Holocaust justice?

'Sie dreckiges Judenschwein!" - "You dirty Jewish pig!" someone screamed at us from across a busy street in downtown Berlin.

We didn't look up. At that moment we wondered if we could escape without someone spitting at us. Instinctively we headed home, though we knew home would offer us little protection: The name-caller was Frau Wirth, our next-door neighbor.

It was 1939, and although this woman had been harassing my mother for years, we realized then that there was no more recourse for abuse, no more refuge, no more safe haven for a Jewish person in Germany.

My mother was Jewish, my father was not. As a "half-Jew," I was spared being sent to the camps. But my mother and most of her relatives weren't so fortunate. They perished.

Six years later, soon after the war ended, I emigrated to the United States.

In the early 1950s, I returned to Berlin. As I stood in front of the burned-out ruin of what had been my birthplace, a woman dashed out of the house next door, raced down the street, and disappeared into the subway station. It was Frau Wirth.

As she darted away, clearly avoiding me, I stood there realizing that my chance had arrived to get back at this woman for all the harassment. During the years Hitler was in power, Frau Wirth had made life miserable for my mother.

I would not have been alone in seeking redress. In those years after the war, many scores were settled by the few Jews who survived, or by their relatives, through fist fights or court cases. In my instance, I could have filed charges against Frau Wirth for defaming my mother's character. If anything, she might have been reprimanded by the court, or required to pay a fine, or got off altogether, depending on the inclination of the judge.

But didn't I owe it to my mother's memory and dignity at least to try to bring this woman to justice?

I then visited other neighbors, the elderly couple with whom we had shared our back fence. I learned that their only son had been killed in the war. Incomprehensibly, Frau Wirth had been nasty to them, too. These lovely people had also become victims of this woman's venom. She had even accused them publicly of some imagined misdeed in the years after the war, the details of which I no longer remember.

I reasoned that bringing Frau Wirth to justice could also help vindicate this couple, and perhaps bring them some measure of satisfaction. I thought to myself that my eyewitness accounts, presented in court, would carry enough weight at least to put a good scare into her. Even my mother, who had loved that kind old couple, would have approved, though she was no more vengeful a person than I am.

But I chose not to demand justice in court. And to this day I feel the years of wrong done by that person have not been made right.

I did take some comfort in the thought that Frau Wirth would have to live with her conscience. At the same time, I tried to suppress the feeling that a person like her probably didn't suffer from a guilty conscience.

But honestly, though I might have had a strong case, it was hard to see how legal action would have made me feel more "whole." Yes, it may have helped my neighbors to feel better, but it would not have brought my mother back.

In the years that have passed, I have had many occasions to recall the dilemma I faced that summer. Ultimately, what really mattered is how my decision affected those involved - the dear old couple, the memory of my mother, and my own peace of mind. In this respect, I feel I did the right thing.

Margret Hofmann is a former member of the Austin City Council.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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