Just Thinking | Iby Knill 


Iby in 2010, copyright Paul Banks

During the last few months I have hosted some German tutors and students, who are undertaking short courses at various Leeds institutions.

One of my Jewish friends asked me: 'How can you have them as guests in your house - after all they did to you?' The answer to this was easy: 'I do it in the same way as I host students and tutors of other nationalities - they are only kids.'

However, my son asked me a much more pertinent question: 'Why are you doing this?' and it was really this question that set me thinking.

I do not make an issue of my past, whether I  and my guests talk about it depends on them. But, one way or another, the Holocaust comes up sooner or later. Why?

I have reasoned it out like this:

The German people were always proud of their past, not least of their culture and they see the Holocaust as a 'black spot' on their escutcheon. Their nation had been involved in what was an incredible, efficiently engineered near-destruction of members of a religion - and also of others considered sub-human, like Gypsies and homosexuals, yet these same people had been part of their lives and their culture! Many had been pre-eminent in music, theatre, literature and other aspects of art which were considered essentially German. One tutor  told me:' My grandfather fought in the war alongside a Jewish friend, who was decorated for valour - and my grandfather found it impossible to reconcile this man's heroism with the subsequent official attitude towards Jews. How could this man, who had defended the Fatherland now not be considered German?'

Countries that have not been involved in the holocaust find it easier to ignore it. Many German people feel that they will never be able to live it down - because it did happen and they made it happen .

So why do I host Germans?

Because I was brought up with German books and culture and music? Although they sent me through hell, I feel sorry that, for a time,  the Germans forgot all that was good and valuable in their civilisation and substituted for it blinkered, blind obedience to a leader who appealed to their tendency to follow , without questions, a hero figure -  who appeared to represent the fulfilment of their dreams of recapturing a lost empire, restoring their humbled pride, repaying all the real and imagined wrongs of the past  and who showed them how to achieve this - in a single-minded,  bloody-minded, devil-inspired way. Although nearly all those who actively participated are now dead, the collective and individual conscience is still not at ease.

If you had asked me a few years ago whether I could forgive them - I would have said :No, never, it is too great a evil for any human to forgive.

Now I say that it is too great an evil to forget;  but were I to carry bitterness in my heart I would only damage myself and words like' always' and' never' are not currency in the country of my life.

So I befriend my German guests and my hospitality is perhaps one way of showing that sowing seeds of friendship  is greater than the harvest of evil.