In her first install­ment of Col­lec­tive Guilt vs. Col­lec­tive Fear,” Randy Susan Mey­ers wrote about an essay in which the writer met with an elder­ly for­mer SS offi­cer. Her newest nov­el, The Com­fort of Lies, is now avail­able. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

It is obvi­ous that the war which Hitler and his accom­plices waged was a war not only against Jew­ish men, women, and chil­dren, but also against Jew­ish reli­gion, Jew­ish cul­ture, Jew­ish tra­di­tion, there­fore Jew­ish mem­o­ry.” ― Elie Wiesel, Night

Like most Jew­ish chil­dren born in the fifties, the Holo­caust was a con­stant shad­ow. If the Ger­man gen­er­a­tion born after WWII suf­fered from col­lec­tive guilt, try­ing to cast off the shame of their par­ents and grand­par­ents, or con­vince them­selves or the world of the inno­cence of their par­ents and grand­par­ents, the gen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish chil­dren born of the same time, suf­fered from col­lec­tive fear.

I didn’t grow up in a tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish fam­i­ly (if such a thing exists) by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion. The first time I entered a syn­a­gogue was for a friend’s Bar Mitz­vah. But I read vora­cious­ly, and from the time I received my adult’ card at the Brook­lyn Pub­lic Library, I was read­ing accounts — fic­tion and non­fic­tion — of the Holo­caust. The non-fairy tales of my youth were The Diary of Anne Frank, Mila 18, and Night (which then mor­phed to Jubilee and Roots, as I con­flat­ed the hor­rors of slav­ery and con­cen­tra­tion camps into one mass of fright).

I grew up with a sense of doom — part­ly from these sto­ries I con­sumed, part­ly due to my own family’s silence (my pater­nal great-grand­par­ents emi­grat­ed from Ger­many, but I nev­er knew why) and per­haps par­tial­ly the hours spent look­ing at pho­tos my father sent my moth­er from his post in Africa dur­ing WWII. That vast waste­land of desert merged in my mind with the nuclear waste­land I envi­sioned thanks to those ele­men­tary school drills spent under my class­room desk — the desks meant to shield us come the nuclear attack.

I nev­er knew whether it was more like­ly I’d end up a sur­vivor of a bomb, cow­er­ing under a desk, or sleep­ing on a wood­en plank in an Auschwitz-like camp. Sophie’s Choice haunt­ed me after my daugh­ters were born. When I received an engage­ment ring, my crazy first and unbid­den thought was that I could sew it into the lin­ing of my coat if I need­ed to bribe a guard or save a child.

Should I com­pare my fear to the col­lec­tive guilt of gen­er­a­tions grow­ing up on the oth­er side, Ger­man chil­dren nev­er want­i­ng to ques­tion their par­ents or grand­par­ents about their past? Can my inher­it­ed fear help me under­stand why the author of the essay, a woman whose par­ents and grand­par­ents were in Ger­many dur­ing the war and post-war peri­od, want­ed to believe that the meno­rah on dis­play at a SS officer’s house was like­ly to be a gift from a grate­ful patient as it was to be the spoils of war? 

There has been a spate (or per­haps it’s always been there and I am just notic­ing it now) of nov­els about the tri­als of ordi­nary Ger­man cit­i­zens dur­ing the war. Many claim — a belief that seems most com­fort­able for many to live with — that the ordi­nary Ger­man had no clue what was hap­pen­ing. The entire Holo­caust was car­ried about by a small slice of the pop­u­la­tion. Could this near-impos­si­ble-to-believe-asser­tion be pos­si­ble? Or is it true, as report­ed in Back­ing Hitler: Con­sent and Coer­cion in Nazi Germany:

The mass of ordi­nary Ger­mans did know about the evolv­ing ter­ror of Hitler’s Holo­caust, accord­ing to a new research study. They knew con­cen­tra­tion camps were full of Jew­ish peo­ple who were stig­ma­tised (SIC) as sub-human and race-defilers. They knew that these, like oth­er groups and minori­ties, were being killed out of hand.

Does this mat­ter? Do we need to pound on the ques­tion of whether or not men and women in WWII Ger­many did or did not know about the hor­ror unfold­ing around them? Does it mat­ter whether or not this dying-out gen­er­a­tion of SS offi­cers and sol­diers knew what they were doing? That their wives and neigh­bors knew there was a cul­ture of geno­cide dur­ing these years?

For me, yes.

I believe lying and denial increas­es future racial and cul­tur­al ter­rors. Slav­ery bred con­cen­tra­tions camps, which bred Rwan­da, which today breeds

I want to know the plight of the ordi­nary Ger­man cit­i­zen — but I want to know it as it tru­ly was — includ­ing depri­va­tion and hor­ror, but not paint­ing away knowl­edge. I want to know how blind eyes were craft­ed — so these blind­folds can nev­er be made again. I want to know more about the painful her­itage of the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of the peo­ple of Ger­many who did know what was going on. 

Check back on Fri­day for the final install­ment in Col­lec­tive Guilt vs. Col­lec­tive Fear.” Read more about Randy Susan Mey­er­s’s here.

Randy Susan Mey­ers is the best­selling author of Acci­dents of Mar­riage, The Com­fort of Lies, The Murderer’s Daugh­ters, and The Wid­ow of Wall Street. Her books have twice been final­ists for the Mass Book Award and named Must Read Books” by the Mass­a­chu­setts Cen­ter for the Book. She teach­es writ­ing at the Grub Street Writ­ers’ Cen­ter in Boston.