In the months of October and November every year, stories about the holocaust flood German media. I have for years followed these stories and every single time, my heart breaks into tiny pieces. It never becomes more bearable or easier to see the haunted eyes and the emaciated skeletal bodies of the victims of the Wehrmacht.
I’m not sure what exactly drives me to watch or read these stories. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m deeply aware that as a foreigner, I would have been high on the list of those the NAZIs rounded up. Or maybe it’s my self-preservation instincts trying to figure out whether it’s time to duck.
One of the recurring themes in these stories is mixed families of Germans and Jews. I’m curious about these families. Mixed relationships in their nature are in the best of times fraught with mysteries and complications that would boggle most people. But how does one have a relationship let alone marry someone whose community is persecuting his own?
In one recently published book "Apfelbaum", a German actor Christian Berkel tells the story of his Jewish family. His mother, a Jew married his father a Wehrmacht doctor but they don't really talk about it. At some point he becomes curious and asks his parents about who they are. His mother tells him that he is a bit Jewish but doesn’t elaborate. She also mentions that she was in a camp but doesn’t explain that it was in fact a concentration camp. His father who had been a prisoner of war in Russia sings him Russian lullabies but he also doesn't say much.
What’s amazing about this story is not that it happened. It’s the fact that these kinds of stories are fairly common. While reading this story, I was reminded of a memoir I read about a Jewish doctor who fled to New York with his German wife. His parents and siblings didn’t manage to leave Europe in time. He deals with this by simply refusing to talk about them. His wife, a member of a prominent Nazi family on the other hand is obsessed with trying to find out what happened to her in-laws. She eventually finds out that the NAZIs killed them. She tries to tell her husband but never quite manages because he always cuts her off or walks out of the room.
Now most people would imagine that this would have irreparable damage on their relationship but that is not what happens. They actually do live fairly normal lives. They work; they go on holidays and raise their daughter. The only things they don’t talk about are their respective families and yes, the past.
There is an unmistakable loud silence in these lives that is both horrifying and suffocating. But the really funny twist for me at least, is not just the admiration I feel for these couples for loving the ‘enemy’ but the gratitude that I feel for the power of silence. Silence is what keeps these relationships from falling apart. It’s what keeps their souls from fragmenting into smithereens. It’s what keeps them (pun intended) together.
Maybe there is a point in life where words cannot do any justice.
At that point, silence not words becomes a necessary tool for survival.