At former DP camps, children of survivors and Germans work through complicated pasts
Jews born in ashes of Holocaust visit picturesque towns where their parents saw postwar denazification of their persecutors’ society, find common bonds with Germans’ descendants
FELDAFING, Germany — In Germany, both Feldafing, overlooking picturesque Lake Starnberg, and Bad Reichenhall, nestled in the Bavarian Alps, are idyllic vacation spots. Arriving to Displaced Persons camps there after enduring the Nazi camps, Holocaust survivors, including my parents, must have thought they were dreaming.
This past May, I joined a group of 20 descendants of Holocaust survivors for a visit to these two German towns where our parents stayed in DP camps after the war. We were invited by the residents of Feldafing and Bad Reichenhall as part of their COVID-delayed commemoration of 75 years since the end of World War II.
“This period when many Jewish Displaced Persons stayed in our midst is an important part of our history worth remembering,” says Feldafing resident Claudia Sack, who, along with Prof. Marita Krauss, organized the visit.
As our parents seldom spoke about this period, our group of second-generation survivors arrived with many questions. We knew that our parents, fleeing an uncertain future in Eastern Europe, took refuge in the American-controlled zone of Germany during the late 1940s. As their efforts to emigrate to pre-state Israel or other countries were blocked, they remained there for several years.
What was it like for them to be in the land of the murderers of their families? What was going on in the lives of their German counterparts?
As we talked with our German hosts, a picture of day-to-day life for both groups began to emerge. We also gained insights into present-day Germany and learned some lessons that may help prevent future conflicts.
Adolf Hitler slept here
We stayed in Feldafing’s Kaiserin Elisabeth Golfhotel, a setting with an ironic history. Adolf Hitler vacationed there and hosted a widely-publicized gala event for the press corps in the 1930s. After the war, US General Dwight Eisenhower had soldiers restore the golf course so that he could partake in his favorite pastime; in 1946 the hotel was turned into a hospital for Jewish DPs where five members of our group were born.
In the breakfast dining hall, the conversation of our group was quite different than what the golfing enthusiasts sitting across from us were discussing. Our way of getting acquainted with one another was an exchange of the stories we had heard so often while growing up, the same stories our parents undoubtedly shared when they met at the very same place:
“My mother was only 14 when she made it past Mengele because someone told her to stand on her toes…”
“Same thing with my father, he was 16 but his brother told him to say he was 19…”
“There was this really brutal guard in the Warsaw ghetto…”
But then the tone changed when the DP days were recalled. “They were like little kids finally given a chance to play… there’s this photo of my mother skiing even though she was pregnant…”
The road to denazification
At the Feldafing army base, currently the site of a military information technology unit, Capt. Wolfgang Schmidt guided us through an exhibit used to educate soldiers about the DP era of 1945-1951 when about 6,000 Jews lived on the base or in nearby villas confiscated by the United States Army.
The photos chronicle the early months of the DP camp when the first arrivals were Jews liberated from the neighboring Dachau concentration camp, to the later years when the DPs began to build new lives. They married and gave birth to 700 children, started their own newspaper, formed sports teams and underwent vocational training.
While the Jewish DPs were regaining their strength, the local German population was also undergoing a transformation.
“After the Americans had put Nazi leaders on trial, they turned their attention to the German civilian population in what came to be known as denazification,” explains Krauss, a historian at the University of Augsburg.
She points out that denazification aimed to penalize Germans who had supported and profited from the Nazi regime and at the same time instill democratic values. The process was started by US General Lucius D.Clay, a senior administrator in the occupying US forces, and later continued by Bavarian prime minister Wilhelm Hoegner, who returned from wartime exile.
“Both Clay and Hoegner had a heroic influence in rebuilding German society,” notes Krauss.
Everyone was guilty until proven innocent
Denazification began with all adults filling out a 165-question form, known as the meldebogen, in which they had to declare the extent of their involvement with the Nazi regime.
“Everyone was guilty until proven innocent,” says Krauss, explaining that Germans had to appear in front of tribunals which ranked their involvement on a scale of one to five. “A ranking of five meant that you might be forced to give up property, ownership of companies, and pensions as well as be disallowed from voting for 10 years.”
The tribunals were also an opportunity for civilians who felt they had been mistreated by Nazi supporters to gain retribution.
“Here in Feldafing, there was someone arrested by the Gestapo during the war after a Nazi functionary caught him listening to the BBC. The denazification procedures enabled him to testify against the informer,” says Krauss, adding that eventually those who were able to show that they were no longer a danger were re-integrated into society.
