On being German — Auschwitz will always be with me

“People dealt this fate to people”: in these plain yet disturbing words, Polish writer Zofia Nałkowska took stock of what she had seen right after the liberation of the concentration camps as a member of the international special committee for the investigation of Nazi crimes in Poland.

My fellow Germans dealt this fate to others.

I learned about the Holocaust when I was 13. It wasn’t a topic of conversation at the dinner table even though I lived in a highly politicized household. I had to learn it through a US TV series “Holocaust”. The whole nation erupted in discussions about the Holocaust, the terror, the guilt, the moral implications for a nation with full economic strength and a weak ethical foundation.

“People dealt this fate to people”. Those guilty ones were all around me. Everybody above 50 could have been there, could have known something, could have prevented the terror. 30 years later, they just went on with their day, drank coffee, raised families, slept at night.

It was even more baffling and terrifying because I grew up with this wealth of art, philosophy and human insights created by fellow Germans: Goethe, Beethoven, Brecht, Martin Luther, Einstein, Bach, Gutenberg, Bismarck, Albert Schweitzer, Kant, Robert Koch, Schiller, Mann, Hesse, Beuys — just to name a few.

There is no German identity without Auschwitz.

The Holocaust was among the central components of my German identity and my guess is this will change for generations to come. But remembering the guilt of the German nation and the horror it inflicted on millions of people will be a matter for every citizen of Germany. Every day German walk past houses from which Jews were deported. In this lovely country fellow citizens planned and organized the annihilation of human beings. The horror of the past is always near and the responsibility for today and tomorrow will never disappear and is as binding as anywhere in the world.

Wandering around the country, experiencing German culture, meeting lovely Germans and celebrating the World Cup win is one thing. The fact that the German nation was capable of the most horrific crimes against humanity will cause suffering and pain until my last day. Any interpretation or explanation doesn’t relieve this pain and the actions Germans took in those years of horror remain hauntingly present in my daily consciousness.

Germany — a work in progress

After the horror, the guilt, shame and regret, Germany seems to be on a good path. The rule of law is strong, there’s a deeply rooted empathy for victims. Germans stand up against any form of exclusion and violence, and the country has become a safe haven for victims of terror and persecution.

There’s a strong feeling of positive solidarity. When I think about Germany, there’s a lot of hope. But Auschwitz will never leave us. All of us Germans will continue to roam the vast horrors of Auschwitz until the end of time looking for answers. As we should.

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