and outside the home. Like many family pictures, the photographs show a happy family two beautiful children oblivious to the hatred and danger that was mounting around them. These could be any family's black and white photographs. One particular picture of Anne and Margot shows the strong family resemblance between the girls. They look very happy, and at the same time there was a depth and maturity in their faces. Like my own daughter, their eyes seem to fill up their faces. Anne's youthful energy is captured by the photos which simultaneously documents the rise, the fall, and the resurrection of the Nazi movement from 1920 through today, bringing much of this century's history into a present-tense focus.
In 1929 approximately 30,000 Jewish people lived in Frankfurt about 5.5% of the population; it was the second largest Jewish community in Germany next to Berlin, dating back to the Middle Ages. The pictures document what came next. As the economy deteriorates after World War I, the Nazis seek the opportunity to recruit followers and blame the country's problems on both the weak government and the Jews. In 1931, as the hatred against the Jews increases, Otto Frank decides to move the family to Amsterdam where he thought the family would be safe from persecution. In 1940, when war breaks out, Germany moves in to occupy Holland so that the Jews in that country are no longer safe. Laws are enacted that suspend the civil rights of Jewish people. They are legally separated from the rest of the population and are forced to wear the Star of David on their arm. Murder is the official policy, with the goal being to kill every Jew in the Netherlands and, by the end of the war, the world. Although the majority of the population capitulates to the German will, a strong and efficient resistant movement develops in 1942. Although the risk for such activities, for Jew and non-Jews alike, is certain imprisonment or summary execution, many ordinary non-Jewish citizens do what they can to protect Jewish friends and neighbors.
Anne receives a diary on her thirteenth birthday and makes her first entry in it on June 14th, 1942. A month later, because of the increasing danger to Jews, the Frank family goes into hiding. One week later they are joined by another family and a friend. The diary, that is now so famous, documents the hopes, fears and dreams of this young girl as the family lives in hiding. In many ways the entries could be that of any adolescent girl innocently seeking her own individual, feminine identity. Anne's words convey the inquiry of youth itself as well as a wisdom that often accompanies dreadful circumstances.
"I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again."
On August 1, 1944 Anne writes in her diary for the last time. Three days later, a truck pulls up outside of the office. The police head straight for the entrance of the annex and force the families to surrender. During the arrest, Anne's diary is thrown on the floor and left to be found by Miep Gies, one of the family's helpers.
The rest of the history is less immediately documented, but no less moving. The families were immediately transported to Westerbork, a transit camp in Holland where thousands of Jews were transported to labor and extermination camps. The prisoners were transported in cattlecars to Auschwitz. Anne's parents stayed in Auschwitz. Edith died in Auschwitz three weeks before it was liberated by the Russians. Anne and Margot ended up in Bergen-Belsen where they both died within a few days of each other of typhus in March of 1945, a few weeks before its liberation. Otto was the sole survivor of the Annex. After the war, when new's of Anne's death was confirmed, the diary was handed over to Anne's father by Miep Gies.
Six million Jewish persons were eventually killed by the Nazis a number approximately equivalent to the current population of the State of Massachusetts. Today, Anne's diary is one of the most read books in the world, only second to the bible. As I toured the exhibit it brought back memories, images that have indelibly been fixed in my memory upon my visiting Dachau Concentration Camp two years ago. It made me reflect on growing up post-Holocaust, in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. Seeing these pictures from a Holocaust childhood, I found myself once again asking myself what meaning this event has had for me a question I have not completely answered as I write this article, one that I expect will never be completely resolved in this life time. Nevertheless, it feels right to work on it here.
My Journey to Dachau
A critical point for my own growth and understanding of the Holocaust occurred when I was invited to Garmish-Partenkichen, Germany to participate in a conference. My initial hesitation to this request was predictable: "Why would a Jew want to go to Germany?" The Nazis exterminated two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe during World War II. There are few Jews left in Germany today and even less in Poland. Hearing recent reports in the news about the rise in Neo-Nazism and skin-head attacks on Jews in Berlin had contributed to my feeling of nervousness about entering this territory. On the other hand, here was an opportunity to travel to a beautiful town in the Bavarian Alps, and perhaps to withdraw projections. With a mixture of trepidation and excitement, I accepted the offer.
For some reason, not completely clear to me at the time, I decided to arrive a few days earlier and visit the concentration camp at Dachau. I felt that I had to go there and see that place for myself. The names Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Birkenau, Treblinka evoke the same, chilling association to many Americans, but they are particularly strong to Jews.
