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Stories of Life after the Shoah

Surviving after World War II—for victims and victors

George Rodger/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Like a lost child in a fairy tale, a small boy is walking on a sunlit path, emerging from a dark forest. He is wearing shorts, leather shoes, and a patterned sweater. He is walking straight ahead, but his gaze is averted. 

The image, as mysterious as a nightmare, was taken by the British photographer George Rodger on April 20, 1945, as the boy approached his jeep and the four British soldiers traveling with him on a road in southern Germany. When the image was published in Life magazine on May 7, 1945, the caption read: “A small boy strolls down a road lined with dead bodies near camp at Belsen.”

For Rodger, the day he met the child on the road was the day he quit war photography. He never took another image like it again. Belsen, he said, made him sick of turning other people’s suffering into something you look at and then turn the page. But his image of the little boy and what his gaze avoided has had a complex and revealing afterlife. It was captioned and re-captioned, as successive generations after 1945 kept asking new questions about its meaning. One scholar, interested in the ethics of remembering, observed the following: 

The child is neatly dressed and seems well fed. He looks straight ahead seemingly oblivious to the dead. The child’s glance refuses the negation of death, turns away from it yet cannot help reinstating it. 

Another historian, in the 1990s, wrote, “Future historians may ask, ‘Why is the child not emaciated?’ ‘why is he allowed to roam the grounds still strewn with corpses?’” The photograph was reproduced in Postwar, Tony Judt’s magisterial history of Europe since 1945. Judt’s caption focused upon the child’s averted gaze:

Shortly after Germany’s defeat in 1945, a child walks past the corpses of hundreds of former inmates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, laid out along a country road. Like most adult Germans in the post-war years, he averts his gaze.

In Judt’s reading, the child ceases to be, in Werner Sollors’s words, “a poor innocent young bystander walking about a hellish adult world but ... a person deeply implicated in the hell that surrounds him.”

It was only in 1995 that the child in the photograph was given a name and allowed finally to escape his mute servitude as the emblem of Germany’s averted gaze. He was not actually a German bystander at all. He was Jewish, one of the survivors. Researchers for a French photography exhibition identified him as Sieg Mandaag, the son of an Amsterdam diamond cutter, arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Bergen-Belsen in 1943 as part of a Nazi plan to create a diamond-cutting industry in the camp. Sieg’s father died in Belsen and his mother was deported to a nearby concentration camp. From late 1944, the “diamond children,” as they were known, were left parentless at Belsen, awaiting a final deportation to Auschwitz. Sieg, only seven years old, and his sister Henneke were kept alive by Jewish nurses in the stinking barracks through the last winter of the war. When George Rodger and Allied troops arrived at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, among fifteen thousand decaying corpses, there were 54 Dutch child survivors.

Once the boy is seen to be a survivor, his averted gaze can be understood in a new way. In Sollors’s memorable words, Sieg, “like so many mythical heroes who got out of Hades ... simply must not look back.” When, in the 1990s, the Shoah Foundation asked Sieg why he was so well dressed in the picture, he told them one of those casual survivor stories that chill the heart. He matter-of-factly explained that he had found the clothes in a storeroom of neatly stacked personal effects, stripped from other children who had died in the camp. 

When Rodger’s image appeared in Life, Sieg’s uncle, then in New York, recognized his nephew, and through the Amsterdam Diamond Exchange arranged for the boy to be reunited with his mother in Holland. Sieg grew up, eventually married, had children, and even enjoyed a reunion with the photographer, where they looked at the image together and recalled the scene.

In 1994, he was shown a photograph by James Nachtwey of a disfigured Hutu boy in Rwanda. It is one of those icons of atrocity, a famous photograph, like the one taken of him. Sieg pondered it, and with the melancholy awareness of someone whose most poignant moment of existence has been turned into an infinitely reproducible object, he remarked that the boy “will never be able to get over it. He’ll spend the rest of his life staring into the distance, wondering what they’ve done to him.” 

Sieg died in 2013. 

This extraordinary story is only one of the many tales that Werner Sollors tells in this melancholy, disjointed, awkward, but deeply powerful book. It is a work of scholarship that intersperses critical analysis of movies, photographs, and memoirs of the period with Sollors’s own personal memories of being a frightened child, fleeing Silesia with his mother through a bombed-out and chaotic Germany in 1945. In addition to the chapter on the Rodger photograph, there are essays on the first dazed moments when Germans saw Allied troops in their streets; on German recognition of the Holocaust; on the dilemmas of de-Nazification, focusing on the philosopher and Nazi apologist Carl Schmitt; on the role of black GIs in a still segregated army of occupation; on the impact of mixed-race children on German attitudes toward race; and finally a loving tribute to Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, starring Marlene Dietrich and set in the ruins of postwar Berlin.

