The Pennsylvania State University
Cover for the book The Shame of Survival

The Shame of Survival

Working Through a Nazi Childhood Ursula Mahlendorf
  • Copyright: 2009
  • Dimensions: 6.125 x 8.625
  • Page Count: 376 pages
  • Illustrations: 8 illustrations/5 maps
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-03447-8
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-03448-5

Hardcover Edition: $29.95Add to Cart

Paperback Edition: $24.95Add to Cart



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Introduction

There is first of all the obligation that we in Germany have—even if no one else any longer assumes it—to keep alive the memory of the suffering of those murdered by German hands, and to keep it alive quite openly and not just in our own minds. These dead justifiably have a claim on a weak anamnestic power of solidarity, which those born later can only practice in the medium of memory which is constantly renewed, often desperate, but at any rate alive and circulating.

—Jürgen Habermas, “On the Public Use of History”

Violent action is unclear to most of those who get caught up in it. Experience is fragmentary; cause and effect, why and how, are torn apart. Only sequence exists. First this then that. And afterwards, for those who survive, a lifetime of trying to understand.

—Salman Rushdie, Fury

Writing now, in Santa Barbara, California, I can hardly believe that the events and experiences of 1933 to 1952—my formative years and tragic, criminal years for my native country, Germany—took place more than sixty years ago, so vividly do they rise up in my mind. At age sixteen in 1945, I was already aware that my family’s history and my experiences needed to be recorded. But it took the long years since then and the encouragement of many friends who know my story to muster the courage to write them down. Not that I feared running into feelings or remembering traumatic experiences that might surprise me. Rather, I was afraid of discovering who I might have become had the Nazi regime lasted.

Mine is a story of growing up in Nazi Germany in a small town of former Silesia, and of being trained in Nazi ideology and its practices. It tells how I experienced this training and how I unlearned Nazi ideology and attempted to undo its impact on my development. It is a story of ordinary lower-class and middle-class people living in an ordinary backwater of the 1930s to mid-1940s. I describe what it was like to grow up under leaders and among a people some of whom committed the crimes of the Holocaust and most of whom stood by and made no attempt to stop the perpetrators. At this late stage of my life it seemed more important to me than ever to write about my childhood and adolescence as a member of the Hitler Youth, and about its aftermath, because so few personal accounts of involvement in Hitler Youth exist. Even fewer seem to understand the implications of such a childhood, or to attempt to formulate the obligations that arise from it.

I took part in the Jungmädel (young girls), the junior branch of the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth, or HJ), from age ten to fourteen, as most children in Germany did after it became obligatory in 1939. As an eleven-year-old, I attended yearlong leadership training, and for the last two years of Jungmädel was a squad leader. After graduation from grammar school at age fourteen, I went to a Nazi teachers’ seminary for a number of months and belonged to the Bund Deutscher Mädchen (League of German Girls), the Hitler Youth for girls aged fourteen to eighteen. I always knew that I participated in Hitler Youth with greater enthusiasm than my classmates in the fifth to eighth grade. I now understand some of the reasons for this: my father, before he died in 1935, had become a member of the SS. After Father’s death, Hitler gradually became an idealized substitute father for me. I championed Hitler’s cause all the more as my mother showed her disapproval of my real father and of Hitler’s party.

In writing this account I discovered, to my relief and surprise, that by the time I was thirteen or fourteen I had begun a rebellion against the conformity that Hitler Youth demanded of us, even though I was unaware of what I was doing or feeling. From my first full encounter with the extent of Nazi crimes, revealed during the Nuremberg trials, I had some, if limited, understanding that I had been given the kind of indoctrination and training that could have enabled me to participate in the persecution of the enemies of Nazism. I certainly possessed the youthful enthusiasm and sustained some of the psychological trauma that can be exploited by unscrupulous leaders. And at the end of the war, I was frightened and confused enough to have sought emotional release through violence. But I was too young during the Nazi period to have participated in their crimes.

