by George J Elbaum
On its official web site San Francisco State University proudly calls itself “a public urban university with a conscience located in one of the world’s most vibrant and beautiful cities.” Its large, sprawling campus in the southern part of the city serves approximately 30,000 students of wide diversity: the largest of its 9 ethnic groups is only 28% of the total. I was invited to speak at a graduate seminar The Reception of the Holocaust in Postwar Germany taught by Dr. Volker Langbehn, Professor of German in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. In addition to the students enrolled in the seminar, Prof. Langbehn also invited other students of German plus interested adults. The event was arranged by Katie Cook of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
At the end of the usual Q&A following my talk (see Student Questions on the homepage) Prof. Langbehn commented that I had made no mention of Germans, only of Nazis, and also asked about my contacts and experiences with Germans. I replied that referring to “Nazis” became a conscious effort when preparing for my talk this past May in Poland at an international event of high school students, including a group from Germany. Realizing that the events I recounted in my story relate to the Nazi Germany of their grandparents rather than to their Germany or even of their parents, I needed to make that very clear. After that talk the teacher accompanying the German students thanked me for making that distinction, saying that she had been apprehensive initially out of concern that I might be bitter about my war experiences and still be blaming it on “Germans”, and she felt responsible for protecting her young charges.
Regarding my postwar contacts with Germans, in early 1970s I skied in Austria with several young Germans and felt no different about them than any other nationality (and we had no reason to discuss the war era). However, when working in the aerospace industry in the 1960s my office mate was a German rocket engineer who had worked during the war at Peenemunde rocket development facility. He and I had a normal co-worker relationship and even flew his airplane and sailplane together, until one day at the office we segued into the war and he stated that its worst atrocity was the Allied firebombing of Hamburg and Dresden. I was obviously shocked: while the two bombing raids resulted in almost 100,000 deaths, he considered this worse than the deliberate murder of 6 million civilian Jews during the Holocaust. The next day I requested a change in my office arrangement.
This led Prof. Langbehn to describe that, having been born in 1959 and growing up in postwar Germany, he felt the weight of the Holocaust on the national psyche as well as personally, especially since his father refused to discuss his wartime military service. In his early 20s, ensconced in the soul-searching that gripped Germany’s collective conscience, Langbehn declared himself a conscientious objector and opted out of military service. Instead, he spent two years in alternative service with a German organization called Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, which sent young Germans to communities to promote healing and reconciliation with those affected by the Nazi regime. Langbehn’s tour of duty included restoration work at the Auschwitz and Mauthausen camps and a stint teaching kindergarten in Boston. Though he had come to the United States to work for peace, some people treated him as if he had Holocaust blood on his hands just because he was German. A Jewish friend’s father once asked Langbehn to leave his home after finding out he was German. This certainly gave weight to his comment that in my talk I had not mentioned Germans, only Nazis.
I then asked my question of the audience: considering that the 20th century saw several major genocides such as the Holocaust, Turkey’s genocide of Armenians and Japan’s genocide of the Chinese (see “The Rape of Nanking” ), why is it that only Germany acknowledged its complicity and paid reparations to its victims, while both Turkey and Japan vehemently deny their actions, even to this day many decades later? A very active discussion followed for another hour, and the final consensus was that the primary (though not the only) reason was Germany’s political leaders of the 1960s and 1970s, leaders such as Willi Brandt who were able to step out of the past and see Germany in proper light. All-in-all, the event was a very interesting and gratifying experience.