Friday, July 9, 2021

Polish-American Poet John Guzlowski Talks about Germans and Forgiveness


Polish-American poet John Guzlowski was asked to review Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century, by Konrad H. Jarausch, a book about German suffering.


Here's what Amazon says about this book:


"Broken Lives is a gripping account of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of ordinary Germans who came of age under Hitler and whose lives were scarred and sometimes destroyed by what they saw and did.


Drawing on six dozen memoirs by the generation of Germans born in the 1920s, Konrad Jarausch chronicles the unforgettable stories of people who not only lived through the Third Reich, World War II, the Holocaust, and Cold War partition, but also participated in Germany's astonishing postwar recovery, reunification, and rehabilitation. Written decades after the events, these testimonies, many of them unpublished, look back on the mistakes of young people caught up in the Nazi movement. In many, early enthusiasm turns to deep disillusionment as the price of complicity with a brutal dictatorship--fighting at the front, aerial bombardment at home, murder in the concentration camps―becomes clear."


John's review is below. The publisher rejected the review. I wondered why. Perhaps the review is just too real.


John's review of Broken Lives:


This book has been a burden. I’ve been trying to write a “fair” review for the last four or five months.


When Ron Slate asked me initially to review this book, I was more than happy. My parents were Polish-Catholic farm kids who survived years in German concentration camps, and what happened to them has shaped my own life. I was born in a refugee camp in Germany after the war, and I have spent much of my adult life writing and thinking about my parents’ experiences in the war. I thought that reading about how ordinary Germans experienced WWII (the main focus of this book) would give me insight into the German mind that would help me understand these ordinary Germans and what happened to my parents and millions of others.


What I’ve discovered from the book is that these ordinary Germans, beset by epic sufferings of their own, didn’t give much thought to the sufferings of the millions of non-Germans who were affected by the war, who struggled to survive.


Konrad H. Jarausch, the author of Broken Lives, argues that this focus on their own suffering finally has had a positive effect on German national identity, transforming Germany from a militaristic nation into a “pillar of European democracy.”


I can’t deny that Germany is a “pillar of European democracy,” but for me that’s not enough. I want more from these ordinary Germans.


It's like the book – with its stories of the lives of these Germans – is trying to convince me that the terrible things that were done by the German military to civilians in France, Poland, Russia, Italy, Greece, Africa, and elsewhere during the war finally didn't touch most Germans. They were busy with their lives, busy trying to survive the terrible burdens that the Allies – with their mega-armies – were forcing down on them. These Germans couldn't consider the terrible things that were happening to the non-Germans in the countries invaded by the Germans, the terrible things that were happening to the 10 million slave laborers who – like my parents – were forced to work in the German factories and fields while the German soldiers were off trying to conquer the world.


How am I supposed to respond to this?


Let me tell you a story.


One time, just before Christmas, I gave a talk to a high school class about my parents and their experiences under the Germans during World War II. I talked about my father who spent 5 years in Buchenwald concentration camp, and I talked about my mother who spent almost 3 years in various slave labor camps in Germany.


After my talk, a student asked me a question. I’m sure it was in part sparked by the Christmas season, the talk that you hear at that time of year about “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men.” He asked me whether or not I forgave the Germans for what they did to my parents.


The question stopped me. I haven’t thought about it before, about whether or not I forgave the Germans.


Of course, I had thought about whether or not my parents forgave the Germans. I knew my father never met a guard he would forgive. He said they were brutal men who beat him and killed his friends for no reason. One sub-zero winter night, these guards ran roll calls over and over. Hundreds of prisoners in pajama thin clothes stood outside in the cold and snow. By morning, about a hundred prisoners were dead. For what purpose? Just to get rid of the weak prisoners. Because of stuff like this, my dad felt anger toward all the Germans.


My mother seldom talked about her experiences during the war. If you asked her what they were like, most of the time she would just say, "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away."


A lot of people say, forget it; it was all a long time ago. For my parents, it was never a long time ago.


My parents carried the pain and nightmares with them every day.


When my father was dying in a hospice, there were times when he was sure that the doctors and the nurses were the guards who beat him when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp. There were also times when he couldn’t recognize me. He looked at me and was frightened, as if I were one of the guards.


