Below is an edited version of my recent dissertation for a Master of Arts degree. I hope you will find it a good read. Its about the experiences of everyday people in wartime Germany and German occupied territory, as found in Arno Surminski’s novels, which, as far as I know, have not yet been translated into English.
(I have shortened the article by leaving out the literature review).
Also I have included translations of all quotes in German. Sorry about the formatting. It didn’t transfer across quite as well as I would have liked.
An Analysis of “Heimat”, Suffering and Guilt Themes in Surminski’s later Novels.
The stream of commentary on the suffering of nations and individuals throughout Europe as a result of policies pursued by the National Socialist regime in Germany in the 1930s and 40s has been as persistent as it has been understandable. The raw trauma and the shock of the crimes of the Third Reich has abated somewhat over the intervening decades, with the passing on of many of those directly affected, but it continues to haunt popular culture. Moral issues associated with human suffering and guilt which arose in this period inspire ongoing political and literary responses. Despite this, with the notable exception of the work of Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll, relevant literature readily available in the English speaking world has given barely a passing nod to German perspectives. Bienek warns about this:
Wenn wir anfangen werden zu schweigen,
werden andere über uns sagen
was zu sagen ist.
If we stay silent, others will say what there is to say about us.
– Horst Bienek (Helbig 1988, p. 27).
It is generally agreed that the suffering incurred in the name of the German people during the Third Reich was unimaginable, the crimes unspeakable, the transgression of previously sacred moral norms inexcusable, and the damage done to the fabric of European culture irrevocable. Because of the magnitude of these crimes and events, it is important that German voices be heard in response. It is regretable that this has not always happened. Others have spoken for them, giving weight to Bienek’s words above: „If we stay silent, others will say about us what there is to be said“.
The voice of Arno Surminski has been one of the notable exceptions to this trend. He speaks with authority and humanity about issues that need to be discussed in the open from a German perspective, both inside and outside Germany. To date, in the English speaking world at least, the narrative on German war crimes etc. has been something of a monologue rather than a conversation. Arno Surminski’s work is one avenue through which it may eventually become more of a dialog.
Analysis of Themes in Surminski’s Later Work
The three themes of Heimat, Suffering, and Guilt of the German people, have been identified as common themes throughout Surminski’s latest three novels, and their development in these novels is analysed below.
Surminski’s earlier work is best known for its effective, sensitive and sympathetic exploration of the concept of Heimat, albeit through the nostalgic lens of childhood memory. Indeed Helbig (1988) comments on his earlier work: “Bei Arno Surminski liegt der Akzent auf die Menschen, die naturverbunden und in ländlichen Verhältnissen in ihrer Heimat lebten . . .“ Surminski’s accent is on individuals who are attached to nature and the land (p. 133). Helbig also describes Surminski’s work as concerning itself with, above all, social connectivity, village life, and “die Perspektive der ‘kleinen Leute’” the perspective of the ‘small’ people (p. 133).
Beyersdorf concurs: “Daß Surminskis Werke idyllische und nostalgische Züge aufweisen, ist unbestritten . . .“ That Surminski’s works are predominantly idyllic and nostalgic, is uncontested . . . (Beyersdorf 1999) (p. 192), although he adds the qualification that Helbig has generalised from too small a sample to judge Surminsk’s work as simply ‘nostalgisch’ (p. 19).
It is clear, according to Beyersdorf (p. 192), that Surminski’s work is not just sentimentality; it contributes to a serious historical, political and social debate surrounding the events following the loss of the former eastern German territories. This is undeniably the case, and shows itself in the changing emphasis of Surminski’s work over the years as it begins to ask awkward, previously taboo questions, in a way similar to Günter Grass’ Im Krebsgang.
Surminski’s earlier preoccupation with Heimat has become more muted in Vaterland ohne Väter but is still clearly present. Although the novel focusses on the war experiences of three simple Wehrmacht soldiers and their families, former Ostpreußen culture is revisited, along with vignettes of daily life of ordinary people in German cities including Münster and Hamburg. Beyersdorf has made the same observation that: “Obwohl das Hauptthema [of Vaterland] sich auf die Schilderung von Soldatenschicksalen im Zweiten Weltkrieg konzentriert, ist das ostpreußische Dorf Podwangen immer noch wichtiger Bestandteil des Romans“ Although the main theme [of Vaterland] concerns itself with the fate of soldiers in the second world war, the East Prussian village of Podwangen is still an important part of the novel. (2007, p. 591).
There is a delightful passage in Vaterland (p. 150) describing the social network that operated in the village of Podwangen when the young village girl, Erika, discusses her betrothal with her future in-laws who have also been life-long acquaintances. Letters the retired village schoolmaster, Bernard Kossak, sends to his former pupils who are serving their country are also poignant indicators of the bonds of Heimat (e.g. Vaterland p. 390), as is the account of Robert Rosen sitting in his village schoolroom behind his future wife (Vaterland p. 302).
However although the nostalgia of home and family is unmistakably present in Vaterland, it is no longer Surmnski’s central concern. He is more interested in exploring the human faces of three Wehrmacht soldiers as a representative micrcosm of the entire German army, as a precursor to asking general questions about its culpability and guilt. Their homes and origins contribute to this examination, but they are not the central theme.
In his next novel however, the nostalgic past is pushed away. Consideration of Heimat is abruptly missing. Vogelwelt von Auschwitz assaults the reader with a very different imperative, and it is not until his latest novel that the Heimat theme is resurrected, albeit only peripherally.
Die Frauen von Palmnicken
Die Frauen von Palmnicken returns to Ostpreußen but much of the nostalgia has now gone from Surminski’s writing. Recounting incidents in ordinary lives of ordinary people leads him back to occasional descriptions of rural idylls, but there are more cultural groups and a wider selection of perspectives crowding the canvas than in his earlier work. The old rural lifestyle has become just one of a number disrupted and ultimately destroyed by the war. Ordinary people have to deal with the overturning of all that is familiar, whether they be German, from farm or city, civilian or uniformed, Jewish or non Jewish.
Loss of honour and heritage is highlighted in the story of the Palmnicken amber factory manager, who is also commander of the local Volksturm and a guardian of old German/Prussian heritage and values. It is both an uplifting tale of courage and principle, but at the same time a sad indictment of what had become of the old chivalry and respect for humanity under the National Socialist regime. The man despairs and commits suicide when he realises he has been tricked and treated with contempt by his superiors: “Nun werden sie die Frauen töten, und niemand wird sie daran hindern” Now they will kill the women, and noone will stop them. (Frauen, p. 226). “Sie werden nun doch aus Palmnicken ein zweites Katyn machen!” They will make a second Katyn out of Palmnicken! (p. 227). Surminski’s indictment of “them” in this anecdote is unequivocal. They (the National Socialists) subverted traditional norms of decency and humanity that previously were synonymous with Heimat.
The rural idyll is no longer allowed to cloak unpleasantness in Frauen. A farming family gathers the hay harvest as the ‘storm’ approaches (Frauen p. 26). Forebodings begin to circulate about what the Russian advance would bring to the farming community of Schippenbeil:
In jenen Tagen hatten die alten Frauen, die Gesichte anzulegen wussten, ihre größte Zeit. Sie sahen Feuerbrünste, ließen es Schwefel regnen und kopflose Pferde durch die Strömung des Flusses schwimmen. Auf einem abgelegenen Hof kam ein Kalb mit drei Köpfen zur Welt. Was hatte das zu bedeuten? (Frauen p.100)
In those days the old women, who knew the stories, had their greatest time. They saw fountains of fire, raining sulphur, and headless horses swimming in the river current. On one farm a three headed calf was born. What did this all mean?
