Opa Emil: history and tragedy

Of all the characters in the Szameitat story, I think Emil is the one I most wish I could have discussed Germany’s history with. Born in 1865 before the country was even unified, he had variously been a citizen of the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Memel Territory, an independent Lithuania, and Nazi Germany. By the 1940s, he must have felt out of touch with the political developments, having lived through so much change. In the documents, he comes across as a complex and indeed tragic character: an Opa-like figure who had suffered much in his life, prone to alcoholism and liable to being swindled.

The main source of information about Emil, who was Oskar’s father and thus my great-great-grandfather, comes from Johanne’s property compensation claims made in the late 1960s. Under the Lastenausgleich, a kind of property compensation law, former refugees could apply to a monetary fund to compensate for losses incurred as a result of the war. The property Johanne was concerned with was in Schweppeln, just outside Memel, which had been owned by Emil’s second wife Lucinde Szameitat née Bendig. She died in 1941, and, according to Johanne, the smallholding of some seven and a half acres had been expropriated following Oskar’s arrest and imprisonment and handed to Nazi sympathisers, Otto and Erna Günther. After the war, Otto was missing presumed dead after the Battle of Stalingrad and Erna had applied for compensation on the property, meaning that Johanne was unable to claim it for herself. Once she had proven that Oskar had indeed been persecuted for political reasons, she notified the relevant authorities about the Schweppeln property, and there followed a lengthy court case against Erna Günther for claiming compensation that was not rightfully hers because the property had been acquired as a result of an expropriation.

This detail would be rather by the by if it weren’t for the fact that Emil’s fate was inextricably linked with that of the Günther family, who, in a bizarre twist, happened to be distantly related to the Szameitats (Johanne’s brother-in-law Fritz Jonathal was apparently a cousin of Erna Günther). Emil continued to live as a tenant at the property he used to own, an embittered old man dependent on the charity of those who had benefitted from his misfortune. It was from here that, age 79, he began his treck west away from the approaching front.


Johanne’s notes on Emil in the files

The starting point for my information about Emil was a scrap of paper in Johanne’s writing that seemed to have some of his biographical details on. It looks like some notes she made, maybe while having a phone conversation with someone who knew Emil’s dates better than she did. As it transpires, almost all of the information listed is inaccurate, and Johanne clearly doubted it because in no official documentation did she give his full name or birth date. But it did give me an important hint that I had hitherto not known: the Szameitats, or Emil’s family at least, had come from south of the river, in Tilsit.

The website Ancestry is strangely addictive. Set up by the LDS church, it pools millions of historical records worldwide that can be perused from the comfort of your own living room. It is not cheap, and I could sense that the armchair archaeologist in me would become addicted if I signed up long term, so I had hitherto avoided it. Noticing, however, that there was a 14 day free trial starting over the August bank holiday weekend, I thought I’d sign up briefly to see if I could find out any records relating to Emil and the Szameitat family.


The Deutsche Kirche in Tilsit, where Emil was baptised and later married Source

From only a handful of records, I was able to glean much about Emil’s early life. Baptised Andreas Emil in 1865 in the Deutsche Kirche in Tilsit, he was the third son of master butcher Daniel Szameitat, married to Lisette née Kuge. His parents had married in 1859, his mother coming from a German family originally from Königsberg. I wrote elsewhere that the name Szameitat indicates a Samogitian/Lower Lithuanian background. The fact that the family’s records were in the Deutsche Kirche, rather than the Lithuanian speaking Lutheran church, of which there was also one in Tilsit, suggests that the family probably spoke German. Perhaps assimilation occurred with Daniel’s move to the town: I have been unable to find his baptism record, leading me to suspect he came originally from north of the river where many of the church records have been lost. Not only this, but following his marriage, Emil moved with his wife to Paszieszen, north of the river in the Heydekrug district. Since many other Szameitats lived in Paszieszen at various points, we might assume that Daniel originally came from there.  In any case, in his marriage record, Daniel’s surname was spelt Zamaitat, but on Emil’s marriage record, his surname is spelt the more Germanized way. Was this evidence of further assimilation, or was it just dependent on how the vicar thought it sounded? We can’t be sure.

