Monday, August 18, 2014

The Personal Side of Genocide

Kirril Shields, 2013 AJC Fellow

There came a moment during our fellowship when open displays of emotion swept through the group. I expected this emotion in places such as the camps, and while sites like Treblinka caused open sadness, the occasion that made the strongest impression on me took place in Kraków.

Forming a circle at the Jewish Community Centre, the group sat with Uwe von Seltmann and his wife, Gabi. Uwe and Gabi spoke for about an hour about their personal and familial histories. In particular, they discussed their relationship and its ties to the past: Uwe’s grandfather was a former SS officer, and Gabi’s Jewish family members were murdered at Auschwitz. Up until this moment in the trip the group had heard much about the victims of the Holocaust, and we had been privileged with first-hand survivor accounts. Yet Uwe’s tale was different, for here was his grandfather’s story of perpetration, and with it we were to witness the effects it had had on his family.

I sympathized with Uwe, who lives with this dire past, a man who loves his Jewish wife and respects the Jewish community into which he has been adopted. Uwe was visibly upset when revealing his family history; he had made it his quest to educate others about the dangers of anti-Semitism. In snippets throughout Uwe’s speech, though, there appeared to be statements that defended his grandfather, subtle yet quite potent sentences that I found as interesting as his narrative of woe. In one instance Uwe painted his grandfather as a relatable and likeable individual, much like Uwe himself, thereby suggesting the grandfather was a victim of his own time and place.

At the conclusion of our session in Krakow, I asked Uwe if he noticed aspects of his grandfather in himself. Though the two had never met, over the years Uwe had grown aware of links tying him to his paternal forbear: both trained as journalists, both were highly educated, and both men preferred to work in cafés rather than in the confines of an office. Without directly saying so, Uwe inferred that the man who sat talking to us could have, given differing circumstances, worn the SS uniform, only in this instance we were witnessing a man affected by this past rather than a man who aided in the creation of a particular history.

From there our group explored how our traditional ideas of the perpetrator slowly unravelled. We stopped assuming the individuals were diabolic. It was too easy and one-dimensional to depict them that way. Instead, we started wondering if the perpetrators could have been people with whom we could have built rapport and friendship, in another time and in different circumstances. This was a complex conundrum, and one that mimicked in its complexity many of the situations and readings of history encountered during the fellowship.

Uwe's comment, suggesting some similarities and connections between him and his grandfather, became a topic of debate among the group at a later reflection. We had to wonder if Uwe was asking us to empathize with a former SS man, and moreover, if we could.

This display of empathy would have been remarkably easy, for relating to a man who may have spoken, smiled, winked, and chuckled as did Uwe, was for all of us an easy and understandable reaction. Of course we felt for the man. And yet the problem with this situation was that it was all too easy to feel empathy. In contrast, when trying to conceive of the killings committed by the SS-Obersturmfürer, or the killings for which he was responsible, that remains impossible.

Dominick LaCapra refers to the Holocaust and actions that culminated in the Holocaust as “limit events.” I interpret “limit” to mean the limit of human intellect and/or the limits of imagination in attempting to understand and/or relate to these experiences. For example, it is impossible for me to even come close to picturing, let alone feeling, what it must have been like to be a part of, or have been responsible for, the events of the Holocaust. These huge “limit-events” are beyond the scope of my experience, as are the depravities that occurred in Auschwitz. I had hoped that the shock of seeing the sites in which the crimes were committed would bring forth enlightenment, as if I would be able, in that instance, to understand. While my historical knowledge increased, attempts at such an understanding only marginally grew.

Uwe's grandfather died in 1945, yet Uwe is the one who bears the guilt for the grievances committed. That is why, I believe, Uwe’s words evoked such visible emotion, for it is Uwe’s generation who carry the burden of these perpetrations. It is Uwe, now living in a society that wishes to expose such crimes and acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past, who feels a moral obligation to stress the likeness of the perpetrators to the everyday individual. To do so, he needs to openly expose the crimes, while also ensuring that his audience understands that these were not the makings of an individual possessed. And by doing so, as shown in the response to Uwe’s talk, we come to acknowledge that the average individual of very normal societal stature has in them the ability to cause suffering that continues to haunt throughout the decades.

Kirril Shields recently completed his PhD at the University of Queensland, Australia. His thesis examined the shifting and changing attitudes towards the period of the Third Reich as noted over many generations in Australian society. This year Kirril was awarded a Fellowship to the Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization, and he is currently the 2014 Alfred Midgley Scholar at the University of Queensland.