Second Generation Survivor, First Generation Activist – An Interview with Martina Knee

My first thought when I learned about the genocide was that if I could help just one child not experience what I went through as a second generation survivor, then it would be worth it.
– Martina Knee

April 2014 Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month:
Remembering the Past toward Healing our Future

A six event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children

Living Ubuntu, in collaboration with Amnesty International – Irvine and six local academic institutions, presents a six-event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children. April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, and each film commemorates a genocide that started during April. Living Ubuntu provides education about global traumas as part of its mission to heal trauma in order to promote peace. All films are free and open to the public.

Below is an interview with Martina Knee, a second generation Holocaust survivor who will be a featured speaker at the Sudan genocide event.

* * *

An Interview With Martina Knee

Birth place: Vienna, Austria
Occupation:  Corporate Attorney-Retired,
Full Time volunteer for Darfur Coalition (San Francisco Bay Area)

Q:  When did you come to the U.S.?

A:  When I was two years old.  We lived in the suburbs of Washington D.C. until I was twelve.  We then moved to the Chicago area, and I came to San Francisco to finish college.

Q:  Were both your mother and father from Austria?  What do you know of their background?

A:  Yes, but I know very little of my father’s side of the family.  He didn’t know his father, and he was an only child, very distant to his mother. He was raised Catholic but a very devout Atheist as an adult and died when I was ten years old.

My mother’s father (my grandfather) was a soldier in World War I and spent time in a prison camp in Siberia.  I don’t know anything else about it but mention it as it is the earliest war-related trauma in my family of which I am aware.  My mother described her father as a cold, selfish person who took care of his children, but today I think we would call him emotionally distant.

My mother’s mother was Jewish, and her father was Catholic.  Her parents married in 1920, when Jews and Catholics in Austria just did not marry.  They converted to the Lutheran religion so they could marry, but they did not observe and did not raise their children to observe.  Austria was then, and is now, about 97% Catholic and has a long history of anti-Semitism. In the Jewish religion, Judaism passes through the mother.  So, my mother was Jewish and was identified as a “half-Jew” by the Nazis. There is no such thing–one is either Jewish or not.

Q:  Did your mother/family ever talk about what life was like before the Second World War (WWII)?

A:  In a very idealized way.  My mother absolutely loved opera from when she was little.  She would talk about going to the opera as a child and being able to present flowers to the lead opera singer.  But she never really talked about reality much.

Q:  Did she have any siblings?

A:  Yes,  my mother was the oldest.  She had a younger sister who was very different from her, and a younger brother who was drafted into the Nazi army toward the end of WWII.  As the Nazis became more desperate, they started drafting teenagers and “half-Jews” such as her brother (my uncle).  He was killed at age 17 on a train that was bombed by the Americans.

Q:  What did your mother’s parents do for a living?

A:  Both of her parents were doctors.  It was very unusual then for her mother (a woman) to be a doctor.  Both of my parents were doctors as well, and my mother’s sister is a doctor.  Status and education were incredibly important to my parents, particularly my mother.

Q:  Did your family ever try to emigrate before the start of, or during WWII?

A:  I don’t know the answer to that.  After Germany annexed Austria and persecution of the Jews accelerated, my mother’s mother, her maternal grandparents and a maternal uncle committed suicideAnother maternal uncle disappeared; no one knew what happened to him. My mother was 19 when her mother committed suicide. I have a feeling they committed suicide to avoid being taken to camps.  My grandmother was, so to speak, the “Jewish link”.  She thought her children would be better off if she were dead because then there would be no link.  They were all in various places in Austria at the time (not in the same house), and I don’t know the details.

My mother never sat down and told me about the war as a story.  She would just mention these individual vignettes or feelings, but it was never continuous.  She never said that I shouldn’t ask questions, but somehow I knew not to ask questions.   It wasn’t until after she died that I read a zillions books on turn of the century Vienna and the time leading up to the war.  And then I had so many questions, and no one to ask…

Q:  Did your mother ever talk about Kristallnacht, “Night of Crystal”?  Did they hide? Were they frightened?

A:  She only talked about it as a turning point.  That was the first organized, government sponsored act of violence against the Jews.  Before that it had been gradual, more and more restrictive laws: “Jews couldn’t be out after dark, or go to certain schools, be in certain parks, swim in public pools…”  This night of violence was a turning point because of that.

