Bridging the Silence: Jewish and non-Jewish Voices of Remembrance -- Sibylle Tiedemann's documentary film Kinderland ist abgebrannt (1997)
Uta Larkey

In recent years, local projects to explore the Jewish fate during the Nazi-time, to improve German-Jewish relations and to foster reconciliation have gained new dimensions. These projects have focused on memories, testimonies, documentations, photographs, biographies of the local Jewish deportees, expellees, and survivors of the Holocaust. Many communities sponsored so called “reconciliation projects” and invited survivors back for visits, discussions, exhibitions, and talks at schools. Documentations such as "Geteilte Erinnerung – Jüdische und nichtjüdische Nachbarn in Berlin-Schöneberg," "Die zweiten 1000 Jahre – Juden in Nordhausen," “'Alle Juden raus' – Judenverfolgung in einer deutschen Kleinstadt" have been produced. Sybille Tiedemann's documentary film Kinderland ist abgebrannt, for which she received the Bundesfilmpreis in 1998, has to be seen in the context of these reconciliation projects.

Tiedemann's film is an intimate and powerful portrayal of a group of German and German-Jewish women who as 11 to 12 year olds attended the "Mädchenrealoberschule" in Ulm from 1934 to 1936. The high level of intimacy and mutual trust between the film maker and the women interviewed are partially due to Tiedemann’s open-ended and sensitive questions, but also to the fact that many of the women were her mother’s classmates and have known Tiedemann for over 40 years. This made it possible for her to interview these women as individuals and in groups at their class reunion in 1997, and at their respective homes in Germany, Israel and the U.S. By focusing on their every day lives during the twelve years of the Third Reich, Tiedemann's film makes visible the machinery of the totalitarian state in one small German town and the resistance to it -- Sophie Scholl, youngest member of the White Rose, was a classmate of the interviewed women. And Tiedemann uncovers the dangers of ignorance, the consequences of political disinterest, and lack of self-reflection.

The interviews are the focal point of the film. Tiedemann chooses a chronological approach for her interviews to relate the life stories of her 12 interviewees. She guides her interviewees through their memories beginning in 1933 and tries to capture the way they felt then. She often focuses on sensory impressions of their everyday life by asking the women what they wore, which smells and sounds, emotions and thoughts they can recall. Tiedemann uses the intimate spaces of the interviewees’ homes. She films outside only on the occasion of a group picture at the end of the film. All the other outside shots are provided through archival material. One focal point in the interviews with the Jewish women is the Münster (Cathedral) in Ulm as a symbol of “Heimat” that the viewer gets to see in historical photographs.

Tiedemann’s extensive use of archival footage in black and white as well as color, the inclusion of personal photographs, letters, mementos, autograph albums and diaries, newspaper clippings and stills from the 1930’s and 1940’s provide a rich historical background. The archival footage becomes documentary evidence, for example, a close-up of the Red Cross letter Fanny K.’s mother wrote to her parents shortly before their deportation, or the newspaper announcement of the Scholls' execution.

Tiedemann rarely uses traditional documentary film devices, such as voice over, commentary, or intertitles. She builds the narrative of her documentary through (sometimes fast) editing, the juxtaposition of opinions, experiences and images, and the use of music and silence, archival material, and a strong sense of rhythm and composition. The narrator is implied and has no voice, image, or body. This can lead to the misunderstanding that this is a “simple documentation of authentic stories.” (1)

Tiedemann uses a stationary camera that does not interfere with the intimacy of the interviews. She usually prefers medium shots (on one occasion a two shot) with an occasional close up. Point-of-view and over the shoulder shots are only used when the interviewees are shown a photo or letter. Without the use subjective camera, Tiedemann’s intimate interviewing techniques and her utilization of the women’s occasional comments when looking at photos or documents, create for the viewer the impression of a high degree of introspection. See clip from the beginning of the movie.

Tiedemann composed a frame for her documentary: In the beginning and at the end the viewer sees the group of Jewish and non-Jewish women interacting with each other around a table with soft, warm lighting. They look at photographs and read poems they had written when they were young girls and went to school together. In the un-edited version of this final gathering (which I was privileged to see) the cautious opening up and getting closer to each other is obvious. They have tried to restore some trust and friendship between each other and voice their shame (non-Jewish women) and forgiveness (Jewish women). Tiedemann has wisely cut the scenes when the sentiments of reconciliation become too personal and emotional (and less effective) for the viewer. The frame and the theme music nevertheless provide a strong compositional device and inner logic.