Emil grew up with at least two sisters, Therese Ida and Louise Marie, and at least two brothers, one of whom, Ernst Richard, seems to have had a successful career in the military. He (Ernst Richard) was married twice, once in Frankfurt on the Oder and once in Stettin, where he was stationed as part of the Prussian army.


Emil’s marriage record to Anna Galbrast. Can you make out his profession? So far, no one I have asked has been able to decipher it

For his part, Emil seemed to be somewhat less successful in life, at least according to the measures of success important at the time. I’m not sure what exactly makes me think it. Perhaps it was that he was the third son, or perhaps it was because his wedding took place during Lent, which (my sources tell me) indicates that he was poor, or that his wife, Anna Galbrast, came from peasant stock in nearby Schakuhnen, was four years his senior (age 33 when they married) and was likely either an orphan or born out of wedlock (she had the surname Jogschies listed in addition to her maiden name Galbrast). Am I wrong to think it might have been a marriage of convenience?

And if that wasn’t enough cause to suspect that Emil had drawn the short straw in life, things soon got worse for him once they had moved to Paszieszen in 1895. After the birth of their two sons, Ernst and Oskar, his wife Anna died in childbirth with their third child, who also died. Emil found himself raising two small boys alone, and he couldn’t cope. He reached for the drink, and drank himself into bankruptcy.

We don’t know how he got to know Lucinde Bendig soon after that turbulent time, but she seems to have been a saviour-like figure for him and thought of as a mother by the boys, and if Johanne’s notes are even vaguely correct they must have married quickly. Trakseden, listed as the place they married, had a civil registry office in 1907 according to its GenWiki page, so it is not improbable that they tied the knot there. Interestingly, Trakseden was also the local registry office for Rudienen, the next village north on the road from Tilsit to Memel and where Johanne had grown up. A bit of Googling reveals that there were a few Bendigs that lived both in Rudienen and Trakseden, so it’s likely that Emil and Lucinde lived here also for a time. It would potentially also solve another piece in the puzzle, that being of how Johanne and Oskar met (their families lived in the same or neighbouring villages) and even maybe why Johanne’s parents did not approve of her marriage to Oskar in 1927 (their daughter was marrying the son of the village’s one time resident alcoholic).

Whatever the circumstances, Lucinde and Emil opted for a new start after the First World War. The boys had grown up and left home (and indeed fought in the war), and life post 1918 felt very different in the newly created Memel Territory. Much of East Prussia had been devastated by the war and in some places the destruction was worse than in 1945. Politically, the future was very uncertain. The Szameitats decided to invest for the future and bought the smallholding in Schweppeln, with Oskar contributing his share of his mother’s inheritance which had been tied up in trust until then (his brother Ernst had spent his share on a teaching qualification). It seems that Oskar’s young family later also spent a lot of time there, and Johanne, having grown up in a farming community herself, also worked the land. It was a family enterprise, but it had been bought and owned in Lucinde’s name: they all clearly wanted to prevent any possibility that Emil might squander it on drink, since he was prone.


Which property in Schweppeln belonged to the Szameitats? I have not yet managed to work it out Source

By all accounts, Emil did better than ever, and in the 1920s and 30s he seems to have invested a huge amount physically and emotionally into the property, a neighbour later describing the smallholding as Emil’s Lob und Gut, (literally ‘praise and thanksgiving’, perhaps best translated as ‘pride and joy’). It must have felt like success was finally his, at last, after so much bad luck in life.

But it was not to be. Lucinde became ill in the late 1930s, and just when Johanne thought things couldn’t get any worse, given that Oskar had been arrested in February 1941, she died a couple of months later in April that year, having called the family together shortly before to write a will, sensing that the end was near. One of the last events she must have witnessed was the searching of her home by the Gestapo (during which the will miraculously seemed to have disappeared). Emil was put under increasing pressure to give up the property and, in 1942, he was forced to sign it away to the Günthers. He was allowed to stay on as a tenant, but neighbours later described how he was not well cared for, begging them for food and even crying into their arms. It seems he did not have a good relationship with his new landlords.

