INTERVIEW: JOST REBENTISCH

VICTIMS OF NAZISM LIVING IN POVERTY—IN GERMANY AS WELL

There are around 80,000 victims of Nazism still alive in Germany today, according to Jost Rebentisch. Bundesverband Information & Beratung für NS-Verfolgte (Federal Association for Informing and Consulting Victims of Nazism) is the only association in Germany representing the interests of all victims of Nazism. In this interview, the managing director of the association, active throughout Germany, speaks about the current needs of the victims of Nazism and the work of his organisation.

Mr. Rebentisch, 70 years after the end of the war, the Foundation EVZ has launched the campaign “Ich Lebe Noch” to promote the support of the victims of Nazism. Why is this still so important today?

Rebentisch: Many survivors are quite badly off in material terms. In Eastern Europe in particular, they often lack the most basic necessities, but in Israel, the U.S., and Western Europe as well, there are many survivors of Nazism living in poverty. The survivors not only need money, but also direct assistance, which also costs money: care giving, psychological-social support, projects against loneliness, etc. We are very grateful to the Foundation EVZ for being so active in these areas and setting important accents in their work.
 
Looking at the current situation of the victims of Nazism, in what countries do these people live today and where are they most in need of support?

Rebentisch: Survivors of Nazi persecution are living over the world today. We know that around 200,000 are still alive in Israel today, in Germany we estimate the number at around 80,000. Looking just at how they are situated in material terms, we would assume that the survivors in Western and Northern Europe are the best situated. And this seems to be the case. In Eastern Europe, the situation is often much worse, survivors in the East Ukraine are particularly poorly off. But I think an example that Stuart Eizenstat* mentioned is also quite shocking: New York City has around 60,000 survivors, and around 30,000 are living at or under the poverty line. It is simply unacceptable that people who suffered such persecution are still living with such hardships today.

 

And what is the situation in Germany?

Rebentisch: Many think people in our comparatively affluent country are well off, but there is poverty here as well. Right here, right before our very doorstep in Germany, there are victims of Nazism who are materially poorly off, for example the Russian refugees or the Sinti and Roma. Some victims of Nazism are dependent on welfare support, and only receive basic support. That is true hardship.

 

Many of the victims of the war, tyranny, and forced labour have barely spoken about their experiences. How important is it for them to share their experiences and to enter into dialogue with subsequent generations? 
Rebentisch: Of course that is very important. And we need to realize that eyewitnesses who are still able to report their experiences are now quite rare. In Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Recklinghausen, we operate cafes for talking about the past and for encounters where survivors can meet with one another or share their experiences with others. At the encounter cafes, which usually take place every 14 days, victims of Nazism meet exclusively with one another in a “safe space.” The other side of our work is having the survivors tell their stories: here, survivors speak about their lives with school classes or youth groups. We think it is very important for young people to hear the stories of the victims of Nazism and to enter into conversation with the survivors. Preventative work is important to revise ideas that some might already have in their minds. For the victims as well, it is important for them to know that they are helping to ensure that something like this will never happen again. We also organize visits to schools. But then it often takes some time for the ice to break with the young people. But then a lively conversation usually results. I think that’s more efficient that all the films shown on the subject.

 

What can we do to help the victims of Nazism? What do you suggest to people who would like to volunteer, for example?

Rebentisch: Unfortunately, there are only very few organizations in Germany who organize direct projects for survivors. But these organizations are always looking for volunteers. For example, we need support for our café centres in Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Recklinghausen and for the visitor’s service we offer in the Rhineland. A great deal of good can be done for the active organizations by donating money, even small contributions can be a great help.

 

How defining are the traumas and memories for the everyday life of victims of Nazism seventy years after the end of the war? 

Rebentisch: They are playing an increasingly important role. As we know, our memories grow stronger in old age. This means that that the victims of Nazism, most of whom are now over 80 years of age, are often re-traumatized. After the war, many were focused on their education, their family, and their profession. Now, the children have long left home, and their partners have often died, and in their loneliness their experiences return to the surface. This requires urgent action, but often help is usually costly. But this should not prevent us from giving these traumatized elderly people the help they so urgently need.

 

In your view, what needs to be done? What are the impacts of re-traumatization on old age care, for example?

Rebentisch: That is a very important point, for in old age care special attention has to be placed on re-traumatization. I know one case where an old woman calls her room her “cell” over and over, not her room. She thinks her caretakers are wardens. We need to sensitize care providers, because sentences like “Come along with me to take a shower” can have devastating effect in such a situation. Physical hygiene is a difficult issue generally: it is already unacceptable for elderly women to be undressed and washed by male caregivers, but for the victims of Nazism this is particularly traumatic. Our association already carried out projects and published material on this subject, but it remains difficult to sensitize care providers about these “special cases.” Usually, they argue that there is simply no time for such individual care, and cite the “caregiving emergency” in Germany. It wasn’t even possible to establish so-called competence centres for senior care providers, so that employees especially trained in such matters could be available for the caregivers on site. There was simply no interest.

 

What kind of support do the victims of Nazism in Germany need?

Rebentisch: Work with survivors can often be quite taxing, because of the horrible stories one hears. So it’s important that workers have the opportunity to talk about this burden, for example, in regular coaching sessions. It is also important that these caregivers, who are often volunteers, have enough information about the survivors and their fates: especially among young people we see often horrible gaps in their knowledge about what happened during the Nazi period. So it is of course important that survivors are trained in how to approach survivors: we cannot forget that it is a vulnerable group of people that need to be treated with great empathy and delicacy.

 

Besides the above-mentioned points, what else do you think remains to be done?

Rebentisch: It should be possible to enable survivors all over the world to spend the last years of their lives in a way that is at least no worse off than the average of the population. We owe this to survivors. It is also urgently necessary to provide the organizations of survivors and the organizations that help survivors with sufficient support. I know of survivor organizations in Eastern Europe that cannot reach their members because they simply can’t afford the postage!
I would also like to point out that those interned by the Italian military still represent a large group of survivors that have not received any financial compensation or recognition. The same is true for the survivors and family member of the survivors of the massacres that the Germans committed during the Second World War in Italy, Greece, and the Balkan. That needs to change.
And then we have the large set of problems involving the so-called “second generation,” the children of survivors. The public is only beginning to become aware that action is necessary there as well. My hope is that this is not rejected right off the bat, but that the justified claims of the following generations are taken seriously.  An initial approach was made with our conference “Zweite Generation” in June 2015 in Berlin. But we are still at the beginning with this work.

 

* Stuart Eizenstat, special adviser for Holocaust Issues, U.S. Department of State, at the conference of the European Shoah Legacy Institute in Prague, May, 2015