By Edith Cord
Several years ago, the local group of Child Survivors of the Holocaust sent out a notice asking for a volunteer to speak to a group of Germans and Jews. They wanted someone who had lived through the persecution. In German, they referred to it as a Zeitzeuge, or witness of the time. I offered to be that witness. The group was meeting in Germantown, a comfortable drive from my house.
I was scheduled to speak at 1 p.m., but I decided that I wanted to get there earlier because I wanted to meet people informally before my talk. I arrived around 11:30 and met one of the organizers. Brian Berman was an artist, a sculptor. He explained to me that the program was organized by a German moderator and under the heading of Compassionate Listening. The idea was to bring together Germans, mostly born after WWII, and American Jews, who may or may not have been affected directly by the Holocaust. He invited me to share the simple lunch with the group.
I sat down at the table, and opposite me was one of the German participants, a man of a certain age. We shall call him Gunther. We exchanged casual pleasantries. I asked him where he was from, he said from Hamburg, so I jokingly said that makes him a Hamburger, with its double meaning in English. He told me he was married. I asked whether he had children, he said yes, two. He was working as a chemical engineer. He was fluent in English, and since I am fluent in German, the conversation was in both languages. It was all very pleasant and friendly.
All the participants had chosen to be there. Both sides clearly were attempting to master the demons of this horrific past. This led to an atmosphere of tremendous good will. With Germany almost Judenrein, there is little opportunity for Germans to interact with Jews. As a result, many did not know what to expect. Later, one of the participants told me that he was afraid. When I asked, “Of what?” he said he was not sure whether Jews would seek revenge and attack him. That shows how little he knew us.
I gave my talk, and told my story: Born in Vienna, I left before the Anschluss with my family. We moved to Italy in 1937. By 1938 the Italians had joined Germany and the government passed discriminatory anti-Jewish laws. Italy kicked us out. Unable to obtain a visa to any country, we managed to get into France. That’s where events caught up with us. After the fall of France, both my father and my older brother were arrested and sent to French concentration camps. In 1942, both were deported to Auschwitz. I survived by going into hiding, and eventually I was smuggled into Switzerland. After the war only my mother survived. I went back to France.
What followed were seven years of intense effort to get an education despite extreme poverty and deprivation. I earned my French Baccalaureat followed by a graduate degree from the University of Toulouse before coming to the U.S. in 1952. During these years of intense studying I struggled to come to terms with the horrors of the war, with man’s inhumanity to man by people who belonged to the same German and European culture as I did. I was able to transcend hatred and make peace with life and with Germans through spirituality. I was prepared to meet Germans with an open mind, without hatred, as one human being to another. This was even more true if they were prepared to meet me in the same way.
Gunther’s story was different. He was the son of one of the worst perpetrators. His father had joined the Nazi party before Hitler came to power. His father was head of a police battalion. Once the war in Poland started, his unit was one of the commandos that went into eastern Europe, dragging Jews out of their homes, ordering them to dig a ditch at a nearby wood and to undress before shooting them. While growing up Gunther had suspected something like that, but his father was successful in avoiding prison as he and his fellow policemen vouched for each other: Yes, they were there in Poland, but they did not shoot. Right.
It was not until his father died that Gunther found the papers showing the legal pursuits that his father had managed to outwit for years. Gunther was devastated. He was a man of great integrity, a religious man. In one sense it was almost a relief to find out that his suspicions were correct. On the other hand, how can one live as the son of such a mass murderer? Gunther struggled with a strong sense of guilt and even despair, not knowing which way to turn. Then he stumbled on the Compassionate Listening Project.
The project was well organized and led by experienced moderators with training to help participants come together and face their respective nightmares. The first two meetings were held in Germany a year apart. One included a visit to the concentration camp Bergen Belsen. That was an extremely painful experience for Gunther. He was helped by a very kind and sensitive Jewish lady from the group. The Germantown meeting was the third in the series. Its location gave a larger number of American Jews the opportunity to participate.
I saw a video that recorded one of the sessions. Needless to say, it is emotional and many tears were shed. Many participants had relatives who had been murdered.
After my talk, and the discussion that followed, Gunther invited me to dinner. We were comfortable with each other and the conversation flowed freely. I am always happy to meet Germans who are honest about their country’s past, especially since I have met many who still live with a Nazi mindset, or who would rather forget about the whole thing. Gunther’s courage and honesty were refreshing.
After the conference, everyone went home, but Gunther and I stayed in touch. I discovered that he still felt personally guilty for his father’s sins. While this may have been understandable, it was not rational. Gunther was born in 1948, well after the end of the war, and he was not responsible for the actions of his father. To help him realize his innocence, I wrote several stories and fairy tales for him with specific incidents from the group’s experience woven into the narrative.
We became friends. I have a lot of admiration for him and a lot of respect for his courage and integrity. There was complete trust between us and we could be totally honest with each other. I visited him in Hamburg, and he paid me a brief visit with his wife several years ago.
Today, together with three other people touched by the Nazi persecution and the occupation of France, he shares his experience in various public settings.
As for me, I continue to speak out with an emphasis on the lessons to be learned from this bitter experience.
After retiring from her career as a Certified Financial Planner to write her memoir, “Finding Edith: Surviving the Holocaust in Plain Sight” (Purdue University Press), Edith Mayer Cord now devotes her time to writing and public speaking.