Oct 2012

Frederick Lubich

„In the course of writing and rewriting“.  Gespräch mit Ursula Mahlendorf, Autorin der Autobiographie The Shame of Survival. Working Through a Nazi Childhood

Frederick Lubich: Frau Mahlendorf, Sie haben sich als Verfasserin zahlreicher Artikel in Fachzeitschriften und Autorin mehrerer literaturwissenschaftlicher Bücher auch international einen bekannten Namen gemacht. Aber die größte Resonanz haben Sie möglicherweise auf Ihre im Jahr 2009 erschienene Autobiografie The Shame of Survival. Working Through a Nazi Childhood erfahren. Ich möchte hier nur zwei repräsentative Kommentare zu Ihrem Buch zitieren. Bill Niven schrieb in European History Quarterly: „Mahlendorf’s book is an exacting self-examination, a sharply focused account of Nazi indoctrination and a scathing criticism of the failure of adults during the Third Reich to protect their children from the poison of this indoctrination. I can only recommend it.” Und Jewish Book World schlussfolgerte: “This is a brave, honest account of a young girl’s experience in Nazi Germany, and especially of how women and girls were exploited. There are many layers of story and meaning in this courageous and painful memoir.” Während es inzwischen zahlreiche Erinnerungstexte von Holocaust-Überlebenden gibt, sind Texte, die aus Ihrer Erfahrungsperspektive geschrieben sind, bis heute rar. Was bewog Sie zu diesem nicht einfachen Unternehmen?

Ursula Mahlendorf: As I said in my introduction, the impetus came from the last freshmen seminar I taught. I got angry at students when they expressed the belief, either in papers or in discussion, that Hitler Youth, particularly that for girls aged 10-14, was as harmless as the Brownies. I wanted to show with my personal story that that was not the case – and that’s why I went into such personal detail both of background and of actual experience, e.g. what marching, that is getting used to a repetitive physical practice, does to your  mind as a ten year-old.  In the course of writing and rewriting I came to realize that even if it was painful, sometimes excruciatingly so, my demand on myself for forthrightness in the details helped me in a  kind of personal self-confrontation that was liberating. I should add that years of analytic psychotherapy had convinced me that honesty in the most mundane as well as the most idealistic motivations and actions is the only way to come to any sort of understanding of the role one has personally played in a situation. What surprised me during writing: I had researched and taught the period, expressed my revulsion of what we as Germans had participated in for my entire adult life, and yet I had failed to comprehend emotionally all the dimensions and the depth of my own and my family’s implication in the Third Reich. So the writing itself was a process of liberation and discovery.

Frederick Lubich: Wir leben in einer Zeit, in der jüngere Generationen von der „Me Generation“ der achtziger Jahre bis zur heutigen „Facebook Generation“ offensichtlich immer narzistischer und selbstbezogener werden. Wie war es, in einer Gesellschaft aufzuwachsen, in welcher der Bevölkerung das Gegenteil, nämlich das Bewusstsein eingetrommelt wurde, „Du bist nichts, dein Volk ist alles“?

Ursula Mahlendorf: The “Du bist nichts, dein Volk ist alles” had one immediate and potentially deadly consequence for me. In 1945 I was absolutely convinced that I would die and was prepared to die when Hitler died and we were defeated. Hitler and Volk were one and the same for me. Fortunately, my ‘will to live’ plain and simple was stronger – that’s why I give some space to the group suicide episode. Speaking psychologically, for children who have a fragile ego, the total negation of the self-implied by the slogan is disastrous. Needless to say, today’s total emphasis on self and individuality, seems to me equally flawed. Particularly we Americans as a nation need to relearn the importance of the public good, of acting on behalf of a public good that can be one’s society or one’s being part of the globe we live on.

Frederick Lubich: Welche Rolle spielte im Laufe der Jahre der wachsende Druck und Terror des Regimes, mit seinen Regeln und Direktiven konform zu gehen?