Most of the non-Jewish women in Ulm remember an early enthusiasm for Hitler in their families and amongst their friends. Few women whose families resisted the Nazi movement for political or religious reasons remember acts of intimidation. Marianne W., one of the interviewees was singled out and punished by a teacher because her social-democratic father was imprisoned in the concentration camp Dachau. He had warned that Hitler’s seizure of power meant war and became one of the first political prisoners of the Nazi regime.

The population in Ulm was by and large supportive of Hitler’s power and accepted the arrests and imprisonments of political dissenters. The KZ Oberer Kuhberg, a concentration camp for “protective custody for political dissidents” was in operation near Ulm from 1933-1935. The word in town had it that “Those who can't shut up, and are always against everything will end up there,” as Marianne W. recalls. The other women remember a new ritualization of everyday life (which they mostly enjoyed): marching, greetings, music, firm organizational structures, and highly regulated leisure time activities. While their classmates’ religious background initially had no importance, the Jewish and non-Jewish classmates eventually stopped associating with each other after 1935. However, both groups were reportedly not aware of it at the time, and the non-Jewish women even now barely remember this process of subtle alienation in which they slowly become pawns in a political game.

"Being not aware" and "forgetting" is not unusual during these times. In her extensive research, Marion Kaplan did not find any “memoir of a German admitting this, (but)…an English woman married to a German and living in Germany, acknowledged her personal failure to maintain relationships with Jewish friends.“(2) While this process of alienating and excluding is often "forgotten," other, "more generous," memories are quite vivid. Consistent with related research projects, I found that non-Jewish women always remember the one Jewish friend, or the sister’s Jewish friend or the Jewish neighbor who came to them or their families to explain that they do not wish to further associate with them so that the gentiles would not endanger themselves. Yet, these stories might be a belated attempt of justification on the part of the non-Jews. It is hard but not impossible to believe that after the Nuremberg Laws and an increasing discrimination against them, Jews became so worried about their gentile friends and neighbors that they went out in numbers and “absolved” them from their friendship.

Is guilt or shame a reason why the gentile women tell their stories with this particular twist? Or is it still the lack of acknowledgment of ones own participation that shapes memory in this particular form? It is also conceivable that after WW II the individual and collective memory merged into a convenient narration of the family stories so that fact and fiction could no longer be kept apart. Last but not least, it is entirely possible that Jewish acquaintances and neighbors felt that their friendships with gentiles could endanger the latter. However, I found only one account to this effect which I would consider a rare exception.(3) John Borneman (1992) shows how individual life course narratives tend to coincide with national narratives of identity and therefore are susceptible to change under evolving conditions in postwar and post-unification Germany. (4)

As Tiedeman's film shows, in the early days of their fascination with the Hitler regime gentile women remember that they wanted to be “like the boys”. Their opposition against their mothers’ traditional ideals of rearing children and performing household chores was at this point supported by their schools and youth groups after 1933. They loved hiking, cut their hair very short, gave each other male nicknames and eagerly engaged in all kind of sports. Academic achievement and proper behavior were not considered very “cool.” But all too soon this time of perceived easygoing, fun loving and “non-political” times ended, and the ideals changed. Or did they?

The women fondly remember the evenings around the bonfire singing, and playing the guitar. To this day some of them have not fully grasped the impact of these seemingly benign Girls’ Leagues activities. Irmgard H. in Kinderland: “Almost all women get excited when they think of their time as Girls’ League leaders. Then they were in command, and where else did one as a woman have something to say? …For us, it was a kind of emancipation, even if nobody today wants to believe us. As a leader, one received an instruction booklet every 2 or 4 weeks. They were not badly made. One received instructions, and though they were a little oversimplified, one relayed them to the younger girls: about the German farmer who lives in the East, motherhood, the brave mother who makes sacrifices for Germany and all this kitsch. That was effective; one never forgets that.”

Even though the women primarily focus on all the fun in the Girls’ League, they also admit that ultimate discipline was exercised. Highly ritualized ceremonies and para-military style prevailed: uniforms, marching, oaths, flag rising, roll calls, orders, and hierarchical structures. If one of the girls missed one afternoon meeting she got reprimanded. It even happened that the entire group went to her house and pressured her to come.

