Jewish History

On Speaking and Silence and the Refusal of Historical Accuracy

On the 15th June 1942, My great-grandfather Felix Ganz was imprisoned by the Gestapo. His offence was “Verdeckter Stern”, hiding the yellow Star of David that every Jew had to wear.

Felix was Jewish, of course. But the nature and form of his Jewishness was a complex one. Both his parents are buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Mainz – not the old Jewish cemetery, the Judensand, on the side of a hill with the graves of old Mainz Jewish families, Ganzes and Sichels and Bambergers, Benfeys and Bernays, but the Jewish annex to the new cemetery on the Untere Zahlbacherstrasse where the Jews could build large bourgeois graves like their neighbours on the other side of the fence, where Felix, who had converted, and so was by then a Lutheran, would probably have lain. That cemetery is one place where the breath was knocked from my body as the scale of the thing strikes home. Those solid marble gravestones for the Jews who thought they could live at last as solid citizens in this new united Germany. Each grave was a chance to found a dynasty, and the headstone left space for the names of those to come. That space is still there.

The graves of the next generation, if they have them, are in Hendon and Washington Heights, in Buenos Aires and Melbourne and Tel Aviv. Or they are unmarked heaps of ash in Poland, or Riga. The exodus of the Jews from Mainz, and every other city from Holland to Ukraine, is told in these unlettered meters of polished stone.

Here and there names have been added in acts of assertion, or mourning. There were one or two who despite everything chose to be buried in the town where they were born. And one or two gravestones have been used to proclaim the fate of those who should have been buried there but ended up somewhere else. Deported. Murdered in Auschwitz or starved in Theresienstadt. To whom is this being declared, I wonder? The visitors to the Jewish cemetery will surely know already. Is it an address to history so the silence of the stone does not seem like acquiescence? Or is it a kind of reproach so that even those who died before the madness should not rest peacefully? The dead, too, must learn how their project failed.

That seems as good a way as any to talk about silence so beautifully described in Merilyn’s paper. The silence on which an unwritten text is engraved, but which is louder and more compelling than the one that is written. For me the problem is not just how to talk but how can that silence be broken with something, as powerful, as resonant and above all as particular as the silence which each Second Generation family knows.

This ineffable silence seemed to express so much, respect for the dead, grieving for those who were lost, both telling and refusing to tell the enormity of what happened. Rage at those who did it and those who didn’t prevent it. And a visceral scream at the injustice of the world. Silence seemed to be the only way to express the immensity of what had happened.

That power of silence is, of course, an illusion. The silence doesn’t communicate. It isolates further. As Merilyn said, the problem is not just the question of knowing, but of coping with knowing. Even after speaking there will be no grandparent. And when the silence is broken what could we find instead? If speaking is to take on the same specificity and eloquence as silence, then breaking the silence isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. If speaking is to help in dealing with the ghosts and nightmares we imbibed from our parents, how can we learn to give shape and form to the dead relatives without being overwhelmed by quantities of ash. The thing about grandparents is, I believe, that they love and value you not because of how you are, but just because you are. Without knowing them it’s hard to return the compliment.

The archives offer clues. That was where I learned about Felix’s imprisonment, and that’s where I read, neatly folded in a Gestapo file, a beautiful letter that he wrote to his second wife from prison. In another I found a shoebox of tiny notes, like frozen tears, begging the authorities for knowledge of missing relatives. Paper by then was contraband for Jews. The archives can help us learn the scale and the particularity of what happened to the missing generations. And here I must remember that I can use the word “murdered”, if I choose.

And when we have exhausted what can be discovered, we can find other ways. We aren’t necessarily bound by the rules or obligations of history, which, after all, treated our ancestors so harshly and left us bereft. When we’ve spoken at last and at length about our loss, when we’ve done our best to find out all we can, fiction and song and image and cartoon can help us to recreate the grandparents we needed and tell the terrible story of their eradication, and how through us something somehow floated to safety. Like writers before us, we can simply make it up.


  1. This is a wonderful essay. I am grateful to have read it.

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