Ursula Mahlendorf: For most of my childhood, I was not aware, not conscious, that my family or I experienced any of the pressures, let alone terror. At about age 12, I became aware that it was dangerous to say or do certain things but since I counted myself as part of the system, I approved of the fact that you could not criticize, that is, undermine “our cause.”  But the pressure and terror did take their toll beyond my awareness; subconsciously they showed up in a major illness at least once a year – mostly quite legitimately with virus and bacteria generated illnesses. I don’t write of these illnesses because I want to elicit sympathy and claim myself a victim of the Nazi pressure. I see them as a result of the stresses of HJ service and self-imposed fears of not doing enough. I believe that is true all the more because I have been almost excessively healthy as an adult, even at times when I wished I had such an excuse as a cold to avoid an unpleasant task. Furthermore, by the time I was 14 and particularly after I had experienced a different way of thinking at the teacher’s seminary, I did begin to feel the pressure the adults around us were under, the period when the adults kept saying, and it was only half in jest ”Genießt den Krieg, der Frieden wird schrecklich.” That in turn resulted in intense fear because I could not fathom where all of our lives were going and why the adults were as dissolute as they appeared to me. In fact, that period of living with a sense of impending catastrophe was the hardest time of my life to tolerate. I think that this feeling has stayed with most of us who call ourselves “the Hitler Youth Generation.” It has made the intellectuals among us distrustful of the irrationalism of extremism of any sort, of catastrophe mongering, which I see as positive. Another result of the pressure to conform for me was that though I was as far as my actions went an insider, I felt I was an outsider. Even though I tried hard to be an insider and went to any amount of trouble to prove it, I still felt different from my fellow HJ, likely a reflection of the ambivalence I encountered in my family. Yet, that ambivalence also had the psychological advantage that as devoted as I was, I preserved for myself a frail selfhood which in the end helped me survive.

Frederick Lubich: Sie schreiben, dass die Landschaft Ihrer schlesischen Heimat Sie als junges Mädchen zu Tränen rühren konnte. Josef von Eichendorff, der wohl unbestrittene Meister der deutsch-romantischen Naturbeschwörung, stammt ebenfalls aus Ihrer Heimat. Was hat es auf sich mit diesen Landschaften zwischen Breslau, Brünn und Prag, wie damals diese Städte noch hießen, eine Region, die jahrhundertelang eine Vielvölkergemeinschaft bildete, in der Polen und Schlesier, Tschechen, Slowaken und Sudetendeutsche in enger Nachbarschaft lebten, ehe diese Kulturlandschaft nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg für Millionen vertriebener Volksdeutscher zum Inbegriff der verlorenen Heimat wurde?

Ursula Mahlendorf: My answer to this complex question will have several components. Even as I felt moved by the landscape in that early episode, I was aware that it was not the landscape I responded too, but rather something else that seemed mysterious. I came to see it as an aesthetic response shortly afterwards when I responded to poetry quite similarly. I had no idea, of course, until much later to give it a name. Actually, a poem of Eichendorff’s probably provoked the earliest literary response. But from early adolescence on, I had the same response to music – Schubert and Mozart – and somewhat later after we came West, I experienced a similar reaction to visual art, the painting of Expressionists and later still sculpture. That is why I never had a particular feeling about “Heimat,” Silesian or otherwise. My older brother has it. The closest I come to a sense of nostalgic familiarity with a landscape and pleasure in it (which I imagine the feeling for “Heimat” to be), I have toward the German language. But over the years spent in close emotional relationships with English speakers, English has come to evoke that feeling as well. I am not sure if “Heimat” is not a purely ideological construct as some critics of Nazism claim: the Nazis certainly abused the term. Note that Eichendorff in his “Heimat” poems always connects “Heimat” to a memory of childhood and the companions of his childhood, his brothers. To my mind, “Heimat” is a nostalgic concept and any region of the world where one has had emotionally meaningful experiences can become “Heimat.” I rejected the “Recht auf Heimat” the minute I encountered the term coined by the “Heimatvertriebenen” organizations in 1946. The types that ran the organization (at least ours of the Silesians) were old Nazis who of course failed to understand the political origins of our “Vertreibung.”

Frederick Lubich: Bilden sich in multikulturellen Landschaften wie etwa in diesem Dreiländereck Schlesien, Böhmen und Mähren, das einst Teil der Habsburger Donaumonarchie gewesen war, nationale Stereotypen stärker heraus als in monokulturellen Nationen oder ist eher das Gegenteil der Fall?

