Ausgabe 2/02


Is reconciliation possible?

Former Austrian and German refugees speak.


Background of the study

As with such occasions, the tenth anniversary of the Gedenkdienst has precipitated a backward glance by its members which is reflected in their book: “Jenseits des Schlussstrichs”. I thought it remarkable that an Austrian organization has actually labored for ten years to reach out to survivors and escapees, like myself, and was examining itself as to progress made. This has led to some introspection on my part as to what changes I might have undergone in my attitude towards Germany and Austria. These speculations are contained in a chapter in the book: “Mehr kann man wahrscheinlich nicht erwarten.” Then I began to wonder if my reactions were typical of other survivors and escapees and whether the years have in any way mellowed their view of their former homeland.

I was acquainted with the outlook of the former refugees. I had interviewed 190 between 1990 and 1993 for my book “Die Entwurzelten.” At that time, almost all of them shared feelings of animosity, abhorrence, avoidance and revulsion towards Austria and Germany. The mere mention of these countries conjured up murdered relatives and friends, loss of youth and loss of possessions. Behind these images lurked the image of the perpetrators who had failed to show remorse and had attempted to wipe out the past as if it had never existed.

Antagonism by the former refugees was greater towards Austria than to Germany for a number of reasons. For one, Austria had referred to itself as Hitler’s “first victim.” That statement triggered fury by the former refugee group. They had witnessed when the day after the Anschluss festive flags bedecked Vienna. They remembered the myriads of Austrian citizens who mingled on the streets proudly displaying long-hidden swastikas on their lapels, and almost hysterically welcoming Hitler on the Heldenplatz. Truly, these were victims who participated enthusiastically in their fate.

Austria’s complete silence regarding its citizens’ participation in the Holocaust elicited further distrust. During the fifties and sixties when I had occasion to be in Austria, I searched in vain for a mention of those dark days by people I met or by newspapers. The Germans had begun their open discussions in newspapers and in literature while the Austrians were making no attempt to lift the curtain on the past. The Germans indicated some guilt by beginning to pay reparations. They also did not have a Waldheim episode. Both Waldheim and Haider triggered a déjà vu phenomenon. Their success was equated in the refugees’ minds to the Nazi years. While this reaction might have been somewhat excessive, whatever trust had developed was too fragile to withstand the onslaught of these events.

Being acquainted with this background, I wondered whether such deeply felt emotions, such fierce convictions, could ever be modified. This curiosity prompted me to design a questionnaire to determine what changes, if any, of former refugees’ attitudes and feelings towards Germany and Austria have taken place since 1945. I submitted it to 45 escapees (those who had been able to flee a Nazi occupied country before the “Final Solution) and survivors (those who had been in concentration camps and ghettos). The participants’ attitudes in 1945 and in 2001 was explored through such questions as: Feelings towards the countries Germany and Austria; Attitudes towards individual Germans and Austrians; Differentiation between generations; Identification with country of birth; Return Trips; Effects of age; Effects of time passing.


Changes in attitude

When examining the responses to the questionnaire, I was immediately struck by their variability. In 1993, the respondents answered more or less along the same line, with resentment and anger. In 2001 there were large differences among the respondents. For instance, when asked whether time and age had in any way mellowed their attitude to Austrians and Germans, the responses varied from total rejection to almost friendship. On one end of the scale: “I have a list of 40 names [of murdered family members], including my parents and a six months old child. They stole my childhood, my parents and every-thing dear to me. I had a terrible time and I will not forgive them for that.” On the other end “I have taught in Frankfurt, traveled extensively, spoken at many universities and on radio.” A view somewhat in the middle: “I get less angry than I used to.”

Many participants noted strong changes in their own attitudes over time.. Contrasting “then” to “now,” one man responded: “Then I hated them all. I could have killed the murderers of my parents. I despised the rest. Now I do not blame the young ones for the crimes of their elders.” A woman commented: “I would gladly have killed given the opportunity. I hated them all. These days, I am quite at ease when I meet any during travel.”

