late May I returned once more to my birth place, Frankfurt on Main, accompanied
by my wife Sally, my three children, and a daughter-in-law. The occasion
was an exhibition commemorating the life and death of my mother, and the
millions of other victims of the Holocaust. Sponsored by the municipal
Jewish Museum of Frankfurt, the exhibition was entitled: "Zum Verstummen
gebracht... (A Voice Silenced) - the Frankfurt Opera Singer Leonore Schwarz-Neumaier
(1889-1942)". The art exhibition was created by my daughter Diane
Leonore Neumaier, a professor of art photography at Rutgers University,
with my collaboration.
The launching of the exhibition in the city of Frankfurt, where my Viennese-born
mother spent the last half of her life, and where I spent my youth, was
an experience full of emotion and memories. The Germany of today is a
quite different country from what it was during the terrible time when
so many of its population fell under the spell of the fanatical and cruel
Führer Adolf Hitler and his murderous henchmen. Indeed, many of the
citizens of Frankfurt whom we met showed a far greater knowledge of the
Holocaust and the Nazi past than one generally encounters here in the
In part, the willingness of Germans to look back at the gruesome period
of German fascism is due to the feeling of national responsibility felt
by many for the heinous crimes which were committed during the twelve
years of the "thousand-year Reich". It is especially among the
second and third generations that one finds Germans who have taken to
heart what they learned about the Holocaust, in school and from newspapers,
books, and the electronic media, and who remember, commemorate, and tenaciously
work to build a society where the evils of the past can not be repeated.
Of course it is difficult, especially for one who has spent only a few
days in one city of Germany, to know whether these views are widely held.
Indeed, I fear that extreme nationalism, fanatical religious and other
sectarianism, the temptation to adopt indiscriminately conformist attitudes
and to diffidently and uncritically follow any leader or mis-leader, are
by no means just a Nazi phenomenon. These are dangers that threaten societies
which are, neither geographically, nationally, or religiously, confined
to any part of the world.
In a speech to a packed hall at the Frankfurt Opera house, I emphasized
that a contributory reason for the tragic fate of my mother and the persecution
of hundreds of thousands of German Jews (who constituted less than one
percent of Germany's population) and other opponents of the Nazi regime,
was that all too many of the Germans were silent and did nothing. This
is not to deny how dangerous it was to oppose the dictatorship. Still,
it was possible to find ways of aiding or at least comforting the victims,
but to do so was the rare exception. Furthermore, since Hitler had, from
early on, openly advocated a vicious program of anti-Semitism, along with
the anti-democratic doctrine of fascism, curtailment of civil liberties,
and reliance on military might, it was possible for Germans to have opposed
him during the last years of the Weimar republic, and thus to have prevented
his coming to power.
I also reminded the audience of how the Nazi ideologues embedded their
virulent anti-Semitic campaigns within the framework of flag-waving nationalist
propaganda, which stressed an ethnic mythology of "Germanism",
based on "blood and soil". I gave some of my eye-witness observations
of the Kristallnacht pogrom, which started on the night of November 9-10,
1938. I had seen the burning of our synagogue (half a block from our house),
the arrest of my father (a decorated World War I veteran who fought for
the German "fatherland" for over 4 years at the Western front),
the physical attacks on Jewish people and the destruction of their property
by Nazi storm troopers, while German onlookers not only didn't dare to
intervene but all too often demonstrated approval.
I recounted the heightening of the persecution of Jewish men, women, and
children that began that night throughout Germany. Tens of thousands of
Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps which were unprepared
for such numbers, with unheated barracks, lacking in bunks, toilets, medical
facilities, and food. The prisoners were mistreated, and many lost their
lives during the freezing temperature through illness or torture.
After weeks or months of imprisonment, release from the camps was granted
first only to those who could show they had emigration visas. These were
difficult to come by since most of the world, including the United States,
was unwilling to accept additional immigrants seeking to escape Hitler's
persecution of Jews, especially since Hitler permitted them to take no
more than10 Marks ($2.50) out of Germany. None of the Kristallnacht concentration
camp prisoners were released until they had signed a document alleging
that they suffered no physical harm during incarceration.
Many of my audience were familiar with the widely accepted view of Holocaust
historians that Kristallnacht foreshadowed the final extermination plans
of the Nazi regime, which were formalized at the Wannsee conference in
January, 1942, and resulted in the slaughter of six million European Jews.
Nor did I fail to mention the millions of other human beings who were
among the Nazis' victims -- political opponents of Hitler's fascism, religious
and ethnic groups, and the mentally handicapped.
Given the virulent nationalism that constituted the core ideology of National
Socialist propaganda, I felt it important to stress that just as we must
not ignore the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust, in which a third
of the world's Jews were systematically exterminated, we must recognize
the uniqueness of the genocides and inhuman persecution of other groupings,
including, for instance, the Native Americans, the Maya Indians, and the
uncounted millions of Africans who were so cruelly killed and enslaved
in the Americas. I expressed my strongly held view that competition between,
or minimizing of other, horrors in human history is regrettable and counterproductive.
Each is unique and must be remembered if there is ever to be a more humane
Of course I spoke too of my mother, her career, and her arrest and deportation
from Frankfurt, in June, 1942 to the Nazi death camp Majdanek in Poland.
My daughter's exhibition includes family snapshots I took during the 1930's,
and portraits of my mother in various opera roles, opera and concert programs,
and many other documents and memorabilia. It gives viewers a sense of
Leonore Schwarz Neumaier's time as a girl, young woman, celebrated artist,
wife and mother, and the happy environment of her life until her years
of suffering under Nazi persecution, and how she finally became one of
the millions of Jewish victims of Hitler's "Final Solution".
The exhibition also provides the social context of the period, through
historical documentation, statistical tables, and other data. The warm
response of visitors to the gallery and of the Frankfurt newspapers, all
of which covered the opening days of the exhibition, was for me a reassurance.
For I believe that such an exhibition helps to create a deeper and more
personalized understanding of the Holocaust and may strengthen people's
resolve to work for just and equitable relations between people, regardless
of nationality, religion, or ethnic background, and for a more peaceful
world for all of us.