Center for German and European Studies

Breaking the Spell of the Nazi Past: How to find a voice and a language to address NS war crimes within one’s own family

About the Event

Book cover for Alexandra SenfftHow do you deal with the legacy of a Nazi perpetrator in your own family? How do you confront the silence of relatives, their displacement and denial, their feelings of guilt and shame? Will truth win over family loyalties or complicity prevail?

German writer Alexandra Senfft is the granddaughter of Hanns Elard Ludin, the ‘Envoy of the Third Reich’ to Slovakia, executed as war criminal 1947 in Bratislava. In her writings she addresses the intergenerational consequences of the Holocaust in her own and other German families with a Nazi-background. She argues that patterns of feeling and thinking are often passed down the generations, perpetuating lies about the past and generating new misdeeds in the present. Repressed feelings that were not dealt with are thus easily reactivated by external factors, creating discord that leads to failed dialogues in the private and political sphere.

Senfft explores the question of how a voice and language can be developed in an environment of silencing in order to overcome the psychological difficulties and express the unspeakable. She advocates combining historical research into the Nazi era with family biographical research and personal reappraisal in order to make the Nazi past tangible in the present and break its spell. A spell that benefits right-wing and far right extremists. The Germans are not ‘world champions in coming to terms with the past’, she says. In spite of all the commendable scientific and political educational work, there has been too little focus on perpetrators and bystanders within one’s own families. As a result, remembrance often becomes a farce.

About the Speaker

Black and white photo of Alexandra looking at the cameraAlexandra Senfft was born 1961 in Hamburg, is a German book author and freelance journalist for German and international media.

She specializes in the intergenerational consequences of the Holocaust, the legacy of Nazi persecution in German society as well as in dialogues between the descendants of the persecutors and the persecuted. Her areas of focus include Sinti and Roma (Romani people), Palestine and Israel, flight and migration, antisemitism, antimuslim resentment and antigypsyism.

In 2007 Alexandra published her family history »Silence hurts«* about her Nazi grandfather, executed as war criminal; in 2016 her book »The Long Shadow of the Perpetrators. Descendants face the Nazi family« appeared. With John Bunzl she published »Between antisemitism and islamophobia – prejudices and projections in Europe and the Middle East« (2008). In »Strange enemy, so close« (2009) she portrays Israelis and Palestinians in dialogues.

In March 2024 her book with the Sinte musician and politician Romeo Franz will appear about his Prussian Romani family, titled »Greatuncle Paul’s Violin Bow«.

Alexandra is the vice-chair of Study Group on Intergenerational consequences of the Holocaust, as well as a member of the board of the Dachau Camp Community. She has two children and lives between Germany and Greece.

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*Book titles translated from German