Interview with Yvonne Cossu-Alba and Ulrich Gantz on the dialogue between descendants of victims and the descendants of perpetrators
From 15-20 August 2016, the International Nuremberg Principles Academy held the Summer Academy entitled “Education in the Aftermath of Conflict: Learning from the past?” Participants discussed the role of education in post-conflict societies with a special focus on establishing a dialogue between those from different “sides” of the conflict. Yvonne Cossu-Alba, the daughter of a member of the French Résistance who died in the Neuengamme Concentration Camp in 1945, and Ulrich Gantz, whose father was a member of the “Ordnungspolizei”, were invited to speak with the academy’s participants about their experience with the dialogue between descendants of victims and descendants of perpetrators that has been facilitated by the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial.
Upon their return they spoke with Swenja Granzow-Rauwald.
Swenja Granzow-Rauwald (SGR): You both came of age politically in the decades after World War II. What were crucial moments in regard to your views on this conflict and the post-war relationship between Germany and other European countries?
Ulrich Grantz (UG): WW II was not a subject when I went to school 50, 60 years ago. However, I do recall that each November we had to attend the official ceremonies on “Volkstrauertag” for the fallen soldiers. Since then, my view on WW II gradually changed over the years, mostly by reading.
A major change happened when I made a trip to Minsk 2 years ago and visited the memorial site of Chatyn and its cemetery of Belarussian villages.
I realized that in Belarus alone some 600 villages were burnt down by German troops and their collaborators, with 186 villages wiped out until today and 433 being reconstructed. This was terror, not heroic fighting.
Yvonne Cossu-Alba: I did not learn about World War II in school, because the war had just ended and it was not yet in the curriculum. Rather, my learning was only strictly personal and evidently biased by my family experience, my father being a direct victim of Nazism. My views began to change when discussing, as an adult, with people (and especially my husband) who had studied German and gone to Germany.
They helped me see things in a more objective view and to differentiate between the Germans and the Nazis.
SGR: You were invited to participate in the Summer Academy because of the post-conflict dialogue workshop that led to your first meeting and you becoming friends. Could you please each elaborate on your experience with the dialogue between the descendants of Nazi victims and Nazi perpetrators?
YCA: We went to Nuremberg Summer Academy to share our experience of a dialogue between members of opposite sides of a conflict, to show that this dialogue is possible and analyze why it is possible. Among the enablers I would put open-mindedness in the first place: the way of looking at others without any preconceived idea, of considering all human beings as equals, whatever the colour of their skin, their religion or any other visible or invisible difference.
If we have the same view of mankind, it is easier to establish a dialogue and to analyze the past as objectively as possible.
Being equals means being able to produce the best as well as the worst. And as one of our mutual friends, Jean-Michel Gaussot, put it: we are not a hero because our father was a hero and not a perpetrator because our father was one.And, of course, the fact that the descendant of a perpetrator disapproves his father’s action is a great help for the descendant of the persecuted. I must say I have great respect and admiration for this attitude which, I deem, is not easy. I would certainly have reacted differently facing someone who stuck to his father’s Nazi opinion and acts. But I wouldn’t have refused the dialogue, I would have tried to discuss and analyze the reasons of that behavior and would have explained in what way I disagreed. A hard personal experience and the mental suffering ensued from it could be an obstacle, as such a dialogue can revive an old sore and bring back emotion to the surface. And it can happen on both sides. I also think that such a “dialogue” – i.e. between two persons – is easier than a multiple voice conversation, at least as a first step.
UG: One obstacle is simple: language. E.g., in Neuengamme at the Forum “Future of Remembrance”, there is a multitude of languages. Not everybody is fluent in English; there are only few people fluent in languages from Eastern Europe, say Polish or Russian. One should also keep the expectation level low. If you start such a dialogue with a discussion on forgiveness and reconciliation you blow it up immediately.
What I consider helpful: enough time, a safe place, rules, and preferably an even number of participants from either side. The dialogue partners should have sorted out their position towards their ancestors and towards history in advance.
SGR: Could you please share your thoughts on visiting places with historical significance in regard to the Nazi regime with somebody whose family was affected in a different way by the Nazi crimes?
UG: A group from the Friends of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial traveled to Southern France and Spain early this year. We visited the memorial for the former camp Rivesaltes and places that were relevant during the German occupation of France and during and after the Spanish Civil War, when hundred thousands fled across the border into France just within weeks. Yvonne Cossu had joined us for this trip and Jean-Michel Gaussot was with us for two days.
