Germany: A Story of Sadness, Guilt, and the Past

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The Tower of the Void

When you walk into the Tower of the Void inside the Jewish Museum of Berlin, what strikes you immediately is the ominous silence of it all. An empty tower that reaches 20, 30 meters into the air and lets in only a sliver of sunlight from its few sunroofs, the darkness of not only the concrete walls but also the spots that are not illuminated by the sunlight envelop and swallow up the visitors of the tower. A walkway connects the entrance to a dead end on the other side, also consumed by the darkness, but once the silence settles in, your focus turns to the walkway. This walkway is littered with ironwork faces, ranging from the size of a palm to a forty-five pound disk one would see at the gym, but all carrying a wrenching, screaming expression. The idiosyncratic rusting and banged-up edges which have been affected by Father Time’s all-encompassing touch creates an effect that each face is a different, individual face, all crying out in frozen, muted screams. However, take a step onto this walkway and its faces disrupt the stillness of the setting. The faces, hitting against each other under the weight of your steps, noisily echo against the cold, bleak walls of the tower, and what was once an undisturbed silence turns into cries, perhaps even screams. Stop midway, and the noise is gone. Begin walking again, and the metallic chorus rings out once more, filling up the empty tower all the way to the top.

Clink. Clink. Clink. Clank. Clink.

You have to look up, because it becomes no longer possible to look down at those faces.

“Gedenken”

 

The German word for remembrance is “Gedenken”. Look at the inscriptions, descriptions, and information on the museums, monuments, and statues littered throughout Berlin and you come across the word “Gedenken” quite often. A country wracked with guilt over its actions in World War II has begged for forgiveness for crimes that might never be forgiven, and these tokens and memorials of repentance are painfully present in the capital of Germany. The Neue Wache, a war memorial for the victims of the Second World War contains Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture Mother with her Dead Son inside an empty cell on the other side of cell bars, with an inscription next to the bars. The inscription, translated into English, reads as follows:

“The Neue Wache is a place of remembrance and commemoration of the victims of war and tyranny.

We remember all nations/peoples who suffered in war.

We remember their citizens, who were persecuted and lost their lives.

We remember all of the innocent people who lost their lives in war and because of the consequences of war at home, in captivity, and during the expulsion.

We remember the millions of murdered Jews.

We remember the murdered Sinti and Romany Gypsies.

We remember all of the people who were killed because of their ancestry, their homosexuality or because of sickness and disability.

We remember all of the murdered whose right to life was denied.

We remember all of the people who had to die because of their religious or political convictions.

We remember everyone who became a victim of tyranny and went innocently to death.

We remember the women and men who sacrificed their lives in the resistance against the tyranny.

We honor everyone who preferred to go to their death than compromise their conscience.

We remember the women and men who were persecuted and murdered because they resisted the totalitarian dictatorship after 1945.”

This is only one of the innumerable places of “Gedenken” that one can find in Berlin, but the feeling conveyed in this message is reflected in every case. So, why is it that we, as people, remember? What is the importance in remembering and why is “Gedenken” such an integral part of our personal and historical narratives?

The Pain of the Past

 

It was around six o’ clock on June 16th of last year, just a little over a year ago, when I got a text from my younger brother. I was out camping with my ex, her family, and their family friend, and I hadn’t bothered to check it immediately. A couple of hours later, I opened it and learned that my uncle had taken his own life the day before. I frantically called my mom, asking what was happening, what had happened, where dad was, how I could get a hold of him because his phone wasn’t picking up, and, most importantly, why. She told me she would call me back.

By that point, my voice began to quiver, my knees felt like noodles, and all I could muster with my energy was to sit down on a nearby rock and start crying. At first, the tears came out slowly, but steadily it became a watershed flowing down my face as my sobbing shook my bodily uncontrollably. After I was done, I wearily got up and began to walk towards the nearby lake in a daze. The trail I walked along was covered in thorny brushes and pesky rocks and pebbles, but for some reason I could only keep my eyes up ahead, focusing on nothing.

Clink. Clank. Clink. Clink.

I could hear my ex’s family dragging their chairs and belongings up from the lake as the metallic legs of the chairs banged against each other. I passed by them, but I couldn’t look them in the eyes. It was impossible to look at any human face.