Ursula Mahlendorf: I’d be hard pressed to answer that question. I have always liked a friend’s description of us Silesians as “Beute Germanen”, a description that ironically reflects the awareness that we once belonged to multicultural Austria. My descriptions in the book of my fascination with Prussian/Habsburg history even as a nine-year-old tries to capture that “Beute Germanen” awareness, an ambivalence really about which side to favor, the Austrians or the Prussians. My brother was clearly for the Prussians; if push came to shove I favored the Austrians, Maria-Theresia over Friedrich den Großen. Once I had been in HJ for some time, I came to believe that we were clearly as much if not more German than people in Berlin and tried to act in ways in which I thought a proper German/Nazi should. Yet, I also knew that at least a third of my classmates in grammar school spoke Polish or Czech at home. So it is hard for me to say that the Silesians I knew were as much “nationale Stereotypen” of Germans as I later found the Sudeten or Posen “Auslandsdeutsche” to be.

Frederick Lubich: In der Schilderung Ihrer jährlichen Sommeraufenthalte auf dem Land und Ihren Erfahrungen bei der Erntearbeit kommen die deutschen Frauen im Vergleich zu den italienischen Gastarbeitern und polnischen Fremdarbeitern recht schlecht weg. Sie schreiben: „I resented the coarse sexual jokes and rough bantering of the German women.“ War ein derartig krudes Verhalten Ihres Erachtens vor allem ein Resultat nationalsozialistischer Indoktrination, ein alltägliches Echo ihrer Herrenrassenideologie, oder vielmehr allgemein bezeichnend für Wesen und Verhalten der damaligen Deutschen vor allem auch im Umgang mit Nicht-Deutschen? Gibt es überhaupt typische nationale Charaktermerkmale, und wenn ja, können sie sich im Laufe der Zeit ändern?

Ursula Mahlendorf: I was steeped in German stereotyping of Poles, but of Italians as well as crude, lazy, less civilized than Germans. But I came to realize that these derogating characterizations did not apply to the foreigners I encountered.  (My older brother was upset about my characterizations of the German women in the book; I had to remind him that these were my experiences.) I think my opinion of these Polish and Italian women has less to do with national characteristics or German/Nazi ideology than with the greater child-friendliness of Polish and Italian societies and hence of these women: of greater regard for a child’s vulnerabilities. Of course, that roughness toward children – harden them! Discipline them! – might also have a lot to do with German/Polish/Italian different attitudes to children. Again, none of this was conscious to me back then: all I knew was that these foreign women helped me and were kind to me, laughed with me and gently kidded around with me while I was afraid of the German women. I believe that present Germans of the younger generations (those up to age fifty or so) are very different from what Germans were then; the society as a whole, I observe, has become child-friendlier. These certainly are not genetically coded differences; they are purely social – and social attitudes do change over generations; certainly German attitudes have.

Frederick Lubich: Es gibt eine interessante Parallele zwischen Ruth Klügers weiter leben, ihrer Geschichte vom Überleben in Auschwitz, und Ihrer Geschichte The Shame of Survival. Sie finden beide in Zeiten wachsender Not und tödlicher Bedrängnis Trost und Zuflucht in der deutschen Dichtung. Für Klüger sind es vor allem Verse aus Goethes Faust, für Sie sind es Strophen deutscher Romantiker. Welche Rolle spielt die deutsche Dichtung in Ihrer Lebenserfahrung und vielleicht im weiteren Sinne, in der deutschen Kulturgeschichte überhaupt?

Ursula Mahlendorf: Actually, Ruth and I talked about our early love of poetry (I think it was Schiller for her, “Die Kraniche des Ibykus”). Roughly speaking, literature was pure escape from and defense against an unbearable environment during our childhoods. She was luckier in as much as her family had a library of the German classics while mine did not. That is why I started reading boys adventure stories in serial form (Rolf Torring adventures that my brother and his friends passed around) compulsively as soon as I could read from mid first grade on and then changed over to cheap penny novels shortly after. Our landlady owned and willingly lent me quantities. I discovered better literature only at about age 11 or so at my relatives, including poetry. I was never sorry to have grown up on such trash; I believe it gave me a good ear for what literary trash is. Once I discovered 19th century German literature, I did not want to read anything else. Actually, British/American realism in translation and Biedermeier and early realist writers were the first I read. The German Romantics followed shortly after. I did not encounter authors who were banned during the Nazi regime like Mann, or Kafka or the Expressionists until I came to the US and began to take courses in German in 1954, even though I had started with   Germanistik in 1950 – in Tübingen. German universities at the time were way behind in the coverage of contemporary literature. That tells you a lot about post WWII Germanistik in Germany! Particularly poetry and Romantic poetry was crucial in helping me during early critical times. It provided a refuge from the fear and sordid life conditions we lived under during the Russian and Polish administrations. Unlike Ruth, I never tried writing poetry. I did try writing stories until I was 11 or so. But I was ridiculed by the people I tried to read them to. So I quit writing them.

