The Witness House: Nazis and Holocaust Survivors Sharing a Villa during the Nuremberg Trials by Christiane Kohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At the risk of offending family members, Brits, and anyone else here goes.
A few years ago, my brother question why Germany was upset about bailing out certain EU countries (I believe the group is refered to as the PIGS, but since Italy has joined perhaps it is PIIGS). After all, he continued, look at the two wars that Germany had started. I wasn't there, but immeditnately my mother and a family friend pointed out that it was the aftermath of WW I that directly led to WW II, and did he (my brother) want to do that all over again. The discussion raises questions about collective guilt. After all, if Germany should pay, then shouldn't the British and Russians pay for Afghanstain, and the whole Western World pay China for the Opium War? And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Germany and collective guilt always seem to be a touchy topic. It is one of the reasons why I can understand the German's legal system's stance on Holocaust Denial, even though I agree with Lawrence Evans' "Freedom for Thought that We Hate". Additionally, to find the German people guilty as a collective disregards those Germans who stood aganist the Nazi party, such as the White Rose Group, which is even remembered in US Holocaust Museum. Such groups are hardly ever mentioned in US History programming or classes, at least general classes.
Yet how does a country, a country once split in two, deal with such guilt at more than 60 years removed. How do a people acknowledge, deal, and move, perhaps not forward, but on in life dealing with a past? Even today, in the United States, we are still dealing with the effects of slavery and lynching, and that didn't occur in reccent history (at least legally). Think of the debate over Gunter Grass when he released Peeling the Onion.
The Witness House seems to me to be a book that could've only been written by a German. The title house was used by Americans during the Nuremberg trials to house witnesses. This meant that, as the title shows, Nazis and Survivors not only shared a house but ate in the same room, even talked. Included as guests were Diels, former Gestapo head; Hoffman, Hitler's photographer; Resistance members,a woman imprisioned for having relations with a Jew; one of the judges who sentenced her, and, of course, survivors of the camps. The house included as staff, the owner and her son (the father was missing when the house was opened). The house was run, at one point, by a Countess who looked like Jean Harlow.
Today, it is hard of us to grasp how something seemly so insentative could have been seen as acceptable. We are far more aware, at least obiviously so, of mental impact.
There are several aspects of the book that make a worthwhile read. The first is the introduction which relates how Kohl was moved to research and then to write the book. It started simply, a conversation with her father and a family friend, who at one point ran the house. This conversation also shows the impact of the war on generations,
Another aspect that makes the book worth reading is the details about the son of the homeowner. He was 13 when the house was used for the Witnesses. Part of the story centers around his growing knowledge of what the Nazis actually did.
Kohl did an immense of amount of work, interviewing guests, staff, witnesses and lawyers. The look is emcompassing though a step removed because of the lack of material and the gulf of years. Yet, Kohl's prose is both sparse and rich, a paradox perhaps, but it is truth.
Kohl's book not only chronicles a little know aspect of the War's aftermath, but also touches on Germany and the War, widening knowledge not only for Germans, but for any reader who picks up this book.
View all my reviews