Papa’s Berlin in Hitler’s day


Papa’s Berlin in Hitler’s day

NADINE PETRICK spoke to Egonne Roth about a book in which she investigates the trauma in her genes.


IT'S strange to listen to someone whose history aligns with yours on many levels. Startling, actually. Especially if you've just read the person's latest book, and every dog-eared page signifies another point of connection, another shared sentiment and geographical coincidence, but also echoes a hundred and one of your own unanswered questions. Questions about World War 2, inherited trauma, the eternal search for where one truly belongs, and the role of faith in a world where you're no longer sure if the Lord still has a place in your heart.

However, this is not my story; I'm not brave enough to send my family secrets out into the world. This is Egonne Roth's tale, and she is in a warm Israel for a few weeks to visit her daughter and promote her book. She says the cold in Cape Town doesn't bother her.

Actually, this is her father's Holocaust story, if you're to believe the book's title, but yet, it isn't that either. In the years-long search, both locally and overseas, for who and what Edgar Roth truly was before and after he arrived in South Africa, Egonne discovered much more about herself than she probably initially anticipated.

It took several decades and various twists and turns before this fascinating chronicle found its shape. Initially, Roth wrote a memoir, but that was during her “angry phase"; her father's history remained largely unexplored. “Thank goodness it was rejected," she laughs.

Later, a master's degree in creative writing taught her a painful lesson:  archives aren't very friendly places. On the recommendation of a professor, she decided to pursue her PhD on Olga Kirch, which rendered archives and archivists considerably friendlier and more accommodating. This also applied to the complex search for information about her father.


Eventually, after decades of research, snooping and searching, she has published Searching for Papa's Secrets in Hitler's Berlin, a book that ultimately deals more with sex and identity than Hitler or Berlin, as she would later come to realise.

“Ich bin ein Volljude."

This short but life-changing sentence, discovered in an old file full of loose documents belonging to her deceased father and handed to Roth by her stepsister four months after his death, set the ball rolling. “You're more into religious and family things than we are," her stepsister said.

It was a shock to find out her father (and therefore herself) was not who she always believed he was. But why was it necessary to dig deeper? We all know our parents carry secrets; do we really need to know everything? “Most of my friends would say, why do you always ask ‘why'? Why do you need to know everything? But I wanted to understand because there was resentment. I wanted to process the emotions. Later, it was simply curiosity. I just wanted to know."

Little did she know that her insatiable curiosity about her father's life would open many unconventional doors for her; that in the process of searching, she would do a multitude of things that would radically change the course of her own life. Not only did she give up her Christianity and embrace the Jewish faith (which would make her immigration and integration into Israel easier, but Christianity's filtered reading and way of doing things had also begun to grate on her), she also left her husband and started a relationship with a woman named Yehudit (they have been together for more than 20 years); she immigrated to Israel and left her three children behind. Initially, her youngest daughter, Tamar, was supposed to go with her, but she chose to stay in South Africa to complete her high school education.

Some of Roth's decisions might seem strange, but also remarkably brave. Because the mantra that runs through our conversation says a lot about who she is: do what your heart tells you to do. And her heart always wanted to explore.

Sometimes, we are inclined to look back and wonder if we have done enough. If we even asked the right questions. We were young and focused on ourselves. Does she regret not having talked more with her father when he was alive?

“I might have wanted to ask more urgent questions. My father was an open book, he told many stories, but they were mostly lies. He created a world in Berlin that he never lived. He completely ignored the war. Through the whole process, I realised that I could forgive my father for the resentment and I realised what a little shit I was. How arrogant I was in my Christianity and how I thought all problems would be solved by my charismatic faith.

“But through my years of research (since the year 2000, for example, I only read Holocaust literature), I was confronted with hard facts about what the war was really like. What war films never show us is the slow relentlessness of poverty, hunger and fear they had to live through. Only when you realise that can you truly forgive."

If she could go back now and say one last thing to her father? The answer comes quickly and easily: “Wow, you were amazing."


What was the hardest part of the project? “We grow up with certain ideas about who our parents are. My father was a huge womaniser and money-grubber, and that gives you specific stereotypical ideas about who the person is. But as a social worker with the world's empathy, I eventually had to admit that I had no empathy for or understanding of my father's problems. Only much later, by seeing my father through the eyes of the people he grew up with, could I break down the stereotypes. It was very difficult to realise exactly what he went through and why he was such a big womaniser."

And that's where sex comes in. And not the “warm and fuzzy kind", as Roth calls it. It turns out that Edgar's mother did everything necessary to survive the war; timely and untimely, and probably sometimes within earshot of her young children, to ensure  there was food for them and that they could emerge unharmed. But not completely unharmed. Edgar was exposed to far too much early in his life, and it permanently damaged his perspective on women and intimacy, and his relationship with his own children. The trauma became imprinted in his genes. “The body keeps the score, right?"

Roth affirms my question about how she handles the genetic, inherited trauma. “I panic. But then I take a deep breath. And I survive through my faith, my wife and my daughter."

And of course, she also survives through writing; the next project is already in full swing. But survival also becomes easier when you finally make peace with who you are: happy, almost 70, busy, still endlessly curious. Free.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you!

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.