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Family memories

Family memories

Kaja Haelbich
Hamburg, Germany

In our course "Understanding Internal Dynamics of Societies in Conflict" we started to engage in the topic of Israel Palestine conflict by talking about memories.

We discussed different kinds of memory like autobiographical and family memory, historical memory and collective memory. We concentrated on the different narratives about the 48th war ("war of independence" or "Nakba") and we continued by talking about Israel's Occupation, Palestinian Resistance and alternative voices inside Israel and we ended by discussing about the events of the last years.

According to the idea of the course to relate parts of the things we dealt with to the history of our own countries I would like to focus my essay on the subject of memories and dealing with the past, more precisely how the National Socialism is commemorated in Germany. I would like to discuss the difficulties of dealing with family stories and the fact that the grandparents of my generation have been perpetrators.

Inside German society dealing with the “facts” concerning the National Socialism did become kind of “normal”. The National Socialism is widely covert by school, literature, TV… For my generation – the so called third generation – the holocaust became part of the German identity. It seems to be one event among others which is building German identity but not bothering it any more. But dealing with emotions and family stories is still something very difficult in German society.

I started to deal with the National Socialism and the Holocaust consciously when I got a teenager. I can remember having talked with my friends about what our grandparents did, but I can’t remember that anyone of us did know something precisely. And I can’t remember that anyone of me and my friends considered their grandparents as perpetrators. In family stories grandmothers didn’t know anything about concentration camps and grandfathers who have been fighting shot off target on purpose because the didn’t want to kill someone. They didn’t agree to the National Socialism and the become heroes who helped Jewish. Or they become even victims who suffered from hunger and flight. These stories are built by grandparents as well as by grandchildren. Grandparents tell their stories very often vaguely and unclear and grandchildren use to hear these stories in the way they want to hear them. They don’t ask for explanations if things are unclear and usually don’t try to find out how their grandparents participate to National Socialism.

One other reasons which makes it easy for grandchildren not to see their grandparents as perpetrators is, that in German society people are only considered as perpetrators of National Socialism if they acted more violently and cruelly then the average. It is very often not seen that the holocaust could happen because of people who didn’t ask what happened to their Jewish neighbors, who took part in the daily life discrimination against Jewish, who profit from this discrimination, because of people who kept still.

In some way it is understandable that grandchildren do not want to perceive their grandparents, who have been loving and caring toward them, as perpetrators. But I think if you do not consider your own grandparents as perpetrators you won’t consider the grandparents of someone else as perpetrators. Then the National Socialism becomes the act of only a few people and not of a whole society. So all you have to wonder about is how a few people could get so evil. You don’t have to deal anymore with the question which structures of society caused the fascism. And most important you don’t have to deal with the question which structures of society which causes the holocaust do still persist. Considering the National Socialism as something what was caused by a few people makes it easy to consider racism, fascism, anti-Semitism… nowadays in the same way: as something what is existing only on the fringes of society and not in the core.

Dealing consciously with family stories isn’t a common way how the National Socialism is commemorated in Germany. For example it isn’t part of the official guidelines concerning how the second world war has to be treated in school. And it isn’t a common topic of mainstream movies or bocks which are dealing with the National Socialism and Holocaust. It is possible to make researches about the military career of your relatives in official archives, but you get information only if your relatives are dead since at least ten years or if they agree to your researches. And this possibility of making researches is not very well-know.

I think to deal with how your relatives participate to the National Socialism could be a possibility to get aware how important your own political and social acting is.

Sharing our own experiences hasn't been easy at all, therefore the group has been silent some times. One explanation for that could be that we came from very different backgrounds and states (BiH, Serbia, France, Ireland, United States, Germany, Slovenia and Czech Republic). If you want to be able to share someone else experiences and to understand them it is necessary to know something about the specific political and social circumstances. Sometimes I felt a little bit overstrained by trying to understand Israel Palestine conflict relate it to circumstances in western Balkan states, relate it to my own experiences and then going into the experiences of someone coming from somewhere completely different.

Nevertheless I learnt a lot. Last but not least the course forced my wish to deal more consciously with my own background and German history.

I am very glad that I got the opportunity to make this experience and I would like to say thank you for that!