Frederick Lubich: Spielt Ihrer Meinung nach in anderen vergleichbaren Kulturen, die Sie kennen, die nationale Dichtung eine ähnlich existentielle Rolle?

Ursula Mahlendorf: I know from Ruth that concentration camp inmates derived solace and emotional satisfaction from poetry. I am sure that any mental activity that consumes you can sustain you in extreme situations if you are fortunate to have this intellectual resource. A mathematician friend of mine did math problems in his head during his time standing guard during the 1948 war in Israel; and just think of Zweig’s Schachnovellewhose hero becomes so consumed by playing chess in his head when tortured in a Spanish nationalist prison that he cannot stop once he is free. So I don’t think reciting poetry from memory during times of danger or hardship is special and it is not necessarily emotional satisfaction that is provided. My friend described his use of math as “disappearing into a math problem.” I can easily identify with that – I too disappeared into a poem. I was always grateful to my primary school teachers who made us learn poems by heart, and accustomed me to memorize the poems I loved.

Frederick Lubich: Das jüdisch-amerikanische Unterhaltungsgenie Mel Brooks dankte Adolf Hitler vor Jahren ironisch dafür, dass er so komisch und lächerlich war, und ihn somit zu überaus erfolgreichen Filmrollen und Theaterstücken inspiriert hatte. Jahrzehnte später folgten ihm deutsche Künstler mit Hitler-Komödien und Führer-Karikaturen. Ist das noch legitime Vergangenheitsbewältigung oder schon frivole Vergangenheitsvermarktung, makaber sensationelles Entertainment für eine amüsierhungrige Spassgesellschaft?

Ursula Mahlendorf: I am of two, better several minds about that question. If it had been possible to show satirical portrayals during the Third Reich, Hitler wouldn’t have been able to gain the power over minds that he did. I would claim that the use of Hitler satire/caricature, at least in Germany now (maybe in any Western country that has a Neo Nazi movement), has a Gegenwarts- Zukunftsbewältigungs function rather than a Vergangenheitsbewältigungs function. Exposure to such satire might discourage these people from making Hitler their idol and voting for rightist leaders. For the most part, however, all such contemporary parody/satire – of which I actually have not seen any – I believe is “Vermarktung” of one sort or another. And then there is always the danger that Hitler and Nazism become harmless fun. I personally would find that intolerable. After all, the man was responsible for over ten million dead [ the numbers are a mistake, that needs to be “fifty million”; Frederick] and I at least do take it seriously that at the end he meant to have us all killed for being unworthy of his “ideal” – whatever you want to call his delusions.

Frederick Lubich: Für Ihre Generation und auch noch meine, die nach dem Krieg geboren ist, waren deutsche Volkslieder „völkisch“ verhunzt und deutsche Sagen faschistisch verdorben. Wie steht es heute mit diesem kulturellen Erbe und seiner Rezeption?

Ursula Mahlendorf: At least in my family in Germany, today’s ten year-old and younger children have very little exposure to what used to be called “Volksgut.” That generation, like their parents, is growing up with Pippi Langstrumpf and Sesame Street. From the children’s programs I saw during my last visit to Germany, that seems to be the case overall. My niece Annette did the sets and costumes for the musical “Avenue Q” performed at the Munich Deutsche Theater just last month. As you know, the libretto and puppet characters are based on Sesame Street, and its risqué persiflage depends on a thorough familiarity with Sesame Street programs. The audience at the performance I attended last week was quite young, between 16-30 I would say (no one under 16 was allowed) and familiar with the puppet characters; they followed the action with utter glee, making it obvious that everyone in the audience had grown up with that kind of TV programming. I don’t think, though, that the rejection of Nazi contaminated “Volksgut” by several German post-war generations was equally true for all Germans. I think it was limited to the educated members of these generations. Contemporary Germans age fifty and younger seem largely oriented to international popular music and culture. The cultural heritage of the Romantics seems to me to be the province of academics and small regional/provincial interest groups.

Frederick Lubich: Die Mystagogen des Dritten Reiches amalgamierten bekanntlich politische Propaganda mit religiöser Heilsgeschichte. Was war die Wirkung dieser demagogischen Kontamination und welche Bedeutung hat sie heute für das Verständnis moderner Gesellschaften und ihrer politischen Diskurse?