George Rodger/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

This eclectic and personal selection of topics leaves out a lot: the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, Lucius Clay’s relatively benign administration of occupied Germany. The book has almost nothing to say about the politics and the administration of Allied occupation, but that is not its purpose. As the title suggests, The Temptation of Despair is an antidote to the conventional version of the American occupation as a singular success in this country’s checkered history of nation-building. Sollors does not question this happy version. He simply leaves it behind to focus on darker themes and the inner world of the civilian survivors: the women repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers; the refugees, including his own family, driven westward by Russian troops; the desolation of German families returning to bombed-out cities and trying to muster the will to rebuild anew. German sufferings after the war are unlikely to awaken much sympathy, but Sollors laconically quotes a sympathetic Swedish journalist who observed about the German plight in 1945 that “deserved suffering is just as heavy to bear as undeserved suffering.”

The Temptation of Despair travels back over personal terrain for the author. Sollors’s mother was part of the human tidal wave sweeping westward from Silesia to Thuringia in 1945, “moving from town to town, mostly on foot, without being given permission to stay anywhere for more than a night or two in open-air camps or on make-shift straw floors in school buildings.” For long stretches of this exodus on foot, Sollors’s mother pushed him in a baby carriage. During this exodus, Sollors’s grandmother fell from a train and was killed, and his sister took sick and died.

Sollors’s book may lack the brilliance of W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, an excoriating portrait of the human cost of the Allied bombing of Germany, written with a kind of scathing restraint, but The Temptation of Despair belongs among the most distinguished German reckonings with its own past. Like Sebald, Sollors will have nothing to do with another kind of German reckoning—the lachrymose revanchism of the German right who seem so astonishingly indifferent to the sufferings they inflicted, so woundingly alive only to their own. 

The most repellent example of this moral stuntedness is Carl Schmitt. The author of Political Theology and Legality and Legitimacy has enjoyed an extraordinary intellectual revival since the 1970s in law schools and political theory classes around the globe, where innocent students are introduced to Schmitt by sometimes less than innocent professors as the single most pertinacious critic of liberal constitutionalism. That he certainly is, but Sollors reminds us that he was also a toadying anti-Semite. Throughout the 1930s, Schmitt occupied a chair at the University of Berlin and provided energetic justifications for Hitler’s rule—lecturing in 1936, for example, on “German legal scholarship in the battle against the Jewish spirit.” In that lecture, he lent his prestige to the attempt by German libraries and scholars to expunge all references to Jewish authors from their bookshelves and their scholarly citations. “A Jewish author has no authority for us,” Schmitt declared, “not even a ‘purely scholarly authority.’ ”

In 1945, Schmitt was dismissed from his professorship, and when asked to fill out the Fragebogen—a de-Nazification questionnaire imposed on all German public servants including professorshe replied, with snarling effrontery: “Who are you really to call me into question? Whence your superiority?” He was arrested in September 1945, and Karl Loewenstein, a German Jewish refugee who had returned to Germany to assist at Nuremberg, sought to bring Schmitt to trial. Loewenstein had no doubt that Schmitt was “a man of near-genius,” and for that very reason so dangerous that he should be tried and convicted as a Schreibtischtäter, the German phrase for an armchair perpetrator. Allied prosecutors were not convinced that odious opinions deserved prosecution and after successive interrogations Schmitt was released. And so it transpired that Schmitt was spared by the very liberal legal scrupulousness he despised. Yet far from being grateful for release, Schmitt saw fit to ironize in his airy, condescending way about the new American empire, “A strange master of the world, this poor Yankee, so fashionably modern with his ancient Jews,” a reference to the Morgenthaus and the Loewensteins who had shown him a mercy he disdained to show to them. Schmitt never taught again in a German university, but he lived, in peace and quiet, until his death at the age of 96 in 1985, arrogant, unrepentant, unreconciled, incorrigible. 

Not all, or even most, anti-Americanism in Europe is as anti-Semitic as Schmitt’s; some of it is fueled by respectable anger at American follies and mistakes. But Schmitt’s case reminds us that on the European right there are people who hate America for no other real reason than that its soldiers put an end to their fantasies of European racial domination. This strand of postwar European thought really begins with Schmitt, with those of his ilk who liked to portray Germany as the victim of victor’s justice. Sollors argues that the Allied occupation was nowhere near as vengeful or retributive as the revanchists liked to claim. If anything, the Nazis were let off far too easily and soon resumed positions of power and influence throughout the German Federal Republic. Far from being victims of vengeful victors, the Germans were often the beneficiaries of their compassion. Sollors points out that during 1946 and 1947, when conditions in Germany were miserable, American, British, and Swedish journalists tried to rally opinion back home against further punishment of the German people. A committee of New York literary and intellectual figures led by Roger Baldwin (chairman of the aclu), John Dewey, and Varian Fry (who was briefly the literary editor of this magazine), protested the mass expulsion of Germans from eastern Europe and sought to awaken Washington to the deteriorating conditions in the Western occupied zone. These forces of the American conscience helped to persuade Truman to launch the Marshall Plan in 1947. 