When trying to find witnesses to support her property compensation claim, Johanne managed to locate a former neighbour from Schweppeln called Luise Baltrusch. Frau Baltrusch provided Johanne with a signed affidavit, in which she stated that the property in Schweppeln had indeed been owned by the Szameitats, but also gave Johanne a good deal of information on what happened to Emil in the closing stages of the war.

Frau Baltrusch’s own fate is of interest: encircled by the Red Army in January 1945, she and her elderly mother were taken into Russian captivity for nearly three years. She describes in one letter how her mother died of starvation while she (Frau Baltrusch) held her, not realizing that the life had gone out of her. Indeed, Frau Baltrusch’s fate (and that of her mother) was, sadly, typical of so many in Soviet-occupied East Prussia, where deathly violence of an often twisted nature, the continual rape of all available women, mass starvation, disease on an unimaginably large scale, and children sent to their deaths while locating landmines were all daily occurrences. Our history books usually fail to mention it, but of some 110,000 Germans left in the Königsberg region after the end of the war, only about 15,000 survived. Frau Baltrusch was one of them. Her elderly mother was not.

The horrors of the Soviet occupation followed the war’s frenzied Endphase that can only be described as hell on earth. Teweleit (1992) tells of a massacre at Kukoreiten, a village where that brother-in-law that was a cousin of Erna Günther’s happened to have lived. Fleeing civilians in long colonnades were cut off from their route south by the advancing Red Army, who mercilessly opened fire on them. This was by no means an isolated occurrence, and was a foretaste of what was to come.


Civilians fleeing across the Vistula Lagoon in 1945 Source

Indeed, what began in the Memelland in October 1944 only got worse in the rest of East Prussia as the winter drew in. Before the front even caught up with them, civilians were killed in droves by the retreating Wehrmacht: whoever did not or could not get out of the way quick enough was mown down by their own country’s tanks. Things got more and more desperate as the front got closer. Freezing conditions and heavy snowfall impeded the civilians’ flight west even further. Trains were often bombed by low flying aircraft, and long colonnades of refugee wagons were blown apart both from the land and the air. Babies froze to death in their prams, and people were shot for defeatism. The snow turned red with blood, and there were bodies everywhere. No one had time to bury them, and besides, it was impossible to bury the dead until the frozen earth thawed. As the front closed in, those who could abandoned their belongings and wagons and fled to Königsberg in hope of an evacuation by sea. Some were lucky. Many others died at sea, their refugee ships torpedoed by Russian submarines (the Wilhelm Gustloff, in which some 9,400 civilians died, 5,000 of them children, was the largest loss of life at sea in history). At the same time, not even hidden from public view, thousands of Jewish prisoners from the Baltic were sent on death marches, their captors struggling to find ways of preventing them falling into enemy hands and telling of the atrocities they had witnessed. Those who did not starve or freeze were shot by the thousand, and many more thousands were driven by gunfire into the freezing sea at Palmnicken and left to die in one of the war’s least known German atrocities.

Emil was not lucky. It seems that the residents of Schweppeln (which was not a large place) were evacuated to Waldau, near Königsberg. They had left the Memelland on 8th October and (I assume) made the treck via wagon like so many thousands of others, though Frau Baltrusch wasn’t sure if Emil traveled by train. They were very lucky not to have been cut off by the Russians (most of the civilians in the Memel district were), and arrived in Waldau a couple of days later. Emil appears to have been taken reluctantly by Erna Günther, who then unceremoniously delivered him into an old people’s home.

As the front got nearer, the residents of Waldau, along with the many refugees evacuated there, and including, presumably, the old people’s home into which Emil had been delivered, were ordered to flee in December 1944. It was at this point that Frau Baltrusch came across Emil again. I’ll let her (translated) words tell his story, which ends in tragedy, like so much of Emil’s life. Her letter, and the encounter it describes, show in their simplicity the total folly of war, and the utter desperateness of the human condition.