Ursula Mahlendorf:  For Christian children – both Protestant and Catholic – it was quite natural to buy into the Jesus – Hitler salvation narrative. A similar parallelism was encouraged in mytho-historical instruction in the schools in which Hitler was equated with Frederick Barbarossa, who had emerged from the Harz Mountains to ensure Germany’s salvation. (I can’t remember what mountain it was, but it doesn’t really matter). Moreover, at least in what was then Prussia, the Nazis constructed a quasi-legitimate succession discourse that cast the Hohenzollerns/Frederick the Great as precursors of Hitler, a discourse that adults could buy into. I think that in well-functioning, long established democracies such historical legitimating-myth-creating discourse does not have as powerful an appeal as it does in autocratic societies. Nevertheless, during the 2008 election of Obama, I, together with several of my German friends, became nervous (despite our support for Obama) because of the idolization (and demonization) of Obama  as a person that some of the US electorate indulged in. In societies with a strong religious or nationalist  orientation (be it Christian or Muslim), any power-hungry politician might gain ascendancy by presenting himself  as a savior figure of either the religious or the national-historical variety.  I used to think that countries with a strong and long democratic tradition were immune to such demagoguery. I am more skeptical these days. At present, Germany still seems pretty immune; the lesson of 1945 is still too vivid. But given a real crisis? I am not so sure.

Frederick Lubich: Gegen Ende Ihrer Erinnerungen schreiben Sie über Ihre Heimatstadt: „To my surprise, I celebrated its streets, its churches, its schools, its businesses, and its parks and trees. As a child living there, I did not know that I had loved these things.” Wie erklären Sie sich diese geradezu schon kathartisch anmutende Kristallisation Ihres Heimatbildes in Anbetracht Ihrer mehrfachen, traumatisch gebrochenen Jugenderfahrungen?

Ursula Mahlendorf: As I said, I realized only after rereading the entire book how great my fondness for that little town had been. The surprise was all the greater in that when we left and ever since then I have maintained that I hated the place and most of its people, that is to say, the  provincial narrowness I experienced as a teen, I don’t think my positive depiction of the town has anything to do with a “Heimatbild”. While it is true that I was miserable during most of my childhood, I was happy enough up to the time my maternal grandmother died when I was 8.  I was drawn to the landscape surrounding the town – its fields and hills – the baroque buildings and the medieval churches in the older parts of town. Moreover, for an enterprising youngster like myself, with an urge to explore both nature and the town’s craftsmen and trades, my hometown was optimal, small and semi-rural as it was. We kids could roam freely, there was no danger from traffic and – as long as you were not Jewish – from any adult. To be sure, there were bullies who terrorized us younger kids, but I learned how to minimize my exposure to them. And even the police, though we were always afraid of them, were no real danger for us in our childish exploits – for one thing, since they were not motorized you could outrun them and you could also talk your way out of difficulties. Much of that freedom of movement no doubt was due to my mother’s not having time to look after me at home. I know some of my middle class girl friends did not have the freedom to move around that I did. It was the freedom of movement that made the difference for me. Whenever I felt miserable at home, or at school, or with relatives, I could escape to neighbors, into nature or roam the town. This freedom of movement was the equivalent for the child that reading and literature became for the adolescent. I really feel for children, particularly preteens these days, who can only participate in scheduled activities, always under adult supervision. No wonder many of our teenagers turn out to be so surly. They never had the opportunity to test themselves physically, socially, or intellectually.

Frederick Lubich: Im Epilog zu Ihrem Buch berichten Sie sehr bewegend von Ihrer intensiven jahrzehntelangen Auseinandersetzung mit den Erfahrungen Ihrer Jugendzeit, eine Auseinandersetzung, die diverse Therapien, dramatische Krisen und einen Selbstmordversuch miteinschließt. Was waren die tieferen Beweggründe für Ihre schonungslos offene und zudem so öffentliche Rechenschaft über sich selbst?

