Interview with Alexandra Senfft
On May 2nd, 2016, Alexandra Senfft’s new book „Der lange Schatten der Täter. Nachkommen stellen sich ihrer NS-Familiengeschichte“ (“The Perpetrators’ Long Shadow. Descendants Face their Nazi Family History”) was published. The author, the granddaughter of the „Gesandte des Driten Reiches in der Slowakei“ („Envoy of the Third Reich to Slovakia“), demonstrates through dialogues with other descendants of Nazi perpetrators that remembering the Nazi past is important for the present and the future. This thesis also plays an important role in her essay „Drei Generationen und eine Erinnerungsreise“ (“Three Generations and one Remembrance Journey”), recently published in the anthology „Nationalsozialistische Täterschaften. Nachwirkungen in Gesellschaft und Familie“ (“National Socialist Perpetratorship. Effects on Society and Family”), edited by Dr. Oliver von Wrochem, Director of the Center for Historical Studies of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. Senfft describes a very moving meeting in Bratislava between her, her daughter Magdalena and the Shoah survivor Tomi Reichental whose Slovakian family members were murdered in large numbers during the Holocaust. The man responsible for their deportation was Hanns Ludin, Alexandra Senfft’s grandfather.
It’s been almost 10 years since Alexandra Senfft first wrote about her family history and the effect her grandfather’s crimes have had on his descendants in „Schweigen tut weh“ (“Silence hurts”).
Swenja Granzow-Rauwald spoke with Alexandra Senfft about her publications on her family history, the transgenerational effects of the Nazi era and the preconditions for a successful dialogue.
Swenja Granzow-Rauwald (SGR): Let us first talk about the meeting with Tomi Reichental, the Shoah survivor, that you describe in your essay „Drei Generationen und eine Erinnerungsreise“. You allude to the feeling of closeness between the two of you having to do with both of you speaking publicly about your family history. How does a person change when he or she goes public with his or her family history?
Alexandra Senfft (AS): I wouldn’t say that Tomi Reichental and I get along so well because we have both gone public with our family history. We probably would have liked each other even if we hadn’t done it. However, because we went public with it, we also worked on something together. We are both convinced that it is important to appear in public with our stories and to initiate a discourse about it.
„Going public is an extra step of facing one’s history.“
Of course, one can talk about it in private, with one’s family, with friends or in groups. Yet, to present one’s family history in public is an additional step for which one needs to be courageous because one never knows how the public will react.
SGR: What preconditions have to be fulfilled before one can go public?
AS: One should be well-prepared emotionally. That is the most important precondition. I think a positive effect is that it strengthens you and your position. Once I am ready to go public, I have to be really convinced by what I stand for. Ultimately, the private becomes political. It is a political act to offer one’s personal story up in public.
Especially if you tell the story of a perpetrator’s family, you encounter the same ambivalent feelings that you already experience yourself or have seen displayed by your personal environment, that is, one receives support, is criticized, is confronted by other people’s doubts. Yet, again and again one also receives support. Essentially, it reflects the whole spectrum of one’s own inner way of dealing with the family history.
„I believe that when one has not dealt with one’s family history properly, then going public can be dangerous because it can break you.“
SGR: In your essay you mention the psychologist Jürgen Müller-Hohagen, who – after the publication of „Schweigen tut weh“ – called you and advised you to protect yourself. Would you say that at that time – meaning, in the beginning of you going public with your family story – you were on the verge of breaking?
AS: No, I wouldn’t say that. Yet, it was all very new for me. That was almost ten years ago. I had asked Jürgen Müller-Hohagen of the Dachau Institut für Psychologie und Pädagogik (Dachau Institute for Psychology and Pedagogy), whose work I had come across at the end of my writing, to read my manuscript. I think that at that time he was motivated by or simply interested in how I was feeling after the publication of the book.
Essentially, his message was: „Mrs. Senfft, please be careful.“ Of course, he was referring to both my family as well as the public. It was about whether I was distancing myself enough or whether I was soaking up the negative energy both from my family as well the public. Was I strong enough to not let them have too much impact on my life?
And they are capable of having too much influence on one’s life. I noticed this myself. One crucial moment was when my friend asked me:
„Why do you read these letters that you receive from your relatives? You already know what they wrote. Why are you doing this to yourself?“
Of course, this was only at the beginning of my inner dealing with the family history. That is a long way. The liberating feeling is not to be gained overnight, but it grows, and that is very exhausting, too.
SGR: Some people claim right away that they are not capable of dealing with their family history or they come to this realization during the process. Do you think there is such a thing as a “duty” to oneself or to society to go public with one’s family history?
AS: I wouldn’t call it a duty. I consider it to be a responsibility. It is not my civil duty to make my story public. I differentiate between whether and how I go public with my story. That also depends on whether the culpable person is a public figure, for example, my grandfather. The fathers of well-known politicians were also public figures and their children are often public figures as well. In these cases I consider there to be a political responsibility. In any case I see the private sphere as something political. One could initiate a lot of things in a society through dialogue.
