Panel asks: Can the Germans and Jews achieve reconciliation

The face of Germany has changed in the 50 years since the Holocaust. Today, small Jewish communities are re-establishing themselves. German children learn about the Holocaust in school. Throughout the country, monuments have been erected in memory of those who perished.

Are Germans ready to acknowledge their role in the Holocaust? Is it fair to make the younger generation bear their ancestors' guilt? Is reconciliation possible between Jews and Germans?

A panel of survivors discussed these questions at Berkeley's Judah Magnes Museum late last month. The discussion, moderated by Rabbi Raphael Asher of Walnut Creek's Congregation B'nai Tikvah, was held in conjunction with Edward Serrota's photographic exhibit of Jewish communities in Germany today.

Although not a survivor himself, Asher edited "The Jewish Legacy and German Conscience" and just returned from a trip to Germany.

Comparing that trip with his father's visit in the 1960s, Asher found a changed Germany. (Asher's father, longtime Congregation Emanu-El Rabbi Joseph Asher, died in 1990.) The younger generation of Germans, he said, is willing to acknowledge German anti-Semitism and eager to probe the relationship between Jews and Germans.

Equipped with textbooks and educational materials about the Holocaust, young Germans want to learn more about what went on during the war. But whether a reconciliation is in store is another question.

"Forgiveness is solely the prerogative of survivors," said Asher, pointing out that Germany and the Germans haven't asked for forgiveness. Nor would Asher presume that collectively they deserve our forgiveness. But he does think it's reasonable to enter into a dialogue.

"Hatred only begets more hatred," said survivor Charles Prager of Orinda. Born in Berlin in 1918, Prager fled Germany in 1939 but lost most of his family in the Holocaust. "It's up to us, the victims, to extend our hand, to signal that we will never forget, but we are ready to forgive. I am not interested in the present or the past, just the future."

Prager's daughter is a professor in Germany and he has been back several times. He admits to being ill at ease with Germans of his generation, about whom he wonders, "Was he or wasn't he?"

But Prager feels that refusing to reconcile makes us no better than those who did us harm. He also recognizes that two generations of Germans have come into being since the end of the war and thinks the current generation is haunted by a guilt it cannot shake.

For him reconciliation means re-establishing a neutral relationship — without love, without hate.

Survivor Louis de Groot, past chair of the Holocaust Center in San Francisco, disagrees. For him the pain is still too raw, the wounds too easily reopened to reconcile. He also questioned the sincerity of a country that hasn't compensated Jewish women for disabilities resulting from medical experimentation but continues to pay former SS members for their war injuries.

"The selection process for restitution demands survivors live in dire straits, poverty, before they are recognized for restitution," said de Groot, who lives in Berkeley.

Paul Kadden of San Francisco, another panelist, left Germany when he was 11 years old and returned in 1986 at his mother's request to take pictures of family gravestones. Kadden went back with an open mind but found the experience discomforting.

Although the current generation makes a concerted effort to learn about the Holocaust, some experiences unnerved Kadden and made him question the Germans' sincerity. As examples, he noted the too-small plaque he saw commemorating a destroyed synagogue, and an offhand comment that he felt referred to him as one of the "Jews who got away."

Despite the Germans' best efforts at hospitality, visiting survivors often can't dispel their uneasiness. Ilse Feiger of Berkeley was invited to return to her hometown of Karlsruhe, along with other survivors. Her sister, Eva Linker of El Cerrito, went as well. Every effort was made to accommodate their group, including kosher food, Shabbat dinner and a local production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

"They were so kind it was almost nauseating," said Feiger.

While there, Feiger encountered a non-Jewish high school classmate of hers. The other woman made an overture of friendship, but when Feiger mentioned Kristallnacht, the woman attributed the violence to people who came from out of town.

"I could not get her to acknowledge any responsibility," Feiger said. "I would never go back again. I had a feeling of doom even though we were supposed to be there for a wonderful time."