It was 1942. In our high school in Berlin-Spandau during the height of the second world war, a teacher stood before us, dissecting separate phrases from Hitler's book "Mein Kampf."Many sections of the book were hard to grasp for a teenage girl of 13. Our teacher would wave his baton, pointing towards a sentence scribbled on the blackboard which had made a particular impression on the pedagogic mind.
Soon, we, being young and eager, began to absorb even the most difficult passages most willingly. To the left of the classroom in front of us stood a separate blackboard on a portable easel-like stand. On it was written in boldly printed letters: WER HATTE RECHT? ICH HATTE RECHT! (Who was right? I was right! ). We learned that we, the privileged were the first generation to undergo the transformation from every-day children into the magnificent exulted master race, which was to last at least a thousand years. Very soon the atmosphere in the classroom became that of fascination. Our ideas of the greatness of this man called Adolf Hitler did lie perhaps in what we were told. In the beginning of the movement, back in the 20's in Munich, Hitler was considered a dreamer, a builder of castles in the sky. There were even those who had called him crazy, but only a few years later all his aspirations had become reality. We had to learn that he never wavered from his chosen path. Often he had asked his associates: "Who was right? Was it the man who had a clear vision of the future or was it all the others? No, it was I who was right."
He was many things to us; he was Frederick the Great, Napoleon and Marx all rolled in one. It made a great impression on the young mind that he had been his own teacher, the creator of a powerful political party. He was someone who had elevated himself from his insignificant beginnings in Braunau in Austria by his own efforts. To us he was the great statesman, the leader of men and the greatest tactician directing his armies on the battlefields. But when he stood before us on the first day of May in the Berlin Olympic Stadium to celebrate Labor day, he looked humble in his plain uniform. He just stood there, seemingly transfixed by the jubilation's of the people. He had the uncanny ability to present himself to us as an instrument of providence. No one who had heard him that day was left in doubt: before us had stood the Messiah.
I believe that few people today could understand what it meant to an innocent young mind to be taken to such emotional heights, and then to the utter disbelief and total desperation of finding out about the death camps. I was unable to cope with this knowledge of horror in 1945. My whole being had been shattered by betrayal. Now, at the age of 16, I found myself like many of my class mates, unable to absorb barely anything in school. The new teachings of democracy promoted feelings of disgust towards all political factions. I just skimmed by on the grades I made. It seemed as if I was trapped in a black hole from which I could not free myself. Dr. Freud would probably say it presented the state of mind, the total disbelief and constant desperation which had severely traumatized me.
I turned away from my plan of becoming a teacher. Very slowly I rotated to a new beginning. The only path open to me, that would help to heal my soul, was the path that took me after high school graduation to the only Jewish Hospital in West Berlin. I enrolled in nursing school and I lived in a Jewish nurses residence with Jewish room mates. My only chance for emotional stability laid within the fact that somehow I had to get closer to the Jewish people. I was angry with my own God who had in my narrow analysis let all this happen: Six million innocent people. The depth of my despair took me to the God of the Jewish people. On the premises of hospital is a small synagogue. There I sat often in the evening when no one else was around, searching for answers I would never find.
The attitude of the Jewish staff towards us was admirable. We were in fact accepted entirely on our own merits as human beings. On a warm summer evening in 1951 my room mates and I were getting ready to go to a dance at Resi Berlin. One of the girls, Ruth Juliusburger, stood in front of the mirror with a long sleeved dress. I asked her if she did not have anything cooler to wear. She turned towards me, rolled up her sleeve and said in a very light voice "I really don't want anybody to see my serial number!" ( For months I had lived in the same room with her, but not once had I seen this mark of disgrace. The explanation lies most likely in the fact that we always wore long sleeved uniforms and it would have been totally out of character for even one of the girls to say "here, look at this.")
That evening in our room in the residence, I just stood there, numb. When Ruth saw the tears that had sprung from my eyes, she asked me in a perfectly calm voice "Tell me, could you have done something? I don't think so." A few minutes later she tried to calm me with five little words: " Es war nicht Deine Schuld." (It was not your fault.) Needless to say, I did not enjoy myself very much that night at the dance. My friends certainly made every effort for all of us to have a little fun. I pretended to enjoy myself, but deep inside of me all that old desperation had once again come to the surface. That same summer an incident occurred which brought me face to face with the remnants of Nazi horror. On the grounds of the hospital was a smaller building with a chronic facility. No non-Jewish staff worked there, and we were of course curious. It was vacation time, and all wards were short-handed. I received a call one day, asking me to come to this chronic ward and lend a hand. There, the nurse on duty asked me to help with a patient who had to be turned every hour. Entering the room I saw a human skeleton in bed, a skeleton with layers of skin which kept the organs from protruding. As I stood there, foolishly staring, I heard this little high-pitched voice asking me "Sind Sie Jüdisch?" ( Are you Jewish? ) And I, quickly denying, not seeing the nurse who gestured at me to agree, heard the worst accusations anyone could ever hear "Get away from me, you murderer, you Nazi swine, you.... " I did not hear more, I just ran and ran. I did not stop until I reached the large bathroom at the end of the hall on the third floor residence, having passed right by our room. I opened the window and sat on the wide wooden ledge, looking down at the trees. A few minutes later I heard Dr. Rosenberg, the Chief of Staff, speaking softly, persuading me to come down with him for a cup of coffee. (The nurse at the chronic ward had called him immediately after this incident, because she was concerned about my state of mind.)
