Meeting the Children of Nazis and Revolting Role-Play

1992, Harvard: my chance to meet a Nazi. A real-life Nazi. None of my friends had ever met a real-life Nazi. Our parents had of course. They had met many Nazis, and they were the main topic of conversation in Melbourne as I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s. And now I could get to say that I had also met a Nazi, and then maybe I could also be part of the conversation.  But I wasn’t meeting an actual Nazi – I was part of a 4-day encounter to bring together a  group of children of survivors and a group of children of Nazis, haunted by the ghosts of their fathers and the complicity of their mothers.

I was reminded of this experience when I read about the primary school in Łabunie, south-eastern Poland, where a group of children role-played out scenes from Auschwitz. According to a Polish news site,  “during the performance, which was organised under the supervision of teachers, two boys around 12 years old were dressed in Nazi uniforms, including swastika armbands. Behind them, kneeling beneath barbed wire, were a group of children around seven years old, dressed in the uniforms of prisoners at Auschwitz (where ethnic Poles were the second largest group of victims after Jews). …At one point, the Gestapo officers turned on a smoke machine and the gassed ‘prisoners’ fell to the floor pretending to be dead.”

At Harvard, we also did some role playing. The Jews had to play German guards and the Germans had to play Jewish victims. Yes, read that sentence again. The Jews had to play German guards and the Germans had to play Jewish victims. I refused to participate and although I can’t recall the exact exchange, I clearly remember that the group facilitators were very annoyed with me. I was not being the obedient Jew and I simply couldn’t understand why everyone else was willing to play out some sort of perverse fantasy game. By the time the role-play was over, there was a lot of crying and hugging.  One of the German women admitted that she was always scared of meeting Jews, fearful that we could come after her as retribution for her father’s actions. Well, here was our chance, but it didn’t play out that way. Rather, most of the Jewish group members desperately wanted to re-assure her and indeed, all the Germans, that their feelings of guilt and shame were misplaced and unnecessary. In the hierarchy of suffering, these somewhat tortured Germans won hands-down.

The role play in Łabunie and at Harvard reflect different challenges of Holocaust education. Millions of dollars have been poured into Holocaust education across the globe – curriculum development, teaching resources, pedagogical methods, interactive tools and of course March of the Living, which is another role-play of sorts, re-enacting a death march from Auschwitz to Birkenau  – the same one that my father survived.  While the  IHRA has provided guidelines for Holocaust education and there are many excellent and dedicated teachers who have imparted thoughtful, accurate lessons about the Holocaust, research reflecting the overall impact of this education is  quite dispiriting.  In a well publicized US study  two-thirds of Millennials cannot identify what Auschwitz  was, and in a study of 8,000 students aged 11 – 18  by the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College, London, a third massively underestimated the scale of the murder of Jewish people, with 10.3% appearing to believe that no more than 100,000 lives were lost and 68% unaware of what ‘antisemitism’ meant. With the rise in recorded antisemitism across the globe, it appears that while people have studied the Holocaust, the assumption that knowledge would change behaviour is misguided.  Perhaps the question that’s too frightening to ask is What would have happened without Holocaust education?

I have had no contact with anyone from the Harvard seminar again – and quite understandably, no-one was keen on keeping in touch with me. I didn’t fawn over the Germans, nor buy into the zealous universalist world view of the Jewish participants. On reflection, I probably wasn’t ready for such an encounter and for the Germans, I suspect I was an object of curiosity, of strange fascination – a real-life Jew – however, I could not provide salvation, nor was it my role to offer forgiveness.

Meetings between descendants of the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust have been replicated in different fora over the years, and no doubt, for many people, it has proved therapeutic and cathartic. [I hope they’ve ditched the role-play.] Important work bringing Germans to Israel and more recently, of Israelis volunteering in Germany has created bonds of understanding. It also speaks to a wider movement including interfaith work  and restorative justice, of bringing people together who would not normally meet and enabling them to understand each other’s perspective.  Although my views have changed somewhat since that Harvard seminar, and I have since participated in meaningful and varied encounters, I am still wary of those people attached to a permanent intravenous drip of hope who see the potential for goodness and change at every turn. This positivity may be a gift but surely, it must lead to disappointment for despite individual acts of great kindness and bravery, the world seems irreparably damaged.

Knowing the facts of the Holocaust is crucial but it’s hard work. I’m left with the inevitable thought that perhaps the most effective Holocaust education might just be meeting survivors who do radiate hope – who have created the ordinary out of the extraordinary and can celebrate life, despite its disappointments. Survivors who are able to dance at Melbourne’s ironically named Buchenwald Ball with their children and grandchildren. As they age, many survivors now feel an urgency to speak about their experiences, and are taking their stories into the classroom so that others can meet a real-life Jew.

In this social media age, I dread to say it, but perhaps an Instagram-perfect  ‘Selfie with a Survivor’  is going to be the most memorable encounter for someone in a Polish primary school or an American university campus who has no understanding of the Holocaust.  The problem of course, is that we’re running out of time.

First published in the Times of Israel, 2nd January. 2020