Unwant­ed Lega­cies: Shar­ing the Bur­den of Post-Geno­cide Generations

Got­tfried Wag­n­er & Abra­ham J. Peck
  • Review
By – October 22, 2014

How does a post-Geno­cide soci­ety come to terms with the crimes it com­mit­ted? How do the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of the per­petrators and vic­tims find a path to reconcili­ation and under­stand­ing and break the cycle of hate, mis­trust, guilt, and shame to fash­ion a new and health­i­er rela­tion­ship? Rab­bi Irv­ing Yitz” Green­berg once remarked that a telling para­dox of the Holo­caust is that the inno­cent feel guilty and the guilty inno­cent.” Obvi­ous­ly Ger­mans born after World War II have no respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Shoah, and chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors have no rea­son to feel shame or guilt. Yet they do. Unwant­ed Lega­cies is the sto­ry of a two-decade unlike­ly friend­ship and con­ver­sa­tion between Got­tfried Wag­n­er, the great-grand­son of com­pos­er Rich­ard Wag­n­er, a noto­ri­ous anti-Semi­te, whose music inspired Adolf Hitler and whose fam­i­ly helped the Nazis rise to pow­er, and Pro­fes­sor Abra­ham Peck, the child of Holo­caust sur­vivors whose extend­ed fam­i­lies were mur­dered by the Nazis. 

Wagner’s nar­ra­tive is rich and his­tor­i­cal. Estranged from his father and grand­moth­er when he decid­ed as a young man to con­front and expose their ter­ri­ble past, he has been de­nounced by oth­ers in the fam­i­ly who want­ed to con­tin­ue the lega­cy of Bayreuth and cleanse it. He chose even­tu­al­ly to pur­sue a career as a musi­col­o­gist, move to Italy, con­vert to Catholi­cism — against his deeply Protes­tant fam­i­ly lega­cy — and con­front and reject his past. 

Peck’s sto­ry is also deeply per­son­al and pow­er­ful and focus­es on the Amer­i­can jour­ney of his Holo­caust sur­vivor par­ents as they strug­gled to make a place for them­selves and their son in a soci­ety that received them condition­ally and half­heart­ed­ly. It is also a reflec­tion on the merg­ing of Peck’s per­son­al his­to­ry with his schol­ar­ship, teach­ing, and oth­er impres­sive pro­fes­sion­al accom­plish­ments as he fash­ioned his career as a Holo­caust and geno­cide scholar-teacher-activist. 

At times the con­ver­sa­tion that focused on the Ger­man-Jew­ish rela­tion­ship after the Shoah was dif­fi­cult and painful, even lead­ing to a tem­po­rary hia­tus. Through it all it was char­ac­ter­ized by hon­esty and integri­ty and the mutu­al com­mit­ment to tra­vers­ing the Ger­man-Jew­ish divide result­ing from their shared and unwant­ed lega­cies. As read­ers of this fas­ci­nat­ing and rich text, we are edi­fied and encour­aged for if Ger­mans and Jews can speak as friends and explore their pasts, then there is hope that the vic­tims of oth­er geno­cides — the Hutus and Tut­si, the Serbs and Bosni­ans, the Arme­ni­ans and Turks — may find a lan­guage and mech­a­nism to make reconcili­ation and heal­ing pos­si­ble. This is a mas­ter­ful and sen­si­tive­ly writ­ten book that con­firms that we can con­front our past and embrace it and build new lega­cies that are life-affirm­ing and not deter­mined by the crimes and expe­ri­ences of our predecessors.

Relat­ed content:

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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