Germany honors Holocaust prof for examining Nazi motivation

And now, Steiner has received a remarkable honor for his efforts — but not through the usual academic channels.

Earlier this month, Steiner was awarded the Order of Merit from the German government, an honor that came straight from President Johannes Rau.

Steiner received the red medal, which he called "a real beauty," from Germany Consul General Bernd Westphal in San Francisco.

According to Walter Leuchs, the deputy consul general, the award is only given to those "who have done extraordinary things for the sake of the public."

And most of the past recipients have been German.

Reading from the declaration, Steiner said he was honored for his "outstanding contribution…to Holocaust studies as an influential researcher, scholar, teacher and administrator."

Discussing his work in Holocaust studies, he said, "I'm one of the few survivors of the Holocaust who has gone back to interact with Germans, and not only that but research and interview perpetrators in order to find out the reasons why they did what they did, and what they felt about it during the time they committed these acts."

In actuality, Steiner, 76, does not consider himself Jewish, although he was raised in a Jewish milieu. Born in Prague, the Novato resident had a great-grandfather who converted to Judaism. Although his parents considered themselves cultural Jews, his father later converted to Catholicism.

Of Jewish Prague, one of the world's cultural capitals at that time, Steiner said, "There was nothing comparable to it. I was very fortunate to be exposed to that…I was enriched by Jewish culture and without it, I would be a different person."

That's an understatement. Though he did not consider himself Jewish, Hitler did, and the Nazis marked him a Jew. Steiner spent the war in several concentration camps. His mother was killed at Auschwitz.

After the war, Steiner spent hours with former Nazis and concentration camp guards, and he didn't tell them he was a former inmate unless they asked.

His reticence allowed him to discover why the Nazis did what they did.

"I don't understand how people can do that to each other," he said. "And I decided that I had to, if at all possible, find out who these people were after they have lost their function and become, so to speak, untouchables themselves. To find out what moved them to behave that way."

He found that those Germans who volunteered to serve in the SS were "susceptible to authority and absolutist ideology." Although some were highly educated, most "had personalities that were coupled with low moral and social intelligence."

Steiner recalled one encounter with an SS officer who was an eyewitness to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The former officer knew Steiner was a survivor, and once he knew that, he invited him to stay over — an invitation Steiner accepted.

Not only did this officer leave his archives to Steiner, but "he wept when I left. It was simply out of the realm of normalcy."

During Westphal's presentation, the consul general told Steiner that after the war, "many Jews stopped all contacts with all Germans, the German language and Germans at large, an understandable reaction. You, however, went into a different direction, keeping involved with postwar Germany and working together with German academics. Researchers you have worked with speak of you in all forms of adoration and I fully understand what has made this strong impression on them. We Germans of today are deeply moved by your gracious attitude towards us. Germany salutes you and expresses her gratitude."

Even after all he's been through, and what he's heard afterward, Steiner bears no ill will to this generation of Germans.

"I don't view the present generation as people who need to be blamed for their fathers or grandfathers," he said. "They suffered a great deal. They are grateful that I accept them on any human level."

And as he continues to teach his students, he believes there is a great lesson to be learned from his experience.

"What we should have learned is not to behave like Nazis under any circumstances," he said. "I tell my students they all have to develop a profile in courage, otherwise nothing will have changed. If we don't do what we believe, people will step on our toes or be cruel to us."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."