Angelika Bammer, an author and professor of comparative literature at Emory University, spoke virtually to the Brandeis community on Nov. 12 about her newly published book, “Born After: Reckoning with the German Past.” Bammer’s book recounts her family’s history in Nazi-era Germany, as well as her own thoughts as she grappled with processing this controversial past.

Although Bammer began writing this story later in her life, she explained that her thinking for the book dates back to her childhood. Bammer’s father, while not a part of the Nazi Party, was a German Wehrmacht soldier and met her mother during World War II. Three out of her four grandparents, however, were members of the Nazi Party. She explained that although she loved her grandparents, their affiliation to the party was “shameful.” “How can you be an ordinary … person, how can you even be, let's say, a good person and be a Nazi?” Bammer asked, noting that she explores this question in her book throughout her discussion of her grandparents’ involvement in Nazi Germany.

Throughout the talk, Bammer read aloud from a few sections of her book, first speaking about her parents. She said that whenever her father spoke about the war, he described it romantically, since he met her mother during this time. The story of how they met made Bammer “uneasy” because her parents traveled by train to visit one another, following the same routes as the trains used to deport Jews. She read from an excerpt of a conversation with her father: “I took a deep breath and plunged into the vortex I'd been avoiding. ‘Were the trains that you and my mother took ever the same trains that deported Jews?’” In response, “He averted his eyes, and his answer was another evasion. ‘I was lucky. … The war took me out of all that. It took me out of what was happening in Germany.’”

Although written like a personal narrative, Bammer said that her work is also a scholarly book because she reflects on and examines her feelings of her family’s history –– her grandparents’ Nazi affiliation and her parents’ passivity towards the Holocaust –– through a psychoanalytic lens. “I have been really compelled and intrigued by Freud’s concept of memory work,” she said. In Sigmund Freud’s 1914 essay “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through” and his 1918 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” written after World War I, Freud discusses dealing with painful memories and collective trauma, Bammer explained. “[Freud] promised an answer to a question that had … always haunted me which is, ‘What do I do about a past that follows me wherever I go, and that won't let me go?’” Freud’s theory discusses the need to work through one’s past “so that one is free to act in the present [and] not react constantly to the past,” she added.

At the time Bammer began writing this book, she and her colleague Deborah Lipstadt were co-teaching a course at Emory in which students read memoirs about the Holocaust written by Jewish survivors, non-Jewish survivors and non-Jewish Germans, like her own family. Through the themes explored in these memoirs, Bammer said that she began taking notes about her and her family’s memory of the Holocaust and her “unresolved relationship” with this history. While researching further, she studied psychoanalytic theories and the neuroscience behind memory, but she said that her research pulled her in a different direction than her original ideas, focusing more on memory psychology than reflection and narrative. As she found herself diving deep into psychoanalytic theory, Bammer said that she realized she needed to include more “self reflection,” while still using psychology to examine her memories and feelings. She said, “Not only did it have to get the facts right –– it had to be accurate –– but I had to be honest … about what I knew, about what I believed and above all, also about what I felt.”

Bammer further explained how she sees her family’s past continuing to follow her. For instance, her father’s job as a soldier meant that she and her parents had to move to Canada for much of her childhood because her father was stationed there. As Germans living in Canada shortly after World War II, Bammer said her family was “regarded with extreme suspicion and even hostility” and that her parents did not explain why. The same was the case when they returned to Germany several years later. There was even tension between the children, but the different connections families had to the Holocaust were not explicitly addressed, Bammer explained.

She has encountered similar hostility more recently as well. “A friend had invited us to a Passover Seder, and while there were other non-Jewish guests, we were the only Germans,” she read from her book. Bammer explained that one of the other guests said that “the Germans got what they deserved” when the city of Dresden was firebombed by British and U.S. forces during the war. She read her response: “What you said is your opinion. I understand that, but as my parents’ daughter and my children’s mother, I can't agree.”

Another moment that Bammer reflects on is a meeting between her own mother and the mother of her graduate school advisor, Every Beck, at the University of Wisconsin. Beck was a Jewish child-survivor of the Holocaust, so both of their families were German but experienced the war differently. When speaking in English, their mothers had the same accent, she noted, and they “hovered” over the possibility of speaking in German or acknowledging the tense history that existed between them, but never did. Bammer said that once she and Beck spoke in German with each other, this history resurfaced. “We're children when we learn this language, and that tapped into that [Beck] was a child when her father was arrested. I was a child when I left Germany and people hated me,” Bammer said.

In the epilogue of her book, Bammer writes about visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam with her then five-year-old twins and explaining to them what happened during the Holocaust. She said that “The Diary of Anne Frank” was later required reading when her children were in middle school, but to her disappointment, they had both forgotten her telling them about Anne Frank years before. From this experience, Bammer explained that the conversation surrounding Nazi Germany and the Holocaust is passed down through each generation differently, but that this is a history that always lingers, which is why the memories must be worked through psychologically. “It’s of the past, but in the present,” she said.

Bammer explained that she has to recognize her family’s history and their relationship to Nazi Germany. She explained that Germany has also made an effort to acknowledge this past by marking locations of genocide with memorials, but noted that the Allies did require the country’s acknowledgement of the Holocaust. While the recognition is important, the fact that it was done in response to this requirement takes away from its meaning, she said. Bammer added that the United States must acknowledge their own wrongdoings in history as well. She now lives in Atlanta, GA, and recently learned that lynchings had taken place in the 1940s near her neighborhood. However, no one could ever tell, she said, because there are few marked to acknowledge the history of slavery and discrimination against Black people in the country. “You have to be able to be fully who you are,” Bammer said in reference to coming to terms with one’s past.