The novel begins in the Lodz ghetto where we are introduced to four Jewish girls who are allowed to travel out of the ghetto daily to work in a clothing factory: Celina, Dorota, Gesa and Sarah. Fragments of their heritage and culture come alive in their conversations before and after they are deported from the ghetto. The girls respond to their predicament by frequent dreams and fantasies of a better time and a kinder life, which they knew in the past, and they cling to as they look to the future:
Meine Großmutter [to whom she was close and has become separated from during the evacuation of the Lodz ghetto] ist bestimmt in Zakopane . . . Sie sagt immer: Im September ist die Luft in den Bergen am gesündesten. Vielleicht schicken Sie [their captors] uns nach Zakopane. My Grandmother is probably in Zakopane. . . She always says: In September the mountain air is healthiest. Perhaps they will send us to Zakopane. (Frauen p. 86).
Her grandmother is not in Zakopane, and almost certainly already dead in Auschwitz. The mountain air in Zakopane was very likely healthy, but these girls would never again experience it. A German mother and child evacuated from the northern outpost of Memel are also given space to share their experiences, as are the local villagers of Palmnicken.
This broadening and use of other cultural perspectives, while not as developed in Vaterland as in Frauen, is also found there. The family life and ‘Heimat’ of Russian civilians in the earlier novel is told mainly through the eyes of the three central characters who are Wehrmacht soldiers, but is sympathetically rendered. There are numerous vignettes mainly of women and children who are forced to billet the soldiers, and in the process come to be seen as something other than Untermenschen. A farmer’s wife scolds the soldiers for playing cards inside her house; another prepares an outdoor sauna for them; and leaders of a village as yet untouched by the war negotiate with the foraging party of soldiers, hoping this will give them a further reprieve. Perhaps the most humane, if pathetic, image is when local people creep back into the ruins of the church in Smolensk with eyes downcast to worship under the eyes of their German conquerors.
Hence Surminski’s appreciation of Heimat has developed from an almost exclusive focus on German society in his earlier works (which is still present in Vaterland) to include in Frauen and Vaterland previously unexamined dimensions of the old world of Europe and the certainites of people’s lives which have forever been lost in the maw of war.
Suffering and Loss
Surminski has recorded the personal tragedies of ordinary people and their families throughout his published works. This is confirmed by Helbig (1998) who writes “. . . [Surminski’s earlier novels] spielen wie die Mehrzahl der Erzählungen Surminskis, in überschaubaren sozialen Zusammenhängen und stellen vorzugsweise die Perspektive der ‘kleinen Leute‘ dar” the majority of Surminski’s stories are about everyday social relationships and present mainly the perspective of the little people. (p. 133). The wider historical perspective is undeniably present, but it is the family and the individual whose experiences have always taken centre stage in his work. This trend has remained unchanged in his latest novels. In reading Surminski’s work, we are not looking down on a landscape of upheaval and suffering, as much as looking out through the eyes of the participants. The reader comes to know them and their suffering and their loss becomes the readers’. At the end of Vaterland this is palpable when not one of the extended family we have followed in its pages remains, except for the daughter Rebeka Rosen, the narrator who although only a young child at the time, finally decides after her retirement to learn more about the father she never knew. Her friend, an archivist, reminds her that her sense of loss is shared by many others: “In Deutschland leben zwei Millionen Menschen, die im Krieg geboren wurden, ihren Vater nie zu Gesicht bekamen. Nach dem Zeugungsakt fuhr er an die Front und starb den Heldentod. Zwei Millionen Fragen“. In Germany there are two million people who were born during the war, never to see their father. After the act of conception he went to the front and died a heroe’s death. Two millionen questions. (Vaterland p. 237).
Rebeka Rosen, the modern day narrator of Vaterland, reflects on the reality of loss and unrealised possibilities of her own parents:
Da fällt mir ein: Vater und Mutter haben nie zusammen Weihnachten gefeiert, auch nicht Ostern oder Pfingsten, nicht einmal ihre Geburtstage. Nur die eigene Hochzeit, damit ich auf die Welt komme.
Then it occurred to me: Father and mother had never celebrated Christmas together, also never Easter or Whitsunday, nor once their birthdays. Only their wedding, through which I came into the world. (Vaterland p. 238)
The individual is Surminski’s chosen vehicle to communicate the story he needs to tell and to generate empathy, but neither is the reader left in doubt of the wider picture and the lasting and pervasive legacy of irretrievable loss. The retired village school teacher Bernhard Kossak buries the school chronicle in his garden to preserve the memories of a string of faithful recorders:
So versanken knappe hundertfünfzig Jahre Podwangen in einer Kuhle. Um sie lebendig werden zu lassen, müßte man Ostpreußen finden, das Dorf, den Schulgarten und schließlich das Loch in der Erde. Aber die Wahrheit ist: Von dem Land in Osten sind nur noch Tilsiter Käse, Königsberger Klopse und Pillkaller Schnaps übriggeblieben. So sank 150 years of Podwangen into a pit. In order to bring them to life again one would have to find East Prussia, the village, the school garden and finally the hole in the ground. But the truth is: From the land in the East now only Tilsiter, Königsberger Klopse and Pillkaller Schnaps remain. (Vaterland p. 420)
The sadness and the yearning behind these lines is Surminski’s acknowledgement of the loss suffered by countless former inhabitants of the eastern territories, for whom nothing tangible of their heritage remains.
An appreciation of the personal loss and grief experienced by ordinary people is unavoidable after reading the stories of the three soldiers and their loved ones in Vaterland. The serial exchange of letters between Walter and Ilse Pusch, alongside the running commentary from Robert Rosen’s diary and the painful sad loneliness of Hans Godewind weave together to create a sense of the common personal loss that pervaded Germany in these times. An extract from a letter from Ilse Pusch to her husband provides just one example:
Es bedrückt mich sehr, das jetzt in der Zeitung so viele Anzeigen stehen. Der Winter in Rußland kostet so manches Leben. Gestern kam eine unbekannte Frau in den Laden, nur um zu sagen, daß ihr Sohn vor Leningrad gefallen sei. Sie weinte bitterlich. It affected me deeply that there were now in the newspaper so many notices. The Russian winter cost so many lives. Yesterday an unknown woman came into the shop only to say that her son had fallen at Leningrad. She cried bitterly. (Vaterland p. 251)
And further in a letter from official archives included in the novel, the crushing realisation that one’s child is gone forever becomes a reality for one of many families:
Sein erster Weihnachtsbrief kam am 3. Januar, der zweite am 6. Januar 1942 bei Dorothea und Joachim Hartung in der Naumberger Straße an. Zugleich brachte die Postbotin auch die Mitteilung eines Kompanieführers Pfeiffer, geschrieben am 25. Dezember . . . Am 6. Januar 1942 stürzten in der Naumberger Straße einige Welten ein. His fiirst Christmas letter arrived at the home of Dorethea and Joachim Hartung in der Naumberger Straße on 3rd January, the second on 6th January. At the same time the postwoman brought an advice from a company commander Pfeiffer, written on 25th December . . . On the 6th January 1942 some worlds collapsed in Naumberger Straße. (Vaterland p. 216)
The memorial notices for fallen brothers, sons and fathers included by Surminski at the end of the novel have a poignancy that underlines the loss and grief that continues into the present.
The most haunting image of comfortless grief is found in Surminski’s anecdote wherein a distraught woman blunders into Robert Rosen’s wedding celebration in Podwangen, having just received notice of her husband’s death. “. . . eine Frau [erschien] an der Tür, das Haar, wirr, das Gesicht tränenverschmiert . . . ‚Du feierst Hochzeit, aber meiner mußte sterben!“ A woman appeared at the door, her hair disarranged, her face smeared with tears . . ., You celebrate a wedding, but mine has to die! (Vaterland p. 340).
Rebeka Rosen, the modern day narrator, has also experienced painful loss: “Ja, ich hatte auch einen Vater. Er ist mir verlorengegangen . . . „ Yes, I also had a father. He is lost to me. (Vaterland p. 12), and “Um Fragen zu stellen, kommt man immer zu spät” It is always too late when you want to ask questions. (p. 13).
