I didn’t know anything about the Holocaust until I was seventeen. I only found out when a Holocaust survivor came to speak to us at school. I was at a grammar school and when we were in the sixth form our General Studies master arranged a formal lecture once a fortnight to get us used to university life. So, we would have talks an hour long followed by half an hour of questions.
We’d never been taught anything about the Holocaust. It was too recent and raw to appear on the school curriculum. There wasn’t a National Curriculum then and it hadn’t yet made its way on to O-level or A-level syllabuses.
The speaker was slightly unbelievable. He was short, had a long beard and was a little doddery. He talked about concentration and death camps. Some students even began to titter. But it was more of a nervous laugh than mockery. This was so bad it couldn’t be true.
A couple of years later I found out that my father had been involved in clearing out Bergen Belsen. Only a few people in the family knew about this and he never talked about it. He did get very upset when we visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. She had such a near miss – she died just a short while before the camp was liberated. Now I avidly watch documentaries about the liberation of Belsen hoping to see or hear of my father.
As a teacher of German between 1975 and 2003 I got to know a lot of Germans. They would hardly talk about it and their parents certainly wouldn’t. Might this be because it seems so unbelievable? In Clara’s Story I have Clara repeatedly hesitating and refusing to leave. She could not believe that things wouldn’t improve. At that very school where we listened to the survivor there were rumours that one of the girls was having an affair with one of the teachers and that another teacher was a paedophile. I thought it couldn’t possibly be true. At a school reunion thirty-one years later I found out that these weren’t rumours. We choose not to believe what is unpalatable.
It seems perhaps a little odd, then, that I have the young German women confronting the Holocaust, feeling guilty and trying to make up for it. Is this perhaps a liberty I have taken to make the story more interesting?
I was not alone in being ignorant about the Holocaust. Most of us in that year group met it for the first time at that lecture. Not so however my husband: great-grandson of Clara, grandson of Käthe and son of Renate. He knew plenty. His mother and grandmother used to speak German together when he was younger. They had no idea he understood. He found out all sorts of useful information by listening and not speaking. And he heard about some of the horrors. To this day he has an excellent understanding of German but can barely string two words together in the language.
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