The Importance of “Gedenken”

 

I think of my uncle almost every day, at random intervals, prompted by completely innocuous events. My thoughts range from wishing I could CC him onto my e-mails of my travels to seeing a large, happy extended family sitting together under the Berlin sun at a restaurant and wishing that could be him, my family, and me. I wish he could see how much I’ve grown and learned, and during the pauses between my classes, I wish I could tell him of the books I have been reading, from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov to Gogol’s Dead Souls. All these thoughts, however, lead to one thing: pain.

It pains me that I didn’t talk to him more often. It pains me that I didn’t tell him I loved him more frequently. It pains me that, perhaps, if I had made a phone call out of the blue on June 14th, none of this would have happened. The pain leads to sadness, which leads to resentment, which finally ends in a deep sigh, clenched jaw, and a melancholy that is hidden and put away with bantering and jokes.

And so the “Gedenken”, the remembrance, of his memory brings on this constant throbbing of pain that ebbs and flows; yet, when I say it “ebbs and flows”, that pang in my chest is never truly subsided. It is never at zero. It is ever present, like a wind tunnel that alternates from chilling to piercing, but always blowing, always there.

But that emotional pain, that pang– those are necessary parts in how we construct our narratives. Our goals in our lives generally tend to revolve around a fuzzy and naïve idea of attaining some sort of happiness, whatever that may mean. This pursuit of happiness, however, underlines how sensitive we are to the effects of grief and the pervasiveness of sadness, and how constantly we are aware of them. For the most part, life’s a bitch, and then we die. But those negative aspects that cause so much anguish – those are what we focus on, because those are precisely the things we set out to overcome, learn from, endure, etc. As difficult as it may be, the arduous tasks of carrying our own crosses and climbing our own mountains is one of the most obvious ways we express who we are and reveal our character, and in turn shapes our narrative. Happiness may be our goal, but the seeds of happiness are sorrow, and happiness its fruit.

That might be why “Gedenken” is so important to Germans. It is their cross to bear, to shoulder the blame for the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, to forever be faced with the stains of blood on their ancestors and national history. Perhaps the weight of it all is unbearably crushing, and that’s certainly a possibility with the way this generation of German youths detests and separates themselves as much as possible from the sins of their forefathers. Maybe, though, just maybe, they’ll realize, just like many others who have come before them, that they have to look at the past in the face and put it on their shoulders.

Whether rightfully or not, that is the purpose and importance of “Gedenken”. Those people who died, my uncle who died, the countless number of people who are dying right now, will die again once more. When we no longer remember them, when their names are uttered for the last time, when they fall out of our “Gedenken”, that is when they die for the second time. How we decide to carry this pain determines what kind of person we choose to be. There is no proof or certainty that the angst, the regret, and the grief will somehow turn us into better or stronger people. There is certainly no guarantee that they will lead to happier lives. Yet, there’s something about this idea of “Gedenken” that feels like it is a duty, that we must do this for those who have passed away and whose memories, like a wax candle that has been lit, will melt away and be no more at one point, and melt away even faster if not for “Gedenken”. Maybe along the way, then, we will find a tiny speck containing a solace of happiness; at the same time, we will probably become more intimate with our sorrow, guilt, and the past. It’s a tradeoff I’m personally willing to make, but it’s a tradeoff Germany has been making ever since their atonement began.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

It’s past midnight, and the only noise to be heard now is the raindrops outside hitting my windows.

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58 thoughts on “Germany: A Story of Sadness, Guilt, and the Past

    1. I don’t know, really. It was truly a life-time opportunity to be able to stay in Berlin for the summer, and my experience there was enhanced by the fact that I’ve been learning German the past year. I don’t know how a summer in another country (unless it’s Japan) would go since I’m not learning a new language next semester at my Uni.
      I would really like to learn French, though, and visit France. Paris, in particular.

      (Thanks for the comment, and as you said: ‘Let us never forget the past!’)

  1. Good post. I also have mixed feelings. I am a Jew and if I had lived in Germany at the time of the war I would have been sent to the camps. It is therefore hard for me to think the German people did not know. I believe that they felt powerless to stop the juggernaut . There were many who fought behind the scenes to stop the chaos. It happened so long ago that we are now in the fourth generation of people who are tired of being condemned by the actions of the past.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment!

      I met a girl from Hamburg at a club, and we had one way or another begun to talk about this particular topic. She herself was tired of being “blamed” for the actions of her ancestors.

      It’s interesting because, as a societal norm, they are not allowed to simply state that “they are tired of feeling bad about the Holocaust because of their ancestors.” At the same time, the feeling is there and a constant issue when grappling with Germany’s history.

