PBS Frontline producer Marian Marzynski was online to discuss his film. A transcript follows.

Minneapolis, Minn.:Sir: Your film Shtetl portrayed Poles as subhuman antisemites. Your current film shows Germans in a more favourable light. Given that Germans caused the Holocaust and Poles did not, can you explain the contrast between your desire to rehabilitate Germans (and ‘feel safe among them’) and your desire to whip up ethnic hatred toward Poles?

Marian Marzynski:I strongly disagree that I portray Poles as subhuman in my film Shtetl. I think that I presented them with the same degree of humanity that I portrayed Germans with in my last film.

The role of Germans and Poles in the Holocaust was obviously apples and oranges. Germans are responsible for the extermination of the Jews. Poles were Jewish neighbours. In my film Shtetl, I didn’t accuse them of killings; I just raised the question of the attitude between neighbours, and I found that those attitudes varied from heroism to indifference to viciousness. In other words: positive, neutral, and bad.

Grand Island, Neb.:I, too, was eight years old when the war ended. I was born and grew up in Berlin. The required school lessons, ordered by the Allies, on war and the Holocaust we children received after 1945 seemed to us often so painful, despite the horrors we ourselves had just experienced. But this education must have been quite effective since I have thought about the war and the Holocaust almost every day of my life. Like so many other Germans of my age group, I am embarrassed to meet and speak to Jewish people despite that my parents had many Jewish friends in Berlin before the war. My parents never felt the guilt and responsibility I feel today. You suggested that without guilt the Holocaust might become trivial or forgotten, and you mentioned the concept of ‘good guilt’. I would be grateful if you could define this idea a little more.

Marian Marzynski:About ‘good guilt’: I do not think the third generation of Germans is guilty in the precise sense of the word, meaning legal responsibility. But I am not comfortable with the loud request to proclaim them not guilty. One of the reasons is that probably as we speak somewhere in Germany a neo-Nazi group is demonstrating under the banner against the cult of ‘guilt’. As long as the campaign against guilt is pronounced by the neo-Nazis, we, I, should promote the word ‘guilt’. Unfortunately, it’s all political. By saying ‘good guilt’, I am saying that each individual should figure out if he or she can afford the ‘good guilt’, meaning an active attitude toward the past, remembering it, and not being ashamed of the word that obviously doesn’t apply to the person that mentioned it. To many people this will not be possible, to which I say, of course, you are not guilty. I am receiving questions about how you create ‘good guilt’ and I say it is up to the people who try. Some succeed and some not. To me it is the same as shame: as much as I am ashamed of killing Native Americans, I want Germans to have a sense of ‘guilt’. I am using this word as an intellectual provocation, not as a precise description.

San Diego, Calif.:I was very moved by the piece. I have 2 comments: (1) Guilt will not work. I am German—although admittedly from many, many generations ago. Both of my grandfathers served in the War for the U.S. I do not feel guilty about the Holocaust. I feel horrified. I ask myself how could we, as a human race, got so far astray. I ask how anyone could kill another human being. If I felt as though someone were trying to make me feel responsible for something that my grandparents had done I would feel defensive. I would not want to listen to them. It is important to let go of the guilt so that they (the new German generations) can really learn about what happened. I would rather the Germans learn about the Holocaust as something that the Nazis did and learn to abhor it rather than have to deal with the guilt and conflict caused by knowing it was their parents or grandparents. It is not easy to process a parent that is guilty of murder and it gets in the way of the important learning that must occur.

(2) The young third-generation Germans are wrong. You do not need to know a Jew in order to not feel prejudice towards a Jew. That is not why their prejudice exists. It is like understanding yourself. It is understanding that a Jew [is] not someone or something that is different, rather someone that is the same. A Jew, a Latino, a Pacific Islander, Black, African, Cuban, homosexual, whatevever—are all the same. If you understand that, you do not need to know someone to accept them.

Marian Marzynski:I agree with you that you don’t need to know a Jew in order to not feel prejudice toward a Jew. However, you are forgetting the victims who are still around and who are telling their offspring the horror stories about the German crimes. In order to relieve the victimhood tensions, it would be a great idea if the offspring of perpetrators knew the victims. This way, a more active attitude toward remembering and toward taking a stand against the evil would be easier.

Los Angeles, Calif.:

Dear Marian, I watched your film last night, and I was moved by your honesty and courage. One thing that you said stood out for me in particular. When you were asked if you hated the Germans for what they did, you replied, ‘Hate is a frozen concept. If you believe in hate, then you don’t believe in change. If you don’t believe in change, then what is the point of living.’ My question is this: Have you always felt this way? Or did this come about over time? If so, could you explain what guided you personally to this outlook?


A student of Santa Monica College

Marian Marzynski:The person who guided me to feel that way about hatred was my mother. She survived the horror of the war, lost her husband and most of her family, and retained an optimism for life. I don’t understand how she came to this conclusion but my belief is that what triggered that was her love for me, and her joy in my survival. I think we are touching probably a miracle of life and our unlimited ability to rebuild ourselves emotionally. That happens actually after the death of a close one each time. Some of us are destroyed and some of us are capable of rebuilding. I also understood that this optimism was the reason my mother survived and that among the people who perished, the pessimism was probably present more often than optimism. We don’t have statistics about who is a pessimist and who is an optimist, but I believe that the pessimists are a majority. But since my mother put me on this track of optimism I am practising it and not doing too badly.

Williamsburg, Va.:Mr. Marzynski, Thank you so much for doing the Frontline piece. Obviously the immediate generations can feel a closeness to that time in history because there are people from that period still among us. But what of decades from now; how does ‘positive guilt’ help a society a century after the crimes were committed? Or is ‘guilt’ the wrong word?

Marian Marzynski:I see the Holocaust only as one representation of the evil we have experienced throughout our history as human. So my provocation called ‘good guilt’ does not apply to the Holocaust only. As such, it should be carried into the future. Unfortunately, for as long as humans are capable of killing other humans there will be the need to address the question of guilt/shame/responsibility for the deeds of other people, even if we have nothing to do with it. I believe that this is a generalist concept. I’d like to promote this generosity of being responsible for the bad deeds of fellow man. I think it is an active approach to life and I think it can produce much good.

Los Angeles, Calif.:Both my parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland. They lost everyone. I’m talking large families. My father’s mother was one of eighteen children! They were all wiped out. The effects of hatred were very clear to me growing up without any family other than my parents and a brother (who tragically died at a young age). It did not surprise me to find out to find out that one in two young Germans does not know about the Holocaust or that much of the world equates Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with that of the Nazis toward the Jews. It’s a good thing that my parents, who suffered so much as a result of the Nazi persecution. are no longer alive and have to listen to such vile filth.

Marian Marzynski:The comparison of the Holocaust with the treatment of Palestinians is obviously senseless. In the first case we are dealing with a concept of extermination of an entire people promoted by government and executed by the people. In the other case, that of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, we are dealing with human rights abuses in a political struggle between two national entities. If the concept of extermination exists in this conflict, this is on the side of the Palestinians and not the Jews. But again I believe that the ‘good guilt’ should also embrace the abuses of human rights of the Palestinians but I am against the political balance of different crimes taken out of context and actually reducing the importance of the evil by comparison with other events. That’s what I call a political abuse of moral issues. It is absurd to think that the horror of the Holocaust is lesser because years ago there were abuses of other people on the Jewish side.


Marian Marzynski:Thank you for participating in this chat. We will never be able to be precise in describing moral and ethical dilemmas. Guilt or not guilt, most of us talked about the same thing. We cannot afford that the atrocities of the past will be frozen in human memory. And to be alive my position is, that it should be more the task of people at the dinner table in conversation with parents and children, than the task of the governments. The problem with governments is that they come and go. We have a ‘good’ government in Germany which makes references to the past bad government of Nazi Germany, but are we sure that the good government will last forever? How do we know that a monument erected today will not fall down tomorrow? Living in the communist country of Poland, I witnessed too many such monuments falling down. Therefore, I repeat my approach--the question of guilt/responsibility and other moral attitudes toward the evil is best treated in our homes at the dinner tables and when the parents talk to their children.


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