Yesterday, the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp had its 70th aniversary. It is one of those historic days, which gives us the past back into memory. We remember the victims of National Socialism, which – were freed from their tormentors – weeks, months and years in agony. But probably they could never really feel inner liberation. Finally, they have lost friends, relatives and companions. They saw people suffering and dying and even helped with the victims cremation. Images that no one can get out of the mind. A life long. We must learn to live with the past and need to learn from it. Apparently this is not so easy, as illustrated by the events in Tröglitz and seen on Pegida demonstrations. Or to say it with Heribert Prantl’s words:
“The old racism is current again and again.”
When I think about my childhood, I remember games like “Who’s afraid of the black man.” We played it on the road – full of naivete. We actually didn’t know who exactly should be this “black man”. I didn’t know any person with different complexion, other beliefs or from other classes. For me, there were only my family and my friends, acquaintances and strangers on the street. Everyone looked the same with their white skin and pink cheeks. But who was this black man? While reading Wilhelm Busch, I got a first clue: He was casually called “nigger”. Fipps the monkey made a joke out of him and pulled his nose ring out.
The word nigger wasn’t familiar to me. I heard it for the first time. I didn’t worry whether it could be racist or not. Finally, I didn’t even understand what racism means. My parents taught me to respect other people – regardless of their complexion, but dealing with other cultures was also strange for them – excepting the occupying powers. In my region, where the GDR was located, my grandmother used to say: “The Russian was omnipresent”. He spread fear and terror. Before I could meet a Russian personally, I only knew my grandparents’ stories. Those stories after the Second World War when women and girls were raped, food was stolen and bombs were dropped.
As an adolescent I learned about the atrocities of my own countrymen. The National Socialist’s terror determined the compulsive reading in my school days. In German, English and French, I witnessed how Joseph Joffo reached the “zone libre”, how Anne Frank was discovered in her hideout and how Salomon perfectly disguised himself into the Hitler Youth. I couldn’t understand how people could bring each other to the brink of existence and even drive them into death. But there it was as a factual report, in black and white. Whole history books are dedicated to these few years of German history, its worst and most inhuman years. I am still ashamed – until today. But I have to deal with this burden: I am from a country which has made intolerance socially acceptable. How much the presence of history would determine my whole life, I realized on a language trip in England: British young people called us “nazis”. And just because we are Germans. I felt mistreated. Me being a Nazi? That is absurd. Actually, it shouldn’t be the last time that I was confronted by prejudices.
In India, the shoe was completely on the other foot. Suddenly, I was the other one who caused great sensation and totally didn’t fit into the common image of society with my light skin, blond hair and green eyes. But instead of hate, I experienced incredible reverence by the Indian people. Small children came a-flocking and asked me if my skin colour is real. They rubbed against it; and also touched my hair. Some adults asked me if they could take a picture with me. Others photographed me – very tacky – secretly. And they even acted as if I wouldn’t be smart enough to realize this. Somehow I felt special and at the same time like a zoo animal. Because I was under constant observation. Every step I took was watched by millions of eyes and locked up in their minds. I never went somewhere alone. And finally I was the stranger, that unknown black from my city, I watched curiously as a kid and asked myself where he could come from. Was it also what the Indians were interested in? My background? Or was it just because I was very strange for them?
In a chilled November night about one o’clock, xenophobia in India reached a sad zenith for me. “In Hyderabad, all people are welcome as long as they are neither Pakistani nor Jews.” Thus, the opinion of a Muslim who offered us a ride. And he also made no pretence of his opinion about Hitler: “I admire Hitler because he killed the Jews” This statement was burning like fire in my heart. I was shocked and wanted to get out of the car immediately, but my flatmates forced me to stay. What I couldn’t understand my whole life, this hatred, was suddenly open to debate. Naked, raw and so shocking honest. I told him that he couldn’t not convict someone by heritage, religion, status or skin colour. My statements sounded like quotes from an encyclopedia. I wasn’t very persuasive in my argument. And honestly, I didn’t want to argue with him. That night, my world view has begun to totter.
My friend, a native Brazilian, understood my indignation, but he also explained me that many of his countrymen are prejudiced against Germans. Cold-heartedness is even one of the nicest prejudices. Others think that Germans are relentless, intolerant and not very family oriented. His family had concerns about me firstly. And indeed without knowing me. But I was already used to such behaviour. Alienation stokes intolerance. I knew that before. However, I wasn’t licked by that. “I have nothing to do with the sins of the bygone days. I am cosmopolitan. I live today, here and now”, I assured myself.
Of course I wanted to get to know my boyfriend’s home country personally. After my arrival in Brazil, I behaved like a chameleon. I adapted myself, wrapped myself into Brazilian clothes and struggled through everyday’s jungle – language including. After a short time my cover blew. My language skills reached their limits and also my non-verbal communication was too bad. I tried my best, but often I needed to ask for my boyfriend’s help. Sometimes I even felt as if I wasn’t understood by purpose. I tried to reject these thoughts. But in fact some native Brazilians confirmed it and explained: “We are just too impatient to listen to foreigners.” Another open secret in Brazil was also approved to me in the following weeks: the subliminal racism. Until today an over-average number of blacks live in favelas and poorer neighbourhoods. And this happens not just in Rio. People there earn less salary and generally have less access to high education. I could face such problems in my job at a private school and on my regular trips. Brazil – for me the symbol for absolute integration and multiculturalism – revealed its inner weaknesses which weren’t so unknown to me. Xenophobia and racism, it seems, can be found everywhere. Nevertheless, I still have hope that one day people won’t be judged by complexion or origin anymore, and tolerance and compassion will rule the world.