      1. I am glad to see I am right. Live and let live after all this time. The few bad apples that are left will eventually die off and lets bury the axe. It is funny because if we can halt the hate maybe it will never happen again.

  2. You write with much feeling of your nations cross – a heavy memory, and your own painful remembrance of your Uncle. I feel for your personal loss. Always regrets and questions on what we could have done different”Gedenken” can be both good and bad. Good – when you keep it in mind and resolve ‘never again, ever again!! Bad – if you let it paralyse you with guilt rather than galvanizing you to action, restitution and vigilance in the future.
    I remember that I kept meaning to visit my elderly Godmother but it never happened .. and when she died of sudden illness I was so disconsolate with guilt that I wrote her a note and put it in her coffin. And thereafter regularly visited her husband until he died. And now try to remember the lesson and visit ailing friends and relations … but we are weak vessels constantly slipping, needing burnishing. Crosses strengthen; ‘The’ Cross purifies. I think Germany is coming out stronger and ‘purer’ because of ‘gedenken’ of her recent past. I wish my own nation Sri Lanka would adopt ‘gedenken’ for our recent past.

    1. Sorry to hear about your godmother, Rose. It’s always easier to say “When I have time, when I have time”, but the reality is that we don’t nearly have as much time as we think we do.
      As we keep memories alive, whether that be our relatives or the actions of our country’s past, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn. I’m happy to hear you had begun visiting your godmother’s husband afterwards.

  3. As a student of the Holocaust, I really empathized with what you had to say. It’s hard to have to keep remembering the mistakes we or our ancestors have made, but by remembering them, we see where they went wrong and we move not to follow that path, to be better, and from there achieve a hopefully guilt-free happiness and future.

    1. It must be unbelievably difficult to bear that burden. I’m half-Japanese, and considering the amount of atrocities my ancestors committed, it’s remarkable that the burden of WWII has mainly squarely fallen on Germany.

      It’s no easy path, and it’s the most painful path, but Germany, or at least Berlin, seems to keep that memory as alive as possible to remember its past transgressions.

    1. Yes. At least, we try to do that to the best of our abilities. The difficulty lies in how difficult and painful that constant remembrance is.

  4. Gedenken shouldn’t be so schwer. At some point we must release the weight of it. And should the 16 year old German carry this weight? What is their responsibility? I too have written on this. There are no answers, only that weight of remembrance.

    1. I agree with you — it’s a cross that is, regardless of what is done, unbearable too heavy. Is it right for the current generation to carry that cross? Is it right for the upcoming generation to carry that cross?

      These are questions that really don’t have an answer. We must dwell on it, think about it, and, as impossible as it may sound, try to understand the weight of that cross.

      You put it perfectly: “There are no answers, only that weight of remembrance.”

  5. Very, very well-written. I like how you seamlessly brought in your personal story in order to inform the larger story about Germany’s struggle with the past and the even still larger story about our human condition. Fabulous work. I’m going to reblog this. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you for reblogging and sharing your opinion! Really appreciate it.

      Sometimes, or perhaps often, we just don’t seem to notice it, our smaller, personal struggles are just as reflective of the larger struggles we as a society face.

  6. Reblogged this on Ginger Musings and commented:
    The author has managed to interwoven a commentary on Germany’s struggle, as well as all that of all humans with a very personal story seamlessly. It’s well-worth reading and contemplating.

  7. History is important. It’s important to accept it and it’s important to learn from it. My husband is German and was sick of having it ‘rammed down his throat’ at school – yet appreciated the reasons why. From my perspective, in another country with its own genocidal history, I see it this way: I’m a first generation Australian, my parents are Dutch. So technically I could say, my ancestors had nothing to do with it. Other Australians whose ancestry did, are also fond of saying “it wasn’t me”. I don’t think it’s right to take that path. For myself, I am Australian, and my country’s history holds great shame. I aim to be a solution to that shame in my every day. At the same time, I acknowledge my sorrow of what happened, and I have said sorry, because my family was able to come here and live the way we do because of what happened to the First Australians. I recognise it’s a different story in Germany, but responsibility as a nation is still important, and 16 year olds are a part of that nation. It is far better to know the truth, and to face its responsibility, than to deny it by saying ‘it wasn’t me’. It’s not personal. And, the lesson needs to be taught, again and again, how propoganda can be used against the nature of a people, and we need to reflect and ask ourselves “would I have done the same in that situation?”. No one really understands how fear can make a person act until they have felt that fear. No one knows if they will be one who resists or one who acquiesces. There’s a fair chance that the majority would still join in; history is the proof. Hopefully an awareness of history will prompt us to be better people in small, everyday ways, so that situations don’t grow to monstrous proportions as they did in Germany (and Australia, and Afghanistan, and…) and people are not forced to find out, when push comes to shove, who they really are.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, talesbytink. You’re absolutely right that the neglect of our historical responsibilities is exactly the kind of wrong mentality that could lead to dangerous situations.