The scale of loss suffered by families at the time is emphasised indirectly by Surminski in his account of what turned out to be the last New Years Eve celebration to be held in the Rosen household:
Dorchen band ihr die Augen zu und drückte ihr einen Suppenlöffel mit flüssigem Blei in die Hand. Mutter Bertha ermahnte sie, die Augen ja geschlossen zu halten und angestrengt an etwas Schönes zu denken, an Glück und Geld, Kinder, Gesundheit und langes Leben. Dorchen closed her eyes and pressed a soup spoon with molten lead into her hand. Mother Bertha reminded her to keep her eyes closed and to concentrate on beautiful things, of happiness and money, children, health and a long life. (Vaterland p. 230)
Not one of those present was to have a future containing any of those things. But we find not only German loss and suffering in Vaterland. The destruction of the Russian landscape is recorded with sadness in Robert Rosen’s diary:
Auf den Wiesen wächst gutes Futter. Höchste Zeit zum Mähen, aber es fehlt an Männern. Ich stehe vor einem Gerstenfeld, das von Panzern um und um gewühlt wurde. Zum Heulen. In these fields good fodder grows. High time to harvest, but there are no men. I stand before a barley field, that has been torn up by panzers, and cry. (Vaterland p. 69).
Eine Kirche liegt uns gegenüber, ist aber eine Ruine. Die haben die Russen schon früher zerstört, denn in Russland gibt es keinen Gott. Was wohl aus Menschen wird, die ohne Gott aufwachsen? There is a church opposite us, but it is a ruin. The Russians destroyed it earlier, because in Russia there is no God. What is to become of people who have grown up without God? (Vaterland p. 125).
Presumably his character Robert Rosen is unaware of the irony, but Surminski cannot resist. The godless Russians have destroyed churches, wheras the godless Nazi regime has taken matters a significant step further.
In Vogelwelt, Marek, the Polish prisoner, pines for his lost love Elisa and rages internally over the injustice of his imprisonment. Around him individuals are beaten, shot or hung from the camp gallows on the apparently random whim of the guards. Here it is not Germans who are suffering. It is Poles, Russian prisoners of war, and groups trapped in Auschwitz concentration camp or later exterminated in neighbouring Birkenau. The Germans in the story, by contrast, do not appear to be suffering at all. Grote, Marek’s supervisor and scientific research leader, has comparative freedom of movement, and power of life and death over Marek, but his most pressing concerns seem to be whether he will be able to be home with his family for the birth of their third child. In a letter to his wife he appears quite content and unaffected by his surroundings, even though a little uneasiness at what he finds himself involved in shows through: “Ich bin froh, dass ich bei der schweren Arbeit, die hier zu verrichten ist, nicht selbst mit Hand anlegen muss. Noch immer beschäftige ich mich mit der Vogelwelt” I am happy that I don’t need to get my hands dirty with the difficult work that is being done here. I busy myself with the bird world. (Vogelwelt p. 115). He cannot bring himself to refer directly to what actually happens at the camp, but rather limits himself to a euphemism – ‘die schwere Arbeit’. ‘The difficult work’.
Curiously, the suffering of the camp inmates is kept mostly in the background by Surminski. The reader is told of atrocities in general terms but does not read of the experiences of the individuals affected. It is as if Surminski does not allow himself to come face to face with the people murdered here. He does not allow them to be human beings as he has done with individuals in other works, even in Vaterland. With the exception of a couple of short anecdotes about individuals executed on the gallows, Surminski writes of victims as groups rather than individuals. He is interested almost exclusively in the interplay between Marek and Grote, and uses this quite successfully to explore the conflict between conscience and duty, but not so much in the suffering of the camp inmates.
On the other hand suffering and loss is a prominent if not all consuming theme in Die Frauen von Palmnicken. While the sufferings of Germans featured strongly in Vaterland, and suffering tended to be kept in the background in Vogelwelt, Surminski embraces and highlights at length the commonality of suffering across national groups, friends and enemies.
Frau Gedeitis and her daughter, evacuated from Memel ahead of the Russian army, find shelter in an abandoned miner’s cottage in Palmnicken. Another mother is reluctant to leave her farm, even though all those around her are fleeing from the Russians. She consoles herself with the hope that “Wer wird schon eine Mutter mit vier Kindern umbringen?“ Who would kill a mother with four children? (Frauen p. 145) and argues with those wanting her to leave, “Wir können unsere Tiere nicht im Stich lassen“ We can’t leave our animals in the lurch. (Frauen p. 101). Her Polish prisoner farm worker (Czeslaw) has no such reluctance. He runs away one night as the family sleeps, only to be caught and hanged as a deterrent to others. Iwan (previously ‘Fritzi’) was left as an orphan as the Russians arrived in Palmnicken and he had grown up to lose his language and identity.
Above all, however, Surminski tells the story of the four Jewish girls from the ghetto, two of whom are ultimately forced to undertake a ‘death march’ away from the Front line. One is executed in an Auschwitz gas chamber because she cannot run 100 metres quickly enough, another is raped casually in a barn by one of her guards after a vain effort to escape, a third shot needlessly by a panicked guard in the Lübecker Bucht, just as salvation was at hand. Only one eventually survives, after being repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers and forced (along with the German women of Palmnicken) to unearth with their bare hands the corpses of the Jewish prisoners who were massacred (Frauen p. 306). After that she spends time in a Russian Gulag, as she is initially assumed to be a German.
Surminski begins his tale of these four Jewish girls by emphasising their innocence amidst events which were about to devour them:
Die vier Mädchen, die jeden Morgen das Ghetto verlasen durften, um mit der Straßenbahn nach Polesie in die Textilfabrik zu fahren, nannten sie das Glückskleeblatt. The four girls, who were allowed to leave the ghetto every morning to travel by tram to the textile factory in Polesie, were called the four leaf clovers.(p. 33).
Sarah wünschte sich Kinder, Dorota einen Bauenhof mit vielen Tieren, Gesa Träumte davon, als Tänzerin über die Bühnen der Welt zu schweben, Celina wollte studieren, . . . Sarah wanted children, Dorota a farm with lots of animals, Gesa dreamed of dancing on the stages of the world, Celina wanted to study . . . (p. 35).
These girls were innocents abroad. They dreamed the dreams of young carefree women of the time and knew nothing of cruelty and evil done in the name of ideology. Even when, on the way home from work at the factory, they are forced off the street and into a truck full of their neighbours and fellow ghetto residents, they console themselves, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that all will be well: “Sie brauchen uns. Wir sollen für sie arbeiten,” They need us to work for them. (p. 46). They will realise soon enough that they are no longer worth anything to their tormentors, apart from as working drones. They have certainly lost their value as human beings.
The girls could not help but know in their hearts what lay in store for them, but this does not mean they did not fight against their fate with all the strategies a twenty year old could muster. Chief among these was to dream and to imagine another, kinder, world in the face of a daily reality that denied the possibility of such a world:
Gesa wollte nicht im Tode schön sein, sondern heute mit ihren zwanzig Jahren. Schön sein für eine Schiffsreise nach Kopenhagen, für den blonden Matrosen, in den sie sich verlieben, und für die Bühnen, auf der sie tanzen wollte. Gesa didn’t want to be beautiful in death, but rather to be twenty years old. A ship’s journey to Copenhagen would be lovely, the blond sailors who would fall in love with her, and the stages that she wanted to dance on. (p. 88).
Nowhere is this internal battle in the girls clearer than in the following exchange:
“Tivoli, Wir kommen, flüsterte Gesa. . . . Wir wollen nicht träumen, sondern überleben, schimpfte Celina. . . . Ohne Träumen kann man nicht überleben, antwortete Gesa.” We’re coming Tivoli, whispered Gesa. . . . We don’t want to dream but to survive, complained Celina. . . .We can’t survive without dreams, answered Gesa. (p. 89).