In addition, the former victims have during the passing years acquired families and friends. Most have been remarkably successful professionally and thus are no longer complete outsiders. They have to some extent entered a regular life. When they first left a Nazi country, their past had been wiped out and they lived in an acutely painful present. Now the past is still acutely painful and always will be, but there is more of a present.

Of course, there are some who are quite unforgiving and whose feelings did not alter over the years: “I cannot forget that they are the descendents of the people who gave a jubilant welcome to the man under whose government so many of my family were murdered.” In some instances, even when the resentment has decreased, the distress remains the same: “I get less angry than I used to, but no day passes when I do not think of my parents.” In rare cases, anguish increases with age: “I was very young in Britain at the time. Having become acquainted with the facts and realizing what had occurred with the loss of almost all family members, my feelings changed fundamentally to despising and resentment in a very negative way.”

The surprise is not that some escapees and survivors still harbor intense resentment. One can hardly believe that after the loss of most of one’s family, bitterness vanishes altogether. The amazing fact is that the attitude of a good percentage of those questioned had mellowed. This revision in outlook stands in strong contrast to citizens of countries where blood feuds are continued by their children and children’s children.


Effect of time and age

What are the factors which enabled so many former refugees to look at their country of birth less emotionally? Was it time alone? Did the mere passing of years, as is commonly thought, mercifully decrease anger and resentment?

The former refugees vary widely in their reaction to time and age. Some have experienced positive change: “The passing of the years has made me feel a great deal better;” “I don’t think about it as much;” “Age has made me focus more on the present than the future.” One participant analyzes the situation very carefully: “Passing of time has diminished the personal/emotional impact of past events though not the historical significance and importance which should be continued.” Perhaps not so surprisingly, some find that age and time only increased the pain and as a result, the antagonism: “It gets worse with age;” “Age has made me more aware of what I have lost and how precious life is.” Most feel time alone does nothing. “I don’t care how many years passed. Time will never make me feel better. It was some positive events during the passing years which helped.” Most participants feel that time alone is ineffective. Only positive events or appropriate action can lead to a mellowing with time.


Changing generations, changing attitudes and reparations

So what did help? Probably the most influential factor is the presence of a new generation – the grandchildren of the perpetrators have taken the place of the Nazi generation. The children of the perpetrators remained suspect in the former refugees’ eyes because of the likelihood that they were influenced by their parents’ ideology. The link between the Nazi generation and the present Austrian/German youth cannot be so easily presumed. As a result, a good percentage of the former refugees are quite comfortable with those Austrians and Germans who were under fifteen years during World War II or state that they can communicate fairly easily with those who are now under forty, fifty or sixty. Others use themselves as a cutoff point: “Although I am at ease during travels, if they are older than I am, I do wonder what they were up to between 1938 and the end of the war and I do not maintain any social contact.” The majority at this point seem to be free of assigning guilt by association: “The young ones cannot be held responsible: ”I have no problems with this generation;” “They are more human than the older Germans.”

There are exceptions to the general trend, both on the negative and on the positive side. It is understandable that some who lost their families find it emotionally impossible to converse with anyone even distantly connected with a perpetrator. “I have no well defined feelings about the present Austrians, but I cannot forget that they are the descendents of the people who gave a jubilant welcome to the man under whose government so many of my family were murdered.” On the other hand, there are those who actively search for common ground with the young. Perhaps not coincidentally, the following opinions come from two psychotherapists: “I am interested in dialogue with Germans; to listen to their experiences and views and have mine listened to and accepted.” The other is particularly empathic: “The second generation Germans, those who were too young to be active Nazis suffered from their parents’ pretense at either having done nothing wrong or pretending they know nothing. I like talking to young adults. I asked a woman academic why she had specialized in the study of the exiled. She said: ‘Because my mother is a Nazi. She is still alive.’ That takes courage.”

