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Nazis' and Holocaust victims' descendants discuss the effects on their lives

Theirs is an unlikely bond: two American Jewish women, children of Holocaust survivors, and their German visitor, granddaughter of a Nazi.

The three women can't wait to meet again. Martina Emme is flying in from Germany today, while Renate Greenfield of Apollo Beach and Bonnie Stein of Redington Shores make plans to welcome her.

A dolphin sighting excursion is in the works. So is an aquarium visit. To the casual observer, simply friends catching up.

But viewed through the stark lens of history, their lives offer vastly different perspectives.

Greenfield and Stein are members of a group that counted its slaughter in the millions. Emme's family was on the side that perpetrated that genocide.

For the three women, though, their relationship reaches beyond trite expressions of forgiveness or expected accusations of disloyalty. They are part of a widening circle of World War II descendants sharing tragic stories, finding startling commonalities and striving to see hate and fear eradicated within a new generation.

Emme's father was a member of the Hitler Youth, her grandfather, Adolf, a soldier in Hitler's Wehrmacht. To his young granddaughter, Adolf Emme was beloved.

"He was very funny. He taught me swimming. He played with me and he did all these jokes with me," she said in a telephone interview from Germany.

"He had a garden, and when we visited him in the winter he had a fake apple fixed on a tree and he would tell me he found a special apple that grows in the winter. … He was great to play with and joyful."

But for many children of Holocaust survivors, sentimental memories of that same generation are scarce or nonexistent. Greenfield, 64, will share a podium with Emme at the Florida Holocaust Museum on Tuesday to tell the other side. All of her father's family, except for a great-uncle and a distant cousin, perished during the Nazi era.

"There's no record that they even existed," Greenfield said.

"I can't even go to a grave. There is nothing that even said they existed. I have no past."

Stein, who teaches race walking and fitness classes, was 5 when she learned the reason she didn't have grandparents like the other children in her class. Why, she had asked.

"Because your grandparents were killed by the Nazis," her mother said and ran out of the room in tears.

"A 51/2-year-old learns quickly that there are certain things you're not supposed to ask about," said Stein, 55.

Nazi perpetrators and their families also lived in a silence of their own.

"At high school, of course, we all had been aware about the Nazi past, but it was still a taboo to ask about it in your own family," said Emme, 52.

She would learn as an adult of her grandfather's complicity in the World War II crimes.

"It tore me up. I couldn't bring these two sides together. This man which I loved and this man who had this dark side — the bad part of him," she said.

"And we know of so many Nazis who were nice with their children and hated or killed Jewish children, and I couldn't get over it that my grandfather is one of them, so I wanted to find out if he is a murderer."

Through her research, Emme, who has a psychotherapy and coaching practice in Berlin, said she found out that her grandfather didn't do any killing. He did, though, report back to military headquarters about the atrocities "in a sympathetic way."

"I found out through war letters for sure he witnessed one massacre which took place in June '42 in Lithuania," she said.

Emme said she has not been able to discover how her grandfather became director of a hat factory that had been owned by a Jewish man or how he took over that man's home.

"What does that mean? He stole it from the former Jewish owner? … I am the only one interested, besides my brother, in the past and who wants to seek the truth," she said.

"I think that the truth lives with the victims or the survivors. The perpetrators don't tell you the truth."

Emme's visit to Florida will be about truth telling. Besides sharing their stories at the Holocaust Museum, she and Greenfield are participating in Edison State College's Holocaust Memorial Week in Naples.

Greenfield and Emme met almost two years ago in Berlin, during a weeklong program organized by the nonprofit group One by One, which encourages the sharing of stories among descendants of Holocaust survivors and the Nazi regime.

"When we share what we know about our families, the picture becomes whole, " said Emme, one of the founders of the organization started in the 1990s.

Stein, president of the Florida Holocaust Museum's Generations After group for children and grandchildren of survivors, encouraged Greenfield to travel to Berlin in 2009 to participate in a dialogue between Holocaust descendants and those of the Third Reich. For Stein, the program had been life changing when she participated more than a decade ago.

But Greenfield, a retired Realtor, didn't get off to a good start.

"I didn't want to be there on German soil, because I was going to be confronting the Germans who did that to my family," she said.

As a teenager, her father had been forced to dig a mass grave for fellow Jews. At Auschwitz, he cleaned up human waste left by terrified victims dying in the gas chambers. At 12, her mother was sent to a work farm, where she was raped.

It was a painful legacy to bring to the Berlin group discussion. "At first, it was very stiff, very distrusting of each other," she recalled.

That changed as they told their stories.

"They were hurt too," she said of the German participants.

"They did not commit these offenses. For the most part, they were so ashamed. Germans of today are trying so hard to make up for what has happened. Not THAT generation. Many of them are standing still and denying that they knew what was really going on. I saw some walking around with their canes so tall. I literally wanted to walk up to them and kick the canes out from under them. It wasn't because of what they did to me, it was because of what they did to their children."

Emme said she's dealing with her family's past.

"All of my thinking about how to be a good human being, what it means to live a good life, is connected to that," she said.

"It's not any longer a family issue. Taking responsibility is an important part to me, as we say here, to own your own history. And it means it is not very nice to be a German looking at this part of history, but I'm trying to own it. I can't change the past, but I want to prove that I have learned something from it and I want to go on the right path."

Greenfield believes she's already there.

She's just a very kindhearted person," she said.

"I can't wait for her to come."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

. If you go

A bridge dialogue

How the Light Gets In: Journeys of Transformation, One by One Dialogue between descendants of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg. A movie trailer about a documentary filmed during the weeklong dialogue in Germany will be shown. Free. Go to flholocaustmuseum.org or call (727) 820-0100.

Nazis' and Holocaust victims' descendants discuss the effects on their lives 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 10:48pm]
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