In her book Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life In Nazi Germany, Marion Kaplan sets herself an extraordinary task. She attempts to recreate the experience of ordinary Jewish people living in Germany between the rise to power of the Nazis and the end of Nazi rule with Germany’s defeat at the end of the Second World War. Kaplan has read the diaries, memoirs and correspondence of Jews who lived and many of whom died in this terrible period of world history. She has interviewed survivors and read the historical accounts of the time in her attempt to recreate life for the Jew under Nazi rule.
But Kaplan’s attempt to draw a picture of Jewish life in Nazi Germany is not a completely disinterested exercise in historical reconstruction. Kaplan brings a specific ideological agenda to her task. She clearly articulates this agenda in her introduction saying “this book will be successful if readers begin to visualize how confusing the so-called writing on the wall really was before 1938.” Kaplan has set out to exonerate the victims of Nazi genocide from any possible culpability in their own fate.
While Kaplan is determined to free the Jewish people from responsibility for the consequences of their choices in the early years of Nazi rule, she is equally determined to lay blame for the actions of the Nazis at the feet of all Germans:
The pivotal question here is not what Germans knew about the genocide but rather who chose to believe the facts that were emerging. A conscientious and concerned German could figure out that the Jews were being exterminated. The disbelief of the victims, suffering from lack of information and isolation, is different from the disbelief of the perpetrators and bystanders, whose callous disregard about the fate of the Jews is striking.
Certainly, no one should for one minute suggest that the Jewish victims of Nazi brutality bear any guilt for their terrible fate. The death machine that rolled over the Jewish people in Europe was an incomprehensible almost unstoppable monster perpetrating atrocities so unimaginable that it is difficult to expect anyone could have foreseen the full extent of the horror being inflicted upon the Jewish population of Europe. Yet, there is a nagging feeling that Kaplan’s denial of the role played by the choices Jews made in the early years of Nazi rule is in conflict with the evidence of her own book.
Kaplan speaks frequently of the Jews’ tendency in Germany to “deceive themselves.” She points to the “psychological denial” and determination to maintain “the illusion of a normal middle class existence” that so often led Jewish people to choose “denial of their immediate hardships.”
But, at the same time, Kaplan quotes Marta Appel who as early as 1933 seems to have had a clear vision of the horror represented by the Nazi regime.
But after some months of a regime of terror, fidelity and friendship had lost their meaning, and fear and treachery had replaced them… With each day of the Nazi regime, the abyss between us and our fellow citizens grew larger. Friends whom we had loved for years did not know us any more. They suddenly saw that we were different from themselves. Of course we were different, since we were bearing the stigma of Nazi hatred, since we were hunted like deer.
Combined with the fact that by 1938, one quarter of German Jews had already made the bold choice to emigrate, it is unrealistic and perhaps dishonest not to consider the impact of what Kaplan refers to as a tendency on the part of those who remained to choose “escapism” over the pain of facing the reality of their condition. Kaplan accounts for one family’s determination to remain in Germany quoting the daughter of a wealthy businessman who said of her father
“When the Nazis appeared on the scene, he was too reluctant to consolidate everything and leave Germany. He may have been a bit too attached to his status, as well as his possessions.”
The most chilling example of denial occurs on Kristallnacht where Kaplan quotes a Jewish woman recounting her family’s reaction to the violence unfolding against Jewish people outside their window,
We were at the piano and played a Mozart concerto. Often our eyes went to the window, but we did not stop… We did not want to admit disturbing reality. We wanted to spare our nerves.
It is vital to remember the Holocaust because it is essential for the human community that we refuse to hide behind the curtains and “spare our nerves.” We must be willing to face the dark deeds of which humans are capable. But equally we must be willing to acknowledge the consequences of the choices we made even in impossible circumstances. No one is well-served by dishonesty, pretence or illusion. We are all in danger wherever denial and escapism are offered to explain the horrors victims are made to suffer. We only begin to move beyond victimization when we acknowledge that we too made choices and our choices could have been different.
Kaplan herself entertains a dangerous prescription when, commenting on the tendency of Jewish women in Germany to engage in “denial of their immediate hardships,” by “taking solace in additional housework,” she suggests
Although occasionally their efforts to distract themselves and their families may have kept all involved form readlizing just how significant the increasing deprivations were, some denial was necessary to preserve personal and family stability.
It is difficult to imagine what “personal” or “family stability” Kaplan thinks was maintained by the choice of Jews living in the midst of an avalanche of violence and death to “distract themselves” and practice “denial.” Holocaust “denial” is a terrible and a dangerous choice. Those who suffered most from the terrible events of 1933 to 1945 must surely stand against the denial of any dimension of this horror.