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Chicago’s German community continues to ‘come to terms with the past’

In 2006 Danica Polanski came to the United States from Berlin, Germany, after graduating high school, in search of a new experience — and was astounded with the country’s differences. 

“When I came here I noticed the patriotism Americans have,” Polanski said. “I have never experienced anything like that.” 

In Germany, Polanski said people do not hold the same pride in their country the way many Americans do. She said the country does not hang their flag, sing the anthem or celebrate themselves because if they did, they would be considered “Nazis” or “neo-Nazis.”

“Vergangenheitsbewaltigung” is a German term most commonly used to describe the act of “coming to terms with the past,” according to Rosa Gallagher, director of the DANK Haus German American Cultural Center  located in Lincoln Square, 4740 N. Western Ave. Gallagher said the Holocaust was and still is at-large in the German psyche and it comes out in everything. 

“It encompasses a lot,” Gallagher said. 

Polanski, DANK Haus language program director, said the center is not quite in the position she hopes it to be in addressing the issue with their younger students. She said it is something the center needs to talk about and make people aware of. 

Currently, Polanski said she feels the children in the center’s program are too young, 9 to 11-years-old, to begin talking about the issue and it is a lot to take in for them.

Polanski said the act of “overcoming the past” was ingrained in her day-to-day life, and although she was not alive during the war, she still holds guilt over what had happened. 

“You always make sure to apologize and make sure people know you feel sorry about it,” Polanski said.

The first time she heard Germany’s national anthem and saw the flag hung in store windows was in 2006, right before she came to the United States, when the FIFA World Cup was held there. Polanski said before then she never saw any pride in the country.

She came to America and never turned back, “I felt at home,” she said. 

Today, through film, academic writing, pop culture, politics and everyday discussions — Germans are continuously confronted with a past they so gravely want to move on from. The impacts, pressures and guilt from a time in history that permanently changed the lives of whole communities still lingers in day-to-day lives, nearly 80 years after WWII. 

As a 26-year-old German American whose mother was born in Germany, Gallagher said she has a different view on the term compared to others in the community, or even members of her family. She said discussion of the issue creates disagreement between herself and her family in Germany, and added she often hears how tired they are of being framed as the “bad guys.”

In her time at the DANK Haus museum, Gallagher said this is often a topic of conversation among young people, who feel resentment toward the fact they still need to feel guilty or come to terms with an event that was not part of their lifetime. Among people who experienced the war, though, it is a topic hardly ever mentioned. 

The DANK Haus, according to Gallagher, has had a reputation of not wanting to address issues such as this. The current staff and board, though, are trying to be more progressive around these topics. They are establishing partnerships with institutions that are experts and have done solid research on the Holocaust, as well as an oral history program, which will feature a variety of speakers who will share their own experiences regarding this issue specifically. 

“We are definitely going in the right direction, but I think there is big room for growth,” Gallagher said. 

Reinhard Andress, 62-year-old professor and director of German studies at Loyola University, regularly teaches a post-WWII German literature course with English translations. He focuses on the theme of coming to terms with Germany’s past. 

Rather than overcoming the past, Andress prefers to use the term “Auseinandersetzung mit der Vergangenheit,” which means to confront the past. He said his generation is very conscious of the importance of confronting the past, but younger generations are resistant in being reminded of it constantly. 

“It is important to do so, to come to some conclusions about it, so that we are not condemned to repeat the past” he said. 

In Gallagher’s experience, she said people should not be discouraged from talking about it, and that the point is not to wrap up the conversation and be done, it is something that should and always will need to be tended to. 

“For me, personally, I think the discussion has been beneficial for people,” Gallagher said. “It is okay if we have to keep talking about it. It is not a sign that we are failing.” 

Born in Milwaukee of German parents, Andress said his father fought in the German Wehrmacht and spent a great deal of time trying to come to terms with it, which resulted in a lack of common ground between the two and impacted their relationship. 

Andress said, in Germany, people have not yet overcome the past, but they have confronted it on many levels. “It is hard to spend a day in Germany without being reminded of that past in some way through the monument culture, days of remembrance, bestselling books, television and radio programming,” he said. 

Through that, according to Andress, Germans have developed a heightened sense of social justice, what constitutes racism, discrimination, or empathy for exiles and refugees. He said without confronting the past of Nazi atrocities, Germans would not possess those qualities to the same extent. 

There are people who claim the Holocaust was a complete hoax, according to Polanski, including her great aunt who was in her twenties during Hitler’s reign. Although it is unclear why people would deny this, Polanski said it could be to justify their own actions. She said rather than discussing the impacts of the war, her family talked more about political systems.

“Everybody who didn’t say anything was helping them,” Polanski said. 

Early in September, Germany President Frank-Walter Steinmeir publicly asked for Poland’s forgiveness for Nazi “tyranny,” according to BBC, during a commemoration. Steinmeir spoke in Warsaw in front of other world leaders and apologized for the war put on by Germany nearly 80 years ago. 

Poland is still calling for compensation for the destruction caused by the war. While the Polish parliamentary is still assessing the exact amount requested, Germany says the matter is already disputed. And in addition to this, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which divided Berlin from 1961-89. 

Polanski said everything begins with education, and people, specifically Germans, need to be open about discussing these issues. 

“If you don’t talk about certain things, that has an impact on the society,” Polanski said. “It’s about educating people and being honest about it.”

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