Dealing with the Past…

Answer by Eva Kor:

I was at Auschwitz in July 2014. When I was on the selection platform, my Executive Director Kiel Majewski said, “Eva, there is a group of German students here. Do you have anything you would like to say to them?”

I looked at the students. They were crying, overwhelmed with emotion to meet a survivor. I could tell they felt a tremendous sense of guilt. I asked them, “Why do you feel guilty? Have you done anything wrong? You weren’t even around back then. Now you are feeling guilty and wasting your wonderful energy on something that doesn’t help anyone. Instead of that, if you really want to do something for me or other Holocaust survivors, then take every opportunity you can to do the small acts of kindness, to make your world just a little bit better than it was before. Guilt will never empower you to do that. Your action doesn’t have to be expensive or big. If you see a piece of litter, pick it up and throw it in the trash can. Maybe that won’t save the world, but you have made that little corner of the world better and you can build on that. Or if you see a person who is kind of withdrawn and doesn’t seem to have any friends, go up and talk to them. Try to become a friend, even for a short time. Be aware of your world and try to make it better.” They nodded, yes. They agreed with me, and then they wanted to hug me. So I hugged them. Here is a picture from our meeting.

The students also said that in German education they are being told Germany did all these terrible things, and they are trying to make the German young people remember it. Well that is all true, but I think it has to be tempered, without passing on guilt. We do need to teach them what happened, but we also need to teach the young people that they are not guilty of anything from the past. None of us ever have the choice to be born where we would like to be born. For many, many years I said, “I am not guilty for being born Jewish, so why did they hate me for that?” And if I am going to go and hate today’s Germans for being born German, am I any better than Hitler for it? Perhaps I am not killing people like Hitler did, but killing starts with hating, and hating at its worst point becomes killing. So the sentiment is the same, and it is the same sentiment that can be seen in many conflicts in the world today. It always starts with teaching young people to hate, and then they feel justified in killing. If we start with forgiveness, then we break the cycles of violence and victimization.

I have actually visited some members of the German Bundestag four years ago. I thought I was giving them good advice in trying to tell them that I think Germany should forgive the Nazis and forgive Hitler because it would help Germany to heal. One of the members of the Bundestag said, “Well Mrs. Kor, that’s very nice, but what will the neo-Nazis think if we forgive the Nazis? They are breathing down our necks and giving us problems. And as members of the government, our job is to protect the citizens of Germany. That is not going to help us protect our citizens.” I said, “Wow, you are right.” In that respect, I didn’t think it through. I thought countries could forgive, but I realize the role of every government is to protect its citizens. A government cannot really forgive as a blanket policy, because then they are putting themselves in a potentially dangerous situation. Nor can a government forgive on behalf of every person. The truth is, I can’t even do it for anyone else, only myself. So each person who has been damaged, hurt, or carries the burden of previous atrocities such as the Nazis committed, they can forgive in their own name.

But you have to understand what I mean by “forgiveness.” It is not for the perpetrator. The perpetrator doesn’t ever have to know about it. It is a simple act of self-healing, self-liberation, and self-empowerment. It is so simple that most people don’t believe it works. Yet it does. In many, many cases, I have talked to people who contacted me because they have been raped or abused and they carry that burden for a long time. How can such a simple thing work for them? All I can say is, try it. It’s free. It has no side effects. See if it works for you. It could be that it doesn’t work for every single person, but I am convinced that if people try it they will gain understanding of how we can go on with our lives without carrying the great burden of what we have survived. We can keep the wisdom – because there is a wisdom in surviving atrocities – but we don’t have to carry the pain.

So for Germany, I would advise every single German to try the idea of forgiveness for themselves as individuals. If they succeed in healing themselves from that tremendous burden that was imposed on them, then I have a request. Please pass it on to someone who needs it.

Today’s Germans should be proud of themselves. They are the only country in the world today that has taken responsibility for the actions that their grandfathers and great grandfathers did and are paying restitution. No other country in Europe has taken on that level of responsibility. Every time the issue comes up, they all point the finger at Germany alone. Well, there were twenty or so countries that collaborated with Germany. Germany wasn’t eager to take all the responsibility in the beginning, but in the last few decades they have. If every country in the world would take responsibility for their actions when they have harmed other people and not blame other countries or groups of people, we would be a lot further than we are now. But so far I have not seen that from other countries.

So take responsibility and be proud of who you are. You cannot change the past. No one can change the past. But live your life so that you are a responsible human being, and teach the younger generations that they can make a difference when they see something wrong. You have to take action to stop it, because you are the future. This is your world.

What is Holocaust survivors’ advice for Germans on how to deal with their country’s past?