As a member of the cohort of Germans who spent their entire childhood under the Nazis and who became politically aware of the damage done by Nazism as an adult living abroad, I felt that as a teacher of German literature I had a special obligation to speak to my students about what we Germans had participated in and what happened to us. I had to tell them about the enthusiasms and the beliefs I held then, the disillusionment, anger, grief, shame, and remorse I experienced after German defeat, and the grief, guilt, and shame that haunt me still. During my forty years of university teaching, I searched German literary texts for the relationship between individual conscious and unconscious psychology and political ideology and power. I traced vestiges of everyday fascism in the contemporary world, and I investigated the historical roots of Nazism in German educational institutions and abusive child-rearing practices. I wrote on the psychology of Nazi women informers and on how German writers dealt with and continue to deal with their Nazi past.

From the late 1970s on, feminism provided me with a language to understand issues of class, race, ethnicity, and gender and made me conscious of the gender, ethnicity, and class imprints on my body and my early life. Feminism also confirmed what I knew intimately from personal experience: The personal is the political. Politics under Nazism invaded every sphere of life: every move could acquire political implications for girls and boys as it did for women and men. Both my teaching and my research gave me the larger factual, historical frame into which I could easily place my own experience, all the more so in that, from the age of about eight or nine, I was keenly aware of such political events as the pogrom of Kristallnacht in 1938 or the German army’s march into Austria. The actual writing of this account proved to be an entirely new experience, however.

I first thought about writing an account of my Hitler Youth experience in 2001, when I taught a freshman seminar on growing up in Nazi Germany after a long interval of retirement. I was surprised that my undergraduates relied on the Internet for their information about Nazi Germany. Members of the Hitler Youth, both boys and girls, had become clichés, inane caricatures mouthing Nazi slogans, the boys trained in weapon use and the girls prepared to bear numerous offspring for the Führer. My students were not interested in the 1960s memoirs of Hitler Youth that I assigned, Melitta Maschmann’s Account Rendered (1963) or Hans Peter Richter’s I Was There (1962). Both accounts were too distanced, too defensive, or too focused on externals to allow my students to empathize with and understand the motivations of their writers. My students could not grasp how young people could be drawn into situations where they remained unaware of anyone except their own kind or unmoved by the suffering of fellow humans.

I thought that it was important for my students to identify with my age cohort, the Hitler Youth generation—boys and girls born between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s. I wanted my students to see this generation as humanly understandable despite spending their formative years under Nazi training, education, and indoctrination. It seemed to me important to show today’s students, through an early life history like my own, how the right leaders in an ordinary small town could produce potential perpetrators. I wanted my students to be able to identify with this girl, with her personal situation in her family and her town, with her interests and her emotions, her motivations, her wishes and her goals, so that they would not, with the clarity of perfect hindsight, dismiss who she almost became with a facile “this would never happen to me.”

Of that generation, a few were fortunate, either by remote location or by family tradition (Catholic, socialist, communist), to have participated only minimally in Hitler Youth or avoided it altogether. But the majority did participate, and most of us, boys and girls alike, participated with “heart and soul,” as we used to say. At one time or other, many of us wanted to become, and some did become, leaders who wished to play a role in the future of our fatherland. While it may be uplifting to study the resisters, it is much more necessary to understand the perpetrators and bystanders, if we want to prevent the repetition of a regime like Hitler’s.

Many of my early memories of persons, places, and moods are indelibly inscribed on my mind and body. With Primo Levi, I believe that survivors of traumatic events “are divided into two well-defined groups: those who repress their past en bloc, and those whose memory of the offense persists, as though carved in stone.” Like him, I feel “as if at that time my mind had gone through a period of exalted perceptivity, during which not a detail was lost.” But as I began to write and rewrite, I encountered numerous difficulties with writing a memoir of what I remember about growing up during the Nazi period. Though I vividly recalled my early family, my teachers, and my reading, and clearly remembered the HJ practices and its ideology, I realized that the memoirs of the period, the novels of Nazi childhood like Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood (1976), and historical research and documentation of Nazi crimes, could not help but influence my understanding of my own recollections. Reading often stimulated me to recall forgotten or repressed detail. I tried to use primarily memories of experiences whose emotional impact on me as a child I could recall in clear, sensuous detail, associated with a specific person, environment, or occasion. So as to enliven the narrative, I transposed some episodes into dialogue. The persons, events, sequences, and relationships of this narrative are based on my recollection. Usually a situation would first come to mind in stark and vivid outline. As I wrote, more detail would emerge. In shaping the narrative, much of it had to be eliminated as irrelevant to my primary purpose. In a very few cases, for the sake of teachers or friends still living, I have omitted or altered names. Beyond the personal, and for the benefit of the English-speaking reader, I have provided, sometimes at the beginning of chapters and sometimes in their course, brief sketches of the relevant historical background so as to set my personal experience in the local as well as the wider historical, political, and social context of Germany from the 1920s to the 1950s.

