What does a German do after Auschwitz? What does a human being do after Auschwitz?
Two generations after the murders committed there in the name of Germany, this is still a driving question for Aktion S"uhnezeichen (Action Reconciliation/Service for Peace).
For this West German Protestant group, part of the answer has just been given in the building and turning over to the Polish city of Auschwitz a center for international youth meetings. It will be inaugurated in February, when Polish students of German language and literature will spend a week discussing with German counterparts the works of playwright Peter Weiss, whose family died in the Holocaust.
Later groups - the center is already three-quarters booked for 1987 by church congregations, school classes, trade unions, and independent youth groups - will bring together West German, Polish, Israeli, Dutch, and probably American young people in the first year.
Under joint Polish-Aktion leadership they will watch films, read about Hitler's extermination camps, meet survivors, and discuss how to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again. Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish theologians will also explore in ecumenical session the concept of ``God after Auschwitz.''
For Aktion it is the realization of a 15-year-old dream in the face of both Polish mistrust and a strong desire by many Germans to put Auschwitz behind them once and for all. The director of Aktion's East European section, Christian Heubner, considers it ``one of the rare victories of the visionaries over the `realists.'''
As he explained in an interview at Aktion's headquarters, the organization conceived the idea of a youth center in Auschwitz after the treaty of 1970 normalized relations between West Germany and Poland for the first time since the end of World War II. But many Poles, from a nation that suffered more dead proportionally than any other country in World War II, still wanted to have nothing to do with Germans. And many older West Germans thought it was time to forget this historical nadir and find instead ``a place where youth could meet without the burden of the past.''
On the Polish side, Aktion eventually won the cooperation of the Society of Veteran Fighters for Freedom and Democracy and laid the cornerstone for the center in 1980. When martial law was declared the work came to a halt. Not until 1985 did Poland allow Aktion to proceed.
On the West German side, opposition to the idea was so strong that Aktion initially received no government money for its project (a notable omission in a country that heavily subsidizes cultural and service organizations). Aktion first collected 1 million marks (about $500,000, or a quarter of the total cost) from private donors, then eventually got additional indirect funding from the federal government and direct funding from every West German state except one.
All along Aktion has seen Auschwitz as that which had the most meaning for youth meetings, Mr. Heubner says. ``It symbolized the lowest point in German-Polish history, the lowest point in Jewish-German relations, one of the lowest points in man's inhumanity to man. The motivation to speak with one another is greater there. The greater emotion opens people up more for dialogue than would be the case in Masuria [an area in northeast Poland] or in some sunny mountain meadow.''
But, ``What is needed is not emotional reaction, but reflection,'' Heubner notes. ``You can't leave it at emotions. Beyond emotions we need to reflect on the causes [for the bestiality at Auschwitz], to see what that has to do with life today in our own experience. In Germany it's very interesting: Emotion and reflection seldom come together. But Auschwitz is a typical place where [a purely intellectual approach] without emotion doesn't work - but emotion alone is inadequate.''
Heubner's judgment arises out of a decade of watching some 30,000 Aktion volunteers working in the Holocaust memorials in Israel and Auschwitz. Aktion's projects there have helped encourage reconciliation between Germans, Poles, and Jews - and, more unexpectedly, between the generations in West Germany itself. Through these programs victims of the Holocaust have to some extent been able to convey to young Germans what it was like. And with the building of the new youth center some have finally been able to turn to future hopes instead of just rehearsing the past.
This coming to terms with the past among older generations has not been limited to the persecuted. Some of the persecutors, or at least those who tolerated the persecution by not lifting their voices against it, have also come to reassess their own experience, to realize and to convey to the younger generations what a loss of humanity they themselves suffered by their own passivity in the face of Hitler's oppression.
A number of these, Heubner suggests - people who used to be defensive about their conduct in the Nazi era, contending that they knew nothing about the genocide of the Jews - have come, through the Auschwitz project and the peace movement, to see such willed blindness as a denial of their own character.
Through these causes, says Heubner, they managed ``to break their silence over the ruined years, to bridge the gap and see that these years were also for them lost years of youth, of love, of tenderness, destroyed through their own [betrayal of conscience]. They have [now] pushed things to the point of analysis. They have admitted the pain within them.'' This move away from a reflex justification of their own inaction ``is a great service to democratic culture in the Federal Republic [of West Germany].'' For some it has been ``the first stimulus to speak, to open themselves to their own history.''
A prime example is the architect who donated the plans for the Auschwitz center, Helmut Morlock. As a student in one of the Nazi elite schools at war's end he was in training to become one of the new ``Aryan'' rulers. Now he has dedicated his work for the center ``not just to the dead but also to the living,'' Heubner says.
With time, Aktion hopes some East Germans will also participate in the working out of German history at the Auschwitz center. This is a sensitive area, since the East Germans have never assumed responsibility for making amends for the crimes of Hitler's Germans - and since the Poles have an aversion to pan-German dialogue.