Another factor which aided the achievement of some rapprochement is a changed attitude of the Austrian bureaucracy. Letters from the consulate are couched in a more courteous and less “autocratese” fashion than before. Officials respond to questions and dispense information in a more user-friendly manner. Statements of regret for the emotional and financial losses are frequently included in formal documents. In general, officials tend to be more helpful. For instance, when I recently visited Austria, I brought a complicated thirty-plus page questionnaire dealing with restitution to the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism. A young woman official spent time and effort in helping me obtain necessary information. Her solicitous manner indicated a genuine motivation to help.

A change of generations and of the official stance have influenced the outlook of former refugees. One could assume then that restitution would have the same effect. But this does not seem to be entirely the case. The former refugees feel that restitution is justified, indeed more than justified. They feel entitled to it and see it simply as regaining only what was theirs. And that only in small part. They do not regard restitution as a generous or altruistic move. Too much resentment has already accumulated by this much debated and delayed issue. After all these years, restitution comes as too little and too late “I wish they had given it to my father who needed it more;” “They should have done it forty years ago.” A man describes his bitterness because he found restitution given grudgingly and only under pressure: “I think the restitution payment to my sister and myself was an insult. 400 pounds for the loss of a parent. 400 pounds for the loss of education. We would not have received that if our aunt in Berlin and our uncle in the U.S. had not written statements.”

The former refugees were asked what aspects of restitution helped to lessen their antagonism to Austria and Germany. Among the items cited were money for missed education, social security payments, Pflegegeld (money for handicapped, sick and elderly refugees), restitution for loss of homes and real estate, restitution for slave labor and paid trips back to former hometowns. Responses varied from very positive to very negative for reasons already cited such as: “They owed it to us;” “Too little and too late,” “They did it to save face,” etc. On the other hand, there are former refugees who have a less ambivalent view: “They seem to want to make amends;” “They are trying;” “Good if done willingly;” “The pension I receive really helps.”

Because of the long delay, the countries’ motivation is suspect. The former refugees express their distrust: “I feel they have been forced to do this [in order to be in good standing with the European community];” “I feel it is primarily a face-saving policy;” “I think that restitution is political and not altruistic;” “I question their motives.” A woman remarks regarding Austrian social security: “My husband paid into the system.” The implication being that she is entitled to what she considers her money. Many former victims take issue with the amount of restitution given:” “It was due those who lost property” and “The amount is paltry compared to the damage done.” Many escapees and survivors want to make it clear that restitution, though just and welcome, cannot cleanse the perpetrators of their guilt. Such comments as: ”The bad cannot be appeased;” “Restitution is blood money;” and “I would not want to go and have to make nice.” “No amount of money would compensate for what I had to suffer,” reflects a common theme.

Interviewees perceive restitution as a complex matter. It is unlikely that without it reconciliation of any sort could be achieved. It is regarded as an obligation on the giver’s part and it is due to the former victim. It is a concrete symbol of the Nazi countries assuming responsibility, however small in comparison to the losses suffered. One might say that it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Any contrition without some restitution would simply ring hollow. But restitution alone is not sufficient.

For the former victims an emotional and psychological response is also necessary – they look for an attitude and an approach which conveys some understanding of the wrong that was formerly done.


Two organizations which make a difference

Two organizations which meet this emotional and psychological need of the former refugees is the Austrian Gedendienst and the German parallel, the Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (ASF). The response to their activities was almost uniformly enthusiastic. The former refugees were asked: “Many young Austrians and Germans have volunteered to work for a year in various Holocaust institutions such as the Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. and at Yad Vashem in Israel. Does your knowledge of these efforts lessen your antagonism at all to Germany and Austria? “

“Many young Austrians and Germans research the contribution of Jews to Austrian and German culture and study the current adjustment of former refugees: Does your knowledge of these efforts lessen your antagonism at all to Germany and Austria?”

