Uncovering the Silence: A Jewish-German Healing Exchange
by Margot S. Neuhaus
(Read a detailed description of Neuhaus’ art process over at NPR Berlin!)
My parents were Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors who fled World War II and ended up in Mexico, where my sister and I were born. They lost most of their families. My mother had only a brother, an uncle and a cousin who survived, while my father only a sister and two cousins. They didn’t speak much about their past experiences. Silence was a constant presence. Carl Jung wrote, “Nothing influences children more than the silent facts in the background.” This was the setting that marked my life.
My family didn’t want anything to do with Germany or Germans. My concept of the German people was that they were brutal perpetrators who inflicted unspeakable suffering upon millions of people. Their language seemed harsh, guttural and ugly. On the other hand, the Jewish people were victims and outsiders. We didn’t quite belong to Mexico, the country that saved us.
Throughout my life, I tried to cope with this heritage one way or another. Over the last twelve years I painted as a way of understanding and expressing my feelings about the Holocaust. The paintings that portrayed raw feelings of rage, sorrow, alienation, loss, abandonment, etc., I put away in a drawer, just like my parents put away their feelings. The last ones, however—the ones in which the feelings are more resolved and the style is abstract and not overtly related to that history—I felt I could show. I called that series In Memoriam to honor victims of the Holocaust, including my family.
One day I noticed the gentle sounds of the small children next door playing in their backyard. They were speaking in German. Those sounds had nothing to do with the Nazi commands I heard in movies that I associated with the German language. Their parents, a couple of German reporters working for a German newspaper, were kind, sensitive and interesting people. They moved away. However, defying my stereotypes, they made a first crack in my hermetic idea of Germans and their language.
In 2012, a retired German history teacher named Ernst Kuhnle contacted my husband, Paulo. Mr. Kuhnle is a member of organization called Denk-Zeichen, which places Stolpersteine (memorial stones) in the area of Esslingen to honor the lives of Jewish and other victims of Nazism. He also taught at the high school in Esslingen, Germany, where my husband’s mother, Marta, went to school. Marta was Jewish, so she was forced to quit high school in 1935 because of the Nuremberg Laws. Soon after she was expelled, her whole family fled to Brazil to escape the Nazi regime. Now, Mr. Kuhnle wanted to honor Paulo’s family by making Stolpersteine in their names, and placing them by their previous homes and schools. He invited our family to attend the Stolpersteine ceremonies.
I asked Mr. Kuhnle if I could show In Memoriam during the Stolpersteine ceremonies. After searching, he found a gallery for my work. Only when it was time to choose a photograph for the invitation to the exhibition did I realize that all the paintings in the drawer also belonged to In Memoriam. Together, they fell neatly into four series: Desecration; Dehumanization; Outrage, Revulsion, Grief; Reconciliation. Furthermore, I became aware that what I had painted was the unspeakable language that my parents and that generation of Holocaust survivors couldn’t utter. I had painted what was behind their silence.
My intuition was right about the “raw” paintings hidden in the drawer. I had sensed they might be too incendiary to show. When I sent Mr. Kuhnle an image for the invitation from these paintings which he had not yet seen, he thought it would not work. He felt the strong and obvious message of a red “X” over the partially covered yellow word “Jude” (Jew) could turn people away, rather than attract them to see the show. Then I sent him an image from the last series, an abstract and indirect one. He accepted that. However, in time, he wrote back that he had changed his mind and would use the first image. It seemed to me that during this interval he went through the same process I went through that enabled me to get my work out of the drawer, daring to uncover the silence.
Scroll through a gallery of paintings by the artist.
Mr. Kuhnle’s perseverance, kindness and unfaltering commitment during our e-mail exchange preceding the event shattered my previous stereotype of German men. More preconceptions were broken when Dr. Schulz of the Kunsterguilde Galerie offered to show my work—paintings on the Holocaust by a Jewish woman!—and when I realized that Mr. Kuhnle had invited the students of the school from which Marta was expelled to prepare a presentation on Paulo’s family using material they got from Paulo, the archives and Marta’s diary.
Our trip happened during the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night when Germans looted and destroyed Jewish buildings, businesses and synagogues, killed 91 Jews and arrested and incarcerated 30,000 people in concentration camps, which many have marked as the beginning of the Holocaust. Before going to Esslingen, we stopped in Berlin for a few days. Berlin was dotted with close to 50 venues devoted to the various aspects of the war and its consequences. We went to some of these exhibitions as well as the Jewish Museum and the Jewish Memorial. It became clear to me that the German people have been delving deeply into their past, its consequences and the questions it raised, and they have been making serious attempts at reconciliation.
In Esslingen, we were joined by immediate family, our daughter Eva, who came from Jerusalem, where she’s studying to be a rabbi, and also by our son, Alexis and his fiancee, Meghan, from Michigan, two weeks before their wedding. It was meaningful to all of us to be present. Throughout our time there, we were deeply moved by the thorough, thoughtful and sensitive presentations. To begin with, the opening of my exhibit at the gallery was scheduled on November 10, the day of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. (This was partially by design and partially by synchronicity as this was the period of time that the gallery was free and that the Stolpersteine were ready to be installed). Mr. Kuhnle, Dr. Schultz, and I gave brief speeches. Later on at the school, the principal greeted us warmly, took us to his office, and showed us Paulo’s mothers’ report card, revealing her to be one of the top students of her class. Then we went to the assembly to see the students’ power point presentation; Paulo gave a speech at the school where his mother was expelled; and the teachers played a concert of the same music Marta had heard five days before she left Germany, according to her diary.
