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Uwe & Gabriela von Seltmann: The future of the past

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Good morning, everyone. I hope you are fine. I'm German, and as everybody knows, the Germans need and have "ordnung" in their lives. And so, I'm standing at this kind of thing here. I hope everyone in this room knows Bob Dylan, yes? No? Yes? So you are not alone anymore. For me, Bob Dylan is the greatest. I'm really a big fan, even if my wife doesn't like him. She always says, "Dylan has been singing the same song for 50 years." However, for me, and a lot of other people, the lyrics of Bob Dylan are like the Bible. You can find the right words in his songs for every situation in your life. For example, if someone has [their] birthday, you can wish him all the best with the lyrics of "Forever Young." Or if you don't like your boss and you want to quit your job: "I Ain't Gonna Work On Maggie's Farm No More." And play it as loud as possible. And if you feel down and out, you can get comfort from... "For the loser now will be later to win." So for me, who is going with Dylan together through life, it was nothing special to find the right words for our project, which we would like to present today, and which has the title "Two Families, Two Pasts, One Future," or "The Future of the Past." Dylan once said, in his radio program, "It's always good to know what went down before you, because when you know the past, you can control the future." It was in 1979, more than 30 years ago, when I became a Dylan fan. "Slow Train Coming" was the first album I bought. And in the same year, 1979, something happened to me, which was really not like a slow train, it was like a very fast train which hit me. I will never forget the evenings when we, my parents and me, were sitting in front of the TV screen and watching the program. The pictures which were shown were a shock for all of us, and made us cry. Even my father cried. What were we watching? We were watching the story of a Jewish family, who was taken to concentration and death camps, the American series "Holocaust." Of course, I had some information about the Nazi time before, a kind of abstract knowledge. But now, something new and different happened. It was the first time that the crimes of the Nazis became realistic, and that the victims got faces. They were no more an anonymous number. The people who were killed suddenly became like friends, neighbors that you know and like. I, as a fourteen-year old boy, could not understand how human beings were able to commit such horrible crimes. And I think I will never understand it until the end of my life. And at that time, 30 years ago, I started to ask questions. Questions about my grandfather. For a short time, I have to go back to my childhood. When I was a little boy, I was very proud to have four grandfathers. No one else in my class had four grandfathers. Of course, two of my grandfathers were not alive. My mother's father, this I got to know, died as a simple Wehrmacht soldier somewhere in Russia. Everybody was saying only good things about him. I knew nothing, however, about my father's father. No one was talking about him. He was held taboo within the family. I only knew that he had died somewhere in Silesia in '45. My father's mother died in November '45, and so, my father grew up as an orphan with foster parents in our village. He never talked to us about his real parents. There was a second issue of which I was proud as a child. I once discovered, in my father's passport, that he was born in Kraków. Wow, Kraków. No one else in my class had a father who was born in Kraków. As a little boy, I did not know where Kraków was. For sure, somewhere far away, like Timbuktu, Samarkand or Machu Picchu. (Laughter) Yes, since my childhood, Kraków has always been a very special place for me. Twenty years later, after the Holocaust series, in November '99, I traveled to Kraków. In fact, not for the first time, but it was the most important stay in Kraków. Actually, I went there to write a story about the city. But then, something completely unexpected happened. I went to the old Remuh synagogue in the former Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, just to escape from the rain outside. And in the synagogue, I saw a Jewish man praying. When he finished his prayers, I introduced myself as a journalist from Germany, and I asked him if he would like to answer some questions. "Of course," he said. But he only told me that he was from London, that he came to Cracow every year to remember his parents, and that his parents were burned. And then he started to ask the questions. "Why do you want to talk to me? Why about Jewish life? Why are you interested in Jewish life and culture? You could be interested in Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Taoism. So why in Jews?" Gradually, I started to be uncomfortable, but he didn't stop asking. Also, questions about my father and about my grandfather. And then he said, looking straightly into my eyes, "Your grandfather was a Nazi." "Yes, yes," I stammered. And then, he said, "Do you know why you are interested in Jews? I will tell you why. You are interested in Jews because you feel guilty. You feel guilty for what your grandfather did, whatever it was." He was right. I had been feeling guilty my whole life, like a lot of other Germans. It was not that I was walking with a burden on my shoulders, or that I was all the time depressive. But deep inside I could feel something had gone wrong in our family. After meeting the Jew from London, I started to do what what I wanted to do for a long time, but... What I never did. And now I began to research my grandfather's Nazi past. Until this moment, I only knew my grandfather was an SS man, 3 of his 6 children were born close to concentration camps, and that he died somewhere in Silesia in '45. For years, I had asked questions. My grandmother's sisters, my father's brothers and sisters, but I got always the same reaction. "Sorry, we know nothing. Ah, what do you think about the weather today? Isn't it lovely? I started my investigation, but for almost one year, nothing happened. But then, again in a synagogue, I met an old lady, this time in Germany, in Bonn, where I had a reading. "I've read your name in the newspaper," she started to talk to me. "Are you from Austria?" "No, not me, but my father's family." "Aha." She hesitated, asked some more questions, and then she