Summary and book reviews of Those Who Forget by Géraldine Schwarz

Those Who Forget

My Family's Story in Nazi Europe – A Memoir, A History, A Warning

by Géraldine Schwarz

Those Who Forget by Géraldine Schwarz X
Those Who Forget by Géraldine Schwarz
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  • Published:
    Sep 2020, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Book Summary

Those Who Forget, published to international awards and acclaim, is journalist Géraldine Schwarz's riveting account of her German and French grandparents' lives during World War II, an in-depth history of Europe's post-war reckoning with fascism, and an urgent appeal to remember as a defense against today's rise of far-right nationalism.

During World War II, Géraldine Schwarz's German grandparents were neither heroes nor villains; they were merely Mitlaüfer—those who followed the current. Once the war ended, they wanted to bury the past under the wreckage of the Third Reich.

Decades later, while delving through filing cabinets in the basement of their apartment building in Mannheim, Schwarz discovers that in 1938, her paternal grandfather Karl took advantage of Nazi policies to buy a business from a Jewish family for a low price. She finds letters from the only survivor of this family (all the others perished in Auschwitz), demanding reparations. But Karl Schwarz refused to acknowledge his responsibility. Géraldine starts to question the past: How guilty were her grandparents? What makes us complicit? On her mother's side, she investigates the role of her French grandfather, a policeman in Vichy.

Weaving together the threads of three generations of her family story with Europe's process of post-war reckoning, Schwarz explores how millions were seduced by ideology, overcome by a fog of denial after the war, and, in Germany at least, eventually managed to transform collective guilt into democratic responsibility. She asks: How can nations learn from history? And she observes that countries that avoid confronting the past are especially vulnerable to extremism. Searing and unforgettable, Those Who Forget is a riveting memoir, an illuminating history, and an urgent call for remembering.

Chapter I
To Be or Not to Be a Nazi

I wasn't particularly destined to take an interest in Nazis. My father's parents were neither on the victims' nor the executioners' side. They didn't distinguish themselves with acts of bravery, but neither did they commit the sin of excess zeal. They were simply Mitläufer, people who "followed the current." Simply, in the sense that their attitude was shared by the majority of the German people, an accumulation of little blindnesses and small acts of cowardice that, when combined, created the necessary conditions for the worst state-orchestrated crimes known to humanity. For many years after the defeat, my grandparents, like most Germans, lacked the hindsight to realize that though the impact of each Mitläufer was tiny on an individual level, it had a cumulative effect, since without their participation, Hitler would not have been able to commit crimes of such magnitude. The Führer himself sensed this and regularly took the measure of...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Schwarz defines her German grandparents as Mitläufer, ordinary people who, like the majority of the German population, "followed the current" (page 1) during World War II. She argues that without the cooperation of the Mitläufer, the Nazis could never have carried out the atrocities of the Holocaust. What does she mean by that?
  2. How did Mannheim change during the 1930s and early 1940s, and how did this impact the city's Jewish community day by day? How did it impact Schwarz's grandparents?
  3. How did opportunism motivate many Germans to support anti-Semitic measures? How did its citizens become accomplices in a criminal regime? What role did indifference, fear, and blindness, as well as the manipulative strategies of the Third Reich...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Although the transition from history to analysis of current events is relatively abrupt, the placement of brief commentary on recent issues later in the book still works well considering that Schwarz's account is primarily chronological. Also, in deferring this commentary, she avoids turning off readers who disagree with her assessment or who pick up the book because of a specific curiosity about the historical rise of Nazism. In any case, the narrative is fascinating from start to finish, combining a top-notch family memoir with history and social criticism. Like many, I've pondered the Holocaust over the years, wondering how such a thing could happen, how average, well-meaning people could permit a climate in which others are systematically persecuted or killed. Those Who Forget is enlightening in that regard, and provides a lot of food for thought. Schwarz's warning, too, is an important one that should be heeded...continued

Full Review Members Only (884 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

New York Journal of Books
Importantly, Géraldine places her family’s story in the broader context of postwar German and French blame-shifting. As has been reported extensively, both countries buried their responsibility for years, alternately blaming Germany (France) or a few leaders (Germany) and ignoring their own citizens’ complicity and even enthusiastic support for the Holocaust...It took Europe arguably two generations to fully face up to its shameful Holocaust past. Books like this one are needed to make sure that future generations don’t have any such guilt to deny.

Washington Post
[I]mmensely powerful...an urgent siren, flagging the dangers of creeping authoritarianism and the blowback that can occur when historic injustices are not aired and addressed...timely and necessary.

Publishers Weekly
[An] astute debut...This timely memoir also serves as a perceptive look at the current rise of far-right nationalism throughout Europe and the U.S.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[T]his book, a deserving winner of the European Book Prize, shows clearly how a willful amnesia can poison nations that have sworn never to forget the Holocaust. The granddaughter of a Nazi Party member makes a powerful, convincing moral case for resisting toxic nationalism.

Library Journal (starred review)
In her debut, journalist and documentary filmmaker Schwarz offers a powerful and unflinching look at Germany during World War II and Europe's postwar reckoning with far-right nationalism, and calls for readers not to forget the painful lessons learned...In searing yet engaging prose, Schwarz makes her case for the need for memory work in this highly recommended read.

Booklist (starred review)
A timely must-read, this brutally honest memoir is also a smart historical analysis and a relevant warning for the future.

Author Blurb Nora Krug, author of Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home
Those Who Forget goes far beyond the difficult endeavor of conveying the complexity of the German war experience: It is a deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection on the far-reaching effect history has on us as individuals, as families, and as societies. Making a case for taking individual – not just collective – responsibility, she helps us understand the importance of openly facing our past, and of actively learning from it, at a time when our democracy, once again, is under threat. Those Who Forget is a powerful monument to our time, and an urgent wake-up call.

Author Blurb Daniel Okrent, author of The Guarded Gate
It took only two generations for her family's unexceptional wartime past to recede from view. But as the author painstakingly peeled away decades of denial, it was precisely the family's ordinariness that would prove so chilling. Geraldine Schwarz's book is a brave and important contribution to our understanding of memory.

Author Blurb Philippe Sands, author of East West Street
An utterly original memoir for our times, elegant, courageous and deeply affecting.

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Beyond the Book

Stolpersteine

Stolpersteine in Kolín, Czech Republic In Those Who Forget, author Géraldine Schwarz relates a visit her father paid to his parents' former home in Mannheim, Germany, looking for a specific "Stolperstein" installed outside the apartment.

The word "Stolperstein" (plural "Stolpersteine") means "stumbling stone" or "stumbling block" in German. These small memorials to victims of the Nazi regime are concrete stones topped with brass plaques, each about 10 cm square, embedded outside the person's last-known residence. Each bears the words "here lived" followed by the individual's name, year of birth and their fate under Nazism (deportation, internment, etc.).

The Stolperstein project began to form in 1991, when artist Gunter Demnig created a paint line on the...

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