Walking downstairs with Dr. Rosenberg, his arm draped around my
shoulder, I started to get a hold of myself. In the cafeteria on the
first floor of the residence we sat for awhile without talking.
Suddenly he startled me by talking about the beauty of Venice, which
everybody should see at least once in their lifetime. Trying to follow
what he was saying, it came to me instinctively. All of a sudden I
understood his words: to forget the ugliness we can not change, to
remember the beauty still left in this world for us, if not for so many
others, it is there for us......
It was on this day that I started to live again, at least a little.
After graduating from the nursing school of the Jewish hospital in Berlin-Reinickendorf, Iranische Str.2-4 in April '52 as a Registered Nurse in the Bundesrepublic of Germany, I worked at the hospital for a year and a half. By now the Cold War was in full swing and we were right in the center of yet another international conflict. It forced me to assess my future in this unstable and highly explosive situation, which eventually led to a decision. On October 15, 1953 I left my homeland for a peaceful place called Canada. I went alone, leaving behind my family, my friends, the Berlin where I had spent an early carefree childhood, my language and my culture. Although the twelve short years of the insanity of Nazi dictatorship had reeked so much havoc and left scars that probably will never really heal, there is so much more to Germany. It is also the land of Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schiller, Goethe and so many more, who have contributed over the years to its rich culture. It is also a country where people learn trades and where people like to work. There are many economical and social problems since re-unification, which took place on Oct. 3, 1990, but I am confident that the people will again learn to live together, after having been torn asunder for 29 years. I took part in the glorious celebrations on October the third. Nobody expected this unification to happen in our lifetime.
I was asked a couple days later what I wanted to see first of the former East Germany, where we now could drive freely. My wish was fulfilled. My cousin Gisela and her friend Dora took me to Oranienburg, a place on the northern outskirts of the city. There we visited the former Concentration Camp Sachsenhausen. It covers a vast area, and walking for hours through the former camp was an experience I shall never forget. We took pictures that day and looking at them now, one can see the anguish in our eyes.
I keep myself informed about my homeland through many visits and through the daily News programs of the Deutsche Welle, which brings us TV Berlin via Satellite. In my opinion the people are making a truly honest effort to live in a peaceful united Europe. It took me decades to come to terms with the horrible past, and I for one believe that we should never forget all these innocent victims. But lately I have been deeply hurt by a newly published book, written by an author who was not even born then. He is telling the world at large that all ordinary Germans were deeply complicit in the holocaust. People publish books to make money and I respect their enterprises. But to say that we were all Hitler's willing executioners, is not only completely false, it is an assumption I deeply resent. I was there. I lived through it all. I know the truth about the ordinary Germans, such as my family and my family's friends. I have lost relatives in Stalingrad, Casino and in sea battles in the Atlantic, all of them ordinary men drafted into the services to fight for their country. One of my mother's aunts and her husband were blown to pieces during an air raid on Berlin-Spandau. They were both in their early 70's. They were decent people and really quite ordinary.