“Old Herr Szameitat got to Waldau on foot, because so much of the rail network had been destroyed by bombing raids. The old people couldn’t make it through the snow. Many of them ended up getting left behind. The army needed the roads, the civilian population and vehicles had to find another way through. Frau Günther drove off west in an army vehicle. She shouted to us that we should leave everything and get going as quickly as possible, because the Russians were coming. When we arrived in Waldau on 10th October, I didn’t know where Herr Szameitat was and I asked Frau Günther. She told me, ‘Oh I put him in an old people’s home, what else was I supposed to do with him?’ But she didn’t say whether she herself had dropped him off, and I didn’t want to ask any further. But I’m pretty sure he left via the Kleinbahn [light railway – VT]. And I can’t say which home she put him in either. Because she didn’t have any time for the old man. The old people were on their feet the whole day without having eaten anything. The train was blown apart, Herr Szameitat told me. He seemed so worked up, but I suppose that’s not surprising given his age. […] But in the snowstorm no one could get any further, only the Russians. He asked us, ‘Where is the old Satan, that old Günther woman? Oh, maybe you’ve seen my daughter-in-law?’ When we said no, he cried and carried on walking. We also needed to carry on with our journey. We said to each other he’s not going to make it, he should come with us, but he just carried on walking.”

Emil probably froze to death, age 79, alone, in December 1944. His grave is not known.


An uncomfortable truth: Hospitalstraße 22 and Ella Itzigsohn

Hospitalstr 22 different angle

Modern day Hospitalstraße 22 as per Google Streetview

Since beginning this project (and naming the blog), I became aware of a detail about the Szameitats so uncomfortable that it requires its own blog post. On a number of occasions, I have perused GenWiki’s page on Memel’s Hospitalstraße, which is a list of all known owners and residents of each building on the street, collated from the various online Memel address books. In recent times, I have been looking at this page because I am trying to familiarize myself with the Szameitats’ neighbours, both within number 22 and in dwellings nearby, to see if I recognize any names from Johanne’s documents. For the first time I was also focusing on understanding the continuity of residents as I was interested in learning more about how this grand building came into being and why the Szameitats might have chosen to live there. And while doing so, I noticed something that I can’t believe I had hitherto missed when viewing the page over the years. I noticed that, between the 1939 and 1942 address book entries, there had been a complete turnover of residents. Moreover, the 1942 residents all had German or Germanized names.

Sensing already that I knew what must have happened, my eyes flicked to the named owners to see if my suspicions were correct. From 1926 to 1939, the owner of Hospitalstraße 22 had been someone called Ella Itzigsohn. My interest had already been piqued on noticing her name earlier, because it was relatively uncommon for the single named owner of such a property to be a woman. Then I cast a glance over the owner of the property in 1942: Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH. My heart sank. My suspicion had been right. This was a property that had passed from private into corporate or more likely state ownership in or after 1939. Moreover, the residents had all been replaced. There could only be one explanation: Ella Itzigsohn had been a Jewish woman, and on the return of the Memel Territory to Germany she must have fled to Lithuania, whereupon her property must have been enteignet (‘expropriated’) and handed over to an ‘Aryan’ organization.

Screenshot of Hospitalstraße 22’s latter owners and residents Source



Several strands suddenly started to come together in my mind. Ever since I had first seen the Google Streetview image of the property, I had been struck by its Gründerzeit-looking grandeur, and it had reminded me of buildings of a similar style in Eisenach (where I had lived for a year). I had known that many of the residents of those buildings had been well-to-do Jews.