Q:  Looking back, would you say that you saw evidence of trauma in your parents growing up?

A:  Yes, definitely. But I didn’t recognize it as trauma at the time.

Q:  Since you were born in Austria does that mean your parents stayed there after the war was over?  If so, why didn’t they leave?

A:  My mother never identified as a Jew.  I think it wouldn’t have occurred to her to try to get out of Austria.  What she would describe to me when I was a child were exactly these words: “The Nazis labelled me as a half-Jew”.  She never said “I’m Jewish”.  She never explained to me that I’m Jewish.  That’s a huge part of my story.  I was basically raised without religion.  If I had been raised as anything, I would say I was raised as a Christian.  My parents made me go to Sunday school for a few years, but when I didn’t want to go any more, they didn’t push it.  I remember as a child, I just couldn’t relate to Christianity.

When my mother died, she had always wanted to be cremated. I somehow decided instantly that I wanted her to have a Jewish funeral service even though cremation is  inconsistent with Jewish norms.  My husband and I went to see a rabbi, and I told him my story.  By way of apology, I said that my husband (who is Jewish) and I were married in a temple but that I had never converted.  He looked at me and said, “What are you talking about?  You are Jewish.”  The rabbi who married us never told me this.  My husband never told me.  So I found out for the first time at 49 years old that I am Jewish.  My first thought was a huge sense of relief that for the first time I belonged to something other than my mother and my father.  I never had any sense of family history or family outside of them.  Suddenly I knew I had heritage.  After that I started going to classes and services.  About a year and a half later I had an adult Bat Mitzvah. Now I am an observant practicing Jew.  It’s one of the most important things  in my life.  I think my mother was denied her birth right, partly because of her mother’s conversion and because of the Nazis.

Q:  Do you know if anyone in your family lived in a concentration camp?

A:  My mother was 19 when the war started and lived through the war in Austria, saw her friends taken away in carts to be put on trains.  At first, they did not know they were going to labor camps and concentration camps.  Her father was not Jewish.  It’s amazing that they survived the war in Vienna.  My fear is that her father was much closer to the Nazis than I would ever want to know and that he was able to keep them safe and to buy necessities on the black market.   I don’t know that for a fact, but reflecting on it, I can’t think of any other way.  At that time being a doctor in Austria was real status .  It was much more a meritocracy.  Peoples’ worth and status in society were determined very much by what they did and not by how much money they had.

Q:  Did you ever think of further investigating your family’s situation or other family members?

A:  I thought about it long and hard and decided that I didn’t want to.  Primarily, because I didn’t really want to know what my grandfather had to do to keep them alive during the war.

Q:  Did your mother remember being liberated by Allied troops?  How were they treated by the soldiers?

A:  The Russian army was the first to “liberate” Austria at the end of WWII.  My mother was gang-raped by Russian soldiers, got syphilis and had to be treated secretly as “such things just did not happen to nice women”.  My mother was married to her first husband (not my father) at the time, and she never told him.

Q:  Did you ever notice growing up that you were being raised with a different perspective or priorities than other kids without your family history?

A:  I would say it was a matter of degree rather than a total difference.  When I grew up, all of us (classmates) were always told that education was the most important thing and to be well-behaved: “Children should be seen and not heard”.  I was raised with that principle, but on steroids.  My father was a perfectionist and very strict.  If I brought home a 97% on a test, he would say “where are the other three points?”. But I didn’t really recognize it as pressure. I just saw it as “that’s the way you have to be.”

Q:  Since your parents stayed in Austria after the war, did they notice that people’s attitudes (in terms of overall acceptance and tolerance of others) had changed from prior to the war?

A:  No.  These weren’t concepts to my mother.  She was the queen of denial.  But I don’t think it changed much in Austria.  Austria is the only country in Europe that has never apologized for being a Nazi country during The Holocaust.  Vienna is a city where the Jews never came back, in contrast to countries like Germany which actually made an effort to encourage Jews to come back over the years.

Q:  Have you always been a human rights activist?

A:  No,  absolutely not.  I was in high school and college during the Vietnam War.  I thought activists were people who marched in the street, protested war and got arrested.  It wasn’t until 2004, that I had any idea what an activist was.  If I had known I would have dismissed them because I was a lawyer and had too much respect for the law and so-called “civilized society”.

Q:  What was it that changed your mind?

