I learned a new word today while reading Ariana Neuman’s review of The Bohemians by Norman Ohler, in the August 16, 2020 New York Times Book Review. The book is about resistance to the Nazis. The German author tells a true story of a brave young couple but the reviewer is particularly struck by the author’s account of learning from his own grandfather that he was too afraid do anything when he saw a child’s hand reaching out from a freight train guarded by the SS. She writes: “Vergangenheitbewältigung is an amalgamation of the German words Vergangenheit, ‘the past,’ and Bewältigung, ‘coping with,’ and is often used to describe the effort to grapple with the repercussions of World War II.” The families not only of Holocaust victims but also of perpetrators, resistors and witnesses carry a shadowed inheritance that continues to affect them.
We lack any such evocative and descriptive term in English to reference the reverberations of our fathers’ war experiences. The absence of a vocabulary does not mean the absence of the corresponding shadow that haunted their lives and impacted ours. One lesson I learned powerfully working on this book is just how widely the ripples of war spread in time and space – far beyond where the bombs explode.
If we are going to learn the lessons of Vergangenheitbewältigung, we need to be willing to look at our past and ask the questions about how it can teach us to do better in the future. Never again!