At the same time, I recalled that Oskar had been transferred back to Memel from Pogegen in 1939, I assumed on or shortly after the Territory’s return Germany (I have not yet managed to narrow down the exact date). Pogegen had existed as a Kreisstadt (sort of like a county town) for only the brief period between the world wars: when the Memel Territory was separated from Germany following World War 1, Kreis Tilsit was split in two, so a new district, Kreis Pogegen, was created north of the river. The new Kreisstadt was a backwater and as a result many new administrative buildings had to be built and it experienced large growth at this time. The Szameitats were transferred there in 1934, probably in August, perhaps simply because Oskar’s employers needed a Kriminalsekretär there, but possibly to give him a more provincial case load following the high profile and politically motivated murder case he’d been working on earlier in the year. When the Memel Territory returned to Germany in 1939, Kreis Pogegen was dissolved and the pre-1919 districts reestablished. I assume it was for this reason that Oskar was transferred back to Memel: as Pogegen was no longer a Kreisstadt, there was no longer a job there for him. On 28th August 1939, Oskar officially became a Kriminalsekretär of the German Empire. Did that date mark his transfer to Memel, or had he already been transferred and this date simply signify a formality that recognized that he now worked for a different nation? Either way, it’s near enough impossible that the family wasn’t aware that they were moving into a formerly Jewish property. Even if they had moved a number of months after Ella Itzigsohn (and presumably her Jewish residents) had fled, it must have been obvious even just from conversations with neighbours that the building had previously been in different hands. To say nothing of the fact they were paying rent to Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH. I can envisage no scenario in which my grandmother’s family can not have known they were moving into stolen Jewish property.

At best, this makes any attempts of Oskar’s to protect and help Jews before 1939 seem to reek of hypocrisy. At worst, it casts a good deal of doubt on the veracity of such claims. How can Oskar have ‘helped Jews to escape’ when he was happy to profit from their expulsion? Perhaps there wasn’t anything else suitable for a family of four within walking distance of the Polizeidirektion and the children’s schools at the time they were looking. In fact, it is likely that they had little choice about where they could move to: Žukas (2001) tells us that there was a deficit of housing in Memel throughout the twentieth century and that people were often on waiting lists to find somewhere to live. This became acute after the return to Germany in 1939, when many people, like Oskar and family, were transferred to the city, and an order published in the local newspaper required all available properties to be made known to the authorities at the end of March 1939 (Žukas, 2001:112). Perhaps all the available apartments were ones that had been seized from the departing Jewish population (several thousands of them fled the city in early 1939, where they had previously made up 12.5% of the population). Perhaps. I can imagine that the Szameitat family might have been able to get more for their money as the Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH probably offered competitive rent prices in order to fill the property quickly. Oh, and probably a better rate for party members, too.

It also calls into question the level of consciousness the family had about their own complicity in the anti-Semitism that took hold of Memel in the 1930s. Did they not see it as a problem that they were directly profiting from the expulsion of and theft from others? Each time Johanne wrote Steht unser Haus noch? in her letters home to Oskar in the war, did she never ask herself whether its previous owner and tenants were wondering the same thing? When she filed for compensation for the land that had been confiscated from them as a result of Oskar’s imprisonment, did it never occur to her that the rightful owner of Hospitalstraße 22 would almost certainly never have the opportunity to do that? Was any of this on her radar at all?

I can’t speak for Johanne in her latter decades as there are no documents from then (and this was the time when Germany began to confront its Nazi past more seriously), but from the evidence available to me from the 1950s and 60s, I genuinely don’t believe she gave it much thought. Why? Johanne seems to have ascribed to a mindset typical of 1950s Germany that viewed Germans primarily as victims of the Nazi period. The majority of Germans, especially the 14 million refugees from the east that endured a dreadful flight across Europe never to return, certainly had their share of suffering, often to a very great extent. It has historically been politically and academically unfashionable to acknowledge this for fear of diminishing the suffering that the Nazis’ true victims bore and taking attention away from the millions of innocent people they murdered. In the triangle of victim-bystander-perpetrator, the average German totally blurred the boundaries. But after the war, most were so focused on rebuilding their own lives that they had little desire to examine their individual and collective complicity in the horrors of Nazism. This suited the Adenauer administration, which, moving on from the policy of denazification introduced by the Allies after the war, encouraged amnesty in the interest of social cohesion and economic growth. Most Germans wanted to draw a line under the recent past after the Nuremberg trials, which had helped to cement the view that those responsible for the atrocities had been brought to justice. The focus on the everyday German’s own status as victim was underscored by the fact that, in the echo chamber of similar experiences, there were very few Jewish survivor voices to be heard within post-war Germany. The silencing of these true victims through the Shoah allowed West Germans to fill the vacuum with their own narrative of victimhood (see Tobin, 2013 for more on this).

