In her first two install­ments of Col­lec­tive Guilt vs. Col­lec­tive Fear,” Randy Susan Mey­ers wrote about an essay in which the writer met with an elder­ly for­mer SS offi­cer and the plight of the ordi­nary Ger­man cit­i­zen dur­ing World War II. Her newest nov­el, The Com­fort of Lies, is now avail­able. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

The schools would fail through their silence, the Church through its for­give­ness, and the home through the denial and silence of the par­ents. The new gen­er­a­tion has to hear what the old­er gen­er­a­tion refus­es to tell it.” ― Simon Wiesenthal

I worked for many years with bat­ter­ers — men who were adju­di­cat­ed into a pro­gram for domes­tic vio­lence pre­ven­tion, men who had beat­en, hit, punched, and some­times killed their wives. They sat and stared at me, deny­ing with the most inno­cent of eyes the very crimes I had laid out in pho­tos in front of me.

She ran into my fist.

I grabbed her arm and then she ran in cir­cles around me, and that is how she broke her own arm.

She had a soft head, and that is why she died when her head hit the iron railing.

Peo­ple ask if the men ever changed and my answer remains the same: only if they are able to face their crimes and cru­el­ty. Denial, and the shame these men felt (whether shame at being caught, shame at hurt­ing peo­ple they should have loved, or shame at their hid­den crimes being brought into the bright sun­light), blocked their change. How do you change if you can’t admit what happened?

Ques­tions of shame and guilt spill to the next gen­er­a­tion in fam­i­lies where domes­tic vio­lence occurs. Are chil­dren of abusers doomed to abuse or be abused? Can they inher­it a denial of famil­ial guilt, which pre­vents them from com­fort in their own skin and belief in their memories? 

Does aware­ness that your peo­ple were killed in vast num­bers (for being Jew­ish, which you are) leave one for­ev­er frightened? 

What does it do to the fright­ened, to have that past denied? 

What does it do to the chil­dren of per­pe­tra­tors of vio­lence? How does one put togeth­er love for a par­ent even in light of feel­ing revul­sion for the deeds they did or the beliefs they carried? 

Should there be a scale of pain and jus­tice here, for these gen­er­a­tions now and future? Or should we accept that every­one is the star of their own show, that pain is always relative? 

For me, it’s all in the truth. I take no com­fort in lies, half-truths, and fairy tales. 

I learned from my sci­en­tist hus­band that what is, is. This les­son crys­tal­ized for me when, after a life­time of try­ing to run from fac­ing issues of fluc­tu­at­ing weight issues, I learned truth could be free­ing. Like most women, the size of my dress rules my mood, while at the same time I veil myself from accept­ing the real­i­ty of that num­ber. Pic­tures where I looked like a whale? Bad cam­era. Skirts tight­en­ing beyond the abil­i­ty to but­ton? Must be shrink­age at the dry clean­ers. Don’t think about those waist­bands. Put on an elas­ti­cized skirt. 

What is, is. 

After a life­time of avoid­ing the scale, I began weigh­ing myself. And con­tin­ued to weigh myself every day. And, know­ing the truth, I lost weight.

When a nation faces truth, per­haps the psy­chic weight begins to fall away and col­lec­tive guilt lifts. Recent­ly a series on Ger­man tele­vi­sion, Our Moth­ers, Our Fathers, gripped the nation. Accord­ing to War His­to­ry Online:

Review­ers have praised the dra­ma for break­ing new ground by show­ing how the Nazi sys­tem reached into every cor­ner of life. Chris­t­ian Buss, a cul­ture edi­tor for the mag­a­zine Spiegel, wrote in a review of the dra­ma that while the ques­tion of Ger­mans’ col­lec­tive guilt had been resolved, the role of indi­vid­u­als remained unclear.

Who has had the con­ver­sa­tion with their own par­ents and grand­par­ents about the moral fail­ings of their elders?” he wrote. The his­to­ry of the Third Reich has been exam­ined down to the lev­el of Hitler’s dog while our own fam­i­ly his­to­ry is a deep dark crater.”

I want to see this series. The clos­est I can come to leav­ing my fear is by under­stand­ing how a vast num­ber of peo­ple turned to evil — and that they are will­ing to exam­ine it right. Pre­tend­ing that nobody in their fam­i­ly ever knew what was going on is far more fright­en­ing. If a tiny por­tion of a nation could tru­ly com­mit such hor­rors with nobody know­ing but the small­est hand­ful of peo­ple — what hope does a fright­ened child have? If the grand­chil­dren of Amer­i­can slaves are told, nobody knew it was hap­pen­ing,” why should they believe it couldn’t hap­pen quite eas­i­ly again? 

When I vis­it­ed the Holo­caust Muse­um in Wash­ing­ton DC the exhib­it which most cap­ti­vat­ed me was a film of sur­vivors talk­ing about their expe­ri­ence — in spe­cif­ic, a man who said that while he was in the camps he thanked God each day in his prayers. I don’t remem­ber the exact words, but the essence was this:

What are you thank­ing God for?” he was asked.

I am thank­ing God for not mak­ing me him,” he said, ges­tur­ing towards the guard.

There is pain in par­tic­i­pat­ing in evil — espe­cial­ly if one feels bul­lied into that involve­ment. Choos­ing a path of right­eous­ness is always eas­i­er in one’s imag­in­ings, but it’s also true that evil flour­ish­es best in silence.

Com­pas­sion towards those who feel forced to par­tic­i­pate in some­thing as enor­mous­ly evil as slav­ery or geno­cide (whether in Arme­nia, Rwan­da, or Ger­many) is a kind­ness that can only be met­ed out when a per­pe­tra­tor acknowl­edges his or her role. A wronged com­mu­ni­ty needs jus­tice and truth to reach reconciliation.

Anti-Semi­tism, racism, and hier­ar­chies of cul­tur­al, racial, and reli­gious pow­er are alive and well. Com­pas­sion towards per­pe­tra­tors of evil (and those who blind­ed them­selves to the evil next door) must be leav­ened with keep­ing truth in place. Smoth­er­ing real­i­ty with blan­kets of kind­ness is in the end no kind­ness: not if our goal is pre­vent­ing future gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren from liv­ing in 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.