Ursula Mahlendorf: I wrote at least three different versions of the Epilogue. One took place during my brothers’ and my visit to Silesia and focuses on my realization that our town is Polish for good. Another relays a conversation with my older brother about the conclusions we came to regarding our early experience during the Nazi and post Nazi years. I finally decided for the present epilogue because I wanted to stress the subjective costs of and the subjective responsibilities arising from this early experience. I believe that none of us of what is called the Hitler Youth generation (those born between 1925-1935) got away without damage to our bodies and psyches. We coped with it differently. I personally did not want to end up a suicide or a bitter person. Thus the therapy. For the memoir it meant that I had to engage in greater personal  exposure, some might call it  confessional writing,  than is customary in academic writing. But I felt that young people whom I see as my intended readers, can learn anything to help them make decisions about their personal and political lives, if you avoid being personally open and unguarded. Call it a basically feminist position that I take. Writing this epilogue and choosing this particular epilogue was the most difficult decision of the entire book. Curiously, or may be not, it is this epilogue that provoked the most and some of the most negative responses I received.  It has been called ‘self-pitying’ and looking for excuses for my involvement in Hitler Youth.

Frederick Lubich: Ist es sinnvoll zu spekulieren, wie Ihr Lebenslauf und Ihre Seelengeschichte aussehen würden, wenn Sie Ihre formativen Jahre nicht in der Hitlerjugend, sondern zum Beispiel in der Widerstandsgruppe der Edelweiß-Piraten verbracht hätten?

Ursula Mahlendorf: Of course, it would have been easier to write about a childhood in the resistance! Of course, it would be easier to remember an admirable, brave and heroic child! Ironically, one reviewer found “I don’t like that child.”  I thought I don’t either; I did not write to present a likable child.  But my background and childhood was what it was: undeniably Nazi. Of course there was the temptation to cast myself more of a harmless innocent! I tried as hard as I know how to be candid and detailed about what I remember. Needless to say, a commitment to psychoanalysis and long exposure to psychoanalytic therapy helped me in that task.

Frederick Lubich: Im Anschluss an die Aufführung der verschiedenen lokalen Einzelheiten, die Sie an Ihre Heimatstadt erinnern, kommen Sie zu dem Schluss: “ … I could mourn their loss. But I do not think that I can ever escape the questioning of my Nazi experience.“ Die Heimsuchung der Kindheit und Jugendzeit, der lange Schatten der deutschen Vergangenheit. Gibt es nach all den Jahren keine Möglichkeit eines milder werdenden Rückblicks? Schon in den letzten Monaten des Krieges haben Sie in unermüdlichem Einsatz als Hilfskrankenschwester Verwundeten und Sterbenden beigestanden und ein Leben lang haben Sie als leidenschaftliche Lehrerin und engagierte Forscherin mehrere Studenten-Generationen zur rigorosen Auseinandersetzung mit der deutschen Vergangenheit motiviert. Ich kann es selbst bezeugen. Ende der siebziger und Anfang der achtziger Jahr hatte ich das Glück, an der University of California in Santa Barbara mehrere Seminare bei Ihnen zu belegen. Sie sind mir als die intensivsten meiner dortigen Studienzeit in Erinnerung geblieben und bilden gewissermaßen den systematischen Anfang meiner eigenen, jahrzehntelangen Auseinandersetzung mit dem deutschen Faschismus, eine Konfrontation, die mit vielen anderen meiner Generation selbst ein Teil der großen Wut- und Trauerarbeit der Nachgeborenen werden sollte. So sehr ich Ihre Gefühle über die notwendige Vergangenheitsbewältigung teile, so meine ich dennoch – falls es mir überhaupt zusteht, das zu sagen -, dass Sie es sich durch Ihre Lebensleistung verdient haben, heute auch mit Nachsicht zurückzublicken auf jenes politisch so verführte junge Mädchen in einer so schrecklich verblendeten Zeit.

Ursula Mahlendorf: “Nachsicht”, I have to leave that to others. “I have to call them as I see them,” as a favorite analyst I know used to say. Actually and quite simply, my later commitments as a teacher derived directly from my wish to get young people to understand how dreadfully one can be misled, how wrong one can be. After the publication of the book I met and became friends with quite a number of Holocaust survivors here in Santa Barbara, and actually  elsewhere as well. This has been one of the unintended benefits of writing the book. Many of them also became teachers or people working for the common good (social workers, nurses, community activists) in a personal effort to contribute or to avoid/overcome hardship. I believe what is crucial about a person and his/her well-being in life is how he/she uses the lessons of past hardships or mistakes. You can decide if you will spend your life pitying yourself, being negative and bitter, or trying to learn from your past and/or help others.