In tracing the change in emphasis on suffering in these three novels, and whose suffering is being acknowledged, a trend can be identified. From a predominant focus on German suffering in Vaterland, Surminski moved to a position in Vogelwelt where the treatment of suffering of any kind is subsidiary to other concerns, on finally in Frauen to a position where suffering is recounted extensively. Indeed the suffering of the Jewish women is presented at the forefront in Frauen. It is possible to speculate that Surminski’s writing of Vogelwelt was a significant step along his journey of making sense of all that happened to his lost Ostpreußen. After confronting directly and unapologetically some of the ethical issues inherent in the Holocaust in the writing of Vogelwelt it is likely he changed his appreciation of the injustice of unacknowledged German suffering to include empathy for the suffering of other groups. In his latest novel, suffering has taken on a commonality. It has been acknowledged as a human characteristic that can lead to mutual forgiveness, bind people together, and heal divisions. If so it would be an important step in his stated quest to encourage people to forgive past wrongs and to live in peace and harmony alongside each other.
Surminski approaches the question of guilt in a way that is mostly deeply personal and individualistic. This is consistent with a belief that it is individuals who feel guilt and individuals who need to deal with it. It would seem that Surminski would maintain that in dealing with and acknowledging individual guilt, concerning ourselves with collective guilt is unhelpful, leading nowhere. While this is a potential strength of his work (i.e. concentrating on individuals and their circumstances which engage the reader’s sympathy), Surminski leaves himself open to accusations that he is downplaying the responsibility individuals carry for their choices and actions. Beyersdorf (2007) observes that: ”[In Vaterland] scheinen persönliche Schuld und Unschuld, zum Teil jedenfalls, von Zufall und Schicksal abzuhängen“ It appears [in Vaterland] that individual guilt and innocence depend, at least partly anyway, on fate and circumstance. (P. 596). It is unclear whether this is Surminski’s message as his intention appears overall to be for the reader to think more deeply about the issue of guilt than stereotypes of evil, blindly obedient German soldiers might suggest. He is not seeking to absolve these three soldiers of guilt. He humanises them in order to encourage the reader to ask crucial questions about the nature of guilt in this context. Beyersdorf’s is however, a valid observation and a caution against allowing oneself to be swayed too much by appeals to sympathy.
The sensitive and empathetic Robert Rosen sees the destruction of the farmland and crops and is painfully aware of the cruel waste (e.g. p. 93) but his responses to the death and suffering of people seem offhand by contrast. When he sees a pile of rotting corpses his main concern is the stink (Vaterland p. 70). His exposure to Nazi propaganda would have encouraged him to see certain groups of people as objects rather than human beings but even so, the vestiges of Christian morality remain in him: “Habe heute den ersten Menschen erschossen. Mußte an das 5. Gebot denken, aber das gilt im Krieg wohl nicht.“ Shot my first person today. Must think about the 5th commandment, but that isn’t valid in war. (Vaterland p. 116). Earlier, he could not bring himself to shoot a prisoner and allowed him to escape from his custody (Vaterland p. 91). It is likely that a certain desensitizing would have taken place as his infantry experience proceeded, but this appears to have applied to people and their suffering rather than generic destruction of crops and animals, which continued to disturb him deeply.
On P. 235 of Vaterland there is an anecdote showing Walter Pusch and his comrades responding to the sight of a woman hanged on a tree branch:
Gestern kamen wir durch ein Dorf, in dem Landser eine Frau an einen Baum gehängt hatten. Sie soll gegen die Deutschen gehetzt haben. Mit solchen Subjekten wird nicht viel Federlesens gemacht. Männer sieht man ja öfter an Bäumen hängen, aber num zum ersten Mal eine Frau: das ist doch ein komisches Gefühl, aber schließlich lacht man darüber. Yesterday we came through a village where soldiers had hanged a woman on a tree. Apparently she had spoken out against the Germans. We don’t spend too much time worrying about such things. It’s common to see men hanging on a tree but for the first time a woman: that is a strange feeling, but we ended up laughing it off.
Exposure to so much death has made them relatively unresponsive but they still feel ‘strange’. Robert Rosen does not mention the incident in his diary and his daughter wonders: “Hat er diese Vorfälle nicht wahrgenommen oder schämte er sich, damit das Papier zu beschmutzen?” had he not noticed these things, or was he too ashamed to put them on paper? (Vaterland p. 236). The question must stand unanswered, except for a clue here and there as to Robert Rosen’s sensibilities and coping mechanisms. Rebeka Rosen responds to a mention in her father’s diary about the Tarnapol massacre in which Russian Jews were slaughtered first by the Red army and then by incoming German units: “Warum schrieb er ‘schlafen gehen’ wenn doch Töten gemeint war? War es auch dir, lieber Vater, selbverständlich, daß Juden schlafen gehen müssen?“ Why did he write „going to sleep“ if death was meant? Was it also you, dear father, selfevidently, who needed to make Jews go to sleep? (Vaterland p. 81).
In the case of Walter Pusch at least, National Socialist propaganda allows him to avoid empathy with Untermenschen, but for the other two also there is evidence of a creeping decay in the scruples of the three comrades as their time in Russia goes on. An extract from Walter Pusch’s diary is illustrative of his unreflective acceptance of racial stereotypes:
Während ich schreibe, kommt ein Trupp Gefangener vorbei. Vor diesen Typen kannst Du das Grausen bekommen, so scheußlich sehen sie aus. Viele Gefangene werden nicht gemacht, das frühere Litauen ist stark verjudet, da gibt es kein Pardon . . . .
As I write, a group of prisoners is passing. These types give you the creeps, they look so dreadful. Many prisoners were not taken, Lithuania has almost been cleared of Jews, because there is no excuse . . .
Rebeka Rosen asks herself:
Wer hat ihnen beigebracht so zu denken? . . . Ein fröhlicher Kolonialwarenhändler, der immer etwas verkaufen wollte. Kein Mensch würde ihm einen solchen Satz zutrauen. Who taught him to think this way? A happy hardware store owner, who always was trying to sell something. No one would think he could utter such a sentence. (Vaterland p. 65)
The unimaginably large number of Russian prisoners encouraged a protective callousness to grow in any German soldiers who may have been inclined to feel compassion for individuals:
Die große Zahl zerstörte alles und verschüttete jede Menschlichkeit. Um zehn kannst du dich kümmern, aber wenn es hunderttausende sind, wendest du dich ab. [. . .] Einige mit lahmen Füßen bleiben zurück, andere fallen um vor Erschöpfung oder sind durch nichts zu bewegen, aus dem Schlaf aufzuwachsen. Was geschieht mit ihnen? Kommt eine Rote-Kreuz-Auto und fährt sie in ein Lazarett mit weißen Betten? Für solchen Luxus hat der Krieg keine Zeit. The huge number destroys everything and shakes every notion of humanity. You can care about ten, but if there are hundreds of thousands, you turn away . . . Some with lame feet stay back, others fall from exhaustion or can not be moved or woken from sleep. What happens to them? Does the Red Cross van come to take them to a hospital with white beds? War has no time for such luxuries. (Vaterland p. 106).
It is not long before it becomes acceptable for the three comrades and those around them to speak openly of shooting prisoners (Vaterland p. 147). The possibility of Jews being executed summarily now simply raises only a matter-of-fact passing thought: “. . . die Slowaken [erschießen] wieder Juden, die fackeln nicht lange.” The Slovakians are shooting Jews again. They don’t muck about. (Vaterland p 152). The moral absolutes have now lost their clear definition for the comrades as a report of the necessity of shooting a group of captives en masse, the innocent as well as the guilty, is accompanied by the rhetorical question: How is one to tell which were which?: “Einige der Erschossenen, waren bestimmt unschuldig, aber wie soll man die auf die Schnelle herausfinden?” Some of those shot were certainly innocent, but how is one to tell which is which in a hurry? (Vaterland p. 171). Earlier, they had ignored a directive not to feed local children who were Jewish. After all, how was one to know who was Jewish? (p. 153). Much had happened in a short time to change attitudes. The slide into barbarism began gradually but gathered momentum along with the imperatives of war. They were not totally unaware of what the war is doing to them: “Der Krieg dauert und dauert, und wir verkommen zu einer Räuberbande.” The war drags on and on and we are beginning to resemble a robber band. (Vaterland p. 184).
