The reader who recalls Frederic Tubach’s and Bernard Rosner’s movingly honest memoir, An Uncommon Friendship, should not pass up Tubach’s latest book, German Voices. The first book told of the unlikely friendship between Tubach, who had been a Nazi Youth member, and Rosner, a Hungarian Jew who had survived Auschwitz. Between the time that they first met and the time that An Uncommon Friendship was published, Bernie and Fritz discovered they had much more in common than wives who had been high school classmates.
In the author’s Preface to German Voices, he writes: “Our common efforts at reconciliation and mutual understanding found a receptive audience, both in the United States and in Germany.” Having attended one of their earliest readings (filmed live by C-Span Book II) I can attest to the receptiveness of the audience. Early in German Voices, Tubach clearly states that the “core” of his collaboration with Rosner “was the belief in the importance of the individual, and how the grand brushstrokes that serve to explain history tend to cover up precisely what we wanted to preserve—namely, the value of individual lives and the texture of human experience in all its rich variety and complexity.” German Voices is Tubach’s attempt to bring the general reader to an understanding of what it was like for the average German to live through Hitler’s astonishing rise to power and then into the depths of a war like none other in German history. Where such understanding might take the reader is left to each individual.
German Voices is not an easy read. Certainly it is not a long read, only 217 pages, but its difficulty lies in the very premise for reading it in the first place. Does the general reader want to know what it was like for the average German, civilian or military? Does such a reader care? And can he or she read past the Holocaust? This question is nearly answered by Tubach himself when he speaks of his and Rosner’s public readings: “I was surprised to find a great interest in my experiences in Nazi Germany. I also became aware how little most Americans knew about life in Hitler’s Third Reich beyond established clichés.” It would have been helpful to know the specific clichés Tubach was referring to, but given the moving honesty in An Uncommon Friendship, I trusted that there was something to be learned by listening to the voices of those Germans presented in the book.
The first one hundred pages of German Voices is something of a crash course in German history, cultural and political, including the Holocaust. For this reader, such details were appreciated and laid the groundwork for the interviews that followed. In addition, the historical inclusion is especially necessary if the reader is to understand the average Germans’ loss of individuality. Beginning with his Introduction and all the way through Chapter 3, War and the Holocaust, Tubach maps out Hitler’s frightening blueprint which played heavily on patriotism, Brown Shirt brutality, media manipulation, and finally the fear most Germans’ felt for their very survival; so that by the time of the Kristallnacht, social, religious, political and moral voices in opposition to Hitler had been silenced by execution or imprisonment.
The author’s intent to find the individual in these German voices is immediately evident and compellingly poignant in Chapter Four’s subheading: Breaking the Silence. Tubach had his work cut out for him, not only in finding a voice for his own memories, but finding those Germans who could scale a wall that “exists not only between the present and those times, but also between the present and the fading memories and aura of guilt.” German Voices is neither an apologetic nor a polemic endeavor, but it is an attempt to find the voices (and they were many and varied) whose individualism had been hijacked and nearly obliterated by Hitler’s machinations to create a totalitarian world in which a collective culture depended on an absence of independent thought.
Tubach, in an effort to gather information about Germans other than himself and his family, who lived through the years of Nazi fascism, examined archived letters and conducted interviews. He and his wife, (co-author) Sally Tubach, benefited greatly by their membership in a postwar business organization, the Evangelische Wirtschaftsgilde (Protestant Business Organization). Tubach and other members who had grown up during the years of the Third Reich “dug deep into our shared past.” All those interviewed by Tubach resided in Germany at the time of the interviews.
One of the first interviewed is Eberhard Weinbrenner with his recollections as a young man enamored with the athleticism and leadership espoused by the Nazis. Weinbrenner also describes his moral and ideological conflict with his parents, who were courageous in their stand against the Nazis. To read for understanding is not always easy, as understanding does not necessarily require either sympathy or empathy, only a mind willing to listen openly and without prejudice.