These were emblematic of the many extermination camps where the Nazis systematically murdered millions of innocent men, women and children for the simple reason, that they were Jewish. I knew I needed to pay homage to the suffering of these kinsmen - to face their absolute loss of life and concretize for myself that part of my cultural history that until now was only a nebulous image in my mind.
When my flight departed San Francisco, I began to feel a tension in my stomach. I tried to disregard it as unnecessary worry. Upon arrival at Munich International Airport, the ache in my stomach grew increasingly stronger. I thought, what Jew in his right mind would have taken this trip fifty years ago? I remembered reading about the S.S. St. Louis that set sail from Germany in 1939 with 900 Jews aboard: it was refused entry into the United States and forced to return to Europe, where most of it's passengers went on to perish in the death camps. How it must have felt to those individuals to know their fate upon their return! I tried not to think about this for too long. My rational side was telling me that this is 1993 not 1939.
After resting for the night, I began my journey to Dachau the following morning. The day was cold and rainy, appropriate weather for the task before me. Dachau is actually the name of the still surviving town where the concentration camp is located. An excellent train system in Europe makes it very easy to get around - catch the U1 underground to Hofbahnhoff and transfer to the S2 to Dachau. As you leave Munich you travel through several bedroom communities separated by farmland. The actual train ride does not take more than thirty minutes. During this short interval I wondered, was it on these tracks that victims were brought to the camp? I was sitting next to and across from an elderly man and woman whose faces had a seriousness permanently etched into the skin around their eyes, their jaws tight and forward. The young people looked similar to those who inhabit the typical urban high school hangouts they wore leather jackets and torn jeans and had skateboards in hand and hairdos of various trendy styles and colors. I could not help but empathize: What a burden the German people have to carry, especially the elderly who were alive when this state sanctioned murder was occurring. The guilt must be enormous. I tried to be reasonable: we Americans also have reasons to feel guilt, I reminded myself - the Salem witch trials, slavery and racism, our broken treaties to the Indians, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, McCarthyism, Hiroshima, Viet Nam, Chile, South Central Los Angeles, and all our epidemic violence against women and children. We certainly have a continuous record of aggressive intrusion in the lives of others, and our own genocidal side. However, while the Holocaust bears similarity to these other tragic events in our own country, and similar atrocities in other lands, it is also unique in at least one important way. It is the only example in recent history where a state has sanctioned as a matter of official policy the complete extermination of a class of people.
At Dachau station I transferred to a city bus that took me to the concentration camp. The camp is a few kilometers from the station on the edge of town. As we left the station, we passed the train yard where several old dilapidated box cars sat on the track. I thought to myself, were these the cars that brought in Jews?
As I approached the entrance, I felt a heaviness inside. As I walked inside the wooden and barbed wire gates I realized that I was about to face the darkest side of human nature, of seeing up close the record of what people are capable of doing. Part of my fear was that I did not have the confidence that it would not happen again.
The original entrance to the camp was actually on the other side of the compound from the tourist access. Prisoners disembarked from the trains, were "processed," told to undress and leave all their possessions behind. Those who died, or were almost dead, en route were immediately taken to the crematorium. In some camps at this point, choices were made as to who was going to live and who was going to die. The most vulnerable were the old, the sickly, the frail, and the youngest children.
Elie Wiesel (Night; New York, Avon,1969), Nobel-prize winning author of numerous books on the Holocaust, has written that prisoners were given two pieces of advice when they entered the camp on how to survive: "The key to survival is helping one another," and "The key to survival is watching out only for yourself." He believes, from his study of survivor statements, that those who did survive did so because they followed the former piece of advice. The prisoners were brought in through a wrought iron gate. Within the metal ornamentation of the gate is the ironic saying, in German "Arbeit Mach Frei" -- work makes you free. The truth is, very few people left Dachau alive. Only a few inmates held on until the Allied forces arrived. Ironically, the camp was actually liberated by a battalion of Japanese-American soldiers defending a country who also placed fellow Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. There were a few escapees; the rest who left Dachau were sent to other death camps to be exterminated.
The only freedom that all but the last few survivors experienced at Dachau was the freedom to realize that their inner spirit could not be broken as long as they held on to an inner strength, and it is probably only a relative few who broke through to that realization. For those without such inner determination their only salvation from the pain, inflicted by the tortuous treatment of the Gestapo, was by dying and ascending to a more peaceful place.