It is the quiet, self contained and reflective Godewind who realises the human and spiritual implications of events more keenly than the other two. His comments on witnessing a German news film crew trying to record staged images of smiling and waving Russian prisoners betray an inner torture that is not as apparent in the other two, most of all Pusch:
’Das sind die Übriggebliebenen’, sagte Godewind im Vorbeimarschieren. Die anderen liegen unter der Erde und können nicht mehr in die Kamera winken‘. Am Abend stellte Godewind fest, die ganze Menschheit bestehe aus Übriggebliebenen, aber die Nichtübriggebliebenen hätten die Mehrheit. Das verstand keiner. They are the remainder, said Godewind as we marched by. The others lie under the ground and can’t wave at the camera any more. That evening Godewind realised that the whole of humanity consisted of those who remained, but those who had not survived were the majority. No one unstood that. (Vaterland p. 107)
And a later conversation segment, during another Christmas in Russia, shows he is not afraid to say what he is thinking: “’Unser Weihnachtsmann heißt Iwan,‘ brummte Godewind. „Wenn der kommt, gibt es Schläge, und dann steckt er uns in den Sack“. Our Father Christmas is called Ivan, growled Godewind. If he comes, there will be blows, and then he will put us in his sack. (Vaterland p. 219). At least Godewind seems to acknowledge and face up to reality more honestly than his comrades. Whether this assists his accommodation of guilt feelings is however questionable.
With personal guilt his focus, collective guilt is touched in passing by Surminski. In response to allied bombing of German cities we read of guilt being assigned collectively:
Der Bischof sagte, es sei großes Unrecht, kranke und behinderte Menschen zu töten; er will gegen die, die so etwas tun, Strafanzeige erstatten. Neben mir saß eine alte Frau auf der Kirchenbank. Das ist die Strafe Gottes, sagte sie. Weil sie die Kranken getötet haben, fällt das Feuer von Himmel. The Bishop says, it is a great injustice to kill sick and disabled people; he wants to report those who do it. Beside me sat an old woman on the Church pew. This is God’s punishment she said. Because they have killed the sick, fire is falling from heaven. (Vaterland p. 74)
Rebeka Rosen makes a similar assignment:
Drei Millionen Soldaten zogen mit dieser Selbverständlichkeit im Kopf nach Rußland. Sie glaubten, ein Feldzug gegen das Ungeziefer zu führen, gegen das Minderwertige, das nicht Lebenswerte. . . . Three million soldiers went to Russia with this self evident truth in their heads. They believed they were mounting a campaign against vermin, not deserving of life . . .
Aber es berührt mich tief. Wie sie die Menschen einteilen, wie sie unterschieden, auf und abwerteten. Wer hat dieser Wertskala in die Welt gesetzt? Damit wird noch keiner geboren. But it affected me deeply. How these human beings were classified. Who established this scale of worth? No one was born with such a thing. (Vaterland p. 154)
Evidence that feelings of guilt also transcend the generations is found in a number of places in Surminski’s works.
Rebeka Rosen’s hesitation to discuss her quest with her son indicates that she too carries feelings of residual guilt for the actions of her father’s generation. Shame arises from that guilt:
Ich schäme mich, mit meinem Sohn darüber zu sprechen. Es sieht so aus, als wollte ich die feldgrauen Uniformen reinwaschen. Aber ich will nur, daß uns die armen Kerle, die für diesen Hitler in den Krieg zogen, ein wenig Leid tun. I am ashamed to speak with my son about such things. It appears as if I want to sanitise the field grey uniform. But I only want to show a little pity to these poor fellows who went to war for this Hitler.(Vaterland p. 258)
Further intergenerational differences in attitudes towards the war are made clear in Rebeka’s agonised ruminations over her inability to communicate honestly with her son about her interest in her father’s war service:
’Schnee von gestern Mutter,’ wird er sagen . . . ich möchte so gerne, daß er mich versteht und erfährt, warum ich mich um seinen Großvater kümmere. Ich weiß, wie er denkt. Die die feldgrauen Uniformen trugen, waren alle Verbrecher. Das haben ihm die antifaschistischen Lehrer auf dem Gymnasium beigebracht, und sie ließen keine Ausnahme zu, weder für Vater, Großvater, Söhne oder Brüder. Water under the bridge Mother, he would say . . . I want so much for him to understand me and to learn why I concern myself with his grandfather. I know what he thinks. Those who wore the field grey uniform were all criminals. The antifascist teachers at his high school will have taught him that, and they allow no exceptions, neither for father, grandfather, sons or brothers. (Vaterland p. 258)
The children of the war generation are anxious to believe that their parents were human, not monsters, and will grasp at any reassuring scrap of evidence: “Wer Mundharmonika spielt, kann nicht böse sein.” Anyone who plays a mouth harmonica can not be evil (Vaterland p. 54) – said with perhaps a tremble in the voice?
Rebeka Rosen is engaged in a lengthy process of reflection about her father “den ich nie gehabt habe” who I never had (Vaterland p. 12) But this involves inevitable questions of morality and guilt. How could one’s father possibly be a monster? How can one’s father exemplify an ethical position that challenges one’s view of oneself? She reassures herself after reading some of her father’s diary accounts: “Mein Vater ein Mundharmonikaspieler . . . Ein Soldat mit Mundharmonika, das macht ihn sympathisch.“ My father a mouth harmonica player . . . A soldier with a mouth harmonica, I like that (Vaterland p. 54). Of his account of the Tarnopol massacre she writes: „Und mein Vater ist dabeigewesen, nicht als Täter, sondern als Zuschauer. Er hat geweint, ein Soldat in feldgrauer Uniform steht vor dreihundert nackten Leichen und weint” And my father was there, not as perpetrator, but as onlooker. He cried. A soldier in field grey uniform stands before three hundred corpses and cries. (Vaterland p. 80). But the troubling doubts remain at the back of her mind as she wonders whether it would be better to throw all the old records into the waste bin and forget about her project: “Zum ersten Mal kommt mir der Gedanke, alle Papiere in die Kiste zu werfen und aufzuhören, ihm nachzuspüren. Ich möchte keine Texte finden, die mir weh tun.” For the first time a thought came to me to throw all the papers into the rubbish bin and to stop seeking after him. I didn’t want to find anything that would hurt me. (p. 82). Certainly her friend, the archivist, is in two minds whether to encourage her in her quest to discover her father’s history: “Wegener fürchtet schlimme Dinge, die noch kommen werden. Das will er mir ersparen, ich soll meinen Vater in guter Erinnerung behalten.“ Wegener is afraid that unpleasant things will surface. He wants to spare me that, so I can keep the memory of my father untarnished. (Vaterland p. 183). But as Surminski so clearly illustrates, guilt is not so easily avoided or assuaged.
In Vogelwelt Surminski writes about a closed environment, Auschwitz concentration camp and its surrounds, in which the world seems to have been turned on its head. In the normal world criminals are incarcerated and punished, but here the inmates could be forgiven for wondering at the circumstances that brought them to where there are.
Die alte Gewohnheit, Menschen in Gewahrsam zu nehmen oder gar zu töten, wenn sie Böses getan hatten und zu besorgen war, dass sie es weiter tun würden, reichte der neuen Zeit nicht. In jenem Krieg, der in Europa wütete, verfielen sie darauf, Menschen in Verwahrung zu nehmen, nur weil sie einem bestimten Volk, einer Klasse, einer Rasse angehörten. Oft genügte es, denken zu können. The old habit of seeking retribution for evil deeds is no longer appropriate. In that war that raged in Europe, retribution was taken on people who simply belonged to a certain race or class. Often it was enough just to think that. (Vogelwelt p. 9)
In camp society the grotesque is viewed as normal and civilized. The commanding officer, responsible for daily acts of barbarism, prides himself on his cultural sensitivities and patronage of science:
Der Kommandant erschien persönlich und erklärte, ein Freund der Wissenschaften zu sein. . . . in der Anatomie würden auf seinem Befehl hin die Schädel verstorbener Häftlinger vermessen und seziert, um das Hirngewicht zu registieren. Die Medizinische Abteilung erforsche die Wirkung bestimmter Substanzen auf der menschlichen Körper. The commandant seemed personable and explained that he was a friend of science . . . at his cammand the size of skulls and the brains of dead prisoners were measured and recorded. The medical department researched the effect of certain substances on the human body. (Vogelwelt p. 14).
