David Remnick: Burkhard Bilger's writing for The New Yorker has covered a wide, wide landscape, from rodeos to cave exploration, from Mars to southern food, music, neuroscience, almost everything on Burk's long list of stories, every page contains a kind of universe, but over the last few years, nearly a decade, Burk has been researching a subject much closer to home.
He's been looking at the history of his own family. He grew up in Oklahoma, the child of German immigrants, and his new book is about their generation, and it's called Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets.
Burkhard Bilger: Well, my parents are both what you call Kriegskinder, as you say, so they were born in 1935.
David Remnick: What does that mean? Children of--
Burkhard Bilger: Kriegskinder means children of war. That means that they're in an interesting spot psychologically. They were very young children during the war, and they carry, I think, the guilt of the war within them. At the same time, they aren't responsible for anything. There's this kind of you're in between two--
David Remnick: -there's no question of agency.
Burkhard Bilger: -there's no question of agency. It was something they talked about, but they didn't really go into detail about. My grandfather was in the Nazi party, and my mother would acknowledge that, but we would never really go into any detail about it.
David Remnick: Burk, I have to tell you that even now, it's a startling thing. I remember when we were editing this piece and the pictures started appearing, there was a picture of your grandfather in the obvious uniform, and it was startling for me to put together this guy who I've worked with now for years and I have great affection for and enormous regard for as a writer, and then there's this grandfather in a Nazi uniform. Tell me a little bit about him and how you think about him and how I should think about him.
Burkhard Bilger: My grandfather was a school teacher in Alfing, a little village in Germany. He was in his late 30s when the war started and he was a fervent Nazi party member. At a certain point, he was sent to a village in Alsace called Buttenheim as part of the German campaign to re-educate these young French students and turn them into good Germans now that they were part of the German life.
The fact that he was a Nazi didn't really come into our family conversations until I was late in my teen years. My mother always talked about it as he had been sent there, but she never talked about what he did. I think she herself, even though she'd written her dissertation on the German occupation in France, she never looked into that history. It was this blank spot--
David Remnick: Because it was unbearable for her?
Burkhard Bilger: -I don't know if it was unbearable. I think she was scared about what she would find out. She was scared to look into that hole. Then finally late in the day after she'd handed in her dissertation, she went there and she discovered actually that there was more to the story. That he had been a fervent Nazi party member, but then he had eventually collaborated with the head of the resistance in the village, and there'd been a trial or an investigation for a trial and eventually had been exonerated and the villagers had kind of come forward to defend him.
It suddenly became a much more complicated story. I went, I think, from having this guilty embarrassment in my family history to having something that intrigued me and confused me, like, how could a person be both those things?
David Remnick: At what point did this taboo start breaking up in Germany and he started talking about the war in traumatic terms? When did the Germans feel that this was even possible?
Burkhard Bilger: It's only been in the last 10 or 15 years. I mean, people often talk about how it really began with the work of Sabine Bode who did a lot of interviews with Kriegskinder and has written three books of oral history about them.
David Remnick: She's a historian or psychologist?
Burkhard Bilger: She's a journalist by trade and married to a psychiatrist. She put these books together and they broke open the box. I asked her how she got onto this big subject and what drove her to it.
Sabine Bode: It started more than 20 years ago in the Balkan war. TV showed the children suffering and one day, as I'm a journalist, I asked myself, "So what about the German war children? They're now getting pretty old or not," or, "Why I never heard about them? Why did I never hear how they coped with that fate? What kind of silence is that?" At the beginning, I thought, "Well, that's an interesting story for me." I worked at the radio station at that time for the audience, and nobody was interested.
Burkhard Bilger: Was there a fear-- I mean, I know that there's a resistance to talking about German trauma and German suffering during the war because, of course, the Germans inflicted so much suffering on the rest of the world during the war. Is that why the radio station wasn't interested back then, do you think?
Sabine Bode: Yes. At that time, all the editors in the radio stations or in their newspapers or the people in charge, they belonged to that age group so I had to wait for a change of generation that people said, "Oh, yes, that's interesting. Why don't you make a piece for me? That's about my parents."
Burkhard Bilger: Right. What was your first experience going out and trying to collect stories from Kriegskinder asking them about their experience during the war and so forth?
