Lev Raphael, Author and Son of Holocaust Survivors: 'I Find Myself Defending Germany'
Lev Raphael, a New York-born author and the son of Holocaust survivors, had nothing but instinctive hatred for Germany until he paid a visit several years ago. He has penned a memoir about his change of heart, "My Germany," and this autumn he returns to once-frightening German cities for a book tour.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What happened to your parents during World War II?
Lev Raphael: Both of them spoke German, but my mother was Polish and my father was Czech. Nazi occupation soldiers confined my mother to the Vilna Ghetto (now Vilnius in Lithuania), and subsequently moved her to concentration camps near Riga and Danzig until she was sent to a slave labor camp in Magdeburg (in eastern Germany). My father was persecuted by Hungarian fascists as a slave laborer before being sent to Bergen-Belsen. They met in a German refugee camp after the war, and left for Belgium a month or so later.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You grew up in an atmosphere of revulsion for everything German, and for most of your life you swore you would never step foot there.
Raphael: I grew up with this image of Germany as the ultimate source of evil in the world, so the thought of even crossing the German border was anathema to me. We never bought German products, even something as simple as a Deutsche Grammophon record album. My parents were music lovers, but they would not buy Deutsche Grammophon. The irony is that we lived in a German-Jewish neighborhood -- Washington Heights in New York, which at the time was called Frankfurt on the Hudson. So I heard German around me. But somehow I was able to dissociate that from my parents' own experiences.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did Germany surprise you when you finally crossed the border?
Raphael: What surprised me first was my own reaction -- I felt more like an American than the son of Holocaust survivors. But I also can't imagine anything more wonderful than being an author on tour in Germany. Audiences treat you differently than they treat you in America; you're taken seriously. I also found people very forthcoming about their own struggles with Germany's past, and how it affected them personally. It's a more intellectual culture than the American culture in general, so people discuss things at greater depth.
And my sexual orientation was a non-issue. Compared to puritanical America, that's very nice. E. M. Forster, who was also gay, said Anglo-Saxons have never accepted the realities of human nature.
I think there's still a clichéd belief in the United States that says, "The Germans haven't really faced up to World War II." And I say, "Have you been to Berlin?" Have you seen how many museums and memorials there are? If you want an example of a country that hasn't really faced its past, how about Japan? How about even France, which seems to have had much more difficulty facing its complicity with the Nazis? So I find myself in the strange position of defending Germany against people who say, "Oh, they haven't changed." It's a very different culture now. The militarism that really didn't die in 1918 is long gone.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the image persists.
Raphael: A young Jewish man I know who lives and works in Germany has been told by Jewish friends that he's a "traitor." A college student at my reading at the Goethe Institut in Washington, D.C. said she felt shunned by her family and members of her synagogue because she was studying German.
Personally, I look forward to being in Germany and I enjoy taking German lessons and classes. Both were previously taboo (for me). I'm more relaxed now at a very profound level.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you seen examples of the old, intolerant Germany rearing its head, perhaps in the public remarks about Muslims and foreigners by figures like Thilo Sarrazin?
Raphael: It may rear its head, but it's quickly attacked by the political and media establishment.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your book tour this fall starts in Magdeburg, where your mother was held in a camp.
Raphael: I've been there twice and I expected to be freaked out, but instead I felt strangely comfortable, which is an odd response. It meant a great deal to be somewhere that was so deeply part of my late mother's life, and I also was there as an American author who had made the experience of my generation a major part of his writing life.
It's still an amazing scenario: My mother was a slave laborer in the city I visited decades later. She survived. I flourished.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You write that coming to Germany taught you to be grateful for your heritage for the first time.
Raphael: It's a very strange thing. Speaking to people who are tormented by Nazis in their family past made me think, "I don't have to experience that, and I'm very lucky." That was an unexpected experience. If you sit down the son or grandson of a perpetrator, and the son or grandson of a victim, I mean -- which would you rather be?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the same time you write that Germans have the luxury of a homeland. Some families are extremely old here, but yours feels rootless, precisely because of the Holocaust.
Raphael: My publisher in Berlin (of a previous book) took me to Ulm, and at the Ulm Cathedral there were records of her family's marriages going back several hundred years. That sort of thing astonishes me. Because our records were destroyed.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you wouldn't necessarily take the luxury of an old homeland at the same moral cost.
Raphael: Well -- probably not. You're right. If that was the choice offered to me, I probably wouldn't. But I can still be nostalgic about it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think your parents could have gone through the same transformation you've had, or do you think your process was a matter of shedding inherited ideas?
Raphael: There is a chasm that can't be filled, but you can reach across it. Everything was so much more immediate for my parents, I don't know if they could have come to the same place. For me it was handed down.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you use the word forgiveness?
Raphael: Never. No. I only use the word reconciliation. And even that is going too far for some people in the Jewish community.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Eva Mozes Kor, who survived genetic experiments by Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz, does use the word. She says she forgave Mengele.
Raphael: Right, and I cannot criticize her. It's her experience, and she has the right to do with it what she wishes. Conversely, I would never tell a survivor, "You must speak about what happened to you." I can't prescribe anything to survivors, or to children of survivors. I can only describe my own journey, which was a real surprise to me.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Raphael, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Spiegel Online Staff
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2010
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH