Nothing on the booking form or accompanying correspondence gave any clue as to who my audience would be on Thursday morning last week. I just turned up at Kenwood House on the edge of Hampstead Heath ready to give my German memorial talk to the monthly Arts Society. As we stood in the frosty sunshine waiting for the house to open, the Chair mentioned almost in passing, “This is North London, so most of our members are Jewish.”
I have given this talk many times but never to a primarily Jewish audience. Suddenly I felt the stage nerves I get when I am in a rare performance or play and terrified of getting the giggles. This time, however, my fear was that I would cry. And not be able to stop.
I watched the room fill, wondering which relatives or memories were wrapped and carefully stored in the hearts of these people. When the lights dimmed, I swallowed hard then set off on the journey through Germany’s post war years of silence and into the eighties when German artists began searching for forms of remembrance that would start a process of apology and atonement for the Holocaust. Intermittently my vocal chords threatened to unravel and by the end, could only wobble their way to the final words, “…must never happen again.”
Never has the stillness in their wake been so pregnant with emotion.
“You could hear the silence…”
Gleis 17 / Platform 17 memorial at Grunewald train station, Berlin
There were many questions. Among them, a comment by a lady in the front row in relation to the Platform 17 memorial at the Grunewald Train Station from which 50,000 of Berlin’s Jewish population had been deported between 1941-43. This site-specific memorial, often considered more significant by Jews than Eisenman’s more famous ‘Holocaust Memorial’, consists of 186 steel sheets lined along the tracks. Each reveals the date of a transport, the number of deportees, and their destination. I had photographed a close-up of one as an example:
25.1.1942 / 1014 Juden / Berlin – Riga
“That was the transport my grandmother was on,” the lady said. She too had stood on that spot. She apologised for bringing it up, she didn’t want to make it uncomfortable for me. It wasn’t uncomfortable, just incredible, and later we clasped hands. In fact I shook and held many hands after the talk. “Never have so many members chosen to approach the lecturer at the end to say how fascinated they were by your story or to share their own family’s related experiences,” the Chair told me.
I have been profoundly moved by the responses and comments I have received both at the time and in emails after. Something happened in that room, possibly for all of us. And I would like to thank the members for their warmth, generosity and gratitude towards all that I am trying to do with my talks, blogs and soon-to-be book. Their testimonials bare witness to the healing spirit that ripples from Germany’s memorials through my talks to UK audiences, to unite us in a common humanity that will hold strong in the face of the division around us.
Comments from audience members:
“My perception and understanding of how generations of Germans and their descendants who were not involved in the War have been affected by it, has changed markedly. Before your outstanding talk I accepted intellectually that the present German State or individuals were not responsible for the atrocities. The way you presented your personal struggle and explained so clearly the German outlook on memorials, I realised I had not internalised my intellectual assessment. At a feeling level I was blaming Germany of today and did hold individual Germans accountable. The process of thought and feeling being aligned has now taken place and my behaviour involving Germans will now be authentic. I can never thank you enough for the opportunity you provided for this change to happen.”
“I have witnessed the pain of Jewish Survivor Guilt but had never considered that a similar feeling existed in those who had relatives in the German Army. Your courage in talking of your feelings of guilt earlier in your life and about your Grandfather, a high-ranking officer in the Wehrmacht, allowed me to think about what was held in common and not concentrate on the differences.”
“This lecture, on a profoundly important subject, was perfectly pitched, wonderfully delivered and very moving.”
“Through your immense courage, insights and wonderful slides, you have helped so many people, like me. Again thank you, thank you.”