Not forgetting, redefining forgiving

Not forgetting, redefining forgiving

Teaneck historian looks at Holocaust memoirs

Dr. Dennis Klein
Dr. Dennis Klein

Why did few Holocaust survivors tell their stories publicly until decades after the Shoah ended?

Why did some of the first stories trickle into print in the 1960s?

Was it all psychological — survivors had to wait as their brains and nervous systems and will to live rewired themselves — or did external reasons contribute to the timing as well?

According to Dennis Klein of Teaneck — he’s a professor of history and the director of the Jewish studies program at Kean University, among many other credits — the reason that German-speaking survivors went public in the 1960s was because of what was going on in Germany then.

In his new book, “Survivor Transitional Narratives of Nazi-Era Destruction: The Second Liberation,” Dr. Klein looks closely at three books by survivors — Jean Améry, Vladimir Jankélévitch, and Simon Wiesenthal.

Some context is necessary, Dr. Klein said. From 1963 to 1965, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials charged 22 defendants with the crimes committed in the concentration camps; most of them were convicted, and served sentences of various lengths. “That was a sensation in Germany; it was supposed to be the last trial of Nazis,” Dr. Klein said. “There was a statute of limitations in effect, even for crimes like murder.”

The Nuremberg trials were under international auspices, he added, but the Federal Republic of Germany tried the Frankfurt cases under legal precedents that dated back to Bismarck. The Germans were fine with that. “They wanted it to be over,” Dr. Klein said. “They picked up on the statute of limitations and fine-tuned it, so that by 1951, some historians estimate, some 800,000 people implicated in Nazi crimes were granted amnesty.

“It was a major effort in Germany, to put the war behind it,” he said.

So in the early 1960s, when it seemed that the clock was running out on punishing the Nazis and collaborators who had committed grotesque crimes against mind-numbing numbers of people, “we began to see in survivor communities worldwide, and particularly in Germany, people began to exercise their voices in ways that they hadn’t before.”

The idea that their torturers soon could shake off legal responsibility “was very cathartic to the survivor community,” Dr. Klein continued. “They sensed a new silence.” Their communal post-traumatic-stress disorder, which wasn’t contained or even acknowledged, flared.

That’s the historical background to these three writers. Jean Améry lived in Belgium and wrote in French, Vladimir Jankélévitch was the French-born son of Polish Jews, and Simon Wiesenthal, born in Ukraine, lived his postwar life in Vienna. Améry and Wiesenthal both survived death camps; Jankélévitch, who escaped the Nazis in Vichy France, lived in the forest as a member of the French Resistance.

Vladimir Jankélévitch

When these three men and others began to write about their experiences, “I argue that they created the genre of survivor memoir,” Dr. Klein said. “By that I mean that they were putting their emphasis on bearing witness. They were assertive about it; there was an edge to it; they were making points that the Germans refused to hear. It was against that refusal that they were so assertive. These were acts of moral protest.

“They weren’t just telling a historiographical story. They had a strong moral purpose, that is called bearing witness.”

But these were human beings, very smart people who had been through hell, so it was complicated, Dr. Klein said. “The main part of my argument is that I show that nevertheless, in these memoirs there is what I call counter narratives that actually move against the grain of what we assume to be the point of the memoir.”

In these memoirs, which are all about bearing witness, and whose surface narrative is straightforward and terrifying, the counter narrative is the desire to “begin to resume to reconnect with their contemporaries.” That is, their German contemporaries. “They were yearning for a relationship with Germans,” Dr. Klein said. “The country was eager to move on, to forgive and forget, to move forward.

“And even though these memoir writers were moving against that in the manifest narrative — they were moving against the grain with their moral protest — they also had a real strong urge to find a new relationship.”

That’s the part of his thesis that’s new, Dr. Klein said. The idea that these writers were raising their voices to demand that the story not be glossed over, not be forgotten — and that it was not in anyone’s power to forgive what had happened — that part of the story isn’t new, although it is always shocking. The still-open wounds of the Holocaust could not be bandaged over and allowed to fester.

But the other part of his insight is that there was something else that at least some of these writers, all of them worldly men, all still young in the early 1960s, all living once again in the secular world, wanted from the Germans.

How does he know that? To begin with, they published their stories. “I spend a bit of time in the book interrogating the significance of publication,” Dr. Klein said. “The very action of publication is an act of getting out, of reaching out beyond their small circles into a connection.”

That in itself can be seen as just a powerful act of bearing witness, but Dr. Klein thinks it was something else as well (not instead, but as well).

