Sharing the Burden

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Berlin-based author Carola Stern, 75, talked to James Graff about her call for all Germans to help compensate former slave and forced laborers:

TIME: Why do you think ordinary Germans — and not just firms — should pay?

Stern: There were millions of forced laborers in Germany during the Nazi period, not just in industry but on farms, in restaurants, on the railroads, and as childminders for large families. We want a large number of Germans to see their way clear to making a gesture that they are conscious of that injustice, that we feel grief and shame over the calculated hesitancy that has so far been evident in compensating these forced workers. We want to show the survivors some goodwill and humanity from the Germans before they die.

TIME: Is there Holocaust fatigue in Germany?

Stern: Some people say they have too many problems in the present to think about the past. And there are young, active people who are more concerned about the dangers of nuclear power and the like. But I think there is still a very high sensitivity about the past, especially in the educated middle classes.

TIME: Can you be sure that the money gets to the victims?

Stern: It is a scandal that many people in Eastern Europe still haven't seen a penny of compensation. But there's an example I hope people will take to heart. A citizens' group in Münster figured out that many of the slave laborers who had worked there during the war had come from Minsk in Belarus. So they drove there and found the survivors and heirs of the workers, impoverished and in some cases still traumatized. Now they send every one of them 50 DM a month.

TIME: Does the idea that all Germans pay suggest a kind of collective guilt?

Stern: Certainly we have to make a distinction between the guilt of our generation — particularly of firms, institutions and families that employed forced laborers — and the responsibility of all Germans for their past. But it can't be that once my generation is no longer alive, the Germans will be somehow released from their history.