There is considerable interest in contemporary Germany about the history of the Holocaust and about Jewish religion and culture, but there is little detailed knowledge about the perpetrators – especially those in one's own family. While the Holocaust is taught in schools, portrayed in the media and discussed in public life, it continues to be a taboo subject in most families. Young Gentile Germans generally have no idea what their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles did during the period 1933-1945. Many laudatory speeches during birthday parties and eulogies during funerals simply skip over this time and construct biographical outlines without these years.
I was "lucky" that one of my uncles decided to show me a newspaper article during a family gathering that reported about a trial in the early seventies involving Nazi crimes. I was about thirteen when I read that my uncle, Alfred Ebner, was accused of killing 30,000 Jews, and that his trial was to be discontinued because of health considerations. Alfred Ebner was sitting across the table from me while I was reading this news release. He was a regular guest at family gatherings and I had often visited his family's house in Stuttgart before my family moved to Munich. I remember my confusion and inability to make sense of this information while he sat peacefully (and apparently healthy) among my family. What was I to make of the fact that my family did not censure him? Would my family not ostracize him if he had killed one person, or two? The fact that he sat among us unperturbed seemed to imply that these murders never happened. I wondered, how does one person kill 30,000 people? Where did he do it? Who were his victims?
Would my family not ostracize him if he had killed one person, or two?
My attempts to find out more were brushed off: "Of course, he didn't do these things, these are all lies. Leave this old man his deserved peace, he has suffered enough..." The newspaper article was taken from me and my questions ran into stony walls of silence. For years, I pestered family members with questions about this subject to no avail. Eventually, I "forgot" (repressed?) this incident. Years later, as a graduate student in religious studies and in conversation with Jewish survivors and their children in the United States, I "remembered." As I saw myself through the eyes of my Jewish dialogue partners, I realized that my ignorance was not innocent. My lack of precise knowledge colluded with the perpetrators' desire to conceal their crimes. In order to interact with Jewish peers, I had to break the "conspiracy of silence" and become much more deliberate in my search for the truth.
For the first time I understood the temptation of denial.
Since my close and extended family continued to resist any inquiry into "the past," I decided to turn to historical archives. Strict privacy laws protect German archives and I had to show my academic credentials before I gained access to the indictments against Alfred Ebner. When I began reading the charges, my initial sense of triumph at having broken through the wall of silence soon disappeared. As his crimes became real to me, I too did not want to be burdened with this knowledge. I had to force myself to continue reading and for the first time, I understood the temptation of denial. Maybe this was not true after all?... How could the old man of my childhood be identical with this fanatical killer?
After his early enrollment and steep career in the National Socialist party, Alfred Ebner was appointed deputy area commissioner (stellvertretender Gebietskommissar) to the city of Pinsk in Byelorussia in September of 1941. He was the responsible official for the Jewish inhabitants of the entire region of Pinsk and in control of the lives and deaths of approximately 30,000 Jews who had survived the first mass killings in August 1941. Between the fall of 1941 and December of 1942, Alfred Ebner oversaw the systematic expropriation of Jewish property, the exploitation of their labor and methodical starvation. He organized the ghettoization of Jews in May 1942 and helped implement the mass execution of the entire Jewish population between October 29 and November 2, 1942. Based on the historical record, Ebner was directly responsible for the implementation of Nazi extermination policies, and he killed both by virtue of his position as well as on personal impulse – yet, he was never convicted and, as far as I know, he never regretted his actions.
My quest to collect bits and pieces of information about Alfred Ebner in archives in Germany, Israel and the United States was often circuitous and accompanied by ambivalence. On the one hand, I felt driven to learn as much as I could about his activities as deputy commissioner of Pinsk, a major center of Jewish life since the 16th century. I wanted to understand his "career" and the depth of his anti-Semitic hatred that justified his murderous activities in his mind. And I wanted to learn about his victims, whose lives and culture have been destroyed so completely (Pinsk was once 80% Jewish, but today there is only one small synagogue) by people who knew next to nothing about their victims.
To acknowledge evil in one's own family raises disturbing questions. Does this evil contaminate me?
But this knowledge is painful, because it brings profound evil and the horrors of mass murder close to home. Most families like to think of themselves as essentially "good" and it is not surprising (to me, anyway) that German families engage in far-reaching strategies of evasion and denial. We tend to project evil onto others and assume that the "bad guys" live over there, in a different time, a different place, and a different family. To acknowledge evil in one's own family raises disturbing questions. Does this evil contaminate me? Am I like him? Would I have done what he did? What (if anything) makes me different from him?
Although I sometimes feel disloyal and like a traitor of my family, I consider it my responsibility to "own" this past. This story of anti-Semitic hatred, of supremacy and greed is as integral to German history and identity as Goethe and Mozart. There can be no future without a truthful account of the past.
Heaven on Earth.
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