Yet, it is much more revelatory to look at the less influential perpetrators, bystanders and onlookers than to look at the big names. Their stories give us insights into why almost an entire society turned into mass murderers. Nonetheless, there is no duty to go public. As I mentioned earlier, not everybody is capable of going public. One has to be ready on the inside for it, no matter whether there were onlookers, bystanders or perpetrators in one’s family. One has to be steeled for that. Everybody should find their own way of dealing with it.
„Under these preconditions I find it important that one goes public with the stories that up to that point have only been stored away in the attic or in people’s hearts. When they are made public, one demonstrates to others that it is possible to deal with these stories, that one can talk about them, that one must talk about them.“
SGR: How did people react to „Schweigen tut weh“?
AS: My experience with „Schweigen tut weh“ was that the public in general reacted very gently. The majority of readers and the audiences at my readings and public appearances were in general quite grateful that I had gone public with my story, because it gave them courage to deal with their own history, to research and to maybe even write something of their own. I started a discourse with it and encouraged others to engage with their own story, maybe even just to ponder things they had not thought about before.
SGR: What characterizes your new book „ Der lange Schatten der Täter“?
AS: In „Der lange Schatten der Täter“ I once again go public with my own story, but this time I do it through a dialogue with other people who had the courage to go public with their own stories. Some of these biographies are ridden with guilt, very complex, very difficult They really confront themselves with their families’ Nazi history.
I am convinced there are many readers who will identify themselves with some of the stories and won’t feel so lonely anymore. When one goes public, one also demonstrates that there are people who break the silence, deal with the history, and that it is not only important for us and our families, but also for society, to deal with the past that is loaded with guilt and shame.
SGR: You said that you don’t think everybody has the psychological capability to go public. But what about the people who are psychologically stable, but choose the easy route of not dealing with their family history?
AS: I consider that to be problematic. I am convinced that everything that has not been resolved becomes visible again in the present or in future generations. If one deals with one’s family history, one may lose something, but one can also gain something, that is, clarity.
„One no longer runs after certain suppositions that continue to chip away at oneself. It costs you energy that could be used much more constructively.“
SGR: What do you recommend to young people who have received certain information about their family’s history from parents or grandparents, but still encounter renitency, especially when it comes to going public?
AS: In these cases one should have faith in oneself and follow one’s instinct, and, in the best case, reflect on one’s motives: What do I want to accomplish? Am I doing this for myself, for my siblings, for younger relatives or for my children? Am I ok with how I look at and describe my family’s history?
The important question is: How does one approach this informing within the family? Am I doing it while maintaining a certain respect for the perspectives of others? Do I accept that they might not be able to or don’t want to deal with it differently? Or am I choosing a destructive approach in which I depreciate other human beings? It is a challenge to differentiate between the human being and humanity on the one side and the facts that are associated with this person on the other hand.
My example that I used in „Schweigen tut weh“ and now re-use in „Der lange Schatten der Täter“ is that I don’t accuse my grandparents in their entirety.
„I try to understand how regular people become perpetrators, bystanders or onlookers? They remain human beings even when they become perpetrators. If we demonize them and condemn them in their entirety, we will never understand, how people can become perpetrators. We have to continue to look at their human side in their inhumanity.“
SGR: How can younger people defend themselves against attacks on their critical perspective on their families‘ history?
AS: I don’t think that the older generation has a right to prohibit the younger generation from having their own perspective on it. Nobody has a monopoly on family history. It is ok if different perspectives that contradict each other exist next to each other. And each and every one is allowed to find his or her own way of reappraising the family history on the spectrum from completely private to going public. And then there is the question of how one goes public. There are many ways of expressing oneself.
If you have the wish to elucidate, then that’s often a stony path for which one needs a lot of courage. One can experience feelings of guilt toward one’s family, fears, great doubts. It is part of dealing with one’s family history that one distances oneself from the family. That’s a healthy psychological process. One rids oneself off false loyalties.
SGR: Did you have this attitude already at the beginning of you dealing with your family history?
AS: Essentially, I described my own process in „Schweigen tut weh“ and in other texts. My approach grew over a long period. For me it started with speculation. I stood at my mother’s grave and drew a connection clear and loud in front of my family between her fate and the war criminal, her father. There were also other defining moments in my life, for example, the meeting with the Israeli psychologist and practitioner Dan Bar-On and his work. My work in Israel also confronted me with the topic again and again.
„The defining moment was my mother’s death that was so puzzling that I felt an urge to find out what had actually happened.“
My uncle Malte Ludin’s film was the catalyst that I needed in the end to say: „This is enough.“ In this film my mother is only shown in pictures that I had given to Malte. Yet, her voice is completely absent. She was and remains a blank space in my uncle’s film. That was the point at which I said to myself: „My mother wasn’t capable, so it is my turn now.“
I will be forever grateful to my uncle for this accomplishment and that he managed to go public with this movie. The real examination ultimately happened in my book.