At the same time, Sollors corrects the argument that Germans quickly entered a cocoon of willed amnesia about the Holocaust. Ian Buruma has argued that German reckoning with the Holocaust only began in the 1960s, with the German trials of war criminals, and later, with the screening of the American television series Holocaust. There is truth to this, in the sense that the German people’s encounter with their past did not begin immediately. It recurred, in waves, as the generation who were adults in 1945 began, in old age, to answer their children’s ever more insistent and angry questions. 

The German reckoning seems ever more exceptional. In other cases—contemporary Russia would be a pertinent example—there seems to have been no shared encounter with the totalitarian and exterminatory past at all. In the Russian case, Stalin is still remembered by millions with amnesiac nostalgia, and many Russians still dispute that millions of Ukrainians were starved to death by Stalin’s functionaries. Putin’s Russia, with its state-organized amnesia, serves to remind us just how honest, enduring, and thorough the German reckoning with the past has been by comparison.

After returning to the newspapers, journals, letters, and photographs of the period, Sollors concludes that Germans could not have hidden from the truth of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Treblinka. As early as June 1945, American army units, on Eisenhower’s orders, set up photo exhibits in town squares displaying the photographs from Belsen. There were “guilt placards” everywhere, with photographs of the emaciated dead and clear headlines reading, “who is guilty?” and “you are guilty!” “What seems clear,” Sollors remarks, “is that at least in the Western zones it would have been difficult for Germans not to be exposed to such images and to a debate about collective guilt in the immediate postwar period.”

The Temptation of Despair paints a picture of a society in ruins and a people at the edge of psychic collapse. But it is also a story of temptation overcome. The destroyed cities were rebuilt brick by brick, the refugee wanderers found homes and new lives. Sieg, the boy in the photograph, lived to become a family man whose life was a redemption of his nightmare days of wandering among the corpses. Sollors’s own mother eventually found safety and a new life in Frankfurt. The book is dedicated to her. Whatever despair she may have felt, she did not act upon it.

One of the few pleasurable chapters in this wrenching book is devoted to the film that most comprehensively refused the temptation. A Foreign Affair was set in the ruins of Berlin in 1947. Its director, Billy Wilder, was an Austrian Jewish refugee who lost his mother, his stepfather, and his grandmother in the Holocaust, and yet, with the help of Dietrich, managed to turn a film about Germany rebuilding after the war into a witty, cynical, but forgiving parable of endurance and survival. It would have been easy enough for Wilder to moralize about the film’s central figure, the equivocal chanteuse who had slept with Nazis, Russians, and now Americans in order to keep body and soul together, but Wilder celebrates her endurance. Dietrich gives her morality unforgettable husky-throated expression in the song “Black Market”: 

You take art, I take Spam.

To you for your K-ration

Compassion—and maybe

An inkling, a twinkling of real sympathy.

I’m selling out. Take all I’ve got.

Ambitions, convictions, the works, why not?

Enjoy these goods

For boy, these goods—are hot.

Sollors quite rightly says that Dietrich’s portrayal of the chanteuse, and Wilder’s framing of her role, are properly understood as a deeply wise refusal of either the temptations of despair or the easy moralism of the victor.

An added—and very unexpected—remedy for despair, at least in Sollors’s own boyhood, turned out to be the black GIs, whom he first encountered as a young boy in Frankfurt. It was the black GIs who taught Germans jazz, the blues, and a certain casual physical repertoire that loosened up a society physically locked in the rigor mortis of the Hitler salute. In their turn, African Americans returned from their service liberating Europe newly unreconciled to the reality of a segregated army and a segregated society. 

The black GIs also played their part in the slow liberation of German society from the carapace of racism. German women slept with black GIs and the mixed-race children they bore introduced Germany to a different racial future than the one Hitler had in mind. Sollors devotes an affectionate chapter to a film—he saw it as a child—about Toxi, the story of a black GI’s successful attempt to be reunited with his German daughter. It was, interestingly enough, one of the most successful films of 1952 in Germany.

Sollors dwells on the black GIs in order to retrace the chain of influences that led him from his German academic training in the 1960s to the United States, where he developed his then-unusual interest in American black culture and history. He is now the Cabot Professor of English Literature and professor of African American Studies at Harvard, and there is something inspiring in the tribute that he pays to those black American soldiers who handed out candy and chewing gum from their jeeps and mysteriously gave shape to one German boy’s entire life. In remembering “their casual body poses” lounging about in those jeeps, we get a glimpse of the little German boy he once was, and how he saw them, victors in a still-segregated army, as harbingers of eventual freedom, theirs and his own.