“Many young Germans visit isolated, elderly refugees. Does your knowledge of these efforts lessen your antagonism at all to Germany and Austria?”

The range of responses to these questions was very narrow. The former victims on the whole expressed enthusiasm, gratitude and admiration. They were deeply touched by the selfless idealism of these young people. Those former refugees who had never heard about these organization were asked whether the newly presented knowledge of their existence lessened their antagonism. Almost all of them agreed that it did. The idea that young Austrians and Germans were willing to dedicate themselves to make some amends for a previous generation aroused optimism: “It is such a hopeful step for the future;” “It makes me feel better;” “I have met many of these young people. They are great;” “I am glad that they are trying to make amends.”

The former refugees appreciate the research being conducted on Holocaust matters: “It is constructive and tells the real story;” “I am very positive towards them;” “It shows some promising signs that some appreciate the events of the past.” The respondents to the questionnaire were impressed that young German people were visiting Jewish elderly who were alone because of the murder of their families: “Praiseworthy;” “I think this is admirable work;” “A wonderful gesture.”

The members of the Gedenkdienst and the ASF appear to the former refugees to have halos. They are ambassadors of good will, they are a beacon that the future may be different from the past, and that the former refugees’ pre-Nazi identification with Austria and Germany was not just an illusion. It is unfortunate that the second and third generation of escapees and survivors do not have more knowledge about the existence of these organizations. They are acquainted with the deeds of the perpetrators but they know very little, if anything, about the young Germans and Austrians. It would bode well for the future if these members of the same generation could meet.


Psychological ties

A rather striking finding is that many escapees and survivors had never made a complete break with their former countries. While they are solidly identified with their new homeland, some psychological ties seem not to have broken over the years. The former refugees visit their former homes and many are filled with much nostalgia, though total comfort in their former countries is harder to obtain.

Yet, the pull of the culture of their youth is amazingly ingrained even for those who left when very young. Love for the scenery, music, theater and the food remain a part of their fond memories “I am identified with the country I am living in, but I find that I do identify myself with some shared values and habits typical of my former country;” “I love the U.S. but yet culturally my Austrian background is very meaningful to me. Perhaps some of these subtle connections contributed to the lessening of antagonism.



The results of the questionnaire “Is Reconciliation Possible?” indicate that the former refugees are not all of one mind. There is range from those who have not shifted in their attitude towards their former countries to those who feel profound changes have taken place. Most people are somewhere in between. By way of contrast, only ten years ago I found few people who felt anything but total estrangement from Germans and Germany and Austria and Austrians.

The changes are related to the new generation who are not found guilty by the grandparents’ victims and to the more positive attitude of the government. In addition the great success in readjusting to their new countries facilitates the developing of some emotional distance to the past. The former refugees are no longer isolated or outsiders. As one escapee notes: “I never reached the social and financial standing I would have had [had I not been a refugee], but I feel satisfied with the goals I reached. I had many compensations.”

It needs to be emphasized that the deep pain, the profound trauma that the Hitler years inflicted can never be wiped out. But it is to the former refugees’ credit that they are willing and able to respond to reasonable and sincere approaches and they do not paint all Germans and Austrians with the same brush.

The change in Vienna was brought home to me during my visit to Vienna this past May. My husband and I were crossing the Heldenplatz. The usual memories of Hitler’s speech on this beautiful plaza soon after the Anschluss came to mind and I described the scene to my husband; thousands of people waving flags, giving the Nazi salute and extending a fanatic and hysterical greeting to Hitler.

Just as I was describing the scene, a seemingly endless line of buses arrived, disgorging hundreds of people who poured onto the Heldenplatz. Puzzled, I walked over to some young people with odd colored hair and unusually placed jewelry and asked what their purpose was.

“Oh,” was the answer, “we are marching for the legalization of pot.”

Better pot than Hitler. I recognized some things, after all, have changed.


Dorit B. Whiteman, Psychologin