Give Now  »

Indiana Public Media | WFIU - NPR | WTIU - PBS

Noon Edition

Historian Mark Roseman

Read Transcript
Hide Transcript

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)

AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Mark Roseman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM STORY’S “THE PERFECT FLAW (INTRO)”)

He's a historian who focuses on modern German history and the history of the Holocaust. He's a distinguished professor of history at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he's also the Pat M. Glazer chair in Jewish Studies. Roseman is the author of A Past in Hiding and The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution. His most recent book is Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. It's an account of The Bund, and a small group of German idealists whose often daring acts of kindness aided many who were persecuted under the Nazi regime. Recently, Mark Roseman joined me for a conversation in the WFIU studios. Mark Roseman, welcome to Profiles.

MARK ROSEMAN: Thank you. It's a great pleasure to be here.

AARON CAIN: I'm wondering if we might start with a bit of your history, the history of a historian. You grew up in the United Kingdom, in the town of Leeds. Now, since the subject of memory and how it relates to history will undoubtedly come up in the course of the conversation, I thought, why not start with Leeds? What was it like growing up there?

MARK ROSEMAN: That's a great question. And unfortunately, another historian may well find my memory very wanting. Let's see, it was a very Jewish town in the sense that it had a large Jewish community. It was a textile center and a  lot of Jews had arrived there in the 19th century. I went to a normal state school, but we had a separate Jewish religious assembly, which would fill the gymnasium. It felt like a very provincial place at the time. And since then, it's become a really happening place. Various central government functions in the UK are being sent out to the regions, and Leeds is one of the beneficiaries of that. And now - it's quite funny - I haven't been there for years, everybody says, what a cool place. And it does seem to be, but when I grew up there, I couldn't wait to get out of it because it did feel very provincial.

AARON CAIN: Do you chalk some of that up to just being a youth or is there something more you remember about the place that really did seem particularly provincial or constraining to you?

MARK ROSEMAN: Of course, you're on a particular circuit as a young person. And I'm quite sure that even then, you know, people at the university or students were encountering a different Leeds. But I do think that it really has changed. I mean, it was partly my parents, sort of both in different ways, intellectuals, and they seem very different from the parents of many of my peers at school. So in that sense, I felt like I was part of a slightly more cosmopolitan family background than many of those around me. So in that sense, I was primed to look elsewhere. But as I said, I think the city, from what I gather, really has changed a lot and it's quite an exciting place to be these days.

AARON CAIN: You say that you were primed to look elsewhere geographically, but of course, in your career you have spent a lot of time looking elsewhere temporarily. So was history always a subject that you were interested in, or was it just another subject at school for you?

MARK ROSEMAN: I would say from a fairly early stage, English and history became my two favorite subjects. It was sort of a toss-up about which one I would study at university. And in the end, I plan for history because it felt kind of somewhat politically more relevant. We didn't do politics in our school. I don't know whether that would also have excited me, quite possibly. But these were the two subjects which kind of analytically really gripped me. And so - and, you know, in the UK system, you specialize more at an early stage. So at 16 where you do what were then O-levels, now GCSE. And then effectively, you studied three or four subjects only at the last two years of secondary school - over the last two years of what would be high school here. So you're already really specialized. I was unusual in the sense that I also kept mathematics going at that level because most people have already switched to one or other side of the art-science divide. And I actually didn't do very well in my mathematics, so it was pretty clear I wasn't going to take that further. So by that point, English or history is the way that I had already specialized myself. And then it was just a question of making the call.

AARON CAIN: What about that? Was the call made? Were the scales tipped towards history at some specific point that you remember?

MARK ROSEMAN: It's interesting. I had three really great teachers, one really brilliant English teacher and two great history teachers. And they...

AARON CAIN: The odds won out, I guess.

MARK ROSEMAN: (Laughter) The odds won out. So there was a little bit of a push. And they - what it came down to was the English teacher had been to Oxford and was very keen that I should apply to college in Oxford that he'd been to. And the history teacher had been to Cambridge and was very keen that I applied to the college in Cambridge, that he had been to. So in the end I did apply to - my mom had been to Oxford, so that was my rebellion that I went to Cambridge.

AARON CAIN: How scandalous. She must have been furious. Do you recall a catalytic moment? Something...