How then does any person forced to live in this environment, inmate or guard, reconcile what they do and experience with the moral value system with which they were raised?
There are signs that Grote, the guard with a scientific education who is permitted at the indulgence of the Kommandant to undertake a study of the birds in the area, struggles with his conscience and employs strategies to avoid confronting what is going on around him. Firstly he trusts the state to operate morally despite glaring evidence to the contrary. The leadership and the government know best. It is not his place to question them. He refuses to believe that Marek, his assistant, is an innocent victim of the camp system. His faith in the system is clear in the statement he makes to Marek:
Warum bist du hier? . . . Wer nichts verbrochen hat, wird nicht eingesperrt, stellte Grote nüchtern fest. Why are you here? . . . No one who has done nothing wrong is imprisoned. (Vogelwelt p. 40).
Secondly he shows a need to control what he sees and the things he acknowledges, so that he is not obliged to admit the nature of what is really happening, as obvious in the following two examples:
Bei uns wird niemand erschossen, der es nicht verdient hat, erklärte Grote. We don’t shoot anyone who has not deserved it, explained Grote. (Vogelwelt p. 67)
“Er nimmt nicht wahr, was hier vorgeht, dachte Marek. . . . Wie kann er so leben? Will er es nicht sehen? . . . Nicht einmal sprechen darf er mit dir darüber, weil es ihn gefährden würde.” He doesn’t realise what is going on here, thought Marek. Doesn’t he want to see it? . . . Not once does he speak with me about it, because he would feel threatened. (Vogelwelt p. 112).
In another instance Grote und Marek are present when a load of Jewish deportees arrives to be sent into the extermination camp at Birkenau. Grote notices only the coloured bird sitting on the roof of one of the rail wagons: “Du musst ihn zeichnen!” You must draw it! he says excitedly to Marek (Vogelwelt p. 158). Grote is so successful at his selective perception and acknowledgements that Marek despairs: “Grote blickte durchs Fernglas und sweigt. Warum sagte diese Mensch nicht ein einziges Mal: Es tut mir Leid?“ Grote looked through the telescope and remained silent. Why didn’t he even once say: I am sorry? (Vogelwelt p. 161).
It is clear however, that Grote is actually all too aware of what is happening and that it troubles him. In a letter to his wife he writes:
Ich bin nur froh, dass ich bei der schweren Arbeit, die hier zu verrichten ist, nicht selbst mit Hand anlegen muss. Noch immer beschäftige ich mich mit der Vogelwelt. I am relieved that I don’t need to get my hands dirty with the difficult work that is done here. I busy myself with the bird world. (Vogelwelt p. 115).
Although Surminski does not allow us to see directly into Grote’s conscience, he shows us that it is clearly a troubled one. It is also a convoluted and confused conscience. Where is his sense of morality? Why does he submerge his concerns using strategies he must know are dishonest? Unlike the fortunate Grote, many of those who actually had to perform the executions and the associated tasks did not find it as easy to rationalise guilt away. As Marek reflects:
Glaube ja nicht, dass es den Soldaten Spaß macht, Marek. Es ist ihnen eine schwerer Pflicht; und am Abend nach einer solchen Aktion betrinken sie sich sinnlos. Viele melden sich lieber zur Front, weil sie den Dienst im Lager nicht ertragen können. Don’t think for a minute that the soldiers enjoy it. It is a demanding duty and in the evenings after such an action they drink themselves senseless. Many would rather volunteer for the front, because they can’t bear service in the camp. (Vogelwelt p. 162).
Surminski records a conversation between Marek and Grote which gives us a clue to the reason:
Kennst du die Zehn Gebote, Herr? Natürlich kannte Grote die Zehn Gebote, jeder Deutsche kannte sie. Was hältst du von dem fünften Gebot, Herr? „Du sollt nicht töten“ gilt nur für die eigenen Leute, Marek. Das Fremde, Abartige, Feindliche genießt den Schutz der großen Worte nicht. Are you aware of the ten commandments sir? Naturally, answered Grote. What do you understand by the fifth commandment, sir? “You should not kill” is valid only for one’s own people, Marek. Foreigners, abnormal people, and enemies don’t enjoy the protection of the Word. (Vogelwelt p. 163).
Grote finds it easier to rationalise rather than face honestly what he is confronted with. Allowing his conscience to dictate his responses would have been dangerous, and would have required a personal price that he was not prepared to pay. Easier then to parrot the party line and pretend that he is not actually a part of what is happening.
Beyersdorf sees a parallel between Grote’s research on Auschwitz’s birdlife on the one hand, and Marek’s simultaneous quiet and surreptitious study of Grote on the other: (Beyersdorf 2009): “I think it can be suggested that just as Hans Grote is observing the bird life of Auschwitz, so Marek is observing the strange and unfamiliar figure of the “rare bird” of a German SS-Sturmbannführer” (P. 210). This is a telling observation. Perhaps it is Surminski’s metaphor for the reader’s exploration of German guilt – a difficult task unless conducted carefully, holding the characters at arm’s length? It is interesting that Surminski employs such a device here, as in Vaterland and Frauen he adopts a very different approach. Whereas individual circumstances and motivations are examined very personally in the latter books, in Vogelwelt they are approached almost dispassionately and certainly held at arm’s length. It is however no wonder Surminski’s characterisation changes in this way for Vogelwelt. Confronting moral issues attending the Holocaust would likely have been a major challenge for him and some objectivisation and distance would have been necessary, but it could be argued that confronting those issues in novella form has allowed his appreciation and representation of German guilt to mature and in turn allowed him to write so lucidly and honestly of the Palmnicken massacre in Frauen.
This is not to say that humanity is entirely absent from Surminski’s Vogelwelt characterisations. Beyersdorf comments on Marek’s decision not to kill his companion and thereby give up any chance of escape:
In my opinion, the turning point of this novella is the decision of Marek not to kill his SS master, a decision which together with Marek‘s slowly growing conviction to “think small,” contributes very much to Marek being able to survive his imprisonment in Auschwitz . (P. 213)
It also, as Beyersdorf infers, indicates that Surminski has attributed a higher morality to Marek. This young man has managed to rise above the barbarism of his surroundings. Why then, Surminski seems to ask, is Grote not able to do the same?
Beyersdorf criticises Surminski for allowing his narrator in Frauen, Max Broders, to adopt a somewhat morally ‘fuzzy’ position on German culpability by talking about the commonality of suffering by all nationalities, and that it is “doubtful whether such a global view ultimately does justice to the deliberate crimes of the Nazis.” (Beyersdorf 2012), (p. 42). Perhaps this is so, but perhaps it is also indicative of Surminski’s predisposition to see the common humanity in people and through this view to explore how past wrongs and the resulting guilt can best be addressed. Perhaps also the task of dealing honestly with the issues in anything other than a ‘fuzzy’ way is just too difficult for him? Beyersdorf acknowledges quite correctly that the novella’s ending does not in any way paper over hard issues, even if it does not offer a clear way of dealing with them: “ . . . this ending nevertheless shows very clearly that Marek Rogalski, and presumably also his wife, want to have nothing more to do with this terrible past, which they are obviously repressing.” (2009) (P. 215).
It is in Die Frauen von Palmnicken that Surminski deals with the notions of collective and intergenerational guilt most confrontingly. The continuing conversation between Max Broders, whose father was an SS guard present in Palmnicken at the time of the massacre, and the mysterious Fremde, an old army comrade of his father, allows Surminski to explore the tension between denial and acceptance of guilt; between relativisation and minimalisation of atrocities on the one hand, and admission and ownership of guilt by following generations on the other. In one conversation with Max (P. 322 – 326 of Frauen) the Fremde equates British bombing attacks on refugee ships with the massacre of Jewish prisoners at Palmnicken, and calls for sympathy for the SS guards involved in the massacre:
Für SS-Männer gibt es keine Psychotherapeuten, sagte er. Die müssen mit ihren Ängsten allein fertig werden und sie mit ins Grab nehmen. Was werden Sie ihren Kindern über die Frauen von Palmnicken erzählen? There is no psychotherapy for SS men, he said. They need to deal with their own fears and take them with them to the grave. What would you tell your children about the Palmnicken women? (Frauen, p. 324).
