back

Good Germans
By Emma Rosenthal


Emma Rosenthal is an artist, writer, educator and human rights activist.  She is the founder and Executive Director of The Writing Empowerment Project and is the founder and Executive Producer of ¡Cafe Intifada!  She lives in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California.

We thank Emma Rosenthal for her permission to post this piece on our web site.


I: 1969

"Good Germans" my father muttered as we walked from door to door petition in hand, collecting signatures trying to secure an end to the war in Vietnam.  1969.  Some yelled at us to "go back to Russia!"—a strange refrain the accusation of communism mixing with the juxtaposition of the genocide that first brought his mother to these shores.  Others politely said they didn't want to make waves, attract the attention of the authorities, cause a problem.  These were the "good Germans"

Not a German in the bunch

"What do you mean Daddy, how do you know they are German?" I asked, not eleven years old, not yet having learned the nuances of ethnicity (these things must be learned.)

"They aren't German, Em"

"Why did you say they were good Germans?"

Good Germans, the ones who knew but said they didn't, 1942 but said nothing, did not participate in the holocaust, did not profit from slave labor did not serve in the army, just silent.  Good Germans did not attract the attention of the authorities, pretended not to know, saw Jewish girls, outside the camp, walking to the factory singing.

See, they are happy.

Good Germans, not worried about the smoke, the stench.  "We didn't know."  Good Germans.

Jew to Jew this is not a compliment.

II: 1977

I sit in a hotel lobby in Berlin waiting for my sister to come down from the room A day of walking, shopping, museums, the insipid kindness of strangers giving me directions.

I am surrounded.

1977.  Every man in the lobby is my father's age and German, peaceful, still, Bach, not Wagner playing over the lobby hush, a place for guests, tourists, businessmen niceties.  The wicked niceties of these men like a tourniquet around my neck, my father's age and German, every one of them.

And I am surrounded.

I know some hid Jews, falsified documents, killed one so hundreds could go free, unlikely but perhaps one of these men was righteous.

I sat in 1977 safety, caught in the possibility that perhaps suddenly I might find myself in 1942 surrounded.  My Polish skin not sufficiently hiding my history.  My foreign features betraying my identity, ancestry, different.

Very different from than that stupid scene in Julia where Jane Fonda plays Lillian Hellman.  A bad casting call in a Hollywood world where a Jew can look like Jane Fonda.  Jane Fonda, running through Nazi Germany like a nervous WASP, with narrow hips and cute little nose, small nervous gestures.  If we looked like that perhaps we wouldn't have been cooked to death, found our skins stretched into lampshades, our hair woven into rugs, our ashes into the soap the good Germans bathed in to wash away the stench, the ashes that coated their hair, their skin, their cities, as they breathed in the dead cells of Jews they didn't know.  The Jewish girls, singing between the camps and the factory just relieved to be outside for the day.

See, they are happy.

III: 2002

Intifada Uprising Intifada Uprising We look through a mirror or are we the reflection?  Guns poised shooting the image or are we the image shooting the subject of the reflection?  A strange apartheid, who are the good Germans now?

Israeli generals admit to studying Nazi strategy against the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the strategies in bring down the ghetto of Jewish insurrectionists fighting to the death, a suicide mission, the desperation of those who have nothing left to lose holding back the Nazi's longer than all of Poland.  There are no Jews in Poland now and they still hate us

There are Jews in Palestine, studying the German strategy, shooting their own image, a strange apartheid, separation of kinship, the children of Abraham with Europe as father reigning down terror pitting skin against skin.  And the silence, the complicity.

I hear of Israeli soldiers marking numbers on the arms of Palestinian prisoners (the camps) rounding up all the men (the ghettos) torture (the camps) targeting children (the ghettos -the camps) house arrest (the ghettos) refugee camps (the ghettos) high officials calling the people vermin a cancer not enough chemotherapy transfer (the final solution).

I have met these people, all of them; the good Germans; the generals, the soldiers who just want to get through the tour alive so they can get a job when they get out; the Palestinian families who want to send the children off to school, pick the olives, turn the key in the door to the house that no longer stands in the village that no longer exists beyond the rubble covered in the trees planted by collections take in American synagogues the forestation of the desert, the hope of Europe's refugees, the invisible destruction of a homeland.

Oppressed turned oppressor, blinded by this twist of history, this betrayal of history, this strange apartheid, with special roads, and roadblocks, and false distinctions.  We think we are different.  we look in the mirror, the distorted reflection from the years on Europe's soil.

I think of Abraham, the patriarch, this strange apartheid the two sons, separated by the bitterness of the desert, reunited at the death of the father.

But three times he sacrificed us both:

The circumcision; the blood that must be shed for boys to become men.

The casting out of Hagar and Ishmael: with merely a loaf of bread and a skin of wine providing nothing beyond the first night in the dessert, while hoarding goats and water.

And the knife at Isaac's throat on the mountaintop: as if even lambs were meant for sacrifice.

I breathe easier that they survived.  Ishmael's children are my cousins.  We think we are different.  We have been stained from years on Europe's soil.  To have survived centuries of Europe's plunder to come home to this?

So it is not my home

and

it is not my war

and

if it were my war

I could not fight!

The land is not for sale or plunder.  Nothing can be gained from hegemony.  In this betrayal of our history, killing them is killing me.  We have broken the mirror of our own souls and we have broken it upon their backs.


2003 Emma Rosenthal All Rights Reserved.