Dec 2005 Journal

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Silent survival (book review)

by James Tent
University Press of Kansas, 288pp., $29.95

This story of Nazi Germany's Mischlinge provides insight into the suffering of a group largely neglected by scholarship. By 1935 approximately 112,000 Germans had been re-categorised as 'half-Jews' or 'quarter-Jews' and labelled with the derogatory title Mischling.

At first, these individuals were left in a legal limbo, defined by Nazi law as a 'third race'. But it became apparent that whether people were half-Jewish or one-quarter Jewish, Nazi racial fanatics planned to exterminate them all. The increasingly persecutory legislation, social ostracism and economic hardship imposed on Mischlinge were eclipsed by deportation, incarceration and forced labour.

Although Mischlinge suffered to an alarming degree, most survived the Holocaust. But their traumatic experiences were not often spoken of after the war, primarily because their survival had depended on following the motto 'Keep silent'. Many of these victims, plagued by survivors' guilt, maintained their silence after the Holocaust.

The opening chapters address social turning points for these individuals: the first day of school and relationships within the classroom, the fight for economic livelihood, and the development of relationships between the sexes.

Tent describes each individual's personal experiences, asking: how did their teachers treat them once the new radically-charged category had been created? What happened with previously friendly schoolmates? Did Mischlinge have access to any form of higher education? What challenges did they face in finding employment?

Most Mischlinge were prohibited from engaging in employment above the lowest possible status, regardless of qualifications. Also, the terrible trend of isolation is evident, as is the developing theme of silent survival.

The book addresses the need for human contact and the Nazi prohibition against friendships as well as sexual friendships between Mischlinge and Aryans. The Mischlinge mostly adopted the survival strategy of limiting one's friendships and suffering alone.

From the spring of 1944, male Mischlinge were rounded up and sent to forced labour camps. Female Mischlinge were forced to perform low-status labour while living at home. Tent reveals the declining status of Mischlinge of both sexes, many of whom found themselves classified with other 'undesirables'. Once the victims had been robbed of their freedom it would be an easy step to transfer them from forced labour camps to death camps already operating in the East. Any illusions Mischlinge had harboured regarding their privileged status were shattered when the Nazis forced them to cast their lot in with the Jews suffering in the camps.

For 12 years many of these individuals survived by keeping silent. After the war, they discovered that their Aryan counterparts expected them to remain silent forever. Many believed their neighbours were correct and maintained their silence regarding their persecution. Others sought compensation for lost educational and economic opportunities, while still others began to share their stories of betrayal and ostracism, offering proof of the Nazi desire to eradicate all traces of Jewry.

Tent's study shows how the tragedy of Nazi brutality lives on in survivors, who bear the anguish of a life forever altered by hatred, indignity and indifference. For many survivors, keeping to the shadows has been a constant way of life.
Kurt Winter

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