Volker Schätzel, the son of a vintner family in the Rhine region, recalls, upon returning home from a business trip at the time of the Kristallnacht , his father’s words: “We have to be ashamed to be Germans.” The reader may almost nod in agreement with Volker’s recollection, but at the same time, feel uncomfortable knowing that an “acceptable anti-Semitism” had already existed in Germany (and generally throughout Europe). By the time Hitler ratcheted up his anti-Semitism to unthinkable levels there were few left to oppose it.
The author’s own story of his father joining the Nazi party while his stepmother remained adamantly opposed is not entirely atypical. The fear and intimidation experienced by many Germans pitting their loyalty to a political party which, in its first steps, raised the country out of an economy still reeling from the effects of WWI, against their loyalty to a nation that had prided itself on its diversity and rich cultural legacy, is brought into fresh focus.
The interviewed Germans tell tales of patriotism, fear for their lives if they gave any sort of anti-Nazi inclination, confusion of thought, and disillusionment. Letters taken from the DHL (German Post Office) archives tell touching and often confounding feelings about serving in the military. Some staunchly held onto their patriotism, while others just wanted the war to end. Included were letters from sons to mothers and mothers to sons. Stories recalled of fighting on the Russian front were often those of eye-opening events for the most ordinary soldiers fighting for their remembered homeland, not Hitler’s Germany. A series of letters between two friends, both drafted soldiers but never members of the Nazi party, tell of the power of art, literature and music that bound the men more closely than military experiences.
Hannelore Rebstock’s description of surviving the Allied bombing of Dresden is most moving in her statement that the only person “who completely understands about my days in Dresden” is a man she met after the war who had survived Auschwitz. What should have been an abyss between them was instead a shared understanding of what they had suffered as individuals.
What Tubach asks the reader to do is to meet each interviewed German one-on-one, as he did when interviewing them. Aware of the emotional differences and distances their life experiences presented, “it challenged me to understand and to empathize as much as possible.” To imagine the lives of those letter writers is to take in their thoughts without judgment, to see where their words might lead, which is not always a comfortable place.
German Voices is not about the Holocaust, but the Holocaust is the shadow on every page and I suspect the book moved me in a direction the author might not have anticipated. What are the consequences of understanding as opposed to forgiveness or reconciliation? Reconciliation can be achieved without understanding, quite possibly for economic or political reasons alone, and forgiveness is ultimately an independent act of will, often made in spite of understanding. What then is gained by understanding since it will not undo the Holocaust? Perhaps the value of meeting these Germans, of understanding their individual experiences, is something as simple as seeing them as individuals, both as Germans and those that joined the Nazi party. Forgiveness and reconciliation enable the participants in any sort of conflict to begin again, but do not necessarily prevent the reoccurrence of such events. The ethnic cleansing seen more recently in Eastern Europe and Africa were acts of violence with deep roots of “them against us.” By the time a man kills his next-door neighbor in a blaze of patriotism, all rational thought and recognition of his neighbor as an individual are gone.
A second question the book raised for this reader was the author’s belief that Americans knew less than others about what life was like for the average person living during those years in Germany. If that is true, why? Do Americans not want to know? I don’t have an answer, but I have a few suspicions. To understand those Germans who did nothing to oppose what was happening is not a free pass to take the moral high ground when passing judgment on such sins of omission. Where were our voices in opposition to the decades of inhumanity contained in America’s Reconstruction and Jim Crow Laws? How long did we allow McCarthyism to trample on what America holds dear? As long as such acts of inhumanity are cloaked in nationalism and carried out under the guise of “them or us,” such acts will find little opposition. To move from “them or us” to “you and me” is not easy.
Tubach’s last words in German Voices are these: “…the wounds our generation carries from the past will never completely heal.” That may be true, but if the author’s hope is to bring a more thoughtful and attentive mind to the listening of those voices, not necessarily as Germans, but simply as human beings, his success will depend on each reader’s ability to recognize themselves in those voices. To recognize the value of each individual, to know how easily and quickly that value can be erased, and the horror that can just as quickly replace it, is reason enough to read this book, and in this twenty-first century, the tools to deride, delude, and persuade are more powerful than anything Hitler wielded. – Sunny Solomon (This review was first published May 9, 2014, Tikkun Online)
Also available by Tubach: An Uncommon Friendship, From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust.