Collective guilt can be defined as the blameworthy moral responsibility held at the collective, or group, level. ‘German collective guilt’ is a term used for the emotions that arose after the conclusion of World War 2, as German citizens gained awareness of their engagement, tolerance, or ignorance of the atrocities which took place during the Holocaust. This psychological baggage is still being carried on decades later, now by generations of Germans who were not even alive during World War 2. Remnants of the structural and spiritual destruction are present in every household and in every tour book; Germany has not – or perhaps, cannot – move forward.
Through a lens of a young Mexican girl looking for a fresh start in Berlin, Book of Clouds asks these big, contemporary questions about how a guilt-ridden history should be memorialized. How do we remember our pain without being plagued by it? How do we tell stories of pain that aren’t ours? How do we move forward with a heavy, ineffaceable and rather inexcusable past in tow?
While these inquiries are imperative in any society, I find that they are rather adult topics, which lead to adult decisions in an overwhelmingly adult world. In the novel, our main character Tatiana finds work with an old historian, who particularly studies change over time in Berlin. While discussing the changing use of building spaces, Dr. Weiss asserts:
“It’s nearly as outrageous as what they did with the villa where the Wannsee conference was held, which, for thirty-six years after the war was used as a hostel for inner-city children. Imagine the sort of energy those children imbibed, playing games in the room where the ‘Final Solution’ for getting rid of every single Jew in Europe was laid out to top Reich administrators;” (96-97)
I have been struggling with this passage; Children themselves do not understand. They do not make political decisions. They do not designate the use of spaces. They cannot know of a country’s dark history or their own ancestors’ sinful past. What, then, is the role of children, both those growing up during painful political eras and those growing up in the aftermath? Does childhood oblivion act as a “Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card”? Or are they, too, part of this ‘guilty collective’?
Book of Clouds begins to chip away at these thoughts, but often leaves me as a reader with more unsolved questions than answers.
The book zooms in on Tatiana’s interview with Jonas Krantz, whose childhood artwork had been saved from the 1980’s when the Berlin Wall still stood. The drawing depicted ants tunneling their way beneath the wall, to the unknown opposite side.
“Do you ever feel nostalgic for those times?” Tatiana asked Jonas of his doodling schooldays, to which he replied:
“Depends on what kind of week I’m having.” (62-63)
Jonas, upon reflection, felt guilty about enjoying his childhood. Of course as a child, he could not have known that East Berlin was occupied by a totalitarian Communist dictatorship which controlled its citizens through spying, brainwashing, and severe violence. Instead, Jonas imagined that a world of color and wonder and magic and treasure awaited him on the forbidden side of the city. And for this, he is not to blame; the adults in charge are.
What happens when the wall falls, and a child realizes what has truly been waiting on the other side? Childhood changes. Sweet memories go sour. Spaces of rosy refuge become colored with gritty red hues, never to be the same. A childhood is pulled out from under the small feet of the innocent youth, who lands in a divided and hateful world with a thud.
Each week, I see children running around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, playing hide and seek, experimenting with echoes, and I cringe. My first impulse is to quiet them myself, my second is to think about the bigger picture; maybe this is how Germany will move forward. What is the value in quieting a happy child in a space once filled with hate? If adults can steal a kid’s childhood, why can’t the next kid steal it back?