What happens if you find your kind father is the executioner in a concentration camp | overseas interview
Interview with Peter Sichrovsky, author of Verklempt
June 20, 2017
By Cui Ying
This text has been translated from Chinese (original viewable here).
Recently, a book called “Born Guilty – Children of Nazi Families” was published in China. In the book, as the descendant of Jewish victims of the Nazi concentration camps, Austrian journalist Peter Sichrovsky interviewed more than a hundred Nazi children. … Sichrovsky found that most of the Germans and Austrians who grew up in the 1950s had little or no knowledge of their parents’ behavior during the war, and most of them experienced “lies, silence and untruths.” So how did the Nazi children know what their parents did during the war? How did they react when the suspicion became a reality? How did they pass this knowledge to their own children? In the book “Born Guilty,” he tried to find the answers to these questions.
The 69-year-old Sichrovsky lives in Chicago, USA. Upon the book’s publication, Tencent culture did the following telephone interview with the author. Many of Sichrovsky’s interviewees did not agree to publish their own stories.
Tencent culture : Please tell about your family’s experiences in World War II.
Sichrovsky: My grandfather died before World War II, my mother and grandmother lived in Prague. My mother fled to London with a fake ID card before the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. She was 16 years old. Grandmother did not want to go, but wanted to stay in Prague. A few weeks later, she was detained at the concentration camp Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. After all the camps were closed, all the Jews who were there were sent to Auschwitz.
In 1938 my dad lived in Vienna. When he was 17 years old, he and two friends fled to London. But my grandparents did not leave, and suffered. Most of my relatives were killed in the war.
Tencent culture : what prompted you to understand the history of the previous generation?
Sichrovsky : I seem to have grown up in a family without history. As a postwar generation, I rarely learned about the history from my parents. My parents and other survivors, like their ancestors, are reluctant to mention it. As a Jewish immigrant who returned to Vienna in 1947, I was likely to grow up with the Nazi children, but we never talked about topics related to their parents – no matter whether they are children or their parents, no one wants to talk about war. These histories are completely ignored.
Years later, I grew up and started reading books and doing related research. I am more and more interested in this topic, and wanted to understand that period of history. At the age of 16, I went to Auschwitz. I found the name of my grandmother when I checked the camp’s register. At the age of 17, I took my mother’s “path to escape”: from Prague by train, through Germany and Belgium, to London. I visited a family who had taken in my mom mid-way in the journey and allowed her to stay at their home for a night.
What are the consequences of the war? How did the postwar generation face the history of their parents? Most of my later books are related to this theme.
Tencent culture : How long did it take you to write “Born Guilty”? Was it difficult to find people to interview?
Sichrovsky : It took two or three years to write this book, and I interviewed more than a hundred people. It is not difficult to find them: their names and contact information are in the archives. Germans are very orderly and whatever materials there are can be found. You can also find information about their parents, such as whether they were soldiers or SS.
I interviewed children who were mainly from ordinary Nazis rather than war criminals. In the interview, I learned that a father had made an understatement to his children and said he was a former soldier. After his death, his children found that he actually worked in a concentration camp. In general, fathers will not tell this information to the child. If the children ask, they will answer: “I have gone through war, terrible, do not want to say more.” The war is over, they do not want to be questioned by their children.
But it is interesting that when the children go to high school, understand the World War II, concentration camps, the Holocaust, they will realize that the events are not just history, but also part of their own family. They will think about whether their father was a soldier, or was the SS. This tangible complication arises: history beyond history books becomes the history of the family.
Tencent culture : What was the process of writing the book?
Sichrovsky: Very complicated. In 100 stories, I chose 30 to write out. I wrote these 30 stories, of which 10-15 people refused to publish. They are mainly those with parents who are still alive.
Some of the interviewees who agreed to publish asked me to modify the information in the story, such as the protagonist’s address, age and occupation. They did not want friends to find out that their parents were once in the SS, or worked in a concentration camp.
Tencent culture : in the interview, what was the biggest challenge?
Sichrovsky: The biggest challenge was that in the interview, I could not make judgments about them, except telephone interviews – in the telephone interview, I became very aggressive.
In general, in the interview process, I let them gradually open their hearts, frankly talk about themselves and their parents, so I have enough patience to control my own emotions. Some of the interviews I met with the interviewee four or five times, we were familiar with each other, they were willing to talk to me.
To get a longer history, one must start asking questions: “what about your grandparents” about “your family, what is your earliest memory?” “Did they tell you about the story of a war?” “What village did they live in?” I asked these questions step by step, and from the long history you ask about, you do get to that period of history. If you ask “what did your father do during the war,” they certainly would not say anything.
Tencent culture : in your view, their fathers that were secretive to their deaths, not telling their children about what they did, what are the psychological roots?
Sichrovsky: At that time most ordinary Germans supported the Nazis. During the war, activists did not admit that they had done anything wrong after the war. They do not feel guilty. German people do not feel guilty.
Tencent culture : According to your observation, after the war was there a more open confession of the Nazis?
Sichrovsky : very, very little.
Tencent culture : this left to their next generation what kind of information?