Inevitably the question is asked, "How could so many individuals participate in these horrible acts?" To even approach an understanding of this, one must recall, or learn for the first time, some of the history of Germany when Nazism came to rise. After World War, I, as is commonly known Germany was in economic chaos. The people were desperate for better times; the Nazi party, when it came into power during the early thirties, promised to deliver them. There was a wave of relief in the form of ethnocentrism and intolerance for outsiders, which meant non-Aryans, and pan-Aryanism and anti-Semitism, currents in Germany since the time of Bismark in the late 19th century, swelled to become a popular tide. Many Jews were in positions of wealth and power, and this much-envied fact gave the Nazis the rationale to scapegoat the Jews as an impediment to German cohesion and unity. Through a series of decrees, Jews were suddenly and definitely separated from non-Jews in all areas of life work, education, leisure time, and culture. As in so many political movements, the image of unfair concentration of money and power in the hands of an undesirable few was a central theme in this process of turning the German people against Jews.
On November 9-11 1938, hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish-owned businesses all over Germany and Austria were destroyed and burned. This terrible occasion have even since been referred to as Kritallnacht (Crystal Night), after the shattered glass windows which were a result of the rampage of violence toward the Jews. This event, a decisive turning point, signified an important step up in the persecution of the Jews. Many Jews managed to leave the country during this time, but the options were limited because many countries had quotas on the number of Jewish re-settlers that would be allowed to enter. Many like those on the S.S. St. Louis in 1939, were simply refused entry and therefore had no recourse but to return to Germany. The rights of Jews were increasingly limited and eventually eliminated. As in many political movements, the German people were given to feel by the Nazis that the changes taking place around them were part of a great cause, rebuilding the German empire, in which their participation made them important. This was in part driven by the promises and dreams of a charismatic leader, but more significantly it represented a struggling peoples desire to better their lives after a war that devastated their economy.
In January of 1942, during the Wannsee Conference, the Nazi government made the decision to annihilate the 11 million European Jews. This secret plan was the final solution. It was the culmination of years of discrimination and oppression, but it is still hard to fathom how the Nazis were able to dispassionately murder millions of men, women and children. This question still puzzles many scholars today.
Perhaps one way of comprehending how the Nazi party soldiers working in the concentration camps could bring themselves to send thousands of innocent victims to their death on a daily basis until millions had perished is by understanding the effect of "excremental assault". This term comes out of Terrence Des Pres's reading of witness accounts (The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps; New York, Washington Square Press, 1977). There one learns what the daily existence was like in the concentration camps. The personal hygiene facilities were abominable. Prisoners had their heads shaved upon arrival. They were given one set of state issued clothes that would have to be worn every day without washing. Prisoners worked twelve to sixteen hours per day, had half an hour for eating one meal mid-day that comprised of a small bowl of watered down soup and bread. There was no breakfast or dinner. There was no preventive medical care, and therefore, diseases were rampant. Prisoners were forced to stand at attention for hours and sometimes days which meant they had to urinate or defecate in their clothes. Because of the unsanitary conditions and illness, diarrhea was very common. When groups of inmates were on their way to relieve themselves, some Gestapo officers would play the cruel trick of suddenly demanding the prisoners to stand at attention, sometimes for hours. Individuals would eventually lose control of the bowels and mess their clothing. Some prisoners were forced to urinate or defecate on other prisoners. Prisoners were not allowed to leave the bunks at night to go to the bathroom, so they had to relieve themselves in their beds. Often this waste would drip onto the person in the bunk below. Survivors began to look filthy and emaciated, only dirt and the smell of excrement on skin and bones. They looked less than human, and this was intentional on the part of the strategists: Nazis realized that it would be easier for workers to kill these wasted, filthy beings. The camp officials could feel it would be a gift to take them out of their misery. This was the plan, and it almost succeeded. What the Nazis did not anticipate was the inner spiritual and emotional strength that enabled numbers to survive. The Gestapo did not expect that prisoners would help each other, even at the risk of their own lives so that someone at least could survive and tell the world of the horrors. Amidst that hatred and ugliness there existed a remarkable humanness, hope, and the will to bear witness.