MARK ROSEMAN: Something that, in retrospect, took on greater force, but I think even at the time was already very striking. So I used to go down, quite often, to the reference library in the center of Leeds, which was part of the library. You couldn't borrow books, but you could work there. And somebody had left out on a table Gerhard Schoenberner’s The Yellow Star, which I'm not sure exactly when it came out in the UK. It must have come out either late 60s or 70s. But it was the first book about the Holocaust in English, I think, which had a lot of photographs in it. And the thing that utterly staggered me was the photo of the British bulldozers, at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, bulldozing masses of emaciated bodies into mass graves because of the risk of disease. So there was no question of a more solemn burial. But, I mean, of course, it was a little bit of ceremony and so on, but they were shoved into this mass grave. And that photo utterly bl ew me away. And I think I then was sort of - my real interests were either in Nazi Germany, or the Russian Revolution or became in the course of sixth form, which, I guess they were the two kind of most threatening, most pressing phenomena that seemed to demand an explanation and understanding. And so I think - because in my work, I'm very conscious of the difference between experience and memory. And that transformation of experience into memory is one of the things that I really look at. So exactly how the sequence would look if it weren't telescoped from, you know, x decades of hindsight, I'm not quite sure. But I do think that that was a very important moment in establishing this kind of gripping relevance of history. And, you know, one has to also bear in mind that in the 70s, the Holocaust was not talked about anything like as much as it would be two decades later. In fact, even the term the Holocaust was not particularly present. It wasn't one that I used. And I think even as a student at university, I think we'd talk about the final solution rather than the Holocaust. And the focus was very much on the plan. But, you know, more broadly than that, the Nazis were the bad guys. There was no doubt about that from sort of general British culture. And, you know, as a family, we wouldn't go to Germany, my parents wouldn't buy a German car, and like that. This was all very clear who - but that was as much located in - I mean, probably not for them. But in terms of my sense in a sort of general British thing about the Second World War, and there were sort of lots of boys comics which had, you know, Nazis saying, “Schweinhund,” and things like this. But the specifics of the Holocaust were not so present. And so I think these images had all the more impact.

AARON CAIN: What do you recall about how this was being taught in school up until and through your education at university?

MARK ROSEMAN: What I do remember from university is that towards the end of my study, a new big textbook, Gordon Craig's History of Modern Germany, which went from, I think, 1866 to 1945, which is a sort of big new synthesis of German history. I don't think it uses the word Holocaust once. So that would have come out something like '78, '79. That's a U.S. author. And it does, of course, talk about the final solution. And it has two or three powerful pages, but lacked a huge amount of knowledge and makes some statements about collaboration or the lack thereof, which would be utterly unsustainable now. And those absences and that compressed nature of it didn't strike me at all at the time. On the contrary, this seemed like the cutting-edge book. You know, I think this is something that's very hard to grasp both for ourselves looking back, but just generally thinking about the way knowledge works. You could not say that the Holocaust was not present in that book in a very profound way because it's clear that, in a sense, for Craig, the way that he writes, the ultimate disaster that Germany committed was the murder of the Jews. So it's not as if it doesn't have a kind of orientation role in his thinking. But at the same time, as that was true - and I would say that was true in a great many post-war contexts - it's not occupying a large think space. And so the knowledge is limited and it's not playing into the way that one understands other things. So did people know about it, were they aware about it? Yes. Was it really present? Well, it depends what you mean by present. So it's a fascinating thing to try and diagnose the presence of something in a culture. And I think when you look back and you try and write the history of knowledge in a period, it's a very challenging thing because often a reference may be understood, and particularly if it's something that is sort of troubling like this. And of course, the Holocaust was troubling in all sorts of ways. It was troubling because of the horrors. But it was also troubling because it fetched up against relations between Jews and Christians, which was an unresolved issue in Christian-dominated societies for 2000 years. So there's a certain measure of acknowledged or unacknowledged discomfort. So this thing is present, but it's not super visible. And reconstructing that after is where do you look then to establish the essential nature of something that's not actually being discussed? It's not easy to recover. And I say even talking to people who have memories of it, that disentangling of what one later knows, and what one later thinks and how one later glances back is particularly hard. It's easy to remember events, but to remember a vantage point, or a perspective or a way of thinking is often very tricky. You know, your question of if there was a moment is a very good one because at least you can remember a certain event or an episode that captures something.

AARON CAIN: What you say about trying to find these essential moments is kind of making me think of my own layperson's understanding of what history is. In my limited experience of history as an academic discipline, you know, history with a capital H, it seems to be kind of like an M.C. Escher painting. You know, you've got history, and then you've got the history of history and then there's the history of the perception of history. And they're all kind of woven together and reflecting one another. What do you see to be your role as a historian in keeping all of that straight?

