“Both sides of my family, my paternal side and my maternal side, were devout Nazis,” Anna Reiner confesses with a serious look on her angel face. “My great grandfather took part in burning the synagogue in the city of Darmstadt, Germany. Another grandfather was a policeman in the Krakow ghetto. Another grandfather was in the Wehrmacht, the German army, and took part in the occupation of Belarus.”
While 25-year-old Reiner describes the horrible acts committed by her grandparents, Yevgenya Chaika sits next to her and strokes her arm, calming her down. It’s quite possible that Chaika, a Belarus-born Holocaust survivor, ran into Reiner’s grandfather at some point. She was only eight months old when Hitler’s soldiers stormed eastern Belarus and jailed all the Jews in crowded ghettos. Together with her family members, she was tossed “like a sack of potatoes” into a crate on a large truck, which took her to the ghetto. She barely survived there for four years, a helpless baby. After the ghetto was liberated, the family returned home, only to discover that the house had been bombed and robbed.
Who knows, it may have been Reiner’s grandfather of all people who threw little Yevgenya into crate on the truck. It may have been he who fired the mortar shell that destroyed her childhood home. “And what if it was him?” Chaika says in her heavy accent as she keeps caressing Reiner’s hand. “Is she to blame for what her grandfather and grandmother did? Absolutely not. I love her as if she were my own daughter.”
The unusual meeting between Reiner and Chaika was held recently in the Israeli city of Netanya, as part of the activity of German organization March of Life. About 100 Belarus-born Holocaust survivors, wearing caps and glasses and wrapped in their coats, faced some 10 young Germans, tall and good-looking, the descendants of Nazi soldiers and officers. The former spoke about their horrible experiences in the Holocaust, and the latter told them about their families’ grim history.
Surprisingly, there was no anger in this intergenerational meeting, just a lot of sadness and a bit of comfort, for both sides. Not a single eye remained dry when Asia Bronstein recalled how her father was drafted by the Soviet army and she was forced to flee eastward with her mother. On the way, they found themselves in a small Jewish town just as the German army arrived in the area, encircled the town and turned it into a ghetto.
“That wasn’t life, just a difficult, daily survival,” she recounted. “The winter of 1941 was extremely cold, and there was no need to shoot people. They died of hunger, of the cold and of diseases. Every day, a wagon passed between the houses and collected the bodies. Only few survived.”
The 25-year-old Samuel Haas took the microphone and said, “My grandparents were Nazis. One of them handed out printed propaganda information, and the other three traveled across Europe as part of their job in the Wehrmacht army. They murdered, robbed and looted. And as a descendant of these people, I would like to stand on Israeli soil and say out loud that we must not let such a thing happen again. I want to expose my family’s story and support Israel and the war on anti-Semitism.”
Haas’ comments reflect the solidarity at the heart of this event and the agreement that such meetings will help guarantee that horrible events like the Holocaust will never repeat themselves.
“Anna and her friends are reaching out to us now,” Chaika says with a broad smile. “They are very good young men and women. It warms my heart that they are so cute and that they know it was wrong. I’m not angry with them, absolutely not. I hope that they won’t be like their grandparents now.”
The March of Life organization was founded nine years ago in a bid to commemorate the Holocaust and fight anti-Semitism. It encourages young Germans to investigate their families’ past, break the barrier of silence and uncover the acts committed by their grandparents in the Holocaust.
“For years, no one in Germany discussed what had happened only several meters from the German city centers, “explains Heinz Reuss, the organization’s international director. “Not only was there no public debate, there were no family conversations about the past either. People didn’t talk about what they did in the war. We started investigating our family’s past, started asking questions. Many of us discovered that they grandparents were Nazi criminals. We were shocked.”
Not just in Germany, but in Israel too, there has been a silencing culture about the Holocaust for many years. The main principle of the organization, therefore, is talking. The actual discussion of the matter, after years of silencing on both sides, brings people closer and releases tensions and old hatreds. It aims to guarantee that the past does not repeat itself.
As part of the organization, the young Germans meet with Holocaust survivors around the world, tell them about their families’ Nazi past and seek their forgiveness, promising to do everything in their power so that those hate crimes do not repeat themselves.
In the meeting held in Netanya, the young Germans even presented a Hasidic dance to the survivors and sang a modern version of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva,” including a rap segment in German, which was met with loud applause. They then handed out flowers to the survivors.
“The March of Life insists that we don’t keep silent again,” says Reuss, “that we speak publicly about what our forefathers did. The goal is to bring together the Nazi criminals’ descendants with the Holocaust survivors and the victims of the Holocaust. The meeting between them is part of our message – to remember what happened not just through figures and data, but through personal stories too.”
Responsibility, not shame
As part of the organization, the young Germans participate in marches that are held in main cities around the world, alongside local citizens and Holocaust survivors, under the banner “Never Again.” So far, the organization has held 350 marches in 14 different countries. In 2018, in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day, it plans to hold its biggest march in Jerusalem.
In a recent ceremony held in the Israeli capital, the organization presented a lifetime achievement award to Prof. Gideon Greif, an Israeli historian who specializes in the history of the Holocaust.
It would be very easy to change the organization’s name from March of Life to Walk of Shame. But Anna Reiner and her young friends are willing to swear that it’s not the shame which makes them learn the words of “Hatikva” and perform in front of 100 elderly people in Netanya.
“It’s the responsibility,” she explains. “I am the descendant of Nazi criminals, and I am responsible for this matter and for making sure that it doesn’t happen again. Before I knew all this information about my family, I had no interest in the Holocaust. Today, I am breaking the silence. It’s important to talk about it and not to forget.”
Beyond the exposure of the past, the solidarity marches and the personal meetings, one of the organization’s basic principles is unwavering support, some would say fanatic support, for the State of Israel. For example, at the end of each testimony, the young German pledges allegiance to the State of Israel and vows to fight any criticism directed at the country.
One of the explanations is the fact that the organization works from churches across Germany and mainly appeals to young devout Christians, deeply leaning on the Holy Scriptures.
“I believe in the Bible, I am Christian, and the Bible says that God gave this land to the Jews,” Reiner recites. “So I think that they have the right to fight for it. Beyond speaking about my family’s past, an important part as far as I am concerned is to stand behind Israel.”
“During the war, the Church, which knew what was happening, kept quiet,” Reuss adds. “Those people who believe in the God of Israel did the exact opposite of what the Holy Scriptures say. So it is important to us as Christians to speak and shout out against anti-Semitism and against the hatred towards Israel. The best way to understand the meaning of anti-Semitism is to look it in the face, and that’s what we’re doing. We understand the meaning of anti-Semitism and where it can lead, because we look at our family’s history and see what our forefathers did. So coming here is a powerful thing which conveys a message in an excellent way.”
What usually happens in the meetings with the survivors?
You talk about genocide and about “never again.” Does what is happening now in Aleppo, not far from here, concern you?
“Of course it concerns us. If you hold a March of life, it’s a symbol against any genocide, not just the Holocaust, and I believe it’s very relevant to what is happening in Aleppo as well and in other places in the world. These are horrible things which should not happen again, and that is our exact message.”