Mar 2006 Journal

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Letter to my brother

You are nearly 10 years older than I. That doesn't make much difference now we are over 70 but it is a big difference whether you were only 10 in 1945 or already 20. When we last met in Germany we talked about the past. That is what I want to write to you about.

Forty years ago you and I went our different ways. I married a Jewish woman and eventually became a British citizen. You married a German girl. We both have children and grandchildren and can't complain. Your sister-in-law is the only Jew in your family and, as far as I know, among your acquaintances too. You know, of course, that my wife was also German until she and her parents were driven from their home. They were lucky England allowed them in.

At our departure you said 'Come back next year', but I couldn't say yes. We had spoken about the past and, when the conversation got round to Esther's Jewishness, you said that wasn't important: the only thing that mattered was her humanity. Do you really think that after all that has happened, a German can give the same simple answer the Enlightenment thought was possible? Do you think a German can tell a Jewish woman that she should be satisfied to call herself a 'Mensch'? Do you think she can put her Jewishness aside? For a Jew, after Auschwitz that would amount to self-negation and betrayal. When she told you she had rediscovered her Jewish identity and was proud of it, you were angry. Yes, the words 'Jew' and 'Jewish' have quite a different ring for you than for us. You associate with them something strange and unknown, perhaps also unpleasant, threatening, or un-German. Are the Stürmer pictures still in your mind, or the antisemitic prejudices and Christian stereotypes?

Have you ever considered what it means for her now to visit a German town, where SA-men like our grandfather and father would have marched through the streets shouting 'Deutschland erwache, Juda verrecke!'? That was the new Germany our parents were so proud of. Do you remember them speaking about 'Konfirmationslager', where her grandmothers and aunt died? You say you didn't know any of this. Yes, but does it therefore not concern you? Today you know it: we have both had 60 long years to learn. When our parents' and our life improved because they found work in the armaments industry, when father joined the Brownshirts and then the Nazi Party, when he advanced in the police, Esther's family were systematically robbed of their rights, work and possessions, and forced to emigrate, and those who were unable to escape were eventually murdered. You never wanted to admit there was a connection. Had I said to you that we are the children of a generation of robbers and murderers you would have considered that an insult.

You told me many times: 'We don't want to hear any more. We've had enough. Television is full of it.' You've always had enough of it. You always knew it all. Our conversations never got beyond your objecting 'Don't start that again.' And then you'd add: 'We too suffered - we were bombed and lost everything.' When I told you what the prophet Hosea has to say about sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind you didn't reply. Once you said generously: 'We all make mistakes. War is terrible, that's why I'm a pacifist.' Yes, war is terrible but sometimes one has to fight, as with Hitler's Germany. I told you I might have been a partisan had I been a young man in Poland or Russia. You were aghast: 'They were bandits, who shot our soldiers in the back!' Then you added that it must be the English influence on me.

One more thing I have to talk to you about, my brother. There is a nice wall-hanging in your living room. It's been there for years. 'It's from Russia', you said, 'Our father sent it.' You said that as if it was quite normal - that you bring something with you from the war, a present to your family. I remember when the carpet and some silver arrived. It must have come from the house of well-to-do people. Did you never ask yourself how father got hold of these valuables? They were totally out of place in our tiny flat. Carpets and silver were not part of our world, were they? When I asked you about father's war experience you quickly replied: 'He was only in the police, and only for a short time at the front. He was captured by the Russians and kept in a PoW camp until the end of '49.' That is true. When he came back he was a sick man. He never told me much about his time in the war. I suspect you know rather more because you too were in the East as a young soldier and perhaps father spoke to you as a comrade. Since then I've done the research which you so much resented, because I have a right to know - and so do you.

He was in the Protection Police and served in an SS police regiment involved in the so-called 'Bandenbekämpfung' in White Russia. In these campaigns hundreds of villages were burnt down after everything of value was taken. Many innocent people, mainly Jews, were 'sonderbehandelt' and the rest - men, women and children - were deported to the Reich as slave-workers. Do I need to tell you what 'sonderbehandelt' meant in Nazi jargon? For his part in one of these 'actions' father was awarded special points - alas, not enough for a medal. He proved himself and was soon promoted. Yes, our father still stands between us ...
Jürgen Schwiening

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