by Barry Edelson


The Inescapable Past


"The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."
— William Faulkner


The visitor to Berlin who wishes to see the vestiges of the city's Cold War past must forgo the storied Checkpoint Charlie, which has regrettably been reduced to a tourist attraction that bears no resemblance to the flashpoint it was before the fall of Communism, and take the subway a few stops north to Bernauerstrasse. There one encounters an exceptionally well designed open-air museum and memorial spanning several blocks, right through the middle of no-man's land, where the sensation of being trapped under the wall's shadow is well preserved, its imposing gray awfulness still palpable.

For generations of adults who had first-hand experience of living in a divided city, or whose parents did, The Wall is naturally a far more immediate and formative episode than The War. This is not to suggest that World War II is in any way forgotten: young Germans speak as frankly about their nation's guilt for the Nazi atrocities as they are reputed to do. However, when talking about the war, it seems at times as if they are referring to a terrible thing that happened in another country. The division of Germany and Berlin by the Allies at Potsdam in 1945 is painted by some as a cruel and callous act, as if the ugliness of the subsequent Communist era were somehow unrelated to the events that immediately preceded it, as if fascism hadn't just provided an object lesson in villainy for the new East German state.

The relationship of the culpability of their forebears and the 40 years of suffering under totalitarianism is a far more subtle and complex one than we imagine.
Berlin Watch Tower
Can you tell the Nazi oppression
from the Communist variety?
Terezin Watch Tower
It is easy for us to write off the misery of living in the now-defunct German Democratic Republic as penance for Germany's considerable sins, but of course three-quarters of Germans suffered no such fate, enjoying instead the beneficence of the Marshall Plan and decades of previously unimagined prosperity.

Standing between the lines of the inner and outer walls along Bernauerstrasse, in a zone like a medieval moat that completely encircled West Berlin and in which scores were killed trying to escape to the West after 1961, one remembers vividly how city's residents breached the wall and tore it down in November 1989. Watching a group of German high school students and their teachers exploring the site, we wanted to tell them how we shared deeply in their jubilation and that those were among the happiest days of our lives, as well. We who had never been to Berlin, had never been forced by the sheer accident of our address to man the front line of the Cold War, had never been made to live as prisoners in our own homes and neighborhoods: even we knew what it meant to be set free. But we said nothing; it is unseemly to suppose that we truly know what it means to them.

The complexities of the lessons we thought we knew about the war and its aftermath came home to us again a few days later in Dresden, another city once caught on the wrong side of the line that separated the flowering west from the benighted east. Dresden is such a surpassingly lovely city, it is difficult to imagine that virtually everything one sees today was built after the war. The historical city center was nearly completely destroyed in the firebombing of February, 1945. It is perhaps the most extensive and astonishing example of historical restoration in the world, as thousands of structures — palaces, churches, monuments, streets and squares — were reconstituted exactly where they had stood before in all their baroque splendor. The local sandstone from which almost every facade is made has the peculiar characteristic of turning black after about 30 years of exposure to the air, which, by bestowing a look of ancient sootiness to buildings that are now only a few decades old, adds to the aura of walking the streets of a very old city.

Churchill's decision to bomb Dresden has always been a subject of controversy, because it was not a military target and its destruction was intended solely to undermine German morale.
Dresden skyline
Dresden enjoying a respite from history
Germans in general, and Dresdeners in particular, still see it as a vengeful and spiteful act, and are not shy about saying so, which did not sit will with British visitors of a certain age who have personal memories of the war and of the rain of fire visited upon the cities of Britain during the blitz. Even a retired American bomber pilot of the Vietnam era, who finds it difficult to talk about his role in inflicting suffering upon his enemy, found this argument difficult to endure. Merely mentioning the military uselessness of the bombing, a fact of which everyone is already aware, breached a protocol of enforced silence which makes it possible for former enemies to live peaceably together. We each know what the other has done, none of us is pretending it did not happen, but we also know we will never agree on the causes and outcomes even to the seventh generation, so why must we talk about it? One was reminded of the hapless Basil Fawlty's repeated admonition to his staff — "Don't mention the war" in front of his hotel's German guests — which he repeatedly violates to hysterical effect. Perhaps only through comedy can such tragedies be broached without arousing the very same feelings that led to them in the first place (see also Brooks, Mel).