After this conversation with the Fremde, Max Broders reflects with disgust on the Palmnicken massacre: „Und was machen wir? Wir suchen nach Ausreden . . .” And what do we do? We look for excuses . . . (Frauen, p. 326).
Relativisation is a recurring strategy employed by the Fremde to try to minimise or trivialise the gravity of atrocities. On P. 321 of Frauen he claims (correctly) that massacres were carried out on all sides of the conflict. The underlying assumption is that this somehow reduces German collective guilt. But Broders challenges him: “Aber die Bombardierung vom 3. Mai war ein Versehen, das Massaker an der Samlandküste volle Absicht.“ But the bombing of the 3rd of May was a mistake, the massacre on the Sammland coast was fully intentional. (Frauen p. 322). Earlier, a German drinking companion of Broders attempts to get him to see clearly (i.e. to overlook German culpability): “‘Ich bin ein alte Ostpreuße‘, sagte er, ‚ . . . Glauben Sie mir, bei uns wäre eine Schweinerei wie Auschwitz nicht möglich gewesen.“ I am an old east Prussian, he said . . . Believe me, a pigsty such as Auschwitz would never have been possible with us. (Frauen p. 73). His companion then continues to hypothesise that the Jewish prisoners would have been sunk by the English anyway as they were being evacuated by ship. He asks Broders what his opinion is of what happened to the ‘Gustloff’ – presumably in an attempt to relativise German atrocities. He complains self pityingly: “Wir suchen immer nur Massaker, die die Deutschen angerichtet haben.”. We always only look for massacres thast the Germans committed. (Frauen p. 74). Clearly, Surminski does not avoid or deny the excuses made by Germans themselves in seeking to avoid guilt for what was done in their name. He thinks rather that individual acknowledgement and atonement is the key to addressing collective guilt. This is seen in Broder’s reaction to what is said to him by the sceptical Russian archivist in Kaliningrad:
Warum interiessierst Sie diese Geschichte? Sollte es wirklich ein Massaker gegeben haben, wäre es eine Schande für die Deutschen. Kein Volk wühlt in der eigenen Schande. Why are you interested in this history? If such a massacre happened it would be a shame for the German people. No people wallow in their own shame.
Es geht nicht um die Deutschen oder die Juden, sondern um meinen Vater. It’s not about the Germans or the Jews. It’s about my father. (Frauen p. 56).
The individual guilt of his father was much more important to Broders than the collective guilt of Germans. It was on the individual guilt or innocence of his father that his future peace of mind lay. The repeated assurance of the Fremde haunts him: “Ihr Vater hatte keine Schuld, er war zu jung, viel zu jung.” Your father had no guilt. He was too young, much too young. (Frauen p. 12). He is driven to find out what the Fremde is refering to.The Fremde is an obvious source of information and a channel through which to examine his father’s guilt, but he is not an obliging source:
Er legte mir zutraulich die Hand auf die Schulter. Lieber Herr Broders, sagte er, Ihr Vater war einundzwanzig Jahre alt und hatte nur gelernt, Befehle auszuführen. Quälen Sie ihn nicht mit diesen traurigen Geschichte. He laid his hand sympathetically on my shoulder. Dear Mr Broders, he said, Your father was 21 years old and hard learned only to obey orders. Do not torment him with this sad history. (Frauen, p. 183).
The Fremde lives entirely in his memories and his only acquaintances are his old comrades, most of whom have died. He is unrepentant about the fate of the Jewish women. “Die sind nicht unsere Leute . . . Jeder gedenkt seiner Opfer, das ist genug.” They are not our people . . . Everyone thinks of his own victims, that is enough. (Frauen p. 184). Shortly afterwards he ostensibly does not want to load the son with his father’s guilt. “Die Schuld soll nicht fortsetzen von einer Generation zur anderen. Wir Alten haben unser Paket zu tragen, aber die Nachkommen sollen dabei frei sein.“ The guilt should not continue on from one generation to the next. We old ones have our own burden to carry, but those who come after should be free of that. (Frauen p. 185). This is puzzling as he has also claimed the father has no guilt! Broders continues to worry around the issue of why his father had never mentioned anything of his Waffen-SS past to him: “Warum hat er seinem Sohn die Geschichte nicht erzählt? Schämte er sich, oder hatte er das Sterben an der Samlandküste verdrängt?” Why had he never mentioned the story to his son? Was he ashamed, or had the death on the Sammland coast tormented him? (Frauen p. 187).
There is a thread in Frauen in which Max Broders asks himself repeatedly whether the Palmnicken massacre actually ever occurred at all. Was it all just a baseless rumour? The Russian archivist in Kaliningrad, seemingly with no vested interest, dismisses the possibility of such a massacre out of hand. Of the only two remaining local witnesses, Olga Gedeitis is mentally disturbed and unable to communicate rationally, and Iwan has forgotten his childhood German language. As such they are both effectively useless to Broders. This plays on his mind. If it didn’t happen, then he doesn’t need to deal with the question of his father’s guilt. Is this Surminski’s metaphor for the dilemna faced by many post war German children?
In a parallel thread Surminski tells the story of the Jewish prisoners in considerable and disturbing detail. The reader follows their journey from their removal from the Lodz Ghetto, to Auschwitz where one of them fails a cynical and demeaning physical test and is assigned to the gas chamber. Her companions know nothing of this and assume innocently she has been taken to work in a dressmaking workshop. Another is soon separated by remaining in the Stutthof camp; later to be killed by a panicked guard.
The lies and deceptions stepped up a gear when the Germans cleared the Lodz ghetto. This could have been defended as necessary to avoid wholesale panic among the deportees and thereby making the job unnecessarily difficult. It could also be condemned as shameful and that the guards could not bring themselves to acknowledge what they were doing to the inhabitants. Even so, the betrayal of trust that this deception entailed goes to the heart of humanity. These people were betrayed in a way that wiped away any residual claim to legitimacy on the part of the perpetrators. The four girls (and countless others) now depended for their existence on people who had forfeited the values necessary for continued membership of the human family.
Earlier in Surminski’s work, in Vogelwelt, at Auschwitz-Birkenau the face of evil no longer felt it needed to be circumspect, although euphemisms and deception persisted: “Welch ein Empfang! Eine Kapelle spielte Marschmusik . . . “ What a reception! An orchestra is playing march music. (Vogelwelt p. 40); “Aussteigen! In Reih und Glied antreten! Frauen mit Kindern links! Männer und jungen Mädchen rechts! Die Alten auch nach links!” Get out! In rank and file! Women with children left! Men and young girls right! The elderly also to the left! (Vogelwelt p. 41). This is a manifestation of hell on Earth. There is no turning back for the people on the train. Dazed and intimidated, yet hoping their compliance will save them, they walk to their deaths. Neither, in a different sense, is there any hope for the perpetrators. They can never hope to avoid responsibility for what they are doing. Evil has the upper hand, and people serve it to their destruction, whether victim or guard. Victims die. Perpetrators are damned: “Wir haben den Tod gesehen, erklärte Celina. Er trug lange Stiefel, rauchte eine Zigarette und hielt Musterung unter den Lebenden”. We have seen Death, explained Celina. He wore long boots, smoked a cigarette and carried out an inspection of the living. (Frauen p. 44).