We barely escaped with our lives when our house was destroyed during the Last Battle in 1945 and we did not know where my sister Irma was. She had been arrested in July 1944 at the Radio Station where she had worked in the cafeteria. She had foolishly circulated a printed joke about Hitler among the employees and was tried for treason along with several others at the people's court under Chief Justice Roland Freisler. I thought at the time that such an action of circulating inflammatory material was indeed very careless, when SS soldiers were strutting about the communication center of Radio Berlin in Charlottenburg. To this day I think it was careless. My mother could have been spared all this grief, not to mention Irma herself. She returned to us in August 1945 from a liberated camp in Poland. She found us in a strange house in Staaken, which my uncle had found for us. We had scribbled our new whereabouts on the ruin of our house in Spandau. A few years later she opened a restaurant in Charlottenburg with her friend, opera singer Martha Musial. Irma died last year, and she too was an ordinary German who now stands accused, an ordinary German who grew up without knowing her father who was killed in Russia in WW I and lies somewhere in an unmarked grave since 1915. Sender Freies Berlin published a booklet about the resistance at Radio Berlin: "DARAUF KAM DIE GESTAPO NICHT." ("This didn't occur to the Gestapo.") Presumably because the SS had the place covered. This booklet is very interesting, because not many such transcripts from Nazi trials have survived. It is free of charge and can be obtained by writing to:
Sender Freies Berlin (SFB)
Presse und Informationsstelle
I was truly surprised when I read this booklet about 10 years ago. Irma had never talked about her experience in prison or the trial. What struck me were the deadly repercussions that circulating this material at the Radio Station had. Of the nine people charged with treason, three received a death sentence. My sister Irmgard Barich was sentenced to 7 years without honor to a penitentiary. Later I found out she had been at the Women's Penitentiary in Jauer (which most likely has a Polish name today) and from there they were taken to a camp in Poland, as the front lines were getting ever closer.
Life was hard for many people. So hard in fact, that one man who returned in '47 from a POW Camp in Russia told me that the ones who did not survive were the lucky ones. He too was an ordinary German and an ordinary soldier who had fought for his country and lost. History tells us that after any armed conflict the victor is the one who is always right. I would like to mention a book here which is very enlightening and astonishingly frank. It is called "Meeting of Generals." Tony Foster is the author and it was published in 1986 by Methuen Publications in Agincourt, Ontario.
Yes, there were many fanatical people in my country during WW II. There were many who wore their party badge proudly and there were those, as we now know, who willfully participated in the destruction of human beings. Perhaps it is my great fortune that I never met any of them. We had known about the re-locations, nobody made a secret of it. However, I believe that the culprits in the death camps were sworn to secrecy and there most likely were some people who did know and looked the other way. In wartime Berlin, as elsewhere in the German occupied territories, people had one goal in common: to survive this terrible time. The German people as a whole were kept in ignorance, especially the young, because the regime could not afford to shatter the myth. One example: we were all blinded by tears at Rommel's funeral in the fall of 1944, where hundreds of boys and girls had been brought in from all over the country to help with crowd control. We cried because our hero had succumbed to his wounds he had sustained when his car overturned after it had been fired on by Allied planes. Yes, the government of the Third Reich gave our hero an elaborate state funeral. However, the government did not tell us what we now know: Rommel was forced to commit suicide by taking poison because he was implicated in the plot to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944.
Now, I asked myself a question: Why were we not told the truth? I think
I now know the answer. Appearances had to be kept up at all costs so
that we, the young people, did not become disillusioned. I can assure
every reader, that if the papers would have written that thousands and
more thousands of people from many nations were being destroyed, as
well as the whole Jewish race being eradicated and their remains, after
first being gassed, thrown into incinerators, there would have been
such a disillusioning, that I can not even imagine the reaction of my
classmates and all the young people I knew. Remember, we were the ones
who were to carry the torch and banners of honor into the future. We
were the ones who were chosen to act out Hitler's fantasy of a pure and
proud master race. No. We were faithful to the bitter end, because we
believed in him.
And we were bitterly betrayed.
Before I come to the end of this story, I would like to mention something which has bothered me over the years every time I read history books about World War II. I see words such as Nazi soldier, Nazi Navy, Nazi this or that. I would like to clarify that Nazi is an abbreviation for National-Socialist Party, a political party with voluntary membership. Not one person in my own family was a party member, and neither were the bulk of the armed services who fought in the Wehrmacht, the sailors on the ships or the airmen of the Luftwaffe. It is customary now to refer to my homeland during this awful conflict as Nazi Germany because the government of the Third Reich consisted of members of this political party. The founder of this party was a dictator and in charge of the country. This, however, did not make every fighting soldier on the different fronts a Nazi. There were, of course, specialized SS Tank divisions, etc., whose soldiers were most likely all party members.
The same holds true for the Russian Army. Just because a dictator named Stalin was a dyed-in the-wool communist, it didn't make every Russian soldier who fought so gallantly for his motherland a member of the Communist party. During the Cold War hateful sentiments were vented by calling the Russian soldiers dirty Commies and Reds. We called the soldiers, who fought for the United States under FDR and Truman, American soldiers, not Democrats, although the democratic party was in power from 1933-1945.
Perhaps my reasoning makes little sense, perhaps it is painfully naive, but somehow it seems wrong to me to call every enlisted service man in Germany during WW2 a Nazi soldier.
This is a completely honest account. The reader can draw his or her own conclusion, whether or not all German people should stand accused of all these unspeakable crimes committed during the years of utter insanity in the name of the Führer Adolf Hitler.