As we have learned from Holocaust studies and memory research, the memories of participants, victims, and bystanders are often unreliable, particularly when the person who remembers has been traumatized or has strong feelings about the subject matter, as I certainly do. Social, educational, experiential background influences not only the perception of an event or person but also its processing into short-term and long-term memory. The potential for unreliability, distortion, and confabulation of embarrassing or incriminating memories is all the greater, and the temptation to hide, deny, or overlook experiences can be expected when social disapproval or shaming by an internal ego-ideal is at work.

Writing this memoir led me to a head-on conflict between memory and history. The same remembered event looked different in light of later historical research and changing perspective and my own later personal or social judgments. Over a lifetime, I have experienced many, sometimes radical, physical, emotional, and intellectual dislocations: from German Silesia to Polish Silesia, to the Federal Republic, to the United States; from enthusiasm for Hitler Youth, to ambivalence, to anger, to rejection, to condemnation, to remorse and shame; from nationalism, militarism, and ethnic phobia to internationalism, pacifism, multiculturalism; from Nazi to feminist, psychoanalytic, and liberal-democratic left-leaning positions. Each act of remembering from a different juncture in my personal life, from a new point of reference, brought different details of the experience into view and reshaped the remembered experience. Each act of remembering lifted previously unimportant or forgotten detail from suppression, and revealed suddenly an aspect of the experience the full significance of which I had not appreciated at all. Full understanding came only years later. Often, for those of us who recall a Nazi childhood, the sudden emergence of a forgotten detail may turn a harmless idyll into a suggestive nightmare.

Let me give an example. From April 1944 to January 1945, during my fifteenth year, I attended a teachers’ seminary for girls. Into the 1980s I vividly remembered several of my teachers and a few classmates. I knew that this seminary was different from the seminaries my grammar school teachers had attended. One went to those seminaries only after completing the Abitur (the high school comprehensive examination), whereas we could attend after grammar school or middle school. We had worn our HJ uniforms there, since we were fourteen years old and therefore belonged to the Bund Deutscher Mädchen (BDM). I did not believe that this membership played a large role in our lives other than continuing the kind of regimentation we had been used to from the Jungmädel (the Young Girls, ages ten to fourteen). It seemed a rather ordinary wartime boarding school with one extraordinarily good teacher. It was only in the late 1980s that I read that the seminary I attended was a Nazi response to wartime shortages of high school graduates and teachers. These seminaries were intended to train an ideologically reliable cadre of young teachers who could be used to teach the children of ethnic Germans and the Reich’s Germans in the eastern territories annexed to the Reich after their conquest by our troops.

This knowledge cast my earlier memories in a different interpretive frame. I then recalled that the director of the school had indeed spoken to us of our mission to teach in the East, but I had failed to understand the import of this mission. With this new knowledge, I came to see the school and its teachers in a political light, and the subjects we studied and the strategies our teachers used took on new and different meanings. My favorite literature teacher’s privileging of the humanistic Greco-Roman Western tradition over the Germanic tradition—both of which I remembered represented in our textbook—cast her in the role of the opposition to the Nazi director, a BDM leader. My memory, stimulated by the change of perspective, provided additional details about the looks and dress of the two women that begged to be understood politically.

