February 17, 2000
Ernestine Bradley’s Message
Ernestine Schlant Bradley, short brown hair, dressed in a lively pink/purple-checked wool jacked with beige slacks, was sipping hot water with six lemon wedges at the Los Angeles Regal Biltmore Hotel coffee shop last weekend, nursing laryngitis. The wife of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, Democratic candidate for president, is facing what might be called the flip side of the "Madeleine Albright syndrome": America's lingering obsession with the Holocaust manifested by exposing the lives of its public personalities. If Albright, 63, was the hidden Jew, Schlant, 64, is now the revealed German.
She set aside nearly an hour just three weeks before the California primary to address the bitter prospect that there may be a whisper campaign against her. Tabloid reporters and investigators are apparently looking into the question: Had her father, a pilot in Hitler's Luftwaffe, been a Nazi?
Schlant, whose many Jewish friends include the philosopher/writer Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, told me that she and Bradley had discussed the so-called German question before announcing his candidacy. But she clearly counted on the passage of time, and the decades of her own impressive work in German-Jewish reconciliation, to quickly put it all to rest.
Yet as the campaign has proceeded, the issue has not died. Even in articles that praise her own scholarly and personal talents, like Andrew Sullivan's column in last week's New York Times Magazine, there is the annoying tendency of journalists to repeat that her father was not a Nazi Party member only when it is followed by the delimiting "according to Schlant."
"It's part of the political atmosphere," she says, sadly.
So she came to address the issue. The short answer, she said bluntly, is no. She had asked her father directly whether he had been a Nazi, and he told her no. She had relentlessly questioned her mother.
"I wish that they had been part of the resistance," she said softly.
Schlant was 10 when the war ended. As a child she delivered tea to wounded German soldiers. She came to the U.S. as a Pan Am flight attendant, then earned a Ph.D. in post-war West German literature at Emory University. She became a citizen in 1963. Her books, including "The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust," indict the writers of her generation for denying the slaughter and destruction of the Jews. She teaches German and comparative literature at Montclair State College in New Jersey.
"The Holocaust has been used as a word without much content," she said. "When German writers use the word 'Holocaust' they don't have to think about children and women. We have yet to come to terms with mourning, the sorrow, the pain of them having destroyed a culture and a tradition." Nevertheless, she suggested that Germans are eons ahead of Austrians, who still bear their sense of victimization, and a shadowy isolation, which might help explain Vienna's current flirtation with neo-Nazism through Joerg Haider's Freedom Party.
An intellectual, every bit the equal of her Rhodes-scholar husband, Schlant and I spent some time discussing the word "complicit" which she felt too vaguely indicting of her father's generation: "You lived with the reality," she said. "Even if you were passive, you could have passive activity and active passivity." Schlant clearly meant that others should not judge her parents as merely accepting Hitler even if they went along.
Schlant's interests are not solely with Germans. Today, she is learning that American Jews still have their post-war homework to do. On a recent campaign stop at a New York yeshiva, she was surprised to find that Jewish students did not know German history very well.
"I have visited yeshivas before, but it wasn't until I heard the question that I realized that the students didn't understand the difference between the German army and the Nazi party," she said. "This needs to be dispelled, this needs to be addressed." The persistent equation of Germans with Nazis, even among the youngest Jews, makes it impossible for any of us to move on.
The distinctions between "complicit" and "implicated," between Germans and Nazis, between Jewish victims and prejudiced youngsters will become more important as the shadow of the Holocaust continues to recede. Schlant's appearances are thus historically important regardless of the primary campaign's results.
"Even if Bill doesn't get elected," she told me, "there is an opportunity for us. Not for forgiveness, since the Jewish survivors say that forgiveness is impossible. Not for reconciliation, since that is impossible. Not for atonement. None of that is possible.
"But I can possibly build bridges between the two sides."
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life."
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.