„The past is never dead. It's not even past. We separate ourselves from it and treat it like a stranger.“ This is how the German author Christa Wolf described attempts to approach her own past in the book „Kindheitsmuster“ (Patterns of Childhood) in 1976. The gradual process of „coming to terms with the past“ began at different levels after 1945 - individual and collective, private and public. Yet, the National Socialist era cannot simply be „disposed of“. For this reason, today's approach is dominated by expressions such as „reappraisal“ and „culture of remembrance“, which allude to the interminable character of the experiences and the events.
National Socialism irretrievably destroyed rural Jewish life. A thriving Jewish community has not existed in the Rhine-Hunsrück region since the 1940s. Their members chose to flee, many are still missing, they were deported, and they were murdered in the concentration camps. Survivors have distanced themselves from what was once their homeland; choosing rather to focus on what lies ahead. Sadly, the experiences of war, of flight and of escape have left behind deep psychological wounds that still impact lives, both consciously and unconsciously, in the new worlds they’ve chosen for themselves. Many remained silent about what they had gone through – perhaps because they couldn’t find the words, possibly out of shame or maybe out of fear – the impossibility of coping with such memories leads to a repression of them. Yet, especially in old age, survivors have ventured to open these old wounds as their need for dialogue grows.
Chanan Somberg, a former concentration camp prisoner in Treblinka now living in Tel Aviv, voices his experiences in so-called "Elegies" (in German).
Chanan Somberg: Elegies
For 40 years, Chanan Somberg evaded the work of coping with his past. In the 1980s, however, this Holocaust survivor finally did travel to Poland together with his son and to the extermination camp at Treblinka. There, he found himself confronted directly with his internment and the death of his family members. His memories returned with harrowing „convulsions“; experiences he ultimately dealt with in the form of „elegies“, or lamentations in memory of his family. Somberg describes just how these originated as follows:
When I decided to travel to Poland, I laid awake that entire night because my doubts and misgivings didn’t leave me a moment’s peace. […] When I was finally able to doze off, I dreamt of my family - as always with my mind drifting to situations associated with the horrors of those times, and similar to thousands of my previous dreams about the suffering and the death of my family. […] I screamed and cried, then awoke with my tears still shedding. I jumped out of bed covered in a cold sweat and felt compelled to go to my desk. My hand wrote down the letters, with the letters becoming words and the words becoming sentences; sentences that burned in my bones like fire. The ink was blood; my life’s blood! And so these elegies took form, written in my lifeblood, in memory of my loved ones who were as inseparable in life as they were in death.
Somberg’s elegies were translated into German by his friend, Hans Shimon Forst from Kastellaun, and are read here by Lis Braun.
Passing on the trauma from generation to generation
Even so, the trauma persists - and it will be passed on to the next generations. Family members continue to bear the unspeakable pain suffered by their parents and grandparents. Yet, it is not only the communication within the family, but also how the surrounding community handles these traumatic experiences that will have the greatest influence on those effected. Public engagement, such as the establishment of places of remembrance, can make a positive contribution to coping with the trauma. While delving into one’s family history can represent a valuable building block in the search for individual identity, others cannot and may not even want to restore those ties. What remains are unanswered questions on every page: How can a human being lead a normal life after surviving persecution and annihilation?
The artist Ferdinand Frieß from Bad Kreuznach deals with his own family history through his paintings. He reflects on the relationship he had with his grandfather who was active in the resistance: "... I internalized his rage, his weakness, his grief."
The following quotes are from Hunsrück Jews, their children and their grandchildren. They range from carefree childhood memories to painful recollections, including thoughtful reflections and glimpses into life after the Holocaust.
I asked myself again and again:
Am I able to withstand the pain, both mentally and physically?
I have avoided confronting the memory of those horrible experiences for 40 years.
Now, all of a sudden, am I supposed to deliberately return to the place of my suffering?
My heart was aching and bitter; no one is here to offer counsel or advice;
not even those closest to me.
Who in this whole wide world is able to understand me?
The bar mitzvah was held in the small synagogue of Laufersweiler, the festivities
took place at the Löser's house. Since no special meal could be served without wine,
there was plenty of it. Heinz and I had a good time going from room to room, pouring
all of the leftover wine from glasses into empty bottles after the guests left. With a couple
of the bottles refilled with wine , Heinz and I proceeded upstairs to his room to hide.
There we began to drink all of the wine in the bottles until we were so shikker,
drunk and sick, that we didn't know what had befallen us. After much giggling
and laughing, holding our heads and stomachs, we finally fell asleep.
It was an afternoon I will never forget.
We came here with our grandfathers and say:
We weren't demolished, here we are, living in Israel. But everything is dead to me!
Can someone please explain to me what exactly is the connection between Izhar Goldman,
who works each day from 8 to 18 o'clock in computer IT programming,
and dances flamenco from 19 till 23 o'clock, who speaks Hebrew, English and a bit Spanish,
who eats pork, and lives in Israel, and between his great-great-grandfather,
who lived in Germany, spoke German, kept his religion, worked in the fields...?
I tried to get away when she started to stick my ears to the back of my head with plasters.
But she did not let go.
I ran crying to my room to tear off the plaster.
She followed me:
"It has to stay like that now. Believe me, I'm not doing this because I want to. It's for your protection."
With a beret on my head, pulled down a bit, no one would notice, she assured me.
The first stories I heard about Germany were my father‘s childhood stories.
Stories like bicycle trips along the Rhine.
Germany in my memory is before the Holocaust.
When I hear German I feel at home.
At no particular time bits of information would spill out.
Other times we woud ask my father about his familiy history
and he would talk about the happy times only.
My grandmother didn‘t let me wear brown clothes.
Sometimes I rode my bike aimlessly through areas of the city or nearby suburbs
where I hoped no one knew me.
Whatever I did, my Jewishness was with me like a dark shadow.
Thus I never felt alone, but I was always on my guard.
I wondered what it would be like to have non-Jewish friends
and be able to do whatever they were able to do.
What a strange thought!
What about you? Where are you? What's wrong with you?
I want to ask you, ask you again and again.
Please answer immediately and give me your address.
Are you still alive???
I cannot calm myself about everything that has happened!