A firm obligation to past victims

The first day of `Remembering for the Future' in London will be devoted to Holocaust survivors and the children of survivors.

July 02, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

FOR ANNE SCHWAB, memory has been a curse - and a blessing.

A Holocaust survivor, she remembers German thugs slamming into her house on Kristalnacht, the night of shattered glass and broken lives, a murderous spree unleashed by Hitler.

She remembers Christina, the Catholic cleaning lady, getting in front of the intruders.

"You're going to have to step on me first," the woman said. They did, shoving Christina aside and taking Anne's father, Rudolf, to the concentration camp called Buchenwald. It was Nov. 10, 1938.

And she remembers her father's business partner, who risked his life and endangered his family to get Anne's father out of the killing field. Anne's father owned a factory coveted by the Nazis.

He was released from Buchenwald after his business partner persuaded the Nazis that they needed both men to sanction their takeover. With the help of their father's business partner, once again, Anne and her family escaped from their home in Dueren in the Rhineland to Belgium and then to France where priests, nuns and other sympathizers helped them get on a ship to New York.

Anne Schwab will tell her story again this month during a conference in London called Remembering for the Future. The first day is called "The Gathering," and will be devoted to survivors and children of survivors. Schwab's daughter, Brenda, an anthropologist at work on a history of her mother's escape, will attend with her parents.

More pointedly than in past gatherings, the children's children will be important participants in the London conference.

They are all meeting a sacred obligation, says Leo Bretholz of Baltimore, who will be there, too. His book, "Leap Into Darkness," written with The Sun's Michael Olesker, chronicles seven years on the run after his escape from the Nazis.

"If we do not remember the victims, we are giving Hitler a posthumous victory," he said.

Bretholz remembers an old woman on a Nazi death train. As he readied himself to escape, she pointed a crutch at him and said: "Sometime you will tell all about what is happening here."

Bretholz added: "I am doing this for her and for my mother and for my two sisters."

The conference is expected to draw several hundred scholars who have been asked to ponder the Nazi atrocities as they are minimized by Holocaust deniers and op- portunistic defenders of the Third Reich.

Of the latter, the most notable is Jeorg Haider, the Austrian political leader whose positive observations about the Nazis have brought him scorn from the wider world but popularity among many of his countrymen.

When Haider's Freedom Party became part of Austria's ruling coalition, the political establishment of Europe spoke out lest they legitimize and endorse his rise to power. Haider, an idol of young Austrians in particular, says his kind remarks about Nazis are an attempt to say that not all German soldiers lacked character and decency. His critics say the ambiguity of his rhetoric gives license to anti-Semitism and glorifies the Nazis.

Given such a backdrop after all that has happened, some might attend "The Gathering" with profound doubts about its value. Tension between despair and the debt to victims always has been at the center of efforts to preserve memory as a defense against future holocausts.

They must begin by proving the necessity of remembering and retelling.

"An entire civilized people," followed a buffoon whose figure today inspires laughter, and yet, Adolf Hitler was obeyed and his praises were sung right up to the catastrophe," wrote the Italian Holocaust chronicler, Primo Levi, adding:

"It can happen again." Kosovo, Cambodia and Rwanda proved him right if proof was necessary.

After his first book, "Survival In Auschwitz," Levi heard from German readers who tried to answer his questions about their national character. Unwilling to see all Germans as Nazis, he remained curious how so many people could have lived next to the apparatus of murder without acting as the cleaning woman Christina acted.

One of his German correspondents thanked him for publishing the book in German, hoping it would educate and inform the young and demand honest stock-taking by their elders. It would be a difficult chore in either case, this woman wrote, requiring what she called "civil courage" to confront the shame.

Forty years later, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, used the same words to condemn the Austrian leader, Haider. "We must support each other in the teaching of humanity and civil courage," Schroeder said, "so that normal people shall never again, in the name of some criminal ideology, turn normal places into grim factories of execution."

Austrian delegates to a European Community defense ministers meeting in Portugal were publicly shunned. Belgian delegate Andre Flahaut skipped lunch, telling reporters, "I don't eat with fascists."

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