Bridging the Gap: Interview with Dr Noemie Lopian and Derek Niemann

“She is a human being, who happens to be Jewish. Just as I’m a human being who happens to have an ancestor who was a Nazi”


CN: Discussion of Holocaust

Ahead of the Holocaust Memorial conversation at the Cambridge Union, the Tab had the privilege of sitting down with the two speakers, Dr Noemie Lopian and Derek Niemann.

As the Union term card suggested, Noemie and Derek’s partnership is “unusual.” In fact, Derek suggested that they haven’t “yet found anyone doing the same as us and I suspect that there isn’t anybody,” despite having spoken in the UK as well as in Australia and other parts of Europe via Zoom.

What is truly unique about Noemie and Derek lies in their backgrounds as well as in their message. Noemie, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors and Derek, the grandson of an SS officer, began speaking together three years ago.

The idea came about after Noemie had seen an article Derek wrote for a large Jewish website on Facebook, and commented “I’d love to meet this gentlemen” and a common acquaintance of theirs in Cambridge put them in contact.

Derek suggested that Noemie’s foresight realised that they “would be so much stronger together, if we were standing up together,” bringing together “one group that were oppressed ancestors and my ancestors who were the oppressors.” They wanted to send a message saying that “the world doesn’t have to be like that.”

“The Nazis tried to kill kindness and we fight against that”

Noemie explained exactly what she meant by that quote. She suggested that thinking of oppressors as more than just human beings “is wrong,” suggesting that there is a tendency to think people like Derek’s grandfather or Hitler were “extraordinary or superhero-like but they’re all human like you and me.” She went on to say that “when they murdered the Jews or sent them into the gas chambers and then burned the Jewish people, they took that kindness away from themselves and also from the Jewish people.”

Writing and rewriting history

Noemie has translated her father’s memoirs which have been published under the name The Long Night: A True Story by Ernst Israel Bornstein. She explained that her father, Ernst Israel Bornstein, had already published his memoirs ‘Die lange Nacht’ in 1967 so “he had already written the book” and she had to translate his words. When the book was orginally published Noemie suggested that the Germans “didn’t want to know” alluding to a German word that Derek often uses in their talk ‘Schwamm drüber’ which can be translated to ‘wipe away’ similar to the English phrase “sweep under the carpet.”

On this topic of translation, Noemie revealed how translating her father’s words allowed her to “reconnect adult to adult” so was in many ways “cathartic” for her. Having lost her father when she was 12, she said “it felt like he spoke to me and that’s something I tried to maintain in the translation process.”

But the translation process did not come without its difficulty, Noemie said it was “extremely harrowing and painful to read what he had gone through” and that she “couldn’t quite believe what man was capable of doing to man” with each chapter her disbelief growing rather than diminishing.

Derek has also written a book, A Nazi in the Family, after discovering at the age of 49, that his grandfather’s had a role as an SS officer during the war. He explained how this was “traumatic” as it “shook the foundations” of what he believed about his family.

It left him feeling paranoid for a while, wondering “what else was hidden.” He said there was always a sense of questioning whether his grandfather was a “seriously evil man? Did he murder and torture people? Or was he a kind of Schindler’s List character where he actually managed to rescue people?”

What Derek concluded was that his grandfather was neither. Derek suggests that his grandfather was “an ordinary man who suspended his imagination and effectively his humanity and worked for the SS.” His grandfather’s role was running the accounts so “he knew exactly what was going on. He knew that millions were being murdered and yet he carried on working for ten years, drew his salary, raised a family and unjustly shut his eyes to what was wrong.”

Although Noemie and Derek cannot speak directly for their ancestors, I asked them if they had considered what they might think about their work together. Noemie explained that she had feelings of guilt in the beginning but had asked her mother, who had been “very positive” about the idea.

Noemie explained an anecdote of how when they were first organising their talks, there was an instance where a picture of her father was put next to one of Derek’s grandfather and it made her “very emotional” and was “difficult to process.” But what this triggered for Noemie was understanding that she would have to do herself what she was asking of her audience in the talks.

Understandably, Derek added that they have “developed a very strong level of trust over the last few years” and they are able to discuss and communicate especially if the other were to feel uncomfortable.

Derek talked about an example in which he had referred to himself as the “grandson of a nazi” and Noemie as “an orthodox Jew,” and Noemie had said that she didn’t feel comfortable being labelled in that way. Derek said “she was absolutely right because she is a human being, who happens to be Jewish. Just as I’m a human being who happens to have an ancestor who was a Nazi.” They agreed that they learned from each other “about these barriers that we build up and these prejudices we have” and that is what they are trying ot encourage their audience to do as well.

Elaborating on these ideas of barriers, Derek spoke about the reception of their work, especially as they speak in synagogues; “Noemie is welcomed a lot but some people cannot bear to look at [me].” It took Derek some time to realise just exactly how strongly people feel, “generations away from the perpetrator,” but these people have seen so much suffering that it’s a barrier to breakdown. Derek added that “it’s just about understanding where people come from and accepting it and making allowance for it.”

Noemie added about how Derek often receives “big hugs from survivors,” and the two talked about how  survivors are the ones who seem to “just get it.” Derek suggested that we should all learn from survivors because “they are the indomitable,” and have such an “optimistic, hopeful attitude on life.”

Bridging the Gap

Noemie said that she had great hope for “our future young people,” she has great hopes that our minds are not made up yet and that we can continue to “have discussions and conversations” because “you all give me hope.”

Noemie suggested that the “path to genocide” may be different but ultimately always starts from “the same premise” that “other people are to be dehumanised, hated, put down, tortured, killed” which is why we are still talking about something that happened 80 years ago, because “it still has relevance.”

When asked what Noemie and Derek wanted people to take away from their talks, a key idea of understanding and compassion came through.

Noemie hoped that people would feel “empowered to stand up and speak out” she recognised that it is “really difficult” but added that even in a small capacity it can have a “big effect.” Derek finalised that we should all do our best to “just be kind” and to “understand how other people live” and “don’t shut the door on them.”

All images including the Feature Image credits: Tobia Nava


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