One German’s Response to What My Nation Did in World War II

Two weeks after I first moved from Germany to Los Angeles in 2002 to study theology, a fellow seminarian asked me if I could translate a chapter in a German theological book for his landlord, a rabbi. I thought, "How nice that I as a German can help a rabbi in his studies." But then I did not want to make a big deal out of it. Little did I know that this was the first time the rabbi had ever wanted to speak to a German. Many of his relatives had been murdered during the Shoah.

It was a most profound and meaningful experience for me, both as a person and as a German, living in the United States. The rabbi and I always greeted each other with smiles and hugs, and enjoyed each other’s company at seminary.

Ever since then, I have been wondering how I can respond to what my nation did, here where I live, with the Jewish community in Pasadena/Los Angeles. In December 2008, I watched a PBS program on Frontline about a Polish- American Jew from Chicago, Marian Marzynski, who visited Berlin ("A Jew among the Germans," 2005, He seemed to want to be heard, and to listen to young Germans.

I want to be available to listen, to answer, and to share.

Before moving to Los Angeles, I was a chaplain intern at a hospital in Honolulu. During my second week there, one of my patients asked me where I was from. I responded that I am from Munich. He said that he had been there, "but people weren’t very nice to me."

"Oh, I am sorry to hear that. What happened?"

"I was in the Dachau concentration camp."

I was speechless. I had never met a concentration camp survivor. How should I respond? The next morning, when I returned to his room, I wanted to express the deep shame I feel for my people. Unfortunately, he had already left.

I hesitate to think that by listening and sharing I may be able to help alleviate the immense pain caused by Nazi Germany. Yet the experience with the rabbi suggested that perhaps I can make a small contribution towards healing.

Living abroad I often think about my identity and what it means to be a German. I feel a deep gratitude to Jewish people and all the people in the United States who welcome me here. I am astonished by their positive feelings about Germany: classical music, cars, engineering, theology, the countryside and cities, and, of course, beer. With my people’s history, why aren’t they angry? How do they deal with what my people did? I am humbled by my Jewish and other U.S. friends’ ability to see me as a person beyond the horrors that my people did to them. Even my patient from the Dachau concentration camp did not mind my visit. As a German, I am thankful.

As a person of faith, however, I found a master when a Jewish friend gave me an article by Rabbi Joseph Asher who, in 1965—a mere 20 years after Auschwitz— wrote: "Isn’t it time we forgave the Germans?" Again I was astonished. Yes, I know, God calls us to forgive, but how can these horrors be forgiven? Rabbi Asher spoke about individual relationships: "Looking back at Germany, I can see that there can be no genuine and lasting rehabilitation without rehabilitation on a person-to-person level. The horror of it all is too great to grasp; it eludes us. The small inhumanities, however, are within our power to heal."

There is also a need for rehabilitation in the relationship between the two peoples. In 2000, during a speech in the German Bundestag commemorating the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel said to Germany’s representatives: "You have been helpful to Israel after the war, with reparations and financial assistance. But you have never asked the Jewish people to forgive you for what the Nazis did." Two weeks later, the German Head of State, Johannes Rau, traveled to the Israeli Knesset and followed Wiesel’s call. He asked the Jewish people for forgiveness. Perhaps, then, the answer lies in the power of forgiving. Perhaps forgiving can return stature to the forgiver, conveying a sense of mastery, of overcoming the oppressor, and thus a new freedom. As Marian Marzynski said in the PBS program: "Feeling safe among the Germans is the only possible revenge I can take."

Once, when I watched Martin Doblmeier’s documentary The Power of Forgiveness, a fellow Quaker asked me: "Have you forgiven the Nazis, your people?" I don’t know. Have I? I have come to believe that finding meaning by oppressing others is a sad state, unfree, filled with fear, without joy or hope. Nelson Mandela said, "I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity."

Living here, I have realized how judgmental we Germans tend to be. We judge ourselves as well, although we are also known for some arrogance. We are also fairly rigid. At age 41, I embarked on a new career, nursing. At this age such a change is very hard to make in Germany, while in the United States, people do it all the time. Everyone born here is automatically a U.S. citizen. In Germany, citizenship is based on ancestry.

With our history, Germans usually don’t express pride about Germany. The joyous atmosphere during the 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany was a turning point, when the international press noted that Germans finally learned to have a good time with others and themselves.

However, the generation Germans belong to may affect their attitude towards our country. I was born in 1966. My parents were six and eight years old when World War II ended. I was made aware of the horrors of the Nazi regime from an early age. In sixth grade my teacher took us on a field trip to the Dachau concentration camp. Our history class lessons in twelfth grade included World War II. In contrast, for a friend of mine born just a decade earlier, in 1954, the Holocaust was discussed only at the very end of high school (gymnasium), after nine years of history education. He later read everything he could find about World War II, and taught German history at UCLA. Perhaps that was his way to respond to what our nation did.

Another friend of mine was born 12 years earlier still, during the war. When she emigrated to the United States in the early 1960s, she found she was not as warmly received by everyone as has been my experience, but rather, there was frequent hesitation and occasional blame. As was the case with my younger friend, modern history in her high school was presented with a five-year gap, beginning with the outbreak of World War II and ending with the defeat of Germany. It wasn’t until 1956, on the eve of the theatrical opening of The Diary of Anne Frank in seven German cities, that she learned about the Holocaust. Unable to distinguish between collective and personal guilt at a particularly challenging point in her own development, my friend feared that her inability to achieve reconciliation would eventually lead to her own death. When she wrote an autobiographical novel, she titled it Daughter of the Enemy. Despite her conflicted relationship with her home country, she was able to instill a love of Germany and teach the German language to her three children (who were occasionally teased as "Nazis" in their elementary schools). One child became a German Studies professor, with a focus on the films of the Third Reich and the early years of the postwar German Federal Republic during which Konrad Adenauer served as chancellor.