MARK ROSEMAN: I like that. That's very nice. I like the Escher analogy. I mean, I guess there are three different things that you bring into conversation, which you're absolutely right. One is, you know, you're seeking to write the history of something. In other words, to construct narratives and arguments about something that can never be fully known or recovered, namely the past. Then, as you say, the discipline of history has its own history, which we call historiography. So there's that sequence of ways in which historians influence what later historians write, but also break from what early historians have written. And when you try to understand someone's history book, it can help to recognize that sequence of history books that the historian is writing in that context of what's been written before, maybe just as important as anything they're uncovering about the past. And you might call that the memory within the discipline. But beyond that, of course, there's wider public memory and memories, often rather a misnomer, for different ways in which the past is recaptured, or revived, or lives on, or commemorated, or represented or the thousand different ways in which past lives, past events are somehow kept present or made present again in any given society, which exists well beyond the confines of the narrow scholarly discipline, but may be equally influential on the way in which a historian approaches their work. So I think as you write, you would go under if you were fully aware of this Escher painting (laughter). You have to imagine that you're standing on firm ground and not a never-ending staircase. But certainly I think it can be helpful at times to step back and recognize the multiple contexts in which you're putting pen to paper. In terms of my own research, I would say that the thing that I really have become fascinated by - and this arises specifically in terms of my experience of writing about the Holocaust - is the way in which experience at the time becomes refracted in retrospect and turns into what we may call memory. I mean, memory may be correct in the sense of your thinking about how somebody is actually recalling something they've been through and whether that recall slightly shifts the ground or the framing of the experience. But it may not be quite recall. It may also be the glass that you're putting on the past in the light of what lies ahead. So, you know, obviously, as people who survived the Holocaust emerge from the war, they find themselves in some temporary context, perhaps in a displaced persons camp or wherever. And then they're looking to a life beyond. It's not just a question about remembering. It's also about how do you harness, how do you service your experience to what lies beyond you? And on an individual basis or a group basis, it may be expectation is shaping how you're thinking about the past as much as your experience. Anyway, those mechanisms whereby this horrendous experience gets integrated, or absorbed, or not, into post-war life and the relationship between the later representation, refraction, memory, et cetera and the earlier experience, I find absolutely fascinating. It's a very human process and I think each can help us understand the other. We often get an experience through recognizing the ways in which that experience has been reinterpreted or, as I say, refracted in the post-war period. And that's something that's been an intellectual obsession in my recent work.

AARON CAIN: We could talk about memory a lot in this conversation, because from what little I understand about what a neurologist would say, it's infuriatingly unreliable and malleable and we never live in “then” again. We're always “now.” And “now” always wins. “Now” always wins out over the truth of what really happened. And so I'm just wondering if you feel that as a historian, you swim upstream against other trends. Are there others who you think are hyper focused on the fact - what can be proven - and don't take into account the importance of memory and experience? Are there, conversely, people who have really influenced you? You know, “they're doing it right, I think that that is something that I should emulate or an ethos I should participate in.”

MARK ROSEMAN: I think right now, in terms of the Holocaust, we're finding ourselves, interestingly, at the intersection of two opposing trends, I would say, in relation to that. On the one hand, we've had a long period in which a great deal of effort has been placed on recording the testimony of survivors while they're still able to give testimony. And we have some amazing archives now of Survivor testimony. And a historian talked about the era of the witness, the  way in which, particularly in the wake of the Eichmann trial, the Holocaust survivor became such a sort of important figure as the source of truth about these horrific experiences. And at IU, just to plug the resources at my own university, we're one of the sites in the U.S. where we have full access to all the interviews of the Shoah Foundation. So any undergraduate can go to the library website and access any of the interviews recorded by the Steven Spielberg Foundation, so this is an incredible resource. So, one of the trends in the last few years has been to recognize the limitations of those interviews and to seek to return as far as possible to accounts produced by victims, whether they later survived or not, at the time - in other words, in the moment. There's a, for example, recent work on rescue by historians seeking as far as it's possible to find contemporary diaries, contemporary statements or statements given very early after the war as a way of recovering lived experience as close as possible to the moment in which it was actually lived. So in that sense, I think the last few years have seen an effort to return to the contemporary vantage point of victims and survivors, and to move away a little bit from this reliance on this amazing archive that we have of survivor voices. On the other hand, there had been quite a lot of work on the ways in which memory might be reshaped, or the impact of trauma on memory or the ways in which public currents might influence the way individual survivors remember their own story. You know, it's often commented that many more people remembered encountering the Nazi Doctor Mengele in Auschwitz than could possibly have done so,  and so on. And I would say there the trend has been to push back a bit against that and actually recognize how consistent many survivor testimonies have been across the multiple moments at which they were given. So Christopher Browning has written a very influential book about a Nazi labor camp in Starachowice. And he is able to compare some testimony that was given immediately after the war and a remarkable set of interviews that a U.S. sociologist, David Boder, collected using a special tape recorder with sort of wire-recording mechanism before magnetic tape. Then testimonies that were given in post-war trials in Germany in the 60s and 70s, and then testimonies that were given either to the fortune of archive in Yale or the Spielberg archive. And Browning found a lot of consistency all the way through in terms of the events and so on that were described. So how do we reconcile these two trends - the one to push against relying on memory and to recover documents from the time, the other to identify that perhaps we've rather overstated the malleability of memory, and the fallibility of memory, and that particularly if you have a group of accounts so that you can weed out the outliers or recognize the ones that seem a little bit inconsistent, that actually there's a lot of consistency. Well, my answer to this would be - and I think this is where my focus is - that when accounts shift, when they change, it's often not because something has been forgotten or something has been directly changed as a result of trauma - though, you know, I do think that there are ways in which traumatic memories become too hard to hold and so you subtly shift your relation to it. But the vantage point of hindsight is almost instantly different. Particularly, where you're looking at an extreme situation where you don't even understand the full scope of what's happening, what's happening seems utterly unprecedented. The outcome is utterly unknown. All those things that constitute the bedrock of experience in the moment afterwards are all different. You're in a world in which the outcome, luckily, if you survived, is by now known. The true extent of what you've been through now is becoming clear. The values of the world around you have shifted so that instead of you being the pariah, instead those who inflicted this on you are the pariahs. So there's a sort of upside-down shift of values. And it is in the nature of the Holocaust that the survivors find themselves in a global diaspora soon after, and so are looking back from the vantage point of very different cultural and social settings. The way in which people frame their experiences, the meanings they give to them, the way in which they imagine themselves - all those things are subject to an enormous degree of external pressures even if, as Browning says, the actual events that you're describing remain pretty consistent, the key traumatic moments remain pretty consistent in your accounts all the way through from the 40s through to the 80s or 90s or whenever the last testimony was given. So we're in a very interesting moment, perhaps recovering a bit the stability of memory and at the same time acknowledging the full extent of the way in which hindsight can shape the way accounts are framed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM STORY’S “RILL”)

AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. I'm speaking with Mark Roseman, professor of history and author of Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany.

If we could, I'd love to talk about your book, Lives Reclaimed. And in it you tell the story of a small group of idealistic Germans who opposed the Nazi regime and helped many Jews, saving many lives in the process. And this group, The Bund, was formed during the 1920s and it was pretty extraordinary. Could you tell us about this group, The Bund, what they did and how they formed?

MARK ROSEMAN: Absolutely. Many people will know the word “Bund” in relation to the Jewish movement in Poland, the sort of Jewish nationalist movement in Poland. This had nothing to do with that. And it's not a Jewish group, although it had Jewish members. But Bund is a word that means league or federation. The full name of this group was the league community for Socialist Life, but all its members simply referred to it as The Bund, and for them there was no other bund. But “Bund” was a very common term in the 20s, and in some ways this group in the 20s looked like thousands of others. The period between the wars in Germany saw a huge explosion of youth groups or groups of young people with political aims. I think there was a feeling that bourgeois society and the bourgeois family had failed somehow. It wasn't creating true bonds of society and that young people needed to get together and form their own community, a sort of alternative family. And when The Bund formed, the large majority of its members were in their sort of low 20s, the founding figure, Artur Jacobs, was older. He was born in 1880. And that's also a typical consolation that the sort of guru is a generation older than the followers. And I think this, again, was a feature of these groups in India or Germany that you were looking for a leader. There was a sense that you would find the person with the real personality that was capable of mobilizing a core around them. And that was the sort of natural basis of a real grouping rather than artificial societies or artificial family. And the Bund fits that pattern. Where it's a bit distinctive, although, again, not unique, is that it tried to bring together socialist ideas and the ideas of Kant, which was not easy.

AARON CAIN: That's a rather uneasy marriage.

MARK ROSEMAN: Uneasy marriage, because Marx, after all, had imagined his philosophy as the rebuttal of Kant. But whatever the ultimate weakness in intellectual stringency, although they were far from fools the group, I think it actually gave them something because on the one hand, they had this social societal project that they were interested in, namely the creation of a future just and socialist society. And they were thinking very much in terms of public ownership, of transcending capitalism and so on. But at the same time, they had this very Kantian emphasis on ethics, and their notion of freedom was different from ours. Freedom wasn't removing all constraints. Freedom was about transcending your own lower drives and impulses so that you could live in a society with others recognizing their needs and nevertheless not feeling impeded. When your own wishes became synonymous with your recognition of the needs of others, then you truly would live freely in a social setting. So they had both this very ethical focus on the here and now, on the individual, on life within their small group, and at the same time they were campaigning for the socialist society. So again, not unique, but a bit more distinctive. They added another level and that is that Artur's wife, Dora, who was Jewish and who was quite a lot younger than him, had as a child been very influenced by Jacques Dalcroze's Eurythmics, which was a way of learning music, but also thinking about the relationship between music and the body and rhythm and movement. I should say this is all happening in the Ruhr area and the industrial area of the Ruhr in northwest Germany with centers in Essen and Wuppertal and some of the other cities of the Ruhr. And in Essen, Dora founded a school for Eurythmics and begins to develop her own approach to new ways of thinking about the body and movement. And a lot of people who come into the Bund and people who first encountered it through their experiences studying gymnastics and what the Germans would call Körperbildung, body training, with Dora. And so the group also has this strong component of kind of physicality and of trying to get to what they understood as a return to a sort of natural relationship to the body. And one of the things that fascinated me about the group, when I first met members of them, was precisely this relationship between this understanding of the body and movement and the way in which they'd managed to act and sustain themselves.