It is not lost on me that, by writing this blog, I am perpetuating that narrative of German victimhood, and thus also contributing to the silencing of Jewish suffering by taking up space with my German family’s experiences. Have you noticed that in this blog post so far I have only focused on my family’s motives and my own thoughts and feelings about them? I have totally centred the German experience over the Jewish one, even in a blog post about Jewish suffering. I own that. Following my family’s story means that what is written here is naturally going to focus on them. But Ella Itzigsohn never had the opportunity to share her experience: she was murdered in the Shoah.

It is not easy to research former Jewish inhabitants of the Memel Territory using the usual German genealogy websites. In part, this must be because any descendants who might be in a position to upload information are small in number. But it’s not as simple as that: why would a survivor or their children wish to enter details about their murdered family members into German genealogy websites, when it was that world that shunned their families and persecuted them in the first place? Jewish organizations like Yad Vashem, however, are testament to how important it is to put names to the statistics, and Ella Itzigsohn can be found on their database here. It’s possible to piece together bits of her story from this document in addition to a few other sources.

Born on 15th August 1889 to Aba and Selda Burak, Ella Itzigsohn was a born and bred Memeler who probably never lived anywhere else. She married Heiman Itzigsohn, a business man, who, on the basis of his name, must have been an assimilated Westjude: Memel’s Jewish population grew in the nineteenth century, as many Eastern Jews moved there as a result of Prussia’s more liberal laws and to take advantage of the city’s relative economic prosperity. By the end of the century, only 20% of the Jewish population were Western Jews (source).


An advert in the Memeler Dampfboot, the local newspaper, from 16th August 1939, in which Itzigsohn’s expropriated property in the Börsenstraße is advertised as being the local headquarters of the Nazi organization Kraft durch Freue (‘Strength through Joy’) Source

It’s likely that Ella inherited her parents’ property, because from 1926 she is also mentioned as the sole owner of Börsenstraße 1-4, which included a shop front. Perhaps her parents had been shop owners and worked in retail themselves. In any case, by 1926 a number of Itzigsohns were living there, though only the head of each household is listed so we can’t be sure whether Ella lived there herself. I suspect she did, as in 1931 her husband Heiman is listed as one of the residents. For reasons unknown, she sold the property at some point between 1935 and 1939 to one of her Jewish tenants, Isaak Simon, who sold it to a (presumably non-Jewish) textile company in February 1939, when one assumes Simon was cutting his losses and leaving Memel. Shortly after, it was also used by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (a Nazi trade union) and the NS-Frauenschaft (the women’s wing of the party). I remember reading somewhere that the Nazis had a habit of using formerly Jewish property for their various party affiliations.


Börsenstraße 1-4 after 1939 Source

It isn’t possible to tell from the information I’ve read whether Ella fled before or on the return of the region to Germany, whereupon Hospitalstraße 22 was expropriated, or whether she left after March 1939 and after the authorities had taken away her property. At any rate, it seems that she didn’t sell it on cheaply to a German or Lithuanian buyer, as Simon had done with the Börsenstraße shop. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway: in 1938, the Memel Territory government started to ape its Nazi counterpart in Germany by beginning to limit the possibility of selling Jewish property by setting its market value and introducing property, export, and emigration tax laws that resulted in the financial destitution of all but a few Jews. Even if Ella had been able to sell, she would have received an amount much below what it was worth. In any case, at some point in early 1939, she fled with her husband and children (and probably her extended family) to Šiauliai, perhaps along with thousands of others on 23rd March, the day of the return of the region to Germany, or perhaps shortly before. You can read more about the experience of Jewish Memelländers here.


