This is a touchier topic than I normally tackle, so I will try to write about it without offending anyone.
A Jewish friend of mine moved to Berlin a few years ago, met a German woman and had an adorable baby with her. He is now officially a German architect and, while he acknowledges that he would like to move back to the U.S. at some point, he has put down roots in Germany, learned the language, and started a business and family there, so he probably won’t be leaving any time soon.
I had dinner with his mother a few weeks ago, and she expressed that it has been hard for her to come to terms with the fact that her son has chosen to build his life in Germany, considering what the Germans did to many of their ancestors. How can he live there and not constantly be reminded of the Holocaust?
I expressed my thoughts on the subject to her, and I will express them again here.
I am not Jewish, and thus cannot claim to understand what it is like to have relatives that were killed or persecuted in the Holocaust. But I am not sure there are many places on Earth you can live where horrible, large-scale, unspeakable atrocities have not happened, including America. How can a black man live in Mississippi and not think about slavery or the lynchings and abuse that occurred there at the hands of white plantation owners? How can a Japanese person live in Pearl Harbor and not be reminded of the atomic bomb that killed his great-grandmother in Hiroshima? How can a Native American person celebrate Thanksgiving, knowing that that holiday celebrates a time when the English settlers actually murdered many of the natives, spread diseases and stole their food?
I think it’s unfair to associate Germany and all the modern people living in it with the Holocaust, just like I don’t want to be associated with slavery and racism having grown up in Louisiana. I fully believe that, given the right conglomeration of socioeconomic and political circumstances, what happened in Germany could have happened anywhere. It could have happened here, or in France, or in Brazil. But Hitler wasn’t in any of those places; he happened to be in Germany at a time when the country was politically unstable and susceptible to his charisma and bizarre ideas. It was a perfect storm, and it was devastating and unthinkable, but it should not continue to implicate the people who are living on that random piece of land.
There also seems to be line of thinking (entirely aside from the interesting conversation I had with my friend’s mother, which did not go here) that those who currently belong to an ethno-geographic group that persecuted and oppressed another ethno-geographic group at some point in history should remain accountable for those atrocities in some way or another. What do today’s white Americans owe to today’s black Americans to atone for centuries of persecution? What do today’s Germans owe today’s Jews? Should we carry the guilt or victimization of our ancestors, or should we all be able to start with a clean slate?
For one, I would like to draw a distinction between keeping alive the memory of an atrocity that happened and actually assigning blame to people who had nothing to do with it. Johann Althausen, the perfectly nice 25-year-old German guy who loves pickles and hates tomatoes and was born in a random hospital in Munich 1984, had nothing to do with the fact that thousands of innocent people were murdered at Auschwitz decades before he was born, even if it was his great-grandfather that ordered those killings. I believe that he should make an effort to learn about the Holocaust, to understand what happened in his country and why and how horrible it was. I believe that he should take that knowledge and channel it toward ensuring that he and his future kids live lives entirely devoid of violence and racial and religious prejudice. But I don’t think that he should spend his life having to apologize or somehow make up for the Holocaust, just because he happens to be German.
I feel the same way about the racial situation in the States. Yes, we should absolutely acknowledge centuries of racial oppression and persecution and those consequences that still linger and we should continue to teach our children about it so that they can learn from those mistakes. But should I carry the guilt of my ancestors’ actions just because I’m white, when I have spent my own life in an entirely opposite way?
No, obviously, I shouldn’t. I will join the fight for equal rights. If African-Americans are pissed because “nude” or “flesh” colored bandaids are universally the color of white people’s skin, well, shit. I agree. “Nude” should come in a range of shades, because people do.
But if you want me to be understanding when the “New Black Panther Party” intimidates voters in Philadelphia because, well, it’s only fair after years of persecution and denying your people suffrage, then no. Those voters at the poll are not the same people that counted your ancestors as 3/5 of a person and fought to uphold slavery, and they do not deserve your wrath or revenge. Further, your displays of racism and psychological abuse at the polls makes you no better than those people you’re so angry with, so how can you continue to convince yourself that you are fighting for a good moral cause?
The longer we continue to keep the strife and resentment and anger towards entire ethno-geographical groups alive because of events that happened long before we were born, the more likely it is that similar events will continue to repeat themselves.