At the end of World War II, as historian Gordon Craig has written, Germany awoke to a cold, gray dawn. Physically, Germans had to dig themselves out of the rubble. Spiritually, they had to deal with guilt relating to what was immediately recognized as the most gruesome genocide in human history. By all rights Sommer should have been relieved of the latter burden, but she awoke to her own cold, gray dawn.
Survivors of the Holocaust often surprise interviewers who ask what was the most dreadful aspect of their ordeal by answering, “When it was over!” It was at the moment of liberation that the survivor realized that there was nothing to survive for—neither family nor home. Margarete Sommer would have answered in the same way for two reasons: it was her responsibility to file official death notices for converted Jews who did not survive, and it fell to her to help those Jews returning to Berlin to put their lives back together. Thus, while most Germans put the Holocaust behind them as soon as they possibly could, Sommer continued to deal with it directly.
In 1946 Sommer estimated that of the approximately twenty thousand German Jewish survivors, thirteen thousand resided in Berlin. Caring for them stressed Sommer to the utmost. She was all too familiar with the familial tragedies wrought by Nazi racism. This painful first-hand awareness of human love torn apart was amplified by equally tragic cases of human weakness. There was the case of Peter Grünberg, born in 1933, who was abandoned by his “Aryan” mother after she divorced his Jewish father who became a Holocaust victim; and of Rudolf Hertwig whose Jewish father died in a concentration camp and whose Christian mother “pays no attention to him.” Sommer knew of hundreds of cases of broken lives or broken families and this weighed down her spirit.
Material want dispirited everyone. There was not enough food to maintain the general population at a subsistence level. Relief agencies were overwhelmed. Which survivors were most deserving? Who should be employed? Given housing? How should monetary relief be divided among survivors? The committee for the victims of fascism had to deal with these questions, and when they did so in a manner that Sommer felt was incorrect, she became angry and irritable.
But more than the material problems, it was the attitude of other caregivers and of noncaring people that stretched Sommer's nerves to the breaking point. Because Hitler had persecuted Jews indiscriminately, a solidarity had arisen during the Holocaust among Berlin Jews regardless of religious preference. This also extended, as we saw, to Sommer who assisted or hid Jews whether converts or not. When this interconfessional solidarity broke down after the war, bitterness tainted Sommer's work. The number of converts who, like Edith Stein, had perished during the Holocaust numbered in the many thousands. Those who had not perished were just as much in need of support as other survivors of the Holocaust. Foreign relief agencies, not understanding that to Hitler and the Nazis it did not matter whether a Jew had converted to Christianity, wanted their supplies to be distributed only among Mosaic Jews.
Sommer quarreled with Christian as well as Jewish caregivers. Her attitude toward two rescuers later recognized by Israel as “righteous gentiles,” Pastor Heinrich Grüber and Gertrud Luckner, offers a glimpse of Sommer's emotional anguish during the postwar years. Both Grüber and Luckner had rescued Jews during the Holocaust and, like Sommer, both of them gave themselves over completely to the task of relief for survivors. Sommer nevertheless referred in 1946 to Grüber as a dictator and disparaged Luckner' s efforts in considerable detail to a mutual friend. Since in reality Sommer had deep respect for both Grüber and Luckner, her bitter denunciations must be understood in terms of her postwar emotional distress.
If she thought this way about Grüber and Luckner, it is not difficult to imagine how she thought of most Germans. The general public, she noted, simply did not accept the fact that the survivors “deserved any consideration at all.” Sommer found it continually “astonishing” that “no one can understand why anything needs to be done on behalf of these people [survivors].”
How could Germans forget, Sommer wondered, the awful persecution of the Jews? The destruction of their homes, their ghettoization, and their outfight murder? Sommer did not expect Germans-at-large to take responsibility for the Holocaust, but she did expect them to take responsibility for its survivors. When they failed to do so, she wrote off her countrymen for being “small of heart.”
Catholics, Sommer noticed, suffered from this callousness as much as Protestants. As a result there was no one with whom Sommer could commiserate or even discuss the prevailing lack of empathy in Germany for survivors. Under these circumstances it was impossible for Sommer to speak out. Had she vented her feelings openly, she would have been accused of self-serving adulation and of promoting herself at the expense of her fellow countrymen. She would have been snubbed and shunned. Thus, the postwar years were a bleak time for Sommer.
In 1954 the Special Relief Office of the Berlin diocese, in which Sommer had worked since 1939 and directed since 1941, was closed. Through the office, Sommer had assisted hundreds and hundreds of Jews over more than a dozen years. She had every right to be proud of her record, but she was not. Although her work became more diversified after 1954, Sommer's experiences during the Nazi years tormented her for the rest of her life.
Two further social circumstances aggravated Sommer's mental state. She lived in a national culture that had not been friendly to the women's movement. Second, she lived in a religious culture that deprived women of authority. Finding herself walled in by these factors, Sommer could not bring herself to speak out against her church or country, faulting them for their failure to confront Hitler over the Holocaust. Unable to blame others, Margarete Sommer, who had done more for Jews during the Holocaust than most Germans, blamed herself for not having done more.
Although Israel has not yet recognized Sommer as a Righteous Gentile, the German government eventually honored her with a Cross of Merit for her work for Jews during the Holocaust. Sommer nevertheless withdrew into herself, scrupulously reviewing her rescue work and asking whether she might have saved others. The torment of the Jews became her own. She died in 1965 at the age of seventy-two. In Holocaust history there are no happy endings.
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