In a way it didn’t make any difference that Yvonne and Jean-Michel were there – the places were awful , one could sense their history – and at the same time it was very special. Yet, I am not able to describe exactly what “special” means in this context. What left a deep impression with me where two evenings at La Coume, a former school and hideaway for Jewish children. The first night Yvonne talked about her father and told her story. The second night I talked about the dialogue seminar in Neuengamme. On both evenings the past was present and at the same time there was an intimate relationship between the people in the room no matter which side they came from.
YCA: The famous internment camp in Rivesaltes was used from 1941 onwards by the Vichy government for Spanish refugees, Jews, Sinti and Roma. From there most of them were sent to concentration or extermination camps in Germany, Poland and Austria (Mauthausen for the Spanish Republicans). Fascism, Nazism and French collaborationist government aced in the same violent way aiming at the destruction of entire populations. And in the French as well as the Spanish area we can see how people reacted against those regimes and created Resistance groups, helping people to cross the border in order to escape being arrested and to find a road to exile (to France for many Spanish and to the United States for those fleeing away from occupied France). Visiting those places with people who came from a “different side” of the conflict didn’t make any difference to me. We were all learning about some horrible deeds perpetrated in different countries.
SGR: What did you take away from the exchange of views with the other participants of the Nuremberg Summer Academy?
YCA: First, I hope our presentation was useful to them. I think some of the participants did not know much about the European conflict and the occupation of France and the concentration camps in Germany. For many of them World War II was assimilated to the Holocaust only and they knew about Auschwitz but nothing much more. From their reactions, they seemed to appreciate learning about the Resistance movements in France and Germany (which, of course, some of them knew about). They also seemed very much interested in the way the dialogue was initiated and we told them about the actions of the Gedenkstätte and the Forum “Future of Remembrance”. And they were keen about knowing how Ulrich came to know about his father and how he dealt with this knowledge. They also asked me why I had kept silent for so long about my father’s deportation and how I came to speak about it.
There was a question about “forgiveness and reconciliation” which we did not have time to answer. For my part, I think these two notions should not be treated on a personal scale but perhaps on a larger national scale, for example, between two countries (as illustrated by de Gaulle and Adenauer or Mitterrand and Kohl).
UG: I was surprised by the great interest in the discussion between Daniel Fernandez Fuentes (who was the moderator), Yvonne Cossu, and me. In the Summer Academy there were people from all over the world, from the former Yugoslavia, Latin America, South Africa, Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, South Africa, and Rwanda. And even this list is not complete. Some of the participants gave the feedback that our example was giving them hope for their own country. In the subsequent discussion the subject of forgiveness was raised. I made a very strong statement that the murder of 52.000 people (as in the case of my father) cannot be forgiven. In hindsight I very much regret making this statement as it shut the discussion short. Thus I missed the chance to learn about the views and experiences of all the other people in the room which had a lot to contribute to the subject. Something particular occurred briefly after the Summer Academy. At the Academy there were people from Colombia working in peace education at schools and in a commission trying to look at the country’s violent past in the last 50 years. At the end of August the Colombian Government and the FARC rebels signed a peace agreement hopefully ending more than 50 years of violence. To me this is a very inspiring live example of a people moving from conflict to peace.
SGR: What is your advice for people interested in engaging in dialogue between descendants of Nazi victims and Nazi perpetrators? What role should schools or universities play in preparing people for participating in this dialogue?
UG: My advice? I don’t know.
Don’t expect too much. Be prepared to listen.
YCA: If you are descendant of a “victim”, my first piece of advice is that, when engaging in such a dialogue, you must not forget that the person you are speaking to is not guilty. He (she) certainly had to fight with him(her)self to make this story public.
It is not easy to “accuse” one’s parents and it needs courage and a strong sense of responsibility and moral duty.
We have individual memories with a risk of distortion through emotion and a lack of objectivity. This we must be ready to admit. So it would be advisable that historians should revisit our testimonies and eventually correct them according to facts. It would be a necessary step before using them for teaching. One of the important things which we (and teachers and students as well) should ponder over is: how so many people came to be influenced by (or should we say “be victims” of) the Nazi propaganda? How did they lose all critical sense and some of them became perpetrators themselves? Speeches can be dangerous and we should analyze what lies hidden behind beautiful words and oratorical delivery – and this is still true today in many countries.
Transmitting one’s experience means becoming an actor for the future: through our dialogue, we must show the consequences of some speeches or some actions, we must encourage analyzing the facts and drawing conclusions from them, in order to avoid such conflicts being repeated.
It is part of education, and it could perhaps be a basis of reflection after the dialogue rather than in preparation for it.