We do have a need to make amends, to apologize, to atone. As a 20-year-old I attended a presentation and book signing in a Jewish bookstore in Munich. The author spoke about the horrors her family suffered. During the question and answer period, I naively suggested that there have been many efforts towards reconciliation. I shared how my parents, both Lutheran pastors, often brought Jewish guests to our home and that my father had led many group tours throughout Israel and Palestine. We always had a menorah in our home. In response the author burst into tears and did not look at me again. I left the book store deeply ashamed for my comments, which must have come across as most inappropriate. Perhaps it was because I did not first acknowledge her pain before speaking about positive developments. Today I am drawn to the Quaker faith not least because in our meetinghouse, Jews and Christians worship together.

When I studied about World War II in high school, I would call my maternal grandmother to ask her how she experienced Nazism living in a village in the Black Forest. She raised four children while her pastor husband, my grandfather, was a chef in the army during the war. My grandmother told me how she hid people in her parsonage, and how every Nazi in the village knew that she did not follow their ideology. Taking care of four young children gave her a good excuse to avoid official functions. My grandfather, however, at least prior to the war, in his sermons considered Hitler as ordained by God. Later, in 1944, at the funeral of his half-brother, who was killed as a soldier a few days after D-Day, he said that no people are above other peoples. In January 1945, he, too, was killed during an air attack. My grandmother adored him and missed him until she died in 1995.

I wish I knew how my grandmother reconciled her opposition to the Nazis with her husband’s early support of Hitler. As a pastor, he was helpful and much loved by the villagers. He played several instruments. How could such a well-educated and sensitive man fall for Nazi ideology? How was the Holocaust possible by a culture of civilized people like the Germans?

Of course, historians have tried to give answers. My father’s parents, not historians but ordinary, educated people, told me that for a long time they did not realize what Hitler was about. They said they were fooled by the economic prosperity that returned to a then impoverished Germany after Hitler took office in 1933. New jobs came from massive projects, including the autobahns, AM radio receivers, the first Volkswagens, and small vacation homes built for ordinary people who had been impoverished by inflation and unemployment during the Weimar Republic, who felt disenfranchised by the Treaty of Versailles.

Perhaps it is better if the question is not answered. A complete answer may lead to rationalization; or to the dangerous assumption that what they did then cannot happen again. Leaving the "why" question somewhat unanswered may help future generations stay alert.

In Germany today it is a federal crime to deny the Holocaust. Efforts to ban by law the neo-Nazi NPD party conflict with the right to freedom of speech. Before my wife, a Korean, and I visited Germany for the first time, she asked me twice: "Will I be safe?" I was very much embarrassed, ashamed. But yes, at times race-based hate crimes occur in present-day Germany.

To learn more about Germany’s young generation, documentary filmmaker Marian Marzynski spoke with high school and university students. He wondered why none of them used the word "guilt" when they described their own feelings about the Holocaust. In a conversation, one student concluded that young Germans need to be told that they are not guilty so that they won’t avoid our history, but will become more interested in studying it.

Germans don’t easily accept criticism, or even guilt. We are defensive. Of course, an individual German born during World War II or after the war does not bear personal guilt. But as a people—as Germans collectively, as a nation—we will always carry the guilt of having instigated two world wars and murdered millions.

Marian Marzynski, whose father and many other family members were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto, expressed a wish at the end of his visit to Berlin for Germans to respond to the guilt of our past. "Germany has paid substantial reparations to the Jews," he says, and with the new Holocaust memorial adjacent to their parliament building, "they want to settle their moral account. I wish there would be no German celebration of the end of World War II, no government- approved memorials, no finishing touches. My request to the German people would be that they create for themselves a concept of good guilt—an honorable one. And within it, a proud guardianship of memory. My father would like that."

What if Germany joined in the observance each year, during the week after Passover, when in Israel, for two minutes, all activities cease in remembrance of those who perished at the hands of the German Nazis, so as never to forget. To quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."

Recently I attended a lecture at a Pasadena Temple about Nazi laws on race. The presenter passed around a copy of the original Nuremberg Laws against Jews, carrying Hitler’s signature. It was eerie to hold in my hands and feel these texts of blunt discrimination. During the question-and-answer period I struggled for words but was able to express the shame I feel for what my nation did. A woman from Israel was deeply moved, and with tears in her eyes said that she personally had never heard a German say that. Instead, in 1964, when she was a patient in a Munich hospital, her nurse threatened her: "You were lucky, I was a Nazi." Lucky, she said, because this was no longer 1944.

On my way home I was filled with a sense of deep gratitude and hope that our encounter planted a seed towards reconciliation and healing.


Jochen Strack, a member of Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, Calif., serves with his wife as resident Friends at the meeting. He grew up in Munich, Germany. After starting a career in business and receiving a degree in marketing and empirical research, he pursued a theological seminary education in Munich, Honolulu, and Los Angeles. He finds that the approach of process theology relates particularly well to his identity as a Quaker. From 2003 to 2007 he served as a program associate for American Friends Service Committee in Los Angeles, working in a variety of programs. He is currently studying to be a nurse practitioner and works as a cardiac step-down nurse at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center Los Angeles.