AARON CAIN: That was something that really struck me when I was reading it, too, because here we have a story of these people who are helping people, who are rescuing people, who are saving lives and yet, in a way, it seems strangely inevitable, given those two things, the complete physical commitment to something - the idea that you weren't intellectually separated in your idealism, you were physically living it, you were building it in your body - and also this ethical commitment, the notion that you simply couldn't be free unless you were helping as much as you possibly could. So, reading the stories seems a little bit like what happens if the Nazis would have been nice? You have a charismatic leader, you have this physical commitment, you have this desire to indoctrinate the young, all of these things that sounds kind of familiar. And yet they kept making the benign choices. And yet the fact that they help was no less heroic for the fact that it seemed kind of baked in to what they were about. It seemed strangely inevitable. Sorry to interrupt, but that was just one of my observations when reading the book.

MARK ROSEMAN: No, no, I think that’s extremely well observed. So, I would add three things to that. I mean, one thing is I just want to say that perhaps I joined the dots too easy, because actually when I first interviewed members of the group - so this would have been 20 years ago now - most of the people who were still around that I got to talk to from the group were women who'd actually done this gymnastics. And there they were with their still very upright baring, talking to me about how important Dora's approach to gymnastics had been in persuading them that they had to make this ethical choice to oppose Nazism. I just couldn't understand it. I mean, I nodded, I took notes, I recorded what they said, but it made absolutely zero sense to me. What was the link? So whilst I've sort of described it as a unity, in actual fact, I found it quite puzzling for a long time as to exactly what the linkage was for them between this approach to movement and the ethical choices they made. So that's one thing. And the second thing is you're absolutely right that the Nazis draw on the same practices in many ways that the Bund do. They also absorb this youth movement style and the idea of the natural leader. The Nazis, of course, were also interested - particularly the Nazi youth movements - in physical exercise, though there are differences, I would say, there, in terms of the approach to the body. And so one of the questions was whether certain kinds of physical practices have a different moral or political implication to others. You know, was there a sort of naturalness and an organic-ness, a non-regimented character to the way in which the Bund approached? Because it, too, was interested in group movement like the Nazis. They also did group exercises, but they looked rather different. Well, is it significant that they look different, or is it simply a sign of being in a different cultural space, but nevertheless has no implication for the politics? You know, this is a question. But the fact is that both The  Bund and the Nazis drew on aspects of kind of Weimar style, Weimar milieu. And in a way, the Bund in its ability to withstand benefited from that, because I think without that kind of strong sense of loyalty within the group, they probably couldn't have withstood the pressures and would have just gone with the flow. And at the same time, because they have this side to their activity of engaging in physical movement and so on, that gave them a little bit of camouflage. I mean, one shouldn't take it too far, but there are accounts from Bund members of house searches by Gestapo where the Gestapo comes across some of this literature and it looks like some harmless sect that would have been basically sympathetic to the Nazis. So in that sense, the similarities, such as they were, sometimes give them a bit of camouflage and sometimes give them a bit of steel. After the war, I think they suffered because when young people looked at them, the sort of discipline that they asked of their followers and this hierarchical nature felt, I think, to youngsters who were reacting against the thing that they’d supported the Nazis, I think they reacted against those aspects of style that The Bund has. And for that reason, it was very hard for the group to win a new following, which it really desperately wanted to do after the Second World War. And it just sort of fades away. So I think this point that you make, that there are certain linkages between - at least cultural and stylistic similarities between them and the Nazis is absolutely right.

AARON CAIN: There are so many very moving stories in your book from members of the Bund and in many cases, it's the smallest action that makes a big difference. Of course, there's also very significant sacrifices as well. I'm just wondering if there are any stories in particular from this group that you uncovered, that you explored that cling to you more tenaciously than others as you look back at this period?

MARK ROSEMAN: Yes, so many. I encountered the group originally because I was actually writing another book about a young woman who survived living illegally in Nazi Germany, a young German Jewish woman for two years. And she survived.

AARON CAIN: This Marianne Strauss? This is from your other book A Past in Hiding?

