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German Guilt and the German Au Pair

When we worked to match Jewish families with an au pair, most of them were quite clear about one thing - "No German au pairs." They didn’t care if they drove well or had good English. Some young Jewish parents admitted they were "okay" with hosting a German au pair, but their parents and grandparents would "never forgive them." So, we usually matched Jewish families with au pairs from any other country, except Germany. And, we didn't talk about it. We all know someone Jewish who refuses to buy anything "German" from Mercedes Benz cars to Braun coffee-machines. Not buying German goods was just one way that Jews in America dealt with their anguish and anger over the Holocaust.

How do au pairs from Germany deal with this when they come to America? Do they wonder why Jewish families do not match with them?

Working with German au pairs gave us the opportunity to us to hear what it is like growing up in post-WWII Germany and the guilt German teenagers have about the Nazis and the Holocaust. I remember a wonderful German au pair, Maria, who told me about her experience growing up in Munich.

"We learned about Hitler and the Holocaust in third grade. We read about horrible Nazi atrocities and we had to visit one of the camps, Dachau when we were in 6th grade. We read about the brutality and misdeeds that our grandfathers did to others under Hitler and we knew more about that part of German history compared to any other historical time in Germany going back hundreds of years. I was only 12 when I started to feel "bad" about what had happened and since then I do feel very guilty about what happened. The country’s mantra is "Never Forget" and that is still with me today."

German youth are taught about the Holocaust early in elementary school and throughout high school in the effort to teach the lessons of war and to make sure the Holocaust never happens again. As a result, many German youth are raised with an intrinsic guilt that is part of their cultural identity. The country as a whole suffers from an anti-German personality and German youth typically avoided any signs of patriotism.

In a 1990 survey done by NationMaster.com, the percentage of people that said, "They were not proud of their country," Germans came in second under Japan (36%) where 34% of Germans surveyed stated they were "not proud" of their country. The United States had the lowest percent (2%) indicating a much higher percent of American patriotism compared to Germany.

Girls with flag

Today, there are signs of growing patriotism in Germany and the present generation has become more resistant to accepting "blame" for the war and being called "Nazis" because they speak and look German. Little German flags are appearing on car bumpers and more German youth are seen wearing favorite German soccer t-shirts in public. Yet, many Germans still carry the guilt associated with WWII and the Holocaust and believe public signs of German patriotism are wrong.

"My boyfriend's car windows were smashed to bits because of a German flag sticker he had on his bumper. We saw the people who did it as they ran away - they called us 'Nazis' and threw bottles at us. We knew it was because of that flag. We are a German and Jewish couple and we were shaken by this violence and the obscene language they hurled at us. My boyfriend is blond, but he is Jewish! We scrapped the flag off the car, but we were left feeling der Groll! (Translated 'anger, resentment)." Julia, German au pair from Berlin

Many German youth feel they shouldn't be blamed for the crimes of their forefathers. They feel the children of the present generation should not be continued to victimized for acts they did not commit. There is a dangerous and growing resentment among the German youth who feel they cannot and should not be held accountable for what happened more than 80 years ago. This guilt and blame will only fuel fear and resentment and aren't these same feelings that led to the attempt to exterminate Jews during WWII?

We need to move away from the blame game and look to how we can embrace the German culture and youth of today without labeling them or making them feel guilty. The cultural exchange program is a wonderful way to do this, where German au pairs can introduce their culture and history to American families and, yes, even to Jewish families!

I was motivated to write this article after I read a wonderful and heart-warming story of just this - a German au pair who was chosen by a young Jewish family (the host father is a Rabbi) and the success of that match. In 2008, Au Pair In America placed a young German au pair, Susanne Ehard, with the Bernstein’s, a Jewish host family living in Cleveland, Ohio. The au pair talks about her experience in the Cleveland Jewish News and how nervous she was before she arrived, asking, "What does this family look like, and especially a rabbi, look like?" "How do they live, why do they want me, a person with no experience with Judaism?" (I can't help thinking she may have mentally edited her comment from "Why do they want me, a German" when speaking to the reporter).

Susanne goes on to share her successful year with the Bernstein’s, how she learned about keeping "kosher" and the tradition of Shabbat. She attended synagogue with the family, where the host dad was the Rabbi. She especially loved Purim, where everyone dresses in costumes and sings and dances, with good food and everyone shouts "Haman!" very loudly. Susanne dressed as Minnie Mouse and had the time of her life.

She also enjoyed Shabbat services where she observed more singing and dancing as the "kids with their cloth Torahs" went marching proudly down the aisles of the synagogue. She said she experienced the acceptance and kindness of not only her host family, but from the entire congregation.

At the end of her year, in December 2008, she told the Jewish News reporter, Susanne Ehard, "I am grateful for all of these moments and when I return home I know I will not be leaving strangers. Instead I will be leaving a community and a family."

That statement embraces the real meaning of the cultural exchange offered by au pair agencies and represents a positive shift towards forgiveness and acceptance between the Jewish and German communities, here and and across the pond.

Read the entire article at: http://www.cjn.org/articles/2008/12/26/features/doc495249281694e80449031...


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