When a German teenager named Setti Pfeiffer begins her day in Israel helping severely disabled children, she often thinks of her great-grandfathers.
Almost eight decades ago, Pfeiffer’s maternal great-grandfather Herman Bernhardt helped build the Auschwitz death camp. And while she doesn’t know as much about her great-grandfather on her father’s side, the 18-year old believes that he was involved in war crimes.
“He volunteered to go to the SS and he was part of a mission in which he expelled Jews and Poles from their homes so Germans could settle there. He was involved in “killing and raping,” she said during a recent telephone interview.
Leo Ebe, an 18-year old from the southern German city of Tübingen, is the great-grandchild of a “brutal” SS officer, he said, who was involved in “rapes and riots against villages to eliminate all life.”
He said that his family never talked much about what his great-grandfather had done during the war. When his mother began to research their family history, what emerged was both “really shocking” and life-changing, making him reconsider his own racial prejudices.
Pfeiffer and Ebe are part of a cohort of young Germans volunteering to teach Israeli children with disabilities. Their program, March of Life, is a German evangelical movement composed of the descendants of perpetrators dedicated to reconciliation. The volunteers work at the ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran, a rehabilitative village in Israel’s southern Negev desert.
Even though Pfeiffer never knew her great-grandfathers, she said she still feels “shame and guilt” over their actions during the Holocaust.
“I could do so many things,” she said, “but I can’t change the past. What I want to do is to give hope to Jewish people —to descendants of survivors or survivors themselves— that there is a different way than repeating what has happened in the past.”
Their day-to-day work is helping to care for and educate severely disabled Israeli children makes a powerful statement, said Major General (Res.) Doron Along, founder and chair of the village.
“By volunteering in Israel with the most vulnerable members of our society,” Almog said, “they are breaking the silence and making the exact opposite statement made by their grandparents just a few decades ago – that they consider Jews to be their brothers, that all people are equal, and that as humans, we are mutually responsible for one another.”
Whether such programs reflect widespread German’s coming to terms with their nation’s role in the Holocaust or are an exception is a matter of debate among scholars.
Germany is widely touted for what some scholars call its Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or culture of coming to grips with the past. But while every German student is taught about the Holocaust, it can be impersonal, with Ebe stating that he wished more people could learn about their own families’ part in the machinery of genocide.
According to Susan Neiman, the American-Jewish director of the Potsdam-based Einstein Forum and author of “Learning from the Germans,” a book about how the United States can face its own wrongdoings, Pfeiffer and Ebe’s openness to a difficult past is “very typical” of contemporary German youth.
Comparing German memory culture of the time to the “Lost Cause” narrative of the American South, she said that many Germans resisted taking responsibility for the war for decades, although, by the early 1980s, when she first moved to Berlin, opinions were shifting and “no one had any compunction in telling me their parents and teachers were Nazis.”
Still, Pfeiffer said many of her classmates had no idea what their ancestors had done during the war.
“There’s always a nice story, but the real truth is usually hidden,” she said.
It is also unclear just how much German memory culture has done to prevent the resurgence of domestic antisemitism.
Incidents have risen sharply in recent years, with the chief of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution warning in an interview with local media last October that over “the past two years, criminal offenses, including acts of violence, against Jews and Jewish institutions in Germany have increased significantly.”
Germany’s approach to its Holocaust legacy is admirable when compared to countries such as Ukraine, Poland and Austria, but there are still significant shortcomings that must be acknowledged, said Professor Günther Jikeli of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.
According to Jikeli, who recently wrote a paper for the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs disputing the central claim of Neiman’s book, young people like Pfeiffer and Ebe are an “absolute” exception and their approach to issues of guilt and responsibility do not represent “the general feeling” among their peers.
In a 2019 poll, over 40% of Germans agreed with the assertion that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust, he noted, calling into question Germany’s fitness to serve as a role model for racial reconciliation in the United States.
Jikeli said that the majority of Germans today lay the blame for the Holocaust on a small group of senior Nazi leaders, citing a 2005 report by social psychologist Harald Welzer that found a high level of cognitive dissonance among the descendants of perpetrators.
According to Welzer, when Germans who participated in the Holocaust admitted their crimes, their grandchildren subsequently “completely denied” them.
“Many grandchildren want to see their grandparents in a good light, when, in fact, they heard in the interview a few days or weeks earlier that this was not the case,” Jikeli said.
However, while Jikeli has his doubts about the suitability of Germany as a model for remembrance in other nations, he agreed with Neiman that young people like Pfeiffer and Ebe were doing “something good” by taking “an honest approach to their own family histories.”
For her part, Neiman said that criticism of Vergangenheitsbewältigung by researchers like Jikeli represents a tendency by Germans to play down their own accomplishments.
“It is almost an axiom of decency in Germany to say ‘we didn’t do enough and we still have a lot of problems,’” she said.
As for Ebe, he said that he plans on visiting with Holocaust survivors on International Holocaust Remembrance Day “to tell them they’re not alone, there are people who stand with them.”