Located in the concentration camp at Dachau is a museum housed in what was once the main administration building. Upon entering the museum, I faced a wall containing a map of Germany and the occupied countries; it was studded with black dots and, besides them approximately 300 German names. I was not immediately certain what this exhibit represented. Upon closer inspection, I recognized some of these names - Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Dachau - as the death camps created by the Nazis. Upon reading the guide, I learned that there were scores of other lesser known subsidiary camps that held thousands of prisoners that were waiting transport to the larger extermination camps. In many camps at the height of the slaughter, over 15,000 persons were killed each day; therefore many people were held in these smaller camps waiting transport to the death camps.
As I entered the main hall, I began my viewing of over 250 life size photographs of victims and evidence of the Third Riech's systematic murder of 6 million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other undesirables and another 5 million deaths of Russian citizens and soldiers. The photographs included letters written by the Gestapo leaders to the commandants of Dachau instructing them of their duties and obligations about treatment, punishment, and execution of prisoners. Photos of medical experiments with temperature and high altitude illustrate the horrors perpetrated by medical professionals One of the few physical items on display (besides letters and identification cards) was a table and wooden stick used for beating prisoners. The victim was required to count aloud the number of strikes of the wooden stick: if the person lost consciousness or missed a number, the punishment would start again from the beginning. Also on display were the striped prison clothes and wooden clogs so often portrayed in films and pictures depicting the Holocaust. The photographs were in chronological order, starting from the rise in Nazi power and the progressive harassment of Jews and other persons suspected of disagreeing with the government, to the beginning of the war and the actual arrest and transport of Jews to concentration camps.
The photographs depicting the final solution itself were located in a separate hall. There, photographs illustrating the emaciated condition of the prisoners, the hangings, the shootings and the cremation of dead bodies and live people, and mass burials caused me to feel so overwhelmed, it was difficult to feel anything at all. Prisoners were often given a rope and told they must kill themselves or be killed. A gas chamber was built in the building that housed the ovens so as to help make the killing machine efficient. In the final days when there was a mad rush to exterminate as many prisoners as possible and dispose of the evidence, Gestapo officers would throw prisoners into the ovens alive.
A black and white film describing the history and atrocities at Dachau is shown several times daily in different languages. It tells us that we will never know how many victims were murdered at Dachau for although the Nazis kept reasonably accurate statistics of the persons incarcerated at the camp, there were many train loads of Jews who were murdered immediately upon arrival and never processed. And, because the victims who were brought to the camps were stuffed into box cars without food or protection from the weather, many died in transport and were either disposed of in mass graves or incinerated. When the allies did eventually liberate the camp, even before entering the grounds they found hundreds of dead bodies in box cars that had never been removed by the Nazis because of their quick fleeing of the camp.
All but two of the sixty plus barracks were leveled, and all that remains are rows of foundations filled with stones. There is a large sculpted Jewish memorial that stands in the receiving yard between the barracks and the main building where tens of thousands of victims of the Third Reich stood daily, sometimes for hours and days, in rain, snow and blazing heat, as part of their punishment by the sadistic Gestapo. Beneath the memorial lay several wreathes and a lit oil candle.
As I stood there silently, trying to grasp the magnitude of what had happened there, a train whistle blew as it drove by the main gate. This confirmed what I had wondered about on my way to Dachau, that those tracks that so many German commuters take each day are the very ones that brought thousands of people to their death.
I walked to the part of the camp where the Crematorium and gas chamber building stood, and where mass graves contained thousands of unidentified bodies. There are no words that can describe this place, other than this was as close to the entrance to hell on earth as I have ever experienced. Today it is an empty building, except for the ovens and gas chamber that you can walk through. I could almost feel the pain, barely hear the screams, only imagine the terror. When I was there, the mass graves and shooting range were marked with plaques surrounded by flowers just beginning to bloom after the long cold winter.
There are several memorials on the grounds, commemorating both Jewish and non-Jewish victims. The Jewish memorial, from the outside, looks like a large smoke stack upon a small stone mound. One enters at ground level but as you walk inside you descend into a dark cavernous den that becomes narrower as you approach the deepest part. There, when you cannot go any farther, you look up in the smoke stack and you see the sky and the Star of David. This is the artist's conceptualization of what it must have been like to die in Dachau and pass over into another place. Ironically, in this symbolic oven, I found peace and tranquility.
