A Conversation Between Descendents of Holocaust Survivors and Nazis Isn’t About Forgiveness

Jul 19, 2017

Growing up, writers Rachel Kadish and Jessica Shattuck learned about World War II from their grandparents, but they heard somewhat different stories.

Kadish’s grandparents were Jews that survived the Holocaust - fleeing from their home in Poland and hiding for much of the war.  Shattuck’s grandparents were members of the Nazi Party in Germany. Their family histories influenced their writing in different ways - and it has, interestingly, brought the two writers together.  

"What we're after isn't about forgiveness, and I think it's not even about guilt. I think it's about responsibility: what do we do with this moving forward?"

They wrote about processing their families past in a recent, conversational essay on the website Salon. “What we’re after isn’t about forgiveness, and I think it’s not even about guilt. I think it’s about responsibility: what do we do with this moving forward,” says Kadish.

To begin to answer that question, Kadish and Shattuck had to first discuss what brought them to asking it. Shattuck is a first generation American and reflects on visiting her Grandparent’s in Germany while growing up. “I was aware, even as a very young child, of the shame of being German,” she says.

As Shattuck got older and began to inquire more directly of her Grandparent’s involvement during the war, she developed a sense of responsibility. “To me, if we are going to honor the promise of ‘never again,’ which I feel is part of my responsibility as a German-American, we need to try to understand how it happened the first time,” Shattuck says.

"When you grow up with this legacy in your family, you're aware of how unsafe the world can be. People find safety in different things. For me, I think that what makes the world safer is people actively trying to imagine each other's lives."

Part of that understanding, Shattuck says, has to do with “humanizing people who dehumanized people for so long,” which plays to Kadish’s point of how to now move forward through empathy.

“You know when you grow up with this legacy in your family, you’re aware of how unsafe the world can be," says Kadish. "People find safety in different things. For me, I think that what makes the world safer is people actively trying to imagine each other’s lives.”

But Kadish makes a distinct point between empathy and condoning. “Understanding never has to mean approval. If we understand somebody it doesn’t mean we condone what they do, it means we understand how they came to do it,” Kadish explains. “If we don’t understand that, then we’re not going to recognize how these things can happen the next time around.”

Rachel Kadish’s latest novel is called “The Weight of Ink.”  Jessica Shattuck’s latest is “The Women in the Castle.”