“The Truth and Confessions process adopted by South Africa to reconcile its post-apartheid society was actually modeled after this program,” she says.
The meldebogen documentation continues to serve as a valuable resource for Germans curious to learn about the wartime history of their own families.
“There was a big silence when I asked members of my family what my grandfather did during the war,” recalls Lt. Colonel Thomas Nockelmann, 48. “So I went to the archives and found out that he was a propagandist for the Nazi party. I told my family this and they were all embarrassed. ‘Why do you want to put your fingers into the past? We don’t want to know what happened,’ they said to me. But I think it’s important to know your own family history.”
It’s important to know your own family history
Nockelmann is today the commander of the Bad Reichenhall base, where 6,000 Jewish DPs lived between 1946-1951. While serving with NATO forces in Bosnia he witnessed the tragic consequences of the Serbian massacre, yet he refuses to compare that situation or examples of atrocities in other countries with the Holocaust.
“Some say look at what Stalin did or what the Americans did to the American Indians but it doesn’t matter if others committed crimes. Germans committed a crime and you cannot eradicate it by comparing it to other crimes. The German crime was the biggest crime in all humanity,” Nockelmann says.
Free, at last
Lara Fuerguth, 22, a university student who accompanied our group, has also examined her family’s meldebogen. She discovered that her great-grandfather was a supply plane pilot but not an active Nazi party supporter.
“I felt relieved to know this, which was a feeling that surprised me because I realize I don’t have any responsibility for what my great-grandfather did,” she says.
Fuerguth, who is researching how second-generation Holocaust survivors were affected by the experiences of their parents, conducted in-depth interviews with members of our group. A perceptive and articulate observer, she was able to put into words what many of us were feeling.
“It was touching to see how everyone was so happy to be walking the grounds where their parents were free for the first time, finally not having to worry about being killed,” she says.
“When I looked at their faces there was a great variety of emotions, from being happy their parents got to enjoy the beautiful view of the lake, to moments of grief like when one woman showed me a photo of her parents’ wedding. Her mother can be seen crying because the people she most wanted to be there, her parents, were missing,” says Fuerguth.
Fuerguth made one finding that struck close to her heart. “As I have a very strong, loving relationship with my own grandparents, I was moved by how everyone mentioned that they never got to meet their grandparents. It’s just horrendous they never got to be loved by their grandparents,” she says.
Sharing photos with one another was an important part of our trip. We scoured the locations we visited to see if we could match the views of the barracks or mountains with the backgrounds in photos of our parents. Most of those photos show our parents posing happily.
Dr. Johannes Lang, Bad Reichenhall’s archivist, notes that the cheerful mood in those photos is reflected in the opening passage of an anonymously-written book by a DP camp resident that he recently discovered: “Our Jewish life is full of contradictions…”
“Every aspect of their lives was full of paradoxes,” says Lang. “They were living in the quarters of German soldiers, and because they were receiving food and clothing from refugee organizations they were in some ways in a better situation than the local German population.”
Lang points out that the Jews and Germans traded briskly with each other in the black market that flourished in postwar Europe. As both had their eyes on the future, there was little friction between them.
“It was a new beginning for both in the same place and at the same time,” he explains, noting that for the Jews this meant a strengthening of the Zionist idea.
“A little bit of Israel was born right here in Bad Reichenhall,” he says, showing a photo of a determined group of Jewish DPs marching to protest the refusal of the British government to let them emigrate to the Jewish homeland.
A little bit of Israel was born right here in Bad Reichenhall
For the Germans, Lang continues, the old Germany was completely destroyed. “We need to be thankful to the Americans who didn’t repeat the mistake of World War I which left Germany smoldering with feelings of wounded nationalism. Denazification started us on a path to a country that has become a stable and peaceful democracy for more than 75 years,” he says.
Noting how Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has misappropriated the word “denazification” to justify invading Ukraine, Lang says that world leaders need to think about what to do when the Russia-Ukraine war ends.
“Because the Russian people have been badly subjected to Putin’s totalitarian propaganda, their feelings of anger are not likely to subside and could lead to another conflict,” says Lang.
Unlike the end of World War II, when the American presence enabled the denazification program, it’s clear that it may be difficult to implement a similar corrective effort. Still, Lang’s warning is best to be heeded.
Back at the Golfhotel terrace, the words of our German peers and our own reminisces continued to resonate as we sat together late into the night, 20 people who had never met before yet quickly bonded, as our parents had more than 70 years ago.
We looked out into the night at the place where Hitler had vacationed, where our parents had cried and laughed, and where some of us opened our eyes in baby carriages. We raised our glasses one more time to toast our parents. If only they could see us now.
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