As I walked through the camp I couldn't help but wonder what had helped survivors to live through their ordeals. Later, reading the witness accounts, I discovered that one consistent theme was the determination to live to bear witness to the horrors: this was why many people survived, and what keeps some alive today. Their inner spirit and will was not broken by the Nazis, and their resolve to tell the story of the Holocaust to a world that has largely turned it's back on these atrocities was greater than anyone could have predicted. One survivor (of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Maidanek, Auschwitz, and Dachau concentration camps) described the will to bear witness this way:
I felt I was a witness to disaster and charged with the sacred mission of carrying the Ghetto's history through the flames and barbed wire until such time as I could hurl it into the face of the world. It seemed to me that this sense of mission would give me the strength to endure everything (Alexander Donat. The Holocaust Kingdom; New York, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1965).
It is easy to think, "If I had been in Auschwitz I would not have survived," or "I would have killed myself" or "I would have acted in a way that would surely have gotten me killed." No one can prejudge their response to such an extreme situation. There is no point of reference that even closely approximates the horrors that occurred on a daily basis. Like victims of other extreme trauma, individuals made decisions that most of us could not fathom confronting.
There are many accounts of individuals sacrificing their lives for the life of another. So that friends or relatives might live, people who were already sickly and dying exchanged their names with persons on lists about to be sent to the gas chambers, shooting ranges, and ovens. Often, there were terrible choices that needed to be made. It was not infrequent for women who gave birth to be thrown into the ovens alive with their newborn children. Prisoners who worked in the hospitals would send the babies immediately to the ovens, and exchange the living mother's name with the names of dead women so they could be spared and returned to the barracks. Adult women had the greatest chance of survival and it was rationalized that they could bear other children in the future. I realized that the individuals who had to make such painful choices, given the insanity of the circumstances, were once ordinary people like me, who could never imagine what their life would one day be like, let alone predict how they would respond to such a situation.
After leaving the concentration camp, my mind was full of horrible images, and my heart was full of emotions that I was unable to sort out for some time. I walked back to town, hoping that I could make sense out of what I was feeling. It was not possible. I took a walk in a park by a beautiful river, to work on digesting what I had just experienced. The mayor of Dachau writes to the visitors of the concentration camp;
You have come to Dachau to visit the Memorial Site in the former Concentration Camp. I should like to welcome you on behalf of the Town of Dachau. Innumerable crimes were committed in the Dachau Concentration Camp. Like you, deeply moved, the citizens of the town of Dachau bow their heads before the victims of this camp. The horrors of the German concentration camps must never be repeated! After your visit, you will be horror-stricken. But we sincerely hope you will not transfer your indignation to the ancient 1200-year-old Bavarian town of Dachau, which was not consulted when the concentration camp was built and whose citizens voted quite decisively against the rise of National Socialism in 1933. The Dachau Concentration Camp is part of the overall German responsibility for that time. I extend a cordial invitation to you to visit the old town of Dachau only a few kilometers from here. We would be happy to greet you within our wall and to welcome you as friends.
Germany's Response to the Holocaust
While in Germany, I asked several persons how they believe the German people have dealt with the Holocaust. Their honesty was both revealing and upsetting. The consensus was, they have and they have not. They have tried to become more tolerant of others by instituting some of the most liberal immigration laws in the world. They have been reluctant to show any nationalistic pride by having parades, and patriotic displays for fear of arousing memories of the Nazi marches. They have preserved the extermination camps and built memorials on their grounds. Most important of all, Germany has shown great reluctance to get involved in any type of war activity, wanting as if permanently to reverse its' image of being an imperialistic, power hungry nation.
On the other hand, German citizens they have not wanted to talk about the Holocaust. For many years after World War II, the Nazi terrors and World War II itself were conspicuously missing from the German history books. Many German youths still know little or nothing about the death camps. Most disturbingly, in the past decade there has been a noticeable upsurge of Nazism, similar to the popularity of this movement in the United States. Since the removal of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism, there have been considerable economic difficulties in Germany, and those have been accompanied by a new wave of intolerance of foreigners. Although one person told me it would have to get a lot worse before it could happen again, she added, "It could happen. Look what's happening in Bosnia."
The week I visited Germany, it was the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. had just opened. As a result, there was considerable newspaper coverage of this issue. I was shocked to read that one third of American students were not sure that the Holocaust happened.
The Return Home
Upon my return to the United States, I realized that my visit to Dachau sparked a part of me that had laid dormant for many years. I began asking questions about what the Holocaust has meant to me personally and professionally.