MARK ROSEMAN: A Past in Hiding. Yeah. And she survives thanks to the group. And I wrote that book very much from her vantage point and of course has things about the Bund and in it, but I didn't at that point have access to much of their materials. So I wasn't writing it from the history group. But I always knew that I wanted to write their history. And I think some of the most remarkable things that they did relate to her because she was an absolute stranger to them before 1942. And then they sort of begin to make contact because they're reaching out to the Jewish community and she's working in the Jewish community offices. And she's also engaged to the son of the person who's the head of the Jewish community at that time before they're deported. And so in this way, the group gets to know her and the connection between her and Artur gets closer. And then at some point they offer her help because I guess they identify in her somebody who maybe has the resource to be able to cope with a life on the run and she takes it. So here we have a series of encounters with group members who don't know this young woman and they're putting her up and so on. And so just some examples. Marianne and her family was still able through reasons that had nothing to do with the book and to remain in the Ruhr when most other German Jews had already been deported. But their luck runs out and the Gestapo turns up in the house and Marianne manages to slip away and goes on the run. She then that evening goes to the apartment of one of the Bund members and so begins her life spent over the next two years staying with members. During the next few days, the rest of her family are being held in a jail in Essen because the Gestapo doesn't believe that Marianne is going to  last very long and they don't want to admit the fact that they've actually lost somebody. And during that time when the family were in jail, the Bund sends one of its members to visit them under some pretext - I don't know what it was - and manages from what we know to convey some sign so that the family knew that the daughter was alive and safe. And so at least when they were then sent off to Theresienstadt and eventually to Auschwitz, at least they knew that one of the family had a chance of surviving and did survive. Well, you know, that took enormous courage. Bund members managed to pull stuff off that you wouldn't have thought possible. For example, we can document that they sent hundreds, quite possibly thousands of parcels to Jews who'd been deported to Poland. And then when that was no longer possible, at least still to Jews who had been deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. You just can't imagine the value of these. And in fact, the German title of Lives Reclaimed is a quotation from one of those letters, “du bist nicht ganz verlassen,” “you're not” - because what one of the survivors of Theresienstadt wrote from the Deggendorf Displaced Persons camp to the person in the group who had known her before she was deported and saying, you know, even more than the value of the foodstuffs that arrived in the parcels was this sign that you are not forgotten. You've not been left - this sign that somebody remembered you, somebody appreciated your humanity. And I think the symbolic weight of those gestures - and one of the things I wanted to do was sort of move away from some simplistic notion of rescue to look at the broader palette of gestures, some of which were only symbolic, but at least showed the recipients that there were people who recognized their humanity, who rejected what was happening to them and who, as far as they could, were giving moral and, where they could, material and practical support.

AARON CAIN: I was wondering if you could pursue that a little bit further, because you've mentioned rescue and that word and the word resistance are both in the subtitle of your book, Lives Reclaimed. And they are two recurring elements in the history of Nazi Germany and in the study of the Second World War and the Holocaust. How has your work in general, and because of lives reclaimed in particular, changed your own thinking about rescue and resistance? Actually, I might be asking the wrong question. Maybe I should be asking, how do you think it should change how historians view rescue and resistance?

MARK ROSEMAN: Yeah, I think that's a very good question. And of course, it brings us back to that point you made earlier that one's not just thinking about the history, one's also thinking about the history of history writing, so where does it fit in the historiography of resistance and rescue? I think - well, let me take rescue first, because I think it's in relation to rescue that it's having more of an impact than resistance, where the historiography was already more differentiated. Although we're very sort of familiar with the notion of rescue in the Holocaust, it's actually surprising how recent it is that historians have really begun to engage with it. I think there's no other aspect of the Holocaust where our perceptions have been so strongly colored, not by scholarship, but by practices of commemoration. Our image of what a rescue is and what a rescuer looks like is dominated by this notion of the Righteous of the Nations, which the memorial site, Yad Vashem in Israel, which has this special program, has constructed. And the picture that they give is of the righteous individual who out of goodness of heart acts. And what they're seeking to recognize is those individuals, which is a very laudable thing. And this means that many individuals have indeed over the decades - it sort of starts in the 60s, but it really begins to expand the 70s and 80s as more nations become interested in having their own citizens recognized. But, in fact, it led to a rather misleading understanding of where one should place one's attention and what rescue actually is. In the 80s, we see psychologists and ethicists following Yad Vashem’s lead and trying to understand what it is that makes the righteous rescuer tick. And in fact, not only did they sort of take this notion of the righteous, they often interviewed people who had been recognized. It was a sort of readymade list of the righteous who then could be interviewed to try and work out what was it that made them tick. And often there was a sort of present ist impulse that if one could understand it and bottle it - and I don't mean to be dismissive, but, you know, if you could identify those features, you would then have the makings of civil courage and civil strength for the present and the future. Whereas I think much of this really is a retrospective construct. And as historians have begun to move into the field, we’ve sort of begun to understand how different the actual history looks. And this is where my book comes in. For a start - particularly in Germany but you see this also elsewhere - very often when people survive, they survive as a result of a series of gestures from different people and a great deal of individual initiative on the part of themselves. And if they're really lucky, at the end of this, they emerge and they've survived. Have they been rescued? Well, yes, in some senses. But it's not that simple action of one individual that is the rescue. You haven't just been pulled out in a single sweep from the maelstrom and find yourself in safety on the bank by the side of the river. Instead it's a complicated trajectory. And what one's trying to understand is that trajectory. That often means thinking about networks - informal or more formal networks involved – I t means thinking about environments. It also means thinking about the resources that you bring to the table. Even if your helpers are well disposed, it's not easy for them to support you as well. And so if you have resources at your disposal and you have some wealth, that will make a difference in your ability to assist those helping you to assist you. Sometimes it's much more mercenary. And that doesn't apply here to the Bund, which really was driven by ideas. But nevertheless, it's a network. It's not just one upstanding individual. The network itself puts pressure on individuals who perhaps wouldn't have acted on their own. We can sort of reconstruct that at least some of them had some rather not particularly favorable attitudes towards Jews at the start. So it's not necessarily driven by an understanding of Jews’ predicament initially, but the group ethos pushes them in the right direction and so on. So what I'm doing is, if you like, recovering this much messier and more complex story of the lived experience, of a gesture of help here and a gesture of help there, and the wider palette of possible actions which may not lead to somebody surviving as against this rather monolinear and personalized and over moralized understanding of rescue, which until recently has really been dominant in the way that we've seen it. Resistance, also, I have some things to say, but I think it's in relation to rescue that it has a more profound intervention.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM STORY’S “RIVERINE”)

AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU, our guest today is Mark Roseman, professor of history and author of Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany.

Here we are about 100 years after The Bund was founded. I'm wondering if you see anything in the world around you right now that reminds you of them.

MARK ROSEMAN: Well, certainly they show the power of small gestures. One's been very conscious in the last few years in Trump's America of the way in which all sorts of groups have sought to give each other comfort, to mobilize, to reach out to others, thinking about the groups that form to assist illegal migrants, those churches that have stepped up to offer refuge, the many civil society groups that have stepped in to assist, the lawyers that are acting pro bono and so on. These feel like similar, sort of, small gestures to those who are not facing necessarily threats to their lives, although some are in the sense that when they're sent back, they find themselves in a very dangerous situation, but nevertheless are being pursued by a very hostile state. Something that I also see is the way in which the experience of the last few years in the present helps one understand aspects of the past differently. And perhaps that's even more powerful. As I was writing Lives Reclaimed, for example, I think I hadn't fully recognized, although I read it in the Bund's own words - I should say one aspect of the Bund that's really fascinating and I think made them such a wonderful group to study is not only what they did, but also how much they recorded of what they did. There's not only things that they wrote after the war looking back, but there's also so much material that survives, diaries and letters and reports actually from the war years themselves. So one really does have an absolutely remarkable opportunity to look at the way in which experience and later reflection shed light on each other, and the differences that emerge. And one of the things that the Bund wrote afterwards was about the difficulties of living alongside neighbors who supported the regime. And when I read that initially I was thinking about something that we know, that a lot of the Gestapo's actions under the Nazis were initiated by denunciations from the public. And so I was thinking that what they meant was there was the ever-present danger that somebody might see something and turn you in. But I have to say, living in Trump's America, I realized that wasn't what they were talking about. What they were talking about was that almost as big a problem, perhaps even a bigger problem than the direct threat of persecution, was how demoralizing it was to live alongside so many people supporting a regime that seemed so abhorrent. And of course, I'm not comparing the Nazis with Trump, but nevertheless, this sense of not just individuals, but also institutions that you had always thought knew better, comfortably accommodating themselves to values and practices that feel really abhorrent. So this sense of hopelessness and this sense of relative isolation that they felt suddenly took on a slightly different cast. And obviously, I don't want to overdramatize the situation of anybody living in Trump's America. Obviously, they're not comparable. Nevertheless, it opened the window as each moment in the present opened certain windows on the past and perhaps others - things that are harder to see. And that was something that became visible and made me all the more respectful for the way in which they pull themselves together, the energy they found to sustain the inner life within the group and to make those small gestures.

AARON CAIN: It seems to me that you might have the opportunity to have these windows opened on many occasions, that you have an annually renewed resource of insight into how events of the past are being interpreted in the present, and also how events in the present are being contextualized through a greater understanding of the past. And that's in the form of the many students that you've had over the years through their questions and their reactions. What sorts of things have you learned about how young people are interpreting the past and contextualizing their present?