My view and memories of the seminary deepened again in the late 1990s as I studied the opportunities the BDM and Nazi women’s organizations provided for females through new leadership and career paths. I began to wonder about my awareness of the personal advantages that leadership and a Nazi career might have offered me. Remembering my burning social ambition, my desire for an education, my handling of the entrance examination to the seminary, I realized how ready I was—even at age fourteen—to use this new opportunity, no matter where it led. I understood for the first time that I had been much more implicated in the Nazi regime than I had known. Many times in my life I have been haunted by the feeling that I, like Kafka’s land surveyor in The Castle, had been in the castle without knowing it.

The example I give is only one of many in which a seemingly harmless memory took on sinister meaning. The new meaning elicited further forgotten details, demanding a recasting of the experience. In my narrative I have tried to show the girl I was, with all her contradictions. In telling my story, I will sometimes interrupt and comment on what the experience meant to me at different stages of my life. But that girl still lives in me. She is part of my identity.

I started the actual writing of this account in 2004, after a former student of mine died of breast cancer. She had fully understood and promised to carry on my work on the sociopolitics of traumatic experience and its depth psychology. After her death, my research on the political and cultural consequences of child abuse in German-speaking countries bogged down. As a diversion from this complex and arduous academic undertaking, I wrote a few episodes of my early life, and it seemed as if I had opened a floodgate. The mourning for one friend led me to express my grief for the family and friends of my childhood. After that, it was easy to let memories come and to record them for a first draft of the memoir. As I wrote and rewrote, the narrative became increasingly an attempt to understand what I had failed to understand in my earlier teaching about my Hitler Youth experience, German culpability, and the Holocaust. Writing, structuring, and restructuring the narrative became another working through. The first episode that I wrote told of my disillusionment with my HJ leaders, their betrayal, my almost becoming a victim of a Nazi suicide pact as Germany was defeated, and my survival. Pride at having survived was the first emotion elicited by my early story, and “Survivor” became the title of the first version. While writing a second version that included my family’s history, I came to realize that each memory consisted of layers of different understandings of each detail of my experience. Each new and different layer moved me from a superficial knowledge of my part in the HJ to a deeper insight into my implication in Nazism.

These revelations produced in me ever deeper responses of shame. Shame that I had participated enthusiastically, shame that I, an adult liberal of the Left and a feminist, had failed for so long to understand the connection between the career the Nazis offered a girl like me and the institution’s purpose, which might have made me into a perpetrator. Shame, finally, that in my pride at having survived the Nazi regime, I had appropriated the term survivor from the victims of the Holocaust, the potential perpetrator making herself into a victim as well.

With each new understanding and each new version of the memoir, the title changed: Survivor; Work of Mourning; Dislocations; and, finally, The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood. I decided to keep this title to indicate that I feel shame about having survived the victims of the Holocaust whose only crime was that they were not Aryan and German but rather Polish, Roma and Sinti, communist, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, or anti-Nazi, while I, the potential perpetrator, won the privilege of living. The second part of the title, Working Through a Nazi Childhood, is meant to suggest that I understand that this privilege carries an obligation to tell how a perpetrator is made, how she is reeducated, and how, like all workings through, the process remains open ended.

Having been a refugee, having been expelled from my hometown at age sixteen without any possessions, having emigrated as a university student to the United States with only a suitcase, I have no records of my early life, few pictures and no diaries, journals, local newspaper clippings, or letters. As memories of my early childhood came crowding in—first events and then more and more details, particularly details about the places of my childhood—I found that I could reconstruct the floor plan of the house I lived in until age four, down to the staircases and hallways that I dreaded. I could visualize the streets of the town where I walked on my way to nursery school. I could draw maps of sections of the town we lived in till I was sixteen, including the houses, churches, and public buildings, both before and after their destruction during the last days of the war. My mind held an entire geography of childhood, and, to my surprise, my grief at the loss of the hometown of my early years turned into celebration.

