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Grasping the Holocaust

Group brings together survivors and Germans

Gisela Geiger comforts Lawrence Lowenthal during a German-Jewish dialogue group meeting at Geiger's home.
Gisela Geiger comforts Lawrence Lowenthal during a German-Jewish dialogue group meeting at Geiger's home. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)

BELMONT -- Growing up in a German-Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, Lawrence Lowenthal experienced the Holocaust through pictures and news reports. Decades later, he wanted to know how Germans felt about the Holocaust, so he traveled to Hamburg and Berlin this year to find out.

"This was the most important quest I could embark on, to find out how people deal with the Holocaust, especially Germans, from whose culture the Holocaust emerged," Lowenthal, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Boston chapter, told a group gathered in Gisela Geiger's living room.

Geiger, who grew up in the German port city of Bremen, and a dozen others listened intently as Lowenthal , 68, hauntingly described an interview with a German woman who took a job as a teacher in Australia. Getting to know her students, she asked them about their grandparents but only received blank looks. She soon realized they were Jewish. Their grandparents had been killed in the Holocaust.

"I traveled thousands of miles to get away from Germany, but I still couldn't escape the Holocaust," she had told Lowenthal, and began to cry. Lowenthal was nearing tears too as he recounted the story. "I finally realized why I was on this project," he said he told the woman, now in her 50s. "It was to meet people like you. That's what this is all about," he said, now sobbing. ``Maybe it's not fair, but I want to see Germans in tears."

Geiger's living room -- a softly lit space with white walls, wood-trim windows , and shelves packed neatly with books and family photographs -- fell silent except for the sound of one or two people exhaling. Geiger, 64, leaned forward and put her hand on Lowenthal's shoulder, leaving it there for a few moments as he collected himself and continued his story.

The Holocaust evokes powerful, sometimes conflicting emotions in Jews and Germans, and to bare them so publicly does not come lightly. Yet 10 to 20 people in the Boston area -- Holocaust survivors, Germans with relatives who resisted Hitler and relatives who supported him, Jews with German roots, and others -- come together the last Thursday of every month and do just that. They explore guilt, suffering, identity, remorse , and responsibility, all through the lens of Germany's murder of 6 million Jews. They are far beyond reconciliation.

There are at least two other German-Jewish dialogue groups in the area, but since the American Jewish Committee helped organize this parley 13 years ago, it has become a model for newer ones bringing Jews together with Muslims, African-Americans, and other ethnic and religious groups. Several participants, including Lowenthal and Geiger, have been with this group since its creation, but its knack for drawing newcomers keeps it vibrant.

Samuel Bak, an internationally exhibited painter and Holocaust survivor who just published his memoirs, and his wife, Josee, a psychoanalyst from Lausanne, Switzerland, went to their first dialogue in March. They listened to Jews whose families had fled Germany and to baby boomer Germans who demanded the truth from their parents about the historical cloud hanging over them. Bak was especially struck by Dr. Wolfgang Vorwerk, consul general of the German consulate in Boston, who, in an effort to explain why Bak's grandchildren were hesitant to read his memoirs, described the pain of watching his own father die.

``It was terrible for me to witness that the person who I always saw as strong, who I saw as the backbone of the family, to see him now lying in bed, and needing my care," Vorwerk recalled at the March meeting. ``You don't want to know how your parents, who you love and admire, suffered and were . . . deprived of basic human respect."

Bak was moved. ``This group is about the power of revealing very intimate stories. And when I realized what happened at such meetings, I decided to return."

Confronting and seeking
At April's gathering, Bak related parts of his own story. Born in 1933 in Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania, Bak survived the city's ghetto, where 50,000 Jews were crammed in a space in which only 2,000 had lived before the war. Bak, his mother , and a small number of surviving Jews were rescued by a Schindler-esque Nazi officer, and spent the next three years in a ``Displaced Persons" camp in Germany.

Bak now lives in Weston but travels frequently to Germany, where his art, which deals with his memories of the Holocaust, is exhibited often, and he is treated like a VIP.

``Of course, I always had a vague suspicion that I was being used in some way. People wanted to show how liberated they are from all the past vices and how open they are. But I felt that even if I am being used, and if they want to use me, it's a positive sign that they want to repair something. And if they want to repair, I have to do everything to help them repair."

Geiger has sought repair as well. Growing up, she learned about the Holocaust, and argued with her parents about it, but was never confronted with it until she went to study at an international university in Geneva.

``The moment you left Germany, you were aware of your country's history, and how it affected all the countries around you. I was never challenged before with the responsibility of knowing what it was to be German."

To her, being German means coming to terms with the Holocaust, while the responsibility means making sure her children do the same.

``To truly be German, you have to accept the Holocaust as part of your past. And you have to talk about it and reflect upon it; otherwise you will never understand your German identity," said Geiger. ``I can't say I totally understand it now, but I'm trying."

New questions emerge
After 13 years, the group also wrestles with new questions: how to relate the lessons of the Holocaust to today's world, how to attract younger participants as the members age, even whether the meetings serve any purpose. Last month, an Ethiopian and an Arab immigrant were badly beaten in Germany by suspected skinheads just a few weeks before the country is to host soccer's World Cup in June.

``This is part of our legacy as well, to make them feel the history they have inherited in some way," Geiger said.

While a direct connection to the Holocaust will be lost once the last survivors and their children die, Lowenthal and others are hopeful the lessons of the Holocaust won't be forgotten. Toward that end, Lowenthal is also considering recording the histories of the group members.

``The Holocaust challenges everything we have come to believe up to this point, in philosophy, in historical evolution, in reason, in idealism, in romanticism. It challenges everything we think about," Lowenthal said. ``It's not going to go away. People will struggle with this for generations."