Mr. Kuhnle arranged other activities, including a tour of the city and a meeting with Dr, Raab, the mayor of the city who bought one of my paintings and accepted another as a donation from me, with the statement: “I am donating to the city of Esslingen my work, a part of the series In Memoriam, which honors the victims of the Holocaust, including my family. This action marks the honorable acknowledgement by Esslingen of the tragic events during 1933 – 1945 that took place in this city.”
Throughout our stay there, the insistent questions for me were “How could this have happened?” “How could millions of people have been killed, harmed, and placed in labor camps?” Not long ago, I was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC doing research to find information on my missing relatives. The librarian told me, “Our library has over one hundred thousand books on the Holocaust, yet we’re still looking for an answer.”
I kept asking the German people I met, “How do you explain this to yourself?” Each one gave me a different answer. I asked this question to Mr. Kuhnle while he helped me install my paintings. He told me his father had been a Nazi. He spoke about the social, political and economic reasons that facilitated a Hitler coming into power, how that movement capitalized on young people’s desires to belong and better themselves, including his father. How the Nazis were masters at intimidation so that the pressure to conform to their decrees increased as the balance of power was destroyed to the extent that people were afraid for their lives and lives of their family. So I wondered myself: if I were German then, would I have been one of the ones who saved a Jewish person at the risk of endangering my life and those of my family members? I would like to think so. But when one is on the spot, who knows what one may decide? Mr. Kuhnle told me that he has been telling his students, “You are not guilty for what happened. But you have the responsibility not to let it happen again.”
We took a side trip to visit Westerburg, Paulo’s father’s hometown. Two German partners, Burkhard Kniese and Maria Meurer, also had reached out to Paulo to exchange information on his family and graciously took us around the town showing us where Paulo’s relatives lived and worked, including the upholstery business and former residence of his grandfather, which is currently a dental office. We saw the Jewish cemetery and found the tombstone of Paulo’s great grandfather. They also showed us other homes where Jews lived, their synagogue, and told us the stories of how the Jews were deported. On Kristallnacht, the town hired Nazi youth from a neighboring town to round up the Jews rather than use their own residents so that there would be no recognition or sentimentality involved. They were going to set the synagogue on fire, but then were concerned that it would spread to the town, so they threw stones at the Jews instead. They also took us to the town’s exhibition commemorating Kristallnacht, with photos of the Jewish families that had lived there and their stories, including Paulo’s family. During this event, I talked to three siblings, the children of the best friend of Paulo’s aunt, Tilde, who had to escape to Brazil. They remembered her. I asked them my question: “How do you explain to yourself what happened?” All three said that they can’t, but they think about it every day with pain and regret. Mr. Kniese told us as well that his father was a Nazi. His daugther is married to a man from Sierra Leone and his grandchildren are racially mixed. He said he is motivated to know the history and to do reconciliation work, because he doesn’t want what happened in the Holocaust to happen again.
While introducing my work in the Kunstergilde Galerie in Esslingen, I said that both the German people as well as the Jewish people have had a very difficult inheritance and we need each other to heal this legacy. Some of the German people who visited the gallery spoke to me about their reaction to the paintings. I found out that they have suffered and are suffering greatly because of their legacy. A senior art class student from the school came to the gallery to have a discussion with me. One girl said that she spent a summer in England as an exchange student where the kids asked her if she was a Nazi. I talked with some adults who were in tears as they told me their stories of being the children and grandchildren of Nazis, living in torn, depressed households, where their parents didn’t speak. I had tears as well, feeling compassion for their predicament. There was a deep sense that in sharing and listening to our stories we were helping each other heal.
In all of these exchanges, the German people I met conveyed in various ways their honest apology and deep regret for the actions of their parents and grandparents, their legacy of being the children of perpetrators. They were very thankful we were there, as witnesses to their actions of reconciliation. The school principal quoted Indira Ghandi, saying “You cannot shake hands with a closed fist.” At the end of the school ceremony, after the memorial stones were placed in the school yard for Marta and her brother, Leopold, the principal spoke a few closing words. There was silence, but people didn’t leave. The ceremony was over, yet it felt incomplete.
Spontaneously I asked to say a few words. I told students and teachers that our family is deeply grateful for the opportunity to be there, and to witness all their activities and performances. I talked about the Jewish prayer, “Sheheheyanu”, which Jews say on significant occasions. It’s the prayer thanking God for bringing us to this moment. My family and I said the prayer in Hebrew. Finally, I added, “We accept your actions.” Mr. Kuhnle, the principal, the teachers and students did their work of reconciliation. I felt it was crucial to let them know that we had accepted it.
As author, Paul Levy wrote, “We have the precious opportunity to liberate these ancestral, rhizomic strands of trauma which extend far back in time and equally far into the future, but which also converge and are spread throughout the present in the form of the society and culture in which we live. We can be the ones to break the link in the chain and dissolve these insidious, mycelium-like threads, which are literally the warp and woof upon which the tapestry of the past, present, and future history of our species is woven.”
I have spent a lifetime dealing with the issues related to the legacy of the Holocaust. During this trip, because of the reconciliatory work that my family and I did with the German people, I let go of the weight of the past and the victim role I have embodied all my life.
Margot S. Neuhaus is a Washington, D.C.-based artist whose recent series of paintings, In Memoriam, reflects on the Holocaust. Her next show opens June 15 in Gallery 13 in Esslingen.