It Gets Worse

If we needed any further reminder that the past is inescapable, or that Germany's relationship to the rest of the world can never again be thoroughly normal, we were awakened again to this grim reality at Terezin. No more cruel a joke has ever been conjured by the twisted mind of man than the inscription that greeted prisoners upon arrival at the Nazi death camps: "Arbeit Macht Frei", work makes you free. Though the camp at Terezin (Theresienstadt) was not an extermination camp or even a labor camp, the commanding officer apparently thought it would be amusing to have the ironic slogan of mass murder emblazoned above the gate.

While many concentration camps for political and other prisoners were in German-speaking areas, by and large these were not death camps. The Nazis didn't want to dirty their own soil with the unpleasant but necessary work of ridding themselves of Jews and other undesirables. Though many thousands died in these camps from starvation and disease, or were executed or worked to death, the real work of the final solution was reserved for places that Germans didn't want to live in themselves. The extermination camps were predominantly in other countries like Poland. As unspeakable a place as it was, the camp at Terezin, in what is now the Czech Republic, was functionally a transit camp for prisoners on their way to even more horrible places like Auschwitz.

What most people probably know about Terezin is that it was presented to the international community by the Nazis as a tranquil haven where Jews were isolated from the rest of the population but lived an otherwise ordinary existence. In the little movie theater that was built for the entertainment of the camp's officers and guards, where they distracted themselves from their stressful work of torture and murder, visitors now see a short film about the propaganda the Nazis deployed to try to fool the Red Cross and the rest of world about the treatment of the Jews.
The danger is over, for some, for now
What one sees on screen looks something like a fictional kibbutz, filled with healthy adults attending concerts and soccer matches, where the children attended school and smiled for the cameras. In reality, Terezin was a ghetto of nearly 60,000 starved and sickly people crammed into what had been a village of about 7,000 inhabitants. The local people, mainly Czechs, were forced to leave their homes to give the Nazis a convenient location to house the Jews of Bohemia, Moravia and elsewhere. The site was selected because it is surrounded by massive 19th-century brick fortifications built by the Habsburg empire, making it relatively easy to guard. The poetry and drawings by prisoners that survive from Terezin depict a harrowing nether-world of fear, torment and death.

The most peculiar thing about this little ghost town today is that it is inhabited by about 2,000 people, many of them probably the descendants of Czechs who were expelled from their village by the Nazis but returned after the war. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could manage to live every day of one's life in such a ghastly place. With a steady stream of visitors coming daily throughout the year, it is not as if the residents could ever be allowed to put it out of their minds. What sort of cognitive process a person must undergo in order to set aside the knowledge that tens of thousands of human beings were forced to huddle like rats in every corner of every room in the town, which was little more than a way station on a journey to almost certain death, is impossible to imagine. Which is more terrible: to face this dreadful memory day after day, like the elderly man who tends the entrance to the little apartment house and secret synagogue which are preserved museum-like in their war-time condition, or to avert one's eyes altogether?

Conflict Without End

A man with whom we were traveling asked if we had a personal reason for visiting Terezin, by which I assumed he meant if we had relatives who died in the Holocaust, and so I answered no. He then asked, sympathetically, if I were Jewish, which he clearly regarded as a de facto personal reason. For those who were immersed in Jewish history as children and from whom no detail of the Holocaust was spared, it is of course difficult not to take it personally. Much as one knows that the capacity for evil is evenly distributed among the human population and is not unique to any one people or culture, it is difficult not to feel personally threatened by the sight of armed police having to guard sites in central Berlin like a reconsecrated synagogue and the new Jewish Museum, designed by the Polish-born Daniel Libeskind and opened in 2001. We would like to regard the conflicts of the past as settled, but there may be no such thing as settled when the consequences of war have been so devastating to so many.

The safety of distant America presents a paradox. The safety is real, having successfully spared countless millions of immigrants from the blood-letting of many other nations. But it is also illusory, as it leads us to suppose that the way we live is normal by historical standards. In Europe, where even a currency crisis arouses ugly nationalistic sentiments, it is not difficult to imagine how a handful of demagogues, under the right circumstances, can ignite a conflagration. It happened in Bosnia in the 1990s. The ancient conflicts that precipitated the wars of the past have not been resolved by military victory. Even as friendships and intermarriage blunt the edges of hostility, adversaries remain wary of one another, always cognizant of those terrible actions that long ago superseded the original causes of their mutual animosity as the justification for ongoing enmity. Some conflicts burn themselves out eventually, the fuel of tribalism exhausted by time and demographics. In exactly two years from this month, Europe will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, a death machine that now seems terribly remote but the historical consequences of which still reverberate along the tenuous borderlines of many nations. History did not begin in 1933 or 1948, and is not all about Nazis and Jews, or Communists and dissidents. It could happen to you.

August 5, 2012


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