Their lives and their fates are determined by remote commanders issuing impersonal detailed administrative orders detailing numbers of prisoners, movement instructions and destinations. There is no human consideration that is apparent. The girls are objects, production units, to be used and disposed of as thought necessary. Interspersed through Surminski’s account are cold, stark and inhuman written orders from higher commands that, although they determine the lives and fate of the girls, are presented by him in a way that emphasises their alienation from and disinterest in the human suffering they mandate (e.g. Frauen p. 91). The moral failure of a system which demands obedience to inhuman and life denying orders while hiding behind the mirages of objectivity and bureaucracy is clearly apparent when it is juxtaposed, as Surminski does it, against his account of the girls’ life affirming humanity, as they dream and fantasise their way to their doom. This realisation elicits a certain impotent rage in the breast of the reader, who wills with all his or her heart for the girls to survive, but who can read the signs that this is not to be.
In recounting the story of the women, Surminski leads the reader to ask questions about how all this could have come to be. How could soldiers treat a group of women as livestock, killing those who fell behind, feeding them just enough to keep them alive, and providing bare unheated shelter in mid winter? What was going on inside these men? Why, with few exceptions, didn’t the local population step in to help? Although he does not answer such questions explicitly, he leaves clues. That the men were ashamed of their task seems likely. When the prisoners were evacuated from Lager Schippenbeil “Es war zu entscheiden, ob die Häftlinge neben den Flüchtlingswagen auf der Straße marschieren durfen. Sie schickten sie auf den Acker, um den Flüchtlingen den Anblick der jüdischen Frauen zu ersparen.“ It needed to be decided whether the prisoners should march beside the refugee column on the road. They sent them into the fields in order to spare the refugees the sight of the Jewish women. (Frauen p. 125). This was not something to be paraded in triumph in front of civilians.
Along the road to Palmnicken it was as if there were a veil drawn between the prisoners and the civilians they passed. Contact of any kind was forbidden. In reality the local people could not have provided refuge even if they had wanted to. Basic human recognition or assistance would not be available. “In den Dörfen vermieden die Wachleute das Schießen, um die Bewohner nicht zu erschrecken.“ The guards avoided shootings in the villages, so as not to frighten the inhabitants. (Frauen p. 156). Men with nothing to feel ashamed of would not need to try to avoid exposure in this way.
Despite his graphic portrait of suffering clearly caused by the actions of the German guards, Surminski is taken to task by Beyersdorf because of the anguish felt by the narrator, Max Broders, as he casts around for a way out of having to accept the full extent of his SS father’s guilt:
Surminski‘s treatment of the SS guards (or at least of one of these guards) who eventually massacre these prisoners while on a death march through East Prussia, is problematic. The first person narrator of the novel, who uncovers his father‘s probable role in the massacre, is unable to consider his father guilty because of the latter‘s then young age. Blamed are both the circumstances (“Zwangslage”), and orders from high up. But is this enough to avoid personal guilt? (Beyersdorf 2012) (P. 41)
It is not clear however that Surminski intends this conclusion to be drawn. In mentioning Max’s father’s earlier solitary, even furtive, journey back to the scene of the massacre at Palmnicken after his retirement and the death of his wife, Surminski leaves quite a clear indication that the father’s conscience was not an easy one. Obviously any son would want to see his father as a moral man, but Surminski leads a sometimes reluctant Max Broders, albeit via a torturous route involving the excuses and false comparisons drawn by the Fremde, to a point where he can no longer rationalise away what he must face; his father’s guilt. Max is not permitted to avoid the issue. The final obvious step would have been for Surminski to have had the son acknowledge his father’s guilt explicitly, but he does not do that. Instead the final step of acknowledgement remains with the reader.
Surminski is not an apologist for evil doers. He does not allow anyone involved in the massacre in any way, however peripheral, to escape the glare of his torch. When two local men are ordered to clear away corpses remaining behind the column the motivation is to remove any traces that might alarm children: “Die liegen an der Straße und müssen aufgesammelt werden, bevor es Tag wird, sonst erschrecken sich die Kinder.“ They’re lying on the road and need to be collected before daybreak or the children will be frightened. (Frauen, p. 169). As these two labourers go about their work their responses are humane yet also disturbing in their resigned acceptance: “Warum machen die Deutschen so etwas? . . . Aber diese Frauen wurden erschossen. . . . Dies ist kein Krieg . . . Bei der zehnten Leiche denkst du anders als bei der ersten“ Why are the Germans doing this? . . . But these women were shot . . . This is no war . . . After the tenth corpse you think differently than you did with the first. (Frauen p. 172-174).
Are these men innocent? After all, they did not participate in the massacre. No clearer picture exists in the novel of the evil done to these women. But what of the village leaders? Surminski writes of the mayor’s complicity in assigning local boys, members of Hitler Youth, to round up stragglers from the column and those who had tried to escape during the march: “Ab heute seid ihr Männer und richtige Soldaten . . .” From today you are men and proper soldiers . . . (Frauen, p. 210). With this affirmation he sends them off to find and shoot any they found, or if they so wish, to bring them back to the amber mine compound. One wonders what would possess adults to send boys on such a mission. The boys’ mothers were in no doubt their sons had no business being involved in such a task and as soon as the mayor had second thoughts, had their sons back inside their houses, away from the evil and nastiness that was abroad, eating their dinners.
Is there a case to answer here? Should ‘the authorities’ have had to account for sending their own youth, barely more than children, off to hunt down women and possibly to kill them? What had happened to the values they had brought from their childhood, given to them by their parents? What legacy would they leave their own children? Certainly military defeat and suffering after the war, but perhaps more significantly and lastingly, a collapse of human decency and of the values underpinning civilised life. These values would need to be rediscovered and reinculcated in the new Germany. There is an obvious case for the assignment of collective guilt here, but so too is there a case for the individuals who did and said such things to bear their own guilt and face the consequences of what they had done to assist the subversion of their own young.
There is evidence the soldiers themselves are far from at ease with their task. Their commander reportedly travels to the port of Pillau to try to arrange an evacuation for them but is refused: “Für Juden gibt es keine Schiffe.” There are no ships for Jews. (Frauen p. 142). On the evening of the massacre they smell strongly of schnapps and are nervous and abrupt. Nevertheless Surminski’s accusation against them is stark. A soldier screams threateningly at the women as the massacre begins: “ Er schrie es nicht in Lettisch, Litauisch, Ukrainisch oder Polnisch, sondern in der Sprache von Schiller und Goethe.” He didn’t cry out in Latvian, Lituanian, Uktainian or Polish, but rather in the language of Schiller and Goethe. (Frauen p. 242). There is no escape for these German SS soldiers from what they have done. They stand accused.
Surminski’s early published work began with a strong emphasis on the description, almost the recapture, of lost certainties, lost heritage, and the sense of identity inherent in the concept of Heimat. Jokehnen is the novel for which he first achieved popularity, and his following novels and collections of short stories, while they certainly pursued other dimensions, also delved deeply into the Heimat concept for material.
His latest work shows a departure from this trend. He has not abandoned it entirely but in two of his three most recent major works Heimat, tradition and heritage have retreated to the background. In Vogelwelt they are absent altogether. It is as if, having established and affirmed a sense of belonging and identity, Surminski now feels equipped to ask questions at the heart of Vergangenheitsbewältigung; questions which have dogged the German people for decades, refusing to be ignored, demanding to be answered so that true healing, atonement, and accommodation with the past can really begin. This is a huge project that has had many false beginnings in post German society. Perhaps Surminski is now in a position to assist it through the honesty and the courage of his novels.
His work is life affirming, yet it does not shrink from exposing and naming evil. An enduring love of his childhood homeland, and the cruel loss of his parents as a ten year old have been the stimulus for him to confront the issue of German guilt which has so often been left in mainstream culture as a rather large elephant in the room. Surminski’s work leads one to draw conclusions that are not black and white, but instead shades of grey. Nevertheless it is likely that the process of honest engagement with the past is a surer route to the resolution of the grim inheritance of the German people than ready made simplistic answers can ever be.
This is the lesson in Surminski’s work: That such evil is beyond comprehension or rationalisation. There are no simple responses to these phenomena. Revenge, hatred, black-white stereotypes, denial or determined forgetting: None of these are sufficient to contain or to respond to the reality of what happened in Germany and its occupied territories in those distant decades.
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