Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2021

Going Back: 16 Jewish women tell their life stories, and why they returned to Germany—the country that once wanted to kill them, by Andrea von Treuenfeld, translated by Cathryn Siegal-Bergman

Today, January 27th, is International Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust during World War II. It commemorates the genocide that resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews and 11 million others, by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

So today I share with you some of the extraordinary stories in Going Back: 16 Jewish women tell their life stories, and why they returned to Germany—the country that once wanted to kill them. 

It says in the Talmud that none are poor save him that lacks knowledge. May the reader be deeply enriched by this book! (Cathryn Siegal-Bergman, translator)

This is the blurb:

16 women, 16 different stories of lives turned upside down during the war. Fleeing the life-threatening policies of Nazi-era Germany, they escaped with the hope of a better life, relocating to countries around the world. A very different kind of diary, the book tells of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust with each chapter telling the story of a different woman, adapting to life as a refugee, and then an eventual return to Germany after the war.

I can’t begin to imagine the courage it would take for a Holocaust survivor to return to Germany.  The women survivors who contributed to this book had made new lives for themselves in Israel, America, the UK, France, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, some of them remaking their lives over and over again in different places, and yet for various reasons they chose to return to the country of their birth.

A common theme in these stories is the issue of identify:

Do I feel German? The country didn’t want me. I’m more American than German. The decision to come back to Germany was mostly because of my parents. I’m the sole survivor of Wiesbaden today. And I’ll never stop asking, “Why did you do that to us?” (Anita Fried).  (p. 49)

The other common thread is that non-Jews were well aware of what was happening:

Naturally my friend knew that her mother and her older sister had been taken to a concentration camp. Yes, people knew. Everyone saw that we were being picked up. The cars would pull up out front and people were loaded into them. It’s nonsense that no one knew anything! (Ruth Schlesinger, p. 129)

Family is the most common reason for returning to Germany.  Young women who’d survived wanted to ‘live a little’ after the way, and joined the millions of displaced people in finding new lives away from bad memories.  But when for various reasons they went away alone, eventually the needs of surviving parents or other relatives who had not perished brought them back again.  And Israel which made them welcome when they were young and healthy, seems not to have been ideal in later years.

I love that country. Even today. If I had family in Israel, or if I had money or was healthy, then I would be there. But over there I could never pay for something like a Jewish old-age home, like the one I live in here. But if you had asked me then, or even today, where my home is, I would not be able to answer. My childhood and youth were spent here, as a young woman I was there and had my most wonderful years there, and then I was here again. So where is my home? I have no home. Okay fine, I’m at an age now where I’ll say here, of course. But I yearn for Israel and I would say I’m Israeli.  (Ruth Schlesinger, pp. 132-133).

For Ruth Schlesinger, the return to Germany was also influenced by fears for her son and compulsory military service in Israel.

Ruth Galinski went back and stayed almost by accident.  She had been deported to the Warsaw Ghetto but escaped to work with the partisans in the Tatras.  Her husband, however, and many members of her family perished.  She only returned to Berlin postwar to get a visa to join her father who had managed to escape to Argentina.  But she met and fell in love with a survivor of the notorious Dora slave labour camp, Heinz Galinski, and they decided to stay to rebuild a Jewish community in Berlin.   It is nauseating to read that when he was president of the Central Council of Jews, from 1954–63 and 1988, this couple had to have bodyguards and bullet-proof windows in their apartment, and that his grave was vandalised after his death in 1998.

“Did the Germans feel guilty about what they did to us? I don’t believe they ever had much of a conscience. The Germans didn’t like Jews, not even after the war. Years ago, they found that 15 percent admitted being anti-Semitic. Today it’s much more. But no one talks about it. Sometimes I ask myself, why did we stay?  ” (Ruth Galinski, p. 50)

There is an illuminating interview with the author (who is not Jewish) here.  She explains that she had already written a book about Jewish women who had fled to Palestine, and that it seemed logical to explore the fates of those who went back to Germany.

Author: Andrea von Treuenfeld
Title: Going Back: 16 Jewish women tell their life stories, and why they returned to Germany—the country that once wanted to kill them
Translated by Cathryn Siegal-Bergman
Publisher: Clevo Books, Kindle Edition, 2018, first published 2015
ASIN: B07QY1FR1Q
Purchased for the Kindle after seeing an advert in the sidebar of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative blog. 