Indoctrinated and brainwashed, most of the non-Jewish women interviewed in the film are excited rather than frightened by the beginning of the war. They were “sentenced” to work in a factory for six weeks and are proud to help their “fatherland.” In 1941, the girls were sent to “Reichsgau Wartheland” in the East (today Poland) to help ethnic German farmers (Volksdeutsche and Wolhyniendeutsche) in the fields. Tiedemann only touches upon the women’s recollections of the “Warthegau” where they became aware of Polish slave laborers, Jewish ghettos and camps. They suppressed these experiences when they came back to Ulm. In hindsight, they felt misled and betrayed by the Nazi regime. In his essay “Was wußten die Deutschen vom Holocaust? “ David Bankier argues that “wide circles of the German population, Jewish and non-Jewish either knew or felt what happened in Poland and Russia.” (5) He researched many sources that substantiate his argument (German soldiers’ letters and diaries, accounts of foreigners living in Germany, Allied radio stations, flyers, German employees of railroad and postal agencies), but he neglected to analyze the experiences of the many women who served in the RAD, the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Compulsory Work Service).

Looking back, the women in “Kinderland” idealize and romanticize their services in the RAD and KHD (Kriegshilfsdienst; War Auxiliary Service). This reminded them of earlier years when they were allowed to challenge the traditional gender roles, enjoyed certain independence, and felt needed as workers and not as housewives and mothers.

Tiedemann included a short segment on the "White Rose" and Sophie Scholl in Kinderland in order to demonstrate the differing and controversial German responses to acts of resistance – then and now. While one woman helped to distribute leaflets for the "White Rose," others still deeply resent their acts of opposition, sabotage, and defiance because they were “endangering our boys at the front.” Since this aspect of resistance can only be touched upon in Kinderland, Tiedemann produced another documentary, ironically titled Die Verräter der Nation (The Traitors of the Nation), in which she more thoroughly interviews surviving participants in some of the actions of the "White Rose." The filmed oral history interviews in Kinderland clearly show the strong emotional impact that the memory of the "White Rose" had and has on the women of Ulm. The women’s body language and voices change. The former supporter of the "White Rose" relates her memories in a very relaxed and joking way. For her, the delivery of the forbidden leaflets was the right and adventuresome thing to do. The other women become very excited and almost agitated and tense when they think of what they perceived (and maybe still perceive) as a betrayal of Germany. One women even explains that the custodian at Munich University “had no choice but to turn them (Hans and Sophie Scholl along with other members of the "White Rose") in.” This is the only time that the film touches upon the topic of widespread denunciations during the Nazi regime.

Denunciations were state-sanctioned and aimed at “the other.” Since homogeneity of the population was one declared goal of the Nazi regime (Gleichschaltung, Volksgemeinschaft), it was not difficult to stand outside the narrowly defined framework. “The other” could be a member of an illegal resistance group, a family member who opposed the Nazi regime (Brecht “The Informer”), a homosexual acquaintance, or a Jewish neighbor. A study by Inge Marszolek analyzes denunciation as a “communication form and mode of behavior.” She argues that different forms of denunciation were an integral part of the power structure and everyday life during the Nazi reign and permeated “public and informal spaces.”(6)

While the non-Jewish girls continued to live their highly structured and regulated lives, the Jewish girls emigrated with their families to Palestine, Hungary, Great Britain and later to the U.S. They felt uprooted and had to learn new languages, find new identities, and blend into new cultures. They also had lost contact to each other.

The Jewish women remember that the process of isolation was very slow and subtle; they hardly noticed it at the time. Initially, they were content to socialize amongst themselves, to found their own clubs. But shortly after the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws, their lives changed. They went to separate schools. They were forbidden to go to swimming pools, movie theaters, encountered anti-semitic remarks and isolated acts of intimidation. Some of them prepared for emigration to Palestine at the Landschulheim Herrlingen which was a haven for Jewish youths from 1933-1939, when it was forcibly shut down, They drew closer to each other, were heartbroken and hopeless when one of them left with her family for Palestine in 1936. Fanny K. recalls that she felt “ashamed” of this decision by her parents because she belonged to an anti-Zionist group and felt that she let her friends down. The conflicts that Fanny K. experienced with her parents at the time were not unusual. However, according to Marion Kaplan, the generation gap for the majority of Jewish-German families worked the other way around: “The generation gap was particularly apparent between acculturated parents and newly Zionist children.”(7)

Because Tiedemann wanted to capture the everyday life in pre-WW II Germany, the deportations and the annihilation of the Jewish population are not the focus of the film. The only time this issue is addressed in the film is in Fanny K’s interview when she briefly talks about the deportation of her grandparents to Theresienstadt and from there to Treblinka -- of the Jews living in Ulm, 116 were deported to Riga and Theresienstadt; 112 of them died, and 332 immigrated to 17 different countries. (8)

Tiedemann strikes a balance in recording the many facets of human and inhuman behavior. She shows but does not judge failures and mistakes, heroism and cowardice. Mutual understanding and reconciliation are possible but not mandatory, as the participants of Kinderland demonstrate.