said, "I went to school with your grandfather." And this old lady, she passed away a few weeks ago, was the first who gave me information about my grandfather, the first who showed me pictures. And the meetings with her were the breakthrough. Thanks to her, I came in contact with other witnesses. I could find out more and more. And what I finally found out was not very pleasant. My grandfather was working together with SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, on the right, my grandfather's on the left. And as an SS man in Lublin, Kraków and Warsaw, he participated, for example, in the put-down of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in April and May of '43. Some members of my family still don't want to accept it. And for other members, especially for the Austrians, I am now persona non grata. Instead of doing honor to the family, to my grandma, father, I destroyed the honor of the family, they said. I have to sum it all up. After three adventurous years of investigation in half of Europe, I wrote a book about my research, and about my grandfather. And I said to myself, "You wrote the book, you did what you had to do, and now, the story is over." But that was the biggest error in my life. No, the story is not over, the story just has begun, and it still continues. And... I'm still very involved in this subject, very deeply, because four years ago, 2006, again something happened that changed my life completely. This time, not in a synagogue, but again, in Kraków. I was on the way back from Ukraine to Germany, and took a rest in Café Singer in Kazimierz. If you know this place, you know that it doesn't take much time to get in touch with someone there. And it was like this. Soon, I was invited to a table and asked where I was from, what I was doing, and so on. At one point, I said that I had written a part of my latest book in Café Singer. "Aha! What about?" I felt a little bit uncomfortable. (Laughter) Unfortunately, I could not say that I wrote a book about Bob Dylan. (Laughter) And also, I'm a bad liar. (Laughter) So, what to do? I decided to tell the truth. "I wrote a book about my grandfather, who was an SS man in Kraków," I said. Silence. (Laughter) And then one of the ladies at the table said, "Oh. My grandfather was killed at Auschwitz." And this lady will now come on stage. After our meeting in Singer, she asked for my book, wrote an e-mail, and I wrote back to her, "Should I send it via post, or should I bring it personally to you?" "Maybe, if you have time." Thank God, I had time. And one year later... We got married. (Applause) And at our wedding, one of our friends said, "She wanted your book, and you gave her your heart." (Laughter) Yes, but I must say that Uwe didn't give me only his heart. Uwe gave me his history, his past. And this was the beginning of our research together. We discovered that behavior in our families was quite similar, even if our grandfathers were standing in the opposite sides during the war. We discovered that just in the second generation, our parents don't talk about the past. It's not only the problem that they don't talk, they just, very often, push us to not ask anymore. And Uwe was the one who made it so that in my family, we started to ask questions again. It happened that my mother first answered "No." "I will not answer you, no, it's a too difficult subject." So I asked again and again. And of course, she was crying, and of course, one day she started to answer, and to tell me the story. In 1944, my grandfather was killed, died in the concentration camp in Auschwitz. And this was this taboo subject in our family. Because of the work we started together with Uwe, we could... We still continue to discover the story, and the past of my family. We decided to make the project together, to create the foundation. And we are now [in the process] of creating this foundation. And we must say the similar behaviors from two pasts in the families were so interesting that we continue the subject, and Uwe will start soon to write a book which describes the behaviors of the 2nd and 3rd generations after the war. Yes, because our project is not only connected with the past. We also want to demonstrate that it's possible for members of the victims' and perpetrators' families to live together, even if the past continues to have an impact on today's daily life. To many Germans aged 16 or 14 today, war, elimination, and the Holocaust are just a few pages in a history book. But to the descendants of the victims, the Nazi period is still present, even 70 years after the attack of Nazi Germany on Poland. Present as a trauma. We see it every day. I am an artist, and I was trying to imagine and to talk about the subject we are working [on] in my own artistic way. And I was thinking that a good idea would be to compare the war, and what is happening with people, to [the Gorgon] Medusa. You know, for sure, the woman with the snakes around the head, from the time of Greek mythology. This was the monster which was changing people into [stone]. And this is actually what is happening... with our parents and grandparents. Actually, with old people [who] were born during the war, or [who] just participated [in] the war. So [the Gorgon] could kill people and change them into [stone], but there was a "medicament" against this... Against this spell, let's say. This was [unicorn] tears. And this is actually what is happening when we ask questions [of] our parents, and people [who] participated in the war. The tears are coming, and these tears are healing them. This is actually what we continue in our project, what we want to do, is to ask questions, and to know more and more about what happened, because this is actually the healing process for the future. It takes time, but we have to finish. And I want to finish not with Bob Dylan, but with a quotation from the German Nobel Prize winner, Herman Hesse, and he said words which sum up our whole project in one sentence. "Anything that has not been suffered, and solved to the end, will return." "Anything that has not been suffered, and solved to the end, will return." Thank you for listening. (Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 19 minutes and 33 seconds
Country: Poland
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDxKraków
Director: TEDxKraków
Views: 514
Posted by: tedxkrakow on Dec 15, 2010

Talk delivered at TEDxKraków, on October 15, 2010.

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