“It’s really counterintuitive and hard to grasp, but these two things are going on at the same time, and in contradiction to each other,” he said. “The writers’ main goal was to disquiet their German contemporaries, but at the same time they were trying to find a way to reconnect with them.”

Simon Wiesenthal

The most obvious reconnection, it might seem, would be the quest for an apology, but Dr. Klein said that’s not exactly right. Instead, he said, “all three of them, in very different ways, engage in an act of unconditional forgiveness.

“They each do talk about waiting for the Germans to apologize, but they recognize that the Germans will never apologize. So they engage in unconditional forgiveness.”

Doesn’t that sound Christian? “To some extent, there is a Jewish tradition of divine forgiveness,” Dr. Klein said. The Germans were far from divine, but “unconditional means that they will forgive, even if they do not receive an apology.”

It’s a complicated idea. It’s not as if the survivors were offering forgiveness.

“This is a little tricky,” Dr. Klein said. “These survivors make clear that they will never forgive Germans for what happened to them during the Nazi period, or even during the 60s, when the Germans wanted to silence survivors. They claim that they never will forgive.” (And of course Wiesenthal wrote directly about forgiveness in “The Sunflower, “ and so did Jankélévitch, in a book called “Le Pardon.”)

So if they are, but are not, forgiving, what does that mean?

“What I have discerned in these memoirs, picking up on some of the language, is that they reject forgiveness as we conventionally understand the term,” Dr. Klein said. “They are offering us another way to understand forgiveness.

“They reject the conventional idea of forgiveness, which is conditional. When you accept somebody’s sincerely apology, you are obligated to forgive. That is something they cannot do.

“Conventional forgiveness means that you are forgiving both the criminal and the crime. What these writers do is decouple the crime and the criminal. They continue to focus on the crime, which they never forgive, but they do begin to rethink that criminal.

“They understand that it is a form of forgiveness to begin to recognize the humanity in the criminal, even though they condemn the crime.”

Jean Améry

All that does sound like the Christian notion of hating the sin but not the sinner. “It is pretty conventional in St. Augustine’s thinking, but it is different,” Dr. Klein said. Augustine’s approach is to remember the sin but let it fade a bit; to concentrate on the sinner “to begin to form what he calls a common good, bringing society back together.” Therefore, Augustine “downplays the sin part.”

But the survivors “never forget the sin, and they never downplay it. They can never get rid of it.

“It is the manifest narrative of their work.”

Still, though, “they still look for something in the criminal that they can reconnect with,” Dr. Klein said. “And to me that is a very honest way to forgive.”

He cannot say if the three men are typical, he continued, but he does know that they were very much of their time and place. “They talk about their loneliness so strongly,” he said. “They are so resentful toward their contemporaries” — the Germans, who are able to leave the war behind them. The Jewish survivors, on the other hand, “are trying to find a way out of the trap of resentment.

“For about 20 years, they had been feeling loneliness and isolation.” First, like most survivors, they had lost most if not all of their families. Second, “there was a more existential loneliness. They had lost their anchor in the world.

“Before the Holocaust, they had had so much. They had been so ambitious.” They had been very much part of the outside world — in fact, these three men, all intellectuals, were able to rejoin that world eventually, Wiesenthal as the well-known Nazi hunter, Améry as a successful writer, and Vladimir Jankélévitch as a musicologist at the Sorbonne.

It was not accidental that all three memoirists were men, Dr. Klein said. That is representative. “In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the men who were the breadwinners, and the ones eager to move in the larger world. “Women stayed home and preserved Jewish tradition. Men were the ones who connected with the outside world.”

Overall, Dr. Klein said, “the great narrative of these memoirs isn’t as much about destruction as it is about betrayal.” And like many people who are betrayed, on a level perhaps beneath the rage was “the longing for acceptance that they still retained.”

They know that their neighbors betrayed them — the neighbors with whom they thought they’d shared basic assumptions and values, who they at time thought of not only as acquaintances but also as friends — and “they knew that they couldn’t go back,” Dr. Klein said. What they were feeling was not nostalgia. “Nevertheless, they want to form relationships. And I conclude that what they present to us is a conception of a society after atrocity. A society where it is important both to be suspicious of the neighbors and to long for a relationship with them.

“That’s what I call a negotiable society. It means that we have to be constantly vigilant in our world, but we cannot give up on it. We cannot be innocent or gullible but we must reconnect.”

So did it work for the three memoir writers? All were successful, but how did they reintegrate socially and emotionally? And were they representative of the larger group of Jewish intellectuals who survived the Shoah?

He’s not quite sure, Dr. Klein said. His book ends in the 1960s. But there always is room for more scholarship.

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