"My father said it is important for us to feel ashamed."
I was sitting on the floor of my friend´s studio apartment in the northern German city I call home. A group of us were huddled around an overturned crate doubling as a makeshift table. Cards from an earlier game lay scattered on its surface.
I inhaled, locking eyes with the speaker. For a moment I hesitated. I´ve had this conversation many times before. Did I have the energy to have it again?
I exhaled "I don´t agree with that. Shame isn´t productive."
Since moving to Germany last year, I´ve discovered a pervasive theme in German society. Shame. It is common to publicly shame others who aren´t following the rules. It is proper to be ashamed of your country. Germans carry around a deep shame, they are ashamed to be German. They are ashamed of their past. They are ashamed of the Holocaust. That is their deepest shame: what their parents and grandparents did to the Jews, their unfeeling, brutal, and systematic slaughter of neighbors, friends, compatriots. That is the root of their shame. And I, as a Jewish woman, am nothing but a walking shame trigger.
I recognize that this shame is created out of good intention. It is created out of an effort to educate a population about a dark and horrifying cultural legacy. It is created in an attempt to kill those sentiments which led to genocide. But this shame is not productive, it does not prevent hatred, instead, it fosters it. Hatred is born of fear and ignorance. Shame is their breeder.
Shame begets defensiveness. Shame does not beget reflection. When we are ashamed of something, we want to push it away, bury it deep, avoid it. We don´t want to be reminded of our shame. We want to distance ourselves from it. We want to distance ourselves from anything that reminds us of it.
For many Germans, what Germany did to Jews is the source of their shame. Thereby, the mention of Jews, or a Jewish person, reminds them of this shame, triggers it. They become defensive, and they want to distance themselves from it. I´ve found over and over, that upon discovering I´m Jewish, people here become defensive. They become distant. They become uncomfortable.
I am a reminder of their shame. I am a ghost. In Germany, children are not educated about Jews. They are educated about dead Jews. Jews were here. They were murdered, now we are ashamed. What do you do when you see a ghost?
I am a Jew walking among them, but I am supposed to be dead. I am their shame walking among them, but I´m supposed to remain in their history books.
Here is my message to my German peers: I don´t want your shame. Don´t force your shame on me. Your shame cannot revive my family. They remain as dust forever rising from Auschwitz. Your shame will not make sure that this "never" happens "again". Your shame will ensure that it does. Because your shame breeds fear, your shame makes you shy away from me, too afraid to look me in the eye, too scared to get to know me. You shame makes you back away from me when I´m looking for human connection. Your shame keeps a distance between us, it prevents us from becoming friends. Your shame makes you dislike Jews, because you see us as the source of your pain. Your shame breeds ignorance. It prevents you from learning about living Jews and from calling them family. Your shame is why anti-semitism persists in Germany, it is why it´s still unsafe to be Jewish here.
I´m not asking you to look away from your country and your family´s history. I´m asking you to look right at it. Look at it, in all its complexity. Feel the pain and sorrow of what has happened, of what your country did, of what your grandparents fought for or at very least, allowed. Sit with the weight of your legacy of genocide, of hate, of death, and really feel it. But do not feel ashamed. Feel the suffering, and then commit to the responsibility that comes with it. Commit to creating a better world, one which is open, one which is kind, one which is not hateful. Commit to this meaningfully, because you understand your unique responsibility, as the grandchildren of the people who committed one of the most horrific crimes of human history. Be an ally to your friends: jewish, black, queer, muslim. Open your heart to them when they share their stories, and do not shy away. Stay with them in their pain, and assure them that you see them, and you will support them. Educate yourself about Jewish culture, visit your local synagogue or travel to Israel.
I am asking a lot of you - I am asking you to reflect on the suffering caused by your people, reflect on the ways you may still participate in perpetuating it, and with this in mind, to take responsibility and make your country a better place for minorities.
My dear German peers, I do not want your shame. I want your support, your understanding, your friendship.
About: Mia Szarvas was born in Vermont to an Israeli father and Italian-American mother, raised in California, and currently lives in Bremen, Germany. Her grandmother, Marta, escaped from Poland in August of 1939 with her parents and sister, with whom she set up a new life in Palestine, while the family they left behind perished in the Holocaust. Mia has a degree in Political Ecology from the University of California, Berkeley, and works in tech to create empowerment in unexpected places. She is curious about multiculturalism, languages, feminism, and how our intertwined histories inform the present.
Follow Mia´s art project "Humans Who Inspire" on Instagram @humanswhoinspire. Mia draws portraits of humans who inspire her as a meditation on the multitude of incredible humans working to make the world a better place. She also accepts requests and submissions.
Photo of Mia Szarvas by Elena Sloman