Those Who For­get: My Fam­i­ly’s Sto­ry in Nazi Europe – A Mem­oir, A His­to­ry, A Warning

Géral­dine Schwarz, Lau­ra Mar­ris (trans.)

  • Review
By – February 16, 2021

Born in 1974 to a Ger­man father and a French moth­er, author Géral­dine Schwarz has shoul­dered both coun­tries’ twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry his­to­ry and car­ried it with her into the twen­ty-first. Her explo­ration of the past is the basis for Those Who For­get, a book about the dam­age caused by will­ful for­get­ting, and the sub­se­quent neces­si­ty of engag­ing in what Schwarz terms mem­o­ry work” — fac­ing the past and acknowl­edg­ing his­tor­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty. This, she argues, is how to build the future.

Schwartz began her inquiry with her own fam­i­ly, curi­ous about what life had been like for them dur­ing World War II. Did they sup­port the Nazis? Did they help Jews?

She learned that her pater­nal grand­par­ents did not dis­tin­guish them­selves in any way, but rather were Mitläufer, those who fol­lowed the cur­rent,” like so many oth­er Ger­mans of the time. They were not heroes and they were not vil­lains, but unre­mark­able peo­ple born at the dawn of a cursed century.”

Schwarz is not the first to write about how fol­low­ing the cur­rent helped facil­i­tate the Nazi geno­cide; in 1992, Christo­pher Brown­ing pub­lished Ordi­nary Men, a study of a Ger­man reserve police bat­tal­ion for which the abnor­mal became nor­mal. Unlike Browning’s ordi­nary men, Schwarz’s grand­fa­ther did not direct­ly par­tic­i­pate in round­ing up or killing Jews. But he did take advan­tage of Nazi laws to pur­chase a busi­ness from Jew­ish own­ers who were forced to sell it at a great­ly reduced price. Under Nazi rule, such a forced sale was legal. When one of the orig­i­nal three own­ers sur­vived the war and then claimed com­pen­sa­tion, Schwarz’s grand­fa­ther was out­raged. After all, he and his fam­i­ly had also suf­fered dur­ing the war, he rea­soned. Schwartz notes that, by cast­ing him­self as a vic­tim of the war, her grand­fa­ther had sur­rep­ti­tious­ly slipped into pos­ing as a vic­tim of the Jews.”

Schwarz won­dered how such an out­look was pos­si­ble. How could her grand­par­ents and so many oth­ers like them have ignored what was hap­pen­ing in their coun­try, to their neighbors?

Her grand­par­ents were no longer liv­ing by the time she was old enough to ask such ques­tions, but the angst they caused her led her to pur­sue answers with­in her own fam­i­ly and through the study of his­to­ry. Schwarz, who now lives in Berlin and is a jour­nal­ist, writer, and doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er, asked the same ques­tions of her mother’s par­ents and dis­cov­ered that they, too, went along with the polit­i­cal cli­mate of the time.

The result of Schwarz’s explo­rations and her deter­mi­na­tion to find answers to her ques­tions is a work that — as its sub­ti­tle indi­cates — is part mem­oir, part his­to­ry, part warn­ing. She has skill­ful­ly woven togeth­er the threads of major and minor his­to­ry,” to offer us lessons for today. At the same time, Schwarz does not let the Holo­caust lose its unique­ness or become blunt­ed by false equivalencies.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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