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Tuesday May 1, 2012

This weekend is my birthday. It is also the anniversary of a more gruesome milestone. May 5, 1945 was the day Mauthausen concentration camp was liberated near Linz, Austria -- the birthplace of Adolph Hitler. I know this date -- and keep track of it -- because my paternal grandfather, Leopold Bálint, (Leo to his friends and family) was murdered on a forced march from Mauthausen to the town of Gunskirchern in the waning days of the Third Reich.

On April 22, only two weeks away from the camp's liberation, Leo stopped to assist another ailing prisoner. He knew, as they all did, that stopping along the march meant certain death, but he did what so many others--before and after him--have done. His humanity and empathy overpowered his fear. Leo wrapped this man's arm about his shoulder, put his own around the weary man's waist, and dragged him along for a short distance. His already low reserves were soon spent, and they fell dangerously behind the group. As eyewitnesses informed my grieving grandmother afterwards, both Leo and his comrade were summarily shot and their bodies heaved into the chilly waters of the Danube.

I know Leopold only from the family stories I have heard and from the memoir my father is working valiantly to finish. And yet, this story still gives me an ache in my chest whenever I allow myself the quiet space to think about it. My grandfather's murder impacted so many lives and continues to do so. As Elie Weisel has written, "Time does not heal all wounds; there are those that remain painfully open."

From my parents I get my sense of humor, my insatiable curiosity, and a deep love of history, but because we have also passed this pain from generation to generation, I am a latecomer to the belief that neighbors can be a force for good in the world. My father was always, and remains, hesitant about connecting with neighbors. I used to chalk it up to European manners, but in my adulthood I have come to realize it is actually a manifestation of the complex trauma of the Holocaust. Of course he doesn't want the neighbors to know too much about him and his family. Neighbors can betray you; indeed they did betray him and his family.

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There are stories my dad tells that reveal how his wariness of neighbors took root. There was the time my grandfather had a bathtub installed in their apartment building, and the neighbors all griped that "those dirty, stinking Jews are bathing too much." And the time my dad's post-war neighbors in Germany (who knew his father had been killed by the Nazi) gave him parts of a Hitler Youth costume to wear for Fasching -- a holiday similar to Mardi Gras. Or the worst story of all -- the trusted teacher who gathered information from his young students about who had Jewish parents. One ongoing toll of the Holocaust -- beyond the destruction of families, the loss of faith, and the enormous grief -- is that we start to doubt our neighbors' basic humanity. We come to believe it is safer to keep them at a distance because people can be so horribly callous.

How does one recover from the horror and absurdity? I really don't know for certain, but I am trying my best to break this cycle. It helps that Vermont's size makes it a state of neighbors. My dad has come to understand that my family and I love our town and feel safe here, but he still occasionally comments about his personal discomfort with small town life. He once exclaimed in horror, "Your letter carrier knows where you lived before you moved to this street?!" One of the first things he asked when we bought our house in town was: How are the neighbors? Will they be kind to you? Will they accept your family?

Daniel Goldhagen argued in his controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) that ordinary Germans were willing and eager to participate in the final solution because German culture and society had indoctrinated them in "eliminationist anti-semitism." Many historians (Americans, Germans, and Israelis among them) excoriated the book, maintaining that his research was shoddy and that Goldhagen ignored any material that did not prove his thesis, but he still became something of a celebrity on his German book tour. Despite its academic shortcomings, his book resonated with many Germans who understood that Hitler's ghastly plans were only set in motion because average people chose to look the other way.

When faced with stories of atrocity and bravery, we often ask ourselves: Would I have had the courage to stand up and to do the right thing? But most of us will never be faced with such a situation, so I think that this is perhaps the wrong question. The real question is: Do I have the courage, day in and day out, to show kindness to and concern for my neighbors? The small gestures do really matter. When I bake bread for a neighbor (even if our politics don't match) or check on another when she's sick (although she sometimes talks my ear off), I am asserting that there is still basic humanity in the world. I do it for me, for my parents, for my children, and for their great-grandfather, Leopold Bálint who retained his humanity in the midst of the Shoah.

Becca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at beccabalint@gmail.com.