Like many of the visitors who cry at Auschwitz, Barbel Pfeiffer has a deeply personal connection to the Holocaust. But in Pfeiffer’s case, the relative who spent time at the infamous death camp wasn’t a prisoner. It was her grandfather, and he helped to build it.
“I have been in Auschwitz five times already, but every time I go, it makes me cry again,” says Pfeiffer, whose grandfather was one of those who installed the camp‘s electrical system and gas chambers.
For her latest visit, which took place last week, the 42-year-old German traveled to the camp as part of a 420-member delegation — an international group from countries including Israel, Poland and the United States.
Named the March of Life, the itinerary bore a close resemblance to the similarly titled March of the Living, the long-running program that brings Jews to Holocaust sites in Poland before wrapping up their travels in Israel.
Pfeiffer’s visit shared much in common with the older program, but differed significantly in one way: its inclusion of 50 other descendants of Nazis and Nazi collaborators.
“Our aim is to show the Jewish people that we are standing by their side, and that we will not keep silent when someone threatens to destroy the Jewish people,” says Heinz Reuss, a participant from Tubingen, Germany.
A leader of TOS Ministries, the network of Protestant churches that organized the March, Reuss says the program evolved from discussions among members of TOS‘s Tubingen church, where he and other congregants explored their family histories to learn about their relatives’ roles in World War II.
“Almost all of them found that their ancestors were involved somehow in the Nazi regime,” says Reuss, whose father, an 18-year-old at the end of the war, served in Germany’s air protection services.
“It’s true that there is still anti-Semitism in Germany, but there are also a lot of people who stand against anti-Semitism and support Israel,” Reuss says.
More striking for him, he says, was the behavior of his grandfather, who was too old to fight but cut ties with his Jewish acquaintances. “This is something I don’t want to do. I want to stand with my Jewish friends,” says Reuss, who views the trip as a way to show solidarity with Israel and demonstrate that his own country has changed.
“It’s true that there is still anti-Semitism in Germany, but there are also a lot of people who stand against anti-Semitism and support Israel,” he says. “This is very much what the March of Life is about: We want to break the silence not only about our family histories, but also to speak loud against anti-Semitism.”
Unfolding along a 1,300-mile route, the group’s journey included memorial programs at five death camps — Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Chelmno and Sobibor — and concluded Thursday with a commemoration service in Warsaw. Members of the German delegation included descendants of Wehrmacht soldiers, SS officers and others involved in the genocide.
Pfeiffer’s grandfather, a German factory worker who avoided military service because of health problems, ended up at Auschwitz on a work project coordinated by his bosses. After the war, he avoided talking about his experiences — family members didn’t press him — and never met his granddaughter, the younger Pfeiffer says.
His connection to Auschwitz “came to light when my parents saw how much I researched my family history, and how badly I wanted to know what happened during that time,” Pfeiffer recalls. “They wanted to help me in every way they could.”
Pfeiffer’s father hadn’t been aware of his own father’s activities during the war, and learned from a relative who was surprised he didn’t know.
With her own children, Barbel Pfeiffer says, that sort of ignorance has come to an end. While she didn’t bring her two sons on this trip — her husband accompanied her instead — she considers it vital to educate them about the past.
“I called my sons from Auschwitz and told them how I felt,” she says. “They asked me, ‘Mother, are you crying?,’ and I said yes. I think it is very important to talk with them about it, and we do.”
“I called my sons from Auschwitz and told them how I felt,” Pfeiffer says. “I think it is very important to talk with them about it, and we do.”
Speaking at the March of Life‘s concluding ceremony in Warsaw, Knesset member Lia Shemtov told listeners that post-war generations needn’t feel guilty about the past, but that descendants of perpetrators nevertheless have a special responsibility toward Jews.
“They say children should not bear the sins of their parents as a mark of Cain,” Shemtov told her audience. “Unfortunately, the memory of the Holocaust haunts you today when you, second and third generations, are exposed to rising anti-Semitism in Europe [and] radical Islam’s hatred.”
For Pfeiffer, it’s a message that resonates powerfully. “We have just come from Auschwitz,” she says. “I told the Holocaust survivors, their children and their grandchildren, they are very precious people for me.”