Responses

  1. I didn’t realise that today was the holocaust memorial day. I have a very difficult time reading books about the holocaust now I am older. I have thought about it and read books so much in the past but for the life of me I will never comprehend or understand how people can treat others like that. Just so horrifically sad. This sounds an interesting, reflective book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it is hard. But I try to observe it every year because, as one of the women in this book says, anti-Semitism is rising again.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes it is, sadly.

        Liked by 1 person

        • We need better leaders, who will speak up when it’s needed.
          A little while ago I watched the memorial service for the French teacher who was gunned down by terrorists in Paris, and Macron was superb, laying out the values of the modern French Republic and standing firmly behind them.

          Liked by 2 people

      • So true.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Lisa for reviewing this book. I often wonder whether you have any idea how important your work is: mainstream print media are only able to skim the surface with a mere handful of reviews and subscriptions to lit journals are beyond the budgets of many. I don’t read everything you send to my Inbox but the richness of the table is set out for me and I appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Tasmanian Bibliophile @Large.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This feels like an important book and one that takes a different view, by looking at lives that have come full circle and as somehow coped with the return. It must be an equally difficult part of the healing process, courageous even if for practical reasons. Leadership must continue to remind their populations of its values, especially tolerance and equality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I couldn’t have said it better myself, thank you Claire.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have elderly Jewish friends (they’re in their 90s) who would never return to Germany, understandably, but they would love this book, I must suggest it to them. They have the most amazing stories and I feel lucky to have known them and heard their recollections. They still live at home, she is 92 and he is 94 – and she’s still a keen reader! It’ll be good to hear her thoughts about this book, thanks Lisa!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. I can’t imagine what it would be like to return under those circumstances – which is why a book like this is so important really. It terrifies me how we still have antisemitism in this day and age – we truly don’t seem to be able to learn as a species.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Living in a multicultural country like Australia, where we rub along together pretty well most of the time, I used to think that change was possible. But now I am not so confident about that.
      We *must* keep trying.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Like you, I have spent a lifetime reading books to try and understand man’s inhumanity to man…and I am still none the wiser. Except that our better angels do exist (to borrow an oft used phrase) and that is what matters in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is true, Brona. I’m currently reading a novel about the Rwandan genocide, and though the slaughter was terrible, there were some better angels there too.
      Just not enough.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. My mother-in-law visited Austria (where she was born – her family escaped to the UK) and Germany many times as an adult. When she was there, she’d speak only Austrian German when in Germany, and only German German when she was in Austria. Why? Because she never wanted people to identify her as being one of them! Interesting, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do you know why she wanted to return so often, Davida?

      Liked by 2 people

      • She didn’t go back often, once or twice for conferences, but she and her husband loved traveling – mostly camping and hiking. Lots of lovely places to see in that area. But they really preferred Greece, and went there many more times than Germany or Austria.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I hope those activities brought some peace of mind. None of us can ever really know the depths of anguish spread by the Holocaust far and wide, from one generation to the other.

          Liked by 2 people

  9. Wow that is interesting Davida (as someone who learnt German for many years!)

    It’s interesting that my Jewish friends always thought of themselves as German (and Austrian – he is Austrian) first, and Jewish second. They’ve told me the treatment of them by their fellow countrymen was something they’ve never been able to get over as they were so proudly German & Austrian first. They’ve never recovered from the trauma of those times & have been too fearful to ever return to those countries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So many of the stories in this book mention that the men thought they’d be safe because they’d fought for Germany in WW1.
      It is still incomprehensible to me…

      Like

  10. Worrying to see anti-Semitism featuring in the messages of the resurgent far-right groups in the USA. Tolerance and equality are in limited supply there – and elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Extremely worrying.
      There was a most unpleasant occurrence of it right here in my suburb, an altercation between some Muslim boys and a lone Jewish schoolboy, and I am pleased to say that there was outrage from the community, so much so that Minister for Education held a widely televised press conference deploring it and the state government introduced compulsory education about the Holocaust at Years 9 & 10, There are now calls for this program to be implemented nation-wide.
      Which is, I believe, in stark contrast to the response of political leaders in the US.

      Liked by 1 person


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