MARK ROSEMAN: That's a great question. I mean, one of the things that I've sort of interesting for a long time is the role of generations in history. When we talk about generations, we tend to be thinking about youth and there's middle age and there's the elderly. So there are these series of life phases that one goes through. And of course, as you go through them, who counts as elderly? It gets steadily more older. So they're not necessarily completely stable. But anyway, there are these phases in life and of course, those evolve in the long term as the way in which societies think about what it is to be young and who counts as young and adolescence and so on change. But the other way we think about generations is particular cohorts people who are born between x year and x year form, you know, generation X, generation Z, millennials and so on. These are terms we bandy about. And generations can be a powerful way of thinking about historical change, because the way in which a society evolves often involves a sort of delayed effect, as a generation that did have or didn't have an experience of the preceding generation gradually ages into power. At that point, that experience or that absence of an experience becomes then politically determinative. In other words, instead of looking for a mechanism, this happens and therefore this happens. Actually, it can work over the long term. This happens and it takes a long time before the societal consultation is such that the group that's been shaped by that experience and not by another experience is at the fore, once continually reminded of that in interacting with students. And what's really amazing now is to have students in the classroom who have no memory of 9/11; who were born after 9/11 or who were so young that 9/11 had no presence. Now they are shaped by the America that emerged in the wake of 9/11. So in that sense, it's part of their DNA, but they're not quite aware of it. And I often thought that 9/11 is a fascinating example for historians. In any case, I mean, apart from the horrors and the direct impact on U.S. foreign policy and all that, because when one looks at the way in which 9/11 is remembered, we remember it above all as an attack, the horrors of those who lost their lives, the incorrect nature of the foreign policy decisions that were then taken in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan, and so on. And I think that what we forget - because it's not a comfortable memory or it's something that's gone a bit underground - is how frightened we were for 24 hours. And I actually wasn't even in the U.S. then. I was still in the U.K. then. But I still remember this vividly. There wasn't quite clear where the president was. It looked like perhaps there were more explosions and then the fall, there was this few hours when it seemed like the nation was rudderless and out of control. That fundamental fear became part of the subtext, but it wasn't talked about. And so as this generation has aged, they've aged into a country which has been subliminally shaped by that fear. But it wasn't part of what they were learning about 9/11. Now, exactly how that's playing out and how it will shape their identity, as I'm sure there are a million different ways. And it's hard to make any direct connection between one cataclysmic experience and political choices of an entire generation, even massive things like the First World War. People go through it and they draw all sorts of conclusions. But talking to students and being aware of what's directly on their radars and not does make one so conscious of these generational shifts, these cohort shifts, the imperceptibly alter the mental and cultural landscape of any given present living through a period of uncertainty, as we have in recent years, and being genuinely unsure of what the future will hold was a wonderful eye-opener for thinking about what it is that those who are living through that period of uncertainty in the 30s and 40s were dealing with and recognition that in some way. And this comes back to the point about hindsight. Again, hindsight is also, to a certain extent, blindsight. Yes, you know where it's going. And that helps you pose certain kinds of questions. But you have to kind of let go of that knowledge if you really want to recapture what it was for actors in the moment. That's the present, helping us grasp the past. But what does the past do to help us gain the present? Well, perhaps it's banal, but you know, what I found so inspiring about the Bund was that with this eye to the big picture, they took small things so seriously. I mean, this, I think, was their absolute strength. They had a vision of societal change. They felt themselves to be part of a long-term trend of humanity; towards a more rational and better society. They thought that in the long-term history was on their side. But in the meantime, their job was to make sure that they were making day-to-day ethical choices. They took risks, but they weren't constantly putting their lives on the line. They remained within the realm of the possible. They weren't fearless. They were brave, but they were far from fearless. And that commitment to the practical. What can I do? What's reasonable? And never mind that this is so far short of that heroic, grander thing that I'd like to see down the street that I find inspiring. And I think the challenge is to hold on to the real, the substantial, the practical, even as you hope that the wider societal scene will move in a larger direction well beyond the scope of what you as an individual can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM STORY’S “THE PERFECT FLAW”)

AARON CAIN: Mark Roseman, thank you for your diligent and your thoughtful work. And thank you for speaking with me today.

MARK ROSEMAN: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure.

AARON CAIN: Mark Roseman, author of Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. Mark Roseman is a distinguished professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)

For more information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, go to WFIU.org/profiles. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Jillian Burley. The studio engineer is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us again next week for another edition of Profiles.

Mark Roseman

Mark Roseman (Photo Courtesy of Mark Roseman)

Mark Roseman is a historian who's work focuses on modern German history and the History of the Holocaust. He is a Distinguished Professor of History at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he is also the Pat M. Glazer Chair in Jewish studies.

Roseman is the author of A Past in Hiding and The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution. His most recent book is Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. It’s an account of The Bund, a small group of German idealists whose often daring acts of kindness aided many who were persecuted under the Nazi regime.

He is the recipient of a number of prestigious prizes, including the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Fraenkel Prize in contemporary history, and one of Germany’s foremost literary awards, the Geschwister Scholl Prize. 

Mark Roseman joined Aaron Cain for a conversation in the WFIU studios.

 

Music Heard On This Episode

Loading...
Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About Profiles