The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Silence That Kills

By Robert Heinemann

I was born in Germany in the early 1960s, less than 20 years after the end of the Second World War. Documentaries on German TV gave me my first awareness of the Holocaust. I was shocked. I had questions. But asking my parents for the answers proved to be futile. "Change the channel" and "we have to move on with life" were the usual responses. My questions stayed with me and my thoughts about the Holocaust grew steadily, both in number and depth.

This is not an unfamiliar account of growing up in Germany after the war. In Ursula Hegi's 'Tearing the Silence' I found my own feelings again in the accounts of postwar German immigrants who experienced the taboo around the Holocaust in their own homes. This taboo created and still creates a lot of confusion, embarrassment, shame, guilt feelings, and also denial in the sons and daughters of Germans who themselves had not come to terms with what happened during the war.

You do not solve a problem by being silent about it, by refusing to identify and discuss it, and finally by not choosing a way to at least improve it. Yet, this is what happened to the Holocaust after the war. The Holocaust is a problem for Germans. It involves guilt about having murdered two thirds of European Jewry, about having been silent bystanders or active perpetrators, and about having to live for ever with such a legacy. The problem is enormous. It is in fact so overwhelming that too many have resorted to denial and rationalization of the Holocaust. Again and again, I hear Germans say "but look how the United States treated Indians and black people." Does this ease Nazi Germany's responsibility for the slaughter of Jews all over Europe? Does this allow Germans after the war to merely feel as fallible as everyone else in the world? No, not by any means.

Dealing with the Holocaust must mean first of all to acknowledge the fact of the genocide that was planned and executed by Nazi Germany and perhaps one's own relatives. This was murder, a crime and needs to be spoken of in these terms, no justifications can undo that fact. Silence around the Holocaust makes exactly this identification of the Holocaust as a million fold act of murder invisible. Silence around the Holocaust rather keeps alive hate filled propaganda that makes murder tolerable. Silence tolerates too much!

And, of course, silence is not a promise for a better future. If the fact of this genocide is swept under the carpet by many, only a few who remember and are able to talk about the Holocaust will fight for a genocide-free future. We must learn from the details that Holocaust education conveys. Think of the many kinds of prejudice, discrimination, humiliation and finally the highly organized mass murder. This pattern has been repeated after 1945 in world history. Knowing how it all developed in the past equips us much better to keep keep human life safe in the future.

In the end, silence kills. The trilogy of silence started before and during the Holocaust when people silently watched on when their neighbors were taken away to be killed. The second phase of silence continued after the war when so many young people had questions, just like me, and their parents remained silent.

The third phase of silence is what we witness now in Germany with the rise of neo-Nazi attacks. Lately, several times the German government needed to appeal to Germans not to be silent bystanders when African immigrants are chased down the street and beaten to death in city parks or immigrant children are brutalized in street cars. It is this new increase in right extremist violence that has alarmed those people who recognize the silent killer that silence really is. Hope lies in these new voices that have emerged in Germany trying to lead the way to a more active remembrance of the Holocaust.

Robert Heinemann is a pseudonym for a Canadian writer.

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