Daring to look your family’s past in the face

Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.

My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.

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Germany’s welcoming response to the refugee crisis doesn’t surprise me. The more Germans are allowed to acknowledge their own WW2 traumas, the more their personal and collective memories of the horrors of the 1944-50 flights and expulsions come to light.

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Germany’s ‘open house’ policy and newly attributed “moral leadership” within the mounting refugee crisis was indeed initially surprising. It certainly wasn’t always so. I’m remembering the 17-year-old boy I met in the nineties when I was working as an artist in Cologne Prison. His name was Christian and he had been placed in the special segregated unit there because his crime was so contentious on a national scale. He was one of four young Neo-Nazis responsible for burning down the house of a large Turkish family in Solingen in May 1993, killing three girls and two women and injuring fourteen other family members. It was the most severe instance of anti-foreigner violence in modern Germany and in 1995, Christian was found guilty of murder, attempted murder and arson and sentenced to 10 years.

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Left right, left right, left right…

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I am on a very long walk – 600km so far – and as my legs go through the motions of left right, left right, left right I find myself thinking about my German grandfather going through the same physical motions as he marched into Russia with his Wehrmacht troops in 1941. I am walking West across the north of Spain on a pilgrimage to the spiritual destination of Santiago de Compostela. He was marching East across Russia to capture the strategically important destination of Moscow.

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“German court sentences 94-year-old ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ to four years in prison.” Is this Justice? Or is this the German Judicial System’s attempt to atone for its appalling failure since WW2 to bring more of the real culprits to justice?

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This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.

What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.

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VE Day 70 years on – a time to celebrate victory or a time to also to look more closely at the price of war to women and girls?  

Within the context of my interest in WW2 Remembrance, May offers a welcome break from the misery and darkness. It is indeed a time to celebrate, for on May 8th 1945 Churchill was finally able to announce that the war was over in Europe. The jubilation was naturally boundless and Britain threw the biggest street party the country had ever seen. The Allies had triumphed over the Nazi enemy, Germany had unconditionally surrendered, and it would be the end of death and destruction.

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“Tell your story… until your past stops tearing you apart”

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Tell your story.
Let it nourish you, sustain you and claim you.
Tell your story.
Let it feed you, heal you and release you.
Tell your story.
Let it twist and re-mix your shadowed heart.
Tell your story,
Until your past stops tearing your present apart.

I heard the above words recently on Radio 4’s Spoken Word programme “Writing a new South Africa”. You can hear it here at 14.38 minutes: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b053bsfm
Spoken aloud, with all the power of someone who knows the potency of the words, it struck me that this is precisely what I have been doing in the past years.

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