Past Lives

‘Who would want a dusty collection of children’s books, their spines broken, written in German?’

How much does the past determine our present? This sounds like one of those heady questions put forward by academics or politicians during lofty commemorative speeches. Any answer seems to have little impact on our daily lives. And yet, in shaping the Europe we want to live in, how we pose or answer the question matters a great deal.

Recent reports suggest that anti-Semitism is on the rise in seemingly liberal European countries. In Germany in particular, neo-Nazi websites have mushroomed over the past year. The far-Right fringe is framed by hostility towards Israel from substantial sections of the German mainstream. This is more akin to a gut feeling than to a rational political argument, and there is a fundamental difference between being an anti-Semite and being critical of Israel. Still, the question we now face is this: can we really afford to take our liberalism for granted and to dismiss such reports with the attitude that waves of such irrational sentiments come and go?

I wondered about this just before leaving New York for Berlin, after a year in America. As a German, even someone in their early thirties like myself, you can’t quite escape your country’s sinister past. (Just how attuned to it you are varies from generation to generation and from person to person.) That past is especially hard to forget in New York, where you are surrounded by Jewish life: your shoe-repair shop is closed on Saturdays, your best friend can’t eat food prepared in your kitchen and you find yourself involved with a man who happens to be Jewish.

In short, you encounter the Jewish people, religion and culture in the most natural, lively, joyous way — and yet you can’t avoid the sudden flash of recollection that your own grandparents (or at least their friends, neighbours and acquaintances) set out deliberately to eradicate the forebears of these people you love. It’s a fact of life that nobody and nothing can help you to deal with — certainly not Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through or overcoming the past) so beloved of postwar Germany, for how can you work through a past that you haven’t lived through? 

The most enlightening encounter I have had with this double bind was when I met my octogenarian friend Susan and heard the story of her German children’s books. She was kicked out of her grammar school in the German-speaking Czech town of Troppau because of her “non-Aryan” background when the Nazis occupied the Sudetenland in 1938. Ever since, Susan had been worried what would happen to the books that her mother had packed for her when the two of them — and only the two of them — were able to flee to England. They included children’s classics, such as Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, a book that children in Germany (and not only in Germany) read to this day. 

Susan took these books with her whenever she moved, and they finally ended up with her in America. When I had dinner with her one night, I saw a stash of boxes filled with books and asked her what these were. She told me how concerned she was about what would happen to them after her death. Who would want a dusty collection of children’s books, their spines broken, written in German? I didn’t have to explain why I wanted them. I just had the very visceral feeling that I wanted to give them a new home in Berlin — because they would remind me of my friend and because I knew how dear these books were to her. It just seemed the right thing to do and felt entirely natural. 

Even though I have read Susan’s autobiography, we never spoke about the horrors of her past — not for fear of upsetting the other person, I believe, but because our friendship isn’t defined by this chapter of history, which happened long before I was born. Our connection was neither weighed down by the past nor oblivious of it. We were able to form a friendship, however unlikely, divided by half a century, consisting of civilised conversations over tea. 

The Central Europe from which Susan fled all these years ago doesn’t exist now. In that sense, her giving me her children’s books doesn’t indicate an important moment of closure, but rather a way in which a fraught past can appear in one’s life in a way that’s both matter-of-fact and subtle. I am aware that this is largely to do with an acceptance and kind-hearted curiosity on my friend’s part that not everyone can be expected to muster. 

This is both the opportunity and the danger we face: that after all these years, the lessons to be learned depend on those who want to hear the questions that give rise to them. 

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