Growing up Jewish post-Holocaust brought with it many different messages. Although there is a strong oral tradition in the Jewish community, there was little talk about the atrocities themselves for fear of arousing painful memories, grief, and rage in survivors and relatives of survivors who lived within the community. In mixed company, there was both denial that it could happen again and yet at the same time, fear of standing out and exposing yourself as being Jewish. Among those who did not lose friends or relatives or who escaped, I believe that there was also guilt about surviving. Celebrations were therefore a mixture of joy and sadness: being Jewish meant feeling pride, shame, and fear, all at the same time.
All of the family and community messages were contained within the larger context of living within a Christian dominated society that certainly was not reflecting Judaism, let alone understanding and incorporating the Holocaust. In school we were given Christmas and Easter vacation - celebration of the Jewish holidays were unofficial absences. If there were discussions of the Holocaust, it took the form of debates about whether or not the Holocaust happened, or if so, how many people actually were killed. There were no films or books that were offered to be read, no lectures on the Holocaust incorporated into the teaching curriculum. The message that got conveyed was that of silence. Although Jewish families like mine constituted a significant portion of the population of my community and school, we colluded in the silence by deciding to not rock the boat. Bent on assimilation, we did not want to stand out or cause trouble.
All of these factors conspired to create an atmosphere that was not conducive to understanding and incorporating the meaning of this tragic time in history. In fact, many of my peers with whom I grew up at this time are just now beginning to talk about this issue. I am only just recently beginning to recognize how an event that occurred six years before my birth, and some six thousand miles away, had in fact profound effects on my childhood and my relationship to the Jewish religion and culture.
As a mental health professional, I have been very active in the fields of child abuse and family violence, supporting efforts to educate the public to enact progressive social policy regarding the criminal justice response both to victims and perpetrators of abuse. Recently, many strides have been made particularly in the area of police response to domestic violence and child abuse. In this process, the line between scientific knowledge and political-social fervor has been somewhat blurred. It has been easy for desires for justice and political correctness to sometimes obscure what is clinically indicated or socially fair. The desires of political movements or special interest groups have sometimes inappropriately defined solutions to social problems that begin to infringe on personal rights and freedoms of individuals. Policy decisions are sometimes based on fallacy rather than scientific fact and this dynamic is most evident when activist groups pressure politicians to hastily redefine laws and procedures without a thorough understanding of the long term impact of those changes. I myself have contributed to this process in my passionate and sometimes dogmatic writings on treatment of male batterers and child abuse. It was not until an episode that occurred to me, a few months after I returned from Germany, did I stop to think about how I may gotten caught up in a liberal version of righteous, the same narrow thinking that spread across Germany in the 1930s.
Our child was a little over a year and a half when she began to go through a difficult period of teething. One unusually warm summer night she had a great deal of trouble sleeping and cried almost non-stop into the early morning hours. At about one thirty in the morning she had just fallen asleep when a knock on the door woke the dog, who proceeded to wake up my wife and me, and, of course, the baby. Two police cars were parked in front of the house and two officers were at the door. According the police, one of neighbors whom we didn't know very well had called them thinking that we had either left our child home alone or else had been abusing her. After introducing ourselves as "Dr. Sonkin and Dr. Rosenberg," I assured the police that our child was merely teething and that we had just gotten her to sleep before they arrived. They apologized, genuinely, and left us to put our baby back to sleep.
The next day, as I became increasingly more irritated by the neighbor's well-meaning attempt to help out a possible child in distress. I met with my analyst before going over to his house. The feelings I experienced were confusing: on the one hand I would understand anyone hearing a child cry for hours and wondering what to do, on the other I felt an intense anger and fear well up inside of me at the assumption that I could be so negligent as to require police intervention. I was reminded of my visit to Germany and asked myself if there was some residual feelings that were affecting my reaction. And then I realized why my negative reactions were so strong: I felt vulnerable in a way that I have never felt before. Thoughts of police taking Jewish families from their homes in the middle of the night flooded in from the background of my mind. Fears of persecution were indeed starting to overwhelm stronger feelings of confidence that history would not repeat itself. I began to obsess: what if those police officers had not believed us about the teething? What if our daughter had scratches or bruises from falling or bumping into the table? What if the police were under criticism from higherups about how they were responding to child abuse cases? Could there have been a pressure to arrest? Ultimately, my rational side ruled, but the lack of security these questions address still worries me. In our own country recently, patterns of intolerance towards illegal immigrants, pressures to abolish affirmative action, and the many who violently dispute women's right to choose is undeniable evidence that fairness and right need not automatically prevail. I would not be honest if I didn't say that I fear the free-floating hatred, I fear being Jewish in it's midst, I fear history repeating itself.