      We as people are only a tiny cog in the big picture, a minuscule bolt in the great machine called History, and it is vital that we understand why the machine works the way it does.

      Kudos to your husband for bearing the weight of that machine.

  8. ….the greatest sadness is that humans have repeated the acts you describe since and have no conscience, shut away behind their commitment to some obsessive cause. I also suppose some turn to obsession to hide from pain or guilt to turn their face away…
    thankyou

  9. Beautifully written, a tribute that shines brightest as we look into, and out beyond ourselves.
    My sympathy to you and all who knew your uncle.
    May we all carve pathways to peace in our lives. The smallest step toward forgiveness truly does begin with remembering. Your words are so poignant; their message filled with truths. Let us not forget. Let us forgive, beginning with ourselves, so that we may heal and move toward empathy and love.

    1. Thanks for such eloquent words. Forgiving is never easy, and both the paths to forgiveness and remembrance are filled with trials and tribulations. It’s all worth it, of course, because as you said yourself, it’s the path to empathy and love.

      Cheers!

    1. I think that’s one definition of success, a certainly prestigious one. It’s noble, if not beautiful, to aim for that ever-lasting success, so to speak, in the way that Russell Crowe’s character in The Gladiator talks about, “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.”

      At the same time, I think success should be something that comes from within. That is, we should feel successful for the decisions we have made to achieve our various goals in our life, as opposed to seeking to be considered a success. If the byproduct of that success is remembrance of the difference you made, by all means, you’ve achieved probably the pinnacle of that kind of “success”.

      It’s important to keep in mind, however, to chase the kind of success that makes you happy and gives meaning to your life as opposed to chasing the kind of success that is desirable simply because others (i.e., people, society) will consider you successful.

      Sorry for the rambling, but your response made me think about success and its close relationship with what it means to our (relative-to-the-universe speaking) insignificant lives. Thanks for that food for thought!

  10. I am an Indian. I see so much struggle around me, power makes monsters out of people. A lot Is marginalised. Thank you for sharing the thought, “would I have done the same in that situations” Though It’s sad I donot in my country find people who think that way. All the good things are minorities here, I might sound depressing but can only share what is my experience. Hypocrisy takes precedence . But some of us have souls but we Have silenced our screams cos we want to live . i see so much disparity in the world around me, i hate to say but democracy is only in pages. You are right about the crosses.
    are these days or just reflection of the last night?
    all of us are carrying our crosses.
    the only peace to make is the one i make within myself.
    Thanks for your words
    I am dipping them in my silence

    1. “All of us are carrying our crosses”

      Short, simple, and true. We all are fighting our fights, and we are trying to find our own peace, aren’t we? Thank you for your comment!

  11. Wow, thanks for the post, it was a very interesting read. I feel like I’ve learned something very important out of all of this and it’s great to be able to sit down and read about a culture and a country I know very little about apart from what has been mentioned in English culture and remembrance is a strange thing here. I feel like my generation and the one approaching to take mine over and claim lead foot here, have a very different view on the entire idea which is saddening. It seems people have to be reminded nowadays why a date holds a significant value but also that it’s not just only the one day you should remember. Maybe I’m turning cynical.
    It is important to remember the past, a lot has happened and a lot has been sacrificed and you are right, we die again once we are forgotten. I for one, believe you should keep posting, it was very intriguing and insightful.

    1. Thanks for the comment, James! Memory is an interesting thing — we as people cling onto it, despite how malleable and forever diminishing it is.

      I have been posting, different kinds of writing, not just essays, actually. Follow the blog and you should get updates!