Frederick Lubich: Sicherlich haben Sie seit dem Erscheinen Ihrer Erinnerungen zahlreiche Reaktionen von Lesern und Leserinnen bekommen. Was sind die Hauptthemen ihrer Kommentare und gibt es geschlechtsspezifische Unterschiede?

Ursula Mahlendorf: Yes. I had anticipated that I would get a lot of very negative responses and dreaded it. To my surprise, there were few of them. Of course, if it had been a trade book and a wider audience that might have been different. By the way, I did try to get an agent and approached commercial publishers but gave up quickly since the response was that the story was “boring”, “too specialized in appeal”, “too poorly written.” So I turned to what I know: the world of academic publishing. That proved relatively easy: I got 4 or 5 expressions of interest and two editors did not even want to see a prospectus but rather the manuscript. I should also say that I did several book tours – mostly invited by past students of mine – to about 10 campuses. That way I met not only with students but with faculty from a number of disciplines (from German to Holocaust Studies) and with the general public. I also was invited by quite a number of psychoanalytic institutes – again through friends and fellow students at a psychoanalytic training program I attended after retirement. The scholarly response by historical and literary journals was very positive, commenting on the candor and the detail orientation. The interest here centered on my description of Hitler Youth membership, and the specifics of a girl’s participation. The most rewarding aspect of the general audience response was the personal contact through letters and the contact with the audience during book tours and readings. The greatest surprise for me was that Germans and their children (grandchildren) who came to the US directly after WWII, responded the strongest and most emotionally to my portrayals. They were the ones who wrote moving letters and who came up to me after I spoke or read from the book during the book tours; all of them saying that they too felt a shame about being German (of German origin) similar to mine. The most personal among them said that my book gave their family the opportunity to talk to each other, to inquire what actually had happened in their families. Many explained that while German families in Germany seem to have gone through a long process of dealing with the past (a mistaken belief I think), they and their families by coming to the US had avoided dealing with their family’s role during NS times. The next group in frequency and emotionality was older Jewish citizens of European descent, aside from students by far the largest general audience during book tours; but also at psychoanalytic institutes. They were vocal in appreciating my candor.  My family in Germany was very positive in response; both my brothers, though they had quite different experiences, agreed with my depiction of family history and many family members; but my younger brother felt that my portrayal of my mother was too harsh. Many of my friends in Germany told me that their families had not dealt with the family past either and that the book helped them. To my surprise, the responses do not seem to be gender specific. Both men and women pick up on the family story; and some wish that I had written more about how my brothers are faring in the present.  Despite this response from Germans, my publisher who approached 15 of the larger publishing houses in Germany for a possible German edition was told by these houses that my book did not contribute anything new, and that the subject as presented was suitable only for an American or English speaking audience. I have been thinking about doing an essay on the different responses but I am not sanguine about finding an outlet for it. Overall, the positive response to the book has been very gratifying. I still continue being asked by our local faculty – particularly the historians, to speak to classes about my experience.

Frederick Lubich: Wenn Sie jetzt nach über einem halben Jahrhundert in Amerika auf die Entwicklung Deutschlands nach dem Ende des Zweiten Weltkrieges zurückblicken, was sind Ihre wesentlichen Eindrücke und Schlussfolgerungen?

Ursula Mahlendorf: I just got back from Germany a few days ago. And again as during the last ten years or so I am impressed how positively German democracy has developed. Not that over those years I have not been worried as we all are by Neo Nazi activities and parties but overall there seems to have been a profound change. Young educated Germans are no different from their European and British counterparts; bright, progressive, socially aware. It is gratifying that this educated class has grown over the years as high school, college and university attendance has increased and has discarded former authoritarian ways of bringing up their progeny. Even the schools seem to have changed though some seem to hark back nostalgically to times when authority was firmly established. What I appreciate most is that Germany politically and socially seems to have become ‘normal’; that is to say no longer wracked by extremes any which way.    The distrust of war, of dominance of any power, etc. to me is quite wonderful. I hope that this distrust of power does not disappear with Germany now playing, economically, the largest role in Europe. “Wir sind jetzt wieder wer …” might be a temptation. I hope the politicians restrain themselves. Overall most educated Germans seem to have learned the lessons of NS history and the total defeat of the country in 1945. This, by the way, doesn’t mean that I find the position of women and the treatment of minorities better; it is still deplorable. I worry that that which was gained by the European Union might not last. But then that is almost no different from that which I worry about here in the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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