BERLIN (Reuters) - The Nazis had killed nearly 20 of Inge Deutschkron’s relatives when she first turned her back on Germany in 1946. Today, the Berlin resident is dedicated to championing Germans who defied Hitler and saved Jews like her.
The 85-year-old writer and journalist believes Germany has come a long way since the Holocaust, showing an openness about its troubled past it lacked in the years after World War Two.
No longer divided, or haunted by ex-Nazis who swapped top jobs under Hitler for high office in the postwar democracy, Germans are keener than ever to learn from history, she says.
“I can’t imagine it happening again in Germany,” she told Reuters at her home in western Berlin. “Today’s young generation is eager to discover what went on back then and they’re really appalled by it. It gives me a lot of hope.”
An attack on eight Indians by a mob in an eastern town shook the country last month, and Deutschkron said that more work needed to be done to promote racial tolerance in the east.
“But I think the democracy in this country is very stable,” she said. “In Britain, in France or in Germany there will always be a residue of Nazis, or racists or anti-Semites.”
Every week Deutschkron talks to German schoolchildren about how it was to live in Berlin in the years 1939 to 1945, first under the glare of Nazi oppression and then in hiding.
With a sparkle in her eye, the fast-talking Deutschkron recounts a stream of wartime anecdotes punctuated with bursts of laughter, unbowed by the tragedy which claimed the lives of six million European Jews — among them, much of her family.
Though her immediate family survived, close relatives aged between 3 and 90 fell victim to the genocide.
Initially helped by anti-Nazi brush maker Otto Weidt, whose workshop for the blind was a haven for Jews in the early years of the war, Deutschkron avoided deportation with the aid of “Aryan” friends who hid her and her mother in and around Berlin.
“These people risked their lives for us,” she said.
Only now, however, is the full picture beginning to emerge of how many Germans helped Jews at that time, Deutschkron said.
“All of a sudden it’s becoming clear just how many Germans there were who helped people,” she said. “And there is real proof of this. You can’t just say, ‘I rescued a Jew’.”
Deutschkron is referring to a project she is backing by the German Resistance Memorial Centre to shed light on forgotten Germans who helped Jews. Called “Silent Heroes”, it shows there were more helpers than she could ever have guessed.
“It all means a great deal to the young. These people show them that it is possible to oppose something, that you can have the convictions to stand up for what’s right,” she said.
In the postwar years when Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of West Germany, the Nazi legacy was suppressed and nobody dared to talk about having helped Jews, she said.
Disillusioned with life as an “Enemy Alien” in Britain after the war — a designation later upgraded to “Alien” — Deutschkron moved to the West German capital Bonn in the mid-50s and was shocked to find a nation in denial about its past.
“I hold Adenauer responsible for letting old Nazis into high positions of public office, who came along and said, ‘righty-ho, let’s create a democracy,’” she said. “There were more Nazis in the Foreign Office then than there were during the Nazi era.”
In the 1960s, she covered the Frankfurt trials of officials at Auschwitz death camp for the Israeli paper Maariv, but became increasingly frustrated by the lack of interest in the past.
“Back then people would say, ‘Look, just forget about it.’”
In 1972, by which time Israel was being attacked by sections of West Germany’s radical left as a fascist state, Deutschkron had had enough. She packed her bags and moved to Israel.
Only at the end of the 1980s did she return to Berlin to attend the premiere of a play adapted from her autobiographical book “Ich trug den gelben Stern” (I wore the yellow star).
Suddenly finding she was in great demand among a new generation of German children who wanted to hear about her experiences, Deutschkron initially divided her life between Israel and Berlin, before moving back permanently six years ago.
Not everyone is happy about the message she has spread about Germans who actively opposed the Nazis’ racist ideology.
Some critics in the United States, refusing to accept that there were Germans who helped Jews, have accused her of lying.
“But I am the living proof of it,” Deutschkron says.
In 1943, she and her mother adopted false names and moved from one hiding place to the next, dodging British bombs and later Russian soldiers as the Third Reich crumbled.
As Stalin’s Red Army advanced on Berlin, the pair pretended to be refugees from the east who had lost their papers and fooled Nazi officials into giving them new identities. After the war, they left to rejoin her father, who was already in Britain.
More than 60 years later, the past still torments some of Deutschkron’s German friends. This, she says, “is ridiculous.”
“Germans now have one obligation: to find out what happened. But feeling guilty about it? That’s a load of rubbish.”