The modes of remembrance between the Jewish and non-Jewish women clearly differ. The gentile women, with their parents’ encouragement joined the highly structured Jungmädel group (9) which forced the Jewish women to form their own, much less structured and more informal groups. Subsequently, the Jewish women remember the time between 1933 and their escapes in a highly individualized way; the gentile women, on the other hand, refer to it as a collective experience. While both groups remember their early school years in a similar way, the Jewish women highly individualize their memories and experiences after 1935. The non-Jewish women, on the other side, speak primarily of a collective experience that is evident in the frequent use of the pronoun “we.” Occasionally they resort to the impersonal “one” (man). I propose that they did experience the 1930’s and 1940’s as an integral part of a group but also that they claim to this day that there were no individual choices that they could have made. Clearly, that is one reason why some of the women felt and feel threatened by acts of resistance. The members of the "White Rose" stood up against the Nazi ideology and showed that individual choices were possible, if dangerous. The vast majority of Germans disagreed with acts of defiance.

During their class reunion in 1997, the 12 former classmates have, for the first time, listened to each other's recollections of the early years of the Nazi regime. While the Jewish emigrants came back to Ulm in 1997 - still deeply hurt, but willing to hear their childhood friends’ points of view, to understand their lives’ stories, and even to forgive them, Tiedemann is very careful in avoiding in her film an over arching conciliatory mood. Instead, she artistically examines the forces at work that divided a generation of women, severed human relationships and brutally ended lives, and their differing memories of these events. Her film is an important contribution to the study of the personal and cultural construction of memory.(10)


The Jewish women relate stories of a carefree childhood that was brutally cut short through the rise of the Nazi regime and the support the Nazis received from the German population. They remember their individual escapes, losses, traumas and new beginnings in strange countries that have become their homes. The non-Jewish women were, of course, aware of the fact that their former friends had to emigrate, but they never truly contemplated the fates, challenges and problems of the refugees. The Jewish women, on the other hand, had no previous knowledge of the RAD and KHD, and many other aspects of everyday life in Ulm during WW II.

1 HA „Und dann wollten wir den totalen Krieg.“ Review zu Kinderland ist abgebrannt, taz, Berlin, 5. November 1999.

2 Kaplan, Marion. Between Dignity and Despair (New York 1998), p. 43.Kaplan quotes Christabel Bielenberg: “I could pinpoint no exact date when normal….association with Jewish friends became an act of defiance and then petered out ...When was it that credulity turned into doubt, doubt into resignation, and to the unhappy, rather shamefaced admission that you were sorry, you could not help it, you happened to have been labeled an Aryan…and truth to tell you’d be might relieved to know that the good friend was safely off your conscience overseas.”

3 Kaplan, p.41-42. While Kaplan acknowledges that most gentile Germans avoided contact with their
Jewish neighbors and friends, she found one example from Dortmund and one from a small town in the Rhineland where the initiative to stay away from each other came from the Jewish side.

4 Borneman, John. Belonging in the Two Berlins, (New York, 1992).

5 Bankier, David. Was wußten die Deutschen vom Holocaust? Kosmala, Beate/Schoppmann, Claudia (eds.). Solidarität und Hilfe für Juden während der NS-Zeit, Bd. 5, Berlin 2002, p. 67.

6 Marszolek, Inge. "Denunziation im Dritten Reich," Kosmala, Beate/Schoppmann, Claudia (eds.). Solidarität und Hilfe für Juden während der NS-Zeit, Bd. 5, Berlin 2002, p. 100.

7 Kaplan, p. 111.

8 Zeugnisse zur Geschichte der Juden in Ulm. Erinnerungen und Dokumente. Herausgegeben vom Stadtarchiv Ulm, p. 261.

9 The non-Jewish girls continue to live their highly structured and regulated lives. They all become leaders in the Girls' League (Jungmädelführerinnen) and considered the BDM “too political and therefore, boring.”

10 Examples used for this article: Welzer, Harald. “Opa war kein Nazi”, Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis (Frankfurt a.M. 2002), Gieschler, Sabine. Leben erzählen (Münster 1999), Rosenthal, Gabriele. Erlebte und erzählte Lebensgeschichte (Frankfurt a.M. 1995), Keppler, Angela. Tischgespräche (Frankfurt a.M. 1994), Middleton, David/Edwards, Derek. Collective Remembering (London 1990).