I remember asking my mom once toward the end of her life if she forgave the Germans. She thought for a while. I’m sure she was thinking about her mother, her sister, and her sister’s baby. They were all killed by Germans who came to her farm house in eastern Poland.


What my mother finally said surprised me. I thought she was going to say what I had heard my father say over and over that all the Germans were evil. But that’s not what she said. She told me a story about when she first was brought to Germany. She was taken to a camp where they worked the women just like they were men, making the women work sixteen, eighteen, twenty hour shifts, six days a week. She said that she knew she couldn’t survive that for long, maybe a week, maybe two.


She was saved by German guard.


For some reason, he took pity on her. Who knows what his motives were? My mother often said that Germans thought she looked like a German, a niemka in Polish. Maybe this was what got her saved. Maybe not. Whatever it was that motivated this guard, he succeeded in getting her transferred to a different work area where the work was not killing work. She survived the war.


After telling me this story, she said, “Some Germans were good. Some bad. I forgive the good ones.”


All of this went through my head when the student asked me if I forgave the Germans, and here’s what I said to him, “I don’t forgive the stupid ones, the ones who think that what happened to my parents didn’t happen or it wasn’t bad as people say.”


And I told this student why I was saying this. I told him how I had gone to an academic conference in Paderborn, Germany, in 1989, and I met a woman, a professor, there. We were chatting, and she asked me if I had ever been in Germany before. I said, “Yes, I have. I was born in Germany in fact.”


She was surprised and asked me about this. I told her my parents had been kidnapped by the Germans and brought to work in the slave labor and concentration camps in Germany, and that I was born in a refugee camp after the war.


She said, “Your parents were lucky they were brought to Germany during the war. It was better for them here than in Poland. Here they got good food, shelter. Here they got to escape the chaos of the war.”


I looked at her and couldn’t believe that she could say such a thing. I thought about my father and mother and what they lost and suffered during the war, and I thought about how their lives after the war never shook the scars of the war. I thought about my father’s nightmares and his dead eye, the one blinded by a guard; and I thought about my mother’s coldness, her inability to feel much beyond grief and anger and hatred. I thought about how she directed that coldness and anger and hatred toward my father, my sister, and me.


I didn’t know what to say to this German professor, so I didn’t say anything.


She was not the kind of person I could forgive. She was one of the stupid ones.


This is what I told the student who asked if I forgave the Germans. Some I forgave, the smart ones who recognized what had happened during the war. Some I didn't forgive, the ones who didn't recognize what had happened.


But later as I kept thinking about what the student had asked and what I had answered, I started thinking more and more about my mother. With all she had experienced in the war and with all of her coldness, anger, and hate, she was still able to find some human warmth in her heart. She was still able to forgive some Germans.


This makes me think that I should be able to do more than condemn the stupid ones and forgive the smart ones, that I should be able to feel more of the good will toward all of them than I do.


Do I feel good will toward the ordinary Germans described and quoted in Konrad H. Jarausch’s book?


I feel good will to the few who saw the suffering of the victims of the German army and felt compassion and guilt.


The others, the majority? Not so much. Not yet.


  1. German repentance was generally not sincere (12 book reviews):

  2. I like the review. Unfortunately German state (and its 16 Lands) do very little to be forgiven. They have published a book about German crimes in Poland, but several parts of it are not about the subject. German politicans still discuss construction of a Polish memorial in Berlin. There is a Holocaust one, Sinti-Roma, LGBT, but not about 2 million of Poles. German TV series 'Generation War' warned Poles. Thousends of Polish doctors and nurses studied in Poland for free and they emigrated to Germany. The same Polish engineers. This is a form of colonialism. Any critics of such policy is rejected by Germany and liberal Polish media. Many Polish newspapers and weeklies are published by Springer (partially German capital), no Polish group is allowed to influence German people.

  3. Much respect to John. Our parents' generation, the ones who were uprooted from their homes and their country by both invaders, even those who managed to avoid the worst of the horrors, were traumatised for the rest of their lives to a greater or lesser degree, by being wrenched away from everything they knew and loved.

    1. Did you see my review of The August Trials?


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