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Monday, April 16, 2012

What Must Be Said

     When my father was in his forties, he weighed close to 300 pounds. The extra weight caused not unexpected health issues, so he went to our family physician.
     That man—weighing a good 400 pounds, if not 450—proceeded to lecture my father on diet and exercise. He wouldn’t consider running tests to diagnose my dad’s ailments. Essentially he told my father to go on a diet and to come back when he had lost weight.
     My dad knew that what that doctor said was true (although the doc really should have done a physical!). But it galled him that the man behind the stethoscope could be so judgmental, while he himself was more morbidly obese than my father.
     So my dad changed doctors, looking for a physician who practiced what he preached. Criticism, even constructive criticism, is more credible when the person dishing it out is compassionate, and when he is not more guilty of the same flaw or vice.
     Our disappointment with the fellow researcher who abandoned our work came the same week that Günter Grass published his “poem” What Must Be Said. I will not try to analyze Israeli politics here. That is for people with far greater knowledge about the situation on the ground, people who live there and who have an actual stake in the outcome of political decisions made.
     But I have noticed a common thread in most of the objections to Grass’s “poem”, objections that my father would have understood because of his frustration with his obese M.D.
     Namely, Günter Grass is the last person on earth who should be talking about silences. He has not earned the right to take a stand of any sort on Israeli politics.
     Grass is among those Germans who espouse the despicable notion that Germans were victims too. In a 2011 interview with Israeli journalist Tom Segev, Grass said, “The madness and the crimes didn't just occur in the Holocaust and didn’t stop at the war's end. Of eight million German soldiers that were taken prisoner by the Russians, only perhaps two million survived. The rest were liquidated.”
     Not only are his facts wrong (1.1 million Germans died in Russian POW camps, from starvation, not from “liquidation”), but Grass clearly was setting up an even-Steven argument. Six million Germans, six million Jews, let’s call it even and be done with it.
     While I certainly don’t believe that the German nation needs to “atone” for the next century or so, I do believe that Germany is greatly in need of a Sunshine Law with regards to the Holocaust. Why should Grass’s participation in the Waffen-SS have been kept secret from 1945-2006? Why was he permitted to block access to his military records all that time?
     Grass is hardly alone. Germans may block access to their records (Gestapo files, trial transcripts, military records, denazification files) as long as they are alive, and their children may continue to block access until thirty years after their death. So far, I have yet to find a single person who was truly part of the resistance who has blocked access to their files.
     On the other hand, there are many who claim to have been part of the resistance, but were not. Without exception these people have blocked access to their files, just as Günter Grass has done.
     One of those: George J. (“Jürgen”) Wittenstein. In a letter dated February 29, 2000, he wrote me: “By the way, Jewish religion and being a Jew have very little in common. One of the greatest shocks in our many travels was Israel; we have never seen a country where its people are so torn and set against each other. We came to the conclusion (as have many we talked to about this) that the Jews (at least those in Israel) would have made the best Nazis!”
     At this point, perhaps a little less “atonement” work would be in order. Atonement cannot begin until wrongs have been recognized and dealt with. How can an individual, much less a society, recognize crimes that were committed, if the documents detailing those crimes are kept under lock and key? As long as people like Grass and Wittenstein (and many more like them) are permitted to perpetuate their personal fictions, Germans can continue to expect visceral reactions to criticisms of Israeli politics, justified, unjustified, or otherwise.
     People like Wittenstein and Grass do not fall under our Shades of Grey project. These men embraced National Socialism, participating in and benefitting from its policies.
     We are grateful to Elie Wiesel, Petra Marquardt-Bigman, and Irit Dekel for their reasoned “Jewish” responses to Grass’s “poem”. And we are even more grateful to Germans like Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and FDP Speaker Rainer Stinner for their courage and decency (Stinner: “Grass is an idiot!”).
     If Günter Grass wishes to earn the moral right to criticize Israel, he can feel free at any time to publish an account of his actions in the Waffen-SS, and simultaneously open his military (and other Nazi-era) files up for public scrutiny. For that, in the end, is truly what must be said.

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