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Contesting Histories: German and Jewish Americans
and the Legacy of the Holocaust

by Michael Schuldiner

Texas Tech University Press | 2010 | 255 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

The Evil That Men Do

My friend Elaine’s mother, a German Jew, came to America in 1936, just a few years before the entire Jewish population of her village was deported.  About 15 years ago, Elaine began visiting her mother’s birthplace, Breisach, to participate in an effort to educate young Germans about their lost population of Jews, Judaic culture, the basic tenets of the religion. 

The Germans, she tells me, are very eager to learn and Elaine derives great satisfaction from being involved in this outreach. I have wondered why she chooses to invest in these young Germans when perhaps she could be working instead with victims of the Nazis. 

But Schuldiner’s book, Contesting Histories, has opened up a new perspective on the best ways to move forward.

In a remarkably even-handed tone, Schuldiner examines the positions of both German Americans and Jewish Americans on the Holocaust, America’s involvement in the war, the internment of German Americans during the war, the establishment of a holocaust museum on the Washington mall, Reagan’s visit to a military cemetery at Bitburg, and finally the culpability of Nazi soldiers.

Chair of the English department at the University of Akron, and Holocaust scholar, he clearly states what side he’s on – he was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, he is the son of Polish survivors and the grandson of victims – but makes it clear that, as a scholar, he is interested in looking at all the evidence and rejecting any easy answers.

Schuldiner was appalled in 1979 to hear his then students at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks assert that a) the Jews deserved the Holocaust, b) the Holocaust either did not happen or was not that bad, c) anybody would have acted like the Nazis in those circumstances, d) the Nazis are vilified only because they lost the war, and e) Stalin was worse than HItler.

Through careful scholarship and study, he began to see that these attitudes were, in part, promulgated by the mainstream German American press and not just neo-Nazi groups or Holocaust deniers.  Motivations ranged from dealing with shame and guilt to fear of discrimination to out-and-out anti-Semitism.  He observed that efforts to trivialize, normalize or relativize the Holocaust  - “There have been worse horrors” -  are encouraged by hate groups and not conducive to moving forward in our relationship with our present day ally, the democratic republic of Germany.

He understands that it is wrong and not helpful to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, that we need another paradigm to preserve peace.

A little known fact Schuldiner explores in detail is the internment of thousands of Germans and German Americans in America during the war.  Though far from being country clubs, these camps seemed to have had more amenities than many people had in their homes at the time, and could in no way be compared to concentration camps in Europe, and yet engendered lasting feelings among the German Americans of having been wronged. 

He does not seem to feel that internment was the wrong thing to do as the German community (25% of the population) felt divided in their loyalties and certainly was not eager to go to war against their relatives.  Yet he recognizes that this was in fact anti-German discrimination and explains lingering resentment. 

Likewise, anything that commemorates the Holocaust – movies, museums, events – brings up defensiveness and often aggressive countermoves from the German American community who feel they have suffered too, they too are victims.  Over and over he implies in Contesting Histories the importance of understanding where the opposing parties are coming from.

In one of the most fascinating sections of the book, Schuldiner takes a look at the scholarship and historic arguments to determine whether Nazis were just “ordinary citizens.” Would most of us would have acted in similar fashion if we found ourselves in the same context?  He goes through each argument presented by the warring Holocaust historians, Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland and Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

He discovers that the soldiers in Poland’s police battalion were not in fact coerced into killing and suffered no repercussions if they refused to participate.  The majority took part in gruesome killing actions, possibly motivated more by peer pressure and the need to conform than anything else.

Ultimately, Schuldiner places blame for the Holocaust on centuries of deeply imbedded anti-Semitism on the part of the Germans, who were in the habit of blaming 1 % of the population, the Jews, for all their troubles, and of considering the Jews as less than human.  He argues for acknowledging the truth of what happened, the evil, and then teaching the sacredness of life, “that we are all essentially good, so that when the times call for it, we are prepared to perform the heroic.”

Back to Elaine and Breisach and a rapprochement between Germans and Jews that Schuldiner would surely applaud : “What drew me in originally was an invitation by the then mayor to all of the survivors he could find around the world to participate in a weekend of commemoration and the dedication of the place where the synagogue had stood. That was the catalyst for a group of Germans there to ‘do more’ and try and give to the survivors as well as the survivor's and non-survivors families, the home, the beloved childhood home that they had lost, dedicated to restoring the memory of their former life and of those who lived in Breisach for centuries, helping the entirely non-Jewish community there to understand that history, and giving people the opportunity to dialogue with one another, which is tremendously important.”

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