Sabine Bode: Well, there was one thing, the way they spoke. It was either, "Oh, it was a funny time. We had a lot of good times and it was a lot of adventure." They tell all those stories. Actually, some stories were really funny, I must say, or it was completely without emotion. You know, like somebody is reading something in a telephone book. The numbness remained for many of them until they got old.
Burkhard Bilger: I want to ask you a little bit about your own background. You had done some of your own research into your family history and war history as well. Was that one of the things that led you into this field?
Sabine Bode: No. I had it already done when I did it. It helped me because I had my personal piece with my family story.
Burkhard Bilger: Do you mind talking about that a little bit? How did you start your family research and what did you know when you started?
Sabine Bode: Well, I knew my father was a Nazi, I knew my mother was a Nazi. Everybody knew because they talked like Nazis almost until they died. There were these people who said, well, the way I talk about that time, everybody thinks like that, but they just don't dare to say that anymore.
My father felt like a hero in a way that he was so courageous to say what he thought and nobody actually, nobody stopped him as far as I remember as as a teenager. It was very embarrassing for me. Yes.
Burkhard Bilger: What kind of things did he say, when you say the way he spoke, what kind of things would he say that were classic old Nazi thoughts?
Sabine Bode: Well, what they all said, "It wasn't all bad," you know, what Hitler did. he should have stopped earlier, something like that. He wasn't quite sure if the holocausts happened or not. At least not to that extent, not with these millions. He just couldn't believe.
Burkhard Bilger: Then, you thought you wanted to look into his own history during the war or his father's history, or what did you then research after that?
Sabine Bode: Oh, well, since it wasn't much they told us, and after a while, but I was only able to do that after the fall of the Berlin Wall because only then we had access to the archives we needed.
Burkhard Bilger: Do you mind talking about what you found, what the background history was that you discovered?
Sabine Bode: Well, he and my grandfather betrayed a Jewish relative. He was the husband of the wi-- Sorry, he was the husband of the sister of my grandfather. He tried to hide as a Jew, and my father and my grandfather together helped the Gestapo to find him. He was murdered in Auschwitz.
Burkhard Bilger: What was it like to discover that? Could you describe the moment when you found that evidence in the archives, how that felt?
Sabine Bode: I tell you, it was a relief because I said, "Oh, something like that in way that he was not a mass murderer." What it did, it did confirm me in what I always suspected and what I carried with me and said, "Well, listen, yes, okay, that's the way it is. That was him." All the relatives lied to me. That was really not nice. That was not nice to think of that over, that he kept silent and my mother as well, that is easily to understood, but all the relatives did the same.
Burkhard Bilger: You had always suspected that he had done a war crime, but you'd been afraid that it would be much something even more terrible than what he did?
Sabine Bode: Yes. My generation born after the war or in the end of the war or in the '50s, we all thought, that was our main fear. "My God, was my father a mass murderer?"
Burkhard Bilger: When you say it's a relief, it's interesting. When I was looking, researching my own grandfather's history, which is ambivalent, I mean, there's evidence that he'd hid almost courageous things during the war and then obviously, he was a Nazi party member and was in occupied France. He must have also countenanced terrible things or allowed things to go by if not participate in, I don't know.
Sabine Bode: You know, we all come from these families, "Oh, why do you always put questions? You don't know anything. Keep quiet, keep silent, da da da da da," yes, but your insight [laughs] still has these questions. Then after a while, you say, "Oh, I was right. That's a very good feeling. I was right. Yes."
Burkhard Bilger: You and your brothers are very slightly apart. I mean, they were alive during the war, you were not. Could you talk a little bit about that? What was the difference between being a Kriegskinder, being a [unintelligible 00:11:06]Kriegskinder as you would be called?
Sabine Bode: I guess the main thing is when they were very small children, when they were just born in the first one, two, three years, they had parents and they had an environment of adults, which felt stressed all the time. Whereas me, I belong to the generations with the lowest rate of newborn. I must say, one night [laughs], my early remembers is I walked out the house and I'm maybe three years old or two and a half and every adult which meets me stop, and says, "Hello. How are you, Sabine? Nice to meet you."
Burkhard Bilger: They were just so happy to see children.
Sabine Bode: Yes. I was carrying the hope for a better life.