SGR: You mention incomprehension toward the generation that cheated their children and grandchildren the truth. What would you like to pass on to your children?
AS: For me the trip to Bratislava with my older daughter Magdalena came as a surprise as she originally had not wanted to come with me. Yet, when we arrived and she witnessed the meeting with Tomi Reichental it reached her both on an emotional and a cognitive level. I was surprised that she even agreed to an interview and then had this conversation with Tomi Reichental in front of the camera. I was impressed by what she – 19 years old at the time – had observed, analyzed and evaluated. That made me very happy. I passed my perspective on history on to her, what I consider to be the truth, that is, the facts. My children won’t have to dwell on the pestering thoughts that I had to ponder. They do not have to speculate, but have absolute clarity about what happened in the past.
On this trip the past became part of the present for my daughter. Magdalena suddenly became a political person and understood what it means for the present if we deal with the past. She has become very sensitive to human rights violations and campaigns against the spread of right-wing ideology.
„For me this shows that I have passed on to her how – as a citizen – one can defend civil rights and one can position oneself in society. On this trip it also became apparent to me that I actually had managed to break the family narrative.“
We took a trip into the past that will stay with us for the rest of our future.
SGR: For many there is no direct biographical connection. They are only confronted with the past on commemoration days. What’s your position on these forms of public commemoration?
AS: In principle, I find it quite important to mark these anniversaries. Public commemoration gives cause for reflecting on private commemoration and for talking about it. I find commemoration days to be most sustainable if one refrains from using empty rituals behind which much can be hidden. One has to strictly differentiate between a commemoration day that is politically instrumentalized and one preserving the memory on a deeper, more human level. I consider it to be most effective if the public and the private sphere complement each other. Then memory is not monopolized. The interlocking of different forms of commemoration would, in my opinion, lead to a path of remaining vigilant and true commemoration.
SGR: Why do you use the term „vigilance“ in regard to commemoration?
AS: If you really reflect on what happened back then and understand the mechanisms that led seemingly civilized people to become barbarians, then you also become sensitized for contemporary societal polarization, for new images of „the other“, for new forms of exclusion, and for inhuman behavior in particular as displayed by Pegida or AfD. I think in these cases something becomes apparent:
„Not remembering is the basis for new hatred and racism.“
One has to remain vigilant in order to recognize their beginning and to work against it, maybe even with one’s own biography, one’s own experience.
SGR: In your new book you enter into a dialogue with other descendants of perpetrators. Your meeting with Tomi Reichental, however, belongs to a different kind of dialogue. What do you consider to be the basic preconditions for a dialogue between the descendants of the victims and the descendants of the perpetrators?
AS: In „Der lange Schatten der Täter“, I describe what one can expect from a dialogue and what one shouldn’t expect. One of the basic preconditions for a successful dialogue is trust. In this case the descendants of the victims have to be able to trust the descendants of the perpetrators that they have really dealt with their families‘ history critically and that they are not still – consciously or unconsciously – trying to justify, deny or ignore it.
„It is very important that everybody plays with open cards so that nobody needs to fear being instrumentalized. This instrumentalization could mean that somebody seeks out a dialogue with victims‘ descendants because he or she is searching for absolution – the “victim” is being used to rid oneself of feelings of guilt and embarrassment.”
Many victims‘ descendants also hope for some kind of reconciliation, something healing to come out of the dialogue.
This wish is, of course, a legitimate one, because the hurt is so huge that all participants in the dialogue hope for healing or “salvation”. Yet, I don’t think “salvation” is possible. Consolation and healing are the maximum of what we can expect from such a process.
I don’t look for reconciliation in these meeting, even though I am familiar with this need and empathize with those who experience this need. It is nice if reconciliation happens, but a dialogue cannot be started with this expectation. Not reconciliation, ergo absolution, can be the motivation. One has to be ready to withstand very uncomfortable situations, to have bad feelings and to accept limitations on closeness or to accept a certain distance.
„Ultimately – and this is what I discuss at length in my new book – we have to always ask ourselves: What will I do with the dialogue? We have to envision what we want from a successful dialogue in the long run.“
I always feel apprehensive toward dialogues that are simply meetings from which people hope to get absolution. If these encounters fail, then something from the past is restaged, and this can be very destructive. If a dialogue fails because of both sides’ entanglement with the past, it can have a terrible outcome: it leads to bitterness and grief. Ultimately, this would be a triumph for the Nazis.
„I think the guiding principle should always be humanity.“
Hi, my name is Swenja Granzow-Rauwald. I am a political scientist and responsible for the concept behind RFHABNC.