Beyond Anne Frank
When I began to read about the Holocaust upon my return from a visit to Germany, I learned how people survive the most inhumane and deplorable circumstances. I still struggle to comprehend how humans can manifest such abject evil, as did the orchestrating Gestapo, or turn their heads in indifference, as did the German people and others around the world during the period of Nazi terrors. As I immersed myself in Holocaust literature, I discovered one reason why people will avoid an issue like this one. Reading about the persecution of the Jewish people is extremely depressing, frightening and incomprehensible, partly because of the stories themselves, but also because of what this event represents. The Holocaust epitomizes the darkest shadow of man, realized and sanctified by governmental decree. The Nazis horrific deeds represent not only evil incarnate but evil as official human policy. In facing this hellish side of human nature I had to ask myself, "Is this something within us all or were the Nazis an aberration of human nature?"
I am in some position to address this question. For the past seventeen years I have specialized in the area of domestic violence and child abuse. I have testified as an expert witness in domestic violence homicide and death penalty cases. I have interviewed many defendants who have committed horrendous criminal acts and yet I have not viewed these people as being evil but rather themselves also victims, of vicious child abuse and ruthless neglect. I am aware that the episodic, frustrated violence of these individuals pales in comparison to the voluminous, deliberate and premeditated acts of the Nazi murderers. But are the "evil""acts of the Nazis fundamentally different from all other acts of violence? Are the batterers, child abusers, partner murderers, serial killers and Nazi executioners simply different faces of the same protean absolute evil? If the former is the case, we must view the Holocaust as a horrendous anomalous event that is highly unlikely to occur again, particularly if we remember it as we go about framing policy. However, if we view the Holocaust as the most extreme example of the human capacity to harm others, then we cannot rely upon public memory alone. I must accept that I too have the potential to hurt others through my actions, and to idly stand by and approve others evil deeds through my own non-action. If violent behaviors are a part of a continuum between our ability to feel empathy and our frightening capacity to disconnect from others, then somewhere on that continuum all of us have a place. I would prefer not to be compared in any way shape or form to the Nazis. I would rather not consider that the potential cause such grievous harm exists within myself. But I know that to the degree empathy and caring diminish, a door opens to fear, prejudice, and the objectification of others which leads to racism and ultimately violence. It frightens me to comprehend my own capacity to disconnect from myself and in doing so disconnect from other peoples suffering, and it terrifies me to hate as much as I know I can. Yet this happens everyday to one degree or another, for how can one find any peace of mind if we are constantly feeling the pain and suffering in the world and never scapegoating others, if only in fantasy, for it. I wonder if my own answer to these questions is mostly a balance - experiencing the pain and trying to find meaning in the suffering itself and yet at the same time embracing the joy and gifts within my own life. Perhaps this is why it will be important for me to revisit the Holocaust over and over again. It is one small way to make contact with my fears, rage, and despair. Each time I do so, I find myself more able to experience my hope, belief, and commitment, hope inspired by the survivors, and belief that I can help to create a better world for my daughter and a passionate commitment to making that happen.
I concur with Elie Wiesel in hoping that the Holocaust will become a concern for all people, Jewish and non-Jewish people alike. I believe that it is important that we read the witness accounts and familiarize ourselves with the tragedy so that we can understand in our hearts how what was once unthinkable became reality. I also feel that if we cannot face the realities of the Holocaust, we won't be able to truly acknowledge other, less graphic, injustices today. On the other hand, I know that if we are not willing to continue to tell the stories for those whose voices have been silenced either by the death camps or by time, we get that much closer to letting it happen again. With each passing year, fewer and fewer survivors and their children remain to tell and retell their stories. By allowing survivors to purge their souls in our midst, do we keep the Holocaust alive. By encouraging relatives of survivors and victims to go on seeking the truth do we keep the healing potential of the Holocaust alive. The rest of us keep the Holocaust alive by recognizing our need to become more informed and to pass on the truth to the next generation. By continuing to bear witness, we begin to acknowledge our own potential for inflicting pain on others and to allow others to do so by acting apathetic and indifferent to the suffering they inflict in our name. If we do not confront this potential within ourselves we certainly will not confront it others.
Published in the San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, Vol 14, #2, 1995.