Burkhard Bilger: It's funny that's very much my first memories, strong memories or being five years old. We moved to Germany to Kassel when I was five in 1969. My mother would take me on her shopping rounds every day, and every store we went to, the shopkeepers were so kind and they would give me a candy, a gummy bear, or they would give me a piece of German sausage. There did seem to be this hunger for youth and innocence in children in Germany, even--
Sabine Bode: Even later.
Burkhard Bilger: -can you tell me a couple of stories from people that really stuck out for you, that people told you about the kind of trauma they experienced or stories that might have-- Things that happened to them that might have traumatized them during the war?
Sabine Bode: The strongest one I had, and it's about a woman, and she practically the whole war, she was sitting in the air raid center. That was a harbor city, and it was bombed from the beginning to the end of the war. I mean, it was incredible what she said that one day, she missed the shelter because she wasn't fast enough running to school. Then the alarm came and she wasn't fast enough, and the doors of the bunker was closed, and then she was there alone, [chuckles] completely alone. You can't believe it.
In that bombing, and she said, "Afterward, I never told anybody because I was scared they would tell me, "Why didn't you hurry up?" At the same time, her mother was a person-- She wanted her to be a happy child. She said sometimes, "Why can't you be happy?" This woman had a handicap, developed a handicap, and only very late, I think she was more than 70, she realized that that came from her war childhood. She was so forgettable, she was so extremely forgettable. She forgot everything, good things, bad things.
Burkhard Bilger: It was her short-term memory that-- Like her recent memory, is it--
Sabine Bode: And long-term, both. Then she started to reconstruct her childhood and it was quite a process. What happened, the long-term memory got better and the short-term memory got better. She was enjoying her age then because she said, "I love learning, and it was always hard for me to learn because I couldn't keep things in mind so well. Now, [laughs] I'm learning all the time."
Burkhard Bilger: There's certainly people who will say, "Why should we care about German suffering in the war?" Again, there was so much terrible things were done by Germans. Why should we care about the suffering of the Kriegskinder? What do you say to them? What do you feel about that?
Sabine Bode: I say, "Sorry, it is not only in Germany." I think we find the same stories in Poland and in Russia. We find them in Cambodia, we find them in South America. That is a universal issue. Of course, it varies from the history, from what happened, what atrocities, how many victims, how many perpetrators. Okay, but parents cannot bear the thought that they were not able to protect their children. They're happy when children never mentioned that again, then they think everything is fine.
We have a strong resilience, everybody of us has, I guess, or most of us have. When you don't know that you are traumatized, then it is hard to overcome.
Burkhard Bilger: Right. Let's talk a little bit about Familienaufstellung, [laughs] this type of group therapy. I was fascinated to discover how popular this type of group therapy is in Germany. I'll quickly describe it. It's a type of group therapy that people often use to explore their family history. What you do is you spend a day or two in a room with 10 other strangers, and each of you takes turns talking to the therapist for a while and talking about what you're feeling, what your problems are, and a bit about your family history.
Then the patient chooses strangers from the room to represent family members from their history. Those strangers then proceed to almost channel the spirits of those people they've been asked to represent. They have dialogues, they suddenly have memories of things they did during the war and often, new information arises that they'll say, "Oh, I can sense that I was molested by Russian soldiers during the war," they might say, or these new things come up.
It's become very popular in Germany and it seems like a way in which people often explore the past when they can't discover the things they wanted to discover in the archives or their parents didn't tell them what happened.
Sabine Bode: I don't know if it is a therapy. It may be an initiation to start. My mother, for instance, had a brother and he died in the war, the last day. She hardly ever talked about him and it was her dearest brother. That kind of thing is that I sometimes called the ghost of the death. It is not something which you can solve with that. It can help you to start to get interested in your family's story. I don't believe in healing by that. I believe in healing, I think, is a long process. War doesn't end when the weapons are silent, but war does infect narrow relationships.
That is why so many people of your age group are visiting Familienaufstellung, and some of them wish that you get out and you are free. That doesn't work. It starts as-- I don't know if it's the one you attended, it was the same. There's a lot of crying, there's a lot of mourning, and that is helpful.
David Remnick: Sabine Bode talking with The New Yorker’s Burkhard Bilger. Burk has just published the book, Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets.
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