The Eastern Front
By Arthur Hessel
[The inspiration for this short play came not only from Either/Or, but also from a number of conversations that I had with young Germans in the 1960s.]
Four older teenagers sitting at a table having a beer. Two boys, two girls. The year is 1961. They are somewhere in West Germany. We shall call them Franz, Dieter, Ursula and Kathe.
Dieter: I think I am going to Israel.
Ursula: What for?
Dieter: I’m not sure. I just think I have to go. I understand that they are welcoming, that they’d be friendly to me. You can get jobs on a kibbutz or in a hospital, even for short periods. I am sure I won’t stay long. I just have to go.
Kathe: I’ve thought about that, too. But I’m afraid. Don’t you think that they all hate us? I want to show them we are their friends, but how can I do that?
Franz: What did we do? We didn’t do anything? We didn’t have anything to do with Hitler, or the Nazis, or any of that.
Kathe: No, we didn’t. But how about our parents? Our grandparents? Our aunts and uncles? Cousins? Teachers? Pastors? They sure did, and who are we? Aren’t we just an extension of them? In a way? You know.
Dieter: Right. Look at my parents. They seem to me pretty normal. My grandparents, too, but they lived through it. My father was in the army. My mother had some kind of war job. I don’t know about my grandparents. And they sure aren’t going to talk about it with me. I have asked. Haven’t all of us? So, how did it happen, Father? Grandfather, what were you doing when they were rounding up the Jews? And the others? Mother, please, what was going on here? All I get is silence.
Franz: My father was in the Luftwaffe. I have asked him. He told me that he flew missions on the eastern front. Over Poland and Russia. Against the Bolsheviks. “It was important, what I did,” he says, “look what has happened in the East. Half of Germany is Bolshevik now. This is what we were trying to prevent. And we failed. We should be ashamed.”
But, I ask, what about the Jews?
The Jews, he says? Most of them were Bolsheviks. If it wasn’t for Hitler, the Reds would have taken over the whole country. And, not just the Reds, the Jews would be with them. We Germans would be the lowest of the low. The Jews would be in control.
It’s not, he says, that I don’t like some Jews. Sure, there are some fine Jews. And now I know that some terrible things happened to them. That Hitler was not exactly what we thought. None of us knew that then. We found out later. I can’t excuse that, he says, but that does not mean that Hitler was wrong in fighting against the Bolsheviks. And that meant fighting the Jews. They’re different, you know — as a group, they’re just different.
Do you know what my father said? “If Hitler came back from the grave today, I think I would join him again.” That’s what my father says.
Ursula: My God.
Franz: I know. I don’t know what to say. I just leave the room. Sometimes, I cry. I guess I just don’t want to think about it.
Kathe: You know, Franz, you know more about your parents than I do about mine. My father was in the war. He was on the eastern front. He had nothing to do with harming the Jews. My father is a very nice man. He is a wonderful man. He is smart. He is funny. He loves me. He didn’t know anything either. He was fighting for his family, for his country.
I love my father very much. I think. But I am not sure that I do. Because, I don’t know if I should believe him.
I think that’s one of the reasons I want to go to Israel. Sure, I want to see what they’ve done there. And, if I can to do something positive, to atone, to atone for all of Germany. But I think, deep down, there’s another reason. I want to see my father’s reaction.
Dieter: What about your family Ursula? Do you know what they did during the war?
Ursula: My father was an SS officer. He spent part of the war working at the extermination camps. He was in charge of sanitation. He knew exactly what was going on. He tried to stop it. No one listened to him. He was placed under arrest after the war. I never knew him. When I was three years old, he was murdered in prison.
The three others put their glasses on the table, stare at Ursula. They have never heard anything like this before. They don’t know what to think. Ursula continues talking.
He couldn’t tell my mother. He couldn’t tell anyone in our family. Our family was a very proud, German family. We believed in Germany. We believed in the German race. We believed in the German culture. We were churchgoers. We believed in God, and that God was on the side of the Germans. Who knows? Maybe even we believed that God was German.
My father was like that, too, they tell me. He supported Hitler. He was a Nazi. I am ashamed of that part, but it’s true. His field was sanitation. He had a sister. I guess really a sister in law, who went insane and was locked up. She was killed by the Nazis in the asylum. You know, a lot of insane people were killed. This was my father’s first hint that something was very wrong. Then he learned about the plan to exterminate the Jews. His entire world fell apart. He could not go on living the life he was living without talking to someone. But it couldn’t be anyone in the family, and it couldn’t be anyone in the military. Or the government.
He tried to find people to speak with. He spoke with a Swedish diplomat. Apparently, he just ran into him on a train, believe it or not. And he told him everything he knew. He got through to the Red Cross. He even talked to the Papal Nuncio in Berlin. But no one would help. Either they didn’t believe my father, or they didn’t care, or there was nothing they could do.
My father was a hero. But things were too big. Too much was involved. Too many people. He turned himself in to the British army. He gave them the documents he collected to prove what he saw. They put him in jail. And he was murdered. And I never knew him. And that’s just the way it is.
Franz: Looking with skepticism and amusement. And how did you find this out?
Ursula: My mother told me.
Franz: And you believed her? You believed your father was some kind of hero. Listen, Ursula. None of our fathers were heroes. Not one. We may wish they were. We may be told that they were. But they weren’t. There were no “heroes” in Germany.
What they were, we don’t understand. We can’t explain it. We try to block it out, to forget it. But we can’t do that. We are Germany now. We must atone. We must show that it will never happen again. We must be forgiven!
And we cannot accomplish any of that by making believe that our fathers, or our mothers, or our grandparents or cousins, were heroes. They were no heroes.
Ursula: I shouldn’t have said anything, right? Because you don’t believe me. You believe all Germans were the same, that all Germans were equally guilty. She is getting agitated, but then calms herself. I should have known you would not believe me. Maybe if I were you, I wouldn’t believe it either. But all sorts of things happened during those years, very strange things. And I have just told you one of the strangest.
Today, you don’t have to believe me. But mark my words. One day, you will.
The others look at each other, fumble at their beers, and are clearly at a loss for words.
I have to get to class. Tell me about Israel when you get back.