      Cheers,

      Hans

  12. “to forever be faced with the stains of blood on their ancestors and national history.”
    I don’t think so. I guess I am just different from many Germans. Many see it as their duty to remember everyone else how bad and cruel WE were (excuse me, we?). I don’t see why I’d be the person to blame for the Holocaust just because I was born here (especially 60 years after it eneded!).
    The Germany I grew up in is a wonderful country and I am damn proud of it.
    War is horrible and horrible things happened all around the world; I acknowledge them (I still do with parts of the world being at war) I am not trying to draw a lesson from anything that was done in my countries name though. There is one thing to learn only. Lock away the Austrian lunatic before he can ruin another country. The Holocaust could have happened almost anywhere else in the world.
    I don’t feel one drop of guilt and people who expect me to are fools.
    I have great respect for all the Germans who humbly take the blame from outside though. Winners write history and if it’s not the Germans who humbly carry the can for what happened in their name who else will be a good example for future history.
    Anyway! A great post hdavidson! I love it!
    Greetings!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Suze! I think your view reflects the kind of conflict that has naturally risen in Germany, the “why-should-I-be-responsible-for-my-ancestors” mentality. It’s difficult. It’s not a black or white thing, and I think there are varying opinions pertaining to the topic.

      I actually wanted to write about what you had said about, “Winners write history and if it’s not the Germans who humbly carry the can for what happened in their name who else will be a good example for future history.” It’s interesting that the focus, a lot if not most of the time, falls on Nazi Germany when people talk about World War II. Which, to a certain extent, is understandable — they were responsible for the start of the war and the Holocaust, and those two facts pin a lot of attention to Germany. Hence, there’s the whole idea of remembering and blame and guilt in Germany. Interestingly enough, however, there isn’t quite something like that in Japan, even with all the *really* fucked up things the Japanese committed. I’m half-Japanese, and no one in my Japanese family has exhibited the kind of guilt and pain associated with the second world war that many Germans I have talked to have. And I think it goes back to the whole idea you talked about, “Winners write history.” It was written for the Germans to shoulder much of the blame, rightfully or not, that’s not what I’m arguing here, because there was a voice strong enough to pin the blame.
      We rarely hear stories/movies, compared to stories of Nazi Germany, regarding the Japanese atrocities that were committed at the time. Doesn’t this speak to our propensity to focus more on this Evil Nazi Germany as opposed to the Just As Evil Imperial Japan? And how is that so– what’s behind that propensity?

      I guess that may be more of me running away rambling than a food-for-thought response, but I really appreciate what you had to say. Thanks Suze, and I hope you’ll leave more interesting tidbits on other posts!

  13. Thank you for this beautifully written slice of life and ponderings. When I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp and trudged made my way back to the crematoriums, I could hardly breathe. I had taken six students with me, but they refused to go with me and stayed in the museum. I wanted to experience the walk and actually see where the monsters worked who obeyed a sick man to protect their own families. I almost threw up when I saw the trough. When I looked down to the ovens, I had a heavy heart full of pain and felt their screams. I cried as I stood in the room where they stacked the bodies before burning them. Many weren’t dead when put into the hellacious traps. Comfortingly, I remembered reading one man shouted to a guard that they may have won the battle, but they wouldn’t win the war. Their pain is over, and we can’t change the past, but we do have a responsibility to the present and future to never let it happen again. Ich weine grosse Tranen fur sie.

    1. Wow. Thank you for such a powerful, and very painful, story. I didn’t have an opportunity to visit any concentration camps myself, but maybe that’s not the whole truth — there was a part of me that was greatly afraid of a visit to a former concentration camp. As emotional the Jewish Museum in Berlin was, and other memorials, I can’t begin to imagine what the emotional turmoil of a visit to a place such as Dachau would have been like.

      We have a responsibility to remember. We may be far removed from the horrors of the war and the Holocaust geographically and historically, but that duty shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

      1. We both accomplished something that was extremely emotional, but we learned from it. As an English teacher, we don’t let them forget; we expose them to the horrors and the graphic pictures so that they will remember how horrific it was and not let history repeat itself in the present or future. I’m glad we chatted.

  14. When I visited we were not to stand on the faces. My photos are all from the side, all at one remove. Your experience reminds me of Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. He writes about visiting the site of massacre in Rwanda. He accidentally stepped on a skull, crushing it. It is worth reading Mr. Gourevitch’s account. You are both evocative writers on a topic it is hard to look straight at.

    I am sorry for your uncle’s pain and your family’s loss.

    1. Thank you for your condolences, and thank you for your recommendation, I will look him up.

      It’s interesting that you weren’t allowed to walk on the faces. The walk, the echoes, the view of the faces, and the eery dead end at the end of the walk — all those things made the exhibit so profound and painful and contemplative.

      Thank you again for you comments.

      1. I was only one of two people in the room, and neither of us walked on the faces. There was no one keeping us from doing so, no sign that I recall, it was just designed in a way that would make it feel like trespassing. In a little bit I’ll upload a photo for you on chimerablue.

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