A Jewish family is expelled from Memel on 23rd March while SA troops look on Source


As thousands fled on 23rd March, Germans hurled insults at them from the pavement. Source

In Šiauliai, the Itzigsohns were outside of the 25km strip near the border in which the Einsatzkommando Tilsit performed their massacres. Yet it didn’t take the German army long to reach them. Shortly after the German invasion in June 1941, several of the town’s Jews were shot, and the rest were rounded up into a ghetto. According to the testimony of her daughter Rachel, who survived the Shoah, Ella Itzigsohn, age 52, was murdered in 1941 as part of the ‘first action’ in the ghetto. From my reading of Yad Vashem’s page on the ghetto linked above, it looks like she was probably shot by Lithuanian collaborators alongside dozens of orphanage children, their teacher, elderly and sick people, and the ghetto administrator.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a household term to every German or student of German. It is usually translated as ‘coming to terms with the (specifically Nazi) past’, but I think that doesn’t capture the fact that to bewältigen something, you have to be an active participant. Over the last fifty or so years, first in the West and then in a reunified Germany, a good deal of the national literature, arts, politics, culture and education curricula have engaged with the theme of how to interpret and learn from the Nazi past. Through their collective soul searching, the country has reached a maturity of historical understanding that far surpasses us as Brits: if you want to understand Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur, you need to understand the country’s commitment to engage with its past. No, it’s not utopia, and yes, there are plenty of dissenting voices, but the truth is the Germans are about fifty years ahead of the British in critically engaging with their nation’s history. The first stage is to admit that the truth about the past is not what we have been taught: “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” says Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, describing Britain’s view of history as ‘dangerous’. The atrocities committed in the British Empire, many after the Second World War, along with the general whitewashing of our history contribute to our nation’s ‘historical amnesia’, according to the former UN under-secretary general, Shashi Tharoor: “There’s no real awareness of the atrocities, of the fact that Britain financed its Industrial Revolution and its prosperity from the depredations of empire, the fact that Britain came to one of the richest countries in the world in the 18th century and reduced it, after two centuries of plunder, to one of the poorest.” We are not taught these things in school, they are not the focus of museum exhibitions, and they are not discussed at the political level. In the wake of Brexit, we need to engage with our past more than ever.

This blog is serving as a sort of personal Vergangenheitsbewältigung into my German past. It is making me realize more than ever how engaging with and learning from the past can never end, because it must always influence our present, and that present is always changing. It is also teaching me that history doesn’t live until you put a face on it: we will never be able to engage with our hearts unless we seek out personal stories. It is teaching me to lean into the discomfort of admitting that my family might have been complicit in the twentieth century’s atrocities, either by their action or their lack of action. It is teaching me to examine my own action, or lack thereof, regarding the injustices around me. Where do I see myself on the victim-bystander-perpetrator triangle? Where do you see yourself? What are we doing to make sure the lessons from history don’t repeat themselves?

In his closing speech at the 1958 Einsatzkommando trial in Ulm, prosecutor Erwin Schüle Nordosaid this:

“The reason why many regard this trial as unpleasant lies in the fact that we all have a guilty conscience when we think back to the evil of those times. It’s simply that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all judge ourselves harshly and have to agree with the witness Hartl: back then, we were all too cowardly.” (Quoted in Tobin, 2013:246)

Let’s not be cowardly. Let’s learn from the past. Let’s stand up for what’s right. In a hundred years, one of your descendants might just hold you accountable for it.


Tobin, Patrick. 2013. Crossroads at Ulm: Postwar West Germany and the 1958 Ulm Einsatzkommando Trial, PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Žukas, Julius. 2001. Soziale und wirtschaftliche Entwicklung Klaipėdas/Memels von 1900 bis 1945. In Tauber, Joachim (ed.) Im Wandel der Zeiten: die Stadt Memel im 20. Jahrhundert. Nordost Archiv Band X. Nordost Institut: Lüneburg, pp. 75-116.