Sichrovsky: For the next generation, this situation is very complicated. In fact the original innocence of the next generation becomes “born guilty.”
It is very strange that the person who is responsible for the crime does not feel guilty, and the person who is not responsible for the crime feels guilty himself.
Tencent culture : in the interview with these Nazi children, what was the most surprising thing for you?
Sichrovsky: The strong influence of family history on personal life. Everyone is, after all, a parent. The older you are, the more you feel that you are just a link between generations. Nazi children will certainly be affected by the history of their parents, in no matter which direction.
Tencent culture : the father that was good, honest, called an exemplary citizen, during the war originally was the murderer and executioner. When you know the truth, in order to reconcile the two sharp conflicts in a person’s role, the Nazi children, respectively, had what kind of reaction?
Sichrovsky: Their reaction is very different. Some people feel very angry, that the father is a criminal; someone tried to defend his father, find the reason to continue to love his father; some people think it does not matter.
For the next generation of the Nazis, it is a favorable condition that the whole society has generally accepted that period of history. The new generation of Germans may be very critical of past history. I found that a few Nazi children would find an excuse for their fathers, but most Nazi children (about 70–80%) were critical of their parents.
Tencent culture : in the Nazi family siblings children chapter, the two children have very different views. The brother hated his father’s work in wartime, went to Israel, wrote a paper on fascism, and even wanted to convert to Judaism. The sister defended her father. The sister said: “You do not know how similar you are – the same fanaticism, just in the opposite camp.” How do you evaluate the sister’s words?
Sichrovsky: This situation is particularly typical for German families. Not only are the families of different families holding different opinions, in the same family, different children also hold different opinions. I actually agree with the sister’s point of view, because she is very honest, clear thinking. She did not simply say: “bad.” Her views and attitudes are very unique.
In fact, in this book, my point of view is not important. I tried to show my interviewee without my personal opinion. I want to be a mirror or a tape recorder. I am only in the preface, or a telephone interview reflects my point of view.
Tencent culture : speaking of that chapter, in the “Herbert” telephone interview, the mood has some out of control irony: “a son of the executioner, really dares to speak.” The other side is that you do not ask questions, just curse. As a reporter, in your past interview career, how did you normally treat the interviewee?
Sichrovsky: Sometimes I will quarrel with the interviewee. They condemned me for trying to make them guilty and then I answered that I was just listening and asking questions. But the other said: “You make me feel guilty, you are criticizing my father.” I replied: “I did not.
A telephone interview is not easy. After all, this topic is not pleasant, and it is easy to dissimulate. In fact, this is one of my interview skills, [to draw out the truth].
Tencent culture : When some Nazi children told you “I would have done the same thing”, what did you think?
Sichrovsky: I think this is a very honest answer. They will say that they are living in a completely different Germany, that their parents do sound terrible, but at that time, everyone was very agitated, and if I lived in that era, maybe I would also be so. It is difficult to live in different historical periods of people to make judgments.
Tencent culture : When this book was first published in 1987 in Germany, “Der Spiegel” magazine serialized it. Why was it not published in Austria?
Sichrovsky: Austria is a small country, and in Austria, people avoid this question. But in Germany, many people discuss the Nazi issue.
Tencent culture : You say, unlike Germany, Austria’s general reaction to this book is silence, but has this situation now changed?
Sichrovsky: The Austrians like to forget. There are lyrics in the Austrian composer Strauss’ opera (Die Fledermaus): “When they forget what they cannot change, people will become happy.
Look, the Austrian way of thinking is unique, they like to forget, like living in the present, like to remember only the beautiful part. They are proud of Mozart, the promotion of chocolate cake, the beautiful small town of Vienna, but do not want to discuss the bad history. Although Austria has changed greatly, compared with Germany, the gap is still great.
Tencent culture : You said in the postscript, even those who claim that they should not be responsible for their predecessors, who have desperate resistance to resistance, shows that they are still feeling guilt and humiliation.
Sichrovsky: Yes. People should learn about history by understanding their parents and grandparents. Nazi children should not feel guilty: you should be guilty of what you have done, not what your parents have done. Your responsibility is to understand and accept the history of your country, accept that Germany should be responsible for these crimes, but this is not the responsibility of the individual.
Tencent culture : How do you think Nazi children should treat their parents?
Sichrovsky: They should treat their parents critically. In your daily life, if your father has killed people, you have the right to live a normal life, have the right to go to school, work and build a family, you should not be punished for his crimes. At the same time, you have to know that your father has committed a crime, you want him to face these crimes, let him be responsible, rather than refuse to admit them.
Tencent culture : How does today’s new generation of young people see “Born Guilty”?
Sichrovsky: This book was first published in 1988 and is still in sales. Two years ago, the play based on the book was staged in England and Italy. This book is also very popular in Russia.
“Born Guilty” sparked a lot of discussion. As in the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia, people will ask their parents what they did in that era. After the Spanish Franco era, people asked their parents what they did in that era. Strictly speaking, this book is not about the Nazis, is about the intergenerational conflict, it is about the next generation’s questions for the previous generation, is about history and its impact on the family.
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