I have included my sketches and outlines of that geography of my neighborhood and my town instead of the few pictures that others, like my brothers, have of the persons and places I grew up with. I have a few photographs of myself—a snapshot of my older brother and me at ages four and three. I also have two passport pictures, at age twelve and sixteen, respectively. But I have no visual record of some of the people who were most important to me as a child. I have therefore included photographs of sculptures through which I later attempted to re-create several of the people I loved and mourned.

As important as it was to me to note our continuous euphoria over the chain of initial German victories in World War II, it was equally important to record the breakdown of our family and the social order, and the degradation of social inhibitions during the last months of the war. I remembered the symptoms of the breakdown without understanding what they signified. At the time, I was confused by what I saw. My only intention was to hold on to what seemed stable to me, my Hitler Youth identity, my favorite teacher, and my goal of becoming a teacher. Writing about that period was wrenching. Through the process of writing, I realized that it took the actual betrayal by my Hitler Youth leaders, our flight from the Russians, my survival of a group suicide attempt, and my understanding of our total defeat to eradicate my belief in Nazi causes. As painful and traumatic as the loss of the war was for me, I understood only by writing that anger and disillusionment had begun to lead me to question myself and to reflect on my actions and convictions; that loss had strengthened me in my resolve to pursue an education.

The end of World War II, the Nuremberg trials, and postwar encounters with several political concentration camp survivors provided me with intellectual insight into the crimes of Nazism and German militarism. Intellectual insight is easy, as I was to learn. Like many Germans, I came to understand the full impact of what my country had done to German and European Jewry, as well as to all the countries it fought, only when I came to live abroad in the 1950s and when I met and became friends with men and women who had lost members of their families or who had themselves been harmed. During my entire life, sometimes on the most trivial occasions, I discovered in myself attitudes, unconscious biases, and emotional reactions that dated back to my Hitler Youth years. These had led a subterranean life, despite my conscious belief in democratic forms of governance and my commitment to account for Nazism and to counter its resurgence.

Having been an adolescent during the Russian occupation and Polish administration, during our eviction from Silesia and resettlement in West Germany, I looked at these experiences as challenges and at some of them even as adventures. Most of the autobiographical records of these experiences by German “victims” of the war, particularly those recorded and collected in the immediate postwar period, strike me as self-pitying and claim an innocence we did not possess—with the notable exception of the diary kept during the Russian invasion by “Anonyma,” published in the United States as A Woman in Berlin (2005). I never regarded myself as a victim. Yet I rarely if ever spoke about this time of my life even to my friends, fearing that any remark about the Russian invasion and our eviction by the Polish militia might be misconstrued as a cry for sympathy, or as a desire for revenge or a demand for restitution. In their propaganda, the political Right in Germany, as well as some of the refugee organizations of the Federal Republic of Germany, exploited the impulse to seek revenge and compensation more than enough, and I did not want to add to their clamor. I could think of writing about these experiences only after anti-Nazi writers like W. G. Sebald in “Between History and Natural History: On the Literary Description of Total Destruction” (1982), and Günter Grass in Crabwalk (2002), had begun to discuss the suppression of the destruction of German cities and of civilian and refugee casualties. I understood and understand the bombings, the hardship of the invasion, and our eviction as the price we all paid for our hubris, for our conquests, for our inhumanity in seeking world domination. And I am glad that today’s democratic Germany, for the most part, seems to have profited from the lesson of total defeat. I can recall these events in eastern Germany now because the borders that were set in 1945 are firmly established. Germany and Poland live as equal partners now within the framework of the European Union. The Allies had been right when they decreed at Potsdam that the border conflicts that had led to the war could be resolved only by separating the populations.

In writing about the immediate postwar years, it seemed imperative to put my personal striving for an education into the larger framework of the reeducation efforts of the Allied occupation, particularly the Americans, during the late 1940s, and into the context of the social legislation on behalf of refugees of the new Federal Republic in the early 1950s. These policies and institutional measures gave me and other young Germans opportunities for education, self-development, and careers in a democratic society that we would not have had otherwise. I pursued my quest for an education through the early 1950s, when I emigrated to the United States and found at the university an intellectual home that made my further development possible. This latest working through of my early life, by writing, is but one more foray into a past that is not dead.


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