A:   The genocide in Darfur.  I learned about it while studying for the Bat Mitzvah.  I first saw it on the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) website.  I absolutely could not believe that there was an ongoing genocide that wasn’t at the top of the news every minute of the day.  At that time everything was about the Iraq war 24 hours a day on the news.  I started studying about the genocide in Darfur and about Sudan.  I started donating to AJWS for Darfur.  In 2005 someone from the organization called me, and I asked, “Is anybody trying to do anything about the genocide other than donating?  Because all the donating in the world won’t end the genocide.”   The woman I was speaking to belonged to the San Francisco Bay Area Darfur Coalition.  She introduced me to the few people who had started the organization, and the rest is history.  My first thought when I learned about the genocide was that if I could help just one child not experience what I had experienced as a second generation survivor, then it would be worth it.  While my mother and I suffered mentally, emotionally and spiritually, my parents came to this country highly educated and were doctors.  Most of these children (of Darfur) have no education.  Their parents don’t.  They are going through these Hellish experiences, and I thought, “What will there be for them when it’s over?”  That is what motivated me and still motivates me to this day.

Q:  When did you retire from law?

A:  I retired in 2004.  I took six months off to study for my Bat Mitzvah and never went back.  Everything else I was doing was so much more interesting.  I was also afraid to go back to work.  That was the time of Enron and WorldCom, and everyone was lying ,cheating and stealing.  It would have been the first time in my career that I would have had to go to work for strangers, and I was afraid to do that.  As a lawyer, you can lose you integrity by association, and then your career is over.

Q:  Overall, would it be safe to say that studying for you Bat Mitzvah was a pretty big turning point in your life?

A:  Huge.

Q:  Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of mankind and situations like Darfur?

A:  Both.  I’m extremely pessimistic about human beings’ capability of and capacity for violence, mass atrocities and genocide.  People have a tendency to identify groups the way Carl Wilkens describes: “I would be better off if you were not in my world.”  When you look at every genocide, there is always the perception that “We have to get rid of some group because…”.  Due to human history and this happening so often, and the scars it leaves, I’m pessimistic.  I’m optimistic in that I think, ultimately, good must prevail.  That doesn’t mean we’ll see it in our lifetime, but it doesn’t mean we can stop working toward it.

Q:  What do you think are the greatest tools in fighting things like indifference, genocide, anti-Semitism, and racism?

A:  I think that the biggest things that could help get rid of racism, anti-Semitism, and viewing whatever group as “the other” is education and also experience.  If children really learned about the effects of all these ‘isms’ and their history in school, followed by the experience of meeting survivors and being able to listen to them and talk to them and seeing that people who are different from you are also human just like you.  recognition of what is ‘humanity’ is essential.  That is a very long process, but I do think it’s possible.  I’ve seen it happen on a micro level so I think it could ultimately happen on a macro level.  If the scars would not be passed on from generation to generation then the behaviors would not repeat.

Bringing the perpetrators to justice is also essential.  If genocide after genocide, people do not see perpetrators being brought to justice, the behavior just festers and the hatred is passed on through the generations.  Then what is to keep people from continuing to do this?   Omar Al-Bashir has not been arrested and tried by the ICC because practically every African head of state fears for his own arrest warrant. Right now there is a bigger downside to not committing genocide than there is to committing genocide.

Q:  How do you feel the average person should respond to genocide and human rights violations?

A:  I think that human beings should treat each other as human beings in every single encounter, from people begging on the street, to clerks in a store, to our closest family members.  I have a vision that there could be a Sierra Club for ending genocide.. in that they make people aware that “if you kill off the earth, you can only do that once,” so to speak.  If you have increasingly violent and hatred driven societies, we’re not going to last as a species.  over time, there could ideally be a greater worldwide movement that spurs political leaders to act accordingly, with respect to genocide and mass atrocities.


Alicia works in San Diego County and volunteers for Living Ubuntu.

3 Responses to Second Generation Survivor, First Generation Activist – An Interview with Martina Knee

  1. Pingback: Remembering the Past toward Healing our Future: April 17 (Sudan) | Living Ubuntu Blog

  2. Pingback: “An interview with…” — survivors of genocide | Orange County for Darfur Blog

  3. Pingback: April 17 at UCI: Sudan (Remembering the Past toward Healing Our Future) | Living Ubuntu Blog

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